Monster wildfires have become the new normal

  • Roy Keene and Tim Hermach


The wildfire historian Stephen Pyne calls Arizona's Wallow Fire a "monster." "Burning along the trajectory that every major fire in the region has followed, it will burn until the rains come,"
he predicts.

In 2002, the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire in Oregon was a similar monster. Burning largely in the wild, it torched thinned and unthinned timber, young plantations on dry south-facing slopes and ancient forest stands on moist northern ones. When the wind and heat reached their zenith, vegetation was consumed regardless of its size, species or spacing.

At a cost of $155 million, the Biscuit became the most expensive fire in history. And firefighters never did stop it; it was only halted by the rains that autumn. Afterwards, the naturally recovering area was hammered by brutal salvage logging. A half-billion board-feet of public timber was awarded at fire-sale prices.

What have we learned from today's gigantic wildfires? Some claim that large-scale logging will reduce the spread or severity of these conflagrations. This turns out to be more myth than fact. Historically, logging has ignited or fueled more forest fires than it's prevented. Unpredictable and chaotic, big fires are climate-and weather-driven; they defy predefined behavior.

Timothy Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology in Eugene, Ore., writes that giant fires are "sensationalized by the media like military campaigns." They resemble war in another way: Fighting fires can often do more damage than good.

Ingalsbee's conclusions should be studied and considered by any politician or forest manager who has to cope with wildfire. Among his most important recommendations are launching a national campaign to educate people about fire ecology, creating a national fire plan that focuses on preparing communities, analyzing the risks, costs and impacts of aggressive firefighting and suppression, and discontinuing fire suppression as a management goal.

Meanwhile, expect to hear politicians blaming the Wallow Fire on a century of fire suppression, or perhaps on the environmental groups that sued to prevent pre-emptive logging. Neither has been as damaging to the West as logging.

Some who track forest fires also point to arson as a possible culprit. When fighting a fire, federal agencies enjoy relatively unlimited budgets. Workers put in 100-hour weeks, bulldozers contract at double the going rates, and mills buy scorched but sound timber for a dime on the dollar. Wildfires have become a cash cow for federal forest managers as well as the firefighting and timber industries.

Wildfires also create political opportunity. Two days before President Bush came to Oregon to sell his 2003 "Healthy Forests" Initiative, two timely forest fires (the B&B fires) ignited "by lightning" -- or something else -- spread into a big blaze to become a convenient political backdrop and marketing tool.

Though it was supposed to create fire-resistant forests, Bush's initiative -- a logging plan -- did just the opposite. Ground reviews of timber sales conducted under this initiative exposed most of the operations as blatant timber grabs. Large old trees that had successfully resisted earlier fires were cherry-picked for cutting, fuels were increased by piles of logging slash, soils were hammered and residual stands were left without shade to dry out and burn hotter.

New political ploys to increase logging to reduce wildfire should be carefully evaluated. Because of the financial clout of big timber corporations and the fact that national forests are still budgeted by Congress to get the cut out, calls for logging are difficult to resist. But there's very little in logging that restores forests or mimics natural fire. Wildfire doesn't build roads, compact soils or leave heaps of slash. Wildfire fertilizes, releases and sprouts native seeds, shrubs and trees instead of spreading exotic weeds and increasing herbicide use.

One of us -- Roy Keene -- has worked for 40 years to restore forests damaged by wildfire. He's says what's really needed to reset our overly dense and dry forests is chainsaw and drip-torch work, rather than more logging. That means crews go in to cut, lop and scatter or pile and burn excess small stems and fine fuels, especially along roads and around structures. It's work that uses simple equipment and employs lots of workers. Unlike logging, it's small-scale prescribed burning and cutting, and it is routinely effective. Even more effective, of course, would be prohibiting people from building flammable homes next to or in forests that are sure to burn. At the least, such homeowners should never expect firefighters and taxpayers to pay with their lives and dollars.

This is the kind of safe and specific forest work that environmental organizations could -- and should -- be supporting, rather than collaborative efforts controlled by industry that push reactionary and risky logging.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( Tim Hermach is the director of the Native Forest Council, a nonprofit group in Eugene, Oregon. Roy Keene is a forester who has served as Native Forest Council's volunteer forester since 1991.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 21, 2011 05:14 PM
I covered most of the Biscuit post fire salvage units on foot, I would guess that there are but a handful of others who saw as much of it as I did. I am astonished at the blatant misrepresentation of how much timber was actually pulled out of biscuit. This article contends says that "A half-billion board-feet of public timber was awarded at fire-sale prices." Quite on the contrary, although the first FS proposal proposed 500 million, it was soon dropped to 370 million in the final EIS with only about 85 million actually sold. Out of the 12 sales I examined, 8 of them had only one bidder. And is lost money in the end as the later GAO report documented. If you had chosen to peruse that you might have encountered accurate figures on salvage volumes.
Yes, Biscuit salvage was a mess but it would have been much worse had it not been for the work by myself and others who held the FS nose to the grindstone. With huge uncut riparian buffers, on many salvage units 80% of the volume was taken out of the cut. I take some small credit for that since I checked most of those buffers on foot. The harvest regs in the NW Forest Plan held up legally and much dampened impacts from the salvage although the FS tried to slip around them initially.

I welcome discussion on fire and fire ecology but I have seen too many blatantly inaccurate statements such as the one you just made. At what point exactly can I assume anything you say is accurate?
Barbara Ullian
Barbara Ullian Subscriber
Jun 21, 2011 08:09 PM
Rather than argue over a number, readers should pay attention to the gist of Keene/Hermach essay. Yes, the record of decision for the Biscuit Fire timber sales estimated a sale volume of 367 million board feet but like earlier estimates the volume wasn't there for multiple reasons. The Biscuit Fire was a political football for the timber industry and the Bush Administration and the media took the ball and ran with it. The few voices that correctly pointed out what the authors just did in their first two paragraphs, were ignored.

Unlike the 2002 Hayman Fire in Colorado, the was no comprehensive multi-agency look at Biscuit fire behavior and the efficacy of the $155 million spent on fire suppression efforts. The public is all the poorer for it and many questions remain unanswered. For example: Why was a fire in the same section as the Florence Fire—the largest most explosive of the 2002 Biscuit complex fires—held to 5.20 acres at a cost of $22,000.00 only two years earlier during the driest year on record?

The only civilian witness to the blow up Florence Fire believes the greatest expansion or the fire occurred from an escaped agency back burn or burnout operation. He's been ignored. Tim Ingalsbee, in a study of Forest Service records, concluded about 100,000 acres on the Eastside Zone 1 of the Biscuit fire burned as a result of Forest Service ignited fires intended to blacken forest land between fire lines and the interior fire. He's been ignored. How much of the 500,000 acres burned as a result of agency fire suppression strategies? What were the effects of these deliberately ignited fires and were they effective?

A group of scientists found abundant natural regeneration in areas that the Forest Service and timber industry claimed would not regenerate on their own in sufficient time. This was used to argue that old-growth forest reserves, where commercial logging was essentially prohibited, needed to be logged and planted. The scientists were attacked by the industry, foresters at their University and certain politicians.

The authors raise a lot of points that should be part of the public debate over wildland fires. Thank you.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 21, 2011 08:26 PM
unfortunately, Tim Hermach has stated the exact opposite results of scientific studies of fire behavior in thinned areas during biscuit. I dealt with these blatant and continuous misrepresentations in an editorial I wrote with Professor Emeritus Dave Perry and Rich Fairbanks.

I often do not know what to think but try to examine the evidence soberly. There are many valid criticisms of what the FS did during Biscuit and it sure could use a clear analysis even this late in the game. But I also heard real wingnut conspiracy mongering about how the FS deliberately allowed Biscuit to get away by deliberately withholding equipment. That was dealt with conclusively in a report by GAO requested by Peter Defazio. I like to see clear and accurate information and I can never get that from Tim. From Roy Keene I have always seen much more seasoned opinions. At least he reports what he actually sees out there, not what he wants to believe.
Barbara Ullian
Barbara Ullian Subscriber
Jun 22, 2011 01:39 AM
The information about the Forest Service holding a fire, in the same section where the Florence began, to 5.2 acres and the fire suppression costs are direct from Forest Service fire incident reports available through FOIA.

The testimony of the eye witness account to the events when that fire blew up and headed up the Illinois River was published by Andy Stahl in the Forest Magazine in the Fall of 2003 in a series called "Collateral Damage, Wildland firefighting's Unexamined Scars."

Unfortunately, the collateral damage and scars of the Biscuit Fire were never examined.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 22, 2011 06:16 AM
I tried to organize a workshop to do an assessment of the suppression activities but it was too hot an issue at the time and a bit late now to try. The Biscuit final EIS described the problems that they had during initial suppression work on FLorence. They contended that heavy fuel loads from the 1988 Silver fire made cutting fire line very difficult and they pulled the crew back. With hundreds of lightening strikes all over the region at the time, a certain chaos prevailed. I can't really judge their actions without interviewing the people. People also contended that the southern ignition on biscuit hill was deliberately allowed to burn, a canard addressed in the GAO report. Such is life, or "shit happens".

I agree with much of what Ingalsbee says about the huge burnout operations on the east flank of the burn and can believe that about 25% of the total Biscuit fire was from burnout operations on the flanks. Whether these were valid actions I can't really judge but there was such a panic that the fire would jump into the Illinois Valley.
I read the article about the backfire escaping at Oak Flat and can't judge that, I have heard different interpretations from the FS. I encouraged Tim Ingalsbee to write up his report as a journal publication where it would get some scrutiny from the professional fire community. I viewed his work as cautious, he was not one to make bizarre contentions of any kind, perhaps since he had spent time fighting fire himself. I appreciated that.
It was always hard to know what to believe.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 22, 2011 07:04 AM
Oh, BTW, I have been talking with Romain and Odion about the possibility of pulling together a scientific conference on Biscuit at the Deer Creek Center next summer. That is still up in the air, would be best if SOU takes the lead on this. It will likely be a contentious meeting and we would like to focus this on science-sober and accurate. Although as Jerry Franklin says, Biscuit was so big it was like the Bible and you can find anything you want in it.
But for those of us still obsessed with this epic, it would be a good exchange,
  I would like to examine suppression activities but without the fire managers who made those decisions there to explain their actions, I am not sure it is useful.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 22, 2011 08:32 AM
Myopia and confusion on the fire front
Greg Nagle
Conspiracy thinking
    It is no exaggeration to say that some activists came to view all US Forest Service (FS) Biscuit post fire salvage logging operations as part of a criminal enterprise and treated public employees as such. Some people saw the widely publicized problems there as gross incompetence or yet more evidence of a “conspiracy” .

    I have listened for three years to many otherwise thoughtful people state that there was a conspiracy that allowed the Biscuit fire to grow out of control and the large burnout operations on the periphery of the fire were set in order to open areas to salvage logging After glib proclamations that the fire was just fine, if not a wholly natural event to celebrate, I next heard garbled snarls that the FS was criminally negligent or much worse, set backburns to deliberately expand the fire in order to push through salvage logging under orders from DC. Like accusations of witchcraft, blaming an external enemy for dismaying events is a common human trait The salient fact that the much of the backburned areas were on ultramafic soils with no harvestable timber seems to have completely eluded these minds. As for the accusation that the FS was negligent in suppressing the fire, I have heard three wildly different versions of this legend. It was too much to hope that it was finally laid to rest by the report issued in May 2004 when the Government Accountability office, for decades one of the most damningly effective critics of the FS, carried out a formal investigation and cleared them of this charge.

Talking out of both sides of the mouth versus civic responsibility
There is one prominent environmental activist who has interesting and usually quite accurate things to say about forest issues. I have been a member of his organization for 12 years but listening to him talk about fires lately has been disheartening. One gets the impression that he has never had to take actual responsibility for land management decisions or faced the very real consequences. How would he have performed himself in an actual position of power when he could have his career ruined by decisions made during fires? One’s impression is that his goal lately was to again slam the US Forest Service, which is too easy a way to garner cheap political support for the many swinging at it from any direction on the political compass.
He gave one public talk last year during which he castigated the government for squandering huge resources in fighting inevitable forest fires with consequent long range problems in the ecosystems. Fair enough, it is impossible to avoid fires and fire fighting tactics have indeed wreaked havoc in places. He was saying that we ought to just let many places burn, an approach that many might disagree with but it is a respectable opinion shared by some ecosystem scientists.
My question to him was given that, exactly what he would have done had he been one of the commanders responsible for the Biscuit fire. His only harried response was that in the southern burn area the FS had neglected to jump on that fire soon enough and were probably negligent in supposedly refusing resources that could have snuffed out that small blaze early. What was most discouraging about this activist’s response was that he seemed oblivious to how he was directly contradicting himself. I wonder if I was one of the only people in the audience to see the glaring discrepancy of slamming the FS for fighting fires too much and 20 minutes later getting to slam them again for not fighting fires enough? Which direction will he jump next?
Fire fighting strategy and tactics.
Suggesting that we ought to just let fires burn in many remote areas is sensible but also the most appealingly simple minded response to problems in fire management. Simply choosing that as the answer allows us the luxury of having to think no further. The 1996 Summit fire which burned 50,000 acres in the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon is a case in point. The fire was initiated by a lightening strike in a large roadless area straddling an alpine ridge adjacent to the North Fork John Day Wilderness. As with many such fires, it just cooked along slowly for weeks along the ridgetop , burning only a few hundred acres. With the fire under the control of the Umatilla National Forest (NF) , surely the most ecologically minded National Forest in eastern Oregon [1], it was decided to let it burn. Of course, the old school fire managers in the adjacent Malheur NF were gnashing their teeth at this travesty. To the old school, the Umatilla was known as the “do nothing” forest.
All was fine for this “let-burn” policy until the weather suddenly changed and this “eco-burn” mushroomed to 40,000 acres over the course of two days. The old school Malheur ranger seized the chance to finally throw one of his crews at the blaze as it blew up, and almost lost them all as their bus careened back down the mountainside through the fire storm with fire blankets draped over the windows. The ranger’s career came to an abrupt end after this.
And that is the story of letting fires burn, during much of the dry season when natural fires do their most work, you don’t know what might happen. Would you want to be stuck with the consequences of those decisions ? If not, you might want to think this through a bit more thoroughly.
There have been legitimate complaints about the amount of burn outs used in attempts to control wildfires. With some wildfires now burning so fast and hot, some say that large burnouts are the only way to gain control since fire lines have proven ineffective. Some might assume that much if not most of the burnout areas in Biscuit would have burned anyway in the wildfire although this is also a matter of dispute. There have been seemingly reliable reports of at least one shockingly inept burnout that raged out of control in one sector of Biscuit.
 Myopia and confusion
The Biscuit fire burned hot, hotter and with higher canopy mortality than most fires in recent decades in the Klamath Siskiyou. I have listened to some environmental activists putting odd spins on this glaring fact in trying to present this burn as something else entirely . Having to fight off the salvage logging threat has obviously stymied sober consideration, although I saw similar myopia about fire long before Biscuit or salvage there became an issue. Some activists grab onto small nuggets of information, sometimes taken out of context , since they too often see such data as useful only so far as it confirms what they prefer to believe. This is perhaps too easy to understand due to decades of some agency and academic scientists supporting a legacy of destructive land use practices.
In contrast to other burns I have seen, I found myself disturbed by what I have seen across too much of Biscuit, something a few other activists will also tell you in quieter moments when they are not consumed with making political statements about it.
The most obvious confusion amongst activists about Biscuit has involved misinterpreting or ignoring easily available data on canopy mortality. I was yet again confronted with this at a recent presentation where the same exact misinformation about mortality in the fire was repeated.
After my usual vexation and sense of creeping depression, it occurred to me that what I was seeing might be simply described by an academic wonk as “the construction of a social narrative” as a coping mechanism for contending with an impossible situation. In this case people were trying to explain this momentous fire and the loss of about 80,000 acres of precious old growth to themselves in the most positive way that they could . After all, if it is all just “natural”, it must be OK.
[1] Full disclosure: I was based out of the Umatilla supervisors office when I was working on watershed research for the USFS PNW Research Station (1997-1999) although I was never directly involved with any of the planning or management decisions on the forest.
Rich & Terry Fairbanks
Rich & Terry Fairbanks Subscriber
Jun 24, 2011 03:05 PM
As always, Greg digs down through the data, thinks through the implications and comes up with an articulate narrative on what we know and what we just think we know. Thank you Greg for what you do.
Barbara Ullian
Barbara Ullian Subscriber
Jun 24, 2011 08:29 PM
Greg's thoughtful observations would be more valuable if they didn't negate legitimate questions and observations of others, who may have also paid attention or had as much or more direct experience as he did.

There are substantive issues and unanswered questions about how the agency responds to wildland fires, whether there's adequate funding and preparation for suppression, the effects of past management practices, fire management plans, competence in decision making during fires, examining the connection between weather, fuels and terrain and the politicization of fire that occurred during Biscuit (to name just a few) that, if they had been examined, we may have learned how to do it better next time and perhaps how to best use public resources, including $155 million dollars. These issues were never addressed and are not likely to go away.

It's our job as citizens to question our government and to debate tough issues. I want to think that we can do that in a respectful way without being a conspiracy theorist or ascribed motivations we don't have (though Greg's theory in itself is an interesting one).
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 25, 2011 04:29 AM
Tim Hermach has blatantly misrepresented scientific studies, saying that they state the exact opposite of what was published. We are not talking about different interpretations, we are tqlking lies. Problem is he does not seem to know himself when he does it. If he had an academic or agency job he could be fired for that.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 25, 2011 04:45 AM
I was also aghast at the huge burnouts on the Biscuit flanks, the burnout between Obrien and the wildfire front was eight miles wide. The reasoning behind that, mistaken or not, was explained to me by a senior GS person. As things worked out, the weather the anticipated did not happen . As bad as they look in places, and they do vary, such burnouts seem to be the only way to manage a large, fast moving blaze. But as tim ingalsbee has pointed out, few people understand how much of some wildfire areas are actually management fires-burnouts to attempt to corral a blaze. I dearly wish he would publish this data from a number of fires in someplace other than his web site to prompt a detailed agency response, or counter argument. It seems to be the only way to push this question forward.

I have serious crit of the FS but have always been proud to say that I was once a scientist for the USFS. I hate the way some people just trash the agencies, even is tough crit is valid. I heard so much trash talk around Biscuit that I came to identify much more with the feds who had to maintain a professional demeanor. Although a passionate, irritable person myself, I am extremely averse to hate talk of any kind. I heard plenty of that during Biscuit. It was like a civil war, where nobody is entirely right and everybody is getting hurt. Nothing new there but on my watch, I could not abide slander and character assassination directed at public employees.

But if I jump too eagerly to defend the feds, this is tempered by the insights of people like Rich Fairbanks who was the team leader for the Biscuit EIS. He saw the bad process from the inside.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jun 27, 2011 02:43 PM
Barbara seems to be right. Greg seems to have some good insights of his own, but can only offer them at the price of denigrating the authors of this story. I'm not saying that logging companies are arsonists, but, would they have motive? Sure.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 28, 2011 04:47 AM
So true, I owed the HCN reader community something better.

Here again is a more circumspect view which I posted previously,

I often do not know what to think, but appreciate clear, honest presentations by people who know that bombastic statements will not go over well and they will be judged severely on the accuracy of their statements. You do not need to go to school to learn this thinking but scientific training sure helps. As much as a grumble about academics, I appreciate rigor and those stale old enlightenment values of asking questions and examining evidence. Arson does happen, quite often actually but suggesting B n B fire or Biscuit were conspiracies is the kind of statement that will get you laughed out of court without clear evidence.

Some years ago Tim Hermach had a picture in his paper of a very famous, immense Weyerhauser clearcut near Sweethome, Oregon which he claimed was a USFS cut. When I saw that I knew exactly who I was dealing with. Less discerning minds may take awhile longer to determine that.