Fires reignite burnout controversy

Fires reignite burnout controversy

1 May 2009

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USA — William Bradford had banked on the timber harvested from a stretch of private forest land his family has owned for the past 50 years as a nest egg.

But the 67-year-old Junction City man watched last summer as firefighters armed with flame-dripping torches, flares and flammable liquid lit his land on fire, eventually scorching 70 of his 80 acres.

Heat from the flames, which licked within feet of his home and crested the treetops, was so intense it boiled the sap in his trees, killing them.

He estimates the fire ruined 300,000 board-feet of timber, costing him tens of thousands of dollars.

“Basically, they burned my IRA,” Bradford says.

Fire crews on Bradford’s land didn’t set the blaze out of malice. They were using a controversial fire-suppression tactic known as burnouts.

Questioning the strategy

Such tactics have been harshly criticized by many in Trinity County, who argue that by intentionally setting fires to fight fire, U.S. Forest Service crews last summer prolonged blazes for longer periods and helped contribute to the 87 days of unhealthy, smoke-filled air that choked the area.

Some, like Dennis Possehn, a private forester from Anderson, estimate that up to 50 percent of the acreage burned in Trinity County was scorched by intentionally set fires.

He calls for an investigation into burns on private land such as Bradford’s.

And at least one wildfire expert questions whether burnouts even work.

“The idea is fine in principle, but often doesn’t work out all that well in application,” James Agee, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Washington, said in an e-mail.

He said residents told him that burnout operations in the Trinity County fires last summer often burned hotter than the wildfires.

Agee said some burnout operations failed last year because fire managers likely didn’t consider weather conditions.

The burnouts were lit early in the day when a layer of hot air floating above a layer of cold air kept fire danger lower, but when the inversion lifted in the afternoon, the blazes would intensify and spread, Agee said.

That led to new burnout operations the next day.

When Agee and others went out in October to look at the blazes, it was impossible to tell what had been destroyed by burnouts and what damage was caused by the wildfire itself, he said.

Black spaces

U.S. Forest Service officials defend burnouts.

“Providing this black space allows us to fight the fire on our own terms, said Sharon Heywood, supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Heywood said she’s seen the letters and heard the rumors that as many as half the acres burned last summer in the forest were intentionally set, but she doesn’t believe the claims.

She estimates that only 10 percent of the acres burned were from burnouts, though she said she could not provide exact figures.

The Forest Service doesn’t track how many acres were intentionally torched in burnout operations, Forest spokesman Kent Romney said.

Heywood wasn’t aware of any intentionally set fire that commanders later regretted, she said.

Romney called burnouts “professional suppression tactics and strategies that provided for the public and firefighter safety.”

They were effective, too, Romney said, asserting that it was because of the burnouts that none of the communities in the Shasta-Trinity Forest burned last summer.

Prolonged operations

Even so, burnouts have become a source of contention in Trinity County.

Many in the community say the burnouts represent a policy shift by the U.S. Forest Service.

They say that firefighters once aggressively attacked a fire with the intent of putting it out, but now fire managers are taking a more passive approach, allowing fires to burn themselves out, sometimes smoldering until the first rains or snows of fall.

After last summer, David Rhodes, a retired Forest Service firefighter of 31 years from Lewiston, joined forces with a group of other former foresters and firefighters to form Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management.

“We used to put fires out,” Rhodes said. “We didn’t prolong them.”

The group is lobbying officials in Washington including Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein to change fire policy to revive aggressive firefighting tactics of years past.

Such tactics would include setting fires only in emergencies or in closer proximity to blazes.

Paying the ‘fire debt’

Romney said residents are misguided in saying fire managers took a passive approach last summer.

In fact, he said, they decided early on after a lightning storm on June 20 ignited hundreds of blazes in the forest to attack the fires aggressively.

“We were in a full-suppression mode to get these fires out,” he said. He argues that burnouts are part of that suppression strategy.

And despite numerous claims to the contrary by its local critics, the Forest Service hasn’t made any changes since 1995 in its fire-management policies, Romney said.

John Bailey, an associate professor of silviculture (the agriculture of trees) and fire at Oregon State University, said that although “old fire dogs” like Rhodes have good intentions, the rapid-suppression tactics of years past don’t apply in today’s overgrown and rapidly drying forests.

Forested residents should come to expect summers full of smoke, and watching firefighters light such fires, he says.

“We got spoiled there for a couple of decades,” Bailey said. “It’s a fire debt we’re starting to pay on now.”

‘No fire-free option’

Timothy Ingalsbee, the Eugene, Ore.-based executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE), agreed that past fire practices shouldn’t apply today.

“Those good old days are over and they never were good,” Ingalsbee said.

FUSEE is a nonprofit group made up of current, former and retired firefighters and scientists who encourage safe, ethical and ecologically friendly fire-management policies, according to the group’s Web site.

The aggressive fire-management practices of the past, combined with climate change, have left forests overgrown, dry and ready to burn, Ingalsbee said. He believes the only way to safely combat that trend is often with more fire.

“There is no fire-free option,” Ingalsbee said. “It’s either controlled fire or uncontrolled wildfire. When you have wildfire, the best way to manage it is with more fire.”

Baily said burnout operations have proven among the best and cheapest ways to manage a blaze and keep bulldozer operators, air-tanker pilots and firefighters safe.

Burnout tactics are beneficial for the forest, too, he said, helping not just consume and corral the flames of a raging wildland fire, but also reducing the vegetation that could burn in the years to come.

Playing with fire

That’s not to say burnouts aren’t without risk.

“It is playing with fire,” said Bailey, the Oregon State professor. “I always laugh when I see a sign saying ‘Controlled burn in progress.’ You’ve only got control of a fire until you strike the match.”

There have been few recorded incidents of times when burnouts during active wildfires got out of control, but runaway blazes caused by prescribed fire operations are fairly commonplace, Bailey and other fire-fighting experts say.

Federal land management agencies complete between 4,000 and 5,000 such prescribed fires to clear vegetation each year, according to the national Wildfire Lessons Learned Center.

Of those, between 40 to 50 prescribed fires jump their lines, sometimes with disastrous results.

North state residents are familiar with two recent examples.

The Lowden Fire in Lewiston in 1999, an escaped Bureau of Land Management-prescribed blaze, burned 2,000 acres, destroyed 23 homes and led to more than $6.1 million in claims paid to residents.

The 2006 Hotlum Fire, a blaze set on the Shasta-Trinity in 70 mph gusts, burned 3,000 acres in Siskiyou County, torched vehicles, 100 telephone poles, a house and several smaller structures.

A family’s land torched

In Junction City, Bradford said firefighters told him that the blaze they were setting would safely consume undergrowth vegetation, leaving his trees alive and his land less fire-prone as a result.

Now, he’s trying to salvage the dead trees left on the property.

He’s contemplating a lawsuit against the federal government, but he’s worried that the cost to hire an attorney for a lengthy court battle wouldn’t be worth any eventual settlement.

Bradford says he and several of his neighbors are most frustrated that the blaze set on their properties proved to be of no use.

The wildfire the firefighters said threatened his home never even crested the next ridge, at least a half-mile away from his home.

“We’ve had this property since the 1950s,” Bradford said. “My grandfather bought it. I always thought that if a fire came, it would come from the road. I never thought it would be firefighters who burned it down.”

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