Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Little Bear Forest Reform Coalition members calls report 'sensational'

Recent national headlines that claimed the U.S.D.A. Forest Service this year will let wildland fires burn in the name of fuels reduction and improved woodlands were tempered Monday by the Lincoln National Forest's Smokey Bear District Ranger Dave Warnack. The district ranger spoke before the Little Bear Forest Reform Coalition, a group that grew out of last year's Little Bear Fire. "I was just as concerned as everybody else was when I heard that on the news last week," Warnack said of the headlines. "I think the article was very poorly written," former hot shot crew member and Little Bear Forest Reform Coalition participant Bill Riggles said. "It was vague. They really didn't say what they were going to do. They just had that headline, 'They're going to let it burn,' which is very sensational and it didn't tell anything about how they're going to let it burn." Warnack said the Associated Press report also did not explain the process for deciding where and what kind of fire would be allowed to burn. Riggles said fires can be managed but suppression resources must be available in case something goes wrong. Warnack said he believed that was a factor in last year's Forest Service guidance to put out all fires. "Because there was such a significant fire season across the west the chief said we're not going to entertain all of these managed fires across the landscapes because the resources just aren't available in case one of them goes gunny sack," Warnack told the coalition. Warnack said he researched last May's Wildfire Guidance letter to try to understand the new headline of letting fires burn...more

Wildfire Today posted this on March 14:

We wrote on March 10 that according to a February directive titled “Wildland Fire Response Protocol”, Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, changed the policy on “fire use” this year, to make it easier to use a less than aggressive suppression strategy on wildfires. In 2012 a two-page letter from Jim Hubbard, their Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, required that any fire strategy having fire use or restoration as one of the objectives must first be approved by a Regional Forester, due to a shortage of firefighting resources.

In an undated statement on the USFS web site that appears to have been posted on March 13, 2013 (the articles before and after were both dated March 13), Chief Tidwell said their fire policy has not changed, just their “guidance”:
Statement from U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on wildland fire policy
 The federal wildland fire policy has not changed since 1995. Neither the direction issued last year nor my letter this year represented a shift in Forest Service policy for fighting fires. We always look at the conditions that exist around each fire season, our available resources, and then provide guidance to the field. It takes resources to suppress fires, and to manage them for resource benefits. We do have a set amount of expertise in this country but when we get a wildfire season like we did last year, we have to take some steps to manage just how much fire we can have on the landscape. So last year we asked forests to elevate decisions on wildfires to the regional forester. Based on this year’s projections, we no longer see that as a necessary step at this time.

But, go back and read the original AP Story:

After coming in $400 million over budget following last year's busy fire season, the Forest Service is altering its approach and may let more fires burn instead of attacking every one. The move, quietly made in a letter late last month by Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, brings the agency more in line with the National Parks Service and back to what it had done until last year. It also answers critics who said the agency wasted money and endangered firefighters by battling fires in remote areas that posed little or no danger to property or critical habitat. Tidwell played down the change, saying it's simply an "evolution of the science and the expertise" that has led to more emphasis on pre-fire planning and managed burns, which involve purposely setting fires to eliminate dead trees and other fuels that could help a wildfire quickly spread. "We have to be able to structure (fire management) this way to help all of us," Tidwell told The Associated Press. "So that we're thinking about the right things when we make these decisions."  The more aggressive approach instituted last year was prompted by fears that fires left unchecked would quickly devour large swaths of the drought-stricken West, Tidwell said. New Mexico and Colorado reported record fire seasons in 2012, and with dry conditions remaining in much of the region 2013 could be another bad year in the West.

So, the wildland fire policy has "not changed since 1995", yet somehow there is an "evolution of the science and the expertise."  I always though if something evolved it had changed. Anyway, the 1995 policy says "Wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem."  The confusion seems to be over the language in the 2012 Hubbard memo saying, "safe aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted  wildfires small and less costly."   Notice it says unwanted.

Apparently we have a 1995 policy, which hasn't changed.  But the FS issues annual guidance in relation to the policy, which has changed back and forth the last two years.  Go here for the most recent "guidance".  Now isn't all that clear as a bell?

I think we may have a situation of either:

° sloppy reporting, where the reporter doesn't understand "governmentese"
° poor communication by the Forest Service, or
° A Chief covering his tracks or responding to political pressure

Personally, I would bet its a combination of the first two.  Right or wrong, I know the whole damn thing has given me a headache.

Finally, even though this is not an election year like 2012, if the West starts burning up watch for some revised guidance.

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