Wildfire ‘Benefit’ Double Talk Jive Is Over

The U.S. Forest Service, proud purveyor of foofurbs (fires used for resource benefit), is guilty of double talk jive hypocrisy. It turns out, that when there’s a deep pocket to sue, the USFS flip flops and claims that wildfires damage resources!

Yesterday the U.S. Dept. of Justice announced that the USFS had been awarded a $14.75 million windfall settlement from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for “damages” resulting from the 1999 Pendola Fire.

Second Largest Settlement In A Forest Fire Case

U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, Yahoo News, Jul 28, 2009 [here]


PG&E Pays $14.75 Million to Settle Claims Arising from the 1999 Pendola Fire

SACRAMENTO, Calif., July 28 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has agreed to pay $14.75 million to settle the government’s claims of damages resulting from the 1999 Pendola fire in the Plumas and Tahoe National Forests in Northern California. The settlement is the second largest recovery in United States Forest Service history in a forest fire case.

“This substantial settlement reflects the value we all place on such treasures as the Tahoe and Plumas National Forests,” stated Acting United States Attorney Lawrence G. Brown.

The Pendola fire started in the early morning hours of Oct. 16, 1999, on privately owned land near Pendola Ranch in Camptonville. A large ponderosa pine tree fell onto a 12kV power distribution line owned by PG&E, and electricity shorted through it, causing the tree to ignite and drop burning embers to the ground. The fire quickly spread to the Tahoe and Plumas National Forests, burning a total of 11,725 acres - 3,866 acres were National Forest Systems land.

The Forest Service mobilized more than 2,500 firefighters and their equipment to fight the Pendola fire. The fire burned for 11 days before it was fully extinguished. Fire crews successfully suppressed the fire without the loss of any life at a cost of approximately $4.2 million. The United States alleged that the tree that fell into the power line was rotten and hazardous, and PG&E or its contractors should have inspected and removed the tree, preventing the fire.

The fire caused substantial damage to National Forest Systems lands, including harm to ecological habitat and loss of timber values, and required forest restoration efforts that continue to date. More than $10 million of the settlement is to compensate the United States for damages to its natural resources. The majority of the settlement monies will go directly to the Plumas and Tahoe National Forests to help remedy the resource devastation from the fire. The settlement was reached through mediation without the necessity of the United States filing a lawsuit.

“Recovering the funds needed to restore the damaged National Forests, and to compensate for the tremendous expense of fighting wildfires, without time consuming and costly litigation, is always in the public interest,” said John Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“We place a very high priority on fire investigations due to the threat to our precious natural resources and public treasures and want to ensure that we have the ability to restore our lands when catastrophe strikes,” said Regional Forester Randy Moore.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kendall J. Newman.

SOURCE U.S. Department of Justice

Let’s parse that. The suppression costs were $4.2 million, but an additional $10.55 million were tacked on in penalties for “resource devastation.”

Apparently wildfires don’t benefit resources, they devastate them.

Who’d a thunk it?????

Considering that the USFS has perpetrated dozens of foofurbs this year alone, with no explication of the alleged “benefits,” with no NEPA process, with no legal authority whatsoever, but based solely the sorry and pathetic claim that wildfires are “beneficial,” it is the height of galloping hypocrisy to claim the exact opposite in Federal Court.

And the Federal Court, mind you, has repeatedly enjoined nearly every healthy forest treatment that would potentially SAVE resources and protect them from the DEVASTATION of wildfires. Isn’t it inexplicably odd that our esteemed Federal Judiciary would suddenly discover that wildfires inflict multi-million dollar damages to those selfsame resources that they spit upon in other cases?

When the pro-holocaust lobby litigates, Fed judges bend over backwards to accommodate them. Burn Baby Burn. But when there’s a rich pigeon to roast, suddenly the TRUE effects of fire on forests get acknowledged.

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Return Fire

A 5-part essay by Mike Dubrasich

No Forest Worries, Mate, Says the JSFP

The Joint Fire Science Program (JSFP) is a government bureaucracy dedicated to wildfire [here]. Fire is the be-all and end-all of their existence.

Now, I’m not saying that the JSFP is made up of bug-eyed arsonists, but fire is their bread and butter, the source and inspiration of their funding, their primary focus, and their conceit.

Forests are not their focus, although wildfires often burn forests. Fire is the consuming concern of the JSFP; forests are merely the backdrop — in their eyes piles of fuels ready to burn –- and in some ways justification for the existence of the JSFP and buttering their bread.

Because forests sometimes erupt into forest fires, which enflame the passion and conceit of the JSFP, and because the JSFP styles itself as a scientific institution, they occasionally foray into forest science. Sadly, those forays betray a profound ignorance of the subject. The JSFP knows next to nothing about forests, and indeed, next to nothing about why and how forests burn.

That ignorance is on display their web publication, Fire Science Brief, Issue 49, May 2009 [here]. In that issue the JSFP resurrects a two-year-old paper and badly fumbles the context and the findings.

The resurrected paper discussed in Fire Science Brief is from an actual forest science study, (Shatford J., D.E. Hibbs and K Puettmann. 2007. Conifer Regeneration Following Forest Fire in the Klamath-Siskiyous: How much, how soon? Journal of Forestry 105:139-146), but the JSFP discussion does not reprint the report. Instead, they misinterpret it out of context.

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25 Jun 2009, 12:22pm
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin
1 comment

Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management Report

Last October (while the fires were still burning) the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management, a group made up of professional foresters resident in Trinity County, CA, critiqued USFS fire suppression practices in a (now) 48-page report to Congressman Wally Herger.

That report has now been posted in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Sciences [here].

The nine authors (David Rhodes, Charley Fitch, Michael Jameson, Clarence Rose, Jerry McDonald, Frank Grovers, Stan Stetson, Dana Hord, Gay Berrien) have a combined professional forestry experience of over 220 years, most of those in fire prevention and suppression.

Their conclusions, expressed in the report, are that the US Forest Service leadership has altered (for the worse) Federal fire and fuels policies, and the new policies have led to repeated failures in fire management.

If these management policies in suppression are not addressed and changed, then we can look forward to the same catastrophic fire scenario each summer until our Trinity forest is no longer a forest.

As noted in a previous SOSF post [here], the Concern Citizens report also offered these comments:

… [A] lack of responsible suppression policies and actions … in the past several years have caused great damage and negative impacts to private property (timber, watersheds, water lines), the local economy, watersheds and soils, wildlife, aesthetics, cultural resources, and air quality–sometimes in radical proportions. Safety in firefighting is also challenged. When fires continue for such long periods of time, there is increased potential for accidents and, yes, fatalities. …

The fire suppression organization has been adversely affected due to retirement of many of the older, more experienced people in the last 20 years. This has left a void in the top incident command management positions as well as in line personnel. …

If the tactics were as aggressive and reasonable as they were several years ago, these fires would have been contained several ridges over from where they were finally stopped. …

Although we agree that fuels are a problem, something to consider in fire management, they are not THE cause of large-scale and long-enduring fires–the cause is changes in fire suppression practices. …

A few people think all fires are beneficial, irregardless of the reality. This is what is promoted by many environmental groups who do not seems to want any management of the National Forests. Under controlled circumstances… prescribed fire can be beneficial. Uncontrolled wildfire is NOT beneficial. …

The people of Trinity County are not happy with the mismanagement in the way fires are being suppressed, and the way the Forest Service is being managed. Something needs to change.

We need to (1) get the Forest Service back to managing the timber and other resources on National Forest Lands, (2) change fire management suppression tactics–if this includes adding more firefighters, then that is what should be done, (3) re-staff stations in remote areas, and (4) have the Forest Service address and resolve the “liability” issue. …

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Burning Out Private Landowners

The destruction of forests by deliberate incineration is not limited to public land. When the US Forest Service decides (without public notice) to burn vast tracts of USFS land, the fires often sweep across private land, too. And in some cases private lands are deliberately burned in backfires set by USFS personnel.

We discussed the (uncompensated) damages to private landowners done by the 2007 Egley Fire [here]. We also discussed the unnecessary and incompetent backfiring that destroyed homes and private property in Ravalli County, MT, during the Spade Fire of 2000 [here]. That incident led to a lawsuit.

Last summer the same idiotic and destructive backfiring of private property occurred in Trinity County, CA, during incompetently managed fires that burned 256,000 acres and caused ten firefighting deaths in the county.

In that case the Feds screwed up royal and then backpedaled in their usual manner: we take zero responsibility but you can go ahead and file a claim — you’ll just get burned again.

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20 Apr 2009, 12:40am
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

Long-Term Health Effects of Fires

Fire suppression costs are a fraction of the total cost-plus-damages that wildfires can inflict. As The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western U.S. [here] stated:

The millions of dollars spent to extinguish large wildfires are widely reported and used to underscore the severity of these events. Extinguishing a large wildfire, however, accounts for only a fraction of the total costs associated with a wildfire event. Residents in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) are generally seen as the most vulnerable to fire, but a fuller accounting of the costs of fire also reveals impacts to all Americans and gives a better picture of the losses incurred when our forests burn.

A full accounting considers long-term and complex costs, including impacts to watersheds, ecosystems, infrastructure, businesses, individuals, and the local and national economy.

Among those long-term and complex costs are long-term health effects. The Redding Record Searchlight published a report about that today [here].

There’s still much to learn about long-term health effects of last year’s fires

By Jocelyn Weiner and Ryan Sabalow, The Redding Record Searchlight, Sunday, April 19, 2009

The smoke crept in during the final weeks of June. From the blazing forest, it reached its ashy brown fingers into Frank Walden’s garden, choking his corn and poisoning his apple trees. It snuck under the doorway of his three-bedroom home on the edge of Big Bar. It entered his lungs. It refused to leave.

Ten months after the lightning storms that triggered 136 wildfires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and clogged this region with smoke for an entire summer, Frank Walden doesn’t feel much better. His resting heart rate recently clocked in at 141 beats per minute - twice as fast as normal, he says. He struggles to catch his breath.

“It probably took years off me,” says Walden, 75, his voice now scratchy like a smoker’s, though he’s never lit up. “By damn, those fires have done me bad.”

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Trinity Fire Damage Tally

The following letter from the Trinity County Board of Supervisors to the Calif State Legislature lists some of the damage done by the egregious Let It Burn wildfires promulgated by the US Forest Service in Trinity Co. last summer:

From: Trinity County Board of Supervisors
Roger Jaegel, Supervisor District Three

April 14, 2009

To: The Honorable Sam Aanestad
State Capitol, Room 2054
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Senator Aanestad:

Last year Trinity County, California experienced the worst wildfire season on record. From June 20 to near the end of August, 266,157 acres burned in three major complexes. In the last decade over 500,000 acres have burned in Trinity County, more acres than were burned in recorded history. We are committed to compiling the facts about these fires and completing an analysis that will hopefully help us prepare for the next dry lightning event. We know statistically this type of storm tends to occur about once a decade. Some of these facts are best estimates and we will continue to refine this data as time and resources to accomplish the field review and further validation become available.

Trinity County Wildfires of 2008

* 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 are over $150,000,000

Health and Safety

* 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

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

* Estimate of CO2 equivalents released from the fires equal 12,000,000 metric tons or 2,000,000 vehicle years
* This does not include carbon released from suppression, burned area rehabilitation, or restoration activities
* It also does not include the reduction in carbon sequestration from vegetation conversion

Wildlife and Fisheries

* 122 miles of coho salmon habitat within the fire perimeter
* 486 spotted owl sighting points within the fire perimeter
* 205,716 acres of spotted owl habitat within the fire perimeter


Supervisor District 3

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It’s the Fuels, Stupid

I am working on a series of posts about Sierra Nevada fires. This particular post was to be one of them, and so by prematurely placing it here I am putting it a little out of order.

But, the issue of fuels and fire intensity is important and timely. Esteemed Australian forester Roger Underwood, Chairman of The Bush Fire Front, said [here]:

If fuels are allowed to accumulate, bushfires in eucalypt forests rapidly attain an intensity that exceeds the human capacity to extinguish them, notwithstanding the most modern and massive suppression forces.

Communities and economic assets in the path of high intensity fires will suffer horrible damage.

But! Potential damage can be minimised by application of a fire management system that incorporates responsible planning, and high standards of preparedness and damage mitigation, especially fuel reduction.

In short, excessive fuels contribute to fire severity and intensity, endangering forests, natural resources, and communities.

THE DEBATE ABOUT FUELS MANAGEMENT IS OVER. The scientific consensus is universal. Fuels management reduces fire intensity. Period. The end. Only a pro-holocaust terrorist or a moron would say otherwise.

And yet morons exist, in droves, and they continue to question the basic fact that fires burn biomass. My friend and highly regarded Australian Mountain Cattleman Phil Maguire of Bundarrah Days [here] notes that this kind moronity plagues Australia just as it does America.

The National Parks Advisory Council has the same problem with fuel reduction burning as every other radical green group. They claim it’s not effective. After the 2003 fires they stated in a submission to the Esplin Inquiry - a submission riddled with contradictions - that…

“Under extreme fire behaviour, when fires sweep through the tree crowns and spot many kilometres ahead, previously fuel reduced areas become largely ineffective in halting the fire front, though they may help reduce spread and damage around the flanks.”

That statement is counter-factual. There are innumerable cases where canopy fires dropped to ground when encountering thinned and fuel-managed areas. Recent megafires in AU and the USA were eventually contained, and the containment lines were all in reduced fuel areas. Fire suppression efforts were successful where fuels were limited, and unsuccessful where they were not.

The implication of the National Parks Advisory Council’s statement is that fires occur absent human intervention. That is patently absurd. Intervention is always applied to large fires — the question is where are the suppression efforts effective? The answer is where fuels have been reduced. In every case.

The following narrative is from the post-fire report on the Rich Fire of July 2008 [here] on the Plumas NF. It is yet another demonstration of efficacy of fuels management.

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Siskiyou County Climbing Out of an Abyss of Ignorance

A year ago I sent a letter to the Siskiyou County Commissioners predicting catastrophic fires would soon visit their region. The letter read, in part:

April 2, 2008

Dear Commissioners,

The Western Institute for Study of the Environment has submitted comments to the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest (RR-SNF) regarding their adoption of a Wildland Fire Use (WFU) program.

If that program is implemented, another Biscuit Fire will surely occur, possibly as soon as next summer.

The Biscuit Fire burned 500,000 acres of the then Siskiyou NF in 2002. It was the largest fire in recorded Oregon history and destroyed habitat for endangered species, including over 100,000 acres of prime spotted owl habitat (50 known nesting sites were destroyed). …

Allowing wildfires to freely roam the landscape is a terribly destructive idea. Too much is at stake, including forests, watersheds, and wildlife habitat, as well as ranches, farms, homes, and entire communities that may lie in the path of Federal megafires. …

Our culture and society have reached an important juncture in our understanding of our place in the landscape. As human beings we must become the caretakers and fulfill our responsibilities, not abandon our landscapes to catastrophic fire. You need to be involved in landscape-level decisions that will affect the communities you represent. We can help.

W.I.S.E. can provide expert speakers to convey this message to your group or constituency. We have provided this important testimony in regards to U.S. Forest Service policy in Southwest Oregon and Northern California as a first step towards rational forest management. …

Please help us to prevent another Biscuit Fire. Your assistance is needed now. You need to be engaged in this struggle for your sake and for the sake of the environmental legacy we leave to our children and grandchildren. Your constituents will appreciate your leadership in this vitally important effort.

Please contact me for more information about how you can help forestall environmental catastrophe and restore stewardship to our public lands.


Mike Dubrasich

The letter was sent with a CD that contained our comments [here] regarding the adoption of Let It Burn fire strategies by the USFS in Northern California and Southern Oregon.

The SisCo Commissioners failed to heed my warnings, as did all of the six counties the letter and CD were sent to. In fact, they ignored me utterly and did not even bother to respond. Then all heck broke loose.

Last summer 1,000 square miles of Northern California were burned deliberately by the USFS at a suppression cost of over $400 million dollars and collateral damages in the tens of $billions, far in excess of the Biscuit Fire.

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‘Appropriate Management Response’ Tantamount to Arson

The Ukonom Complex Fires were ignited by lightning June 21, 2008. Initial attack was slow and meager. Four days later, when the fires totaled 750 acres, the Six Rivers National Forest invoked “Appropriate Management Response” and drew (on maps) a fire perimeter that encompassed 40,000 acres. They began to build fire breaks on that line and backburn towards the fire, then miles away.

Eventually the Ukonom Complex [here] burned over 80,000 acres and cost over $40 million in “suppression.”

The exact numbers are unknown because the Ukonom Complex was bureaucratically merged with the Panther Fire on the Klamath NF [here]. The Panther Fire was ignited a month later (by lightning) and eventually grew to 75,000 acres. Both fires were merged into the Siskiyou Complex and then into the Klamath Fire Theater [here]. The numbers became impossible to extract from the accounting jumble, but something like 200,000 acres burned at a cost of over $160 million.

Appropriate Management Response was applied to fire starts on the Shasta-Trinity NF, too. The final result: 208,460 acres burned at a “suppression” cost of $158.9 million.

All told, on those three NF’s (Klamath, Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity) something like 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, in machine accidents — not burnovers.

Appropriate Management Response broke the USFS fire budget, too.

Large amounts of private land were burned, too, in backburns set by USFS fire crews. Fires that could have been contained miles away were allowed to burn to the city limits of Junction City, Hayfork, and other NorCal towns.

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Fed Fire Policy Is Arson

Federal fire policy leaves private timber in ruins

by Dennis Possehn, Speak Your Piece, Redding.com, March 15, 2009 [here]

Thousands of acres of private timberland are adjacent to and within National Forest boundaries, where fire protection responsibility comes under the U.S. Forest Service. It is the Forest Service’s legal duty to protect these private parcels just as Cal Fire protects lands outside of National Forest influence. It is apparent from last summer’s fires that fire protection no longer exists for thousands of acres of private timberland, as many private parcels were purposely set fire by the Forest Service and burned.

In fact, more acreage was burned, and more smoke and carbon were put into the air by the U.S. Forest Service than by natural wildfire. Most of the private timberland burned is not being reforested as owners are fearful of similar events happening in the future.

Following the death of several firefighters in Idaho a few years ago, the Forest Service adopted a new “safety policy” using indirect methods to fight fire. This policy change has resulted in the huge devastating fires and smoke plumes the western states are experiencing. The federal policy of indirect firefighting leads to larger fires that require many more bodies, equipment and aircraft be put in harm’s way. This action will always increase the number of accidents, not decrease them. The U.S. Forest Service must come to the realization that its policies are destructive and not meeting the agency’s safety goals.

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Region 5 Updates Stimulus Statement

USFS Region 5 (California) has updated their first round Stimulus spending announcement to include an additional $1.5 million for “fuels projects” on the Shasta-Trinity and Stanislaus National Forests.

On March 5th Region 5 issued a News Release announcing that the first round of Stimulus projects had been selected. In that News Release [here, discussed here] Region 5 revealed that:

First round projects on lands managed by the Forest Service in California will include maintenance and construction on facilities, roads and trails totaling 70 jobs and $7.75 million. The jobs are estimated to last from four months up to a year. These projects will benefit 11 counties.

Today (March 12) Region 5 issued another News Release [here]

The language is virtually identical except that the above paragraph has been removed and the following two paragraphs added.

First round Forest Service “fuels” projects in California will total approximately $1.5 million. The jobs are estimated to last up to 18 months. Projects will take place on the Shasta Trinity National Forest and Stanislaus National Forest through contracts and agreements and with a Grant through State and Private Forestry.

Overall, first round total projects on lands managed by the Forest Service in California which was rolled out on March 5 will include maintenance and construction on facilities, roads, trails and now “fuels” totaling $9.25 million.

There is no matching announcement at the Shasta-Trinity NF website. They do note, however, that 208,460 acres burned on the S-TNF last summer, at a suppression cost of $158.9 million.

The Stanislaus NF has a number of fuel management and forest restoration projects in various stages of planning and implementation. These include:

* Phase II of the South 108 Fuel Reduction, Forest Health and Road Management Project. Phase I implemented a variety of treatments, including various combinations of mechanical and hand thinning, mastication, prescribed burning, and goat browsing on approximately 4,840 acres along the Highway 108 corridor. Phase II proposes an additional 5,500 acres to: 1) thin the forest stands to reduce the fire danger and improve forest health, 2) create a shaded fuelbreak system, 3) reduce the brush by prescribe burning, shredding and/or goat browsing, and 4) close or obliterate roads and trails that are in poor condition and are unneeded for management access.

* Pinecrest Interior Healthy Forest Restoration project. Fuels reduction (tree thinning) is proposed on approximately 780 acres within and adjacent to the cabins, camps, campgrounds, open spaces, and businesses of the Pinecrest Basin.

* Soldier Creek Healthy Forest Restoration Project. Mechanical thinning would be conducted on 575 acres.

* Middle Fork Fuel Reduction and Forest Health Project. The Proposed Action treats approximately 1772 acres and includes mechanical thinning, hand thinning, biomass removal, shredding, piling and burning, and broadcast burning.

Virtual Fire Lookouts

A group of Sierra foothill youths has dreamed up a project to install solar-powered video cams in Sierra forests to help detect fires. From the Sacramento Bee this morning:

Youths’ idea to spot Sierra fires will get global attention

By Chris Bowman, Sacramento Bee, March 8, 2009 [here]

Like many children in the Sierra foothills, Faith and Drew Oakes felt cheated by all the wildfires last summer.

The unheathful pall of dense smoke kept them indoors for weeks on end, when they otherwise would have been playing soccer and tennis.

Not long after the skies cleared, Faith, Drew and four other children from the Interstate 80 corridor communities of Newcastle, Auburn and Meadow Vista hatched a champion idea to help firefighters snuff out blazes before they smoke out communities. And the reward for ingenuity should more than make up for the children’s lost summer of 2008.

The group has been selected out of 13,000 youth teams from 40 countries to present their innovation at an upcoming Children’s Climate Call conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. They will compete against five similar youth teams worldwide for the chance to make their project a reality.

Locally, the team has presented its project to officials with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service and – on Saturday – the California Licensed Foresters Association, at its annual conference in Sacramento.

The children’s idea is to post solar-powered video cameras linked to the Internet above the tree lines around the Tahoe National Forest.

They also would make available a free screensaver for computer monitors that would rotate multiple real-time views of the forest.

“While you are looking at these pretty photos, you’re also being a set of eyes for a possible fire,” Alejandro Vega, 12, explained Saturday to the foresters, who were all smiles and applause.

Any number of people on the Internet would become virtual fire lookouts, vastly supplementing the few volunteers who staff the three actual lookout towers in the Tahoe forest. …

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Quincy Sawmill To Close

Monday Sierra Pacific Industries announced the closure of its Quincy, CA, small-log sawmill. The company is unable to obtain enough timber to keep the mill running.

From the NY Times [here]

Logger withdraws from Calif. fire reduction effort

By Jessica Leber, ClimateWire, March 5, 2009

Environmental lawsuits have long made it difficult for Sierra Pacific Industries, the second-largest lumber producer in the United States, to obtain local timber for its small-log sawmill in the tiny Northern California town of Quincy.

This week, the flagging economy hit the final nail into the mill’s coffin: The company announced on Monday that it will close the plant in May.

The mill was conceived to use small-diameter logs from programs that thin trees on national forest lands for the purpose of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

But due to a long series of administrative appeals and lawsuits from environmental groups that object to any commercial logging in national forests, the Forest Service has only achieved 20 percent of its overall sales targets, said Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI).

Nearly two-thirds of this year’s timber sale program is being held up by pending litigation, the company said. The result is that SPI has had to haul logs from farther away to run the mill and make up for the difference.

“Today’s lumber prices are not sufficient to cover these increased costs,” said the company in a statement. “To make things worse, environmental litigation has not only reduced the mill’s raw material supply, but also increased the risk of wildfires in the area.”

Small trees — a big problem in the area’s large forest fires — can’t be cut

Linda Blum of the Quincy Library Group, a group formed in an effort to reach a compromise between environmentalists and loggers to restore the health of the region’s forests, said the closure is symbolic of the difficulties in managing forest land to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires and benefit the community at the same time (ClimateWire, Sept. 18, 2008).

In 1998, five years after the group was founded, Congress passed the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act, which promoted tree thinning on national forest land to reduce the threat of wildfires while providing raw material for local timber companies. Sierra Pacific Industries began building the mill in Quincy even before the act was officially passed. …

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Floods in Big Sur

The Big Sur River reached flood stage after more than 5 inches of rain fell last weekend. Highway 1 was blocked Monday by a mudslide/debris flow near the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance.

Some excellent photos of the flooding are [here].

The photos were posted by Big Sur Kate [here], who blogged about the Basin Fire up close and personal. Some blogs rise above the mundane. Big Sur Kate’s is one of those — it is not only a triumph of art, her blog provides an invaluable public service by promoting public health and safety and a deep understanding about living on this Earth.

The Big Sur River watershed and a few other watersheds on the Los Padres National Forest were burned by the Basin [here], Indians [here], and Chalk [here] Fires.

The Basin/Indians Fire (they merged) cost over $120 million while burning 244,000 acres. It was the third largest fire and the most expensive fire in California history, and the second most expensive in U.S. history (the Biscuit Fire in Oregon in 2002 had $150 million in suppression expenses). The Chalk Fire added 16,269 acres and $24 million to those totals.

Most of the dollars and acres burned up were due to backfires set by firefighters. Fire managers announced at the onset that they were applying the “accountable cost management strategy” and then they proceeded to break the bank. When the Basin Fire reached homes dozens of miles from the ignition point, the firefighters fled and homeowners fought the fire themselves. At no time during the last 30 years did the USFS initiate any fuels management or fire road construction in the area, because Congress designated the area a wilderness, even though human beings have been living there for 10,000+ years.

The Monterey Herald reported a flash-flood warning [here]:

By Daniel Lopez, 03/03/2009

Another inch of rain is expected today and Wednesday in the urban areas of Monterey County, the National Weather Service said.

Beginning Friday though, the storm clouds are expected to clear, leading into what should be a dry weekend.

Early Monday, heavy rain prompted the weather service to issue a flash-flood warning for small streams and rivers in the Big Sur area.

The National Weather Service issues such warnings when there is a rapid rise in stream levels, said forecaster Steve Anderson.

The Big Sur area was scarred by wildland fires last summer and officials fear the damaged land may be more prone to landslides, flooding and debris flows in the surrounding creeks and streams.

“Once the mud and debris starts coming downhill, there’s nothing to stop it,” Anderson said.

The Big Sur River did peak at about 7½ feet Monday but there were no reports of damage or significant problems. …

Scientists who studied the burned area said there is a risk for flooding and landslides for about five years.

We have essayed about post-fire watershed destruction in more than a few posts, most recently in Floods Follow Fires [here]:

Catastrophic forest fires impact more than the vegetation. Fires destroy habitat, pollute streams, foul the air, and inflict public health and safety problems. Sometimes, as was the case in the Biscuit Fire (2002), forest fires burn so intensely that the soil is stripped away [here].

After intense fires the soils, baked and/or blown away, cannot absorb water as they did previously. Rain does does not infiltrate the damaged soils due to collapse of soil structure, increased bulk density, removal of organic matter, reduction in soil porosity, clogged soil pores, and increased reaction to rainfall droplet kinetics. Soils can become “waterproof” through decreased soil wettability (hydrophobia), concretion, and increased water repellence. That can lead to increases in surface flow, increased soil particle transport, rilling, gullying, and increased erosion.

And floods. Fire-damaged soils across a watershed can cause increases in discharge rates, seasonal streamflows, and especially peak flows, including flash flooding.

Before the fire the soil acts like a giant sponge; after the fire the soil becomes water repellent. As a result, floods happen more frequently.

The Salmon River watershed in central Idaho was subjected to an 800,000 acre burn in 2007. Mudslides tore out roads and filled streams the following winter [here]. This winter more of the same is expected.

Flash floods followed the Zaca Fire (2007) [here], which burned 240,000 acres over a two month period, cost more than $120 million in direct fire suppression expenses, and was (at the time) the most expensive fire in California history.

That is, until one year later when the Indians/Basin Complex Fires burned 244,000 acres and cost $124 million.

The effects of catastrophic fire on forests and watersheds are both immediate and long lasting. The final cost-plus-loss totals for the Basin Fire are not yet tallied, and will not be for years to come.

The Costs of Inaction

The just released (Winter 2009) issue of California Forests contains a powerful message: passive forest management leads to catastrophic wildfires that harm forests, watersheds, wildlife, public health, and other values.

California Forests is the official publication of the California Forestry Association. The entire issue can be downloaded from their website [here]. Some excerpts:

Wildfire Blazes Across Political Boundaries

by David A. Bischel, President, California Forestry Association

Wildfires in 2008 left nearly 1.5 million acres of California’s wildland charred … costing taxpayers more than $1 billion to fight. …

Wildfires don’t care about politics, nor do the watercourses that fill with mud and debris during post fire rains, or the wildfire displaced by the flames. …

Californians deserve to be made fully aware of the potential effects of action, or inaction, in our forests. They also deserve to have their elected officials engaged on the issue and participating in open debates.

That, unfortunately, does not always happen. …

Active Forest Conservation Beats Passive Preservation

by Jay O’Laughlin, Ph.D., professor of forest resources and director of the College of Natural Resources Policy Analysis Group at the University of Idaho.

A century of fire exclusion and a 90 percent decrease in national forest timber harvests have allowed unprecedented fuel loads to accumulate on public forest lands and increased the incidence of large-scale, high-intensity wildfires. These big fires put ecological, economic, and social values at serious risk.

Although active management can improve forest conditions, public policies thwart managers from restoring forests and effecting long-term fuel reduction designed to protect wood, water, wildlife, and other values. Rather than allowing managers to practice conservation, our policies tend to keep managers out of the woods. …

Conservation also forces us to make some tough decisions about our forests, starting with, what do we want our forests to look like? Given the fuel accumulations on much of our public lands, the answer is something other than what exists today.

Foresters call this the “desired future condition,” and it drives everything else. If we know what we want our forests to look like, managers can work towards that end by applying the science and technology that underpin the forestry profession.

Conservation targets a specific goal, whereas preservation assumes that whatever results from “natural” forces is preferable to human action-even with the unnatural fuel loads that exist today. …

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