Well, well! Is that the cavalry we see? (Part 2)

Well, well! Is that the cavalry we see? (Part 2)

This is part 2 of the series "Covid Congratulations to the U.S. Forest Service..." For part 1 click here.

The Forest Service’s very impressive response to the threat COVID posed to wildland fire crews last year left us wondering why the agency can’t or won’t respond to the west’s wildfire pandemic as quickly and decisively.

To our pleasant surprise, an actual plan for stuffing the Bad Wildfire Genie back in her bottle was unveiled last week – not by the U.S. Forest Service but by California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Forest Management Task Force.

California's Plan

California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan is the first serious attempt to address our wildfire pandemic since the Wildland Fire Leadership Council was formed 18 years ago. The council, which drew its membership from federal, state, tribal, county and municipal governments, developed the first National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

The strategy is still in place, but it has since gone through several updates representing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of hours of work by smart and dedicated public servants. Lots of good information and good intention here. https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/leadership/index.shtml.

In many ways, the just released California strategy mirrors the Cohesive Strategy. You can read California’s plan here and do your own side-by-side comparison. Two overarching questions beg for answers:

  • Why is our wildfire pandemic at least 10 times worse than it was when Cohesive Strategy planning began 18 years ago?
  • Can California do any better?

We think California will do better because it’s California, our most populous and politically powerful state and – for better or worse – the nation’s trendsetter. So, kudos to the Forest Service – and especially Region 5 leadership – for hitching its wagon to California’s Cavalry. And kudos to CAL FIRE leadership for leaning hard on the wheels of California’s democratically-controlled state government. We would have loved to have been mice in the corner when this plan took shape.

The final result is a beautifully illustrated and well-documented 46-page booklet with lots of nice photographs. L-o-g-g-e-r-s and l-o-g-g-i-n-g and s-a-w-m-i-l-l-s are noticeably absent – as is the aftermath of t-h-i-n-n-i-n-g – but we have tons of pictures on this website that depict the artistry of collaboratively developed forest restoration projects and the wood products they yield.

California’s booklet cozies up to the importance of viable and profitable wood product markets in a lively discussion on Pages 36 and 37. Some good ideas here.

Elsewhere, the booklet does a nice job of depicting outdoor recreation – a long overlooked political force for good composed of Americans who have learned that recreating is black sticks isn’t much fun.

We’ve said this dozens of times but now seems like a good time to remind federal and state natural resource managers that the four things Americans say they want most from their forests are:

  • Clean air
  • Clean water
  • Abundant fish and wildlife habitat
  • A wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunities

It is presumptuous of us to offer advice to Californians – or CAL FIRE - but we’ll do it anyway because that’s what we do here at Evergreen.

  • It is much easier and far less expensive to restore a struggling forest by removing dead and dying trees before they burn than it is to pick up the pieces afterward.
  • Large air tankers dropping retardant look impressive on the five o’clock news, but if your goal is to extinguish small fires while they are still small you should consider reconfiguring your aviation assets.
  • More smokejumpers, more helitack crews, more heavy lift helicopters armed with water buckets or bladders and pumps that draw water from lakes, rivers and ponds and more Amphibious Single Engine Air Tankers [Fire Bosses] that, like helicopters, are capable of remote water pickups essential to quickly dousing most small wildfires with surgical precision.

If you want to learn more about these rapid response aviation assets – and we hope you do -click here to study a Dauntless Air White Paper that makes the case for faster, less expensive responses to wildfires while they are still small and manageable.

The paper references the goals set forth in the 2014 Cohesive Strategy and the 2009 FLAME act [Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement] and highlights that progress on these goals has been slow to develop because of the reliance on outdated views of utilizing our aerial firefighting assets.

Dauntless is the largest operator of Amphibious SEATS in the U.S. They demoed one for us here in Coeur d’Alene last summer, repeatedly scooping water from Coeur d’Alene Lake at City Beach. The former Navy carrier pilot made several drops about 200 yards from the dock where we stood.

You don’t have to be a pilot to see how quickly this turbine-powered workhorse can deliver 800 gallons of water to a wildfire with pinpoint accuracy, then return in a matter of minutes with another load from a nearby river, stream or lake. No time lost flying back to an airport for more retardant.

Dauntless: New Ideas

Dauntless CEO, Brett LEsperance, developed the White Paper, along with the spreadsheets that identify small airports and scoopable water in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah. Dauntless will position two Fire Bosses at Pappy Boyington Field in Coeur d’Alene this year but the only other planes available are fixed-wing aircraft based in Missoula and Boise that can’t scoop water remotely.

Idaho north of the Salmon River – mostly national forest - has not had a major wildfire since 1933. It’s our turn in the barrel and we aren’t even close to being prepared for what we will inevitably face.

Northern Idaho and western Montana comprise a vast and remote outdoor paradise. People wanting to escape the crush of cities are moving here in droves. They’ve never heard of the Great 1910 Fire – a colossus that incinerated three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana, most of it in a 48-hour firestorm that destroyed several small towns and killed 78 firefighters.

This is the fire that forced Congress to put the Forest Service in the firefighting business in 1926, alongside several privately funded cooperatives that sprang up following southwest Washington’s 1902 Yacolt Burn.

We admire and respect the men and women who put their lives on the line on killing wildfires, but the firefighting marvel we see 24/7 for months on end has become a multi-billion dollar industry at the expense of forestry principles and practices rooted in publicly inspired felt necessities that are the cornerstones of the U.S. Forest Service.

These principles and practices were laid in place by succeeding congressional delegations that presided over the nation’s westward migration following the Civil War. It wasn’t pretty or perfect, but it was inspired by conservation leaders who crafted an ethic that led to the creation of national forests that are now burning to the ground.

We need to rebalance the forestry-firefighting scales now. We can’t build a big enough fire department to stop these killing wildfires. They will continue to burn until there is nothing left to burn.

Prepositioning the correct mix of aviation assets and people is key. There is a place for large airtankers [LATs] and VLATs [very large air tankers] around major urban centers on the west coast, but it’s too damned far from big forests to the Interior West’s seven major airports.

There are 354 airports on the list Mr. LEsperance assembled for us. LAT’s and VLATs that have been retrofitted can’t land or take off from even one of these airports because their runways are too short and the refueling and maintenance facilities the lumbering jets require aren’t there.

In fact, only 10 percent of the airfields in the four-state area Mr. LEsperance reviewed for us have retardant loading facilities where LATs and VLATs can land. But amphibious SEATS and helicopters can fly in and out of these more remote airfields at a moment’s notice, arriving on fires in a matter of minutes, not the hours that it sometimes takes LATs, VLATS, trucks and crews to reach the scene.

That’s rapid response. That’s initial attack. That’s what we mean when we say, “First, put out the fire!”

Here is the mantra we intend to shout to the high heavens this year:

  • For every dollar spent extinguishing wildfires a dollar needs to be invested in restoring forests before they burn. Unjustifiable budget cuts and morale problems fanned by the anti-forestry crowd have left the Forest Service about 15,000 people short on the forestry side. No wonder the agency can’t meet its own forest restoration goals.

The next Congress can fix this mess by reaffirming its long lost philosophical and financial support for science-based forestry on federal, state and tribal lands. We note with great interest and hope the formation of a bipartisan “Wildfire Caucus” composed of incoming House members from fire-ravaged western states. Utah’s John Curtis, a Republican, and Colorado’s Joe Neguse, a Democrat are leading the way. We wish them great success.

Fortuitously, the framework for their caucus came together when Neguse and Curtis jointly asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help the Forest Service prioritize its COVID response plan.

The road ahead will cross many mine fields, but with bi-partisan support there are reasons to hope that the fires – both real and political – can be quickly controlled by the incoming Biden Administration and its friends in California.

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