WASHINGTON — The wildland fires are coming. The fire management plans are not.
Even as California’s fire season heats up, the Forest Service is snuffing out plans written for individual forests. Twice in the past three weeks, the agency has abandoned its diligently crafted documents: one covering the Sequoia National Forest and one for the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California.
More fire management plans also could be dropped if other national forests face legal challenges of their own. Now, some wildland fire experts worry about a broader retreat.
“This regressive move by the Bush administration sets back federal fire management policies over 10 years of progress, putting the Six Rivers and Sequoia back into the dark ages,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.
Ingalsbee is an unabashed advocate, a former wildland firefighter with a Ph.D. in environmental sociology. Not everyone shares his alarm. Some consider the fire management plans simply an administrative convenience.
“The public won’t see any change,” said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region. “The lack of a plan will not make any noticeable difference in what the public sees in firefighting or how we respond to lightning strikes.”
All of which raises the questions: What, exactly, are fire management plans, what good are they and why are some disappearing?
The questions matter nationwide, with the federal government now spending about $3 billion a year on controlling wildland fires. Last year, a record 8.6 million acres burned nationwide in wildland fires.
The questions particularly matter in California, where 45 million acres are owned by the federal government. Under federal policy revised in 2001, “each acre with burnable vegetation” owned by the federal government must be covered by a fire management plan.
The Stanislaus National Forest, for instance, has a 37-page plan. The plans, Mathes explained, pull together information from other planning documents; for instance, about vegetation, emergency dispatching and regional fire history.
“It’s a compilation,” Mathes said.
Lacking a formal plan, Mathes said, forest managers will simply use the original documents to get the information they need. At most, he suggested, Forest Service workers will have to look in more than one place for what they need.
Ingalsbee considers the situation more dire.
Without an active fire management plan, Ingalsbee said, forest managers are forced to aggressively combat all fires rather than pick and choose their fights. He cited the example of the Biscuit Fire in 2002, which burned 500,000 acres in southern Oregon and Northern California.
“The lack of an approved (plan) by the Siskiyou National Forest caused firefighters to be exposed to prolonged, unnecessary risks and hazards on a ‘siegelike’ campaign fire that defied human control efforts and was eventually extinguished only by changes in the weather,” Ingalsbee reported.
For now, Sequoia and Six Rivers are the only two national forests in the country without an operative fire management plan. Nearly every national park in the country is already covered.
Yosemite National Park, for instance, adopted a 2002 fire management plan that calls for prescribed burns — controlled fires set by firefighters to reduce fuel that could be consumed by a wildfire — on between 1,817 and 9,194 acres a year. Previously, the park averaged only 1,472 acres of prescribed burns.
Yosemite’s plan further enabled park officials in July 2004 to let the Meadow Fire burn some 1,700 acres. It smoked up Yosemite Valley, but the plan allowed up to 2,000 acres to burn before firefighters moved in. At the same time, the plan called for more aggressive thinning of fuel near buildings.
To compile the plan, Yosemite officials conducted a formal environmental impact statement. Over some 450 pages, the environmental study examined different alternatives; for instance, what would happen if park managers were more aggressive?
This is where problems arose on the Sequoia and Six Rivers national forests.
In 2002, environmental groups sued the Forest Service for failing to conduct the necessary studies in preparing the fire management plan covering the nearly 1 million acres of the Six Rivers National Forest. A federal judge ordered the study. Instead, forest managers withdraw the fire plan altogether.
The same thing happened on the Sequoia forest after California Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued and another federal judge ordered an environmental study.
“(The Forest Service) does not and could not seriously argue that there is no possibility that the decision to let burn or suppress a major wildland fire will have any significant environmental impact,” U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled.
On Wednesday, Forest Service officials likewise withdrew the Sequoia fire plan. The Forest Service now insists this means that the agency no longer has to prepare an environmental study; Breyer has yet to rule on that.
“We’re still trying to figure out what the next move might be,” Teresa Schilling, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said Friday.
The Forest Service could be in a bind. The agency is supposed to review the fire plans annually, and update them as necessary. If the plans aren’t updated, they lose utility. But if the plans change too much, the Government Accountability Office noted in a report last month, “Forest Service officials told us the agency might need to conduct a new (environmental) analysis for that plan, requiring additional time and resources.”
This assessment contradicts the Forest Service’s argument in court, where lawyers insisted the agency didn’t need to conduct the environmental studies for the fire plans.
“(It’s) a big undertaking,” Mathes said of the studies required under the National Environmental Policy Act, “and in this day and age, we have other things we need to do.”