14 Sep 2008, 11:20am
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

Straight Talk About the South Barker WFU Fire

I posted previously on the South Barker WFU Fire [here].

On August 7th a thunderstorm passed over the Sawtooth National Forest. Lightning struck and a tree burst into flames about a mile north of Featherville in Elmore County, Idaho. For four days the fire smoldered.

The Sawtooth NF officials could have sent a fire crew in to douse the flames. It would have cost a few thousand dollars to extinguish the tiny blaze. But they chose not to, and instead declared the South Barker Fire to be a “wildland fire use” (WFU) fire.

By that date the USFS had spent its entire 2008 fire budget and was transferring funds from other programs. The Sawtooth NF was well aware of this. … Despite the budget crisis, Sawtooth NF Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer approved the WFU designation on the South Barker Fire.

To date the South Barker WFU Fire has burned 34,250 acres and cost an estimated $5.2 million dollars [here]. (As of 09/14 suppression costs were reported to be $6,719,437).

On Sept 8 journalist Joe Jaszewski of the Idaho Statesman wrote an article in defense of the Sawtooth NF decision to incinerate 53.5 square miles of central Idaho [here]. The story for the most part parroted the party line fed to Jaszewski by USFS officials and attacked residents who regretted the fire:

Fire Wise?  Officials look to fire to safeguard forest

But residents have their doubts about letting the South Barker blaze burn

by Joe Jaszewski, Idaho Statesman,09/08/08

FEATHERVILLE - What the South Barker Fire is not: a wall of flames barreling through the wilderness, incinerating anything in its path and leaving a blackened moonscape in its wake, hundreds of years away from rejuvenation.

What the South Barker Fire is: creeping flames meandering through dead pine needles, built-up underbrush and small saplings, mostly leaving larger trees unscathed.

Forest managers hope that by allowing this low-intensity fire to burn away shrubs and dead trees, they can protect the area from larger, catastrophic fires for decades to come - lessening the risk to recreation areas, private property and lives.

The fire in the Fairfield Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest - which started Aug. 7 - is being managed as a “fire-use” fire. This means that fire officials have outlined a safe perimeter within which they will allow the fire to burn. When the fire exceeds those boundaries, immediate suppression actions are taken.

When flames spotted into the Boise National Forest, that part of the fire was immediately attacked.

Within 48 hours, the northwest flank of the fire was fully contained by seven hot-shot crews, helicopters, airplanes and engines.

“We threw everything we could get on it,” said Val Norman, logistics chief for the fire.

Fire information officer Chris Wehrli emphasizes that “fire use” does not mean fire has free rein to go wherever it wants.

“There are 200 firefighters out there who monitor this and are actively managing it,” he said. “We’re not just standing back and watching it burn.” …

They’re like soldiers on a peacekeeping mission. Working behind the scenes, keeping an eye on things, but ready to pounce if the situation warrants. …

Officials estimated in August that the South Barker Fire had cost $99 per acre. Soper estimates that fire suppression fires cost about $3,000 per acre. However, fire-use fires usually burn more acreage, which dilutes their per-acre costs.

Actual per acre costs on the South Barker Fire were $150 per acre (do the math, Joe!). But more importantly, total costs were $5.2 million that the USFS did not have and that required cancellation of other programs, such as fuels management, trail maintenance, and forest research, and every other activity the USFS engages in.

It’s total costs, not costs per acre, that make affect the bottom line. And the suppression costs do not reflect the damages to resources inflicted by the fire, which include destruction of soils, vegetation, habitat, water quality and quantity, fisheries, air quality, recreation, scenery, etc.

And spending millions on suppressing a fire doesn’t necessarily put it out, Norman said.

“It’s Mother Nature that puts out fires - it’s not us,” he said.

Val Norman may not be able to contain, control, or extinguish fires (I accept his admission of total incompetence), but other firefighters can, do, and have put out  thousands of fires this year alone. It is a gross insult to the fire community at large to plea total incompetence on behalf of everyone else, when such is abundantly and patently false.

Forest scientists say many fires are natural and needed in the woods, allowing healthy trees to thrive and eliminating deadfall and other easily burned materials that can strengthen the intensity of catastrophic fires. …

The unnamed “forest scientists” are dead wrong. The South Barker WFU Fire killed large green trees and left more dead fuels on the 53.5 square miles than existed prior to the fire. Every day of this fire the (209) fire reports stated that whole tree torching and crown fire was ripping through forests. Duff and deadfall do not crown. Only live green trees crown.

The fire hazard has not been abated. The Sawtooth NF has not been fireproofed. In case after case this year, old burns (some less than 15 years old) have exploded into new fires. The Rattle Fire on the Umpqua NF is currently reburning the Spring Burn (1996). The Biscuit Fire (2002) reburned the Silver Fire (1987). Catastrophic fires do not eliminate large woody fuels, they merely rearrange them. Subsequent vegetative growth replenishes fine fuels and the hazard returns relatively quickly.

No forest resources benefit from unprepared fires, especially mid-summer fires. Yet that canard is repeated again and again, including prominently in Jaszewski’s article:

But while fire-use fires may benefit the forest, they aren’t necessarily welcomed by residents - or officials.

A few days ago, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons bashed the Forest Service for letting a fire there grow too much and too close to Jarbidge.

“The forest fire that we have today was allowed to get out of control, knowing the dangers of the fuel loading and the weather conditions - dry, hot, windy,” Gibbons told the Elko Daily Free Press.

Around the South Barker Fire, residents and visitors frequently complain about smoke to Kris Nitz, who, with her husband, Greg, owns the Nitz Pine Store in nearby Pine.

That smoke wouldn’t be there, presumably, had the fire been one of the 98 percent of forest fires that are attacked and successfully suppressed.

“(Some residents) thought that it should have been put out when it started,” said Kris Nitz.

Pat Johnson, who lives between Featherville and Baumgartner, is one of those residents.

She worries that the fire will devastate the forest, like the Lowman Fire did in 1989.

“I don’t believe in ‘let burn.’ I would truly rather see selective logging than total devastation,” she said.

Johnson said she doesn’t fully believe reassurances from fire officials that the forest will be better off.

“You can’t tell me trees aren’t burning,” she said. …

Like most rural residents, Pat Johnson believes what she sees with her own eyes, not the patently false propaganda spouted by admittedly incompetent USFS officials, unnamed “forest scientists,” and urban journalists who goosestep to whatever the authoritarian party line is, no matter how mendacious.

Fire can allow certain invasive weeds, such as cheatgrass and skeleton weed, to take hold. These quick-growing invasive plants can re-establish themselves more quickly than native species. But forest managers weigh those risks against the benefit of possibly saving thousands of acres of forest from a catastrophic fire.

There is more than 34,000 acres of land inside the boundary of the fire. But wildlife biologist David Skinner estimates that only about half of that, possibly even less, has actually burned.

The fire is burning a “mosaic” pattern, he said - low-intensity fires often leave lots of land untouched, and the more fires are allowed to burn through forests, the more likely the fires are to remain low-intensity.

A walk through the burned portion of the fire reveals blackened hillsides with healthy, green trees. In some places, burned land abuts lush drainages. This kind of fire doesn’t often produce the heat necessary to kill large trees. Thick bark on Ponderosa pine trees makes them more resilient to fire.

Crown fire kills ponderosa pine trees no matter how thick their bark. Pine bark beetles infest burned areas following  fires and kill surviving trees in the “mosaic.” The death dealing is not finished. Trees will continue to die from the South Barker WFU Fire over the next five years.

The “mosaic” is not a scientific term. It is an artsy word without scientific definition. In that sense it is much like “fragmentation,” another artsy word that cannot be defined. In years past “forest fragmentation” has been decried as the worst thing that can happen to forests. Now the “mosaic” is touted as the best thing that can occur, yet there is no substantive difference between fragmentation and mosaic. Most people know that and are repelled by the self-contradictory eco-babble, which is based on political doublespeak and not on forest science.

Particularly repelled by the doublespeak and the forest destruction are expert foresters who have dedicated their lives to the care and maintenance of public forests. Among them are retired Forest Supervisor Glenn Bradley, who wrote the following letter to Joe Jaszewski of the Idaho Statesman. As a professional forester I find Mr. Bradley’s letter to be very compelling. I hope you do, too.

Dear Joe-

I must respond to your story about the South Barker Fire in Monday’s paper.  I firmly believe that the public is being sold a very lop-sided view of these “fire use” fires.  The only real truth in the article is that if you burn the entire forest often enough there will be no fuel and you will not have to worry about fires. The same scheme will work in cities if you burn all the houses before an accidental fire gets started.

The problem is that the National Forests were not reserved simply to be fire proof areas covered with ashes.  They were meant to be productive producers of timber, sources of clean water, forage producing ranges, desirable recreation sites, and quality habitat for fish and wildlife.  The people in Featherville, Mountain Home, Boise, Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and all points in between have a right to be up in arms with the idea that the Forest Service would allow a fire to burn “naturally” in their National Forests under conditions when the outcome is completely unpredictable.

Properly applied fire can be a valuable tool when used within a reasonable prescription.  Letting a single-tree fire spread at will in early August in an area like the South Boise River canyon in “Red Flag” weather should be classed as arson.  Governor Gibbons of Nevada is exactly correct in his assessment.

The Forest Supervisor told me personally after the first week of the fire that they had planned some prescribed burns in the area of the South Barker fire that would burn about 1000 acres per year for the next four years.  Those may have been very good plans, but they hardly compare with what is happening with the current fire.

The comparisons of cost between the fire use fires and others is not valid at all.  Instead of comparing the order of 1800 meals to the order for 170 meals, you should be comparing the 170 meals to about 6 meals that would have been required if the fires had been properly attacked when they first started.  The fact in the South Barker case is that the two single tree fires could have been extinguished for a few hundred dollars the day they started.  Instead, the Forest Service chose a course of action that has now cost $5.4 million by their own reporting this morning.  The decision is even harder to understand when one considers that field offices had been notified prior to the fire that the fire fighting budget had been exhausted for this year. That means the multi-million dollar bill has to be paid from funds that were intended to operate campgrounds, maintain roads and trails, produce forest products, manage wilderness areas, etc.

The real sad part is that the steep granitic soil in that country has taken almost a century to get revegetated to the point of relative stability after it was severely disturbed by sheep grazing and trailing around the turn of the last century.  Many years of improved management by the Forest Service and the livestock owners has resulted in a big improvement in vegetative cover.  Now the process has to start over and there will again be large “blow outs” of sediment in the streams when heavy rains fall on denuded slopes.

The other sad fact is that this is not the only place this kind of mismanagement of fires is happening.  I have seen recent pictures of extreme erosion occurring in the South Fork of the Salmon River as a result of the 2007 fires.  A retired Ranger from that area told me a couple of weeks ago that the damage is many times worse than the sedimentation from logging roads was in the early 1970’s.  His prediction is that the river will not be suitable for salmon spawning in his lifetime and probably not even in his son’s lifetime.

Please do all you can to let the public know that uncontrollable fires in the heat of the summer are not a valid way to manage the National Forests.  You quote the fire team as saying this fire was managed to do what they intended.  The fact is the “little slop over” onto the Boise N.F. was 3000 acres and was the biggest fire on the Boise N.F. so far this year.

In case you wonder why I am concerned, I’ll try to explain.  My Dad was the Ranger at Shake Creek six miles east of Featherville from 1937 to 1950.  I grew up there and know that country like the back of my hand.  In 1958, I came back to Shake Creek as Assistant Ranger.  Since then, I have worked a career with the Forest Service and retired as a Forest Supervisor in California.  I was born into the Forest Service and it has always been my favorite government agency.  I am concerned partly because of the country I love that has been needlessly burned up and partly because I feel the Forest Service has lost sight of its mission and is no longer managing land to provide the goods and services it should be producing.

Glenn Bradley, Shoshone, ID

15 Sep 2008, 1:09pm
by bear bait


Mike: you mentioned the Rattle Fire might get over into the Willamette NF. If it does, it is in STEEP country, the Coal Cr. and Stahley Cr. drainages. I hunt elk there some years. Lots of wind thrown 100 year old white woods, 500-700 year old doug fir, some monster noble fir, Idaho white pine not blister rust killed, sugar pine, and in my favorite elk swamps, Alaska Yellow Cedar.

Those big doug fir have four feet of bark throw and needle litter at their bases, and ground fire will burn in that fuel like coal (old time blacksmiths used old growth bark to fire the forge in this end of the world), and will kill the trees at the roots without ever scorching a needle or a limb. All the old meadows and prairies have mostly been consumed by tree encroachment, but the top of the ridge had some dandies.

The Boulder watershed goes from the top of the divide and plunges to the south to meet the North Umpqua highway. Always saw elk, and always had a shot but never seemed to pull the trigger to could get it done cleanly. That was where my son shot a little bull hunting in a road closure area, and came to get me to help him. When we got there, we saw a USFS pickup, which had been inside the locked gate, at the gate, going out, and when we got around the corner we saw the elk in the back of that pickup. That is when the air started going out of green pickup tires about 20 years ago. That they are stealing America’s forest heritage by fire is just more of their vandalistic ways. I would not give you ten cents for the whole of the Umpqua Natl Forest human staff, ever. Or the Willamette. When the Forest Supervisor held up a 2 1/2 gallon half full jug of Round-up, and said that was the total herbicide use on a million acres forest for the year, you knew she talked like a person with an agenda and not one cent’s worth of common sense. To show the world your ignorance like that is showing the world that truth is not a common resource in the USFS command structure.

The Umpqua NF, now burning millions of board feet of old growth timber and a 100 year old understory, prides themselves in selling about one slat out a Chinese mad chair worth of wood per acre on the whole of their charge for every acre, every year. What they BURNED yesterday is more than the TOTAL sold timber on the 985,000 Umpqua acres in this century.

So the banks are collapsing, our industry has moved offshore, we don’t develop energy or our own wood products, we farm for the subsidy and the gas tank, our autos are made by foreign owned companies, we have not been in shipping for 40 years (tiny Denmark has more ships on order than the US has in its entire fleet of merchantmen), our infrastructure is falling down around us, and our judges are bound and determined that we stop working so that someone can study everything but setting forests on fire. Go figure!

15 Sep 2008, 10:47pm
by Terry P.


Visited South Barker Fire Sunday Sept 14, 2023 at the head waters of Skeleton Creek. This fire has accomplished at least a hundred fold the original burn areas that I understood to be the mission. It is now burning at the higher elevations leaving scars for hundreds of years, erosion, new avalanche chutes, denuding hillsides, destroying the remaining White Barks that have already been hit with the beetle.

Skeleton Creek on all drainages is being burned clear of brush which will threaten or destroy the largest Bull Trout colonies in the Country.

This fire is marching through the Skeleton Creek Mining District, historically the most active Mining District in this Forest.This Mining District also contains the most mineral patented land in this Forest (SNF). You would think the Forest Service would be at least mildly curious; however there is no mention in the Forest Plan of this colorful 140 year mining history. There are dozens of historical sites throughout this fire area. Few of the sites have shown up on maps, many were established prior to any real mapping of the area. The Jackson Mine shown on 1926 Sawtooth National Forest maps was probably leveled with this fire. Many more are at eminent threat from this fire today.

It was my understanding that the Forest Service is required by Congress to do a cultural review or assessment prior to allowing a fire like this to burn. There has been no attempt to locate, assess, or document these historical sites. For decades the Forest Service has burned or destroyed all mining structures in this District including mills, shops, and cabins.

Platts Gold Mountain mill has fire within 100 yards on Sunday. This mill will be featured on Outdoor Idaho in October as the last small two story complete unmodified mining mill of this type in the country. Thousand were built in different mining eras across the Western U. S. none have survived complete with all machinery but this one. It would be a criminal act to burn it down.

I don’t believe the USFS has attempted to meet minimum requirements by Congress to protect historical sites. They have no idea of what they are burning and the history they are destroying. I feel strongly enough about this to talk to a Federal Judge and ask the USFS to control this fire.

PS From the journal of Zeolene Platts: “there were 350 people and 82 cars along the river” (South Boise, Fairfield District) July 5 1937.

15 Sep 2008, 10:48pm
by Tim R.


It is certainly evident that the resource damage is not just limited to the timber resources. The protection of our customs and culture as well as our heritage is at stake.

I wish to compliment everyone that continues to work together keeping the pressure on the responsible officials!

I thank you and America thanks you!

16 Sep 2008, 9:45am
by Terry P.


Letter submitted to the editor this AM to the Times News, Twin Falls ID:

Editor, The South Barker fire grinds into its seventh week destroying pine and fir forests that have not seen fire for hundreds or possibly thousands of years. Scientists tell us that these forest fires promote global warming, airborne mercury, and any minerals that are in the ground are in the smoke.

Any environmental goals have long been achieved by this fire; the results are now detrimental to the environment. This fire was vigorously stopped at the Boise Forest where they cut thin and promote healthy forests, but it was allowed to move across Elmore County and now continues to burn Camas County in the Sawtooth National Forest. The vaunted Bull Trout habitat is being burned to the ground promoting stream sediment and removing protective brush over the streams.

If a private or business entity had done 1% of this damage to the habitat they would have been fined and in jail, yet it continues. The Forest Service has been surprised to get the positive response to continue this fire. The reasons are strictly political, burn Camas and Elmore Counties to the ground to promote a huge fire break to protect their more important Blaine County. If you agree with me that it is past time to control this fire and cutting and thinning is a better solution please contact the Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor, Jane Kollmeyer by phone or email at jkollmeyer@fs.fed.us .

17 Sep 2008, 7:19pm
by Glenn


Hi Jane-

On September 11, I wrote to you that I had not seen what objectives had been set for the South Barker Fire. You haven’t responded to that, but on September 12, the notes from “The Chief’s Desk” finally published a list of them. I assume they were set by the forest and just published by the chief.

To put it mildly, I was surprised to find out what the objectives are. The first was ‘to improve habitat for the white-headed woodpecker which eats mostly ponderosa pine seeds’. I’m no expert on woodpeckers, but I have searched the literature to see what I can learn about them. The Audubon Society field guide says they feed on insects they find under the bark scales on ponderosa pine. One other write-up I found said they eat pine seeds in the fall and winter. The “Golden Field Guide” calls them locally common. Several references said they are very seldom seen outside the ponderosa pine belt. None of the references said anything about their needing a particular age class of ponderosa pine.

Several things seem obvious to me. First, live trees have more bark scales than dead ones. Second, burned trees don’t produce pine seeds. Third, there is no shortage of ponderosa pine seeds in the forest. (When we harvested trees instead of burning them up on the South Boise River, we collected cones and extracted seeds to plant in the nursery so we could reforest the harvested areas. We would collect many bushels from one good tree.) It would take millions of little woodpeckers to eat all the pine seeds that one acre of pines can produce. I cannot believe that the availability of pine seeds is a limiting factor on these birds.

The second objective is to improve habitat for the flammulated owl. One guide says they like the pine-oak forest. Another says they prefer the dry ponderosa pines in the southwest. Nothing I can find says anything about their liking burned-over forests or any particular age class of forests. Like all owls, they are carnivorous so they are not depending on trees for food. Unless you plan to replant the burned area with oak, the literature I have seen doesn’t indicate any benefit to the owls from your burning.

The third objective is to maintain the old-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest by eliminating the smaller trees.
Since neither of the bird species have a particular need for old-growth forests, there is no benefit to them from your burning the understory. Eliminating the smaller trees so the old ones can survive is a pretty weak argument. First, the old trees are established and are quite capable of competing. Second, it is not possible to maintain a forest of old trees. They will eventually die no matter what you do. It is a little bit like putting your hopes for the future of our society on the longevity and wisdom of the folks in the nursing home. I’d rather bet on the youth. I’d also prefer to have some young trees coming along to stabilize the soil and replace the old ones when they die.

Even if the arguments about improving habitats in the ponderosa pine types had some merit, the ugly fact remains that according to the map put out by NIFC on September 8, less than twenty percent of the burned area appears to be in the ponderosa pine type. Over eighty percent of your burn is a total waste even by your own faulty criteria. Almost none of the remaining area within your MMA is ponderosa pine country.

I would have expected you to be more concerned about the watersheds in some of Idaho’s prime fishing streams, including the homes of the listed bull trout in Shake Creek, Willow Creek, and Skeleton Creek. Instead of taking care of them, you put your efforts on the “Red Herrings” listed in your objectives.

Jane, this kind of dishonest management cannot go on. I urge you to do like Jack Ward Thomas promised when he said we would obey the law, tell the truth, admit our mistakes and not try to cover them up. The future of our forests and the Forest Service is at stake.

Glenn

17 Sep 2008, 7:22pm
by Mike


South Barker WFU Fire Wednesday morning update:

Situation as of 09/16/08 5:00 PM
Personnel: 61
Size: 36,000 acres
Percent Contained: 0%
Maximum desired fire size (MMA): 109,752 acs

Costs to Date: $6,847,343

Road was opened from Featherville to Bumgartner, but remains closed from Bumgartner to Big Smokey to maintain the area closure and ensure public safety. Some structure assessment protection around Platt Mine.

Fire activity today included creeping, individual and group tree torching in the timber in upper Willow Creek, Burnt Log Creek, and Upper Narrow Canyon observed some crown spread. Some fire growth was observed today due to hot dry conditions.

19 Sep 2008, 9:09pm
by Mike


South Barker WFU Fire update Friday morning:

Situation as of 09/18/08 6:00 PM
Personnel: 57
Size: 38,583 acres
Percent Contained: 0%
Maximum desired fire size (MMA): 109,752 acs

Costs to Date: $7,041,364

Fire has grown 2,500 acres in 2 days. Fire management response has been to downsize and demobilize resources.

Planned Actions: Monitor fire behavior, fire growth, and implement checking actions as warranted to protect private structures and maintain fire within the MMA. Maintain structure protection readiness. Evaluate burn severity. Continue to staff road guards to maintain the area closure and ensure public safety.

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