Blame the Victims: The Mill Flat Whoofoo Cover-up

The US Forest Service has issued a “Lessons Learned” report blaming the citizens of New Harmony, Utah for burning their own homes down in a whoofoo (wildland fire use fire).

The Mill Flat WFU Fire (2009, Dixie NF, 12,607 acres) [here] was “monitored” until it blew up. The fire roared into New Harmony, Utah, forced the evacuation of 170 New Harmony residents, destroyed three homes and damaged eight buildings. The fire eventually cost over $6.5 million to suppress.

Now the USFS blames the victims for failing to express their wishes that the Agency put the fire out before it blew up. The Mill Flat Fire Review (4.5 MB PDF) was posted 4/2/2024 at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (WFLLC) [here]. (Note: The WFLLC is part of the National Advanced Fire & Resource Institute (NAFRI) [here], an “interagency consortium” supported by the USFS, BLM, NPS, BIA, and USFWS.)

Background [here]: The Mill Flat WFU Fire ignited July 25, 2009, 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.

Note: Foofurb is the new (2009) designation for whoofoo. After eight years of promoting “wildland fire use” (WFU or whoofoo), the propaganda meisters decided to change the name to foofurb, “fire used for resource benefit”. In fact, whoofoos and foofurbs are Let It Burn fires. The USFS hates the term “Let It Burn” so they desperately seek obfuscations.

As of August 22 the fire was 550 acres. Then a week later the wind came up, the fire blew up, and by August 31 the fire was 10,382 acres. The fire roared into New Harmony, Utah, forced the evacuation of 170 New Harmony residents, destroyed three homes and damaged eight buildings.

Some benefit, eh?

At the time Utah Governor Gary Herbert criticized the USFS [here]

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

Herbert also took aim at restrictions on federal wilderness areas. The Mill Flat fire started July 25 within the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness Area.

Before Congress designated the area as protected wilderness, livestock grazing controlled vegetation overgrowth that causes fires to burn more intensely when they do start, he said.

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

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

The later date has arrived and the questions answered: the fire blow up and destruction it caused were the fault of the New Harmony residents, not the USFS.

According to the Lessons Learned report, one of the factors that led to the fire reaching town was that residents failed to inform the USFS that they did not wish to be burned out:

Several folks interviewed shared that although they had concerns or doubts about continuing with the strategy to manage the Mill Flat Fire after August 25, 2009, they did not speak up.

Evidently if you don’t scream in their ears, the USFS cannot hear you. Officious blobs of stupid will incinerate you, and then blame you for not explaining to them what a poor decision choice that might be.

According to the Lessons Learned report, the public was “confused” by the “multiple terms for various management options for wildland fire”.

“Fire for Resource Benefit”, “Suppression Fire” and “Benefit Fires” are terms and ideas that continue to narrow our vision. Labels can narrow one’s vision of management options and perhaps contribute to reduced situational awareness. … There were misconceptions among the participants regarding the interactions between wilderness and fire management policy.

One of the narrow visions that confused the public was that the USFS fuel break designed to protect the community of New Harmony would be effective at stopping a fire. The report clarifies that misunderstanding:

* The fuel break had not been maintained for years…

* The original design of the fuel break required all vegetation to be left in the drainages. This resulted in two “wicks” that, if left untreated, provided a clear path for the fire to cross. …

* The fuel break was built on the USFS property boundary; in many cases this was not best tactical location to be effective.

* The width of the fuel break was not adequate for the fire behavior that occurred.

* The fuel break was never intended to “stop” a fire but rather to reduce fire intensity to a more manageable level by reducing fuel loading and breaking the continuity between the wildlands and the community.

The fuel break was a joke. The residents of New Harmony should have known they were being played. They were told that “public safety” was the principal concern of the USFS in any fire situation. The residents were gullible enough to believe that, when the policy of the USFS over years and years was to ignore public safety with a fake fuel break that the USFS knew was inadequate and poorly designed.

Now the USFS says the purpose of the fuel break was NOT to stop fires from burning into town. The residents should have known that all along.

The Lesson Learned conclusions:

The team found that managers performed within the context of their experience and training. Their actions were reasonable based on what they knew and what they expected to happen and the policy available to guide their decisions.

Fire managers consistently made firefighter and public safety the highest priority on the Mill Flat Fire. Strong interagency relationships helped communicate with partners on fire status.

In other words, NO LESSONS WERE LEARNED AT ALL.

The USFS continues to claim that the fire was Let Burn in order to “benefit” resources, but has 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, it is difficult to say where or when the USFS decided that clearing old growth is their mission.

The USFS has never prepared an the Environmental Impact Statement stating that “clearing old growth” is their policy. The decision to incinerate the Dixie NF and surrounding towns was not preceded by an EIS, nor was any “science” allegedly considered when the Let It Burn decision was made.

The purpose of the NEPA process is to bring into public review all the science considered before any action is taken that will have significant impact of the environment. But there has never been any NEPA process for foofurbs or whoofoos. There is no transparency, no process, no public involvement in Let It Burn.

The Lessons Not Learned At All report does note that the Let It Burn policy was promulgated by the the Wildland Fire Leadership Council:

2003
The Interagency Strategy for the Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy (June 20, 2023) was developed and approved under the authority of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC) to set forth direction for consistent implementation of the federal fire policy.

2008
On May 2, 2008, the WFLC issued a memorandum entitled Modification of Federal Wildland Fire Policy Guidance. This memorandum directed federal agencies to test and implement new guidelines for wildland fire management. The modifications were tested in a number of field units in the 2008 fire season.

2009
On January 7, 2009, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) issued a memorandum (NWCG#001-2009) to the NWCG executive board that

1. affirmed the soundness of the Review and Update of the 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy (January 2001),

2. reiterates the policy changes stated in the May 2, 2023 WFLC memorandum entitled Modification of Federal Wildland Fire Policy Guidance,

3. states that the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) will replace existing analysis and decision processes…

The WFLC is a Federal Advisory Board that meets in secret behind closed doors to set national fire policies. They seat anti-forest lobbyists groups such as the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Wilderness Society (TWS) in direct violation of the law and against the advice of their attorneys [here]. It is the WFLC that directed the USFS to implement whoofoos (now foofurbs). (Besides the link above, we have discussed the WFLC in numerous posts [here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here] and other posts as well).

The Lessons Not Learned At All report provides a description of the Chain of Command. The WFLC initiated the Let It Burn policy behind closed doors in cahoots with “environmental” extremists. They also promulgated something called the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS). The order then went to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) [here], another “interagency consortium”. The NWCG issued a memorandum to the USFS. USFS deputy chief for state and private forestry Jim Hubbard passed the WFDSS order onto the Regions. Regional Forester (R-4) Harv Forsgren issued a directive to Dixie NF Forest Supervisor Rob MacWhorter, who relayed it to Pine Valley District Ranger Bevan Killpack.

On February 2, 2009, Forest Service Deputy Chief Hubbard announced the implementation schedule for the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS); a web-based fire analysis application. Use of the WFDSS was to be phased in nationally between April 2009 and September 2009. Beginning April 1, 2009, agency administrators were authorized to use the WFDSS decision analysis process and the Decision Analysis Report (DAR), for unplanned wildland fires in lieu of the three existing decision analysis processes. Full transition to the DAR was to be complete for Region 4, including the Dixie National Forest, by July 1, 2023 for those fires requiring one of the current decision analysis processes, including all unplanned wildland fires which are managed for multiple objectives.

Thus the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) became the guide for managing whoofoo/foofurbs next to New Harmony, while the residents there were kept completely in the dark about it. Nobody asked their opinion, although the residents were to become the victims of the faulty WFDSS a few weeks later.

The Lessons Not Learned At All report notes:

The Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) was new in 2009, and there were issues related to clarifying objectives and strategies within WFDSS. … The primary changes in the revised implementation guidance were:

* Changes in terminology.

* A wildland fire may be concurrently managed for one or more objectives and those objectives can change as the fire spreads across the landscape, encountering new fuels, weather, social conditions, and land ownership.

The revised Implementation Guidance also reaffirmed the need to work collaboratively with State, local and tribal fire managers as well as public and non-governmental organizations in the management of wildland fire.

As it turned out, the new terminology confused everybody, and there was no effort whatsoever to “work collaboratively with” the public or anybody else.

And, as it turned out, the WFDSS was a complete failure. The WFDSS is a computer “decision” model, basically a garbage-in-garbage-out black box, that made repeated bad decisions leading to catastrophe. On-the-ground fire managers became slaves to a machine that is as stupid as dirt. Instead of using their expert judgment, fire managers deferred decisions to an untested conglomeration of crap in a box, with the handy excuse that they were “just following orders”.

The Lessons Not Learned At All report blames the fire managers for failing to input the correct garbage.

An FSPro run projecting four weeks of potential fire spread was done early in the fire’s management but was not updated when the fire had significant growth in late August. An updated FSPro run had been requested but had not been completed. Other fire behavior prediction tools may have shown a greater potential for the fire reaching New Harmony (see Appendix K), but were not used.

Critical thresholds for live fuel moisture were not known for Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany, which proved to be a key fuel component.

There was not a fire behavior analyst assigned to the Mill Flat Fire, or available locally to assist. The lack of an analyst limited the availability of current, relevant data regarding expected fire behavior.

If only a good computer sysop had been available, then the WFDSS model wouldn’t have been so all-fired stupid.

In the future, the USFS has no qualms at all about trusting your life and the fate of your community and watershed to a black box model that has failed miserably in practice.

Robots have taken control of the USFS. The machines rule. Megafires, scorched earth, “clearing old growth,” burning down forests, towns, cities, states, regions, are the purpose and goals. All hail the robot masters.

The Lessons Not Learned At All report offers the following recommendations:

* Continue to emphasize firefighter and public safety as the number one priority.

* Continue to work with the State, Counties and communities on high priority hazardous fuels reduction projects designed for the kind of fire behavior that might be expected.

The use of the word “continue” is curious, since the policy has been to ignore public safety, to avoid any sort of collaboration with anyone except holocauster lobbyist groups in secret meetings, and to create fake, joke fuel breaks.

The Lessons Not Learned At All report does note:

Relationships/Communications
Key Lessons:

Community members expressed that “they were made to feel silly” for being concerned, and that they were being fed “propaganda” about the benefits of the fire.

Community members said that the “Blue Springs Fire did the same thing and they told us that fire was OK, too. We have lost trust in the Forest Service”. …

Some people did not speak up when they had concerns.

The upshot is that no matter what kind of abusive BS crap propaganda is flung at communities, if you don’t speak up loud and clear, with a megaphone directly in the ears of the public “servants”, they will incinerate your town with impunity and blame you for it.

That is the real Lesson Learned in the Mill Creek Whoofoo/Foofurb Disaster. The USFS is stone deaf, enslaved to holocausters and computer models, hot to Let It Burn, and they will not change their ways unless the public makes non-negotiable demands in the loudest ways possible.

Every county and commission and city counsel in the West should call their local USFS officials onto the carpet, in front of the entire community, and scream at them in the most vociferous manner, “DO NOT INCINERATE OUR FORESTS, WATERSHEDS, OR COMMUNITIES“.

If necessary, and it probably is, follow the lead of California [here], Montana [here], and Oregon [here] and demand a change in management structure in the United States Forest Service and an end to Let It Burn fires used for “resource benefit”. If the USFS refuses to heed those demands, follow Utah’s lead [here] and take the lands back.

6 Apr 2010, 7:09pm
by Larry H.


“Existing procedures to guide managers through complex and dynamic risk analysis were not designed with this kind of long-duration fire in mind.”

So, can we not use this process again on FooFURB fires, since they ALWAYS are of “long-duration”? I think we need latitudinal dates which, when fires go beyond, aggressive suppression will be mandated, due to the potential for windy, fall-like weather. If we can’t eliminate FooFURBs altogether, this would be the next best thing (as well as being included in proper NEPA analysis.)

“Learning” should not be occurring when it puts the public at risk. Clearly, the fire organization thinks that they can gamble with people’s lives and homes, while they “play with fire”.

I know the area around New Harmony, and the ruggedness of the land and the funneling of winds obviously makes fire suppression a very difficult task.

6 Apr 2010, 8:34pm
by Mike


Ruggedness of the landscape is no excuse for a phony, unmaintained firebreak. Nor is it rational to “monitor” a fire without resort to aerial attack when said fire threatens a town.

There were no airtankers called in, and just one helicopter that was grounded when the fire blew up. There is NO EXCUSE for dicking around, doing nothing while lives are at stake.

The people of New Harmony have every right to be incensed at the USFS, top to bottom. Western residents are not guinea pigs for the latest crazy firefighting theories to come from sick twitch political operatives in DC.

I say shut them down and take the land back. The USFS cannot be trusted anymore. Their own employees at the field level do not trust the agency to do anything right, including issuing paychecks.

The field personnel do not want some crappy software to substitute for their judgments. They do not want “wilderness experts” from D.C. bopping in and taking over when a fire starts. They do not want to be despised by their neighbors in the towns in which they live.

The centralized bureaucracy de-localized the USFS, and as a consequence they have burned too many bridges with too many people, including their own employees. Nobody is happy about it. The train is off the tracks and train wrecks are all that can be expected. More rules from D.C. is the LAST thing that will do any good.

6 Apr 2010, 10:25pm
by Larry H.


Actually, in the town itself, the terrain is rather flat. So, since the fire started at Mill Flat, they should have recognized that they needed to keep the fire from escaping the easier terrain. My guess is that they were looking at boosting their “stats”, meaning acreage towards their goals. Fire folks are always placing goals and targets over public safety, as their egos and bravado override everything else. We’ve seen that in action in several recent instances where fires got away from them.

On a firefighter website, one guy’s response to the investigation was “Shit happens…” I doubt he would respond that way if there was a fatality. My response was to mention the deaths in Australia and the probability of the same thing happening here.

8 Apr 2010, 2:06pm
by Forrest Grump


Narrowed vision? Is that legit? You gotta be kidding me.

“Safety” is too much of a crutch, too. Harping on it has completely overrun performance for expenditure, in all ways.

Letting a one-guy fire blow into six million bucks is cause for dismissal. Period. I agree, we should dismiss everyone.

8 Apr 2010, 5:12pm
by YPmule


Posted to the YPTimes.

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