7 Dec 2008, 1:16am
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

Wizard Fire Review

The Deschutes National Forest has issued (Dec. 3rd) a Fire Review of the Wizard Fire.

The Wizard Fire was a prescribed fire set by USFS personnel last Sept. 25th in the Metolius Research Natural Area. The intention was to underburn 30 acres. The fire escaped, however, and 1,840 acres burned on both sides of the Metolius River near Wizard Falls, a mile north of Canyon Creek and 3 miles north of Camp Sherman.

The Wizard Fire was declared a wildfire the day after ignition, and $3,849,914 were spent on fire suppression before 100% containment was achieved on Oct. 4th (see W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking [here]).

The Deschutes Fire Review is [here]. The Review Team attributed the fire escape to the lack of fire patrols during the evening of Sept. 25.

The principle causal factor of the escape stemmed from a lack of patrolling of the unit the evening or next morning following ignition. No agency policy was violated, however the prescribed burn organization failed to implement required operational procedures.

A Prescribed Fire Burn Plan was prepared, approved and met policy requirements, but did not sufficiently address the mop up and patrol phase of the prescribed fire. There was no documentation or formal plan developed (which was supported by interviews) for mop up and patrol the following day. These are procedures which normally occur in the periods following ignition of a prescribed fire.

Instead of patrolling the fire, the burning crew went home at 6:00 pm. There was no mention of patrolling in the Burn Plan, which addressed only the day of ignition with no mention of subsequent work. Mop-up was discussed in the Burn Plan but not implemented. The Review noted that:

1. Implementation documentation, including plans for post ignition efforts [was] poor. …

2. Distractions such as personnel rotating off the burn assignment due to approved annual leave, Incident Management Team activations of key personnel, not filling positions behind detailed personnel, work assignment diversions, and individual personal issues, prevented supervisory overhead redundancy from noticing breakdowns in critical operational requirements such as post-ignition patrols.

3. There was a perception of a pressure to burn more acres (either through the fire organization or through a sense of individual responsibility) that may have lead to urgency to move from one unit to the next without adequate attention to the previous day, as well as a perception of being understaffed to meet expectations. …

4. Relatively new or less tenured employees may have assumed that overhead were taking care of operational activities when in fact they were not.

5. … There was an initial impression by some personnel that snags should not be cut unless a serious threat or a problem. This led to a delay in falling the snags that were threatening the fireline creating possible firefighter safety issues and changes in tactics. …

There were no special weather events, no wind storms or sudden heat waves that might have contributed to the escape. The Review Team placed the blame on poor or negligent actions on the part of the burning crew.

However, in this observer’s opinion, the real culprit was the lack of forest preparation. The 30-acre site and the surrounding forest had not been adequately prepared to receive fire. Too many small trees, fuel concentrations, and flammable snags were present. What should have been a low-running ground fire threw burning embers into dense fuel concentrations.

If significant restoration forestry had been done ahead of time, then those problems could have been rectified and mitigated.

The Review report gives some background on the Metolius Research Natural Area:

In 1928, the Deschutes National Forest recommended the protection of 640 acres of forest in the Metolius Basin as a “yellow pine museum”. Three years later, in 1931, the Metolius Research Natural Area (RNA) was established, protecting 1,400 acres of old growth pine forest for scientific study. In 1987, in an initial study of fire ecology in the RNA, scientists estimated the forests in the Metolius RNA burned at low intensities on a natural fire return interval of every 4-11 years before fire suppression began in the early 1900’s. The 1988 Metolius RNA Management Plan recognized the role of fire in maintaining natural succession in the RNA and began permitting prescribed fire as a management tool to protect, preserve, and restore the vegetation type for which the RNA was originally established.

That synopsis speaks volumes. The claim that the frequent fire return was “natural” is a giant error. The Metolius watershed has been occupied by resident human beings for thousands of years. Those people set fires deliberately (and by accident) at a rate far in excess of lightning ignitions. Anthropogenic ignitions were perhaps 1,000 times more frequent than lightning ignitions, especially in Fall months.

The estimate of a fire return interval of 4 to 11 years is probably an underestimate. The historical fire frequency was more likely 1 to 3 years. And that frequency was human-caused. The “succession” that occurred in that forest was not natural either, since the driver was human-set fires. The vegetation-type was anthropogenic, too, because the fires were.

The stated Long Term Objectives of the Metolius RNA Management Plan include:

- Reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire through the use of moderate intensity natural fire

- Provide for research opportunities to better comprehend management strategies associated with hazard fuel reduction and fire’s natural role in the ecosystem.

Prescribed fire is not “natural” any more than Indian burning was. Historically fire did not play a “natural” role in the ecosystem; it played a human-designed role.

The USFS preoccupation with the word “natural” is a severe handicap, scientifically and historically invalid, and arguably racist. And in the attempt to de-humanize (philosophically) what is unarguably a human-mediated forest, the USFS burned it up by “accident” and at a surprise, unbudgeted cost of nearly $4 million.

Then they blamed the lowest ranking, lowest paid, least responsible employees.

The problem lies at the top. The highest ranking, highest paid, most responsible employees have no clue in Creation what kind of forest they are responsible for or how to steward it. They have substituted bogus “natural” assessments and goals for scientifically and historically accurate ones. They are so wrapped up in “naturalness” and “the wild” that they cannot see the forest for what it actually is.

Excuse me for wanting to go slap them upside their empty heads. It is a terrible tragedy that the folks we have hired to care for our forests are barkingly ignorant about those forests and prone to gross errors in analysis and judgment that lead to multi-million dollar screw-ups.

Don’t worry, nobody is going to get slapped, or fired, or fined, or even reprimanded. The Review Team was very clear in their conclusion that “No agency policy was violated.” They said that up front. The torching of heritage forests and $4 million screw-ups are in complete conformance with Agency policies. The sweeping ignorance about the forests they are charged to manage is also in complete conformance. The root policies of the USFS are barking ignorance and institutionalized incompetence at darn near everything.

Dumb and dumber. Stove up with “naturalness.” Blind and deaf. Burning money. Burning heritage forests. Completely out of whack and off the track. Clueless and hopeless.

What do we do with these people and this agency? What can we do?

7 Dec 2008, 3:49am
by Bob Zybach


Note that the “principle” cause of this fire was, bottom line, inexperience and incompetence. That really is the principle here: these people are not properly equipped to play with matches.

Your point that the underlying problem was that the area had “not been prepared for fire” is well taken, and further evidence of the principle just described.

I had the experience of visiting this site with Jerry Franklin and several swooning employees of the Sisters Ranger District a few years ago. Jerry said “nothing had changed [here] since the last ice age,” before citing the change in “fire return intervals” you give. We were standing on soil from an eruption that had occurred about 3,000 or so years ago, surrounded by dead snags caused by a conifer invasion about a 100 years ago, with about a thousand seedlings per acre around our ankles and knees. This was pointed out to Jerry, who remained non-plussed and philosophical. The USFS employees were visibly upset by the rudeness of this challenge to the “guru of old-growth’s” ramblings.

One major factor these nitwits keep missing is that people gathered firewood almost daily in these areas, too. It was not just the presence of regularly-set seasonal fires that marked the “natural fire regime” — it was also the near absence of dead wood caused by regular and systematic firewood gathering that affected fire behavior.

Keep up the good work. These people (and not just the Sisters RD or Deschutes NF) need to be held accountable for their failures at some point. There is a basic principle of agency arrogance involved in these things, too.

7 Dec 2008, 8:59am
by Mike

You are principally correct. The principal principle is that nitwits with matches are dangerous.

The fact that the Metolius RNA has been “studied” for 20 years, at significant cost to taxpayers, and the researchers are still groping in the dark, is pathetic. The local nitwits are guided by regional, national, and international nitwits, a veritable parade of nitwits, and tragic loss is the inevitable outcome of that kind of thing.

8 Dec 2008, 12:56pm
by Forrest Grump

Wow. Completely nuts.

Natural patterns? 4 to 11? Come ON, that’s clearly HISTORIC human underburning, a fundamental gap in comprehension so severe I can’t, um, COMPREHEND it. And these people are being paid?

How much of the RNA itself actually burnt?

As for the question, what do we do?, a huge part of the answer will be USDA Ag Undersecretary to replace Mark the Death Rey, and which lucky creature becomes Chief.

8 Dec 2008, 5:49pm
by backcut

Democrats are scared to death of the forests issue. Many incumbents voted for the “Healthy Forests” bill and even participated in the revision before it was voted on. Eco’s are still trying to paint “Healthy Forests” as a “giveaway for the timber industry”. In fact, history will show that gridlock prevented anything from happening despite Congressional Law.

Both the Undersecretary and the Chief will be figureheads until science overcomes the pseudo-progressive fundamentalist Gaiaists and their hired-gun eco-lawyers.

Both those positions will be burned at the stake when the public finds out their government is clearly paralyzed by the scope of the problems.

8 Dec 2008, 8:14pm
by bear bait

They can’t do their job, but by golly, they all know how to get along with each other, and respect each other, and take their annual leave. Social engineering (a fill in the blanks diversity hiring policy — forestry education no longer required — just a degree in something), multiple career transfers and total lack of empirical knowledge and experience is the ghost that you see peeking out from behind the pages of this report. Does anyone note that “common sense” plays no role in this fiasco?

No snags within 200 feet slop distance on EITHER side of the fireline was a core fact learned from the Tillamook Burns. And incorporated into every timber sale contract. You had to snag the unit borders before you could burn slash. For fire ignition and safety of firefighters, this was done BEFORE ignition could occur [by professional fallers, not firefighters]. I have to imagine that in Kumbaya Forestry by Committee, the new USFS policy, pre-falling snags would have to go through 5 years of lawsuits and an EIS for snag dwelling critters and personal approval from either Maser or Franklin before being incorporated into the burn plan.

This report simply states: the dumbshit in charge, who we haven’t quite figured out who that was at the time of slop over, did not have night patrols, and of course, there were donuts and coffee in the morning, after arriving at the compound at 8:00am, and we had the safety meeting, and a discussion of yesterday’s burn, and it is going to get warm enough to do our next burn by noon, and ho-hum, someone really should go take a peak at the 61 fire and see if we will get an award for our superb stewardship… and by that time all hell had broken loose, there had been no heads up for air support in case of a slop over, no heads up to the nearest Hot Shots or the Redmond Smoke Jumpers. Gee, we just didn’t really have all our ducks lined up, and golly, we did the best we could under difficult circumstances.

Yep… you determined the circumstances, got what you deserved, and not what the public thinks they are paying for. But when the mantra is FIRE IS GOOD, you just have to know that if some is good, then more is better. Misplaced priorities and loss of institutional memory haunt the USFS, now a model of “happy workplace” all designed to protect the employees from the vagaries of the outside world and those hateful people who don’t understand us.

This is America. We get what we want from our Congress. This is the kind of piss poor management our Congress evidently thinks we want. I guess we should post a letter of thanks to Jerry and the Franklintones for their great hit, sung to the tune of Let It Snow, “Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn.”

8 Dec 2008, 9:32pm
by The Franklinettes

Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve got nothing to learn,
Let It Burn! Let It Burn! Let It Burn!

It doesn’t show signs of stopping,
And I’ve bought some corn for popping,
And some ice cream we can churn,
Let It Burn! Let It Burn! Let It Burn!

Until we finally call it a night,
How I’ll hate going out in the smoke!
But if you’ll really hold me tight,
Instead of working, we’ll all tell a joke.

The fire is slowly dying,
And our overtime pay is good-bye-ing
But so long as we don’t have to adjourn
Let It Burn! Let It Burn! Let It Burn!

12 Dec 2008, 9:47pm
by YPmule

Most people that light a fire in the forest and walk away end up in a lot of trouble (arson).

“No agency policy was violated, however the prescribed burn organization failed to implement required operational procedures.”

What kind of gobbly gook is that? Time to get some folks that have more experience in the woods and less time with their nose in a text book.



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