From the Associated Press:
MADISON — Prosecutors announced Thursday they won’t file charges against loggers whose equipment apparently started a massive wildfire in northwestern Wisconsin, concluding there was no criminal intent or negligence.
The fire began Tuesday afternoon in the woods near Simms Lake in Douglas County, about 40 miles southeast of Duluth, Minn. It consumed 8,131 acres, destroyed 17 homes and forced dozens of people to evacuate before firefighters contained it late Wednesday evening. No injuries have been reported.
The state Department of Natural Resources released a statement Thursday saying logging equipment started the fire.
A logger was operating a large machine similar to an end loader with a circular saw that cuts groups of trees, DNR Fire Law Enforcement Specialist Gary Bibow said. The operator noticed smoke coming from under the cutting head, jumped out of the cab and saw the grass under the machine was burning.
The operator nearly had extinguished the fire when it leaped 40 yards into the trees and raced out of control, Bibow said.
“He thought he had it out, and it took off,” Bibow said. “It climbed into the top of the trees.”
Another member of the logger’s crew immediately called 911, according to the DNR’s statement.
It’s still unclear whether the machine caught fire or created sparks as it was cutting, DNR spokeswoman Catherine Koele said. Neither she nor Bibow knew the name of the loggers’ company.
The DNR said in its statement that Douglas County prosecutors had decided there was no criminal intent or negligence and they had declined to issue any charges.
Douglas County Assistant District Attorney Ruth Kressel said in an email to The Associated Press nothing suggests the fire was started intentionally.
“We realize how tragic this fire has been and the devastation to homes, buildings and to our north woods, but … the origin and cause of the fire lack the requisite intent for criminal charges,” she said.
The fire was one of the worst to strike northern Wisconsin in three decades.
I have a set of notes, which I have been unable to locate, however here is some information about the hearing I attended last week. In general, the dialogue among Coloradans was more focused on specific practices than the generalized partisan nature of some D.C. hearings. The point of the hearing, after all, was to find out what Coloradans are thinking and doing. But I will give my impressions after I find my notes.
The first panel was Gale Norton and Mike King..Mike is the Director of Natural Resources for the State of Colorado, in the Hickenlooper Administration (D). He started off by saying that that forest health and wildfire issues are beyond partisanship (or similar words).
Recovery From 2012 Wildfires
As the Committee is likely aware, Colorado had an intense fire season in 2012. It started uncharacteristically early and led to a great deal of damage. The Lower North Fork, the High Park, and the Waldo Canyon fires all occurred along the highly populated metropolitan corridor from north of Fort Collins down south to Colorado Springs. Collectively, those fires resulted in six fatalities, scorched 110,368 acres, and destroyed 744 structures.
Recovery efforts began before the fire season was over last summer, and has continued. Federal support in the form of increased funding for the Emergency Watershed Projection program was recently included in the Continuing Resolution for the FY13 federal budget, and will be instrumental in helping our local governments. Nearly $20 million is expected to come to the state as a result of this measure, and treatments will include mulching, seeding, channel stabilization, and contour tree felling. However, with so many resource values in need of attention – water quality, erosion, road corridors, revegetation – even this robust federal support is insufficient to meet the need completely.
Local governments began meeting a few months ago to coordinate their fire recovery efforts, share information about funding, and learn from each other’s experiences. As a part of those conversations, entities that have been engaged in the range of recovery activities have tracked those expenditures. To date, state and local public funds spent on recovery from the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs has totaled $10.5 million; recovery from the High Park fire in Fort Collins has totaled $9 million. Those funds don’t include the millions that were lost in private property and insurance claims. It is with
this damage in mind that Colorado has worked to elevate forest health and wildfire risk reduction to the highest policy levels.
Governor Hickenlooper, in sync with other Western Governors, has identified two federal authorities that have played a key role in Colorado as we work to find a private market for forest products, enhance the health of our forests, and reduce the risk from wildfire. Those provisions are Stewardship Contracting and Good Neighbor Authority.
Stewardship Contracting allows the USFS to focus on goods (trees and other woody biomass) for services (removal of this material), and helps the agency make forest treatment projects more economical. Individuals who seek to build a business that requires a reliable supply of timber have consistently reported that long term Stewardship Contracts provide them with the security they need to secure investments. We support permanent authorization for stewardship contracting.
Good Neighbor Authority allows states, including our own Colorado State Forest Service, to perform forest treatments on national forest land when they are treating neighboring non-federal land. This landscape-scale approach is essential for achieving landscape-scale forest health. Fires don’t respect ownership boundaries. We support permanent authorization for Good Neighbor Authority.
Early response to wildfires is essential to ensure public safety, reduce costs, and minimize damage to natural resources. Western Governors have repeatedly noted their concern with the ongoing pattern whereby land management agencies exhaust the funds available for firefighting and are forced to redirect monies from other programs, including, ironically, fire mitigation work. Raiding the budgets for recreation in order to pay for fire suppression presents a significant problem in Colorado, where our outdoor recreation opportunities on public land are unparalleled. We support minimizing fire transfer within the federal land management agencies, and more fully funding existing suppression accounts.
As far as I can tell, there were no professional journalists at the hearing.If you see news stories that were generated from a journalist attending, please let me know.
Here is Region Five’s “Ecological Restoration Implementation Plan”. It is definitely worth a browse, especially if you are a local within or near any of these National Forests. Each Forest spells out what it is doing and what it is planning.
(The picture is an old one, from fall of 2000. I had been here, salvaging bug-killed trees, in 1991. There was obviously additional mortality after that.)
From the Eldorado NF entry:
Maintain healthy and well-distributed populations of native species through sustaining habitats associated with those species
Use ecological strategies for post-fire restoration
Apply best science to make restoration decisions
Involve the public through collaborative partnerships that build trust among diverse interest groups
Create additional funding sources through partnerships
Incorporate the “Triple Bottom Line” into our restoration strategy: emphasizing social, economic and ecological objectives
Implement an “All lands approach” for restoring landscapes
Establish a sustainable level of recreational activities and restore landscapes affected by unmanaged recreation
Implement an effective conservation education and interpretation program that promotes understanding the value of healthy watersheds and ecosystem services they deliver and support for restoration actions.
Improve the function of streams and meadows
Restore resilience of the Forests to wildfire, insects and disease
Integrate program funding and priorities to create effective and efficient implementation of restoration activities
Reduce the spread of non-native invasive species
Here’s a link to a short article (and video) about the new study, “Hot fire, cool soil,” with a brief excerpt below. The American Geophysical Union demanded that we remove a copy of the actual study, which they provided me earlier in the day, from our website….so I’ve done that. Sorry folks.
When scientists torched an entire 22-acre watershed in Portugal in a recent experiment, their research yielded a counterintuitive result: Large, hot fires do not necessarily beget hot, scorched soil.
It’s well known that wildfires can leave surface soil burned and barren, which increases the risk of erosion and hinders a landscape’s ability to recover. But the scientists’ fiery test found that the hotter the fire—and the denser the vegetation feeding the flames—the less the underlying soil heated up, an inverse effect which runs contrary to previous studies and conventional wisdom.
Rather, the soil temperature was most affected by the fire’s speed, the direction of heat travel and the landscape’s initial moisture content.
And here’s the abstract:
Wildfires greatly increase a landscape’s vulnerability to flooding and erosion events by removing vegetation and changing soils. Fire damage to soil increases with increasing soil temperature and, for fires where smoldering combustion is absent, the current understanding is that soil temperatures increase as fuel load and fire intensity increase. Here, however, we show that this understanding that is based on experiments under homogeneous conditions does not necessarily apply at the more relevant larger scale where soils, vegetation and fire characteristics are heterogeneous. In a catchment-scale fire experiment, soils were surprisingly cool where fuel load was high and fire was hot and, conversely, soils were hot where expected to be cooler. This indicates that the greatest fire damage to soil can occur where fuel load and fire intensity are low rather than high, and has important implications for management of fire-prone areas prior to, during and after fire events.
I picked this up from a Colorado Springs news clip..
Here is the link to the story, below is an excerpt.
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell Tuesday about how the agency plans to grapple with budget cuts that could impact its ability to fight fire this season.
The forest service expects to add next generation, or modernized air tankers, to its fleet this month, but will still have to deal with cuts to its fire suppression programs. In short, although it has yet to get seriously underway, wildfire season 2013 could be an expensive endeavor for the agency.
As of last week, the 2014 budget was a done deal–and the forest service announced that it will be cutting funds to its fire suppression program by 37 percent. For the committee of senators from Oregon, Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota, that will come as big blow, particularly as the country gears up for another potentially record-breaking wildfire season.
Both fire suppression and preparedness funds were cut, Tidwell told the committee. There are about 87 million acres of forest lands that need fuel treatment–the cutting down of trees, and thinning of forests to make them less of a breeding ground for megafires–but the forest service’s hazardous fuel reduction budget will be focused entirely on red zones, where people live.
That doesn’t mean that other forest lands won’t get the treatment they need, Tidwell said; instead, those projects will be funded by other projects besides hazardous fuels reduction.
The sequester will also impact the agencies wildfire fighting resources–it has cut 500 firefighters and between 50 and 70 engines from its pool, Tidwell said.
“We’ll start off the season with less resources,” Tidwell told the committee. “Because of the sequester it will probably just cost us more money when it comes to fire.”
Watch the two-hour committee hearing and read Tidwell’s witness statement by clicking here.
My other question would be that if the President said that climate change is a priority as in story here, and fires are worse, in some part, due to climate change, then wouldn’t it be logical to increase what you spend on fire?
But as Bob Berwyn points out here. at the same time, the Park Service is getting an increase in the 2014 budget. According to Bob, these increases include:
Key increases include $5.2 million to control exotic and invasive species such as quagga and zebra mussels, $2.0 million to enhance sustainable and accessible infrastructure across the national park system, and $1.0 million to foster the engagement of youth in the great outdoors. These increases are partially offset by programmatic decreases to park operations and related programs totaling $20.6 million.
If we are working on climate change, and the budget is the “policy made real” then WTH??? Is climate change only about helping energy industries go low carbon, or is it also about mitigating impacts? We could easily spend more bucks studying potential future impacts than dealing with today’s impacts. Seems to me you gotta pick a lane.. either fires are worse due (partially) to CC or they are not. If they are, they should be part of the Climate Change budget and actions.
Another nice job by Marshall Swearingen..of the High Country News.. again, it sounds pretty commonsensical (to me), so I continue to wonder what all the brouhaha (discussed in previous posts as a “Wildfire in a Chiminea”) about fire policy was really about? I hope if a fire is close to me, people are managing it on some practical principles and not the conceptual “buddy system”. Just sayin’..
Thanks to Marshall, for taking the time to ask someone who knows and explaining it in ways that people can understand.
Here’s the link, and below is an excerpt. Any potential clarifications by people on the blog would be appreciated.
1) Was the fire human-caused?
If so, the Forest Service will work to immediately put it out. The agency doesn’t want to encourage folks to light fires willy-nilly, thinking they’re helping the forest. And there are legal liabilities associated with letting a human-caused fire burn. This includes any prescribed burns that jump their lines. Interestingly, the Park Service may allow human-ignited fires to burn because in some of the smaller park units, according to Sexton, “they feel that they have a deficit of fire on the landscape, and they want to take advantage of any start.”
2) Where is the fire?
Certain areas in forests, primarily in wilderness areas, are identified as places where natural fire can safely play a beneficial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Fire helps check the spread of insects and disease, and some ecosystems, like ponderosa forest, are adapted to periodic low-intensity burns that clean out the understory. Each individual National Forest decides where fire could serve a restoration purpose, and those areas are identified in that forest’s management plan.
3) When is the fire?
Even if a fire is ignited by lighting in wilderness, it may be a candidate for suppression if it would burn habitat, such as a nesting area, that’s critical during a certain time of the year. Timing during the fire season also factors into other criteria, like risk: a fire started early in the fire season has a greater chance of speading and becoming a danger.
4) What do the locals think?
In 2012, the Forest Service changed its fire policies to emphasize pre-season planning with other agencies, local firefighters and landowners. The agency may have identified an area as being suitable for restoration fire, but if the owner of a private inholding is opposed, for example, that’s a significant factor in the agency’s decision.
5) What are the risks?
This includes danger to public safety and private property, plus risks to fire fighters. Challenging terrain, like steep, rocky slopes and dense forests, could make the fire difficult to manage if it grows.
6) What’s the long-term benefit?
This is basically a cumulative weighing of restoration benefits versus potential risks. If it looks like the fire could be allowed to run a natural course for the remainder of the fire season without getting out of hand, it’s a candidate for “let burn.” But if it looks like it could blow up and get expensive to fight, or move into areas that endanger safety or property, it may be put out.
7) What’s the plan?
Prior to 2009, the Forest Service would decide shortly after a fire started whether to suppress it or manage it for restoration, and the agency was expected to stick to its plan. Changes to federal fire policy in 2009 allow the agency more discretion throughout the whole process, meaning fire-line officials can change their minds as fire conditions change.
Even when the Forest Service is “letting it burn,” the term is a little misleading. “None of these fires are just ‘let burn,’” says Sexton. “Any time we make a decision to allow a wildfire help us achieve a restoration objective, that fire is carefully managed from ignition until it’s out.”
With our discussions about burned forests and blackbacked woodpeckers, here are some views of the Power Fire, on the Eldorado National Forest. Initially, the wildfire seemed to be of mixed severity but, as the summer wore on, more and more insect mortality caused previously green trees to turn brown. After Chad Hanson took his appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, this project was halted with about 75% of the dead trees cut. The court decided that not enough analysis was done regarding the blackbacked woodpecker, despite only 55% of the burned area in the project.
In this picture, seven years after it burned, most of those foreground snags were in a helicopter unit, with a fairly large stream buffer at the bottom. At least 5 times we marked additional mortality in that unit. Also important is the fact that we were cutting trees which still had green needles, using the new fire mortality guidelines of the time. As you can see, the density of snags should be quite sufficient in supporting multiple woodpecker families.
This patch of snags was clumped, below a main road and above a major streamcourse.
Another view of abundant snags within a cutting unit, and a protected streamcourse.
You can see that both large and small snags were left for wildlife. After 6 years, surely some snags have already fallen, as expected. Not every acre can, or should, have birds on every acre. Since this is predominantly a P. pine stand, the combination of high-intensity fire and subsequent bark beetles caused catastrophic losses of owl and goshawk habitat, including nest trees. You can also see that reforestation is, and will continue to be problematic, with all that deerbrush coming back so thick.
Brooks Hays, a reporter with GIMBY, recently wrote an article that should generate some interest here, especially in context of some of the comments related to recent black-backed woodpecker articles. Below is a snip from the opening lead, which features some quotes from forest ecologist Chad Hanson. The article also includes perspectives from Richard Hutto, forest ecologist and director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana, and from myself. You can read the entire article here.
Last summer, talk of wildfires filled newspapers and dominated the headlines. Wildfires were “trending,” as they say.
Blazes were burning the western forests in record numbers, announced policy officials and reporters. Every news and science organization from USA Today to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was calling 2012′s fire season one of the worst on record.
“Records maintained by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and NASA both indicate that 2012 was an extraordinary year for wildfires in the United States,” NOAA wrote in a year-end review.
Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters blamed the growing threat of wildfire on “rising temperatures and earlier snow melt due to climate change” and added that “fire suppression policies which leave more timber to burn may also be a factor.”
In August, as fire season continued to rage in most of the West, National Public Radio ran a five-part series calling mega-fires the “new normal.” This new reality was attributed to excess forest growth — an overly abundant accumulation of combustible materials – all resulting from an overzealous Forest Service that put out too many fires. NPR dubbed it the “Smokey the Bear effect.”
But a growing body of empirical data suggests these superlatives might be more storytelling than science. “Those terms, ‘mega-fire’ and ‘catastrophic fire,’ are not scientific terms,” says forest ecologist Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project. “And such hyperbolic and extreme terms are not going to lead us to an objective view of the evidence.”
An objective view of the evidence, Hanson argues, reveals that the vast majority of wildlands and forests aren’t burning hotter and faster. They’re actually starved for high-intensity fires — fires Hanson says are more ecologically valuable than they’re given credit for.
As Hanson argues in his most recent study, The Myth of “Catastrophic” Wildfire, high-intensity fires are the exception in the U.S. today, not the norm. And he finds no correlation between increased fire-suppression activity and high-intensity fire. Hanson says the opposite is true: the longer a forest goes without fire, the more mature it becomes, the higher its canopy grows, and the less susceptible it is to fire damage.
Click here to read the entire article.
Certainly this story is about Colorado and neither Oregon nor South Dakota; still, it makes a person wonder.
Here’s the link and below is an excerpt.
If wildlife acres burned double in the next 50 years, how can birds that live in burnt trees be on a bad trajectory in terms of habitat? Could someone in the legal business explain the logic path.. facts found, conclusions drawn, how that relates to the ESA regulations to make the FWS go spend bucks (I wonder if they track how many?) to assess this situation when Interior can’t afford to plow the roads to Yellowstone Park?
The hotter, drier climate will transform Rocky Mountain forests, unleashing wider wildfires and insect attacks, federal scientists warn in a report for Congress and the White House.
The U.S. Forest Service scientists project that, by 2050, the area burned each year by increasingly severe wildfires will at least double, to around 20 million acres nationwide.
Some regions, including western Colorado, are expected to face up to a fivefold increase in acres burned if climate change continues on the current trajectory.
Floods, droughts and heat waves, driven by changing weather patterns, also are expected to spur bug infestations of the sort seen across 4 million acres of Colorado pine forests.
“We’re going to have to figure out some more effective and efficient ways for adapting rather than just pouring more and more resources and money at it,” Forest Service climate change advisor Dave Cleaves said.
“We’re going to have to have a lot more partnerships with states and communities to look at fires and forest health problems.”
The Forest Service scientists this week attended a “National Adaptation” forum in Denver, where experts explored responses to climate change. They’ve synthesized 25 years of federal climate science as part of the National Climate Assessment — now being finalized for the president and Congress — as the basis for navigating changes.
Degradation of city watersheds is anticipated along with diminished cleansing capacity of forests. Forests today absorb an estimated 13 percent of U.S. carbon pollution.
New data shows bug attacks are already broadening. In Colorado, insects target trees at higher elevations, such as white-bark pines found in wilderness areas, said David Peterson, a Forest Service research biologist who co-wrote the 265-page report.
This was also interesting..
Some Western governors took the climate change warning as confirmation of current trends and called for federal help creating new forest projects industries.
Fires and insect attacks “are only going to get even worse,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday. “We need a real federal commitment to managing our forests in a way that will prepare and protect our communities, protect and enhance wildlife habitat and protect our water for drinking, irrigation and fishing.”
Received this press release this morning. I’m not familiar with the “Integrated Resource Restoration Program.” Has the agency “exceeded or met its goals in almost every performance category”?