By Lindsay Mohlere
Idon’t know about you, but from my base camp in North Idaho, the usual summer activities have been severely curtailed, or cancelled. A few days of dancing a mayfly across the crystal-clear riffles of the St. Joe River or paddling the banks of Hosmer Lake near Mt. Bachelor are not to be. This year, a summer of fun has turned into the summer of fire.
As of August 13, according to National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), there are more than 105 wildfires burning across 14 states, with 87 of them in the West, devouring well over 2.5 million acres of forest and wildland. Only one fire in Colorado is 100 percent contained. Nearly 25,000 wildland firefighters and incident management teams are involved in battling the blazes.
At present, we are close to surpassing last year’s total, and we’re not even halfway through fire season. In 2021, a total of 40,090 wildfires have burned more than 3,893,239 acres in the United States.
The National Preparedness Level is set at 5 — the highest priority — and the outlook is dismal. Hot, dry temperatures, along with severe drought associated with climate change, have turned the landscape of the West crispy. Our range and forest lands are primed and just waiting for the right spark to torch a huge chunk of the nation’s wildland not already on fire.
Oregon’s Bootleg fire tipped in at over 420,000 acres and is finally 100 percent contained with the majority of firefighters on patrol status. The Dixie fire in California has consumed over 678,000 acres. It is California’s second largest wildfire on record and remains the largest wildfire in the nation. At this writing it is estimated to be 36 percent contained.
On the 4th of July, California’s Tamarack fire started as a small lightning strike in the Mokelumne Wilderness on a rocky ridgetop with sparse fuels and natural barriers to fire spread.
Twelve days later the wind grabbed it and sprinted off down the ridgeline. It’s now nearly 100-percent contained at over 68,000 acres. So much for shining on a dinky lightning hit.
The Curse of COVID
The after-effects of the COVID 19 shutdown and subsequent remedies have created or helped create problems now faced on the fire line. I call it the “19 Curse.”
Federal and state unemployment benefits helped the folks drop-kicked into joblessness, and many took other employment and aren’t returning to their lower paid jobs. Lousy minimum wages can’t sustain a decent existence. Big city or little town, the scene is the same. “Help Wanted/Now Hiring” signs are plastered to the front gates, but the effects have been minimal.
The real insult is when major fast-food chains are hiring at $14 per hour and Federal wildland firefighters need an act of congress to even get close to that. Right now, crews are thin and short-staffed, some near the point of exhaustion. There’s too much fire and not enough crews to rotate deployments. Plus, they work for crumby wages and zero benefits.
When it comes to the big four — the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, and BIA — if you follow the money looking for wildland firefighting wages, you don’t have to go very far because there isn’t any.
Maybe the gigantic bi-partisan infrastructure bill being batted around the hallowed halls in DC will alleviate the “living wage” dilemma of federal employed wildland firefighters. Paying these men and women a decent wage for the extreme work they do would certainly be the right thing to do. But at this point, one can only hope.
(Check out the YouTube piece, Unskilled Labor – A Season with the Hotshots, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6CP5SKQjzg).
The Short Supply Nightmare
Many assets needed for firefighting are in short supply and of concern. The NIFC has issued a warning advising wildland firefighters across the West that logistics problems are developing in several areas, including supplying crews with communications, food, and water.
There’s a jet fuel shortage that could ground firefighting aircraft or limit sortie numbers. The shortage, coupled with other supply line issues brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic, continues to cause problems at airports around the western U.S. Jet fuel has lost pipeline space to gasoline and diesel over the past year due to the “19.”
Because demand for air travel plummeted 96 percent at the onset of the pandemic, fewer flights required far less jet fuel, which resulted in much lower volumes of jet fuel being shipped through the pipelines, approximately 70 percent less than normal in the initial months. U.S. passenger carriers put 3,200 aircrafts — more than half the fleet — in storage.
A lack of available pipeline space for jet fuel and a shortage of fuel trucks and drivers amid surging demand for air travel and cargo are contributing to low fuel inventories at some airports. The pinch really stings at smaller air terminals in the western United States, many of which are home base for firefighting air assets.
NIFC spokesperson Jessica Gardetto said the jet fuel shortage could cause delays in wildland fire suppression resources, but that it has not significantly affected suppression operations…yet.
“However,” she said, “we’re not panicking, we are planning in case we do run low or run out of jet fuel.”
Apparently, there’s also a shortage of large tanker aircraft certified and available to fight fire. Not a surprise. Due to the fed’s insistence on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts, the available air assets are pretty thin. There are only four DC 10 airplanes contracted at this writing. I’m also guessing the demise of Tanker 944 had a lot to do with that practice.
Super Tanker 944 was the Boeing 747 capable of dropping nearly 20,000 gallons of retardant or water in one pass or in intervals. The aircraft was used in California and Oregon last year and by all accounts performed at the highest level. But it came at a cost of around $250,000 a day. Because they couldn’t get a sustaining deal, the investors pulled the plug and turned it into a cargo plane. It’s not a stretch to bet the incident commanders on the Dixie and Bootleg fire could use a couple of Tanker 944 huge retardant/water drops right about now.
And the Bottom Line Is…
In a recent issue of Fire Aviation, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack laid it on the line: “Over the generations and decades, we have tried to do this job (forest management) on the cheap. We need to significantly beef up our capacity. We must have more boots on the ground…And we’ve got to make sure our firefighters are better compensated. We need to do a better job, and more, forest management to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.”
Make it happen, Dude.
That’s a wrap.
Talk back at [email protected].
Stay safe out there.
(Source: USDA, NIFC, InciWEb, Fire Aviation, Wildfire Today, Bill Gabbert, ABC, Spokesman Review, CNN, CalFire, ODF, Washington DNR.)
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