2008 wildfire redux


Recently I had the opportunity to backpack in Northern California’s Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness. The wildflowers were wonderful and among the many birds I got a close up look at a Lazuli Bunting.

One day I climbed Black Rock Mountain which provides spectacular 360 degree views – including a view of several of last summer’s wildfires. One of those fire areas lay below my feet, mostly inside the wilderness. Forest Service firefighters had constructed a fireline with a bulldozer on the wilderness border. They had also fired a burn out into the wilderness from that line. Here is a photo showing the fireline (light line on the right) and portions of the burn out:


And here is a photo of the natural fire:



(Please note that these images have been adjusted to enhance contrast between high and low intensity burned areas)

It appears clear that the burn out was hotter and killed more trees as compared to the natural fire. Both areas are in wilderness where logging and other management actions have not altered the amount of fuel or the age of the trees.

This situation is not unique. I have walked every large wildfire in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon since 1987 and I have come to two major conclusions:

  • Burn outs and back fires almost always burn hotter and – along with firelines - result in more damage to vegetation, water quality and the land – including wilderness - as compared to the natural fires.
  • Large fires in the backcountry – that is, fires which burn far from towns and (most) roads and which become large before firefighters get to the scene – are rarely if ever put out by the firefighters. Typically large fires burn until they are put out by fall rain or snow.

Last summer hundreds of thousands of Northern California residents were exposed to smoke at levels which constitute a serious health hazard. On the Klamath River two elders passed on during this time. Both elders had health problems; but locals believe smoke exposure sealed their fate. Doctors agree that exposure to smoke can cause acute discomfort including headaches, sinus and respiratory problems and depression. Extended exposure causes or contributes to chronic health problems which often do not surface for many years.

Generations of rural westerners have accepted these impacts; we’ve assume that the smoke is from natural fires and therefore that nothing can be done to reduce it. But the reality is more complex.

How much of last summer’s choking smoke was the result of wildfires and how much was the result of deliberately torched burn outs and back fires? The Forest Service does not provide this information. But even if a lot of the smoke resulted from fires intentionally set by the Forest Service isn’t this necessary to stop the wildfires from sweeping into our communities?  Not necessarily.

During Northwest California’s Megram Fire (Big Bar Complex) in 1999 high winds pushed fire toward Hoopa and Willow Creek. At the time everyone assumed the firestorm was the natural fire. Later analysis revealed that fire was not natural; it was lit by the Forest Service. The natural Megram Fire never got anywhere near firelines or the burn out that threatened Hoopa and Willow Creek. As with every large fire that has burned in the Klamath Mountains since 1987, it was fall rains – not firefighting – which put the fire out.

Old timers know that in this landscape the best strategy is to “loose herd’ fires in the backcountry while concentrating fire fighting resources where they can do good - in the front country where people live. But rotating firefighting commanders whom the Forest Service imports to fight our fires rarely listen to old timers. More often their attitude is that they are the professionals and that local yokels don’t understand modern fire fighting. Forest Service managers are loath to disagree with professional firefighting commanders.

Fortunately some Forest Service managers – typically those who have experienced many Klamath Mountain’s wildfire and suppression efforts – are getting the message. Last summer Klamath National Forest (KNF) managers prevailed on firefighters to “loose herd” a fire deep in the Marble Mountain Wilderness. The result was a fire of general low intensity.  Here’s a link to soil and vegetation burn severity maps for the KNF. Note the intensity of the fire deep in the wilderness and compare this to fires to the North, South and West. Those other fires are larger and burned more intensely as a result of active suppression actions including huge burn outs set by firefighters – often at the hottest part of the day.

So what is to be done? How can we get the run-amok Forest Service fire fighting bureaucracy under control?

I have ideas on how to reform how the government fights fire in the West. They have a lot to do with funding and accountability. But what are your ideas? As we prepare to enter another fire season, westerners need to have that dialogue. What better place than on HCN’s Goat Blog?

Let’s begin now.   

Let's begin!
Jun 15, 2009 11:57 PM
Probably the first thing to do is to stop trying to make villians of those that are trying to manage a complex situation with limited resources. People make mistakes and pointing them out after the fires have stopped smoking is popular, but bad form. Getting enough experience to challenge the bad decisions at the time they are made takes time and committment. Telling someone that saving his house isn't worth the risk to firefighters or the environment is a tough thing to do face to face. I've seen fires that started miles from nowhere burn up houses. I have also seen lots of fires that were doing more good than harm being put out. It's hard to make the right decision when the fires are burning and they are not burning near YOUR house or favorite piece of paradise. Fire science and Forest Management seem to have contradictory studies/evidence everyday. Maybe we should learn together.
Jun 17, 2009 08:32 AM
There are alot of "facts" in the article with no basis. Large fires are rarely caught? Burnouts burn hotter then natural fire? Burnouts cause more damage then natural fire? Any kind of information to back that up?

Also if smoke is an issue from all the burnouts, how do you think the smoke will be when fires are left to burn/smolder around all summer?
Fire fighting
Jun 19, 2009 09:32 AM
The intent of burn out operations is to remove fuel, so of course the area is going to burn hotter, in places, than the natural fire. It would not be a proper burn out if dried out, partially burnt fuels remained to reburn an area.