Utah Governor Slams USFS for Foofurb Disaster

Utah Governor Gary Herbert criticized the US Forest Service for the Mill Flat Fire that burned into New Harmony, destroying three homes, damaging others, and forcing the evacuation of the town.

“It appears the Forest Service started the fire,” Herbert said Sunday. “They should take responsibility.”

The Mill Flat Fire [here] ignited July 25 in the Dixie National Forest. Bevan Killpack, Pine Valley District Ranger and Rob MacWhorter, Forest Supervisor for the Dixie NF, decided the fire should be allowed to burn unchecked. One person was assigned to monitor the fire and a 29,000 acre “maximum manageable area” was designated. The Mill Flat Fire was declared a foofurb, a “fire used for resource benefit”, despite the fact that no benefits were elucidated, no EIS created, and no public involvement or hearings held.

As of August 22 the fire was 550 acres. Then last Saturday the wind came up, the fire blew up, and by Monday the fire was 10,382 acres. The fire is still only 5 percent contained and it may be another 10 to 12 days before full containment is achieved. Over 700 firefighters are engaged. The suppression costs have not been reported as yet.

No estimates of the damages have been made yet either, although Killpack warned that floods next spring could cause additional losses [here]:

One of the biggest future problems with the Mill Flat fire, Killpack said, could be flooding in the spring created from loss of vegetation. Killpack said he has already put in a request for Forest Service for funds to help mitigate flooding. Requested items might include sandbags, square baskets full of rocks to impede stream flow or other recommendations from an agency hydrologists.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s comments were reported yesterday:

Herbert views fire, criticizes federal policies

By Mark Havnes, The Salt Lake Tribune, 08/31/2009 [here]

New Harmony » Gov. Gary Herbert on Sunday joined critics questioning why the 10,000-acre Mill Flat fire that destroyed at least three structures and threatened more than 600 others was not suppressed earlier.

After flying over the blaze’s towering smoke column in a helicopter, he aimed his criticism at a decision to let the lightning-caused fire burn as a way to clear old growth and invite rejuvenation.

“A lighting strike may be a good way to manage resources but [it] may not be the best practice,” the governor said. …

“With wilderness, our hands are tied behind our backs,” Herbert said. “It sets us up for a tragedy.”

Perhaps sheep should be allowed to graze in now-restricted areas, he said.

Officials had been monitoring the fire mostly burning through dead vegetation for nearly a month before it exploded in size on Saturday as heavy winds quickly pushed it closer and closer to residential areas.

At a town meeting Sunday afternoon, Patricia Smith asked how much money would have been saved had officials opted to suppress the fire earlier. …

Jon Petersen, who lives in Las Vegas but whose family has a house in New Harmony, said the Forest Service “screwed up.”

He said he went up to a ridge top to look at the fire two weeks ago and saw tragedy coming.

“The smoke would flare up in Pine Valley and drop its ashes [and embers] on New Harmony.

His brother, Ralph Petersen, also criticized slow response to fight the flames.

“My solution is the first five days [the fire] is nature made, after that it should be treated as manmade,” he said.

Fire spokesman Kenton Call said questions about cost and the decision not to fight the fire earlier will be addressed at a later date.

For his part, Herbert said he wants to ensure state taxpayers won’t bear the cost.

“It appears the Forest Service started the fire; they should take responsibility,” he said.

Some conflicting statements: the USFS claimed the fire would “benefit” resources but never presented any explanation of what those benefits might be. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the “benefits” were to “clear old growth and invite rejuvenation.” Yet clearing old-growth is not generally recognized as a benefit. In fact, clearing old growth is something that “environmentalists” rail at length against.

The SL Tribune also reported that “the fire mostly burning through dead vegetation for nearly a month” and that the purpose of the fire was to “reduce the amount of available fuel.”

That is, a wildfire was allowed to burn unchecked in mid-summer because there was a significant threat to resources and to public health and safety from a fire in those fuels.

Next week the USFS will be driving all its vehicles over a cliff because there is a threat that the vehicles may fall off a cliff someday.

In another SL Tribune report [here] Killpack was quoted:

“We have an unhealthy ecosystem with a lot of stressed trees so bugs are able to kill them,” he said. “We have 35 percent dead trees in tight vegetation above the towns of Pine Valley, New Harmony and Leeds, and one day that will burn. It’s not if, it’s when.”

Evidently he thought the middle of summer was the best time to incinerate his Ranger District.

Environmentalists blamed the victims:

“New Harmony is no longer New Harmony,” [long-time Utah wilderness activist Dick] Carter said of building homes in fire-prone areas. “It’s out of harmony and it’s been out of harmony a long time because we have failed to understand the consequences of growth and that’s the thing Governor Herbert and others will have to deal with.”

Carter did not blame himself for insisting on wilderness designation, even though that designation precludes any sort of true restoration that might benefit resources. Indeed, wilderness designation is an invitation to catastrophic fire:

In managing wildfires in wilderness, district rangers such as Killpack must request permission from supervisors at the forest and regional level to use chain saws, land helicopters or drop water or retardants from the air in wilderness areas. For the Mill Flat fire, that permission was granted last Thursday, Killpack said.

Unfortunately, that was a little too late to save the town or the forest.

The site of the conflagration, Pine Valley, has been home to human beings for more than 10,000 years. It is not “wilderness,” not “untrammeled,” and not “pristine.” It is and has been homeland and was managed by the residents with anthropogenic fire for millennia. Traditional management precluded catastrophic fires, which would have been disastrous, would have destroyed resources, and would have compromised the survival of the residents. Hence they burned the landscape on a frequent, seasonal, regular basis with light, low intensity fires. Frequent, seasonal, anthropogenic fires engendered the pine savanna which gave the valley its name.

In the absence of traditional stewardship, and indeed in the absence of any stewardship at all, the pine savanna has been destroyed and severe damage has been done to environmental and human-built resources. And that destruction has come at great expense, far greater than common sense traditional stewardship would have cost.

The Mill Flat Fire is another forest fire tragedy and disaster that arose from fatheaded politics and unmanagement in support of a myth. Similar tragedies arising from the same causes have ravaged western landscapes in recent years, and there appears to be no light at the end of that tunnel.

1 Sep 2009, 6:36pm
by bear bait

The institutional culture of the USFS is so demeaned, debased, and decrepit as to be not only laughable but sad. Only government can make the kind of effort and thought to screw things up to the point there is no value left.

The public doesn’t like logging and calls second growth forests farmed trees, but has yet to figure out that it is farms that feed us, not hunter-gatherers. That deal about chasing around in a fossil fueled auto to find mushrooms and farmers markets, roadside (note the “road” in roadside) vegetable and fruit stands, and “natural” meat is not the answer to feeding the whole of America, especially that segment that cannot, will not, and has never fed itself in my lifetime. The entitled folks who get income tax refunds for filing but not working, who get foodstamps and rent support, free schooling for children, and now free medical care for their children, manage to obtain all that from the redistribution of the efforts of those who do work and earn wages from which taxes are taken.

So we live in a disconnected country. The vast public has a lot of ideas, most of them theoretical. The pragmatists who have put their treasure and effort on the line know what will work and what won’t. This disconnect includes the policies that drive public land management. The blind don’t lead the blind. They merely tell the blind how to do it and where. The institutionally blind have to find their way with bad, bad direction.

Utah just found that out? I hardly believe that to be true. Utah just got hosed, once again, by the smart guys working for Rahm and Rabid. It is about who gets to make the decisions, and people who would find a way to profit by an activity have now been so demonized by the Sun Cod and His Minions that they no longer participate.

I love the statements from the left that the Republicans have yet to present a plan for anything, be it health care or wildland protections. Duh!!! The minority cannot force a hearing on anything, so no bill they advance ever get a committee hearing. The jackboot of Democrat Power is upon their neck, and to say they don’t have a plan is ludicrous. We will never know if they have or had a plan because they don’t have a forum in which to present one. It is Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid time, and they call ALL the shots. While their noses grow longer and longer.

2 Sep 2009, 5:20pm
by Glenn B.

Governor Herbert made some very good observations. I agree with him that letting a fire burn is morally no different from lighting one.

He is right on when he says the NEPA process must be followed for a major federal action and letting a fire burn early in the fire season is almost sure to become a major federal action.

The governor also wisely recognizes that there is a probability of future damage from flash flooding, etc. He was kind not to mention that the fire area is in the foreground and background view from I-15 where hundreds of people will have to look at it every day.

Letting a fire burn or lighting one with no way of predicting where it will go and what it will burn is wrong and should be punished as a crime.

Doing it early in the fire season almost guarantees that adverse weather will occur sometime while the fire is still active. It is not rational to blame the high winds for the problem. Days with high winds occur every summer. I think the average is about six major adverse weather events each summer in the Cedar City area.

Many of the factors associated with this fire repeat the ones we saw on the big fires in Idaho in 2007 and 2008. It seems the learning curve is either flat or downward.

3 Sep 2009, 7:31am
by Larry H.

This is simply a game of legally covering one’s arse. Since actually setting fires comes with a legal risk, the Feds choose to split moral hairs by gambling that they can deal with a Let-Burn fire.
I’d be willing to “bet” that the gamble is a LOT worse odds than a slot machine at a Nevada airport or remote gas station.

3 Sep 2009, 2:08pm
by Carl P.

When all the costs of this incident are added up, I hope we reflect on how much better the expenditures could have been used to proactively manage vegetation. Currently the FS, in their attempts to restore natural processes and manage Wilderness and roadless areas, are only using reactive management and are depending upon “nature” to do their job. They wait for lighting to ignite a fire, thinking it is their only option, and then hope that some weather event doesn’t blow it out of “prescription”. As stated, it is a huge gamble, and their record of successes is dismal. A much better and much less expensive action would be to pick areas that have become serious fire problems. Do an EIS so all alternatives are analyzed and available for public input. If a proactive alternative is selected, do some pre-fire actions to assure positive results. In areas outside of designated Wilderness they may even find opportunities to thin stands and make dimensional lumber to keep areas like New Harmony from burning and provide honest employment. Then, when timing is right, specifically later in the fire season before a predicted season ending event, ignite a fire where planned, so it will be safer and results more predictable. The environment and even Wilderness doesn’t care how the fire is started, whatever positive results that occur will be the same.

19 Nov 2009, 9:47pm
by John T.

Bevin Kilpack should be fired. At any time he could have given the order to put out the fire, but he didn’t. Why? This his his second time at letting a managed fire escape and threaten structures — the first time was the Hawkins Fire near Enterprise Utah which burned 40,000+ acres. What does he have to do to prove his incompetence, kill a few people? The entire fire management program in Southwest Utah needs a closer look. They have made mistake after mistake.



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