By Char Miller
As western wildfires burn through millions of forested acres, they are igniting debates about our response that are almost as heated as the flames themselves.
The leaders of the U.S. Forest Service have known that fire begets discord since 1905, when Gifford Pinchot became the federal agency’s first chief. Randy Moore, who was sworn in as the 20th chief on July 26, is no stranger to the conflict, after his decade-long service as the agency’s regional forester for California. Since 2017, that fire-prone state — and its many national forests — have endured its eight largest fires ever.
Despite his extensive experience, Moore probably did not expect to be burned even before assuming his new post. But he was, courtesy of a lightning-struck, smoldering pine rooted in a granite-rough ridge in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in early July.
When the fire was spotted, Forest Service personnel determined there was no immediate danger of fire spread. They would monitor it. But for the health of the forest, where fire is regenerative, and for reasons of resource management and firefighter safety, this was the kind of fire they wouldn’t move immediately to put it out.
A week later, gusting winds fanned sparks outward, and what came to be known as the Tamarack fire has been burning ever since. Although the 68,000-acre blaze now is more than 80% contained, there has been no containing the resulting fight that erupted over the initial handling of the fire.
Angry California and Nevada politicians attacked the Forest Service’s decision not to extinguish the smoking tree. On July 20, Rep. Tom McClintock demanded that the outgoing chief retract the “current U.S. Forest Service direction that allows wildfires to burn and instruct all Regional Foresters that all wildfires should be suppressed as soon as possible.”
Moore responded with a memo Aug. 2. He conceded that in a “fire year different from any before” the Forest Service should stop managing fires for “resource benefit” — that is, to improve ecosystem health — and instead suppress them. “We are in a ‘triage mode,’” he wrote, and the agency’s focus now “must be on fires that threaten communities and infrastructure.” This was, he concluded, the most “prudent course of action now in a situation that is dynamic and fluid.”
Moore’s “prudent course … now” language, however, isn’t prudent enough for some. The National Wildfire Institute, a suppression-friendly bloc of retired Forest Service officials, said the initial Tamarack decision bore the “hallmarks of criminal negligence.” “It’s time,” they wrote in a letter to Moore, “to declare that all fires will be promptly and aggressively extinguished, period.”
But other Forest Service veterans disagree, urging the new chief to reverse his Aug. 2 directive.
DENVER, Colo. — The USDA Forest Service announced yesterday the investment of more than $1.3 million of Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) projects with funding authorized by Congress under the Great American Outdoors Act. These projects will conserve critical forest and wetland habitat, support rural economic recovery and increase public access in the Rocky Mountain Region. The initial $1.3 million investment for administration will provide support toward purchases of critical inholding areas, recreational access projects, and core acquisition projects across the Rocky Mountain Region at Sweetwater Lake on the White River National Forest, Little Rock Creek on the Shoshone National Forest, Wabash Springs on the Black Hills National Forest and Sand Creek on the Nebraska National Forest.
“These access projects will benefit hunters, anglers, and other recreationists across the Rocky Mountain Region by providing visitors with improved access to public lands and protecting critical wildlife habitat,” said Tammy Angel, acting regional forester.
The Forest Service administers two LWCF programs – the Forest Legacy Program (FLP) and the Land Acquisition Program. Together, these programs conserve critical and strategic lands across the nation’s forests on both private and public lands.
The FLP is a conservation program administered by the U.S. Forest Service in partnership with state agencies to encourage the protection of privately owned forest lands through conservation easements or land purchases.
The Land Acquisition Program was enacted by Congress to create parks and open spaces; protect wilderness, wetlands, and refuges; preserve wildlife habitat; and enhance recreational opportunities.
In total, the Forest Service will invest more than $94 million nationwide to fund 28 projects under the FLP, and $123 million to fund Land Acquisition Program projects, including projects for recreation access and other purposes.
Sometime later this month or in early November, if the weather cooperates, the U.S. Forest Service will fly a pair of fire-spitting helicopters over a remote mountain in southern Utah and set the forest ablaze.
While the helicopters are pelting burning liquid fuel at the treetops, dozens of firefighters will be providing support on the ground, using drip torches and flamethrowers to create a towering wall of flame that will stretch from the forest floor to the sky. As the heat builds and the blaze roars across spruce- and fir-stippled canopies, a small army of scientists will launch weather balloons and drones, drive radar- and LIDAR-equipped trucks around the perimeter, fly specialized research planes overhead, and gather data on fire-hardened GoPro cameras to analyze the inferno from start to finish.
It will be among the fiercest controlled burns scientists have ever studied in the wild—“as close to a wildfire as you can expect,” says Roger Ottmar, the principal investigator for the Forest Service–led Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE). The goal? To collect data on every aspect of the fire at once, in order to improve the models scientists and land managers use to predict the impacts of fires. That will allow the agency to oversee more controlled burns on landscapes that need fire to thrive, and the data will also provide insight into the large, intense blazes that keep erupting across the West—the types of unruly fires that climate change and changing land-use patterns are making more common.
“The more experiments we can do, the better we can understand fire behavior in a changing climate,” says Craig Clements, the director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University and the science lead for FASMEE’s plume-dynamics and meteorology team. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The opportunity exists only because of the very specific ecological challenges facing Fishlake National Forest’s Monroe Mountain. The upcoming burn is part of a larger restoration project the Forest Service launched back in 2015 to revive the area’s ailing aspens, explains Linda Chappell, the regional fuels program manager. These trees, which provide food and shelter for a wide array of animals, including elk, rabbits, porcupines, beavers, and countless birds, have been declining across the West for decades due in part to overgrazing by deer and livestock. Drought and disease have hit hard, too. And aspens, a clonal species, need wildfires to cue their roots to put out new “suckers,” or sprouts. Around Monroe Mountain, the frequency of wildfires has dropped dramatically over the past century, allowing a mix of conifer species to slowly take over.
One of the most effective ways to bring aspens back is to ignite a “crown fire”: a really big, really hot fire that jumps from treetop to treetop and sends flames writhing upward into the sky. The work is being done piecemeal over the course of a decade in order to introduce as much variation as possible into the mountain ecosystem. “We want a crazy quilt of aspen ages and a crazy quilt of conifer ages,” Chappell says. Because these prescribed crown fires are so similar to wildfires in terms of their intensity, the restoration project served as the ideal natural laboratory for FASMEE to piggyback onto.
By Peter Aleshire
WHITE MOUNTAINS — Granted, getting up your hopes for the 4-Forest Restoration Initiatives (4FRI) is just a little like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, with Lucy grinning at him like a crazy person.
Still, the most recent developments point to potenial improvements. This might really work out well for the struggling wood products industry in the White Mountains.
The Four Forests Restoration Initiative is the most ambitious forest restoration effort in the country, with the goal of thinning tree densities on more than 2 million acres of ponderosa pine forests in Arizona from perhaps 1,000 per acre to more like 100 per acre. Environmentalist, local officials, loggers and foresters agreed that a combination of prescribed burns and small-wood logging operations restoring the forest and returning low-intensity wildfires to their natural role. In the process, 4FRI hopes to reduce catastrophic wildfires, protecting watershed and saving forested communities. The project include much of the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests. However, the effort has floundered in the past seven years for lack of infrastructure and a market for the wood slash that constitutes half of the material to be removed — the biomass.
Novo Power President Brad Worsley says he’s feeling optimistic the 28 megawatt biomass-burning power plant in Snowflake may stay in business, now that the Forest Services has released the Rim Country request for proposals (RFP) on some 800,000 acres in dire need of thinning.
“I’m happy with the RFP, mainly because they continue to prioritize the biomass – that was really big,” said Worsley.
The wood products industry spawned by the decade-long White Mountains Stewardship Project accounts for hundreds of jobs in an area beset by unemployment and low growth rates. The shutdown of coal-fired power plants combined with the earlier shutdown of mills has thinned the job supply further.
But if things go just right – the Forest Service’s new flexibility and emphasis on getting rid of the could prove an economic boon to the White Mountains.
And that’s in addition to keeping the whole place from burning down.
By Rob Jordan
It costs more than a new iPhone XS, and it’s made out of hazelnut shrub stems. Traditional baby baskets of Northern California’s Yurok and Karuk tribes come at a premium not only because they are handcrafted by skilled weavers, but because the stems required to make them are found only in forest understory areas experiencing a type of controlled burn once practiced by the tribes but suppressed for more than a century.
A new Stanford-led study with the U.S. Forest Service in collaboration with the Yurok and Karuk tribes found that incorporating traditional techniques into current fire suppression practices could help revitalize American Indian cultures, economies and livelihoods, while continuing to reduce wildfire risks. The findings could inform plans to incorporate the cultural burning practices into forest management across an area one and a half times the size of Rhode Island.
“Burning connects many tribal members to an ancestral practice that they know has immense ecological and social benefit especially in the aftermath of industrial timber activity and ongoing economic austerity,” said study lead author Tony Marks-Block, a doctoral candidate in anthropology who worked with Lisa Curran, the Roger and Cynthia Lang Professor in Environmental Anthrolopogy.
“We must have fire in order to continue the traditions of our people,” said Margo Robbins, a Yurok basket weaver and director of the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council who advised the researchers. “There is such a thing as good fire.”
The study, published in Forest Ecology and Management, replicates Yurok and Karuk fire treatments that involve cutting and burning hazelnut shrub stems. The approach increased the production of high-quality stems (straight, unbranched and free of insect marks or bark blemishes) needed to make culturally significant items such as baby baskets and fish traps up to 10-fold compared with untreated shrubs.
Reducing fuel load
Previous studies have shown that repeated prescribed burning reduces fuel for wildfires, thus reducing their intensity and size in seasonally dry forests such as the one the researchers studied in the Klamath Basin area near the border with Oregon. This study was part of a larger exploration of prescribed burns being carried out by Stanford and U.S. Forest Service researchers who collaborated with the Yurok and Karuk tribes to evaluate traditional fire management treatments. Together, they worked with a consortium of federal and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations across 5,570 acres in the Klamath Basin.
The consortium has proposed expanding these “cultural burns” – which have been greatly constrained throughout the tribes’ ancestral lands – across more than 1 million acres of federal and tribal lands that are currently managed with techniques including less targeted controlled burns or brush removal.
For about a century, the Forest Service has paid people to sit at the top of mountains every summer and watch for smoke. Technology is taking their place, but what is being lost in the transition?
By Kate Groetzinger
The word wildfire tends to invoke fear, but some wildfires are actually good. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Peavine and Poison Canyon fires currently burning in the Manti-La Sal National Forest will help the environment and act as future fire suppressants.
The Peavine Canyon Fire started July 16, while the Poison Canyon Fire started 10 days later. Together, they have burned around 5,000 acres in San Juan County.
Lightning started both fires, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Heather McLean. But rather than rushing to extinguish them, the agency has opted for a management strategy that involves letting them burn.
“The start was far back in the wilderness where there weren’t any values at risk, like people’s homes or infrastructure,” McLean said.
Firefighters have been helping the flames along, said Monticello District Ranger Michael Diem. More than 100 personnel are assigned to Peavine and Poison Canyons, and they have been lighting small, controlled fires along roads and trails to create buffer zones to stop the wildfire’s spread, as well as lighting small fires inside these boundaries to encourage burning.
McLean said the Forest Service doesn’t expect the fires to grow much bigger. They’ll stop as they approach these buffers and continue to burn internally.
“They will naturally burn themselves out as the thunderstorms go across, and it will actually work quite well,” she said.
Because of the conditions resulting from a wet spring and good snowpack, the fires aren’t destroying everything in their path. They are burning in a “mosaic” pattern, according to McLean, and will leave behind plenty of healthy foliage.
“People have an idea that when fires burn — everything is black,” she said. “But fires that burn naturally in the right conditions don’t burn like that. They just burn in places where there’s fuel.”
Diem said fires like this benefit the overall health of the forest. They open up areas for elk and deer to forage, as well as for hawks and Mexican spotted owls to hunt. The fires are also creating a patchwork of burned out areas that will act as buffers for wildfires later in the season.
Today is Smokey Bear’s 75th Birthday – Celebrate with Celebrity Friends in Innovative New Animated Emoji Campaign
In honor of Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday – August 9, 2019 – the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council have teamed up to celebrate the nation’s favorite bear. To ensure that Smokey Bear’s important message of wildfire prevention is heard throughout the nation, Stephen Colbert, Al Roker and Jeff Foxworthy have joined the historic campaign, lending their voices to help expand on Smokey’s iconic “Only you can prevent wildfires” catchphrase through the use of facial recognition and voice technologies.
For years, through the voice of Academy-Award nominated actor Sam Elliott, Smokey Bear has only said five words: “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Now, to complement this signature message, Smokey’s friends are stepping up to say more about wildfire prevention on his behalf and help millions of Americans understand the importance of the issue. Utilizing cutting-edge facial recognition and mapping technology, coupled with instantly recognizable celebrity voices, the animated emoji campaign has enabled Smokey’s famous friends to speak through him and further raise awareness of fire safety and wildfire prevention, in an effort to reduce the incidence of unplanned human-caused wildfires.
“I can’t think of a better birthday gift for Smokey than to have his wildfire prevention message echoed through the use of advanced social media tools like animated emojis,” said Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. “In fact, since wildfire season is year-round, Smokey’s message is even more important.”
For 75 years, Smokey Bear has been recognized as a symbol of wildfire prevention. In fact, Smokey Bear is the longest-running PSA program in U.S. history, created in conjunction with advertising agency FCB, who has developed Smokey Bear campaign assets pro bono since his first introduction in 1944. While his campaign began three-quarters of a century ago, and great strides have been made in preventing human-caused wildfires, Smokey Bear’s message continues to be as important as ever, as wildfires continue to be one of the most critical environmental issues affecting the U.S. On average, almost nine out of 10 wildfires nationwide are caused by people.
“Smokey Bear and his friends know that wildfire is not just a western issue or a summer phenomenon. It’s always wildfire season somewhere in the United States,” said Jay Farrell, Executive Director of the National Association of State Foresters. “This is why it is so important that Smokey’s message resonate year-round and nationwide with all Americans. This year’s Smokey Bear wildfire prevention campaign promises to do just that.”
By Victoria Harker
The United States Forest Service took the first step to issue one of the largest RFPs in the history of the agency to attract industry to Arizona to clear out Arizona forests to reduce damage when wildfires erupt.
In the contract is a call for much-needed biomass industries to remove and burn the massive amount of debris here, said Jeremy Kruger, chief executive of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) for the Forest Service.
“We have a biomass bottleneck,” Kruger said. “Viable biomass utilization is currently the biggest obstacle to accelerating the pace of mechanical forest restoration treatments.”
With the longest contiguous pine forest in the world, northern Arizona is a prime location for reforestation industries as well as facilities that can burn woody forest debris – biomass – and transform it into energy for the electric grid.
Currently, there is only one biomass facility in the state, NovoBio in Snowflake.
Attracting industry has been the biggest challenge. A policy approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission last year also is designed as a shout out to attract biomass plants to the state.
Forest Service to spend $550 million over 20 years
Kruger said the first step of the RFP, a presolicitation notice, was issued July 10 to alert qualified vendors.
The Forest Service plans to spend $550 million over the next 20 years on reforestation. Business and industry will play a key role in this effort by harvesting, processing, and selling wood products.
The RFP calls for awarding contracts to companies to mechanically thin 605,000 to 818,000 acres of forests in Northern Arizona. The RFP will be available to both small and large businesses and seeks proposals that are “sustainable, innovative, feasible, and cost-effective to increase the pace of the scale of forest restoration.”
By Jennifer Moore Myers
In 1989, South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest lost close to a third of its pine and hardwood trees to Hurricane Hugo. USDA Forest Service land managers have spent the last thirty years recovering from that disturbance and working to meet the state’s growing needs for clean water, forest products, recreation areas, and wildlife habitat.
To that end, the Francis Marion adopted a new forest plan in 2017 focused upon restoring longleaf pine, the once-dominant southern species, across 33,000 acres of national forest lands.
This goal and the management work to implement it are based on a body of experimental research about forest ecology and hydrology — much of it conducted on the Santee Experimental Forest.
The Santee sits on the west side of the Francis Marion. Established in 1937, it’s a 6,100-acre living laboratory that has hosted many long-term studies on the effects of fire, hurricanes, and forest management practices on tree growth, streamflow, and wildlife communities.
SRS scientists and national forest managers have teamed up to study the impacts of replacing existing loblolly pine stands with longleaf pine.
Earlier, fine-scale studies suggest that water yield from longleaf pine landscapes may be greater than that from loblolly pine or mixed pine and hardwood stands due to differences in forest structure and composition between the two pine environments.
“Longleaf pine restoration is a priority for the Southern Region of the National Forest System,” says research soil scientist Carl Trettin. “This project is an opportunity to advance the current science on longleaf restoration to broader scales as well as support the Region and the Forest.”