Fighting fire in a tinderbox
It would be difficult to find anyone to say that making a decision as an incident commander during a potential disaster is an easy task. But there needs to be an explanation of how the lessons of past fires and the prolonged drought came into play in managing the Rough Fire.
Now more than ever, it’s critical to examine the behavior of past fires in light of a new historical condition: recurring years of drought and a way more volatile landscape with zero percent moisture.
A shift in the wind, the blowing of a few embers and, poof!, there’s catastrophic loss of property and maybe tragic loss of life like what happened when three firefighters became trapped last week fighting a central Washington wildfire.
There has already been a Rough Fire property casualty — the loss of the historic Kings Canyon Lodge and to Lewis Evans and family the loss is tragic.
Local fire history— The policy, letting a fire become a “project burn” because it appears to be non-threatening, is out of date. In 1995 and 1996, lightning strikes near Castle Rocks in Sequoia were allowed to burn. The fires caused unhealthful smoke events for the entire Middle Fork of the Kaweah in Sequoia and in Three Rivers not unlike the last couple of weeks.
With a little help from its own weather, the potential for a Castle Rocks-area fire to cross the Kaweah River and burn up toward Giant Forest is a distinct possibility. The National Park Service, realizing the real and potential impacts of these Middle Fork fires, called for the necessary resources to get the blazes contained and extinguished.
But there have been other lightning-caused wildfires in wilderness areas that have been allowed to burn as restoration fires. The Lion Fire of 2011 burned in the wilderness of Sequoia National Forest along the southern boundary of Sequoia National Park. It was managed as a restoration fire and burned nearly 20,000 acres, which was according to plan although it still produced unhealthful smoke impacts.
It’s inconceivable that a “restoration fire” is possible with recurring drought and a tinder -dry landscape. Fires now are destined to burn more like the McNally Fire of 2002.
That disastrous fire burned 150,000 acres and destroyed 14 structures and cost an estimated $53.3 million to extinguish. It threatened the communities of Johnsondale and Ponderosa and burned within a mile of the Packsaddle Grove of giant sequoias.
There are similarities between these fires on public lands and the Rough Fire. The term restoration or “resilience” fire comes from the work of Dr. Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State environmental historian who is often called the father of modern fire science.
Pyne has preached that a fire should be only suppressed or “resisted” if it is a threat to a community, otherwise it should be managed as a resilience fire and allowed to burn itself out. Pyne recently has called for a reexamination of which method is used when, in part due to what constitutes an actual threat to a community.
It’s now becoming obvious that these huge and more frequent wildfires constitute a threat of more than just the consumption of property. After the Castle Fire of 1996, Superintendent Mike Tollefson told a Three Rivers audience during a town meeting that due to the excessive smoke never again would Ash Mountain let a fire in the Middle Fork burn unabated.
To burn or not to burn— The Rough Fire, in its critical first week, never gave the appearance it would jump the Kings River so it appeared after 10 days or so firefighters would be able to stop the fire at the road. Lewis Evans, owner of Kings Canyon Lodge and an eyewitness to the lightning strike that started the Rough Fire, said he called the Sierra National Forest dispatcher immediately to report the fire.
When Evans called the next day for an update, he stated that he was told that the fire would be treated with “full suppression.” In the first couple of days there were a couple loads of water and retardant dumped on the blaze but that was the extent of the suppression efforts.
Bad (fire) behavior— On August 18, the Rough Fire did spot across the Kings River at Horseshoe Bend, extending the fire on two more fronts, making it a nightmare to contain.
There have been serious impacts now after more than 56,000 acres have been blackened, and the fire has now entered some giant sequoia groves burned and destroyed Kings Canyon Lodge (no word yet on how the visitor facilities at Boyden Cavern have fared, but the fire has burned through there too).
Some of the tough questions that need to be addressed once the fire is controlled begin with the loss of the historic Kings Canyon Lodge but do not end there.
Could more have been done to save the historic property?
According Lewis Evans, firefighters were on site as the fire approached and dug some fire line but departed for a shift change before the work was completed. The next day more firefighters returned to the area but watched the fire approach waiting until the order came for everyone to leave, he said.
Evans believes there was ample opportunity to back burn in the vicinity and add protective gel to the buildings. Even though the work was not completed, the lodge property did not immediately burn as the fire passed over.
Embers from the burned hot spots blew back on the property and ignited the old lodge and cabins.
Was there any thought given to cost of fighting the fire versus the economic loss of the summer season due to the closure of Cedar Grove?
Cedar Grove is a critical recreation resource for thousands who backpack, hike, ride horseback, and camp in Kings Canyon National Park each summer. Cedar Grove Pack Station alone, which closed last week and moved their stock out via the Don Cecil Trail because of the Rough Fire, lost thousands of dollars of revenue of trips on the books that now must be cancelled.
What are the risks to those who must breathe unhealthy and hazardous air from a blaze that will take several more weeks to run its course?
And the most important question of all:
Was there a real opportunity to extinguish the Rough Fire?
For those of us who live nearby, visit, and love the Sierra Nevada, these are the burning questions that need to be answered. No need to point fingers and place blame, but rather let’s make some policy changes that prepare us for the worst-case scenario.
And, Three Rivers residents, it’s not if a wildfire will occur but when and where. During a meeting in Dunlap on Wednesday, Aug. 26, a fire manager admitted that most communities are unprepared for such a catastrophic event.
It’s becoming painfully clear the best policy is one that avoids disasters like the Rough Fire at all costs.