Monday, July 23, 2012

Is More Forest Fire Dialogue and Preparation Needed?

The woods are dry out there. This week, forest fire fighters needed state police helicopters to douse a carelessly set, poorly extinguished fire up on Sawteeth Mountain. In such cases, the informal NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) policy is to fight and extinguish the fire as part of its legal responsibilities for care, custody and control of the Forest Preserve.

Ought there be a state policy of graduated measures to address forest fires in the Forest Preserve, particularly in remote areas? Greater dialogue and sharing of information on the subject of forest fire in the wilds of the Park, public or private, would be helpful.

DEC reports 15 wild land fires in the Adirondacks since July 1 that have burned on some 23 acres. Fire danger is high. On DEC’s website the section on wildfire states:

In the last exceptionally dry fire season of 2002, forest rangers responded to 324 wildfires throughout the state, burning a total of 2,062 acres. In historical contrast, the similarly dry weather of 1903 spawned over 643 fires which burned 464,000 acres in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks alone. The difference from 1903 to 2002 is a direct result of 100 years of Forest Ranger efforts, working to prevent wildfires and improve fire control response.

It appears to have been ten years since we’ve had a forest fire threat as high as this summer’s. Fortunately, the NYS DEC Forest Rangers have a rightful claim as some of the best trained, hardest working and most dedicated forest fire fighting force in the country. Thanks to them, and the many fine local volunteer fire departments with whom they work, the Adirondack region is better prepared than many for a prompt response to even the most difficult wildfire, such as the one on Sawteeth, or the larger Noonmark fire of 1999, or the dangerous Vermontville fire of 1991.

Due to their reputation, many of our Forest Rangers are called to the western US and other locations to fight the truly large forest fires plaguing these regions. In the context of hotter summers, less snowpack and learning from the vast fires plaguing Colorado and so much our west, is the Adirondack region adequately thinking about and prepared for wildfire?

Emerging from the ashes of the massive Adirondack fires of 1903 and 1908, which were caused by circumstances no longer prevalent in the Park (logging slash piled near sparks from locomotives) our conservation officials long ago established a general policy to prevent, but also to extinguish actual, ongoing forest fire. That unwritten policy continues today, as the headlines show.

A glance at the Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) will provide you a list and definition of “Fire Towns,” where the DEC “shall maintain an approved fire protection system, including fire observation stations and other equipment necessary to prevent, and extinguish forest fires.” Just about every Adirondack town is a listed “fire town.” DEC’s authority for the control of fire is rather vast, taking up many pages of the ECL. These are on top of the Department’s enumerated general powers and duties for “care, custody and control” of our state lands. But that’s not all. A section of the ECL states:  “Whenever the forests of the state are in danger of fire,” the Governor “by proclamation may (a) prohibit any person or persons from entering forests, woodlands, waters and open lands; (b) prohibit the starting of fires in the out-of-doors; (c) prohibit the smoking of tobacco in forests, woodlands and open lands and (d) suspend any open season for, or prohibit the taking of fish, birds and quadrupeds.”

In short, under conditions of high fire danger, the Governor can close the woods.

I recall Governor Pataki doing just that for a period during the summer of 1995 after that July’s Adirondack windstorm impacted 87,000-acres of Forest Preserve and 52,000 acres of private land, and resulted in several human deaths.

That summer, DEC Forest Rangers had to shift from heroic human rescue operations to study and ascertain the forest fire danger. Downed trees and branches were everywhere. Resisting their commissioner’s prematurely early and questionable recommendation to salvage downed trees in our wilderness, DEC wisely created a Storm Response Committee of state and private interests. I learned quite a bit about fuel loads and fire danger from that group. Fortunately, that summer and one thereafter were relatively wet years, which definitely helped.

That notwithstanding, the Forest Rangers also demonstrated to the committee that the real fire danger would result from low moisture content in one-inch diameter or smaller woody debris caught up above ground; and that the public had little reason to fear from larger downed woody material which would rot quite quickly, particularly in the relatively moist central-western Adirondacks, which some have dubbed the “asbestos forest” because of the nature of that forest and the great number of natural pond-lake-wetland fire breaks.

In the Adirondacks and Catskills, we have a large protected wilderness in the Forest Preserve which is “forever to be kept as wild forest lands.” Perhaps the unwritten DEC policy to extinguish all forest fires in such a constitutionally protected wild landscape ought to be reappraised. What do Almanac readers think? Should DEC and the Fire Towns do what is necessary, whenever it is necessary to put all forest fires out?

Some 25 years ago, members of the Forest Preserve Advisory Committee of the DEC (a group that is strictly advisory to the Department’s Division of Lands and Forests) drafted the following policy for consideration by the Department. While it was never adopted, it remains worthy of discussion, or redrafting.

(1) The most significant risk to Adirondack Wilderness Areas from fire, whether natural in origin or caused by man, is the potential impact of excessive measures taken to prevent or suppress fire. We recommend a fire management policy be developed, as follows:

(2) Forest areas should be classified in the Unit Management Plans as to fire susceptibility by classifying soil type, forest cover, history of logging and past burns, and critical natural areas;

(3) Logistics and procedures should be developed which are appropriate for each forest type and level of susceptibility to fire, as affected by weather and season and other factors of the fire weather index;

(4) The first level of response to conditions of high fire hazard should be closure to camping, and any use of fire, on a schedule by forest type and susceptibility to fire;

(5) The second level of response should be complete closure for recreational use;

(6) Methods of fire suppression should be in keeping with the State Land Master Plan and at the lowest level of disturbance consistent with the level of risk of fire spreading for the forest type in which it occurs. The hierarchy of suppression methods should range from observation under conditions where it is very probable that the fire will go out and will not spread or involve critical natural areas, to use of foot access and suppression using manual equipment, to use of helicopters and/or fixed wing aircraft.

(7) Only under conditions of extreme risk of catastrophe spreading of fire because of unusual seasonal drought and fire susceptibility of the forest type involved should old truck trails be reopened and motor vehicles used.” Fire response should not ease “SLMP strictures on use of motor vehicles, which may now be more liberal than necessary.”

On Sawteeth Mountain this past week, state helicopters were apparently a tool of first resort, and probably an essential tool in that rugged landscape. Should the DEC instead have observed the fire “under conditions where it is very probable that the fire will go out and will not spread”? If so, for how long? The Forest Preserve is wild by law, and natural resource considerations on our state lands are paramount. That said, it may not be realistic for a badly understaffed DEC on the front lines to coolly classify forests, study and evaluate fire susceptibility, and react in such a measured, calibrated way.

In 1995 DEC Forest Rangers were also under pressure “to protect” landowners adjacent to the wind-thrown forest. There was no actual, ongoing forest fire. But in assessing the actual risk, DEC recommended that private landowners adjacent to the windstorm cut to the ground all woody vegetation one inch in diameter or smaller in order to minimize the flammability of potential fuels.

This gets to the question raised in Colorado and elsewhere this summer. As more houses are permitted and built along the “wildland-urban interface,” is our society greatly increasing the health and safety risks and the costs of wildfire? We are fortunate to live in vastly different forests and conditions than in the west, but pressures on local governments and DEC to buy and maintain the equipment and the people to protect hard-to -reach properties across the six-million acres of the Adirondacks from adjoining forest fire will grow. The costs of such public service were clearly on the minds of some local officials during review of the Adirondack Club and Resort, for instance.

In comments about the devastating lost of Colorado property and life this summer, the Denver Post raised difficult questions in an editorial on June 28, 2012, from which I quote excerpts:

“Given the increase in building in the so-called wildland-urban interface, or WUI, in recent years and the expected boom in coming decades, it’s imperative that we use this moment to ask whether we have done enough to confront the difficulties of building homes in or adjacent to forests that are loaded with fuel…That leaves tough questions for governments, homeowners, and even the private sector. Among them: Who should bear the cost of firefighting efforts given dwindling federal money? Can foresters — as well as homeowners — do more wildfire mitigation work, and how might it be paid for? Given the hodgepodge of local ordinances, would Colorado be better served by statewide fire-readiness standards for homes constructed in the WUI? Should property insurers mandate — and monitor — defensible space as a condition of issuing policies?”

Photo: The 1965 Pottersville Fire (courtesy

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

15 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for leaving a campfire unattended or not putting out the fire when leaving the campsite.
    If set on purpose, 10 years in jail and a $100,000 fine.

  2. Paul says:

    The “Wild-land Urban Interface” has been slowly moving over time. You could argue that Denver should not be where it is.

    If a fire is started by natural causes (like a lightning strike) then it should burn. It sounds like most of these fires we have had this summer were started by idiots. Burn bans are useless. If you want to stop it you have to “close” the woods.

  3. Mick says:

    I’m more concerned with DEC’s position on forest protection against invasive species on Forest Preserve land. DEC admitted they have no plans, and since the preferred method of control (tree removal) is prohibited under the constitution, there is no recourse. The Colorado conflagrations were a result of forest die-off caused by pine bark beetle infestation.

    Dave, can you address this issue please? I think it’s important for public awareness. Forest Preserve land is fragile and vulnerable, and management though neglect is not what the taxpayers of New York signed up for.

    Thanks for the good article.

  4. TiSentinel65 says:

    Logging is not allowed on the forest preserve. This in turn allows the build up of the humous or duff. This is the dead and decaying leaves and other woody debris on the forest floor. Natures way is to eventually burn this up and start the forest cycle anew. The native Indians burned the land to give nature a head start in this process. This allowed the blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and other underbrush its start in producing a new forest where the old one was. Game thrives much better in this environment and the Indians understood this. Although we should take steps to protect property, all fires in the woods should not be viewed as bad. We tend to view the forest preserve as an image of lush mature forests locked in time. Nature however always wins out and uses fire as its house cleaning tool. It can take a few hundred years to complete this cycle. I say fight fires to protect property. Where there is little risk to property let the fires burn. This idea however lends itself to a critique. Where do you draw the line?, literally the fire line. Many a so called controlled burn can easily get out of hand. Weather patterns can change quickly, turning what was meant to protect our possessions into ashes in a matter of minutes. The old saying “you are playing with fire” can be applied here.

  5. Paul says:

    Ti, I tend to agree. But is there much historical record of large scale naturally occurring forest fires in the East? I think when the forests were much denser than they are now (as far as canopy) there may have not been many large fires. In the West they play a very important part in the ecosystem and you see that in the types of trees they have there that have evolved to deal with fire. Some won’t even germinate without a fire. Native trees here in the East do not appear to have evolved these same mechanisms so fire may not be as important in these systems. But the Indians were right if you want berries and other understory plants you have to do some clearing. If you look at where the fires of 03 and 08 were, 50 or 60 years later the deer hunting in those areas was phenomenal. I think that fires could have played a role. It may not look pretty after a burn but some animals thrive in it.

  6. Solidago says:

    I”d like to see them let some fires burn as well. Going after every puff of smoke in the middle of the woods seems antiquated and a big waste of money and resources.

  7. Aldo Burroughs III says:

    I believe the Sawteeth fire was actually on AMR property and not the Forest Preserve but I am not positive.

    A fire in the Adirondacks before “Europeans” could burn thousands of acres. Unlike fast moving fires in the western U.S., Adirondack fires would burn for months, with little or no spreading for days, perhaps weeks. Then as the fire moved towards more favorable fuels, topography and dry conditions again, it would run, perhaps consuming 100’s of acres in a day. Then the surface fire would drop off and would mostly be a smoldering ground fire again. Certainly infrequent, but those who dismiss fire as a natural component of the Adirondack ecosystem are not evaluating all the components. Adirondack fires burn down as much as across the landscape.

  8. ADKinLA says:

    Fire management including controlled burns and thinning are absolutely essential out here in the West. I personally think the same methods should be applied to the Park. Unfortunately the NYS Constitutional amendment that saved the Park over a hundred years ago is stopping smart management today. Wasn’t there a whole issue during the ’95 microburst about removing the downed logs because of the constitutional issues? I am not saying that we should loosen the constitutional constraints so we can erect casinos in the Park or anything but there has to be some greater flexibility in terms of “managing” the wilderness (to the extent man ever can manage it).

  9. TiSentinel65 says:

    Paul, that is a good question. Dave did mention that many of the old fires were definately started by coal fired locomotive engines. I am not sure if they were the size of the fires out west, however, I do believe there were substantial acerages burned. When you say “natural”, I am assuming you mean by lightning. I am sure somebody could shed some light on this. I think some of the fires were big enough to get the attention of our leaders in Albany.

  10. Mark says:

    ADKinLA: even out west, they don’t do controlled burns and thinning in Wilderness. Even during high fire danger times like these past couple weeks, fire really isn’t a big deal here. In fact, the firefighters get excited about even small brush fires. I may be wrong, but the status quo seems to be working. I think Dave Gibson has too much time on his hands.

  11. ParkResident says:

    It is called the Forest *Preserve* for a reason. It should be preserved and protected, not left to burn. This isn’t remote Alaska or far northern Canada.

    • Paul says:

      If naturally occurring fires are part of the way the ecosystem woks than some fire is required to “preserve” the forest. This type of thing may be required to make sure a healthy forest is still here long after we are gone.

    • Paul says:

      Look at it this way. The forest did quite well when we were not around to put out fires that mother nature started.

  12. MIke says:

    Burn it or log it, you choose

  13. Allison says:

    The east is the place to let it burn with few homes at risk, in terms of fire bahavior. We need a complete cultural change in our perception of wild fire.

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