3 Feb 2009, 12:43pm
The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

The 2008 Fire Season: A Recap, Part 1

by Mike Dubrasich

With over 5.3 million acres burned in wildfires nationally, the 2008 fire season was a distinct improvement over 2007 (9.75 million acres burned) and 2006 (9.89 million acres burned, the worst fire season in fifty years).

However, US Forest Service fire suppression expenditures topped $1.9 billion, the third most expensive in history (2005 - $2.13 billion and 2004 - $2.35 billion were more expensive). Overall cost-plus-loss (suppression costs plus damages) are estimated to have been ~$40 billion in 2008.

Graph based on data provided by the National Interagency Fire Center Wildland Fire Statistics and the USFS Wildland Fire Management budget FY2000 - FY2008 (as of 11/04/2008).

The following is a recap of some of the high and low lights of the 2008 Fire Season.

January

The 2008 Fire Season began with ominous signs. In January enviro groups demanded the jailing of Under Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey because he refused to eliminate the use of fire retardant on Federal forest fires [here]. Had he done so, the fire season might have been even more catastrophic nationwide. As it turned out, the USFS deliberately burned vast tracts anyway, so while the litigious groups failed to get Rey hauled off to the pokey, they did succeed in convincing the USFS to Burn, Baby, Burn.

The previous December USFS Chief Gail Kimbell declared that it was her personal goal to inflict wildfire on 400 million acres of private land, as well as the 200 million acres of USFS land [here]. Kimbell’s mad conceit was couched in her Open Space Conservation Strategy which promotes “wilderness values” on private forest land.

“If people have an incentive to hold on to wildlands (rather than develop them), we as a society benefit from that,” she [Gail Kimbell] said in an interview. “We all benefit from keeping wildlands wild.”

Kimbell’s Open Space Conservation Strategy calls for the elimination of houses, buildings, lawns, and pavement on private property. Fire is to be “reintroduced” on all forested acres in the USA. In the eyes of the USFS, forest fires provide “resource benefits,” and they wish to inflict the “benefits” of catastrophic fire on every acre in America that has a tree on it.

Meanwhile flash floods arising on the 2007 Zaca Burn inundated Santa Barbara [here]. The Zaca Fire on Kimbell’s watch burned 240,200 acres and was the second largest fire in California’s recorded history.

February

In order to promote catastrophic fire on private as well as public land, the United States Government Accountability Office issued a report on wildland fire management, GAO-08-433T [here] blaming private homeowners for upping the firefighting costs on Federal land.

The incompetent GAO report, like the incompetent USDA OIG audit of two years ago [here], asserted some total falsehoods about forests and fire. I break down their ridiculous assertions one by one:

Although its effect on communities can be devastating, wildland fire is a natural and necessary process that provides many benefits to ecosystems, such as maintaining habitat diversity,

Wrong. Fires burn whole ecosystems and revert forests to dead zones across vast acreages. It all looks the same after a a fire: blackened, burned, dead. Instead of habitat diversity, fire produces habitat singularity. Where once a variety of plants and animals occupied a variety of niches, after a catastrophic fire there is only one niche and a paucity of plant and animal species.

recycling soil nutrients,

Wrong. Fire coverts nutrients to smoke and ash which exit the burned area in big clouds and soapy runoff. The nutrients came into the forest via tree roots. After the trees are dead, their roots no longer dissolve and transport nutrients to the surface from bedrock. Fire depletes nutrients and halts the nutrient capture pathways.

Wildfire also destroys soil microorganisms, glazes soils, and causes increased erosion. Soils are badly damaged by wildfire, and often end up in streambeds or deposited hundreds of miles away by fire plumes [here].

limiting the spread of insects and disease,

Wrong. Fire attracts insects, especially bark beetles. Even the unburned trees die in the infestations that follow fires. Living root systems repel saprophytic fungi; dead root systems invite fungal infections and harbor root diseases for decades.

promoting new growth by causing the seeds of fire-dependent species to germinate.

Wrong. Living trees put on new growth every year from below the ground to the tops of trees towering in the air. Often the former forest was rich in old-growth species such as ponderosa pine that had been growing for hundreds of years. After the fire, pioneer invaders such as lodgepole pine, ceanothus, manzanita, and cheat grass replace the old-growth conifers. In terms of biomass per acre, vegetative growth is severely diminished after fires.

Wildland fire also periodically removes brush, small trees, and other vegetation that can otherwise accumulate and increase the size, intensity, and duration of subsequent fires.

Wrong. Wildfire synthesizes it’s surroundings (cf. Stephen Pyne). All the vegetation dies, not just the brush. Big trees torch, sear, and get scorched to death. After wildfires brush sprouts like mad. Fine fuels accumulate again at an increased rate. Within 5 to 15 years a new fire hazard is created, with plenty of dead, fire-cured large fuels to burn along with the new fine fuels. Subsequent wildfires denude landscapes and convert forests to permanent fire-type brush.

The GAO report blamed off-site homeowners for fires on Federal lands and then lauded imaginary and false benefits of those fires. The net results of those extreme obfuscations were reduced fire preparation and heightened damage in the subsequent megafires that punctuated the 2008 Fire Season.

March

On March 24, the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC) “modified guidance” by altering Federal wildland fire policy. The WFLC is the the Federal advisory committee that oversees the National Fire Plan. In a “conference call” meeting the WFLC voted unanimously (or so the report said) to inflict Appropriate Management Response (AMR or “hammer”) and Wildland Fire Use (WFU or “whoofoo”) nationwide.

Wildland Fire Leadership Council Meetings
Conference Call Notes
March 24, 2008
Actions and Decisions

TOPIC: Modifying Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Policy (AMR)

1. Current Direction: Only one management objective will be applied to a wildland fire. Wildland fires will either be managed for resource benefits or suppressed. A wildland fire cannot be managed for both objectives concurrently. If two wildland fires converge, they will be managed as a single wildland fire.

Proposed Direction: Wildland fires can be managed for one or more objective(s) based on the Land/Resource Management Plan direction.

DECISION: No objections – the WFLC approved new direction unanimously.

2. Current Direction: Once a wildland fire has been managed for suppression objectives, it may never be managed for resource benefit objectives.

Proposed Direction: When two or more wildland fires burn together they will be handled as a single wildland fire and may be managed for one or more objectives based on the Land/Resource Management Plan direction as an event moves across the landscape and fuels and weather conditions change.

DECISION: No objections – the WFLC approved new direction unanimously.

3. & 4. Current Direction: The Wildland Fire Situation Analysis process is used to determine and document the suppression strategy from the full range of responses available for suppression operations. Suppression strategies are designed to meet the policy objectives of suppression.

Wildland fire use is the result of a natural event. The Land/Resource Management Plan, or the Fire Management Plan, will identify areas where the strategy of wildland fire use is suitable. The Wildland Fire Implementation Plan (WFIP) is the tool that examines the available response strategies to determine if a fire is being considered for wildland fire use.

Proposed Direction: Every wildland fire will be assessed following a decision support process that examines the full range of responses. The system currently being developed and prototyped is known as Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS).

DECISION: After discussion the WFLC adopted new direction unanimously.

5. Current Direction: When a prescribed fire or a fire designated for wildland fire use is no longer achieving the intended resource management objectives and contingency or mitigation actions have failed, the fire will be declared a wildfire. Once a wildfire, it cannot be returned to a prescribed fire or wildland fire use status.

Proposed Direction: Once a prescribed fire is no longer meeting those resources objectives stated specifically in the prescribed fire plan or project level NEPA and is declared a wildfire it receives the same reassessment and selection of response objectives as any other wildfire event given the location, current conditions (fuels, weather, etc) and identified management considerations.

DECISION: After discussion, the new direction was approved contingent upon favorable counsel review. The results will be presented at the June meeting.

That legalistic verbiage means that any fire can be declared a Let It Burn fire at any time. The new policy was inflicted nationwide. The WFLC is dominated by radical NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) such as The Nature Conservancy and The Wilderness Society that provide a revolving door of high-paying lobbyist positions to ex-government employees.

The March meeting marked the final time that WFLC minutes were released to the public. Since then all WFLC meetings have been secret affairs that have excluded the public. Transparency and open government are contrary to WFLC desires and actions.

April

The Western Institute for Study of the Environment initiated the W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking website [here]. For the first time a private (non-governmental) effort was made to report on all large wildfires.

Daily statistics on each tracked fire include acreage, personnel, percent containment, and suppression costs to date. Each post thus becomes a historical record for that fire. By collecting and posting the daily record for each fire, W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking provides the basic information needed to analyze fire impacts.

W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking is in blog form, designed for feedback. People on the scene, or anywhere else for that matter, contribute information, photos, or ask questions.

W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking is free. It costs the taxpayers nothing. Unlike other fire sites, W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking is not designed by and for firefighters. Our expertise and concern is about forests and other landscape types, and so we provide indepth analysis regarding the effects of a particular fire on multiple forest values and resources.

InciWeb, the government fire reporting site, was up and down in 2008, silent for periods as long as six weeks at a time. InciWeb is also self-limited in that they choose to report certain large fires and ignore others. W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking provides the only comprehensive fire reporting service in the US.

In April W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking reported on the Trigo Fire [here] in the Cibola National Forest, Torrance Co., New Mexico. The fire was ignited April 15 by unknown (unreported) causes, grew to 3,750 acres, jumped off Federal property, and burned nine homes near Manzano by April 21. On April 26 the fire was 4,910 acres and declared 60% contained. Governor Bill Richardson and various Important People had toured the site.

Then on May 1 the Trigo Fire blew up. Wind gusts up to 50 mph carried embers approximately 0.5 miles north of the containment line. A Type 1 Incident Management Team was ordered when the surrounding communities were determined to be in the path of the fire, but before the Trigo Fire was contained an additional 50 homes were burned. The final fire size was 13,709 acres. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did not return because he was busy meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (Richardson was named last fall by Pres-elect Obama to be Sec. of Commerce but had to withdraw due to his being investigated for taking bribes).

Also in April the Ordway Fire [here] in Crowley Co., Colorado burned 8,900 acres and 24 homes. Two firefighters were killed when their fire truck crossed a burned bridge and plunged into a ravine.

The Alamo Fire [here] ignited April 18 in the Pajarita Wilderness of the Coronado NF, Cochise Co., Arizona. A reported 5,072 acres burned on the US side of the U.S./Mexico International Border. It is unknown how many acres burned in Mexico.

Also in April the Chanty Fire [here] burned 584 acres in the Angeles National Forest near Sierra Madre, Los Angeles Co. CA, and the X Fire burned 2,048 acres in the Kaibab NF, Coconino Co. AZ. Three campers were charged with criminal negligence for leaving their campfire unattended and inadvertently igniting the X Fire.

April 30 the Apache Fire [here] ignited in the San Jacinto Wilderness, San Bernardino NF, Riverside County, CA not far from Palm Springs. Rapid response held the Apache Fire to 784 acres but the Pacific Crest Trail was closed for a week.

May

The Summit Fire [here] ignited May 22. It was the first of three fires that burned in Santa Cruz Co. CA in the Spring of 2008. The Summit Fire burned 4,270 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains and destroyed 35 homes and 64 outbuildings. It cost $19,300,000 to suppress. In June, the Martin Fire [here] erupted in the near the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve and burned 520 acres, 3 homes and 10 outbuildings. Also in June the Trabing Fire [here] near Watsonville burned 630 acres, 10 residences and 10 outbuildings. All these fires were human-caused, the latter due to deliberate arson.

Also in May the 22 WFU Fire [here] burned 1,255 acres of the Kaibab NF, Coconino Co. AZ. Unlike the X Fire in April, no one was arrested and charged criminal negligence.

The Bighorn Fire [here] ignited May 19 in the Angeles National Forest north of the Mt. Baldy Village area. Rapid response held the fire to 490 acres and possibly saved hundreds of homes in San Bernadino and Los Angeles Counties.

On the other side of the continent the Brevard Fires [here] burned 10,300 acres and 162 homes in Brevard Co., Florida. An estimated 9 fires were set by one or more arsonists.

Earlier in May the Honeybee WFU Fire [here] was ignited by lightning on the Inyo National Forest, Inyo Co. CA, near South Fork of the Kern River. The fire was declared a Let It Burn fire until winds arose resulting in Red Flag weather conditions. Crews and helicopters were dispatched and the fire held to 1,225 acres, but $244,000 was spent on suppression.

The original intent was to let the Honeybee Fire burn until October, but public protests changed the minds of the fire managers and officials of the Inyo NF and Sequoia NF. However, those government functionaries were so adamant that six-month-long Let It Burn fires were “beneficial” that in June they declared another whoofoo in the same area, the Clover WFU Fire.

The Clover Fire WFU [here] was allegedly ignited by lightning on May 31 (no final determination was ever made regarding what started it). No NEPA process was implemented or even contemplated for this Federal management action on public property. No evaluation of impact to endangered species, water or air quality, or public health and safety were made and no public hearings, no public input, and no legal review whatsoever were performed.

This fire could have been suppressed in early June at less than 100 acres and less than $100,000. Instead, by June 21 $2 million had been spent on “monitoring,” 4,000 acres had burned, and the rest of the state had been placed at reduced readiness for fires that occurred elsewhere.

Nearly 300 fire personnel were deployed on June 21 when the Clover Fire blew up. The fire doubled in size and then doubled again the next day. Dry lightning had swept California that day and over 2,000 fires were ignited, but nearly 500 firefighters continued to battle the Clover WFU Fire. Eventually 15,300 acres burned and $8,315,000 was spent on suppression. What is worse, the Clover Fire caused needed personnel to be unavailable, and other fires around the state went without rapid response. The damages those fires caused were in the tens of $billions, which could have been lessened if the stubborn fools at the Inyo NF and Sequoia NF had put the Clover Fire out the day it started.

To date no one at the Inyo NF or Sequoia NF has been arrested and charged with criminal negligence. Horrible and hugely incompetent government actions go unpunished. Our NF officials are immune from the law, no matter how much destruction results from their actions.

By June 1, 2008 a number of stupid policy decisions had resulted in incredible tragedy, expense, and damages. But the 2008 fire season had barely even begun.

Next: June 2008 California fire bust.

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