3 Aug 2010, 11:38pm
Federal forest policy The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

As Yellow As Journalism Gets

The LA Times is reporting that a federal inspector general has launched an investigation of possible negligence by the US Forest Service in fighting the Station Fire [here, here, here].

Last September the Station Fire (Angeles NF) burned 160,600 acres, and destroyed 90 homes. Two Los Angeles County firefighters were fatally injured during the fire. The Station Fire was the largest fire in LA County history, cost nearly $100 million in suppression expenses alone, and inflicted economic damages of 10 to 50 times that amount.

Shortly after the fire was contained, the LA Times charged that mistakes had been made in fighting the fire [here]. Specifically, the newspaper alleged that aerial attacks were delayed in the first hours of the Station Fire, and the delay led to the fire growing out of control.

Those charges were bolstered by questions raised by a number of retired USFS experts, including former Forest Supervisors, Regional Foresters, Deputy Chiefs, and Special Agents.

It has come to light that critical dispatch communications were recorded, but those recordings were not provided to the after-action review panel last November. The surfacing of the recordings prompted the inspector general investigation. The Obama Administration has also invited a Congressional inquiry.

Federal inspector general launches probe of Station fire

The Obama administration also invites Congress to order a broad inquiry after it is learned that dispatch recordings from the early hours of the blaze were withheld from a Forest Service review team.

By Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2010 [here]

A federal inspector general has launched an investigation and the Obama administration has invited Congress to order a broad inquiry into last summer’s disastrous Station fire after learning that dispatch recordings had been withheld from a U.S. Forest Service review team.

The telephone recordings, from the critical early hours of the blaze, also were withheld from The Times, which requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspector general’s probe will focus on why the several days of recordings were not provided to The Times or turned over to the Forest Service inquiry, which concluded that the agency’s initial attack on the fire was proper.

“I find this very serious,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Tuesday. “I’m very concerned and troubled that this was not found earlier. … We want to get this information to learn what occurred on the Station fire.”

Tidwell said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department runs the Forest Service, invited Congress to request the fuller investigation of the agency’s handling of the fire in the Angeles National Forest, a probe that would be conducted by the Government Accountability Office.

The content of the withheld recordings is not known. Tidwell said officials were still transcribing them and the results would be released in coming days.

He said the recordings were found after he ordered a reexamination of all records on the fire and the agency’s response to The Times’ requests for copies of audio dispatch communications, a number of which have been released. …

He said he wanted the reexamination completed before a panel of local members of Congress convened by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) holds a public meeting on the Station fire next Tuesday in Pasadena. Schiff scheduled the session after The Times reported that the Forest Service had misjudged the threat posed by the fire, scaled back the initial attack and failed to fill crucial orders for air tankers on the second morning. …

According to federal records and state officials, other tankers were available sooner, but the Forest Service failed to complete an order for them made by its own commander on the ground.

Dispatch records show that a Forest Service officer again asked for tankers about 7 a.m. Aug. 27, six hours after the initial request. Three Forest Service tankers were subsequently deployed, but did not reach the fire until after it began racing through the forest.

Most of the questions about how the fire became so destructive have focused on the absence of a fierce air attack in the hours after dawn on Day 2, as well as a decision the previous evening to reduce the number of ground crews. The flames had been nearly contained, in part because of a sustained pounding by helicopters and planes. After the aircraft returned to base at nightfall, the fire began to gather strength.

Officials said in September that they had believed enough aircraft were deployed early on Day 2. In the review conducted by the Forest Service, the agency concluded that aerial dumps during the hours after first light would have been ineffective because the blaze was burning in a canyon too steep for ground crews to safely finish extinguishing the flames.

After that finding was disputed by firefighters at the scene as well as by the Forest Service’s own records, officials told The Times and the Senate panel that the tankers were not sent sooner because of a shortage of rested pilots and relief aircraft.

Records and interviews later showed that state tankers were available. …

Ironically (there’s that word again), in 2008 the LA Times was awarded a Pulitzer Prize [here] for a series of reports that dismissed aerial firefighting as useless [here]:

[Planes and helicopters are] a “political air show,” the high-profile use of expensive aircraft to appease elected officials.

Fire commanders say they are often pressured to order planes and helicopters into action on major fires even when the aircraft won’t do any good. Such pressure has resulted in needless and costly air operations, experienced fire managers said in interviews.

The reason for the interference, they say, is that aerial drops of water and retardant make good television. They’re a highly visible way for political leaders to show they’re doing everything possible to quell a wildfire, even if it entails overriding the judgment of incident commanders on the ground. …

“When you deal with aviation on a wildland fire, you have a big bank in the sky that opens up and showers money,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former Forest Service and National Park Service firefighter who has criticized federal firefighting and forest management practices.

Is that irony? In 2008 the LA Times ran a 5-part story on how aerial firefighting is a waste of money, and wins a prize for it, and then this year they have spurred multiple investigations by alleging that not enough aerial firefighting took place in a timely way on the Station Fire.

Or is that hypocrisy?

Meanwhile, the enviro-loony lobby has been busy suing the USFS to restrict the use of air-dropped fire retardants [here]. Yahoo News reported:

Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, which brought the lawsuit, said half the 20 million gallons of fire retardant dropped by the Forest Service in 2008 was dropped in California, where it has become a public relations display for television cameras that is rarely effective because it is used in windy conditions that cause it to be widely dispersed.

So which is it? Is aerial fire retardant ineffective, just a show for the TV cameras, or it is a life-saver, so critically important that a delay of a few hours caused the largest fire in LA County history to blow up out of control.

It can’t be both!

That question was asked rhetorically, and answered by loons, in another news report from 2008 [here]:

Chemical fire retardant, or slurry, is one of the more important tools for fighting fire from the air.

It’s also the focus of an ongoing legal tussle between the U.S. Forest Service and a watchdog group that describes the substance as an unnecessary poison.

“It’s toxic,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “Don’t drop it into your neighborhood stream or on top of your threatened plant or animal species.”

Last December Stahl’s group announced another lawsuit that alleged 50 fish were killed by fire retardant used in the Jesusita Fire [here].

The Jesusita Fire (2009, 8,733 acres, here) destroyed 80 homes and damaged 15 others in the Mission Canyon neighborhoods of Santa Barbara, CA. Had aerial fire retardant not been used, there is no telling how many hundreds of homes would have burned or how many human lives would have been lost.

But for the sake (allegedly) of 50 fish, the FSEEE would have the Federal courts ban the use of aerial fire retardant.

Where is the LA Times on that? Are they the Pulitzer Prize winning “watchdog” that wants all aerial firefighting shut down because it is a waste of money? Or are they crack journalistic “watchdog” that purports that aerial firefighting is vital to saving lives?

Will they get another Pulitzer Prize for their Station Fire follow-up reporting?

If the fire is in Santa Barbara, or elsewhere, the LA Times says ban the air tanker. Screw those other humans, it doesn’t matter to the effete Left of the LAT whether we live or die. But if the fire is in their own effete neighborhoods, then bring the air tankers on, like right now!

I am not prejudging the outcome of the new Station Fire inquiry. I don’t know what is on the recordings. I can’t say what the inquiry will uncover.

But I am judging, and rather harshly, the LA Times and their two-faced, conflicting editorial positions.

Hello, LAT dudes! We don’t want our homes, forests, watersheds, etc. burned down either! Can you dig that? Do you know what it feeeeels like to have a raging fire storm incinerate your neighborhood? Maybe it’s not such a swell idea to ban the use fire retardant, to ground the air tankers, even if you win a freaking prize for saying so.

Maybe an apology is in order. Maybe you should give the Pulitzer Prize back. Maybe you should disavow the “ban the air tanker” story and write some common sense truth for a nice change.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen!

4 Aug 2010, 7:42am
by Larry H.

Why aren’t they extolling the “benefits” of wildfire? Why aren’t they talking about firefighter safety, so “important” on firefighting tactics in remote areas?

What is more important? Firefighter lives, or a small patch of brush? No one can say that an early dispatch that morning would have stopped the fire in its tracks. Anyone who says otherwise is just “Monday morning quarterbacking”.

AND, if they had “saved” all that brush, would that have allowed the Feds to make sure that it wouldn’t burn the next time….and the next time…..and the next time.

The investigation SHOULD be about how the Forest Service allowed all that brush to build up and represent the massive fire hazard that it was. (Of course, the LA Times would have blasted THOSE efforts, as well.)

4 Aug 2010, 8:51am
by bear bait

California is a “special place” and they do things their way. We should just leave them alone, and let them be. The hard part of it all is that voters there have elected some real dolts time and they are holding big time seniority in Congress. So I guess we live with dolts, dolt decisions, and the bad outcomes we all get from CA elections. That their newspapers reflect the considerable idiocy of a population addled by too much sun (Iraq? Afghanistan? Israel?) is to be expected. I would not make much of it. The Congressional clout is real, and we recognize that. The newspapers are failing, as they are most places, because they have yet to figure out how to applaud free access to information and not be able to effectively sell exclusivity on the internet. Bad business model. But, the USFS is a bad business model, as is Interior. That the congressional clout of a place like California is always focused on a bad business model and we get the same from the US Govt should not be a surprise.

At the least, the CA fires are always entertaining, and bring action and color, pathos and sadness to the evening news, and to other newspapers. All part of the entertainment industry. And it is entertaining. I could never live there. I would never live in Oregon if I were not captive to homeownership and work that I cannot easily move. I also have family here that I need to help, and who need me around. So I stay. But I sure as hell can laugh and smirk at all the silliness reported from California, and even more so in Oregon.

4 Aug 2010, 9:47am
by Mike

You know me. I am as big a critic of FS fire policy as anyone. And I do not defend the mistakes made in the Station Fire. But I also think the real “cause” of that fire was the fuels. The suppression response may have been defective, and if so, lessons should be learned and procedures corrected — but the big lesson should be that fuels management is absolutely necessary to reduce the risks and prevent catastrophes. I am not seeing that lesson reflected in the LAT reporting.

I believe and have stated repeatedly that the FS fire management program is struggling. I perceive far too much political manipulation by anti-forest influences. Let It Burn is politically motivated — that is just too obvious to deny. But I am not yet convinced that radical “revolutionary” politics had anything to do with the Station Fire response (or lack thereof). If the FS held back on aerial attack because of political considerations, that would have been both understandable and WRONG! I’m not sure yet that was what happened.

On the other hand, radical enviro politics (not science) is the reason the fuels have been allowed to accumulate.The radicals have decried aerial firefighting and sued to ban fire retardant. That is simply insane, and the FS should not bend an inch towards that kind of irresponsible and dangerous craziness. If they have, or if games are being played, if the FS held back aerial attack due to radical politics — as manifested by the LA Times’ Pulitzer Prize story — then that is an even bigger travesty than simple incompetence.

I think the FS needs to shed the radicals. That goes for land and fire management. If they could drop the political handicaps get real about forest history, fuels, fire, and management, then they could begin to move forward again.

I agree that the situation as it exists today is sad. It is tragic and stupid.

4 Aug 2010, 10:30am
by Larry H.

There is a significant portion of the Forest Service’s firefighters who just aren’t happy unless they are fighting fires. They yearn for the big project fires and actually wish for more and more. (I’ve seen it in firefighter blog comments!) I think that “fire management” really means that they want “sustainable” wildfires that drag on and on, until a new one starts up. After all, polishing engines, raking pine needles and cutting line for controlled burns is not what they signed up for. They signed up for the big overtime, the “hero worship”, and the thrill of seeing 200 foot tall flame lengths, in that order.

If you remember back, there was a large fire burning in Yosemite that was using several helicopters and air tankers. Certainly the Park Service wasn’t about to release them when they are the main suppression units in a National Park fire.

5 Aug 2010, 8:07am
by bear bait

Of course fuel is the issue. But our esteemed education system and our research universities evidently are not effective enough at disseminating information. The public, and the public employees, cannot imagine stone age people were able to control the landscape with set fire, create the “old growth” forests, preserve the anomaly forests passed over by global climate change, and survive as distinct groups of people for more than ten thousand years, some of whom led very comfortable lives. We are still stuck with the European model, and it is not serving us very well. Ask the Russians. The papers say they have gotten a fuels management course by fire lately.

Proactive landscape management does not fit the American Democratic model of how things are to be run. Nor is it allowed under our system of jurisprudence. We can’t get there from here. We have way, way, way too many laws, administrators, lawyers, and legal avenues to travel to ever accomplish anything. The constipated state of landscape management is driven first by laws that “protect” the air from human created smoke. Underburning, slash burning, grass burning, all are disallowed by law. And the law recognizes that you cannot fine, arrest, or punish fire. So fire is accepted, but not totally and not totally avoided. Fire is convenient to people who fight fire, manage fire, and need fuels reduced in a legal milieu that precludes logging or removal of fuels.

Biomass burning for creation of energy is going to be regulated with the same air standards as burning coal. That is what EPA is telling us now. So kiss that option goodbye. Removing fuels only to use them as fuel is not any “greener” than mining and burning coal. According the Obama EPA. Logging is out. In the last year, 48 cents of every dollar the Feds spent was borrowed. This Hope and Change deal is changing landscape management to the Hopeless state of constant conflagration which is a change from how we have managed those lands in the past.

None of this will ever change as long as theorists with a social agenda of government control of all aspects of daily living run our government. We made a decided move to the left, towards socialism, towards communism, in the last election. We exported our jobs, our technology, and are left with high unemployment and less ability to pay for government so evidently our electorate decided that a government printing money was the solution. Print some money and create a job. I sort of thought that you created a product with a market, and then produced and marketed it in a competitive arena, and that created jobs as companies grew. Silly me.

Government is NOT going to reduce fuels until they are mandated to do so by Congress, by your legislature. There is no reason for land management officials to do anything otherwise. So until the “learned” urban feelgood voters decide that they have had enough fires, enough devastation, enough loss of property and life, enough summers of smoke, I guess we just endure.

It is a good thing to have the massive fires in California. We just don’t have enough of them. CA has 53 votes in the House. They have committee chairs. They could change it if they wanted to. It is apparent they do not want to.

As far as the fires in the Sisters, Oregon, area go, they want fires, too. That’s as nutzoid a voter base as anywhere. The part of the landscape I enjoyed is gone, consumed by fire. Might as well get the rest of it. Every dollar and ounce of effort for the Sisters RD goes to futile waste on do-nothing feel-good fake work. And the forest burns. If a fire hits the Rez to the north, it will burn all summer as it becomes an employment opportunity for those folks, and it serves them best to burn until snow drives them out. They do have salvage logging, and a mill to process the logs. No constraints by Oregon Wild there.

I am weary of this fire deal on public lands. I used to have a dog in the fight, employment in timber and logs. That is long gone. The whole infrastructure of that is gone. And with it, my concerns for the forest. It will persevere. The forest will always grow trees or brush or grass. And it will always NOT be of use to our economy in my lifetime. And then I am as dead as a fire killed tree of any age. If the Feds burn the whole of it, fuel will still be the issue. Only the type of fuel will have changed. They will get the SoCal type fires of brush and grass that burn hot, fast and leave behind a winter mudscape, some of which will go to sea on the whims of winter storms. And people won’t know any different, and won’t have any other expectations. They don’t now, and won’t then. And they will continue to elect the dolts, the idiots, the used car salesman, the suave dude or dudette with the bright smile and mostly empty head. California will be California, and the rest of the West will suffer for their lunacy. That will not change.

5 Aug 2010, 10:18pm
by Bob Zybach

Larry H. and bear bait said it all. Amen.

Time for a change. Past time, really — for the reasons stated.



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