4 Feb 2009, 10:28am
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

Glenn Bradley on WFU’s

Allowing forest fires to burn unimpeded and out of control may seem like a good idea in theory, especially to urban types who know absolutely nothing about forests or forest fires. But in practice Murphy’s Law rules: if something can go wrong, it will.

USFS Let It Burn fires have a tendency to blow up and turn into raging holocausts that incinerate vast acreages. Examples are numerous, and in our recapitulation of the 2008 fire season we will discuss quite a few tragic and stupid fires which were Let Burn with terrible consequences to people and nature.

Two of those tragic and stupid Let It Burn fires last year were the East Slide Rock Ridge WFU Fire (54,549 acres, ~$9 million to suppress) [here] in Nevada and the South Barker WFU Fire (38,583 acres, ~$7 million to suppress) [here] in Idaho.

In both cases small fires were allowed to burn in order to “save money,” and in both cases the fires blew up, did enormous damage, and cost many millions to suppress. The long-lasting damages to forests, wildlife, watersheds, and public health and safety are easily 20 to 40 times the suppression costs. The best laid plans (actually the secret and wholly incompetent plans) of the USFS went awry big time.

We posted about the USFS review of the ESRR-WFU Fire last month [here]. This week Retired Forest Supervisor Glenn Bradley wrote a letter to current Region 4 (Intermountain) Regional Forester Harv Forsgren congratulating him for ordering that review. Mr. Bradley has given permission to post his letter to Mr. Forsgren, which follows.

Previously we have posted commentary by Glenn Bradley regarding the South Barker WFU Fire [here, here, here, here, and here].

Hi Harv-

I read the newspaper report about the East Slide Rock Ridge Fire this week. I congratulate you for ordering a review of that project. Disasters like it and the concurrent South Barker WFU need to be brought to a halt. All of the shortcomings outlined about the East Slide Rock Ridge fire apply to the South Barker burn, but with greater consequences.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two projects is that the South Barker is in the heart of the heavily-used South Fork of the Boise River recreation corridor which is a leading outdoor playground for the populations of southern Idaho from Twin Falls to Ontario, Oregon. All recreation use in that corridor was closed on the Sawtooth for the last half of the summer, and the smoke made living in the canyon or trying to recreate down-river from the burn miserable for the same period. Three miles of that river canyon in the foreground of three campgrounds between Barker Gulch and Bird Creek was burned black by a back burn and will remain a serious eyesore for many years.

Another difference between the two WFU’s is that the South Barker severely damaged several thrifty ponderosa pine plantations that had been growing for about 45 years and represented a huge investment. Some of the plantations were in the 3000 acres that burned outside the WFU boundary on lands administered by the Boise N.F.

Vegetation in the burned area has always been a natural mosaic of a variety of fuels and certainly didn’t need to be burned to create a new mosaic.

Most of the South Barker Fire burned in high elevation country with steep granitic soils that are very erosive. It took those slopes most of the last century to recover from heavy sheep grazing early in the 1900’s. The sparse vegetation that was trying to hold the soil in place was not dense enough to carry a hot fire, but what little was there was burned off, leaving the slopes exposed to accelerated erosion. Any high-intensity storms in the near future are sure to create severe erosion and silting of the streams, some of which are habitat to the listed bull trout.

Because it burned in mid-August, the areas of heavier fuels burned so hot that even the mature Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs crowned out and are killed. Instead of lessening the fuel loading, those trees will now be added to it.

I do not know about the origin of the East Slide Rock Ridge fire, but I do know the South Barker fire could have been easily extinguished when it was a single tree fire at a cost of a very few hundred dollars. Instead, it was allowed to burn, did a lot of damage, and cost the taxpayers over 7 million dollars. The value of the lost resources and opportunities has been ignored in all of the data I have seen.

I can promise you that if your future fire management policies rely on lightning strikes to determine the time and place you are going to let fires burn, you will be less than fully prepared most of the time. Prescribed burning should only be done with good plans and under conditions which allow the outcome to be predicted.

I believe that the East Slide Rock Ridge, the South Barker, and probably all other WFU’s violate the intent of NEPA. There was virtually no project level planning, no preparation, no assessment of impacts, and no public involvement.

There has been considerable discussion lately about the liability of fire managers relating to injuries and fatalities. Fire managers who are doing their best to properly manage a fire should be protected from liability by the agency. Anyone can make honest mistakes and have bad luck. On the other hand, a manager who decides to let a fire burn in “Red Flag” weather in the peak of the fire season with no idea about how or where it can be stopped should be held liable for all of the damage it creates. Blaming “Nature” doesn’t cut it.

These WFU’s certainly violate the trust of the affected people that the Forest Service has spent a century earning. The Sawtooth Forest doesn’t have many friends left along the South Boise River. I hope you will see to it that, at least in your region, these disasters will cease.


Glenn Bradley
Shoshone, Idaho



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta