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Forest supervisor defends Chips Fire tactics; meetings scheduled

Debra Moore
Staff Writer
10/10/2012

“We had one strategy — to put it out.”

That’s how Plumas National Forest Supervisor Earl Ford described his organization’s approach to the Chips Fire.

Ford said his office had been inundated with calls, letters and emails regarding the Forest Service’s response to the fire.

“I would describe it as hate mail,” he said, noting that complaints were also sent to the president, the Forest Service chief and members of Congress.

When there is that much controversy, the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) steps in to review what occurred.

After review, NIMO released a report detailing what happened from the time the fire was discovered at 1:52 a.m. July 29 through mop-up Sept. 11.

The report details strategy and tactics, resources, size and objectives day by day. 

The timeline indicates that the incident command team transitioned from a local response (4) to a higher level (3) on the first day. By Aug. 3, it had become an ICT 1, the highest level of management team. 

“These are 50-plus member teams,” said Lee Anne Schramel Taylor, public information officer for the Plumas National Forest. She explained that the teams are assembled around the country and ready to assist when the fire exceeds the capacity of the local forest. 

During the course of the fire, which ignited July 29 and was fully contained by Aug. 31, the Forest Service expended more than $54 million fighting the 75,000-acre blaze.

“The bills are still coming in,” Ford said, and estimated that the final cost could be closer to $60 million. 

Though the cost is borne by a national fire contingency fund, the Plumas will be impacted. That’s because when the money set aside for fighting fires is exhausted, each national forest is tapped for additional funds.

Ford said the loss of those funds means some projects that had been planned — such as the Jackson Project, which would have thinned 300 acres — won’t be completed this year.

 

Air attack

One of the chief complaints leveled at the Forest Service concerned its air attack.

The NIMO report calculated that 530,000 gallons of retardant and 4,063,000 gallons of water were dropped on the fire. 

Ford said that helicopters and air tankers flew as conditions allowed, but that heavy smoke grounded the air attack on several days. 

“During the debriefing with NIMO, the conclusion was that they (the incident command teams) ‘did everything they could with air resources.’”

Ford also explained that retardant isn’t designed to put out a fire; rather, “it slows a fire and gives firefighters a chance to build lines.”

Because of the terrain, much of the retardant caught in the tree canopy and didn’t reach the ground where bushes were burning. 

Ford said that the rough terrain challenged even the Hotshot crews, who are physically fit and trained to work in the most difficult circumstances.

“It was very dangerous because of how steep and dry it was,” Ford said.

Since some of the fire was burning in the footprint of the Storrie Fire, firefighters also had to contend with terrain that was littered with snags.

Despite the obstacles, Ford said that firefighters were successful, noting that no homes were lost and only seven structures, six of which were outbuildings, burned. 

“We put lots of resources on Seneca,” Ford said of the small community near Lake Almanor. 

Additionally, of the 75,000 acres that burned, 20 percent were considered high severity, while 50 percent were deemed low severity.

Field trips planned for Oct. 13 and 23 will take members of the public from Butt Lake to Lake Almanor and traverse low- to high-severity areas.

“We want the public’s input,” Ford said.

 

What’s next

The next phase of the fire is removing the destroyed timber. Ford predicts that as early as December, timber will be salvaged from along the roadsides, and around recreation areas and trails. 

Though the Forest Service usually has to operate under time-consuming environmental processes, Ford explained that a categorical exclusion allows them to work more quickly in these areas following a fire.

Other areas could take up to 18 months to wind their way through an environmental impact study.

Industry representatives will be invited on the Oct. 23 tour and Ford said he would be relying on them to tell him where it’s feasible to salvage.

Ford said there are two important considerations in a salvage operation: “What’s good for the health of the land and what’s economically viable.”

 

A bright spot

As the fire spread, the Forest Service built contingency lines along Quincy Library Group thinning projects near Lake Almanor. 

“Without a doubt, that’s the way they stopped the fire,” Ford said. 

A large map hangs in the corner of Ford’s office, which was updated daily during the fire. It indicates the fire’s footprint and the high- and low-severity burn areas, as well as the QLG areas of treatment.

Looking forward, Ford said that the way to protect the 1.2 million acres on the Plumas National Forest is with treating the land as in the QLG areas. He is a proponent of heavy thinning.

“We don’t want to clear-cut, but heavy thinning can last awhile,” he said, estimating that the forest could then operate under a 20-year rotation for treatment. 

“We need to develop resilient ecosystems,” he said and to that end, he and his staff are working with the Maidu to learn about their traditional ways of preserving forest land. 

 

Chips Fire meetings, field trip scheduled

In the aftermath of the Chips Fire, Plumas National Forest officials seek community input regarding priorities for restoration and rehabilitation of the fire area. Three community meetings are scheduled:

—Monday, Oct. 15, 6 – 8 p.m. at the Greenville High School/Indian Valley Elementary School cafeteria, 225 Grand St.

—Wednesday, Oct. 17, 6 – 8 p.m. at the Quincy library conference room, 445 Jackson St.

—Thursday, Oct. 18, 6 – 8 p.m. at the Gansner Bar campground amphitheater in the Feather River Canyon.

There will also be a community field trip to the fire area Saturday, Oct. 13. A bus will depart from the Mt. Hough Ranger District visitor parking area off of Highway 70 at 9 a.m. and will return by 3 p.m. Stops will be made in Greenville at 9:30 a.m. and Canyon Dam at 10 a.m. for convenience. Interested participants are asked to RSVP by Oct. 11 with a phone call to the district office at 283-0555 Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. 

Transportation will accommodate 30 people and the trip is first-come, first-served. Bring a lunch, water and a jacket.

Resource specialists will be on hand to hear input on community priorities and share information about current restoration efforts. For information about Chips Fire restoration and to provide written or electronic input, visit fs.usda.gov/plumas. For information about the community field trip, meetings or to have special needs met, call 530-283-0555.

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