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Thoughts on past & current Forest Service Fire Policies.

September 6 2017 at 12:17 PM
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Ray Brooks  (Login raybrooks)

I am starting to fondly remember the good old days, before about 1995, when the U.S. Forest Service fought every fire & fought them hard, since forest fires were evil.

I worked summers 1969 - 1972 on Forest Service fire crews, & I remember those days fondly, due to the evil fires I put out & the great paychecks I received, that I used to pay most all of my college expenses while achieving a degree in Forest Resource Management.

Since the mid 1990’s revelation that forests should burn at regular intervals, profoundly changed U.S. Forest Service fire policy, our summer Idaho skies have often been smoky & our old growth forests have mostly vanished.

Current fire policy seems unhealthy for humans, & of course we are also producing lots of carbon dioxide through fires, to contribute to global warming. Here’s a brief history on how we got to our present wildfire policies.

The Great Fire of 1910 (also commonly referred to as the Big Burn) was a wildfire that burned about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana in 1910. The firestorm burned over two days, August 20–21, and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters. It is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in U.S. history. The outcome was to highlight firefighters as public heroes while raising public awareness surrounding national nature conservation. The extensive burned area was approximately the size of the state of Connecticut.

At the time of the Big Burn, the U.S. Forest Service had only existed for 5 years & was not well organized for fire-fighting. Before then, forests in the Northern Rockies had burned regularly for millions of years, contributing to the dominance of “fire-species” like Lodgepole Pine, that require fire in order to flourish. Since the arrival of white settlers in the 1860’s, there had been intensive logging in the area & still more fires had been set by settlers to “clear land.”

In spite of that history of constant forest fires, the Big Burn happened & shaped a Forest Service that considered forest fires to be evil & a public who supported immediate suppression of every forest fire. That attitude continued until the 1990’s, when the Forest Service did a sudden “about-face” on the subject of fire-suppression. The 1995 National Fire plan, per this PDF, details those changes.https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/41970/PDF

“The “Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy” addressed the role of fire as a natural disturbance and moved fire planning toward integration with resource management. Natural ignitions could be managed to achieve natural resource benefits and maintain fire dependent ecosystems.”

I agree the Forest Service went a little too-far with its policy of total suppression of every fire, from 1910 to 1995, but the new policy of letting fires burn untouched in Wilderness Areas can also be a mistake, if those fires are allowed to become big smoke producers, destroy scenic values, or become huge & cross Wilderness boundaries to threaten property outside National Forest lands. Wilderness fires also affect the stability of fragile & steep mountainsides, which later landslide into streams & further threaten our already threatened anadromous fishes.

We likely don’t need to go back to immediate suppression of every wildfire, but let it burn policies should be re-examined in light of current damage done to our environment & health.

But hey! How about these Idaho fire-smoke sunsets!
IMG_2173

IMG_2170

 
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splattski
(Login splattski)

Re: Thoughts on past & current Forest Service Fire Policies.

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September 6 2017, 2:38 PM 

Interesting and timely topic, Ray.
A few comments- and I realize I'm no expert. I'm just commenting based on various things I have read.

Wilderness areas
You mention wilderness fires several times. I think that fires within wilderness areas, while being allowed to burn, are only contributing a small portion of the smoke I see outside my window.

Suppression
Full suppression of fires for those many years left a lot of burnable understory. It seems to me that whenever man gets mixed up in nature, we bungle it. Letting it burn might be a way of letting nature fix the mess left by total suppression, but it will be centuries before nature can repair the harm man has already done.

Logging
Old-growth forests were more resistant to fires. Not resistant, just more so. They had less burnable understory. Many species of trees develop thick, fire-resistant bark. And some old-growth trees have branches that only start 20 feet or more off the ground.
Of course, those trees also had very high commercial value, so today's forests aren't like that so much.
Much of the second-and third-cut forests we now have aren't worth a lot commercially. And in Idaho, much of the forest isn't economic to harvest due to the steepness and remoteness of the land.

Mankind
Some estimates say that as much as 90% of wildfires today are caused by man. Increased access to the backcountry today will likely increase that percentage.
https://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/fire-in-depth/wildfire-causes.cfm

Global warming/climate change
A 1-degree change in daily temperature can make a HUGE difference in forest condition. For example, the normal temperature/elevation equation is that for each 1000' of elevation, the temperature is 3° lower. So based on that, a 1° increase will mean the snow level is 300' higher. Less snow will be stored. Less precip will fall as snow. Many,many acres fewer will be covered. And the result is that everything is much drier in August.

Funding
Currently, the Forest Service must rob money from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Including fire prevention efforts. Congress must find a better way to fund fire fighting efforts.

 
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Ray Brooks
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More fire thoughts

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September 6 2017, 6:10 PM 

John: Thank you for your well-thought out input. Re your statement about old-growth forests being more fire-resistant, that achievement was the Holy Grail of Forest Service fire policies between 1910 & 1995, when one of the objectives was to replace the very-burnable Lodgepole Pine forests with more fire resistant species such as Douglas Fir & Ponderosa Pine & wetter ecosystem species like Spruce & Alpine Fir.

In 1972, I did a long hike about 10 miles below the Boundary Creek Lauch area on the Middle Fork Salmon. I was thrilled to see Douglas Firs sprouting through the Lodgepole Pines away from the river & Spruce starting to shade out the Lodgepole Pines in wetter areas & near the river.

In late Sept of 1985, I drove the scenic road that goes from Stanley, through Bear Valley & on to Warm Lake & Cascade (The Landmark Stanley Road). A huge fire had recently burned from the mountains east of the Middle Fork, almost all the way to Deadwood Summit. It was burning in places as I drove un-impeded through the edge of the fire & fire-fighters were few & far-between. Finally after about 15 miles of burning forest, near Deadwood Summit, I found one firefighter watching flames slowly backing down a slope towards him 1/4 mile away. I stopped & chatted him up about what had happened. He explained that all the fire-crews had been disbanded at the end of summer & the local National Forest only had a couple of dozen fire-fighters available. They hadn't had a chance of stopping the fire. Between that fire & later ones, my dreams of a more fire-retardant ecosystem on the upper Middle Fork Salmon were all burned up.

I'll agree that a lot of our current smoke is not coming from fires in Wilderness areas, but the current largest fire in Idaho is the Highline Fire: (70,938 acres) in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness & there are various other fires churning out smoke in that wilderness & the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. I am distressed that most all of the Middle Fork Salmon & Main Salmon River canyons have burned since 2000 in a too-long series of huge unfought fires.

And lastly, although I remember a lot of facts about the 1910 Big Burn that triggered the Forest Service No Burn policy, I visited Wikipedia to supplement my memory this morning. I regret to inform fellow Wikipedia fans that Wiki neglected mentioning the Big Burn combined hundereds of small fires, some of which had been burning for weeks, when a "wind event" hit the area. The wind & the ensuing fatalities were over in two days, but the fires lasted all summer. Also the Big Burn was the 3rd largest forest fire in U.S. history, not the largest.

 
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splattski
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Re: More fire thoughts

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September 6 2017, 8:47 PM 

I think the 1910 conflagration was a whole series of lightning strikes across the Idaho/Montana border area?
There was also a huge burn in Oregon about that time, in the Coast Range out toward Astoria.
So there are different ways to measure the severity of these things: acres burned, board feet burned, people killed, etc.

When we talk about "destruction of the forest" I find it interesting to read historical books about the Forest Service and the viewpoints over time. Both logging and fires. Example: "From Jamestown to Coffin Rock, A History of Weyerhaeuser Operations in Southwest Washington": in the '30s, before machinery was used, a good sawyer could knock down 100,000 board feet in a day. Imagine what that number, with those old growth forests, would be today!
Especially interesting: seeing the photos of huge trees, millions of acres of them, growing so close you could touch two 10' trees (or bigger) with your outstretched arms. ....not anymore, tho!

My "best" fire memory comes from when in 2005 we walked from Sandy Point to Redfish Lake (we like to call it "Boise to Stanley"). Our route unintentionally went from one burn to another. I didn't emphasize that in the trip report, but we talked about it during our hike. And you can sure see it in the pictures:
http://www.splattski.com/2005/b_s/index.html

In McCall, we're reminded of fires every day. The Blackwell fire and others happened in the early 90s. On just about every hike, I have to crawl over the downfall. And the brush is coming back thick (not so much the trees).

One method of dealing with the downfall is to head for any standing green trees- it's almost always easier going under the canopy.

[linked image]

 
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Tom Lopez
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The scope of this fire season is . . .

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September 7 2017, 7:58 AM 

. . . unprecedented when combined with record high temperature in places like San Francisco at 106 degrees

Despite the disaster level fire conditions affecting the northwest it is hard to find articles covering anything other than the resulting air pollution. This is a comprehensive article by the Spokesman Review which is worth reading (and the article contains additional links to other reporting). The current situation is not a normal fire season. It is a disaster caused or at least exacerbated by climate change.

http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2017/sep/05/heres-a-list-of-major-fires-contributing-to-spokan/#/0

 
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Tom Lopez
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And in Montana . . .

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September 7 2017, 8:15 AM 

When I was in Missoula the first of August the air was already as bad as in Boise this week from the Lola Peak fire. It hasn't got any better.

http://missoulian.com/news/local/wildfires-wreak-weekend-havoc-across-western-montana/article_cf0fbc68-effb-5b20-975f-c7cda8f9b42a.html

 
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Anonymous
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Global Warming is the biggest problem

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September 7 2017, 12:45 PM 

Thank you all for sharing, some great experience and insight in this thread and am learning a lot!

Unfortunately I think Tom is correct. Idaho has warmed 2F over the past 50 years, and is slated to warm an additional 5F-10F over the next 50 years. At 10F more, there won't be any forests recovering.

 
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Tom Lopez
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A supporting article

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September 7 2017, 8:30 PM 


 
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Anonymous
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Re: A supporting article

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September 7 2017, 10:58 PM 

The last sentence really depresses me, what have we left for our children and grandchildren? Platt is right IMHO, we bungle most everything we touch.

 
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Bob
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More on fires

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September 7 2017, 9:46 AM 

I too worked on fires and in forestry beginning in the late 60s through the late 70s. The company I worked for provided helicopter services to the Forest Service throughout the western U.S. and in Alaska. We were on the big (for the time) Okanagan and the Trapper peak fires which burned over 50,000 acres. These fires were considered "project fires" where all of the resources that were available were put into action to suppress them. For their time, these were some of the largest modern fires that had occurred in the west.

If I look at the large fires that have happened since 2000, 250,000 acre fires now seem to be the new "norm". Last year I heard that half of the Boise National Forest had burned and when I looked it up I found this document.

https://www.idahofireinfo.blm.gov/southwest/documents/Maps/BOF/BOF_MAPS/BOF_17_FireHistory.pdf

As for the Salmon River fires, don't forget about the 2007 fire that burned down the South Fork from Warm Lake to near the Krassel Ranger station. I've been visiting that area almost every year since 1997 and while the lodgepole is recovering much faster than I expected, the other species are not. The loss of the old growth spruce, pine and fir down by the river has resulted in much of the river losing the shade and cooling that the trees used to provide. The salmon that run in the river have changed their migration habits due to the loss of cover.

I know the country is focused on hurricanes at the moment but it seems like the entire western U.S. has been burning up for months. The fires are at a level 5 where all of resources available are being used. Perhaps it's time to start focusing our wealth and resources towards the disasters that are happening here instead building a new nuke arsenal or the next generation of super jet.


Bob

 
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Ray Brooks
(Login raybrooks)

Scary that so much of our forests have burned since 2000!

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September 7 2017, 11:00 AM 

Tom & Bob: Thanks for your thoughts & links.

Bob: Re your final thoughts: "Perhaps it's time to start focusing our wealth and resources towards the disasters that are happening here instead building a new nuke arsenal or the next generation of super jet."

I agree that our wildland fire programs need way more than current funding, both for fire prevention programs & for better suppression of fires that start. For those that worry about stealing money from the military, I would submit that Americans & especially wealthier Americans are paying historically low income taxes. I for one, would not object to paying another percent or two in taxes, if it lowers the fire toll & reduces our annual fire-smoke suffer-fest.

Bob: I opened & enlarged your Boise National Forest fire history PDF & was shocked & appalled that more than half of the forest has burned since 1990. I found only 5 large fires that burned prior to 1990. The pro-fire advocates have forced a century's worth, or more, of fires on us since 1990 & they want to have us take still more "fire medicine" to make up for the 85 years that the Forest Service suppressed all fires.

I do not advocate putting out all wildfires immediately, but I believe our fire policies need to be more balanced than the current "all wildfires are good, unless they impact private property" policy. Unfortunatley, a large part of the informed public now hold thoughts about wildfires similar to those expressed by one of my Facebook friends: "It's the full suppression strategy that has caused these huge raging fires. If the forest had been allowed to burn naturally the whole time this wouldn't be happening. We need to get things back on track. It's going to take a very very long time."

I sigh for her brainwashed naivety.

 
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