Letter to the Salt Lake Tribune Re the Twitchell Canyon Fire

Dear Sirs and Madams,

Your reportage of the Twitchell Canyon Fire leaves out some important facts and context.

The Twitchell Canyon Let It Burn Fire has been burning on the Fishlake National Forest since July 20th [here].

It was declared a Let It Burn fire from the get go, without any NEPA process or public oversight. In the words of the USFS:

The fire is being managed for multiple objectives, which included providing for the safety of the public and firefighters, to increase structural diversity in forest and shrubland ecosystems through use of fire, reducing fuels in a mosaic pattern to effectively manage future fires, and to manage the fire for a scenic vegetation mosaic effect in the Manderfield Reservoir viewshed.

Get that? The “purpose” of this wildfire is to create a scenic “mosaic” of incinerated forest with “structural diversity”. Those are environmental “objectives” but without any sort of environmental analysis or EIS as required by law.

A barebones crew of 26 were assigned to “monitor” the fire. They watched while the fire grew and grew. By August 14th the fire had grown to 4,128 acres and a real fire crew was called in. Over 200 personnel fought the Twitchell Fire for a week, but then they went home. By August 26th the fire was 4,508 acres and a “monitoring” crew of 20 was all that were left. By that date $2.5 million had been spent to “achieve objectives”.

On Sept. 3 the Twitchell Fiasco Fire blew up to 5,400 acres. Two days later the fire was 7,000 acres and the Kimberly Mining District was evacuated. The Great Basin Type 2 Incident Management Team was been called in. $3.2 million had been spent on “suppression” by that date.

Again, no effort was made to contain the fire, but it settled down at around 11,000 acres on Sept. 7. For a week. Then on Sept. 14 it blew up again. As of last night the fire was over 20,000 acres and was impinging on I-70 and the adjacent power line corridor.

Over $6 million has been spent not suppressing this Let It Burn fire to-date. Aerial firefighting has been undertaken with the attendant ratcheting up of costs.

Rather than “creating a scenic mosaic” the fire has displayed flame lengths of over 200 feet. Historically high ERC’s (Energy Release Components, an index that measures fire intensity) have been recorded. This fire is burning VERY HOT. It is not a lazy or light “mosaic” burn. It is total incineration. Nothing is left alive withing the perimeter, animal or vegetable.

Numerous historical structures have been burned. More are threatened. I-70 has been closed. Smoke has poured to points east for two solid months.

The watershed being incinerated contains a number of reservoirs. $Millions are being spent to turn that watershed into a moonscape. Flash floods are sure to follow this winter. The government functionary directly responsible is Fishlake NF Supervisor Allen Rowley. No NEPA process was followed. This Let It Burn fire is patently illegal.

The Twitchell Canyon Fire comes one year after the infamous Mill Flat Fire [here, here], another Let It Burn fiasco that was “monitored” until it blew up.

The Mill Flat Fire roared into New Harmony, Utah, forced the evacuation of 170 New Harmony residents, destroyed three homes and damaged eight buildings. The fire eventually cost over $6.5 million to suppress.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert directed some critical comments toward the USFS for the Mill Flat Fire, as the SLT reported. No word yet from politicians regarding the Twitchell Canyon Fire, but many Utahans are fed up with Federal control and mismanagement of Utah lands. Just ask Bob Bennett.

Other Let It Burn fiascoes of recent years include:

Warm Let It Burn Fire (2006, Kaibab NF, 58,460 acres) – A lightning-ignited fire was designated WFU and allowed to burn until winds came up and the fire exploded into old-growth pine stands. Some 40,000 acres of habitat for the Mexican spotted owl were destroyed in direct defiance of a court order NOT to let burn those stands (a legally binding Decision Notice had been issued by a federal judge and acknowledged by the Forrest Supervisor). An EIS was required for rehabilitation actions (which have not yet been initiated) although not for burning the forest in the first place. Damages were over $70 million. Rehabilitation will cost additional tens of $millions. No spotted owls live there now, nor will they ever again.

Clover Let It Burn Fire (2008, Sequoia NF, Inyo NF, 15,000 acres) — The Clover WFU Fire began with a lightning strike May 31 that fizzled in a few acres. It could have been extinguished for a few thousand dollars, but the Clover Fire was only “monitored” until it blew up into a 15,000 acre wildfire that burned all the way to Hwy 395 and threatened homes in Kennedy Meadows. It eventually cost over $8 million to suppress. Homeowners dozens of miles from the ignition point were evacuated.

South Barker Let It Burn Fire (2008, Sawtooth NF, 38,583 acres) — The South Barker WFU Fire escaped and burned 38,583 acres. The fire eventually cost over $7 million to suppress. It incinerated miles of riparian zones, stripped erodable hillsides of vegetation, and destroyed forest plantations that had been carefully tended for 50 years.

Gunbarrel Let It Burn Fire (2008, Shoshone NF, 67,141 acres ) — The Gunbarrel WFU Fire was allowed to burn until it blew up. The fire eventually cost over $11 million to suppress. An estimated 420 residences, 11 commercial buildings, and 149 outbuildings were threatened and 7 buildings destroyed. The highway leading to Yellowstone Park was closed, and numerous residents were evacuated. During the fire USFS officials proudly declared that the MMA (Maximum Manageable Area, or desired incineration zone) was 417,000 acres (652 sq miles) and included public and private properties north and south of Highway 14.

East Slide Rock Ridge Let It Burn Fire (2008, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, 54,549 acres) — The ESRR WFU Fire was allowed to burn unchecked until it blew up and threatened the community of Murphy Hot Springs, ID, as well as numerous rural ranches and farms. The fire eventually cost over $9 million to suppress. Riparian zones adjacent to stream habitat for endangered bull trout were incinerated.

Central Idaho Let It Burn fires (2007, Payette NF, Boise NF) — over 750,000 acres of the Idaho Batholith burned in 2007 in WFU’s and non-suppression “suppression fires” within and without the Idaho MMA (Maximum Manageable Area) designated for Appropriate Management Response.

Northern California Let It Burn fires
(2008, Shasta-Trinity NF, Klamath NF, Six Rivers NF) – over 650,000 acres (1,000 square miles) burned at a suppression cost of over $400 million. The fires burned for three months, choking Northern California airsheds, causing extensive public health problems, ruining agricultural crops, all but eliminating an entire season of recreation, and inflicting (conservatively) $10 billion in collateral economic damage. Major traditional heritage sites were incinerated, and an unknown but significant number of spotted owl nesting stands and salmon spawning beds were destroyed. Twelve firefighters lost their lives.

And on and on.

So you see, there is some context to this fire. It might be nice if the SLT connected the dots and reported the entire context rather than just parroting Federal news releases of the moment.


Mike Dubrasich, Exec Dir W.I.S.E.

16 Sep 2010, 8:27pm
by Al B

Great Letter Mike;
Destruction is never a wise nor profitable enterprise. Logging would accomplish these dubious “environmental objectives” and produce thus add to our stinky economy. Now why is human not a species too? I like humans.


17 Sep 2010, 8:25pm
by bear bait

They don’t care about it in urban Utah, the great white light of the interior West. They are as much the problem as the USFS, and if you were to ask the young urbanites, burning is natural and good. I thought your letter was factual and telling, but the audience deaf and not involved. This USFS fire deal is a death of a thousand cuts, and mostly painless to the vast majority, the underwhelmed majority, and really a non issue until the flames are under their houses, and then it is, of course, a crisis of the highest degree. Those fires are predictable, will happen, and the issue is not that they will come, but only when.

I am beginning to see the pattern in Colorado, where the fires always seem to start when a public fire official messes up. The big one when the USFS gal’s love letters she was burning got spread to the duff by wind and tens of thousands of acres burned. This time it was the long time volunteer fireman whose fire pit came to life after a wind event. tch tch……They are due for a burning toilet paper fire next. Some enviro zealot pissing in the forest needs to burn the T-P to erase the “hand of man” trammeling of the wilderness.



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