USA — A wildfire review report of two large New Mexico wildfires last summer said the decisions and actions taken by those responsible for the suppression of the Little Bear and Whitewater-Baldy fires were consistent with federal fire policies, available firefighting resources and specific ground conditions.
But the chief author of the review said policies need to be changed. The report, requested by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., was released by Pearce’s office on Tuesday. Immediately after the Little Bear Fire raced down the mountains, Pearce was sharply critical of the Forest Service’s response to the fire during its first four days, before it exploded out of control.
The review was conducted by Roger Seewald, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee representing the chief of the Forest Service, and William Derr, also a retired Forest Service employee who represented Pearce as a legislative fellow. Both reviewers were described as having extensive backgrounds in wildland fire suppression and aftermath investigation.
“If a more aggressive National Fire Policy had been in place with enhanced firefighting resources, and if hazardous fuel conditions had been mitigated through sound forest management practices, these wildfires could have been more easily contained and controlled,” the report stated in its introduction.
The Little Bear Fire was caused by lightning on June 4, 2012. Initial suppression action was by a two-person Mescalero Reservation helitack crew that attempted to contain the fire on the first evening. The next morning a 20-person Forest Service hot shot crew was brought in and spent the next four days in an effort to hold the fire. On Friday, June 8, spotting from a large burning tree ignited fuels outside the fireline. High winds caused resulting spot fires to merge and escape, resulting in the rampage that swept out of the White Mountain Wilderness and went on to burn more than 44,000 acres and destroy more than 250 homes north and northwest of Ruidoso.
The review noted six reasons among the factors for an alarming increase in major wildfires. The factors include a warming climate cycle, fuel buildups because of tree mortality from diseases and a virtual halt to tree harvesting of forest products, insufficient fire prevention, detection and fuel reduction programs, diminished wildland fire suppression expertise and experience in the Forest Service, reduced aerial and ground firefighting resources, and an ambiguous National Fire Policy.
“If this serious loss of the nation’s natural resources is not reversed, the Western forests as we have known them will virtually disappear in the coming years,” Derr wrote in the wildfire review report. “A return to sound forest management practices, free of political constraints, can reverse this trend.”
The ambiguity Derr referred to in the National Fire Policy pointed four specific areas.
“The elimination of the time-honored 10 a.m. control policy dating back to 1935 which established the objective of planning and providing the necessary resources to control a wildfire by 10 a.m. the following day. This policy ensured that aggressive direct initial and extended attack was taken on all wildfire with sufficient resources thereby enhancing the probability of early containment and control the following day.
“The introduction of the practice of reintroducing fire on the landscape to accomplish management objectives by allowing unplanned fires to burn has often resulted in escapes and more significantly created a belief by many Forest Service managers that fire is a positive change agent on the landscape thereby reducing their sense of urgency to control a wildfire during fire season.
“Not assigning firefighters to fires at night due to safety concerns when containment and control opportunities are often the most effective and firefighter safety concerns can be appropriately addressed.
“The use of ‘burn out’ firefighting tactics in lieu of direct fireline construction adds total burned acres and often escapes planned perimeters thereby further increasing total burned acreage by 100 percent.”
Derr noted firefighter safety must always be taken into account and was cited as a key consideration by managers in the Little Bear Fire and the Whitewater-Baldy Complex.
“Whether these fires could have been contained and controlled in the early stages without compromising firefighter safety is a judgment call at this point,” Derr’s report stated. “However, it appears that a more timely and aggressive approach with additional ground and aerial firefighting resources could have been taken while providing for firefighter safety.”
Seewald said he believed appropriate decisions and actions were taken to put out the Little Bear Fire. He outlined a number of “findings” after meetings with Smokey Bear District Fire Mana_gement Officer Anthony Sanchez, District Ranger Dave Warnack, and others directly involved in the suppression activities.
The evening belief (on June 7) by the superintendent of the Sacramento Hotshot crew was there was no potential for the fire to escape. Sanchez and Warnack had gone to the fire location earlier in the day, indicating there was district oversight of the suppression activities, Seewald added. Another finding showed the terrain around the ignition area was extremely rocky and steep. Combined with heavy slash on the ground, firefighters were unable to move quickly. Seewald wrote that an aerial assault in the first days of the fire would have been ineffective and potentially dangerous to the hotshots on the ground. He said the use of helicopters for water drops would have created problems.
“To be effective the water would need to be dropped from an altitude of around 100 – 150 feet. This would have created rotor winds on the fire, spreading it in all directions and the hazard to personnel on the ground would be significant. Again, there would have been limbs knocked off standing trees and potentially snags knocked over. Due to the steep and rocky terrain, it would have created a safety issue every time a drop was to be made because of the inability to move very fast in the rocks and fallen debris on the ground.”
The steepness, rocks and vegetation made bringing in additional firefighters inadvisable, Seewald said he learned. And a check of the weather forecast showed no predictions of strong winds beginning on June 8.
“Today’s report is a step toward the transparent, locally-driven approach to forest management that New Mexico needs,” Pearce said Tuesday. “New Mexicans have expressed anger and frustration over the handling of recent fires, which needlessly cost hundreds of millions dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousand acres of habitat, and killed countless plants and animals. By understanding thoroughly what has gone wrong with fire management in past summers we can work to improve our fire prevention and forestry policies starting now.”
The congressional review by Derr and Seewald described the study of the Little Bear Fire as a situation where most of the interviewees were not involved with the fire until it escaped on June 8. One interview, with Sacramento Hotshot Superintendent Matt Barone, indicated that despite being in a national wildness area there were no suppression constraints in place, minimal impact tactics were not used, additional air resources would not have been effective, there was a containment line around the entire fire at the onset, Red Flag weather predicted for June 9 arrived a day early at midday Friday, and interior torching caused the fire to escape.
“The initial attack firefighters were immediately given verbal approval for helicopter and chainsaw use within the (White Mountain) Wilderness area, indicating this was to be a full suppression action,” the review stated.
The report was sponsored by the National Institute for the Elimination of Catastrophic Wildfire and was completed at no taxpayer cost.