Keep Bulldozers Out of the Wilderness: An Open Letter

From a letter submitted to North Coast Water Board and Forest Service Officials

You are receiving this notice of complaint because you are either responsible for signing off on all Red Fire suppression actions (Supervisor McArthur and Ranger Colegrove) or you are responsible for making sure Forest Service managers comply with the Clean Water Act (CWA) on national forest land in the North Coast Region of California (Matt St. John, et al). This complaint will be formally filed tomorrow via the Cal EPA on-line complaint form and with the Regional Forester. This is your early notice in hopes you will take actions which render the complaint moot.

The CWA is implemented on national forest lands in the North Coast Region via a Waiver of WDRs adopted by the North Coast Water Board: https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/northcoast/board_decisions/adopted_orders/pdf/2015/15_0021_Waiver_USFS.pdf

The Waiver includes provision 7:

           “All activities undertaken by the USFS shall comply with the USFS Guidance and the USFS BMP Manual for water quality protection.”

This commits the Forest Service to implement FS-adopted national core Best Management Practices. The manual describing those FS adopted BMPs is at this link: https://www.fs.fed.us/biology/resources/pubs/watershed/FS_National_Core_BMPs_April2012.pdf

The Manual Includes BMPs for “Wildland Fire Control & Suppression” on pages 57 & 58. Mandated Best Practices for Wildland Fire Control & Suppression include:

  • Use Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) during wildland fire control and suppression activities when and where practicable considering the appropriate management response and land management plan direction.     
  • Construct firelines to the minimum size and standard necessary to contain the fire and meet overall resource objectives.

The current fire behavior and weather conditions makes it eminently feasible to employ MIST and yet you decided not to use it and instead to put bulldozers into wilderness. I believe that violates the spirit and the letter of the BMP. You’ve unnecessarily created a new and erodible scar on wilderness lands that will degrade water quality more than if you had used MIST in constructing those lines.

You have also decided not just to burnout to firelines as is normal but also to conduct very large aerial ignition burnouts between the wildfire and the already fire-prepared control lines. I believe that violates both the spirit and the letter of the BMPs cited above because it results in watershed impacts, including removal of streamside shade which raises the water temperature. These burnouts also accelerate sediment delivery to streams, which is avoidable.

Those impacts are unnecessary and avoidable as is the amount of health-destroying smoke those extra, unneeded burnouts inflict on the people of this area.

It is next to certain based on past experience that water quality impacts from those planned, unneeded burnouts will be greater than if the natural fire burns those areas. That is the case because FS firefighters intentionally and routinely plan to burn areas hot. Furthermore, the natural wildfire may never reach those areas in any case.

Data and analysis of fires and fire suppression in the Klamath Mountains by the Klamath Forest Alliance confirm that suppression fires in this region have burned at significantly higher intensity as compared to natural wildfires. That is also my personal observation having walked parts of and studied all the large fires in these mountains since 1987.

Narrow windows for aerial ignition make burning at the wrong time of day on the wrong slopes more likely. I have already seen fire managers burn too many steep slopes at the wrong time of day and from the wrong locations. The result is too often devastation as in the photo below of a FS burnout in the Little North Fork Salmon watershed:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

And this one from the Blue 2 Fire off the G-O Road:

Blue 2 Fire off the Gasquet-Orleans Road. Photo provided by Felice Pace

 

I’ve seen too many like these.

FS managers, I am asking you to recognize that your suppression decisions on the Red Fire to date have not minimized water quality, riparian and watershed impacts as required by the FS Wildland Fire Control & Suppression BMP and to change your strategy and tactics in order to minimize not just unnecessary impacts to water quality but also smoke health impacts.

NCRWQCB Regulators, please recognize that this fire in this location at this time is eminently amenable to management via MIST in compliance with the applicable BMP and take action to encourage FS fire managers to comply with the spirit and the letter of the BMP.

Our understanding of the role of fire in these forests has changed dramatically. Fire suppression strategy and tactics have not kept up. FS and CalFire are still employing the same strategies and tactics y’all did when the mission was to put out every fire by 10 AM the next day. Isn’t it high time to change strategies and tactics in light of our improved understanding for these forests? Isn’t it the proper role of water board officials to encourage those changes?

 

Felice Pace, Water Chair

North Group-Redwood Chapter-Sierra Club