13 November 2020

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USA – I am a retired career firefighter and it is my opinion that the United States Forest Service (USFS) is grossly mismanaging our National Forests by using midsummer forest fires as a “management tool.” I have several points that I feel are relevant to this opinion. Please take the time to consider the following:

The USFS does not attack wildfires on a timely basis that would allow them to suppress new fires at their inception as other fire agencies do. This allows the wildfire to grow to dangerous size before any action is taken. When the USFS receives report of a fire, they often do not take action on the fire for many days. Instead they plan for a major incident from the beginning by setting up their Incident Bases first and then calling for out of state resources. It is important to know that the USFS manages public lands…they are the primary “managers” of the land they protect on our behalf. State and local fire agencies protect private lands…when you call with an emergency, they will respond immediately.

The USFS does not utilize the California Mutual Aid System effectively. They draw resources from out of state and often do not communicate with State and Local fire agencies. Have you ever heard of “black ops”? CalFire regularly dispatches their resources to protect state responsibility lands and local jurisdictions within the National Forest boundaries because the USFS does not ask for help. Regrettably, the bottom line is that the USFS does not play well with others. The USFS does not give adequate consideration and action toward structure protection. I have had personal experience with the USFS ignoring structure protection and after evacuating a fire area will simply let structures burn without attempting to protect them. I have also been subject to the USFS holding separate briefings from the “all resources” general daily shift briefings that resulted in my structure protection resources being given only the barest fire behavior information and no incident map. I have also commonly experienced attitudes of superiority and discrimination from USFS employees towards state resources assigned to USFS fires.

The USFS policy of 16-hour day shifts, with no fire suppression efforts during the night, leads to ineffective wildland fire management. When is the best time to put a wildland fire out? Nighttime, of course. This is common sense. Cooler temperatures, higher humidity, and less wind. In the “old days” both CalFire and the USFS worked two 12-hour shifts, a day shift and a night shift on wildland fires. Presently CalFire works a 24-hour shift to take advantage of this environmental fire suppression opportunity. Now the USFS employs a single 16-hour shift and does not fight fire at night, thus missing the best opportunity to contain the fire.

The Federal financial management system allows the USFS to receive additional annual funding called “black acre” funds for budget supplementation dedicated for rehab and repair of the National Forest infrastructure and to repair environmental damage due to the fire. National Forests that do not have a major fire in their jurisdiction do not receive this additional funding and have financial incentive to allow their fires to grow as large as possible. I have personally heard a USFS Incident Commander boast that he was going to ensure that his fire “will have the lowest cost per acre” of any USFS incident. How is this done: the greatest acreage possible with the lowest resource commitment possible. CalFire resorted to the above-described “black ops” to ensure structure protection was carried out.

USFS safety employees go on “hazard pay” overtime from the inception of the fire until the fire is out. I believe this removes incentive for the employees to fight fire aggressively. Working 16-hour shifts during a 24-hour day ensures eight hours of overtime every day. All employees should be compensated for hours worked according to their collective bargaining agreements. I feel the USFS can do better by their employees and provide for better operational effectiveness.

Although it is commonly agreed upon that the wildland fuels are badly overgrown and in need of effective management to reduce the fuel hazard caused by wildfire, the USFS uses this fact to justify their management choices. Allowing fires to burn for months at a time, covering the state in smoke and making life miserable for most of our population, while simultaneously destroying millions of acres of National Forest land is not what we, the people, want. The history of wildfire in California is well documented. It is written in the giant sequoias in their annual rings. But I feel that “people come first.” Management tools used in the past, such as “let burn policies,” need to be revisited and changed to account for California residents’ expansion into the Wildland areas of the state for both residential and recreational purposes. What benefit is a wilderness area or roadless area if it has been destroyed by wildfire that the USFS refuses to contain?

When was the last time the USFS planted a tree to replace timber destroyed during a wildfire? When was a prescribed burn planned and executed to reduce wildland fuel loads? What do we, the people, expect from the USFS as a land management agency? Do we really want our National Forests to look like the Mendocino NF or the Plumas NF or the Klamath NF or the Sequoia NF or the Los Padre NF or the Stanislaus NF : charred beyond recognition and eroding into our rivers?

How does climate change play into this discussion? I am not a climate change expert, but hotter, drier conditions resulting from climate change can make a significant impact on fire weather and fuels. There is no question that if a wildfire is left unattended long enough it will explode into a life-threatening scenario for our firefighters. Our firefighters are facing extreme fire behavior without question.  Why is it that CalFire assisted by local government resources can extinguish fires burning through subdivisions and up against our towns and cities in ten days to two weeks, but the USFS cannot extinguish any wildland fire until the winter rains come? Why is it that when these disastrous fires burn from National Forest jurisdiction to state jurisdiction the fire is immediately put out? How much smoke and erosion and property damage and loss of life and environmental damage can we endure?

Historically the USFS has set the standards for wildland firefighting. But the standards have changed and the USFS must meet the standards or let competent firefighters do the job.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am sending this opinion to as many media providers as I can in hopes that I can interest our legislators to take action and investigate these claims. I feel this is a political problem to be dealt with at the Federal level. If you agree I ask you to do the same. Am I an expert in these issues? Yes, in some respects. I am a retired firefighter with 42 years’ experience with both state and local government fire departments, and I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Management.

Finally, if a National Forest Supervisor allows his or her forest to be totally burned in one fire season, I feel that the National Forest Supervisor in question should be dismissed for failure to be responsible to the wishes of we, the people. I also believe that if the Regional Forester for the California Region 5 does not take appropriate action to remedy this situation he or she should be dismissed.

Please use this opportunity to let me know your opinion.

Jim Robertson


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