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Wilderness blaze exempted from suppression order
Butte Creek Fire to burn despite ‘suppress all’ order from Forest Service.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: August 15, 2012
A new wildfire in the Teton Wilderness is the first to be granted an exception to an all-but secret memo directing the U.S. Forest Service to fight all fires immediately this year.
The exception was granted for the Butte Creek fire, a mid-size wildfire moving through the Teton Wilderness.
Fire managers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest and other national forests around the West have a directive to pounce on all wildfires this year, regardless of size or location, unless special approval is granted.
The directive to fight all fires, issued by Jim Hubbard, the U.S. Forest Service’s national deputy chief, was sent May 25 but managed to stay out of the press until last week. Hubbard’s memo says he expects “regional forester approval” before allowing any fire to burn for management purposes.
That’s a departure from management strategies in recent years, which have emphasized allowing smaller, more remote wildfires to play a natural role in the ecosystem. In the congressionally designated Teton Wilderness, for example, natural events are supposed to run their course.
The change in strategy was born from the drought year, rampant wildfires and a strapped Forest Service budget, Hubbard said in a telephone interview
“The reason for the desire to stop fires while they’re small is financial,” Hubbard said. “There’s $948 million in the budget, and the season is likely to cost $1.4 billion. That’s a sizable difference — it would likely have to come out of other Forest Service programs to make up the difference.”
Congress funds the Forest Service’s suppression budget based on a 10-year cost average, Hubbard said. There’s also a reserve budget, he said.
“That account has been exhausted, so we don’t have a reserve,” the deputy chief said. “This happens to be one of those years where we’re above that 10-year average.”
The May 25 memo cites an unpublished “risk management” framework that fire managers are bound to this season. Presumably, the framework puts higher-than-usual emphasis on reacting to blazes before they can blow up, which leads to property damage and other factors that can drive up costs.
Lightning started the Butte Creek fire deep in the Teton Wilderness sometime on July 25, approximately 40 miles north of Dubois. It is burning near Thoroughfare Buttes on the south side of Butte Creek.
Within days, Bridger-Teton fire managers submitted a proposal to manage the fire based on land and resource management plan objectives, rather than the suppression-based strategy.
“There is a process in place for exceptions to be considered,” Erin O’Connor, the Forest Service’s Region 4 spokeswoman, said. “The Butte Creek fire has been granted an exception. I have the decision right here in front me.”
The exception was the first and only granted in the United States this year, O’Connor said
“The fire was a lighting-caused fire in a remote part of the Teton Wilderness,” the decision reads. “At the time that the exception was approved, the fire was approximately 1/4 acre. ... The possibility of it affecting structures was extremely unlikely, and that figured into the reason to grant the exception.”
Under the no-supression strategy, the Butte Creek fire started to take off this week, Bridger-Teton fire specialist Andy Norman said.
“The fire did grow yesterday to about 30 acres,” Norman said Tuesday. “Right now, we’re in the process of putting two smokejumpers on the fire.”
An online fire database, which listed the size at 100 acres, described the Butte Creek fire as “currently active with trees torching and spotting ahead of the fire.”
Norman said the smokejumpers would be the Bridger-Teton’s “eyes on the ground” for the fire.
“They will not be taking active suppression,” he said. “They will be implementing the long-term plan. If the fire reaches a certain point, we will take action to keep the fire where we want it.”
Hubbard, the deputy chief, said his directive was a stopgap solution and was not indicative of a redirection in Forest Service wildfire policy.
“In that memo, I admitted that our approach this summer is not a long-term solution,” he said. “We will aggravate the situation in the future” by suppressing fires.
“In past years, especially in wilderness, we’ve taken less-aggressive suppressive action to allow fire to work within the ecosystem and help restore conditions.”
Bob Keane, a U.S. Forest Service research fire ecologist, suggested the exception was telling of the evolution of wildfire policy.
“Maybe we’re at a nexus in fire management,” Keane said. “Is putting out every fire really the right thing to do?
“The ecosystems can handle the fire,” he said. “Heck, they’ve been handling the fires for millennia.
“Ecologically, suppression’s not a good thing,” Keane said. “When you put out all fires, you’re managing for the extreme events, and that’s not a good thing.”
Keane sympathized with wildfire managers, who he said are always taking risks when they let blazes burn. In a bad year, an out-of-control wildfire can easily move out of wilderness and into developed areas that command more resources.
“Right now, I can see totally why they did it,” Keane said. “They had to.”
Hubbard echoed that sentiment.
“We spent a lot of time debating whether this was a good approach, and I think we resolved that we don’t really have much choice,” he said.
The deputy chief was hopeful his agency could come up with a longer-term solution.
“We certainly are having ongoing dialogue with Congress,” Hubbard said. “They know there’s a budget situation. Usually Congress doesn’t like the budget getting in the way of good firefighting.”