USA —Officials with the Lincoln National Forest were criticized Saturday evening for their initial handling of the Little Bear Fire. During an informal meeting, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce contended Forest Service officials should have moved to completely snuff out the fire on Tuesday.
“This is the second meeting exactly like I’ve sat here,” Pearce told officials with the Lincoln National Forest. “How much did the Capitan Fire burn, 150,000 acres?”
The 2004 Peppin Fire, in the Capitan Mountains, scorched about 64,000 acres, Pearce was told by Lincoln National Forest Supervisor Robert Trujillo.
“It was sitting there at 12 acres for several days and we decided not to do anything about it,” Pearce said of the 2004 fire. “Suddenly it blew out. I just came from the other side of the state where we’ve got a 300,000-acre fire more or less going right now. For two days, maybe three, it was sitting there in a very small area. And then it came loose. You yourselves are talking about the explosive nature of the forest – the fuels available. I just know that if you put enough water, 30, 50, 1,000 tankers, somewhere you’re going to get enough penetration. What I have trouble doing is going to explain to a village why decisions were made that if that wind comes up wrong tomorrow, and that anchor point doesn’t hold, you’re looking at a catastrophe that a quarter of an acre doesn’t justify.”
Pearce questioned the decision not to put water or retardant down at the onset.
The forest’s Smokey Bear District Ranger Dave Warnack said fire officials made the decision. “Those are the folks with the years of experience managing wildfires,” Trujillo added. “And my job is to support those decisions and to give them the tools and techniques to take care of this fire. Right now, Mr. Congressman, we have an active fire out there and I don’t see that this conversation is very productive, with all due respect.”
But Pearce pounded back.
“If the decisions made at that point could have forced all this, it is productive to say ‘Who made the decisions?’ I think its extraordinarily important,” Pearce said. “We’re seeing this occur over and over and over again, and at some point, somebody has to make a decision that we get more active earlier.”
Pearce said his constituents expect him to ask the Forest Service such questions.
“They’re worried about their homes. They’re worried about the economy of this town. They’re worried about their futures. You’re damn right they’ve got a right to ask those questions and I’ve got a responsibility to ask it here when I get the room.”
Warnack said the fire was first detected on the evening of June 4 and a full suppression strategy was called for.
“We authorized the landing of a helicopter in the White Mountain Wilderness and we dropped off two helitech personnel and we also authorized the use of power saws in the wilderness. The next morning we hiked in a 20-person Type I crew, the Sacramento Hot Shots.”
Warnack said by June 7, he even walked in.
“It was an island of mixed conifers,” he said of the small location of the fire that had about a 10 acres circle around it.
“We were getting fairly decent moisture recoveries at night, up to 40 percent humidity at night,” Warnack said. “The crew was making very good progress on that fire.”
But by the afternoon of June 8, winds had picked up and spot fires were starting beyond the 10-acre island. Warnack said a Type III team was called in and by 2:30 p.m. retardant drops were started but the flames took off in grasses.
Friday night the fire, estimated to have burned though 10,000 to 12,000 acres, will probably be mapped out over a larger terrain given the flames’ movement farther to the east during the day, said fire suppression official James Villard.