As the fall rains finally began, Janet Millard hoped it would calm fear of the fire burning miles away in north central Washington during last year’s historic fire season. But Millard, a spotted owl specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, was mistaken.
Managers on the Wolverine fire still opted to cut one of the largest firelines ever in Washington, logging 114 acres of critical spotted owl habitat and felling big trees — including a giant that had stood for centuries, so large, it was a one-log load on a semi truck. Steel-tracked heavy equipment tore up fragile ground along streams. Erosive soils unique to the area were bulldozed.
Cut by the U.S. Forest Service with none of the usual environmental review, the firebreak was up to 300 feet wide and stretched more than 50 miles, from the Entiat drainage on the east, to Twin Lakes to the west. Loggers cut enough trees to fill more than 930 logging trucks.
Yet the fire never came anywhere near.
The Wolverine fire looked threatening when the decision to cut the line was first made last August. By then, the fire was moving fast, and making runs of as much as three miles a day during Washington’s historic and deadly fire season. firelines are intended to slow the advance of a blaze, and give crews time and safer space to work.
But field notes, emails and documents released by the Forest Service under a Freedom of Information Act request by The Seattle Times show Forest Service employees working on the firebreak believed there was no emergency by the time the logging began about two weeks later.
Some tried to stop the cutting, but they were overruled.
As work on the line progressed, Cindy Raekes, a fisheries biologist then working at the district, wrote her supervisors about the damage she was witnessing.
“This,” Raekes wrote of the logging, “is essentially a … ground-based timber sale without any best management practices to minimize resource impacts.”
The fireline is typical of the sort of environmental price paid for emergency decision making, instead of managing forests and backcountry development better to resist fire before it starts, said Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem analysis in the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “One of the problems with fire fighting is a mentality completely takes hold that pretty much you are going to double down on things just simply because you want to protect your rear,” Franklin said. “It is very characteristic, they just freak out. Basically in a sense it’s war. And you don’t worry a whole lot about side effects. It is what’s called collateral damage.”
The timber was later sold as salvage logs, even though fire never touched the forest, with $769,913 in proceeds paid to the Forest Service.
Some said the fire provided just the impetus long needed.
“We were tickled pink to have it put in,” Mick Lamar, chief for Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue said of the fireline. The community’s wildfire-protection plan had since 2007 called for strategic fuel breaks, and Lamar said he had long wanted a fireline cut as a preventive measure but could never get the money or permits to do it.
The fire burning at least 8 miles away changed all that: the perceived emergency lifted any need for environmental permits, and opened a federal spigot of money.
“I don’t think this project ever would have been done at this scale if we had not had the impending threat of the Wolverine fire,” Lamar said. “It is the bureaucracy, and the people who don’t live in the woods telling people who do how it ought to be.”
Building the contingency line — so called because it is a fireline constructed to defend against a worst-case scenario — also meant work at 50 percent or better than usual pay for crews and equipment that would have otherwise been idled, because logging was shut down due to fire risk.
Bret Daugherty, of Ellensburg, one of the biggest operators on the firebreak, rolled out 26 pieces of heavy equipment including nine log trucks and three mechanical tree cutters, called feller bunchers.
Public contracting records show just one of his feller bunchers earned a $3,650 daily rate, plus at least $1,800 a day in mileage — with the money paid whether the equipment was put to work or not once called to the scene. The total cost of fighting the Wolverine fire was more than $31 million; the Forest Service did not break out the cost of the contingency line construction.
“It’s a total win-win and the local district is generating revenue with the timber sale. They get some money they can put back on the ground; it’s great,” Daugherty said.
The Forest Service had promised a so-called shaded fuelbreak. Not a clear cut, but a thinning intended to leave the big trees of fire-resistant species such as ponderosa pine, and take trees smaller than 20 inches in diameter, leaving a “parklike area.”
The idea was to reduce fuel for wildfire, and give firefighters an anchor point from which to safely work, should the fire come over the Entiat ridge into the Chiwawa drainage, near Lake Wenatchee.
Most controversial was more than 10 linear miles and 237 acres cut mainly through heavy forest on the western side of Sugarloaf Mountain in the Wenatchee River Ranger District. That portion of the line was farthest from the fire risk — and did the most environmental damage, with about half of it logged in nesting, roosting and foraging habitat in one of the last best stands for the spotted owl in all of Eastern Washington.
Life, property, then nature
The Wolverine fire, started by lightning on June 29 in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, was part of Washington’s historic fire season last summer and burned 65,512 acres, nearly all of them under Forest Service stewardship.
Computer models in late August showed the fire had up to a 40 percent chance of burning into the Chiwawa drainage, which fire managers judged put nearby communities at risk.
Worse, three forest-service firefighters had been killed the week before in the Twisp River fire. A fourth is still recovering from terrible burns.
“All of this stuff was swirling around at the same time, we are notifying families about the deaths of their loved ones, we were planning a memorial service for those firefighters, and we are monitoring the progress of the Wolverine fire and at that time very guarded,” said Mike Williams, supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, where the fuel break was cut.
While unusually large, the contingency line is part of a familiar arsenal of aggressive firefighting tactics, as wildfires grow bigger due to decades of fire suppression, and climate change.
Meanwhile people keep building more vacation homes in the woods, and prescribed burns and planned community protection lines go begging for money or political support.
Then the next fire breaks out, and the cycle repeats, as firefighters protect, as official forest-service policy, life, property and natural resources — in that order, with mixed results. Nature bats last, and in more ways than one.
Even as it was under way, this fireline was controversial.
Millard, a Forest Service wildlife biological technician, usually surveys owl habitat in the Wenatchee River Ranger District. She was tasked with advising during the cut to help minimize destruction.
Millard’s field notes, kept by all employees to track their time and work, shows it started to rain while she was doing her initial survey of the proposed line areas. So at a meeting Aug. 29 she expressed her surprise to learn the line was still going forward. Models showed probability of the fire moving into the area had dropped to 4 percent or less. Other districts in the forest were being reopened to visitors, Millard noted.
But she was shouted down by one of her supervisors, Jeff Rivera, the district ranger on the Wenatchee River Ranger District. “We were told this line is happening and we are to accept it,” she reported in her notes.
In response, she made a sign and stapled it to her shirt. It said: “Resource Advisor = Passive Observer to the Carnage,” according to her notes.
Rivera told her to remove the sign. “My response was that I need to remove myself from the office and I did so,” Millard wrote in a Sept. 1 email to her supervisors. “I am trying to do my job as a public servant and to be a responsible steward of the public’s resources … I feel like my concerns and input were not welcome.”
She wrote that the fireline now felt like an end-run around laws protecting the environment and endangered species.
Controversy is reflected even in a struggle by the forest service and firefighters to decide just what to call the line.
A public-information flier described it as a community-protection line — a fire defense tactic planned and built with the usual environmental permits and public input. Then Susan Peterson, a public-information officer for the forest service at the time, pulled the fliers and sent an email correcting staff in the district.
“This line is and will be referred to as a fire contingency line to prevent fire from spreading to down valley communities,” she wrote.
“Thanks for sharing Susan. The next problem,” Raekes wrote sarcastically, “will be defining how Lake Wenatchee and Plain are at risk from this fire.”
Jeff Krupka, wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Wenatchee, also worked as an adviser on the cut. He said in an interview that, even as an emergency measure, the line wasn’t carried out as promised because of the large amount of heavy equipment involved and urgent pace of the work.
He said trees larger than allowed were cut, streamside buffers were ignored and “equipment operators just ran all over the place” compacting soils. “It was a free-for-all.”
Rather than guiding the work, “there was really nothing more you could do other than identify rehabilitation needs,” Krupka said.
Don Youkey, a forest-service biologist for the district, echoed those complaints in a Sept. 4 email to his supervisors and resource advisers.
“It’s getting a little out of control out there, any help is appreciated…” he wrote. “I’m a little over my head on the logging operation. And several things planned have not been pulled off as described.”
Lauri Malmquist, a botanist with the Wenatchee River Ranger District, wrote him back: “Why don’t we STOP and THINK and PLAN?! There is NO emergency.”
Northern spotted owl, by the numbers
Due to the emergency status of the cut, and the haste with which it was conducted, acres of animal habitat were destroyed, including trees and nesting grounds for the spotted owl. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, spotted owls are largely or exclusively associated with forests and require lots of space. In addition to home ranges of thousands of acres, the mean dispersal range for juveniles is more than 9 miles for males and more than 15 miles for females. Habitat losses due to logging, fire, and invasion of barred owls are among chief threats to their survival.
- 6,658 acres Size of a typical owl home range in the Eastern Cascades (roughly a circle with a 1.8-mile radius)
- 46% Portion of the Chiwawa reserve that's considered "suitable" for owls, according to a 1997 assessment
- 55-77% Decline in Washington's spotted owl population from 1985 to 2013, according to the U.S. Geological Survey
- 237 acres Amount of forest cut for the Wolverine fireline
- 114 acres Amount of the cut that crossed through owl habitat (roughly 48%)
In complex fires, locals delegate authority to a management team, often drawn from all over the country.
Clay Templin, from the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, was the incident commander in charge when the decision to launch the cut was made. He has since been promoted to director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service Region 9 (Eastern Region).
“We were looking at where are we going to be most successful if we are going to have to make a stand,” Templin said in an interview.
He stood by the decision to begin and continue the cut as weather conditions and fire behavior significantly changed. Cooler, rainy weather quieted the fire to creeping and smoldering, even as work on the line was at its most feverish. Risk of the fire spreading to the area of the line as it was being cut dropped to 1 percent or less in computer models.
“I am looking at it not only given what we are facing, but what I know to be past behavior, and the history of chronic drought,” Templin said. “We are facing extraordinary conditions. That whole area around Okanogan-Wenatchee, you can have stuff where you think you have a season-ending (weather) event and you don’t … you get dry winds and that country can go right back to burning again.”
Managers also are reluctant to pass on deploying resources in a busy fire season, holding them for later, because by then they may be in use elsewhere, and no longer available if the fire blew up.
“When we ended up having a change in the weather and things moderated, we looked for where we could tie it off and feel pretty secure,” Templin said.
Jonathan Thompson, senior ecologist at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., once worked as a firefighter, and is studying the Biscuit Fire, Oregon’s largest.
“You might get a question if you screw it up one way,” he explained, “but if you screw it up the other way and burn down houses, or lose firefighters, then what? It’s ‘Why didn’t you put in that contingency line.’ ”
A lot of people get mad, he said, about “the big strips they cut, and just run bulldozers through, but every incentive is there for them to do that … You use the fire model and if it says only a 1 in 100 event, you probably would still do it.”
Repairing damage from the logging — from crushed culverts to compacted soils — and dealing with mountains of mulch and slash, in addition to hauling timber for sale, would take weeks more. Some of the work would have to wait; slash piles big as a house were just too big to chip or haul and are still there.
Lamar said he only wished the loggers, who stopped when about 90 percent of the line had been cut, had finished.
His biggest concern now is whether the Forest Service will continue to maintain the cut areas into the future so they don’t grow back — maintenance which, unlike the original emergency cut, must first pass a permit review, and be funded in the forest’s routine budget.
“It will be some college folks who will come out and look at it with a lot of degrees and fill lots of paper,” Lamar said. “This emergency declaration allowed us to do this.”
He defended the line as less damaging to the forest and local community than a fire would have been. “Nobody wants a vacation home on a blacked-out hillside.”