22 Jul 2009, 11:14am
Saving Forests The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

The Unfinished Saga of the Backbone Fire

By Mike Dubrasich

The Backbone Fire was ignited by lightning on July 1st and is currently burning in the Salmon Mountains of Trinity County in Northern California. As I write, the Backbone Fire [here] is reported to be 6,324 acres and 80 percent contained. Both direct and indirect fire suppression actions are being undertaken.

Thus the Saga of the Backbone Fire has no ending, yet. Furthermore, surprising as it may seem, the story begins deep in the misty past, long before there was even a forest there.

In this essay we will attempt to tell the saga, as best we are able, in full knowledge that the whole story is beyond the scope, backwards and forwards, which we peer through. And we hope to add to this essay in the future, when it arrives, and the final chapters transpire in the present-to-be.

Ancient History

Before the Great Warming occurred that signaled the end of the Wisconsin Glaciation about 12,500 years ago, the Salmon Mountains were icy peaks laden with glaciers. Along the California coast to the west was an Ice Age refugia, warmed by oceanic currents and kept free of ice. There towering Pleistocene redwoods grew, isolated from the rest of the continent by tundra and ice.

Some 13,000 years ago, or perhaps earlier, hardy bands of human beings made their way south to the redwoods from the Bering Land Bridge, or perhaps north from already inhabited South America, no one knows for sure. They were likely a maritime people, living on the edge of the ocean and dining mainly on seafood. Some evidence (there is very little remaining) suggests that those people were also knowledgeable about and utilized the vegetation of the refugia, for food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and fuel.

The Great Warming came, in fits and spurts, and by 11,000 years ago the climate had warmed to more or less modern conditions. The Salmon glaciers melted and forests invaded the formerly frozen ridges and valleys.

This timeline has one telling feature: human beings preceded the forests in the Trinity Mountains, as we did across much of North America. People came before the forests, not after.

The early Holocene residents were not savages wandering the landscape like dumb animals. They were socially organized, culturally advanced, smart, many-tooled, supremely capable hunters and masters of fire.

For tens of thousands of years prior to the Holocene, humanity had been torch bearers, barbequers, hearth keepers, and landscape incineration experts.

Setting fire to the landscape had many survival benefits. The first residents used landscape fire to drive game, to prepare firewood, and to induce prairies and savannas for food crops and browse for meat on the hoof. Tending fires set frequently and seasonally burned lightly, favored grasses, and prevented catastrophic fires by reducing fuels. Fuel-laden catastrophic fires denuded landscapes and killed off game and people. Survival was enhanced by careful, anthropogenic fires set in the right places at the right times by experts versed in traditional ecological knowledge.

Over millennia the indigenous residents of Northern California induced prairies and savannas in the Salmon Mountains through the use of anthropogenic fire. Grassy swards graced the streamsides and oak, fir, and pine savannas extended up the slopes above to the ridgetops.

A conifer savanna is not generally described as such. Towering firs and pines are not what we think of when the word “savanna” is used. A better descriptor might be “open and park-like forests.” Henry T. Lewis, the late, great cultural anthropologist and historical landscape geographer [here], called the human-induced vegetation patterns of Northern California “yards and corridors,” an allusion to human-mediated conditions. People create yards and corridors, not Mother Nature.

Whatever you call them, the forests of the Salmon Mountains were human-mediated. Frequent, seasonal, deliberate, traditional landscape fires led to a more open and airy vegetation type than dense woods. The frequent fires also created conditions whereby trees grew to great ages.

Without frequent fires, the fuels accumulate until catastrophic, very severe fires occur. Catastrophic fires kill all the trees. If a catastrophic fire happens every 30 to 50 years, then the trees never get older than that. In contrast, frequent fires (every 1 to 5 years or so) do not kill all the trees. Some survive repeated light burning and grow to tremendous ages of 400, 500, 600 years and even older.

It is not widely understood, but it is a fact nonetheless, that the old-growth trees of the Salmon Mountains are there because of human impacts (it is more accurate to call it tending) upon the landscape for thousands and thousands of years, since before there were even any trees there!

Recent History

It is well-known that the first European explorers brought devastating diseases with them, diseases to which Native Americans of the time had no defenses. Smallpox, measles, malaria, and various other germs wrought havoc and reduced indigenous populations by 90 percent or more. Many historians refer to the die-offs as the American Holocaust, so thorough were the effects of the European plagues.

Like other indigenous tribes across the Western Hemisphere, Northern California Indians experienced tragic losses of people and culture in the epidemics. To make matters worse, the few survivors were rounded up and displaced to tiny reservations, completing an ethnic cleansing of the landscapes.

One consequence was that the frequent, seasonal tending fires stopped. The open, park-like forests (savannas, prairies, yards, corridors, etc.) seeded in with trees. The scattered old-growth became choked with thickets of “second-growth” and the fuels began to build up.

During the late 1880’s and up until 1930 or so, logging in the foothills of the Salmon Mountains selectively removed the old-growth. Higher up, the jagged ridges and steep canyons were beyond the reach of most loggers during the heyday of lumbering in the region. The high ground was not beyond the reach of miners and prospectors, however, and fair amount of that went on near the end of the 19th Century.

In 1905 the U.S. Forest Service was created and they took control over most of the high country. Not much timber management was done until after World War Two. Most of the USFS effort was fire control, and they were successful at that.

In the 1950’s and 60’s the USFS became more involved in timber production and roads were built up the major streams and across the major ridges. Most of that activity happened west of the Salmon Mountains, which were too steep and had too little timber to make good sales, at least in comparison to areas to the west and closer to the coast.

Most of the Salmon Mountains were set aside as the Salmon-Trinity Alps Primitive Area in 1932 and 1933. In 1984 the designation became the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area. The New River and North Fork Trinity River were declared Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The land was not actually wilderness, however. Human beings had been living there for thousands of years, and the region was laced with ancient trails, gathering sites, sacred sites, and hunting grounds. Moreover, the vegetation still bore the hallmarks of anthropogenic fire: the old-growth trees scattered amongst a thicket of brush and younger trees. The biomass had been accumulating for two hundred years or more in the absence of tending fires.

It would be more than fair here to acknowledge that there is some dispute about the historical human impacts. To the prospectors of the late 19th Century it appeared that Indians had never lived in the high country and had never done much burning there. They did not ask the Indians about it, however, and would not have believed what the Indians told them in any case.

However, the presence of scattered old-growth with fire scars is evidence that frequent fire had been the fire regime of ancient times, and frequent fire is anthropogenic. Lightning is too infrequent and irregular to engender open, park-like forests [here].

There is other evidence, including the testimony of Tribal elders and the presence of sacred sites, ancient trails, etc. Scientists may not be entirely trustful of oral histories, however. The vegetation provides hard, empirical evidence of frequent fire in the past and of infrequent, stand-replacing fires in the modern era. That transition in fire regimes is a sure sign of ancient anthropogenic fire.

The Foresters

When the USFS took over management of Salmon Mountains, they did so with foresters. The foresters were professional forest managers: silviculturalists, firefighters, trail builders, recreation managers, ecologists, wildlife specialists, law enforcement officers –- the early foresters did it all. They lived in and on the forest and took extra and special care of it.

Where the miners and early timber thieves stripped and abused the land, the foresters repaired it. When foresters laid out harvests, they did so with utmost care and replanted afterward. They fought fires and kept them small. They searched and found lost hikers, arrested poachers, gave talks at local schools, and were valued members of the local communities. For many decades the foresters were the engineers that drove the local economy.

The foresters put down roots and formed bonds, with the residents and with the forest. No one since the aboriginal inhabitants had cared more deeply for the land.

The Fires

There were hundreds of fires between 1905 and 1987. They were all kept small, less than 10,000 acres. The foresters had established a system of lookouts and guard stations and had employed local fire crews. The policy was to contain, control, and extinguish fires as soon as possible after they were discovered. The policy was successful.

In 1987 a series of thunderstorms ignited fires across California – 1987 was the worst fire season in California history to that date. In Trinity County 90,000 acres burned.

The next year USFS fire policies were changed nationwide. A new type of fire management was mandated: prescribed natural fire. The idea was that if Mother Nature started the fire (i.e. via lightning) the agency was to sit back and let it burn. In 1988 that policy was put into action in Yellowstone National Park, and over a million acres were incinerated.

In the Salmon Mountains where fire management had been successful in the past, the new policy was ominous. And in 1999, all hell broke loose. The following quote is from Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management. 2008. Fire History and Research, Big Bar Ranger District, Northwestern Trinity County, California: Critique of Fire Suppression Practices. Report to Congressman Wally Herger, October 2008 [here]:

On August 23, 1999, a thunderstorm ignited fires in the New River backcountry. Four were spotted right away, and a fifth one (Dees Fire, controlled within a few days) was spotted on August 2. Fire fighting resources were already limited because of other fire activity in the state, and so priorities precluded the immediate response to these. The result was that the Onion Fire, originating near Big Mountain, burned 16,602 acres, while three of the other four—the Megram, Soldier, and Fawn fires—eventually grew together. This mega-fire, now called the Megram Fire, burned 124,998 acres. This included most of the western Trinity Alps west of Slide Creek extending into Humboldt County toward the Willow Creek and Hoopa communities. The Megram Fire wasn’t controlled until early November when the winter weather came.

The fires together were called the Big Bar Complex, and total acreage was 141,000 acres.

At the time the Big Bar Complex Fire was the fifth largest in California history, surpassed by only the Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889 (300,000 acres), the Matilija Fire of 1933 (220,000 acres), the Laguna Fire of 1970 (175,425 acres), and the Marble-Cone Fire of 1977 (178,000 acres).

The largest component of the Big Bar Complex was the Megram Fire (125,000 acres) in the New River watershed, the headwaters of which are bounded to the west by Backbone Ridge.

The fire policies were not substantially altered after the Megram Fire; in fact they were further eroded. Lookouts and guard stations were closed and fewer fire crews hired and trained. A Let It Burn attitude prevailed. And as a result, in 2006 the Bake Oven Fire burned over 100,000 acres in the East Fork of the New River drainage.

The Fires of 2008

Then in 2008 over 650,000 acres were incinerated in Northern California on the Shasta-Trinity, Six Rivers, and Klamath National Forests. The fires were allowed to burn vast tracts in accord with a revised fire policy the USFS calls “Appropriate Management Response.” Building firelines miles away from the fires and backburning hundreds of thousands of acres of private and public land alike were deemed “appropriate.” Despite the remote firefighting techniques, ostensibly intended to save money and protect firefighters, over $400 million was spent on suppression and 12 firefighters were killed.

In Trinity County alone over 266,000 acres were burned in fires that were ignited by lightning on June 21, 2008, and were allowed to burn into October. The Trinity County Board of Supervisors reported [here]:

Trinity County Wildfires of 2008 included

* The tragic deaths of 10 wildland firefighters
* 266,157 acres burned (about 97% on National Forests)
* Many of our businesses report losses of over 40%
* Suppression costs over $150,000,000
* Trinity County communities were under mandatory evacuation orders 15 times
* Over 1,400 homes were evacuated
* Unhealthy and extremely unhealthy air quality alerts were issues for many of our communities for weeks
* Federal standards for pm 2.5 levels were exceeded in many cases by a factor of 10 or greater
* Millions of dead trees and millions of tons of fuel will remain untreated to threaten our communities, resources, and our firefighters for decades to come
* Estimate of CO2 equivalents released from the fires equal 12,000,000 metric tons or 2,000,000 vehicle years

A great deal of anguish and criticism was expressed following the 2008 fires. The residents of Trinity County were not pleased by the USFS fire policies, which looked for all intents and purposes like Let It Burn.

Among those protesting the disastrous fire policies were nine individuals who called themselves “The Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management.” The nine included seven professional foresters, four with decades of service on the Big Bar Ranger District of the Trinity (now Shasta-Trinity) National Forest. Their report to Congressman Wally Herger is [here].

The Concerned Citizens report carried some weight due to the caliber of the Committee. Among them is Committee Chair David Rhodes, retired USFS, 30 years of service in fire and fuels management, 19 years on the Big Bar Ranger District, and the last 15 of those as Fire Management Officer. Mr. Rhodes has lived in Trinity County for 39 years. Also on the Committee is Charley Fitch, retired USFS, who served for 20 years as District Ranger for the Big Bar Ranger District and has lived in Trinity County for 42 years. Also on the Committee is Clarence Rose, an Oregon State University graduate with a B.S. in Forest Engineering, 1974, and a California Registered Professional Forester since 1977. Mr. Rose was a member of the California Board of Forestry, 1985-89, and help found the Mountain Communities Healthcare District, which owns and operates the Trinity Hospital. He also owns 1,000 acres of forest land Trinity and Shasta County.

The USFS was subjected to a raft of protest about their fire policies from residents and elected representatives. There was some attempt to deflect the criticisms with technical distancing, but because the protesters included foresters with a lot more experience than the current USFS employees (at any level), that deflection was not entirely successful.

But did the USFS hear what was said to them? Did they alter their fire policies in light of the disappointment expressed by locals, including expert professional foresters and fire officers?

A test of those questions was not long coming. A year plus a week after the 2008 ignitions, another thunderstorm swept Trinity County.

On July 1, 2009, lightning ignited a fire on Backbone Ridge.

The Setting

Technically speaking, Backbone Ridge is actually named The Devils Backbone. It extends from Salmon Mountain 20 miles south to Happy Camp Mountain and divides the New River watershed to the east from a set of smaller watersheds (Red Cap Creek, Mill Creek, Tish Tang a Tang Creek, and Horse Linto Creek) to the west. The New River flows south and joins the Trinity River downstream from Burnt Ranch. The westside creeks flow west and join the Trinity River in Hoopa Valley (except for Red Cap Creek which flows more northerly and joins the Klamath River between Orleans and Weitchpee).

The Devils Backbone is also the dividing line between Trinity and Humboldt Counties and between the Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests. It is something of an ecotone boundary too, separating the wetter westside and the drier eastside, the redwood and fir forests of the coast from the pine and fir forests of the Trinity Alps.

The Devils Backbone is a steep, jagged ridge is steep, jagged country. The terrain is “difficult” for firefighting, to say the least.

The next ridge to the east, splitting the New River watershed in two, is Megram Ridge. The 1999 Megram Fire ignited there and spread out in all directions, covering 125,000 acres. It burned west across The Devils Backbone, down Mill Creek, and into the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation; it burned east high into the Trinity Alps; and it burned south down the New River almost to the Trinity River.

The smoke from the Megram Fire was so thick Governor Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency and residents were evacuated from the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation and numerous small communities.

The old-growth forests were destroyed or damaged severely. Nearly a third of the old-growth acreage experienced over 80 percent mortality from the fire, and more damaged trees died from beetle attacks in the years that followed. Fuel loading of dead wood increased from 5 to 50 tons per acre to 100 to 300 tons per acre. The Six Rivers NF proposed a salvage sale to reduce the fuel loadings, but it was shot down by environmentalist lawsuits.

Ten years later the Megram Burn was a sea of brush punctuated by rotting old-growth snags, laden with fuel loadings of incredible proportions. It was in this fuel basket that the Backbone Fire erupted last July 1st.

The Fire Team

By July 5 the Backbone Fire was 3,300 acres in size. It stretched north along The Devils Backbone for five miles and had spotted 4 miles to the north on Salmon Mountain. As such, it touched parts of three National Forests with the largest portion on the Shasta-Trinity NF. For reasons we can only surmise, management of the fire was given to the Six Rivers NF.

One of those surmised reasons is Kent Swartzlander. He is the Six Rivers Fire Management Officer and also Incident Commander of the Northern California Type 2 Interagency Incident Management Team, which was immediately assigned to the fire. Mr. Swartzlander is a hands-on firefighter with a strong background in Region 5 fire suppression, serving for a time as Plumas NF Hot Shot Crew Superintendent. His Type 2 IMT worked on a number of the Northern California fires in 2008, including the Iron Complex Fires that burned over 105,000 acres in Trinity County. He is local. He knows the lay of the land. He witnessed and understood the frustration of the community during and after the 2008 fires. He is also considered to be the top Incident Commander in Northern California.

Mr. Swartzlander observed the Backbone Fire situation, the setting, the terrain, the fuels, and he knew the history. He recommended that a NIMO team be brought in.

The National Incident Management Teams [here] are seven-member oversight teams that supplement the standard IMT’s in special situations. There are two operational NIMO teams and two in development. They are large fire specialists, but more than that NIMO teams are permanent fire experts who “expand the capacity and capability of wildland fire agencies to meet the increasing demands for trained personnel to manage complex wildland fire and other all-hazard incidents” [here].

The Backbone Fire was certainly complex. The terrain is remote and steep. The fuel loading is extreme. The social milieu is also incendiary: the USFS relations with the community have been severely strained by repeated megafires in the last ten years.

Six Rivers NF Supervisor Tyrone Kelley and R5 Regional Forester Randy Moore agreed with Kent Swartzlander and the Atlanta NIMO Team, Incident Commander George H. Custer. Mr. Custer has worked in fire for over 30 years, mostly in the Southern Region. His expertise is fire management, and is recognized as a pro’s pro, with stints as a Type 1 IC and Operations Section Chief of the Atlanta NIMO.

The NIMO team took over the Backbone Fire (directing and supplementing Swartzlander’s NorCal Type 2 IMT) on July 7th. On that date the fire was 4,584 acres.

The Community

One important aspect of the Backbone Fire is that it is burning in a community context: the contextual history is described above. There are many stakeholders. They had let their opinions be known after the 2008 fires, including requests for substantive involvement in future fire management decisions.

The future arrived quickly. The USFS leadership and the fire management team recognized that they were not going to be successful without involving community leaders, no matter what the outcome of the fire.

One community leader they consulted with was Leonard Masten, Jr., chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council. The Hupa People have resided in Northern California “since time immemorial.” The rivers and mountains of present day Trinity and Humboldt Counties have been their hunting grounds, their fields, their larder, their sacred homeland for untold generations. Their heritage stretches far beyond the current boundaries of the Hoopa Valley Reservation, and the watersheds impacted by the Backbone Fire contain their ancient trail system, ceremonial sites, and sacred places.

The Hupa were concerned about the Backbone Fire and understandably so. In 1999 the Megram Fire ignited to the east of The Devils Backbone and burned some 12 miles west into the Reservation, destroying timber the Tribe depended on for income. In 2008 the Ukonom, Blue, and Panther Fires burned sacred ceremonial grounds, off the Reservation but still cherished and used by the Hupa people. They were concerned that another megafire was in the offing and firmly requested that such not occur.

Another community leader who met with the fire team was David Rhodes of The Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management. His concerns were that the forest not be ravaged by fire again. Foresters form personal bonds with the forests they are privileged to care for. Mr. Rhodes also represented and expressed the concerns of his Committee and the families of Trinity County.

Trinity County Supervisor Judy Pflueger and Dave Meurer, Field Representative for Congressman Herger also met with the fire team. They echoed the concerns expressed by Mr. Masten and Mr. Rhodes. They did not want the community subjected to another summer of choking smoke, backburns across private property, evacuations, or forest and watershed destruction. Trinity County had suffered enough of that.

The expressions of the community were not lost on the fire team.

The Fire Fight

The NIMO and Type 2 IMT were faced with some tough decisions. They could replicate the “appropriate response” of 2008 and build firelines with dozers miles away from the fire on more easily defended terrain, and then backburn like crazy all summer long. The initial estimates were that such a strategy would result in the burning of 50,000 to 100,000 acres and the fire would not be contained until September. The suppression cost of such a strategy would be in the tens of millions of dollars, perhaps $50 to $100 million (at $1,000 per acre).

Another option was direct attack. That would entail hand-built fireline on steep terrain with the ever-present danger of falling snags, rolling logs, and more strain and risk to line crews.

The first actions taken were to build “contingency” lines some distance away from the fire, which had actually started as two fires. Those merged and produced a large spot fire to the north. By July 12 about 6,100 acres had burned and 17 miles of contingency lines had been built to the east and north. The area partially encompassed was over 100,000 acres. There were 1,165 personnel on the fire and $5.2 million had been spent so far. With that number of firefighters and aerial support by helicopters and air tankers, the fire was running up a tab of a million dollars a day.

Then on July 13 the NIMO IC George Custer issued a direct attack plan. Recognizing that the fuel moisture level was high and that highly trained Type 1 crews and aviation support were on hand, Mr. Custer proposed to attack the fire directly, encircling the fire up close with hand-built lines and “cutting it off” within two weeks.

There were risks. The weather would have to cooperate, and the crews would be exposed to hazards of steep terrain and falling snags. But Mr. Custer also recognized that the longer the fire burned and the more man-days were expended, the risk of accidents would increase. The farther the fire burned into the Salmon Mountains, the farther helicopters carrying water and/or injured firefighters would have to fly.

The trade-offs were considered, and the direct attack strategy was implemented.

And it was successful!!!!

By July 20, one week later, the Backbone Fire had grown only 200 acres. It is 6,324 acres in size and 80 percent contained. Half the personnel were demobilized –- as of July 22 only 458 firefighters remain. Swartzlander’s T2 IMT was released. The NIMO is putting together a Type 3 local team to take over mop up.

The daily progression of the fire is recorded at W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking [here].

Some Tentative Conclusions

The Backbone Fire is still burning with some intensity inside the containment lines. The mop up continues, and some hot spots will not be extinguished until next winter. There remains the possibility that the fire could erupt again this summer.

Hence the saga is not over. There will be further inquiries and reports written in the future. This report is early and incomplete. But some tentative conclusions may be speculatively drawn.

The direct attack strategy appears to have been very successful. The fire has been contained six weeks or more earlier than it might have been, had it been allowed to burn behind distant lines. The suppression costs to date are roughly $15 million, perhaps 20 percent of what they could have been if the fire management strategies of 2008 had been applied.

Trinity County will be relatively smoke free this summer. There were no evacuations, no backburning, no catastrophic destruction of private or Tribal timber, no significant shutdowns of recreation businesses, and no major loss of wildlife habitat. There will be no extreme erosion events or excess sediment in streams from the Backbone Fire. Long-term damages to the environment and the surrounding communities will be minimal.

There were no burnovers or snags falling on firefighters, although the Backbone Fire was not without tragedy. Yesterday a rappeler was killed in an accidental fall [here] at the Backbone Helibase in Willow Creek. The fatal incident occurred during a routine training exercise and was not associated with the fire fight. In addition, on July 17 a Sikorsky helicopter flipped on its side during takeoff. Fortunately, both crew members walked away from the accident with only minor injuries.

Last year on the Iron Complex Fire, fought with indirect tactics, 10 firefighters were killed. In comparison, the Backbone Fire was safely fought despite the direct attack tactics.

There has been considerable debate during this fire about the direct attack strategy. Community members were in favor of containing and controlling the fire with all due haste. Outside “environmentalists” with a history of frequent litigation against the USFS raised questions that were reported in the Redding Record Searchlight [here], the Trinity Journal, and on various websites.

One of those commentaries, which appeared on Wildlandfire.com [here] dated 7/16, is very much worth reposting. It was written by Royal Burnett, California Division of Forestry, retired:

I find it very difficult to rationalize any policy that allows the destruction of thousands of acres of old growth timber or wilderness just because fire is a natural event. Fire is an important part of the ecosystem, but stand replacing fires are destructive. Think of the total cost of the Big Bar Complex, the Day Fire, the Zaca fire and many others that have burned for months in the last decade.

Klamathman suggested that since the Government cannot find the funds to correctly introduce fire into the Forest we should do it with wildfire. The costs of the wildfires in Northern California in dollars and lives has cost far more than the cost of any burning operation. The old timers can tell of lighting fires as they drove the sheep and cattle down from the high country at the end of grazing season… those were low intensity fires ignited when the burning season was on the wane, short hours of daylight and lots of humidity recovery. The same sort of a program of small ignitions could be initiated by the Government at minimal cost and no great liability if the ignitions were well within the Wilderness boundary.

Klamathman said that he expects to live with the smell of smoke in the air. Smoke is pollution. [Dr. Thomas M.] Bonnicksen wrote a 2008 paper in which he calculated the carbon emissions from four Northern California forest fires [here]. The average fire emitted 62 tons per acre of greenhouse gases while the average passenger car emits 5.03 tons of C02. Each acre of high intensity forest fire emits the same amount of C02 as 12 cars driven for one year.

007 commented that the 1987 fires under the old suppression policy got big. Yes, they did. And so did the fires in 1977 (Hogg, Marble Cone, Scarface etc) and so did the fires during the 1967 lightning storms. These were once in a decade events and now season long fires have become annual events.

Strider sent in photos of a high intensity ground fire burning in a snag patch on the Backbone incident as justification for indirect attack. I’m sure there are portions of that fire that do not burn that hot 24 hours a day. Crews could work the cool flank or the heel and start hooking. The Rate of Spread on that incident has been minimal since it made its first run. I think 500 acres is the most one day spread I’ve seen posted.

Strider also said this is a Wilderness Area, no dozers allowed. That portion of the Trinity Alps has several old Forest Service roads through it, so it’s not as if this were a pristine wilderness, never touched by man. I think a dozer line would be one heck of a lot easier to rehab and a lot more pleasing to the public than a 10,000 acre snag patch.

Wilderness rules should be modified to allow and encourage full suppression (dozers and heavy equipment) during times of drought and extreme fire danger.

The fires of the last 20 years have clearly demonstrated what Misery Whip said in his July 7, 2009 post, “You screw around with a large forest fire long enough at the wrong time of year and sooner or later it will get up and rip.” He further states, “Limited fire suppression on forest fires in the lower 48 in the middle of fire season is a bad idea that should never have gotten out of committee”. I can’t speak for the rest of the United States, but I can say emphatically limited suppression is bad idea in California.

I spoke about the changing of the Forest Service from a fire suppression agency to a fire management agency — actually the change is much greater. The Agency has morphed from a Multiple Use Agency to a self described Land Management Agency with a fire program. The policies are much more in tune with the NPS than the USFS of old.

I, too, hope that under a new Chief some a change in direction will occur.

I agree (wholeheartedly) with Mr. Burnett. The long term issues must not be lost sight of. We need to institute restoration forestry on a landscape scale. Only through active management of fuels and forest structure, with appreciation and sensitivity to heritage, habitat, watersheds and airsheds, public health and safety, and regional communities and economies, can we successfully get a handle on megafires and proactively protect, maintain, and perpetuate our priceless public forests..

And so the Saga of the Backbone Fire continues. This fire will lead to much discussion for many years. No doubt, more complete and in-depth analyses will be researched and written. This essay, however, is one of the first, and by virtue of our blog format here, can be appended by your comments (and mine). Please feel free to participate. Your comments, as always, are welcome.

22 Jul 2009, 3:40pm
by John M.

Mike, that is one of your finest essays. By adding the context of history you have helped establish the importance of the Backbone to the debate about federal wildland fire policy, and the importance of using wisdom in reviewing and changing the policy back to one that really cares for the land and also cares for people.

I am not sure how the mythology of allowing the land to burn in stand replacement fires captured the mindset of so many people, but it needs to be investigated and not allowed to happen again. The narrow and myopic thinking allowing such a policy to become a federal land management direction is appalling.

I have my own ideas of how the federal land management agencies got caught up in this policy, but they are better kept to myself for the moment.

There will always be fires that cannot be successfully controlled due to weather, terrain, fuels or whatever, but that should not be because of lack of good honest effort, and certainly not for vague “resource benefits.”

If one of the deep unspoken reasons for allowing major fires is to “save money,” that is hypocritical and a testimony to the lack of knowledge and wisdom of our political leaders.

I would hope this essay is spread far and wide and stirs serious thought about fire on the land by the competent environmental organizations who share we foresters’ emotional attachment to the land.

22 Jul 2009, 5:03pm
by Mike

Big shift in fire tactics evident on Backbone Fire

By Ryan Sabalow, Redding Record Searchlight, July 19, 2009 [here]

WILLOW CREEK - Something’s different this summer in communities and the national forests west of Redding, and it’s not just the absence of brown, smoky haze that left many residents coughing and wheezing for months during last year’s record-breaking fire season.

Residents, tribal and community leaders and air-quality officials say fire managers with the U.S. Forest Service have worked harder this summer to address accusations that fire managers’ closed-door decisions last year prolonged an already disastrous fire season.

“I feel a lot more comfortable with the input we’ve been able to give,” said Judy Pflueger, a Trinity County supervisor from Coffee Creek. “It seems they’re working in a more honest, sincere, straightforward and cooperative manner. I’m impressed with improvements over last year.” …

Forest Service officials say the changes adopted when the Backbone Fire erupted in a July 1 lightning storm include:

Stepped-up air-monitoring efforts, including working closer with local air-quality management districts to put monitors in many communities that have never had them before as well as communicating with residents about any potential dangers caused by smoke.

Aggressively fighting the fire. “We’re working at minimizing the duration of fires, keeping the size and the cost and the negative impacts down to local communities,” said Robin Cole, the Backbone Fire’s spokeswoman. Thanks to those efforts (and relatively mild weather), the Backbone Fire may be contained within the week. In years past, such a fire would be allowed to burn for months.

Appointing community liaisons — including residents, retired longtime firefighters and community leaders — to meet daily with fire commanders to hear updates and give input and advice on firefighting strategies.

A National Incident Management Organization, or NIMO, has been in the area since before the fire started, learning the terrain and meeting with residents. The team will be on site for the duration of the fire, a noticeable shift from last summer when fire-leadership teams, some from as far away as Alaska, were swapped every few weeks. …

Rod Mendez, the director of emergency services for the Hoopa Valley National Indian Reservation, estimates that in his tribe alone, almost a third of the 3,000 residents have developed respiratory problems since the 1999 Megram Fire. Those problems were compounded in the fires that followed, he said.

After fighting to bring his tribe’s plight to the public’s awareness, Mendez, and others, credited the Record Searchlight’s reporting for helping to focus attention on the smoke issue. …

Mendez, who in 2007 retired from a firefighting career with the U.S. Forest Service, said the most noticeable difference in policy — and smoke — from the Backbone Fire is a seeming shift by fire managers to aggressively attack and douse the flames.

“It’s historical,” Mendez said. “They’re going in and putting that fire to bed. They haven’t done that in years.” …

After last summer’s blazes, passive firefighting methods like backburns, the tactic of setting fires to burn vegetation to stop an oncoming fire, grew particularly irksome. Some residents alleged unnecessary backburns torched their private property, fueling the perception that firefighters were only making the already-hazy air smokier.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the community,” said George Custer, incident commander for the NIMO. “We’ve heard what they have to say and we try to take all of that into concern.” …

The changes made this summer have won over perhaps one of Trinity County’s most ardent firefighting critics, David Rhodes, the county’s liaison to the Backbone Fire commanders.

Rhodes, a retired Forest Service fire commander, helped found Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management in response to community worries that firefighters were letting blazes burn without good cause.

Rhodes said that since he and others met this spring with NIMO, a rapport has developed between the groups.

Cole said the input given by the liaisons like Rhodes has helped fire managers craft their strategies.

“They provide suggestions on the local area,” she said. “They know the land. It’s their ridges and their forest. A lot of these people lived with fire all their lives.”

Rhodes also is pleased that the Forest Service decided to directly fight the Backbone, even though it was burning in a wilderness area.

The move saved taxpayers millions and will keep firefighters safer in the long run since the blaze, which is 60 percent contained, will be out much sooner, he said.

The fire originally had the potential to burn until the first rains of fall, cooking more than 100,000 acres, Rhodes said.

But Rhodes and others in the community remain skeptical that the changes will be permanent.

“I want to see some policy change in writing,” said Mendez of the Hoopa tribe. “I haven’t seen that yet.”

Pflueger, the Trinity County supervisor, said the Forest Service still has a public relations battle to win.

“You can still see the lack of trust,” she said. “That’s something they’re going to have to earn back.”

22 Jul 2009, 5:06pm
by Mike

Forest Service Winds Shift Toward Community

Editorial, Redding Record Searchlight, July 22, 2009 [here]

It doesn’t happen every day, but now and then, you get the impression that the government - even the impenetrably bureaucratic federal government - actually listens to citizens’ complaints, learns from its mistakes and changes for the better.

That’s certainly the case with the Forest Service’s handling of the Backbone Fire in the Trinity Alps.

Comparing the summer of 2008 with this year’s so-far mild fire season might be unfair - like comparing World War II and a Boy Scout Jamboree - but Trinity County residents say the differences are striking.

Forget the depth of the smoke and the scale of the blazes, which will always vary year to year. What impresses locals is that Forest Service officials have taken extra efforts to reach out to the community.

Local liaisons regularly meet with fire commanders to share information. Air-quality monitoring has increased. A fire management team arrived early in the season and will see the fire through, so constantly rotating chiefs don’t operate without regard to hard-won knowledge of the landscape.

Common sense? Yes, but as the firefighting corps roams the West over the course of the year, good community relations are not always easy to arrange unless the Forest Service makes them a priority.

In the long run, of course, minding the smoke and putting a friendly face forward are not a substitute for sustainable forest practices that keep dangerous wildfires to a minimum in the first place. They are a good start, though, and the Forest Service deserves a hand for shifting with these winds.

22 Jul 2009, 9:11pm
by Colleen O.

Thank you for the above article on the long history of fire and humans in the Klamath landscape. I think that it’s generally recognized in all sectors of this debate that fire ecology is part of the overall forest ecology of our landscape.

You paint a noble and slightly romantic picture of foresters of old, humbly caring for the forests. And while I have no doubt that this is true, it’s just as true that the environmental community has varied and often contrary opinions regarding the present state of our forests. You give their views less than short shrift; in fact, you mention them in passing, and that’s too bad. They have much to contribute to this dynamic issue. If you are interested in adding another facet to your story, I would be happy to assist.

22 Jul 2009, 11:12pm
by Mike


Thank you for your offer. We at W.I.S.E. are a part of the “environmental community.” All topics here are environmental. It’s part of our name; it’s what we are.

The Western Institute for Study of the Environment is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation and a collaboration of environmental scientists, resource professionals and practitioners, and the interested public.

Our mission is to further advancements in knowledge and environmental stewardship across a spectrum of related environmental disciplines and professions. We are ready, willing, and able to teach good stewardship and caring for the land.

W.I.S.E. provides a free, on-line set of post-graduate courses in environmental studies, currently fifty Topics in eight Colloquia, each containing book and article reviews, original papers, and essays. In addition, we present three Commentary sub-sites, a news clipping sub-site, and a fire tracking sub-site. Reviews and original articles are archived in our Library.

We feel strongly that no political movements of any stripe are valid substitutes for or exclusive owners of environmental science. Good stewardship arises out of knowledge, not political coercion. Thus we look askance at those who would divide communities and who carry political banners proclaiming special privilege as the “true environmentalists.”

In the spirit of cutting-edge environmental science, we welcome your contributions to W.I.S.E., if such advances knowledge. We don’t post just any old thing — we have certain standards of excellence — but if your facets meet that test, we welcome them.

That being said, we have many reservations about “fire ecology.” Ecology is the study of living things — fire is a physical process. The separation of fire study from study of the biota, as implied by much of “fire ecology,” is problematic. Exogenous fire is, in fact, a biological phenomenon, fueled by living matter. Further, the history of fire in the landscape is inseparable from human history — fire has been a cultural phenomenon for tens of thousands of years.

For more on this topic, please allow me to refer you to the writings of Stephen Pyne posted at W.I.S.E. [here], in particular The Wrath of Kuhn, a very perceptive discussion of the philosophies motivating “fire science.”

23 Jul 2009, 7:32am
by DocWhiskey

All the fire management teams I have had the pleasure working with would like to be successful at putting out the fire(s) we manage. But lately the direction from the agency administrators, including the Washington Office, have been less than clear. They want to save money, put fire back in the ecosystem, and not disrupt the local office from their other duties. Oh, and if you can, put the fire out. This kind of message (direction) is what is leading to the back off and burn out strategies employed last year in northern California (and elsewhere over the past 5 years).

Fire management policies continue to get fuzzier and fuzzier, with terms like “appropriate management response” and now “wildland fire for resource benefit”. Terms like these let administrators off the hook in clearly articulating what they are trying to achieve.

I think most Americans would prefer that we “return fire to the ecosystem” under controlled conditions using prescribed fire and most often following mechanical treatments around communities, timber stands, and old growth forests. Not in the heat of the summer or when the rest of the world is on fire.

At the risk of being labeled a dinosaur or Neanderthal, I suggest we consider going back to the old fire management policy of “fight fire aggressively, having first provided for (firefighter and public) safety.” When the local administrator assigns a fire management team (regardless of the “type”), give them direction to put the fire out (fight fire aggressively), but use their years of experience and vast expertise in the various fire fighting strategies and tactics to do it safely. Let the fire managers (after consulting with the agency administrators) decide when to back off to the next ridge and burnout or when to go direct. And it won’t be done just to save money. Which the current “contain and monitor” policies aren’t achieving any way. It will be done because it’s the best fire management strategy.

23 Jul 2009, 11:39am
by Forrest Grump

Nice work, and encouraging. I must compliment you on your o-so-civil tone. I looked at NIFC to make sure we were dealing with the same Backbone Fire and this was fer shure happening now.

I must respond to Colleen’s complaint that the “environmental community” has opinions that were given short shrift in this bit. The landscape pretty much proves that the opinions of the “environmental community” don’t have a lot of real value when it comes to actually protecting the landscape from what is clearly unprecedented, a-historical degradation. So I would prefer that WISE reserve its limited resources to opinions of value… both fiscal and ecological.

23 Jul 2009, 8:28pm
by Richard G.


I worked for the USFS on the Big Bar District many years ago as a seasonal firefighter for four seasons. I previously had worked three summers for CDF (now CalFire) as a firefighter in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Anyway, I still pay attention to fires. I was raised in Redding and still live here.

I agree with your analysis. I’m not sure that early inhabitants of the Salmon Trinity mountains had a dense enough population to burn the whole area regularly, but I know they did do some burning. I have heard that if some rehab operations had been allowed after the Megram Fire, then the current fire would not be as hard to fight. But in a Wilderness Area I don’t think they were allowed to do much falling of snags or salvage logging.

I’ve been thinking about these issues and I’m now concluding that the ancient forests were in a different time, before we were able to put out fires and before forest products became a staple of society. Before air quality or Global Warming was an issue. My point is that to let fires burn to recreate that old forest again doesn’t make sense. We can’t recreate them merely by letting catastrophic fires burn. Then you have a bunch of brush and snags for a long time, like the current Backbone Fire, you don’t prevent future catastrophic fires, and people have to breathe a lot of smoke. Redding had some really bad days last summer also mainly from the Iron Complex. I don’t know if we can recreate the ancient forests, not sure we should try, but I do feel strongly that just letting fires burn in the Wilderness is not the answer.

Perhaps control burns in the fall would help thin things out but not in the heat of summer.

The “Let it Burn” enthusiasts also talk about the safety issues, that it’s safer to back up and use indirect attack. However, keeping people out there for weeks at a time increases the man hours and therefore increases the chance of accidents like the helicopter accident on the Iron Incident, not that far from the Backbone Fire, that killed nine people. That was many weeks into the fire suppression efforts, which I think could have been more aggressive with less back burning.

The NIMO team initially predicted a containment date of 8/30/09 on the Backbone Fire but eventually changed their minds, which was a great decision for all of us and for the health of the forest.

23 Jul 2009, 10:07pm
by Bob Zybach

Richard G.:

I agree completely with the majority of your comments and observations, and am pleased that they are based on personal experience, observations, and acquired knowledge rather than hearsay.

I would quibble with your characterizations of past times, however — but just a bit. People have always obtained forest products from these lands; its just that now we tend to think of such products in terms of logs and chips, rather than fruits, seeds, fibers, planks and firewood.

Speculation on past populations in regard to burning frequency is another issue. I suspect that human populations have been much greater from time to time in the area, than existed during early historical time. Even if they have always been relatively small, however, that would have little to do with fire frequency. People light fires every day, and seasonal broadcast burns go so far as fuel, topography and weather allows — i.e., landscape-scale fire frequency and extent are NOT functions of population density; but firewood gathering and use is.

My general understanding is that landscape-scale broadcast burns were just about as frequent and extensive during times of relatively low populations as during times of relatively high populations — but dead wood (”firewood”) was quite likely a greater contributor to the intensity of the fires during lesser population periods because of lesser gathering pressure.

23 Jul 2009, 11:12pm
by Mike

Richard raises an important point: should we allow return fires to burn unchecked in old burns where the forest has already been destroyed?

In this case, the Backbone Fire was burning in the Megram Burn, a 10-year-old wasteland of snags and brush that was created in 1999 when the intense, 125,000-acre Megram Fire killed most of the old-growth (and young growth, too).

What a mess catastrophic fire leaves behind. The situation is almost beyond repair. Much of the Megram Burn needs rehabilitation (restoration is something you do before the catastrophic fire). It’s too bad the salvage plans were nixed. There is not much that can be done now. I guess I’d recommend repeated fall burning every 2 to 5 years, aiming for prairie conditions, with some repeated planting of pine — a few trees per acre every year until 20/acre or so are big enough to withstand the repeated burning.

The key in that is FALL BURNING: fires that last two weeks, not 3 months. Fires set in the right place at the right time with ample EIS discovery and discussion, and plenty of warning for residents. Fires set by trained firefighters where the ground has been prepared to receive fire via thinning, piling, etc. The Megram Fire didn’t kill all the old-growth, some is still living and could be saved with properly designed and implemented treatments.

The same situation is festering in the Biscuit Burn, the B&B Burn, and many other mega-burns. If we do nothing but wait for the brush to grow thick, then the fire hazard will return and another megafire will happen within 10 to 15 years.

Doing nothing is a lousy option. Waiting in paralysis for the return megafire is very poor stewardship and very dangerous. We need to rethink and reinvent forest rehabilitation as much as we need to implement forest restoration in as yet unburned, fuel-laden forests.

So much useless political discussion has been wasted on salvage logging. The real issue is rehabilitation and prevention of the return megafire. I yearn for the day when the rehab debate is informed instead of fraught with ignorance and emotion.

24 Jul 2009, 8:48am
by Larry H.

Most of my career was spent doing forest rehabilitation projects (otherwise known as “salvage”). Fires and bugs have been my career since 1989. I’ve seen 20 years of Die, Rot and Burn and, it has obviously gotten worse during that time. People are VERY worried about huge fires running rampant, but they are afraid to speak up and go against the preservationist agenda. Their irrational hope is gnawing away their insides, and some seem to have given in to the idea that fires MUST burn, despite the horrific impacts.

24 Jul 2009, 10:45am
by bear bait

The very suggestion that the litigating environmental corps is a helpful and concerned element of the preservation of healthy forests is myopic and self serving. The impediments of analysis, planning, lawsuits, involving a resource prone to insect invasion, fire, followed by extensive rot, is a model that does not work.

To this point there is no sign on the horizon that a different model is being considered by Congress. The USFS works at the leisure of Congress, under their direction and budgetary largess. The Congress has bastardized the USFS invoking widespead loathing. The last half dozen Presidential Administrations have chosen to be not involved, or only involved to improve their public persona, and had no real interest in the issue.

The USFS was created to represent the Govt as a benign Tzar on the Public Domain. The Ranger of old was a very multifaceted person in terms of skill sets and PR ability. Mediator and collaborator. Always with the best interests of the Federal Govt. in mind. There was a lot of trust and policy put in one man or woman’s hands to do the “right thing.” And then the Environmental lawsuit providers reduced the process to a bunch of land ethic deficient clerks, from the Ranger District to the Chief’s Office, to the Sec. of Agriculture, laying paper trails to pave the way for a possible piece of work being done on the land. Top down management. Ask General Motors how that has worked? With a unionized workforce with lots of rights and little responsibility. All on a time clock. 21 days on the fire, and it’s overhead team change time, and nothing happens for three days while the new overhead learns where the traps are and the bodies are buried.

The model is broken, but perhaps this year in Northern Cal there is a new model that works.

All of this came about because of the Mining Act of 18??, and patented mines becoming inholdings in the unclaimed Public Domain. People live inside the National Forest boundary on inholdings and in fire prone areas. People have their lives at stake, and all their treasure. People who have been there for a century, and others for millennia. People are not going to put up with a fire plan that destroys their homestead, their being, and their place in the world. No matter what a Congressman or woman from NY or Conn. or Mississippi would say or do to get re-elected.

The most important thing that we ALL can do is get up front and personal with the results, good and bad, of every fire. Make yourself heard. You make a report to the District Ranger, with copies to the Forest Supervisor, the Regional Forester, the Chief, your Congressperson and Senators. Send letters and opinions to the local paper. The issue with fire and its results is that they are lasting. When the smoke clears, there is a long, long period, several lifetimes, before anything like what was destroyed by fire will ever be on that acre or forest again. And many times, only after some sort of modifications of the natural process that does not always mean a return to forest. There can be a perpetual motion machine of fire followed by fire followed by fire until trees are but a distant memory on that landscape. And you can have a say, be a part, of not letting that happen, of not letting fire run amok without attempts at restraint, control and extinguishment. That is what a participatory democracy is all about.

Those are our public lands to exits for their natural purpose, and man is a part of the natural purpose. To deny that is to embrace the genocide that Native Peoples have undergone for several centuries under European conquest and rule. The fires, a the least, burn their spiritual beings. And they do nothing for the rest of us but cause loss.

I am comforted by the attempt by the USFS to change their direction, to include the stakeholders, in the management of fire on USFS lands in Region 5. And thank you, Mike, for a well written, hard hitting, look at the truth from a concerned viewpoint that I happen to share. Again, thank you.



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta