Fire managers play a subtle new game

  • FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE: A controlled burn on the Sequoia National Forest

    U.S. Forest Service
  • Brent Skaggs


SPRINGVILLE, Calif. - "I've been a pyromaniac ever since I lit my shirt on fire when I was five," says Brent Skaggs. He's not quite kidding. Thirty-four years later, Skaggs still plays with fire, but now he has two fire engines, 40 drip torches, a crew of 22 firefighters and he carries a million-dollar liability policy. He is a fuels battalion chief, or "overhead" in fire lingo, on California's Sequoia National Forest, southeast of Fresno, and a master of controlled forest fire.

On this overcast day in late April, Skaggs and part of his crew are burning brush piles along a two-lane road that snakes up a canyon thick with fast-growing and highly flammable greasewood, common to the foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada.

Over the past year, the crew has chain-sawed the brush and piled it three feet high. Now, using drip torches - cans full of a diesel-gasoline brew and topped with a blowtorch-like trigger - the crew creeps along the hillside, leaving behind roaring bonfires.

"This road goes up to over 100 homes up there," Skaggs says. "We burn a strip 66 feet off the road - this'll keep the flames from getting too intense if we do have a big fire."

This is fuels management at the urban-wildland interface, where the tendrils of development mingle with forestland. Here, a century of fire suppression has left the Sierra ripe for catastrophic wildfire - intense blazes that race through the forest canopy, destroying habitat and leaving the forest floor charred and subject to erosion.

With mechanical thinning - jargon for removing brush and small trees with chainsaws - and prescribed burning - setting small forest fires under controlled conditions - Skaggs and his crew try to make fire tame.

This is the heart of the new Sierra Nevada Framework Project. Where private homes or property are close, the plan calls for increased fuel removal. In the backcountry, the plan treads lightly, leaving the forest vulnerable to huge wildfires.

In the middle are people like Skaggs who fear that however much they burn, it's never enough.

A delicate touch

Six paragraphs in the Framework's Record of Decision give instructions on how to manage fuels on more than 11 million acres of national forest land. Fire management officers within each forest turn those broad-brush directives into thick "Burn Plans" that require signatures from the district biologist, silviculturalist, fuel specialist and ranger before being approved by the Forest Supervisor. Once the plan goes through, Skaggs and his crew fire up the chainsaws and drip torches.

Driving along burning piles of brush, Skaggs points out brush piles his crew has left unburned.

"Quails love 'em! So I go through the first time and leave a lot of piles, then I come back the next year and burn a few more. The ranger said, 'Burn it all up, I want it clean as a park.' But then our biologist told me, 'Well, do you think you could leave a little, too?' So I try to reach a happy medium."

Skaggs' delicate touch evolved over 19 years on the Sequoia. His career tracks the Forest Service's changing take on fuels management. "When I started in 1982, we were burning slash (logging waste) on these steep clearcuts. I wondered, 'Why am I down here in this bowling alley for these logs that come rolling down? I'm just cleaning up after logging.'

"Now I see we're changing," he continues. "We're cutting from below so catastrophic wildfire won't come through. We're watching out for wildlife needs."

But living with fire has gotten a lot more complicated in the last year. The fire that got away from federal agencies in Los Alamos in May 2000 led to a bureaucratic crackdown. Forest Service managers cancelled all burns nationwide for four months while they drew up new disaster-avoidance procedures.

The drip torches are flaming again, but now Skaggs works under new rules. For his peace of mind, he took out a $1 million personal liability policy (the Forest Service pays half the premium). His paperwork has doubled. He must give his supervisors 30 days' notice of any change in his burn plans - a tall order, since the weather and moisture conditions change hourly.

Just to be sure he never needs that big insurance policy, he keeps plenty of backup on hand. On this brush-pile burn, Skaggs has a dozen people, all permanent Forest Service staff with big-time forest firefighting experience. They're supported by two fire engines and a fleet of shiny green Forest Service pickups. When the day is done, they'll have burned the brush from about 30 acres of land - four miles worth of that 66-foot wide strip along the road

Did Skaggs need that whole crew? "If we didn't have to be so careful," he admits, "we could probably do this with about three people."

A slow burn

That kind of restriction in the urban-wildland interface combined with the Framework's backcountry burning reductions means that Skaggs isn't going to be able to get all the work done that he'd like to.

"If you're doing a really good job and then all of a sudden they have this plan saying you can't do your job anymore - you have to do half your good job instead - you know, that's kind of irritating."

Aaron Gelobter, fire management officer on the Sequoia, echoes that sentiment. "Right now, we try to do 7,500 acres of burning each year, plus minimal mechanical treatment. I'd like to be able to do 10,000 to 12,000 acres of burning, but under the Framework's wildlife habitat rules, we're going to have to cut that to about 5,500 acres of burning per year."

The backcountry that will be thinned or burned is only a patchwork of "strategically placed area treatment sites," or SPLATS for short, of 50-to-1,000-acre plots on a slope. The idea is that the treated areas will interrupt the spread of a fire on its way from the bottom of a slope to a ridge. SPLATS are meant to generate a lot of fire-protection bang for their fuel-management buck.

Because the Sequoia National Forest covers more than 1.1 million acres, it will be decades before they treat the whole forest. "I don't know if I could ever get to the point where I could get fire back into a normal cycle," says Skaggs.

Another obstacle to burning is smoke, much resented by locals. "They'd have to be willing to pack up and leave for a couple weeks while this giant sequoia grove's smoldering," says Skaggs. "In that sense, catastrophic wildfire is good, because everything goes up at once. Prescribed burning you're doing slower, and on days when there isn't much wind - those are bad air days."

The people Skaggs works to protect are the same people who call air-pollution control officials in Fresno to complain. "It only takes one call to shut down a burn," says Air Quality Inspector Jose Martinez. "If you have someone with asthma call in, or the administrator of a day-care center, that's not just a nuisance, that's a public health emergency."

Skaggs says part of the problem is the legacy of Smokey Bear, the Forest Service mascot, forever telling tourists to prevent forest fires.

"Smokey's our friend - but he won't ever carry a drip torch," Skaggs says. "We just need to get another character to represent prescribed fire - Pokefireman. Or something."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jim Downing

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