By Lindsay R. Mohlere
This year’s fire season was a brutal fist fight, with the Western states taking a pounding from the get-go. Across the nation, more than 28,000 people were fighting wildfires at the peak.
The cost this year is somewhere over $2.4 billion and still counting — the most expensive year ever.
Approximately 14,000 square miles were scorched nationwide, a 43 percent increase over the 10-year average. In Oregon, the Eagle Creek blaze in the Columbia Gorge and the Chetco Bar fire near Brookings made national headlines. Montana saw over a million acres torched. California’s wine country nearly went up in smoke.
Fire Season 2017 was downright ugly, but now the fires are out, and the mop-up begins.
A Major Mop-up Objective: Fix Wildfire Funding
The Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2017 has passed the U.S. House. The “yes” vote had 222 Republicans and 10 Democrats for the bill. Now it goes to the Senate. Over the past five years, similar bills have landed in the Senate only to be stuffed into the round file... the politician’s version of a mop-up.
Given the current political complexion, this bill might get a better shake. It combines both a funding fix and provisions for expediting logging, reducing the environmental review process, and limiting litigation.
I’ve said before that I think this bill hits the target, but many see it as too much, too soon. According to Russ Vaagen, V.P. Vaagan Bros. Lumber Co., the bill could “lead to more volume being offered faster. Unfortunately, it may make some groups reluctant to stay at the collaborative table. If these projects start reflecting a heavy-handed approach that isn’t supportable by conservation groups, then it will erode well-earned support and dissolve into a battle once again.”
Even Sonny Perdue, the head cheese at Ag, doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He has said the Resilient Federal Forest Act could kill the funding fix. He said the congressional folks should be “single minded” on this point.
We’ll see what happens when the Senate starts to carve into this bill. They need to fix the funding dilemma, and hopefully, they’ll come up with a management compromise that both sides can stomach — but don’t hold your breath. Our erstwhile politicos need to snap their suspenders and take a stand.
Mopping Up: Walden Takes a Shot
Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, R-Or, has introduced a bill called the Scenic Columbia Gorge Restoration Act of 2017, which addresses the rehabilitation of the damage caused by the Eagle Creek fire. The bill would expedite the implementation of salvage logging operations in the nearly 50,000-acre fire footprint.
The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. Since then, no one has heard a word. Gee, imagine that!
Mopping Up: Pioneer Salvage Back on Track
In a recent memorandum, the District Court of Idaho denied the request for a temporary restraining order brought by Wildlands Defense, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and the Native Ecosystems Council to stop the North and South salvage operations on Idaho’s Pioneer Fire.
The fire, which started July 18, 2016, in the Boise National Forest and torched nearly 200,000 acres, was the largest wildfire on Forest Service lands in 2016. The Forest Service Incident Information System estimates total suppression costs exceeded $97.5 million.
In September 2016, the Forest Service began working with interested parties to devise a restoration plan. In this collaborative effort, the Forest Service met with the Boise Forest Coalition and reached an agreement to begin the salvage work in August of 2017, nearly a year after the fire. Shortly thereafter, the suit was filed, but unlike most restraining order attempts, it did not stop the salvage work while waiting for the court’s decision.
Now, with the suit denied, the salvage logging and hazardous tree removal contractors can go forward without looking over their respective shoulders wondering when the next wild-eyed attorney waving a restraining order will appear.
Mopping Up: Only the Brave
On June 30, 2013, 19 members of Prescott, Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives in a tragic burnover while fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire, northwest of Phoenix. The fire turned out to be one of the deadliest in recent history.
Only the Brave, a new film by director Joseph Kosinski, is based on the tragedy. Showing in theaters now (and probably available on disc), the film is as much an emotional rollercoaster as it is a tribute to all the brave men and women who fight wildfires for a living. Theirs is a dangerous job, and the heartbreaking story of Yarnell Hill further underscores the dire circumstances our firefighters face every day.
Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jeff Bridges, Only the Brave follows the Granite Mountain Hotshots through three fire seasons until the burnover at Yarnell Hill. We all know these characters well. We know their camaraderie. And we know their fear. They are one of us. They are all of us.
Only the Brave is a mesmerizing story that comes to life like a burning ember launched from a crowning pine. It’s a tragic adventure and a heart-scorching tearjerker.
Go see this movie. Get this movie. It’s worth every nickel.
BAERs Are Underway
After the mop-up has been completed and the smoke has disappeared, Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams arrive on the scene to conduct a burned area survey to evaluate the impact of a recent fire. BAER surveys are “rapid assessments of the burned areas that evaluate imminent post-fire conditions of burned watersheds and determine the potential for increased post-fire flooding, debris flows, and rock slides and other potential threats to values at risk.”
To date, BAER teams are on the Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, and in Washington, surveying federal lands on the Diamond Creek, Uno Peak, Jack Creek, Jolly Mountain, and Norse Peak Fires for imminent post-fire threats to human life, safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources.
That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!
(Talkback - [email protected])
(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC)
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/USFS
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