30 Sep 2009, 1:43pm
Federal forest policy The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Let It Burn Fires Blow Up All Over

Across the West wildfires that have been deliberately left uncontained have blow up out of control, drawing angry criticism of the US Forest Service from residents impacted by months of smoke and now onrushing flames.

The USFS designated over 100 fires ignited last summer as Let It Burn fires, allowed to flame and smolder for months until perennial fall winds whipped them into firestorms.

Let It Burn fires that have blown up in recent days include the Kootenai Creek Fire [here], Lily Lake Fire [here], Abby Fire [here], Lawrence Mountain Fire [here], Bielenburg Fire [here], Ninko Creek Fire [here], Table Mountain Fire [here], Arnica Fire [here], Bearpaw Bay Fire [here], and the Gunsight Fire [here].

The Kootenai Creek Fire [here] was ignited by lightning July 12 on the Bitterroot National Forest, 7 miles northwest of Stevensville, Ravalli County, Montana. The fire grew to 780 acres by July 25. A small crew of firefighters were withdrawn on that date after “temporarily securing the SE/SW corners of the fire by utilizing natural barriers and aircraft.”

A series of windstorms in September reactivated the Kootenai Creek Fire and it has grown to 6,300 acres as of yesterday. Private property miles to the east is now threatened by the fire, and 121 firefighting personnel have been recalled to fight it, along with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Over $2.5 million have been spent on suppression, many times the amount that it would have cost to contain and control the fire in July.

The same windstorms have reactivated many wildfires that the USFS allowed to burn unchecked for weeks and months. Communities miles away from the ignition points are now threatened.

Public reaction to the fires, fire management, and to USFS officials has been harsh:

Bitterroot residents blast Forest Service for not fighting Kootenai Creek wildfire sooner

By Betsy Cohen, the Missoulian, September 20, 2009 [here]

STEVENSVILLE - Frustrated by the fire and smoke they’ve lived with since mid-July, about 175 Bitterroot Valley residents called on the Forest Service Sunday afternoon to explain why the Kootenai Creek wildfire is now within a quarter-mile of their homes.

Some were downright angry, shouting at Stevensville District Ranger Dan Ritter, “You should be fired!” and “You should lose your job,” then stomping out of the meeting at Stevensville High School.

Others, like Conrad Eckert of North Kootenai, said they are frustrated and mad after smelling smoke every day since the July 12 lightning strike that ignited what is now a 4,335-acre wildfire.

“I’m not mad at the foot firemen,” he said. “I’m mad at the Forest Service people in charge. They could have put this thing out.”

Still others, however, said they trust the Forest Service to make the right decisions and appreciate the volunteer firemen and sheriff’s deputies who have kept them informed since Kootenai Creek blew up Saturday afternoon, running out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and onto the face of the Bitterroot Mountains west of Stevensville.

As they met, in fact, 140 firefighters were pushing back against the fire, even as high winds gave it new vigor.

Saturday’s windstorm threw fire onto the Brooks Face, where it moved north and east toward Bass Creek and south and east toward Larson Creek. Between those two fingers of fire is the steep and rugged Kootenai Creek Canyon.

The blowup prompted a Stage 1 Evacuation Alert and Warning for residents west of the Sharrott Hill Loop, including Red Tail Hawk Road, Blue Grouse Lane and Porcupine Lane. …

The USFS chose to let the fires burn by withholding fire suppression. They designated the fires as “fires used for resource benefit” or FURB’s. That moniker/acronym this year replaced “wildland fire use fires” or WFU’s, which had previously replaced “prescribed natural fires” or PNF’s. All those bureaucratic tags mean the same thing: a wildfire that is allowed to burn (i.e. no rapid initial attack, no complete containment, no control, no extinguishment).

The USFS has not elucidated the alleged “benefits” of their Let It Burn Fires. No EIS’s (environmental impact statements) have been created, no public involvement or hearings held, no NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) procedures implemented at all. There have been no consultations as required under ESA (Endangered Species Act) or NHPA (National Historic Preservation Act), nor have the planning procedures required under the NFMA (National Forest Management Act) been followed.

As imaginary as the “benefits” from these Let It Burn wildfires are, the damages can be very real and enormous. Earlier this summer a Let it Burn fire, the Mill Flat Fire [here] on the Dixie NF, burned into 5 miles from point of ignition into New Harmony, Washington Co., Utah, and destroyed three residences there. Eventually over $6.5 million was spent to suppress a fire that could have been put out for much less early on.

Now residents are fearful of flash floods which are expected to flow off the denuded watershed this winter. The government’s response? They are handing out sand bags.

The local government, that is, who are deeply concerned but largely powerless. The perpetrators of the disaster, the USFS, are in hiding.

Burning up the forests and watersheds and flash flooding the environs of New Harmony, Stevensville, and other small Western towns doesn’t garner much press attention. It might be a little more difficult for the USFS to hide when the Angeles NF, now denuded by the Station Fire [here], mudslides into Pasadena this winter.

30 Sep 2009, 9:44pm
by Mike


It’s ironic that the suppression costs for just the Kootenai FURB alone (post blow-up) are about equal to the fire funds that were temporarily diverted to DC park “festivals” (see the prior post).

At least, I think it’s ironic…

2 Oct 2009, 2:05pm
by Forrest Grump


Far as I’m concerned, the agency lucked out. Was a matter of two weeks on the calendar.

USFS did a prescription burn east of Swan Lake that was thermal within two hours of ignition. I agree with that burn because had it happened another time of year it would have been a screamer.

In the meantime there was a close call in the interface west of Lakeside. Couple hundred acres in just a couple of hours. It crossed the ridge and I glassed it from town, the good part was the spacing was enough that the torching was not continuous, but that’s because the wind was opposite upslope. The lucky part was it was pretty late night by the time the fire hit the ridge and the slope aspect on the other side is not 180 degrees opposite. So it was a good combination of friendly wind, dropping temps and rising humidity. The wind helped to burn down what was already toasted so neither spotting nor radiation reared up the next day, which was calm and cool. Still, dang close.

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