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Megafires Become Political

Quite possibly, a successful legal action against the USFS would find the current policy unlawful

Megafires Become Political

Megafires Become Political

By Terry Noonkester

Many fire fighters believe that most megafires, especially in Southwest Oregon, are due to a lack of aggressive initial attack.  If the fire is attacked initially, that is the key to success.  That was taken seriously from 1943 to 1981.   They believe that Forest Service policy does greatly contribute to megafires and lost homes.   

There were very low acreages burned during the years of the ’10 am Policy’:  “Part of our success was aggressive initial attack and being able to attack lightning caused remote fires efficiently.” says one firefighter.   “All these fires require firefighters on the ground fighting fire. Many times, this concept seems to be lost …Two ways to get this accomplished in remote areas are smokejumpers or rappellers.”

In a 2018 speech the former Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, called unplanned wildfires “an important land treatment tool” that requires “accepting short-term risks for longer term reductions in risk.”  Christiansen served as USFS Chief from October 11, 2018 until July 26, 2021 through the worst national fire seasons of recent history.  She retired with praise from her boss, Tom Vilsack for doing such a ‘great job’.

On June 28, 2021, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that Randy Moore will serve as the new Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.  Chief Randy Moore wrote to his staff in a letter on Monday, August 2nd that the 2021 fire season is “different from any before” and proclaimed a national crisis that required the U.S. Forest Service to put on hold its mission to groom forestlands (with the unplanned wildfires).  Instead, the agency would use its strained resources to protect lives and homes.  Moore also said; “Let me be clear. This is not a return to the 10 a.m. Policy. “

The 10 a.m. policy he was referring to is the the Forest Service’s previous fire management policy that stipulated ‘all wildfires were to be suppressed by 10 a.m. the morning after they were first spotted’.  Megafires were very rare during the time period of this policy. The change in policy that USFS Chief Moore is declaring might mean more aggressive fire fighting, but is only temporary and falls far short of the 10 a.m. policy.

The policy shift comes just after there was a lot of political blowback from the many megafires burning, most of which started as very small fires that the USFS was ‘monitoring’ in remote areas of the Nation Forests.  The fire that garnered the most attention was the Tamarack Fire.  Lightning ignited the Tamarack Fire on July 4 approximately 16 miles south of Gardnerville, Nevada, on the California side of the border.  Six days later, on July 10th, the Forest Service wrote on Facebook that the fire, then about 10,000 square feet, was “surrounded by granite rocks, a small lake and sparse fuels.”  By the end of the month, the Tamarack Fire had crossed the California/Nevada border and had grown to 106 square miles and had burned at least 23 buildings. 

The L A Times published an article called “California says federal ‘let it burn’ policy is reckless as wildfires rage out of control”.  The article contains quotes from many high level officials that are at odds with the philosophy of fire suppression that has allowed small fires on federal lands to burn.  Here are a few of those quotes:

Tracy LeClair, a public information officer for the command team in charge of the Tamarack Fire said that she couldn’t speak to the decision to let it burn, as it took place before the team’s arrival…“I do know that fire resources were limited and there were several higher priority fires in the area,…so due to the remote location, the decision was made to monitor it.”

Scott Packwood, Cal Fire’s unit chief for the Lassen-Modoc area stated that: “In my jurisdiction, I have been super aggressive in trying to put [fires] out small,” 

Ken Pimlott, retired director of Cal Fire said; “I spent a career as a firefighter and a forester and we do everything we can to mitigate risk for everyone,” … “I truly believe that taking every opportunity to keep fires small at a certain level of risk outweighs not taking any action and allowing fires to grow into conflagrations and placing hundreds of thousands of people and firefighters at risk.” 

Ken Pimlott went on to say, “Could we reasonably have expected this fire to stay at a quarter-acre for any length of time and not become a conflagration, as it did?”  He also said that while firefighter safety is always the top priority, “it can be too simple an excuse for not taking quick action. While it might have been risky then to insert firefighters, there are now hundreds of personnel assigned to the fire who are putting themselves in harm’s way.”

Lassen County Administration Officer Richard Egan said it is difficult to get satisfying explanations from the federal government.  “They are masters at, I think the correct term is, gaslighting,” Egan told U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa at a meeting days after the Sugar fire hit Doyle. “They are terrible neighbors for us.”

Lassen County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Carney, who was out checking on evacuations stated in regard to communications with the Forest Service:  “I wouldn’t even say the communication was poor, I would say it was nonexistent.”

By July 28th, the Tamarack Fire had burned at least 23 buildings including Grover Hot Springs State Park.  California and Nevada Governors Gavin Newsom and Steve Sisolak toured homes destroyed by the fire.   Newsom said,  “You can’t just walk away, not with this climate, not with this drought, …This is life and death, and we can’t just fight fires the way we did 20, 30, 40 years ago anymore.”

On July 30th, the governors of 8 western states participated on a virtual meeting with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Gathered virtually were Govs. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., Brad Little, R-Idaho, Mark Gordon, R-Wyo., Kate Brown, D-Ore., Jay Inslee, D-Wash., Gavin Newsom, D-Calif. and Tim Walz, D-Minn.

Biden opened the meeting with a dialog on his own political agenda stating that:  “One of the important aspects of the — of the bipartisan infrastructure deal that is before the Senate now is it includes billions of dollars — billions of dollars — to strengthen wildfire preparedness, resilience, and response.” 

And so, most of the part of the meeting open to the public was about Bidens’ climate change agenda, with the governors in agreement.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee told Biden:  “Our own federal scientists have said that if we accept a one-degree centigrade change, we’ll have 600 percent increase in these fires on a regular basis.  We won’t recognize these forests as forests anymore unless we succeed with your vision.”  

During the meeting, Governor Gavin Newsom called the “wait and see” culture of allowing some fires to burn on federal lands the “elephant in the room.” He asked Biden for help to ensure “we’re all on the same page in terms of those initial attack strategies” to force a more aggressive federal response.

Politicians in California and Nevada wanted answers regarding the Tamarack Fire.  U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock of California sent a letter to the Forest Service asking why the Tamarack Fire wasn’t immediately suppressed, and Nevada State Rep. Jim Wheeler requested that the State Attorney General investigate.

The National Wildfire Institute, a coalition that includes former Forest Service employees and industry interests such as timber companies, released a letter charging that the decision to allow the Tamarack Fire to burn “bears many hallmarks of criminal negligence”… “This was a fire that burned for over a week unchecked,”  The National Wildlife Institute is calling for an independent investigation.  Allowing the Tamarack Fire to continue burning was within the parameters of the current USFS policy,  but possibly a successful legal action against the USFS would find the current policy unlawful.

The National Wildfire Institute‘s ‘Action Center’ on the internet has several icons relating to wildfires that offer people a contact to their political leaders. People interested can send emails from the site relating to their concerns about the Forest Service’s ‘Let It Burn’  policy and other issues listed. The emails are automatically sent to the President, their own US Senators and US Representative all at once. 

 

Please send any comments to terrynoonkester@gmail.com

Related: Biden Rejects Republican Governors in Wildfire Forum

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