Forest Service suppression tactics don’t meet muster

Forest Service suppression tactics don’t meet muster

7 December 2008

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USA — The Concerned Citizens for Reasonable Fire Management, consisting of Forest Service retirees, foresters, Trinity County citizens and business owners, have been studying the 1999, 2006 and 2008 fires on the Big Bar Ranger District. We believe that we see a pattern that is most disturbing. Since 1999 over 300,000 acres of the district, in northwestern Trinity County, have been burned. From the 1905 inception of the Forest Service until 1999 — 93 years — less than 100,000 acres. Maybe a result of global warming or drought — we don’t believe so! We have the rain records to prove it.

The recent Fire Forum was definitely a step in the right direction. When studying fire suppression covering all of Northern California, involving multiple fire agencies with different suppression responsibilities, it is unlikely that any clear solution could evolve. However, our group has concentrated on only the Big Bar Ranger District of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Here we have been able to isolate some issues and have narrowed the focus.

Why such a dramatic rise in fire size and duration? Our analysis leads us to the following reasons. Forests are creating more woody volume each year. In fact the Shasta-Trinity as of the early 1990s was growing 400 million board feet each year. Now with the current environmental protections in place, the Shasta-Trinity is removing less than 50 million board feet annually. So each year the forest builds up more fuel in the forest. Of course we can just watch it grow and then let it burn. That seems to be the opinion of many people who call themselves environmentalists. Or we allow removal of reasonable amounts of timber that can be used to build houses, offset some of the lumber imports into this country and reduce the fuel loading in the forests. Tough choice?

One very important facet of this very complicated issue that was not brought out in the write-up of the forum is a change in suppression tactics used by federal fire managers. This seems to be one issue that nobody wants to bring out in the open. The federal fire agencies have at least in behavior if not in written policy altered their suppression tactics. The underlying issue is safety. Firefighting tactics long accepted as effective and safe are now shunned by fire managers.

Two of the more apparent tactics that are now rarely used on anything but the smallest of fires are aggressive direct attack and night shifts. Both of these tactics were used extensively in the past to contain fires quickly and with greatly minimized acreage. In place of these two tactics, you are more likely to find almost no suppression activities at night. Once the fire activity laid down in the cooler night air, the crews could use direct attack and contain fires with much less risk. This tactic is probably the most effective for containing wildfires. Now without the use of night shifts for active fire suppression, this tactic is lost. Further, without night shifts the fire lines constructed during the day are as good as abandoned each evening.

The second tactic involved aggressive direct attack on the fire. Though often modified to include a mix of direct attack and near direct attack, it is greatly different from what is now happening. The current situation in the Big Bar Ranger District is to back off a mile or more away from the fire and use a combination of allowing the fire to burn to the fire line (like a highway or river) and burning out or back-burning from that fire line. Instead of a few hundred acres, we now have fires that are 100,000 acres in size. The real travesty is that most of the acreage burned was not burned by wildfire but rather by the back-burning.

As a result of the safety issue, the Forest Service hierarchy has determined that fighting fire on steep slopes is too dangerous and is to be avoided or banned altogether. The results can especially be seen on the Big Bar Ranger District. This area has always been known for the steep slopes. But until this latest enlightenment by present Forest Service suppression forces, it was never considered unsafe to allow people to work on the slopes.

Another issue, mentioned only in the editorial, is the impact of the fires on public health. Where fires used to last days or maybe a week, they now are measured in months. Recent fires have lasted from 70 to 115 days. The local communities were exposed day after day to extremely unhealthy air. A comparison to the recent fire season can be found in 1987, where the circumstances were similar to 2008. The 1987 fires lasted a total of 37 days (which included the first two weeks with no forces available to combat the fires) and covered 27,000 acres. The difference can be found in the tactics used to suppress these fires. In a 2006 letter to the Record Searchlight, Forest Supervisor Sharon Heywood wrote, “We do not ‘let the fire burn’ on this forest.” That is undoubtedly true. However, the Forest Service is actually prolonging the fires by failing to actively suppress them and is increasing the size and duration of the fires by using such indirect tactics.

It appears that the Forest Service has lost its ability to fight fires. Not only is the Forest Service in this situation, but so are the other federal agencies that have joined in these new safe suppression tactics. It seems that very soon the Forest Service and other federal agencies will need to decide if they are going to fight fire at all. Or will they just admit that they can no longer safely fight any fires and get out of the business? As a retired Forest Service employee, I would hope that the Forest Service and other federal agencies would review their present positions and return to a more conventional style of fire suppression. It can be done safely.

Charley Fitch is a retired district ranger on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and member of Citizens for Responsible Fire Management. He lives in Redding.

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