Fire Wars: Past and future terrorist attacks on American forests warrant priority attention

Fire Wars: Past and future terrorist attacks on American forests warrant priority attention

17 November 2013

published by

USA — There are valid reasons to link numerous deadly wildfires in Europe and the American West to actions of international arsonists. Such occurrences warrant great concern, not only because they cause devastating destruction to life, property and natural ecosystems, but also because these crimes are difficult to prevent and trace to offenders.

Since wildfires occur naturally, through careless accidents, and due to isolated incidents of malicious arson, hard evidence of any connection between a particular event and a terrorist agenda is challenging to prove. Accordingly, skepticism regarding any suggestions of such relationships is entirely responsible and legitimate.

Upon first learning of William Scott’s experiences and concerns on this topic, I certainly had doubts that enough evidence was available to substantiate any such theory, much less to justify an article on the matter. Perhaps upon reading this interview you will understand why I changed my mind.

By way of background, Bill is a former writer/reporter for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, a leading journal for the aerospace industry. He retired as the Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief after 22 years. His aero-journalism career has produced myriad investigative stories, including a nine-article series about aerial firefighting in the U.S. and Canada. That research involved ten flights on different firefighting aircraft ranging from retardant-dropping tankers to smokejumper transports and Type 1 helicopters fitted with “snorkels”.

Based upon his reporting on the massive 2002 Hayman fire in Colorado and his background as an experienced flight test engineer and U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School graduate, Bill was recruited to serve as a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel that investigated and reported upon the safety and effectiveness of federal aerial firefighting aircraft.

His wildfire-related experience was tapped again early this year to help Colorado state senators prepare legislation to create the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (C-FAC), a state-owned-and-operated fleet of aircraft. He testified before several Colorado Senate committees, and was present when Governor John Hickenlooper signed C-FAC into law on June 5, 2013.

Bill also has ground-level experience with wildfires. Last June, one week after C-FAC was created, he and his wife were forced to evacuate when their home was threatened by the devastating Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Fire marshals later confirmed that conflagration was “man-caused” and of “suspicious nature”.

Bill, for starters please briefly explain more about suspicious circumstances regarding the Black Forest fire.

Larry, investigators and law enforcement officials haven’t yet released details, but have publicly acknowledged suspicions that a single person or group “may” be responsible for setting both the Black Forest fire and 2012’s horrific Waldo Canyon fire on the west side of Colorado Springs. In the span of one year, those two fires destroyed 832 homes, killed four people and consumed 32,527 acres – all in one community.

Further, the Waldo Canyon disaster was preceded by 25 arson fires in Teller County and El Paso County over about a three-week period. Dr. Tony Kern, a former U.S. Forest Service director of aviation, who had to evacuate his new home when it was threatened by the Waldo Canyon fire, asked: “Was Waldo Canyon number 26?

That fire erupted on June 23, 2012, and exploded on June 26th – fueled by 100-degree temperatures, single-digit relative humidity and 55-65 mile- per- hour winds. It was described by dedicated, brave responders, who battled it, as a “firestorm from hell”. Within a span of minutes, it jumped two fire breaks and raced downhill into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

The 19-day conflagration ultimately burned 18,247 acres, killed two people, destroyed 346 homes, and forced more than 32,000 people to evacuate. About $15 million in direct costs were required, just to bring it under control. Post-fire remediation costs have yet to be determined. O At the time, our governor said the Waldo Canyon fire was the largest- loss incident in the state’s history, comparing it to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

One year later, the Black Forest fire on the northeast side of Colorado Springs destroyed another 486 homes, burned 14,280 acres and killed another couple, as they were trying to evacuate. Both fires were “man-caused”, and at least by that definition, any arsonist capable of creating such destruction and killing four innocent citizens certainly qualifies as a “terrorist.”

Responding to questions regarding the Black Forest fire, sheriff Terry Maketa said, “One thing my investigators have given me the authority to state is that they have ruled out natural causes as the cause of this fire I can’t really go any further on that, but I can say we are pretty confident it was not, for instance, a lightning strike.”

In 2012 alone, Colorado first-responders reported 4,167 wildland fires that killed six people and burned more than 384,803 acres. The tally for 2013 will probably be in the same ballpark. Consequently, a case could also be made that Colorado is already engaged in “fire combat.”

But even if those fires were all connected to deliberate arson by the same individual or group, what evidence suggests any link to an international terrorist agenda?

There is considerable evidence of intent. As mentioned in my presentation on July 9, 2012, as part of an American Center for Democracy “Briefing to Congress” when Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, they captured a treasure trove of material that provided unprecedented insight into al Qaeda plans. Those plans included a detailed campaign for starting fires throughout the American West.

On May 2nd, 2012, ABC News ran a story entitled “Al Qaeda Magazine Calls for Firebomb Campaign in U.S.” That news report referred to an issue of “Inspire” magazine that surfaced on al Qaeda websites, calling for jihadists to start huge fires with timed explosives planted in U.S. forests. The articles included detailed instructions for constructing remote-controlled “ember bombs.”

Then, on May 31, 2012, the Department of Homeland Security released an unclassified, Official-Use-Only document, entitled “TERRORIST INTEREST IN USING FIRE AS A WEAPON.” Here are a few quotes from it:

“International terrorist groups and violent extremists have long shown interest in using fire as a weapon, due to the low cost and limited technical expertise required, the potential for causing large-scale damage, and the low risk of apprehension…[U]se of this tactic…is directed at Western audiences and supports homeland attacks.”

“For terrorists, setting fires has several advantages over other methods…including sustainability (duration of the fire and long-term effects); the potential for casualties, economic damage, and wide media coverage; and the accompanying psychological effects of fear and terror.”

“Terrorists intent on using fire as a weapon may choose to target locations in proximity to populated areas or infrastructure to maximize damage and casualties.”

Although the DHS document said, at the time, that there was no solid evidence of wildfires being started by al Qaeda operatives in the U.S., sources within Cal Fire, a state firefighting agency, confirmed that some California fires in 2011 were linked to terrorists. Also in 2012, Russia’s security chief, Aleksandr Bortnikov warned, “al Qaeda was complicit in recent forest fires in Europe” as part of the terrorists’ strategy of waging economic warfare by “a thousand cuts.”

Still, from what you report, we can’t be sure that there is any connection between those fires and either home-grown or al Qaeda terrorists. How do you respond to these uncertainties?

Larry, while logic demands that people have every right to question this, I believe that the possibility is far too important to ignore. Many of our fellow citizens—particularly those on the East Coast—are skeptical of the idea that al Qaeda terrorists might be setting fires in western forests. For whatever reason, these skeptics choose to ignore loud-and-clear warnings and evidence of intent. ….Just like many did, prior to al Qaeda’s attacks on nine-eleven.

As Scott Stewart, the vice president of analysis for STRATFOR said last March: “I…take umbrage at those who snicker at the thought of grassroots jihadists lighting fires. …I believe that fire is an under-appreciated threat. Many people do not realize how deadly a weapon it can be, even though starting fires does not require sophisticated terrorist tradecraft.”

Those of us who live in the beautiful State of Colorado can’t afford to take a head-in-the-sand approach. Looking the other way and hoping terrorists don’t really intend to attack with fire isn’t a strategy for survival. And, like it or not, we’re on the front lines of “Fire Wars.” With 4 million acres of beetle-kill trees, Colorado is the perfect target-of-opportunity for arsonists of any stripe, regardless of their affiliation

So Bill, what can we do about this threat?

For one, Americans need to immediately stop dealing with wildfire solely as a land-management issue and start approaching it as a national security issue. That simple change of mindset could lead to a potentially more effective, military-like, systems approach to preventing and fighting wildfires to protect lives and property. As any good general officer does, we should prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best. Employ the assets and resources we already have, while developing new technologies, tools and strategies.

For example, NASA and the Air Force have satellites with sensors that can detect and geolocate fires. If Colorado officials set up agreements with Air Force Space Command and U.S. Northern Command, timely alerts about new starts could be routed to fire crews, enabling true “initial attacks” to catch fires, while they’re small, ensuring they don’t explode into megafires.

NASA, Forest Service and military aircraft equipped with infrared systems could spot and report these fires quickly. Colorado Air National Guard F-16s routinely fly with Sniper and Lightning II electro-optical pods, which detect hot spots, day or night. If these aircraft were to fly so-called “Fire Combat Air Patrol” or Fire-CAP missions over the Front Range, during periods of extreme fire danger, they could quickly direct firefighters to new starts and help law enforcement officers intercept arsonists, before the bad guys could escape.

Yes, that might be seen as a costly measure.

But consider the cost of those 27 fire starts within three weeks last year, culminating in Waldo Canyon. And the very real possibility that a determined jihadist may have inflicted senseless tragedies by scoring big-time with the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires – and is still at large.

Are essential intervention and response resources available to address this threat?

This is a critical problem. Once a fire is detected, preventing its rapid expansion requires immediate response from both air and ground firefighters. Unfortunately, the federal government no longer has a robust large air tanker fleet capable of dealing with wildfires across the nation.

The federal government apparently does not consider wildfire a pressing national security issue. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service’s culture and regional structure are not compatible with making national-level strategic decisions. Consequently, the Forest Service should not be counted upon to develop, procure and field a robust 21st-Century large-air-tanker fleet in the near-term.

Relying on the federal government to provide firefighting resources during a nationwide attack by fire-bug terrorists, is a risk few state governors are willing to assume. As a result, we in Colorado and other heavily forested states are pretty much on our own.

Fortunately, state Senator Steve King led a bipartisan campaign to pass legislation creating that Colorado Firefighting Air Corps which, as mentioned earlier, was signed by the governor last June. Hopefully, we’ll soon have a fleet of air tankers, helicopters and support aircraft capable of hitting any new fire within 20 minutes of notification, anywhere in the state.

Dr. Tony Kern and I also are helping state officials develop a Colorado Center of Excellence for aerial and ground firefighting to capitalize on the state’s superb academic, military and civilian research and development resources. Funding for C-FAC and the Center of Excellence may be provided through a partnership of state government agencies, philanthropic organizations and private companies.

These initiatives are still at the studies-and-concept development stage, but need to be accelerated. The bad guys are well aware that Colorado forests are literally one lightning bolt or one match strike away from yet another deadly conflagration. And whether ignited by an al Qaeda jihadist, a Mexican cartel’s marijuana grower hidden in a mountain valley, or a disgruntled, mentally deranged homegrown arsonist, the result is the same.

Bill, thanks for sharing this information, and also for what you and other Coloradans are doing to address a threat which should be of great concern to every American.

Thanks Larry. I appreciate the opportunity to spread awareness of what many Americans recognize as a serious natural and geopolitical security issue. Fire is an extremely high-leverage weapon of mass effect…and we Coloradans are prime targets. We’re also , in a sense, a first line of defense for our entire country.

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