Earlier this month, U.S. Forest Service firefighting tactics came under attack by Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, which issued a report severely critical of the approach used on the Soberanes Fire in 2016.
In July 2016, started by an illegal campfire, the Soberanes Fire burned more than 130,000 acres, including 57 homes. It burned along the Big Sur coast in the Los Padres National Forest and its Ventana Wilderness, as well as some private and other public land in Monterey County. The cost to suppress the fire was more than $260 million, at the time the most expensive fire fight in Forest Service history.
This cost of the fire is the target of the report. On page 4, the Executive Summary states, “Forest Service wildfire suppression spending lacks fiscal restraint and accountability …”
In the opinion of FUSEE, its concern and analysis applies throughout the Forest Service and “The Soberanes Fire Suppression Siege offers an extreme example of excessive, unaccountable, budget-busting suppression spending that is causing a fiscal crisis in the U.S. Forest Service.”
FUSEE posits that the Forest Service continued to use expensive firefighting equipment, such as air attack and bulldozers, after the fire moved into the wilderness area, and the risk to human life and homes was significantly lower, if not minimal.
“Aggressive firefighting actions continued long after the wildfire had moved away from communities or infrastructure, and the threat to structures had ceased,” according to the report.
Steve Pyne, a former regents professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, fire historian and FUSEE collaborator, has written, “The home ignition zone, meaning the structure and its immediate environment (and by immediate environment I’m talking a matter of feet or yards), is really where you want to put most of your effort. Fires are going to happen. In many cases they need to happen. More airtankers and more engines is not going to solve it.”
For the Soberanes Fire, fire lines were built in areas where the fire was not approaching. These activities were being in conducted in the Ventana Wilderness area, and the authors claim, were “causing significant and lasting damage to wilderness values.”
The authors are criticizing the use of “heavy metal,” such as dozers and airtankers. Their point is that these expensive tools were being used ineffectively. For example, they claim that a great amount of fire suppression chemicals were dropped in areas where there were no fire lines being constructed. Consequently, it “did not stop the advance of the fire.”
The Cranston Fire, which burned about 13,100 acres and cost about $23 million or less than 10 percent of the Soberanes Fire, also was fought with dozers and air attack. However, driving west to Hemet, it is still possible to see from Highway 74 the orange suppression drops on the western edge of the fire. While the landscape is still gray and black, observers can see how the air drops there and along the Westridge of Idyllwild aided ground firefighters to stop the fire’s movement.
The FUSEE writers do not believe these efforts were very successful or efficient controlling the Soberanes Fire.
Further, they argue that the use of bulldozers and air attack is being used much more often than needed, which is one reason contributing to the growing cost of federal fire suppression.
While FUSEE believes the Forest Service is accumulating excessive suppression costs, it also expressed disappointment in Congress’ (actually the Appropriations Committees) efforts to review and oversee these expenses.
Clearly when it began, the Soberanes Fire threatened and damaged the community. Before it was controlled, it burned 57 residences. However, July 30 was the last day a residence was destroyed.
Although containment was not achieved until October, the fire managers did not change their objective of structure and community protection while the fire was burning in the wilderness. This is partially attributed to the Los Padres Forest Plan, which “mandates full suppression efforts on all fires in the National Forest.”
At this point, air tankers and bulldozers were less needed and less effective, but the costs continued to grow.
Suppression actions inside and adjacent to the Ventana Wilderness Area were inappropriate, excessive, and ineffective — causing significant and lasting damage to wilderness values, according to the report. Post-fire mitigation costs were high to repair trails, damaged habitat and significant soil disturbance.
The report concludes, “The Soberanes Fire merely represents the most extreme example to date of an institutionalized lack of fiscal restraint and accountability when it comes to suppression overspending.”
In effect, the fire managers were not assessing risk and cost appropriately. In fact, it appeared that there were no limits on the suppression expenditures. This also was attributed to the construction of unnecessary fire lines that were not part of the primary fire-line plan.
Another major conclusion was similar to the post-Cranston Fire assessments. Priority and emphasis should be placed on human, including firefighter, safety and community protection.
The latter involves intensive and extensive preparation and construction of defensible space. Once a fire starts and can be directed away from communities, its burning in wilderness areas should be monitored, but extensive firefighting negates the benefit of wildland fires.