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This year, we are running a new column dedicated solely to forest fire-related issues. In each issue, Valerie Jaffe, a consultant and writer out of Helena, Mont., will focus on a new fire-related topic. As director of Tea Gardens Technology, LLC, she wrestles with GIS data and natural resource management issues, and we look forward to her bringing us current and valuable information.

Loggers —Natural Firefighters


A cool night sets in, taming the wildfire to a slow creep across the ravine. Up through the dark timber, climb a skidgine, a tracked skidder, and a feller buncher equipped with cab-over headlights, to catch and halt the fire along the ridge before dawn. They have followed the light sticks of a line scout. Their quick work to cut and move dead, and dying, wood starves another wildfire of its fuel in the safety of night. And the skidgine stages 200 gallons of water for the next morning’s handcrew.                                   

Timber equipment operators play a crucial role in solving the nation-wide, forest fuel-loading crisis. As ready partners, they bolster the ranks of trained resources for wildfire suppression, burn rehab, and forest fuels reduction. Loggers are fuel managers by trade, with a responsive equipment manufacturing industry behind them to meet changing demands. Even a small, mechanized crew of timber equipment operators improves personnel safety and production when properly tasked, while substantially reducing renegade wildfire suppression costs.

Billions of dollars
Last year, “at least 1,000 Montana logging professionals were trained and ready for the 2007 season,” says Scott Kuehn, Certified Forester and Industry Liaison to the Northern Rockies Multi-Agency Coordinating Group. Reassuring words, as houses encroach on rural areas, and drought exacerbates wildfire risk potential.                                   

If homes were built in 50 percent of the forested areas where private land borders public land (in the Western States), annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year. By way of comparison, the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget is approximately $4.5 billion. Headwaters Economics Inc., 2007.

Future Demand for Firefighters
Larger burn areas (>1,000 acres) are anticipated over the next decade; more often, more severely, and during longer fire seasons. Increases in wildfire frequency appear greatest in the Northern Rockies; yet, each region of the country has its own historic fire regimes.                 

Regardless of drought and forest type, Wildland-Urban Interfaces (WUIs) are on the rise across the nation. More than 11,000 at-risk communities are near public lands, often having problematic access. Fire suppression costs predictably increase under these conditions, along with fire protection expectations. National committees scrutinize the growing agency budgets for wildfire suppression, but each of the fireprone western states must scramble to pre-empt bankruptcy of their general coffers. Even the best pre- and post-fire mitigation plans may crush under weighty and uncertain suppression expenses. Stay tuned for election promises.

Readily Adaptable
While aircraft and hand crews, today, play a greater role, loggers create additional options for executing suppression strategies and tactics. Logging equipment is readily adapted for fuel removal, brush management, and opening the forest canopy. Trained equipment operators tackle wildfire jobs that handcrews, fire engines, and air support alone cannot. Unlike their counterparts, heavy equipment operators accelerate daylight production on the ground with fewer personnel, and they work safely at night when fire is most easily extinguished. Less risk exposure, with fewer required personnel,

undoubtedly lowers suppression costs. “An incident procurement order could include a mechanized task force of feller bunchers, skidgines, excavators, and dozers,” says Stephen (Obie) O’Brien, U.S. Forest Service Logging Engineer. “Their day-to-day duties can be re-directed to construct firelines that afford fire teams to more safely backfire, to breakup the forest canopy and force a moving fire from the crown to the ground, or to patrol fire perimeters where truckmounted engines can’t travel safely.”

Facing Future Fires
The natural role of wildfires will continue to raise debate, but demands for limiting the damage due to fire on natural resources and property do not. Following basic fuel management principles, devastating crown fires have repeatedly been stopped. Reduce the crown bulk density and ladder fuels. Raise the crown base height and foliar moisture content. There you have it. Loggers already use and build equipment to do that.                 

So, get ready for a year of fire activity. Next issue, we’ll explore operation strategies, regional conditions, and contracting.

A Few Fire Season Contracting Tips

  • If you haven’t already contacted local resource agencies for an update on area equipment shortages and rates, now’s the time.
  • Plan before you buy that new attachment.
  • Operator training is available in several locations, so make your needs known.
  • Be sure to complete any requested paperwork and equipment profiles, and schedule your equipment inspection early.
  • When you demobilize, you may be tuckered, with stories to share, but don’t forget those work [job] evaluations. They come in handy where hindsight is not always better.
  • Images of machine-built fuelbreaks, logging equipment at work on a fire, and night operations are trophy photos. Seeing is believing.

References:

• National Interagency Coordination Center http://www.nifc.gov

• National Incident Information Center http://www.fs.fed.us/news/fire

• Wildland Fire Assessment System http://www.wfas.net/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/

• US Senate Committee, Full Committee Hearing: Costs of wildfire suppression, 30 January 2007 http://energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Hearing&Hearing_ID=1597

• Cramer, J.. Baucus proposes ways to meet rising firefighting costs, Missoulian 1/8/08 http://www.missoulian.com/articles/2008/01/08/news/top/news01.txt

• Westerling, A.L., et al., Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity, Science 18 August 2006:Vol. 313. no. 5789, pp. 940–943 http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/313/5789/940

• USDI-USGS. Wildfire Hazards – A National Threat, Fact Sheet 2006-3015, February 2006. Map sources: Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, and the USGS National Atlas http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3015/2006-3015.pdf

• Gebert K.M., D.E. Calkin, and J. Yoder. 2007. Estimating suppression expenditures for individual large wildland fires. Western Journal of Applied Forestry 22(3):188-196 http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_2007_gebert_k001.pdf

• Office of Inspector General 2006. Audit Report: Forest Service large fire suppression costs. Report No. 08601-44-SF. 47 p http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/08601-44-SF.pdf
• Federal Register / Vol. 66, No. 160 / Friday, August 17, 2001 / Notices. Urban Wildland Interface Communities Within the Vicinity of Federal Lands That Are at High Risk From Wildfire http://www.epa.gov/EPA-IMPACT/2001/August/Day-17/i20592.htm

• Montana State Legislature. Fire Suppression Interim Committee 2007-2008. http://leg.mt.gov/css/committees/interim/2007_2008/fire_suppression/default.asp

• Headwaters Economics Inc., Wildland Urban Interface Analysis, West-Wide Summary 2007 http://www.headwaterseconomics.org/wildfire/

• Gorman, J., How a Forest Stopped a Fire in Its Tracks – Oregon forest shows benefit of thinning and burning. NY Times, 22 July 2003. http://www.matr.net/print-7499.html
• Steele, Jim, et al. Northern Rockies Big Iron Use Guide. 2004  http://www.nationalfiretraining.net/misc/pp/BigIronUseGuide04.pdf

• Roscommon Equipment Center, MI   http://www.roscommonequipmentcenter.com

TimberWest January/February 2008
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