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2008 Fire Season Review

By Val Jaffe

Remember when Mark Rey and James Cason said their federal agencies were prepared for this year’s fire season? That was before the Forest Service spent $900 million, once again stripping existing forest management programs to cover fire suppression (this year by $400 million), and before fifteen wildfire-related deaths.

“The idea that you could burn 400,000 acres in a single fire in Arizona would have been considered lunacy 15 years ago,” says Kirk Rowdabaugh, Ariz. State Forester. “The idea that you could burn 10,000 acres in a single day in Arizona – nobody ever would have contemplated that. You can do that in a bad afternoon now.”

Underfunding or Lack of Training
Underfunding and controversial fund management appear endemic to firefighting on public lands. Are the federal agencies or Congress to blame? Is Appropriate Management Response (AMR) effectively reducing suppression costs, as argued, without creating long-term expenses? Is the fire organization top-heavy with expensive managers lacking adequate knowledge and training in modern ground strategies? Are old fire dogs willing to learn new tricks of the trade?

If forecasts are accurate, the number of burned acres (regardless of cause) will trend upward this decade. Pine beetles have a head start on thinning our overcrowded forests, setting the stage and fueling momentum for stand-replacing crown fires across contiguous acres of dead and dying western forests.

“Our models tell us right now that the mountain pine beetle will kill approximately 76 percent of mature lodgepole pine by 2015,” says Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia’s chief forester. Conditions are already well beyond the individual landowner’s control.

Changing Minds and Workforce
Declines in the wood fiber industry and its integrated parts mean fewer woods workers to respond to forest resources at risk. Although a popularity and resurgence in thinning for fuels reduction and a healthier forest are positive signs of a changing tide, they are conducted at a smaller scale than needed to mitigate the large-scale wildfire risk. “The combined efforts of the fuels treatment and the suppression crews prevented the wildfire from not only destroying lives, property, and a nearby power substation, but also from costing the agencies time, money, and personnel hours for an extended suppression and rehabilitation effort,” says Lisa Clark, Fire Mitigation Specialist, BLM.

Environmental coalitions are also softening their rhetoric on the role of loggers in maintaining forest health, and they are seeking new alliances with industry in hopes of reducing natural resource damages. Likened to Vietnam veterans, Big Sky Coalition leaders sympathize with loggers as victims of unsustainable forest growth policies, and now seek “respectful participation (by all concerned) for making a new plan.”

In an article written by Ed Marriman, for the Baker City Herald, Bob Park, an extension agent for Oregon State University, stated that they are seeing “a gathering consensus, generated by the catastrophic fires. Multiple years of record-breaking fire seasons that blackened millions of acres of forests in Oregon and across the nation have led to a change of heart among the leaders and membership of some of the nation’s most influential environmental groups.”

Aviation Domination
Fire managers have leaned heavily on aviation to reach inaccessible areas with water and retardant. Air support is a sophisticated and highly visible force when people want quick response. A recent study based on interviews with Incident Management Teams candidly lists “increased aircraft use” as one of several factors for rising fire suppression costs.

But air drops are no substitute for the rapid response skills and familiarity with terrain born from ground forest operations. Logging equipment taskforces can swiftly position for action, deliver water accurately, fell hazard trees, and build fireline. They are safer and less expensive than aerial forces, while providing fire teams 24-hour operational capabilities. As with aviation, optimizing ground operations requires agency knowledge of modern systems and realistic training.

Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers, reported in July that, “It costs up to $14,000 a day to keep an air tanker on call and as much as $4,200 per hour to put it in the air. Heavy-duty helicopters, the workhorses of aerial firefighting, can cost $32,000 a day on standby, plus $6,300 per hour of flight time.”

2008 Shakeouts and Shakedowns
Post-season evaluations by incident will soon be available to the public. Read reports published online at http://www.wildfirelessons.net. You can also request printed copies from the National Advanced Fire and Research Institute, AZ. But you might consider submitting your observations to the local newspaper.

As mechanized taskforces are a proven means of cost reduction and personnel safety, we’ll be looking for mention of their use and application this fire year. Fire managers laud their familiarity with timber equipment, but reported details will reveal the reach of their leadership.

In the meantime, a few successful Montana applications of logging equipment on the fireline that saved time and money are worth mention:
 
• Cascade Fire, near Red Lodge, Mont. Wildfire Today Blogspot reported on August 1, that dozers, skidgines, and a feller buncher, would be used to construct an indirect line in Silver Run drainage going south and west towards the wilderness boundary.

• Bear Gulch Fire, near Townsend, Mont. “In red flag weather, a 3-machine task force (D5 Hi-track dozer in lead, Timbco with hotsaw head, and a John Deere 2000 with 400 gal. skidgine) put in 2.5 miles of hotline in 5 hours, at an estimated cost of $2,000,” says S.A. O’Brien, Type 1 Team, Heavy Equipment Technical Specialist.

States Take Action
Two states in particular are stepping up to the plate:
• Oregon is addressing costs via House Bill 3044A, that increases fire protection revenues collected from forest landowners and increases taxes on timber harvest. Oregon Department of Forestry suggests fires need not become devastating events and has proposed the Wildfire Reduction Act for pre-positioning firefighting resources, shifting costs to landowners, and restructuring cost-share agreements for large fires.

• The 2009 Montana Legislature will address recommendations from its Interim Committee on Fire Suppression, including greater use of mechanized equipment.