Prescribed Burn?

ferry at ferry at
Thu Jun 1 22:59:44 EST 2000

In article <1289-391B455D-15 at>,
  TREEFARMER at wrote:
> Is this common for these "prescribed burns" to get out of control like
> this or are they trying to make the park bigger?

Proscribe this Sterile Treefarmer:

Backfire, Not Controlled Burn, Sparked New Mexico Inferno

By Keith Easthouse

May 26, 2000 - A risky fire suppression tactic-not the ignition of the
prescribed burn-sparked the crown fire that swept through Los Alamos
and grew into the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history, federal
investigators told Forest Magazine.

John Robertson, Dan O'Brien and Joe Stutler, all fire experts with the
U.S. Forest Service, said that the prescribed fire set by the National
Park Service would have died out on its own had it been left to burn.
Instead, they said, it was a backfire set by firefighters that erupted
into an out-of-control forest fire.

The trio said the backfire was set in an area where the chance of
flames escaping into a tinder-dry, thickly wooded canyon was high.
Stutler said that fire managers directed crews in the field to bring
fire down slowly into that area from a moister and higher elevation, in
accordance with the original prescribed burn plan. In addition, the
crews were to use mechanical means to remove flammable deadwood and
brush from the area, near New Mexico State Road 4 a few miles southwest
of Los Alamos. But due to a lack of personnel, the fateful decision was
made at the scene to immediately burn the area instead.

Robertson, who confirmed this scenario, said he believes firefighters,
in an urgent bid to create a firebreak, "were trying to beat the
winds." Instead, high winds hit the tinder-dry area precisely when it
was being ignited, the investigators said.

According to Stutler, the decision to set the backfire was made by Park
Service personnel who were managing the firefighting efforts on the
ground at the time.

Stutler, Robertson and O'Brien participated in the federal government's
investigation of the Cerro Grande fire.

The blaze forced 25,000 people to flee, scorched 47,000 acres, left 405
families homeless and damaged Los Alamos National Laboratory, the
storied nuclear weapons research facility.

The investigators' findings are clearly detailed in a little-noticed
appendix of the exhaustive government report on the Cerro Grande fire
issued last week by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. But their basic
conclusion about the immediate cause of the fire is clearly stated in
the main body of the report: "Once the prescribed fire was declared a
wildfire, additional fire (was) introduced that ultimately produced the
source of spotting and escape when high winds developed."

The investigators' findings do not change the fact that the National
Park Service, by igniting the fire, set in motion the chain of events
that led to the disaster. At a press conference in Santa Fe last week,
Babbitt said that the Park Service was taking full responsibility for
the blaze.

But the investigators' determination that the deliberate setting of a
backfire caused the inferno is at odds with the basic conclusion of the
larger report and with the overriding message that has been given to
the public: that the Cerro Grande fire was essentially a prescribed
fire run amok.

Firefighters have lost control of backfires before-and those backfires
have burned private property. A backfire set by firefighters battling
the series of blazes that hit Yellowstone National Park in 1988 nearly
burned down the Montana town of Cooke City.

In New Mexico, "it wasn't the planned prescribed fire, but the
unplanned reactive emergency fire suppression backfire that blew out
the project area," said Tim Ingalsbee of the Western Fire Ecology
Center in Eugene, Ore. In the wake of the Cerro Grande fire, serious
questions have been raised about whether prescribed burning should be
used in the future. Wallace Covington, a fire expert from Northern
Arizona University in Flagstaff, has gone so far as to suggest that the
forests of the West have become so overgrown that setting prescribed
burns is too risky. The best alternative to reduce the fire hazard,
Covington says, is to mechanically remove trees-in other words, to log.

While the Cerro Grande fire was still raging earlier this month,
Babbitt imposed a thirty-day moratorium on prescribed fires that is
still in effect. Itis widely anticipated that the moratorium will stay
in place longer.

If prescribed burning is banned, its advocates say, or if its use is
seriously restricted, fire management officials would be deprived of a
critical tool in the on-going effort to reduce the widespread
catastrophic fire hazard in the West-a hazard directly due to almost a
century of fire suppression.

Robertson's, O'Brien's and Stutler's investigation, however, raises the
question of whether the storm of controversy and criticism aimed at
prescribed burning in the wake of the Cerro Grande fire is justified.
Robertson, O'Brien and Stutler, in separate interviews this week with
Forest Magazine, made the following points:

• If it had been left to burn of its own accord, the prescribed burn
would have eventually burned out.

The trio bases this conclusion on the fact that the prescribed burn was
set in a high-elevation (close to 10,000 feet) area that was relatively
moist. It was so moist, Robertson said, that Bandelier prescribed burn
personnel were having difficulty coaxing the fire to burn hot enough to
clear the area of underbrush-one of the main goals of setting the fire
in the first place.

"If they had kept it as a prescribed burn, it wouldn't have gotten out
of control," Robertson said. That would have been true, Robertson
added, even if extra people and equipment had never been requested.

• The decision to declare the prescribed burn an out-of-control
wildfire led to the more aggressive tactics that caused the burn to get
away from the firefighters.

"Everything became more accelerated and more urgent when it became a
suppression effort," Robertson said.

The decision to switch to a fire-fighting mode was made in part because
prior to the crown fire of Sunday, May 7, a few small spotfires did
occur outside the prescribed burn area. However, according to
Robertson, those were mostly minor and were, in fact, contained-
including the largest one, which was about 20 to 30 acres in size.

But possibly because of the proximity of the prescribed burn to Los
Alamos, there was concern. When Bandelier personnel contacted the Santa
Fe National Forest for backup in the form of extra people and
equipment, Robertson said there was confusion about whether funding for
such assistance could be made available if the fire was still being
treated as a prescribed burn.

To get that aid, Robertson said, it was decided the fire had to be
declared an out-of-control wildfire-in other words, a fire that needed
to be extinguished with all means available, rather than a prescribed
fire that needed to be guided and monitored to ensure that it behaved
as intended. Once that step was taken, various options for attacking
the fire were considered. Eventually, according to Stutler, it was
decided to bring fire downhill slowly toward State Road 4 to create a
firebreak while at the same time clearing out brush and deadwood near
the road. But because of a lack of manpower that strategy was changed
and firefighters instead started burning along both sides of State Road
4, Stutler said.

That was risky for two reasons: it put fire, which burns uphill more
readily, at the bottom of a steep area; and it put fire near a thickly
forested canyon. It was from this area-where the ultimately disastrous
backfire was lit-that flames were carried by high winds across the road
and into the canyon, called Frijoles.

"It was the suppression action that put fire along Road 4 that resulted
in the escape from the project area," Robertson wrote in his report.

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