May 26, 2022
The importance of prescribed fire, plus, it's fire season and federal wildland firefighters still aren't being paid enough
Welcome, it’s almost June. Despite being mostly in bed, recovering from spinal surgery, I’ve been following the fires in New Mexico, which started in early May. Honestly, it feels like dejavu.
My first ever fire (in 2000) was the Viveash Fire, near Pecos, NM, not far from where the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires have been burning. I was brand new to firefighting. I mean, listen, I only started working as a wildland firefighter because I was a college dropout with a penchant for drugs and booze who needed something stabilizing— I certainly didn’t know that a prescribed burn had gotten out of control only a week earlier and turned into what we now know as the Cerro Grande Fire, or that the Cerro Grande would cause federal entities to invoke more fire suppression and less prescribed fire. The consequences, in my humble opinion, were disastrous, and have led to increasingly volatile fire (coupled with climate change).
The same thing is happening now. On May 19, the USFS paused all prescribed and controlled fire operations at a crucial time for…prescribed burning operations (specifically in northern regions). While this isn’t a total ban on prescribed fire, it’s not a great sign.
In the Cerro Grande aftermath, the blame for the fire’s escape was first blamed on individuals. Not until after the release of the lessons learned was the blame instead placed on faulty Park Service policies which, taken one by one, we flawed, but grouped together into one event “proved seriously inadequate.” One must remember that the Park Service had only started burning in earnest two decades earlier, after the release of The Leopold Report.
It wasn’t only the Park Service who was at fault, but also a lack of interagency communication that arguably continues to be an issue on prescribed fires that cross agency lines.
If we’ve learned any lessons from Cerro Grande, I would hope it would be the near inevitability of a fire’s escape every once in a while. While there’s no final report on the fire that escaped in New Mexico…
…its finding will hopefully be helpful for the future, but it’s not smart to stop all prescribed burning simply because of one catastrophe. That said, the environmental factors are changing so quickly due to accelerating climate change, I do wonder how it seemed feasible to burn in early May in New Mexico given the history of the area.
Let me know what you think.
From NPR: "The vast, vast, vast majority of prescribed burns are conducted safely, do not escape, and you'll never hear about them"
"When we see a prescribed burn, as in New Mexico, that escapes and becomes a massive wildfire that threatens communities, that prompts concerns about the safety of these prescribed burns of this very, very important tool," Miller at USC says adding, "the vast, vast, vast majority of prescribed burns are conducted safely, do not escape, and you'll never hear about them."
Hard data on just how often intentional fires escape their boundaries is hard to come by. But Miller says estimates from the early 2000s show that fewer than 1% of prescribed burns might escape to become a major wildfire. "So we're talking a really, really small percentage."
I repeat. A really, really small percentage.
In other news, check out this article about some firefighters who found an elk calf in a moonscaped area in New Mexico and rescued it. The pictures are, well, adorable.
Despite Promises, Wildland Firefighter Pay Raises are Still Empty Promises
It’s gonna be a terrible fire season, and there are severe staffing shortages throughout the Forest Service (the agency says it’s only half-staffed). Many hotshot crews are already considering hiring EFFs— emergency firefighters, which are hired for events, not seasons. Often EFFs are brought in near the end of the fire season, when other options have been exhausted and there is personnel attrition due to injuries and exhaustion. Bringing them in near the beginning of the season is a terrible sign.
That there has not been an immediate and sweeping pay raise for federal wildland firefighters is enraging and baffling— not only because this is what firefighters were promised, but because it puts millions of people in danger. Fire season is unpredictable, and the level of personnel will lessen as the season wears on, which means even less personnel.
Calling in the National Guard isn’t a viable solution; despite the assumption that wildland firefighting is relatively unskilled, it’s not. I remember working with the National Guard. Hard workers? Sure. Know how to run a chainsaw? Maybe. At the level of fitness needed to do the job well? No.
Word is that many firefighters are quitting now, giving up hundreds of hours of overtime to find safer work where they’re paid well and respected.
“I do not think folks are aware of just how serious the wildland firefighter staffing issues is in this country,” he said. “Federal firefighters are so woefully underpaid that agencies are unable to hire and retain the staff they need to operate. All indications are that the United States is going to face a very difficult fire season, and right now, fire agencies are simply not going to have the personnel they need to contend with it.” Randy Erwin
There is word of a retroactive pay raise in June, but the outlines of what will not be covered are disappointing. Read more about that here.
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