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Who’s on the Hot Seat?

By Val Jaffe

When public land managers Mark Rey (Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, USDA) and James Cason (Associate Deputy Secretary, USDOI) gave U.S. Senate testimony on the 2008 wildland fire season preparedness as of mid-June, more than 1.5 million acres had already burned after 29,000 fire starts. Southeastern states and drought-ridden Texas were hardest hit.

Spinning Forecasts
Precautionary regional forecasts point to fine fuels in forests across the Southwest and the Front Range of the Rockies as current staging areas for an above-normal fire season this summer. Predictably, Rey and Cason applauded their agencies’ “superior performance” in 2007, despite increasing fire management challenges, and for doing more with less.

They claimed a definitive readiness for the 2008 fire season. At least California has serious doubts, as it braces for another historic season of WUI and staffing woes.

Ready…or Not?
If our federal land managers are as prepared as they claim, shouldn’t taxpayers also anticipate a reprieve from exponential increases in fire suppression costs this year? Let’s hope so, as Congress can extort excessively crude and unscientific changes in federal wildfire business practices.

Keep an eye out for radical proposals, as communities seek their own fire suppression and fuels reduction alternatives to rising costs and damages. For the Board of Supervisors of San Diego County, Calif., night-time helicopter water drops are a “must-have,” according to their letter of request to CalFire and the USFS. Reestablishing night operations makes sense for updating suppression tactics.

Will aviation convince fire managers of night-time worthiness, while ground-based equipment operators watch from fire camp? Aviation seems to have found an effective voice for smothering, not removing or recycling hazardous forest fuels. And we haven’t yet mentioned comparative costs and consumption of fossil fuel to exact merely short-term benefits. Where are the industry and agency champions for deploying well-equipped loggers to the fireline!?

Hazardous Forest Fuels
While fire suppression has our immediate attention, increasing numbers of timber companies are successfully diversifying into hazardous fuel reduction as part of their business plan. Whether or not fire prevention is in the primary contract description, fuels reduction is being funded as part of stewardship, sustainable forestry, wildlife habitat improvement, or range and watershed restoration. Of course, markets for small diameter wood must be available to serve these environmentally friendly missions. Small is big again, as Craig Rawlings and Nora McDougall-Collins at Smallwood Utilization Network (SUN) can attest.

Occasionally, intriguing incentive programs crop up to encourage cutting, and test the collaborative temperament of wary stakeholders. Consider Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s legislative attempt to offer tax credits for environmentally sensitive logging equipment and smallwood sawmills. Another reasonable idea, if extreme opinion sectors don’t squash it.

“We work to prevent wildfires, or at least reduce damages. Like the fuels reduction project we did for the Wyoming BLM from 2004-2006 in the Newcastle Fire Defense Zone. The Newcastle Field Office told us that the treated area was looking good, and in 2006 a fire dropped to the ground when it reached the edge of our unit because we removed the ladder fuels.” Cecil Swaggart, Swaggart Enterprises, Inc., based in Ritter, Ore. Innovative companies like Iron Triangle Logging and Swaggart Enterprises, Inc., both based in Oregon, have built solid reputations on their versatility, and they stay busy as a result. Serving fire suppression needs is just one of many business facets for which they are equipped. On the fire prevention end of the fuels management spectrum, they maximize interstate and market opportunities. Not that we can now prevent catastrophic fires by thinning ourselves out of decades of landscape mismanagement, but creating defensible space helps.

“If we’re assigned on a fire as a strike team of machine combinations with operators, rather than a single resource, the job gets done efficiently. More like our daily operations.” Russ Young, Iron Triangle Logging, out of John Day, Ore.

Shifting Gears
How prepared are you, now that the 2008 fire season is underway? Did you meet all the paperwork deadlines? Has your equipment passed inspection? Are you equipped for night operations? Have you recently been in touch with Dispatch? Check your assumptions. Just when you think that you’ve filled out all the right forms and met all the equipment standards, there’s a new set of agency notices to sort. Yeah, more bedtime reading.   

Here are a few helpful online sources to assist you during this year’s fire season: 1. Track this year’s fire activities and opportunities (

2. Carry your own copies of essential forms to assure proper records are filed. For example: Performance Evaluation ( CPS_Perf_Eval_Form%201_08.doc)

3. Keep current on regulations and incident procurement (

4. Join others who diversify and explore new markets (

5. Brace yourself for another set of federal acronyms: EaTIS (pilot preseason incident procurement system) rolls into VIPR (Incident Procurement System), EERAs (Emergency Equipment Rental Agreement) turn into I-BPAs (Incident Blanket Purchase Agreements), and Appropriate Management Response (AMR) rises from the ashes of let it burn.