By Lindsay Mohlere
On November 5, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that 48,735 wildfires had torched more than 6.5 million acres so far this year. It’s a hair short of the average year-to-date of 51,028 fires burning 6.97 million acres. Currently, roughly 800 personnel are still deployed on 11 large fires across the U.S., and five of these fires are uncontained. Alaska, Arizona, and California still have active fires raging.
For the most part, the cause of these fires will never be determined. Yeah, sure, there’s going to be speculation and a lot of guessing, but you’ve got to chalk up a bunch of them to lightning strikes, faulty catalytic converters, sparks from railroad trains, downed power lines, the oft pitched cigarette into road shoulder grass, and a slew of other dumb human actions.
Recently, the forest service gave the green light to a new fire retardant gel that just might make a difference in prevention.
Perimeter Solutions, the maker of PHOS-CHEK long-term fire retardant, has added PHOS-CHEK FORTIFY to its inventory of products, noting that it is “the only highly-durable fire retardant that has been approved by the USDA/Forest Service for preventative application on U.S. federal lands.”
PHOS-CHEK FORTIFY is a slightly sticky chemical compound gel intended to coat areas prone to ignition – such as vegetation around utility poles, railroad tracks, highway shoulders, and such – and render them nonflammable. If a flare-up runs into PHOS-CHEK® FORTIFY ®, the fire will smolder and die in puffs of smoke.
The new product is the little brother of PHOS-CHEK, the market dominating fire retardant usually seen as a red dusty cloud dropped by tanker aircraft attacking wildfires from low altitude. Unlike PHOS-CHEK or other retardant dropped from aircraft, this one is a neutral color and is sprayed on the ground as a preventive measure. It is designed to stay glued to vegetation from the first application in the run-up to fire season through the most dangerous months, and it can withstand one to two inches of rain as well as high winds.
A case in point is the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, California. The owners of the ranch, the Young Americans Foundation, took a proactive approach to protecting the property from wildfire earlier in 2021 when they treated the 688-acre ranch with the new product provided by Perimeter Solutions at no charge.
It’s lucky they did. The ranch was right in the cross hairs of the Alisal Fire that ignited in early October and raged across 17,000 acres before containment in November. PHOS-CHEK FORTIFY is credited for part of the solution that saved the Reagan Ranch from damage.
It seems reasonable to hope that some of the money earmarked for the forest service in the new infrastructure bill will go toward funding the application of PHOS-CHEK FORTIFY in areas where wildfire is likely. An ounce of prevention makes sense and… will save dollars.
The Devil in the Details
The new infrastructure law gives the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior more than $2 billion to expand their activities, such as prescribed burning and other prevention techniques, along with boosting recruitment and retention of wildfire fighting personnel.
The law says federal agencies have to treat roughly 10 million acres near towns and drinking water sources to reduce fuels. The law also includes funding to convert 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to full-time status and give every federal firefighter a pay raise. However, there are a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out.
As of now, the law’s funding is good for only five or six years. So it’s going to be a hurry-up offense to tackle 10 million acres. It also states that federal officials will increase base salaries for firefighters located “within a specific geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a federal wildland firefighter.”
To address the wrinkles, a bipartisan group of western U.S. lawmakers is sponsoring the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. The act would make some of the infrastructure law’s provisions for wildland firefighters permanent. It would raise base pay across the board and allow for housing stipends, retirement benefits for temp employees, and also mandate one week of mental health leave for personnel every year. In addition, it would create a national Federal Wildland Firefighter Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Database to track chronic disease.
The new benefits, modifications, and changes to shore up the ranks of our frontline first responders would be money well spent. But with a national labor shortage, jobs are easy to find, and many in the firefighting establishment are bolting for better pay. Hemorrhaging is a word often used to describe what’s happening to the wildland firefighting ranks.
The feds need to get on the gas and implement the changes immediately. Not enough and a little too late just ain’t gonna cut it anymore.
Loggers Save Mitchell Monument from Bootleg Fire
Here’s a “Shout Out” to Ray Driscoll’s Wood River Logging of Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Melsness Logging out of Bly, Oregon, for their efforts in saving the Mitchell Monument while fighting the Bootleg Fire in July 2021.
Located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the Mitchell Monument commemorates the only American casualties in the continental United States that resulted from enemy action during World War II. The site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and honors six people who were killed by a Japanese balloon bomb May 5, 1945.
When the fire started moving in the direction of the monument, the forest service asked Driscoll to move in to help save it from being overrun by the fire. Melsness had started to prep, but the forest service had pulled them out the previous day. Driscoll went in with a skidder to remove what had been done by Melsness. He then went back in with a feller buncher and took out a patch of reprod on the opposite side of the road from the monument as the fire was coming at it.
Their efforts, along with air support and excellent work by hand crews, did the job, and the monument remained unscathed. Nice work guys.
That’s a wrap.
Talk back at twfirecolumn @gmail.com.
Stay safe out there.
(Source: USDA, Government Executive Newsletter, Bloomberg, Wildfire Today, WSJ, NBC)
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