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Fighting Wildfire During Extreme Burning Conditions

by Jon Klingel (Cave Junction '65) |

It is no secret that the west is getting hotter and drier, the fire season is longer, and fires are burning with more intensity and are bigger.

We had two fires burning simultaneously in New Mexico during summer 2022, and both were larger than any fires in the state's history. However, paying attention to fires in northern New Mexico during the past few years, it seems that the size and number of large fires is not commensurate with what would be expected from the changing climate.

It has become frustratingly clear that the approach to firefighting has changed dramatically, and not for the better. I recognize we need to get low-intensity fire back into some of our ecosystems, at the right time of year. We don't need fires during extreme burning conditions, at the wrong time of year; most of these are human-caused fires.

Based on the changing conditions, I had expected to see a very significant increase in initial attack capabilities combined with strong aggressive attack on those fires that escape initial attack, including quick, intensive activity at night and in rough country. Unfortunately, I am seeing the opposite of what I expected.

I define "extreme burning conditions" as low fuel moisture, low relative humidity, and wind. If the goal is to keep the fire as small as possible, by far the best chance to accomplish that is a quick and strong initial attack. Almost all fires start small, so a quick strong response is critical, which usually means helitack and/or smokejumpers, unless the fire is quickly accessible by road.

If a fire escapes initial attack under extreme conditions and the burning intensity has become high, there are few options. During a "normal day" starting around 10 a.m., the relative humidity starts to drop, the fine fuels become drier, and the wind picks up with up-slope and up-canyon winds increasing with the fire intensity increasing. If the fire is in heavy fuels, a plume may develop, sometimes reaching thousands of feet high.

Spotting is common, with spotting distances reaching up to a few miles in front of the fire. Fire behavior can become erratic. Direct attack, working close to the fire, is generally not possible except sometimes at the tail end (up-wind side) of the fire. Under these conditions, daytime firefighting options are limited: firefighters can stay in camp or safety zones, or conduct indirect attack, moving away from the fire to a fireline or road and trying to burn out the fuel.

The probability of failure is high due to spotting, and a lot of country gets burned by the backfire. If the burnout fails, the size of the fire may increase dramatically.

During a "normal night," however, conditions Fighting Wildfire During Extreme Burning Conditions reverse. The wind dies down, the relative humidity goes up, and the fire lies down. Air flow changes to down-slope and down-canyon.

Watch the plume. It will die down and usually disappear in the evening. In the early morning, the fire won't be putting up much, if any, smoke. On a "normal night," it usually becomes possible to directly attack a fire, building fireline close to the fire's edge and burning out the small strip of fuel between the line and the fire. With luck, when burning picks up in the morning, the fuel in front of the fire is gone. The fire, or that section of it, is contained.

The most dramatic example I've seen was a sagebrush fire in Nevada. The day crew created a line with bulldozers that they claimed was 10 dozer blades wide. I didn't measure it, but it was a wide swath of bare dirt up the middle of the valley.

The crew said that when the fire hit their fire break, it crossed it like it wasn't there. That night, which was a "normal night," we could put out that same line of fire almost as fast as a person could walk, using a shovel. Flame length was only inches.

Certainly not all nights are "normal nights." The wind blows some nights and relative humidity remains low. Under those conditions, fires burn like they burn during the day.

In my opinion, if you aren't taking advantage of the "normal nights" and fighting the fire at night, you are not effectively fighting the fire. Under extreme burning conditions, if the only firefighting is occurring during the day using indirect attack, you almost guarantee the fire will become big - possibly very, very big.

NORTHERN NEW MEXICO

The Midnight Fire (2022) near El Rito, N.M. was reported at 25 acres at 7:46 p.m. The dispatch gave directions how to drive to near the fire and meet to talk about it. There was no mention of helitack, smokejumpers, or air tankers.

Apparently, there was no night firefighting, although the Forest Service reported several days later that they had firefighters on the line early that morning, as if it were unusual. The fire was around 5,000 acres when the monsoon rains came. Initial attack was non-existent.

The Luna Fire near Chacon, N.M. (October 2020). The fire was apparently started by a military airplane in late afternoon and is still listed as "under investigation" two years later. Apparently, none of the eyewitnesses has even been interviewed yet. Forest Service crews didn't show up until the next morning and then left in the evening. No initial attack and no firefighting at night. The fire burned hot during the day with more than a 1.5-mile spotting distance and grew to more than 12,000 acres. The fire was stopped by a snowstorm, not the Forest Service, in late November.

The following spring there was significant flash flooding, debris flows, and a population of Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout destroyed. The Forest Service put cows on the burn the next summer, only seven months after the fire. Is that rational resource management?

The Ensabado Fire near Taos, N.M., was a few years ago. It was reported immediately because many people in Taos saw the lightning strike and the fire start. An air tanker was ordered an hour after the start, and it took three hours before it showed up.

The next day, the Forest Service announced on the radio that, using GPS, it had just measured the fire at 846 acres, had all the resources it could want, "so there wouldn't be a night shift." The records show that crews were out on the line every morning, spent a few hours working on the line, spent the rest of the day in their safety zones and were pulled off for the night.

In other words, crews spent only a couple of hours on the line each day. However, the Forest Service did fly small helicopters with water buckets to and from the fire all day for several days. Small water drops with no one on the line have little effect.

It was apparently a public relations air show. The fire burned about 5,000 acres and had 1,000 people on the fire.

The Calf Canyon and Hermit's Peak Fires (2022) were both started by the Forest Service in April at the beginning of the three-month dry, windy fire season. New Mexico has been in extreme drought with very dry fuels for a long time, and spring is the windy season.

The Hermit's Peak Fire started from a controlled burn that escaped, and the Calf Canyon Fire, from last winter's burn pile, which was not mopped up, and then again not mopped up when smoke showed up this spring. They burned together to form the largest fire in New Mexico history at more than 530 square miles.

Containment was still only 93 percent as of July 14, during the fire's fourth month. As of Oct. 1, the fire has been declared contained but not out. The Forest Service apparently plans to leave the western edge of the fire in the Pecos Wilderness uncontained and not mopped up - claiming it is too steep, rough, and dangerous for their firefighters.

The fire was listed as a "full suppression" fire. The monsoon rains have arrived, so the fire is mostly out. Apparently, there was no night firefighting. The only mention of "night" was that they were monitoring the fire at night (i.e., watching it burn).

Apparently, all the effort was indirect burnouts during the day. It was a very windy spring, so many of the attempted burnouts were during the day in dry, windy weather.

My impression is that many of the attempted burnouts failed and went big. The fire burned through and around numerous small communities where structure protection was massive, and for the most part successful. Reportedly at least 400 homes burned and perhaps a thousand were damaged, according to the New Mexico governor. I suspect most of the structures lost were during the early phase of the fire before massive structure protection was in place.

The fire had three Type 1 overhead teams - the highest level - on it at one time and as many as 3,000 people. There were numerous fixed-wing air tankers, large helicopters, bulldozers, masticators, structure protection crews, and large fire camps. This fire has cost the taxpayers $248 million (as of July 13) in fire "fighting" expenses, so far.

These Fires Raise Numerous Questions

Why is there no aggressive initial attack?

The fire managers know New Mexico has been in extreme drought and that the springtime three-month fire season is windy. They get daily readings of the fuel moisture and burning conditions. Were helitack crews and smokejumpers pre-posipositioned to be ready nearby, as one would expect? I am unaware of any mention of helitack or smokejumpers. It almost seems like they wanted the fires to become big.

Why was there no firefighting at night?

They claim it is a safety issue, and possibly it is a little more dangerous at night, although almost all burnovers - where people are killed by the fire -happen during the day. By not fighting a fire at night under extreme burning conditions, you are not effectively fighting the fire and it will likely become big, or very big. Indirect methods, even if successful, burn up a lot of country.

Which is higher risk - having 3,000 people driving vehicles from all over the western United States, plus all the aircraft and heavy equipment activity, or having a few people stopping the fire at night? I suspect allowing a fire to go big puts more people at higher risk than a few hundred well-trained, conditioned, experienced people working the line at night.

I think the safety excuse is invalid. Certainly, these overhead teams know the policy is invalid and dangerous. You don't end up on a Type I overhead team without knowing basic fire behavior. They certainly know that only using indirect methods guarantees the fires will go big. Not fighting fires at night appears to be a national level policy or directive. Who really benefits from that policy?

Having the Forest Service look like a grossly incompetent fire organization is not in the best interest of the agency. Safety has always been a major focus in firefighting and the agency used to be quite competent. Why the sudden change? Was the intent to make sure the fires went big? Who benefits from letting the fires go big? Hundreds of millions of dollars is big business.

Was the extensive use of indirect burn-out operations justified? Did they accomplish their purpose? Did they burn up a lot of country and/or houses unnecessarily? How many square miles were burned by excessive burn-out operations? It may be a significant portion of the fire. To answer these questions, one would have to do considerable research.

You would need to examine daily shift assignments, who was sent where and what the assignment was. Then study the map to see what happened to each burnout and look at the weather for that day. Interviews with the firefighters involved might also be necessary. This in-depth analysis probably won't happen, so even if half the 500 square miles were from burnout operations, no one will know.

What is the objective of Forest Service firefighting under extreme burning conditions? Clearly, it is not to keep the fires as small as possible. How big would these fires have been if they were fought (e.g., aggressive initial attack and night shifts)? How big would they have been if they weren't fought at all (i.e., no indirect burnouts)? One can only speculate at this point but perhaps with some research, estimates would be possible.

Who benefits from large fires and policies such as "too steep and too rough" and the lack of night firefighting? The Forest Service doesn't benefit by looking incompetent. Who came up with these policies? Is it a case of follow the money? Big fires are very big business and generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the fire-support industry! How much political pressure is applied by the fire industrial complex? Where and how is it applied? Is it legal? Big fires are very big business with all the helicopters, air tankers, caterers with huge portable kitchens feeding thousands, shower trailers, sleeping trailers, communication systems, bulldozers, masticators, tool sharpeners, truck rentals, motel rentals, restaurant meals, airline tickets, structure protection crews, mileage for travel from all over the West, infrared-equipped aircraft, computers, printers, copiers, GIS systems, etc. etc. If Eisenhower were alive today, he might have to add a phrase to his famous warning: "Beware the fire industrial complex."

Who speaks for efficient, effective firefighting? How many highly paid lobbyists from the fire-industrial complex are pushing the Forest Service for bigger, longer fires? Who speaks for more efficient fire control and management? If an effective initial attack crew stops a fire when it is small, the millions of dollars that a big fire would have cost are saved, and the little fire doesn't even make the news. I suspect that being a fire boss and stopping a one-acre fire probably doesn't do as much for a person's resume as being a fire boss on a huge fire.

Resources

We absolutely need to get fire back into some of our forest systems in the Southwest, especially ponderosa pine and dry, frequent fire mixed conifer, but not under extreme burning conditions and not during the wrong time of year.

What resources are affected by fire under extreme burning conditions? Fires burn hotter and stand replacement is more extensive than under natural conditions. Hotter fires sterilize more soil and deeper. Areas that burned hot are more prone to flash floods and debris flows; streams are scoured, riparian zones destroyed, fish populations and other aquatic species lost.

Researchers in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico are finding that the forests are being replaced by shrubs, not trees, due to repeated intense fires. Habitat for species that require mature and old growth forest is being lost.

For example, considerable potential habitat for Pacific marten (a State of New Mexico threatened species) has been lost to the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak Fire. Local flora and fauna (including plants, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals) are likely well-adapted to lower-intensity fires at the normal time of year, near the monsoon season. Allowing and encouraging fires under extreme burning conditions during times when natural fires would be rare (i.e., too dry for lightning) is likely negatively affecting many species. It would be difficult and expensive to determine all the direct, indirect, short-term, and long-term effects of current Forest Service firefighting policy.

Firefighting activities can have significant impacts - especially bulldozer fire lines. They are lines down to bare soil, often wide - approximately 300 feet - can go for miles and can be on steep slopes. Obviously, a lot of forest can be removed from dozer lines and erosion can become a significant problem, as well as forest fragmentation.

On the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak Fire, long, wide dozer lines have been constructed many miles from the actual fire. They may total around 50 miles of line. At 35 acres per mile of line, that is roughly 2,000 acres. Loggers have been called in to "harvest" the logs.

One very experienced firefighter commented that they may be useful for future fires. There will be future fires and the dozer lines may be useful, depending on the fires, but with current Forest Service approach to fire, they likely won't matter. By building dozer lines miles from the fire but under the auspices of this fire as an emergency, they avoided any environmental analysis of the impacts (i.e., no NEPA), and perhaps kept a lot of heavy equipment busy and on the payroll. Will the possible benefits outweigh the impacts? I doubt it.

Public perception

I suspect most of the public thinks the Forest Service is fighting fires aggressively. They see the helicopters and air tankers flying around. It is an impressive show, even when no one is on the line to work with the water drops.

The public seems to erroneously think water drops put out the fire, which of course they don't. They see impressive smoke plumes that look nasty, but how many are from failed indirect burnout operations?

They see lots of hotshot crews and structure protection crews from all over the West. They see lots of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. There is a lot of activity. They hear the Forest Service public-affairs people explain how tough and dangerous the fire is and all that is being done to stop it and protect structures.

The Forest Service public-affairs folks have the increasingly difficult job of convincing the public that the Forest Service is doing aggressive and effective firefighting. They will need silver tongues as time goes on. "You can fool some of the people all of the time..."

Local or national policy?

When the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak overhead team representative was asked if the Forest Service had a policy regarding fighting fire at night, the response was, "We're not Forest Service. We are interagency." When the Washington, D.C. office of the Forest Service was asked that question, the answer was, "We go by the 'Incident Response Pocket Guide.'"

It seemed to me a straightforward question with a yes-or-no answer. They are apparently paid to avoid answering questions. So far, I have not found any policy in that guide about fighting fire at night. It seems likely, based on discussions with fire personnel and published fire accounts, that it is a national level policy or directive. Perhaps "bigger is better."

Anyone interested in what is currently going on in the Forest Service fire organization will enjoy reading Murry Taylor's (RDD-65) new book, Too Steep and Too Rough from Amazon.com. It explains a lot.