It's Time to Declare War on Wildfire Part 2

It's Time to Declare War on Wildfire Part 2

This is Part 2 of our series "It's Time to Declare War on Wildfire." Part 1 can be found here.

This section begins with Rob Freres describing the impacts of wildfire on private lands due to the incompetence of the Forest Service managing public lands.

Impact on Private Landowners

Rob Freres, an Evergreen board member, advises that his family’s Freres Lumber Company suffered heavy damage to its plantations in the Santiam Canyon east of Salem, Oregon. The lightning-caused Beachie Creek Fire started in the Opal Creek Wilderness then spread over nearly 200,000 acres before it was corralled. Five died, 470 homes and 35 businesses were destroyed. It will take Freres logging contractors more than a year to salvage the company’s losses.

“The sole cause of the Beachie Creek Fire was Forest Service incompetence,” Rob wrote in an opinion piece the Oregonian – Oregon’s largest daily newspaper – refused to publish. “The agency squandered most of the first five days of its initial attack, failing to utilize the highest capacity heli-tanker on earth to put out a relatively small fire. If the helicopter had been used to its full capacity, the Beachie Creek Fire would have been a mud hole.”

The helicopter Rob references was a twin-rotor Chinook owned and flown by Columbia Helicopters from nearby Aurora, Oregon. It is equipped with a 2,800-gallon rubber bladder and a pump connected to a long hose that is capable of refilling the bladder in about three minutes. It could have easily round-tripped the Detroit Reservoir at 15-20 minute intervals. So, yes, a mud hole.

Inexplicably, the helicopter was only used for 18.9 hours over a six-day period – August 17-22 - before the Forest Service sent it to a standby area east of Madras, Oregon. Why only 18.9 hours out of 78 hours of daylight over the six day period? And why did the Forest Service then basically watch the fire burn until east winds drove it down the Santiam Canyon on Labor Day weekend?

Wildfire crews do what their incident commanders tell them to do. But let’s be clear here. Incident commanders also do what they are told to do. Someone somewhere in the Forest Service between the Santiam Canyon and the Chief’s office in Washington, D.C. gave the order.

If this were a one-off incident no one would have noticed. But it wasn’t. Perhaps the incoming Biden Administration will launch a long overdue investigation into what ails the Forest Service. What’s behind its self-directed transformation from the world’s finest forestry organization to the world’s largest fire department?

What Happened?

We believe the answer will be found in two reports: a revealing workforce capacity study completed months ago by the well-respected National Association of Forest Service Retirees [NAFSR] and a “Call to Action” written by Michael Rains, a retiree who worked for the Forest Service for 48 years. Mr. Rains has updated his report several times this year in an effort to stay abreast of the swirl of events that have consumed the Forest Service during this wildfire season.

The Forest Service is housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has been viewed as Ag’s ugly step-child for decades. Food and nutrition – farm subsidies, school nutrition and SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] – soak up most of USDA’S $151 billion annual budget. The Forest Service accounts for about three percent of this budget – barely a blip on Ag’s radar screen.

In a December 1 letter to Robert Bonnie, who is heading the Biden Administration’s USDA transition team, NAFSR Chair, Jim Caswell, wrote that, “No other issue rises to the level of importance of wildfire and the associated and compelling need to change in our current course of action.” An understatement for sure, but NAFSR has always chosen its words diplomatically.

Incoming President Biden has nominated former Ag Secretary, Tom Vilsack, to again fill the post he occupied from 2008-2017. The former Iowa governor was the only cabinet member to serve through President Obama’s eight years and was on Hillary Clinton’s two-person list as her vice presidential running mate.

We wish Mr. Vilsack well. The Forest Service that he inherits on January 20, 2021 is a vastly different organization than the one he left behind the week before Donald Trump was inaugurated. Budget cuts made during eight Obama years left the Forest Service with fewer foresters, engineers, scientists and technicians that formed the agency’s heart and soul for decades. Morale is in free-fall.

NAFSR’s workforce study reveals that, between 1992 and 2018, the forestry side of the Forest Service surrendered 9,000-12,000 jobs. That’s about half the staffing required to manage the west’s national forests – do the thinning and stand tending work necessary to reduce the risks that accompany the disease-wildfire-wildfire suppression  conundrum.

Is it all that surprising that the 50 million acres of dead and dying forest Secretary Vilsack cited in a 2016 speech is now somewhere between 90 and 100 million acres with no end to fiery destruction in sight? No in our opinion.

Who Else Holds Responsibility?

Many of the Forest Service’s wounds are self-inflicted, but not all of them. NAFSR’s workforce study and Michael Rains' “Call to Action” speak to the most significant of the agency’s underlying problems. You can read Michael Rains' report here and the NAFSR's study here.

Fourteen U.S. House members and 12 U.S. Senators  – Republicans and Democrats - signed a letter to the House and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders on December 8, 2020 imploring them to include funding for Forest Service and BLM fire mitigation and forest restoration programs. They also endorsed a rebuild of the old Civilian Conservation Corp, a marvelous Great Depression-era program rolled out by the Roosevelt Administration in 1933. The CCC’s folded when World War II broke out because most of the three million young men enrolled in its “Tree Army” went off to war.

You can read their December 8 letter here. We definitely need a new Tree Army populated by young men and women who love forests and nature and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. The Green New Deal we envision will purposefully limit its focus to doing what needs to be done to pull the West’s great national forests back from the brink of ecological collapse.

In 2021, photosynthesis, carbon sequestration, disease and wildfire, triaging thinning and prescribed fire in high risk areas, wildfire smoke and climate change, energy and biomass utilization and rebuilding U.S. Forest Service forestry skill sets will be frequent themes on Evergreen pages.

Now back to the Frank Carroll. Frank brings more knowledge about wildfire fighting infrastructure and its use than anyone we know, so when he writes we read it several times, line for line. He emailed two essays to us in the span of 24 hours. The first, “Los Alamos is Burning_,_” was published by High Country News, May 22, 2000. It is filled with sadness and hope. You can read it here.

The second, “The Age of Integrated Resource Management: The Age of Managed Fire,” is filled with anger and frustration. Frank wrote it last August while wildfires raged in five western states. It has never been published. It deals directly with congressional and federal natural resource agency failure to attack the underlying causes of our wildfire crisis.

In 1986, the year we first published Evergreen Magazine, the Interagency Fire Center reported 85,907 wildfires in the U.S. They burned across 2,719,162 acres. Forest Service suppression cost: $161,505,000. This year – as of December 4 – there have been 30,973 fewer fires but they burned 9,539,554 acres_, a 350 percent increase in acres burned._ We don’t yet have the suppression cost for 2020, but in 2019 it was $1.15 billion – a seven fold increase in the cost of battling 30,973 fewer fires in 1986.

To Be Continued, Part 2 of 3

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