A Conversation with Sue Husari

Lassen Hotshots, 1977.

Zeke: Okay. We have a visitor today, Sue Husari, legendary wildland firefighter, one of the first female Hotshots, and leader in American wildland fire with a fire career spanning 5 decades. Welcome to The Lookout, Sue!

When did you know that you were going to have a career in fire?

Sue Husari: Well, I never knew until it was over. I think it just happened. Like most firefighters, I started as a seasonal firefighter when I was in college and, at the time, I thought I was going to go to graduate school and study mycology, you know, mushrooms. That was the plan anyway. But I went to work firefighting, and then I got another job firefighting, and pretty soon, that’s what I did. And then I retired a lot of years later.

Zeke: What kept you in it?

Sue: Well, you know, it’s pretty addictive, especially when you’re actually fighting fire. The adrenaline and the people — they’re an interesting group — almost always the people you work with in fire. And I was, too. I thought that after I was in Everglades, as a fire management officer for quite a long time. That was probably the most fun job I ever had, because the prescription window (days when conditions are good for prescribed burning) was not a window, it was like a garage door. There were lots of opportunities to burn and lots of opportunities to learn and I was able to work with interesting people from the national office on a lot of different things. I was able to teach fire behavior at the national level, and it was just a great time. Everglades is just an unbelievable ecosystem. It’s under siege now, because of a variety of things, which you probably know about. Sea level rise, but also there’s a great loss of biodiversity because of the pythons that eat almost everything out there, although I hear they’re making some progress. It was a great job and after that I was more in management, but I still had a lot of opportunities to meet fascinating people and see wonderful places and work on fires all over the country.

Lassen Hotshots – Photo by Sue Husari.

Zeke: Tell us about the first 10 years of your career…

Sue: Happy Camp Brush Disposal Crew, Lassen Hotshots, helitack… Tried to leave and became a botanist for BLM for a couple years (Sue’s degree was in botany from Humboldt State)… Got hired as an ATTO. I went to Butte Meadows, then I went to Mineral. I was on engines and spent a lot of time in the winter doing work for Ken Blonski, like writing papers and stuff. Then I was like… Wow! I’m going to be on these engines forever, so I took a downgrade to the Park Service at Pinnacles. I was at Pinnacles for a year and then I went to Everglades. I was there for a long time.

Zeke: Then back to the regional office in California?

Sue: Yeah. It was a weird career trajectory. I was actually part of the solution to the consent decree. Ken called me and said, “We never trained anybody. So we don’t have anybody we can hire. But the Park Service promoted you and now you’re a GS-11. Come to the Regional Office.” I had a small child and I needed to get back to California, so we came back to the regional office.

I was in charge of the fuels program for the region. I was assistant director for fuels. Then I was the Deputy for Fire and Aviation Management. Then Tom Nichols called me and said, “The job you’ve always wanted is available. I’m leaving.” I applied for the Regional Fire Management Officer (FMO) job, and I was there for 10 years. Then I retired, and then foolishly went to the board of forestry a couple of years later, which is not a job. It’s a volunteer thing. It’s a lot of work though.

Zeke: What was your job at Everglades?

Sue: I can’t remember what it was even called, but I started out as the fuels manager and then I ended up being the fire management officer and running the program. It was a very small program in terms of the number of people, but very large in terms of our ability to put fire on the landscape in a way that is not available to most people. That really isn’t available in the Everglades anymore because of concerns about smoke and the urbanization of the Miami area spreading out. Tampa is also spreading out and they’re coming together all around the parks.

Zeke: So I think that’s a good segue into California. You and I talked the other day about national issues with firefighting. You pointed out that California really is its own country when it comes to wildfire management, that so much of what applies to the rest of the country doesn’t really apply in California.

Sue: A lot of the state agencies and county fire departments are very well funded, so it’s different than most places, like the abundance of firefighting resources and the amount of money that’s available at the state level to fund things like very large air tankers and that sort of thing. But even though California has more wildland firefighting resources than anywhere else in the country, we’re learning that, given the way we deal with fire, it’s not enough.

Zeke: It won’t ever be enough.

Sue: I don’t think so. It’ll never be enough unless we change how we use the resources. I think that’s what many people are thinking about after the last few fire seasons.

Zeke: What would it look like? How would things look different? We spent $650 million just on the Dixie Fire this year. I can think of lots of different outcomes that we could fund with $650 million, that wouldn’t just leave us with a million acre burn scar and some destroyed towns. Where do you think we should be starting and thinking of reenvisioning how we manage fire?

Sue: Well, thinking about the Dixie Fire. The way you and I think, this would be true of any teams or agencies. I’m not saying that anyone could do a better job, but because of the rate at which fire behavior is changing right now and our concepts of fire behavior, it wasn’t possible for the people on that particular fire who were managing it, to conceive of what it could do. I think that was pretty obvious to all of us who were watching. I will say that I never dreamed either that the Dixie Fire would do what it did until it did it. Maybe some people did. It really was a huge surprise.

So I think the first thing that we need to do is reset our expectations about what fires in California are capable of doing in areas like where the Dixie Fire burned, particularly on the land and forest that for about 50, 60, 70 years had just relatively small fires or somewhat limited fires. We always knew that the Feather River Canyon would burn because we’ve all seen it. We had the experience of the Camp Fire and we knew about The Gap. We always knew when fire came through that Gap and blew it…

Zeke: You’re talking about Paradise? Jarbo Gap?

Sue: I worked at Butte Meadows, so I just call it The Gap, but I’m talking about Jarbo Gap, which is a famous break in the topography on the north side of the Feather River, where downslope winds get funneled and then end up going over to where Paradise is. So we all knew (about the potential for a big fire to take out Paradise), and I was on a lot of fires in the Feather River Canyon.

2018 Camp Fire blowing west on first day of the fire. Jarbo Gap is on left edge of the image. Map by Zeke Lunder.

What I’m trying to say is that first we have to change our understanding of what fire is capable of doing under the influence of climate change. With these 24-hour burning periods, longer fire seasons, more lightning and all the things that the scientists are telling us will happen with climate change. They’re saying that more lightning is more likely in areas where we’re not used to seeing huge lightning storms… lower elevation, that kind of stuff. So we need to change our orientation and once we understand what fires are capable of doing, I think we need to plan in a different way as a society. I am part of that education as agencies are looking and learning from these experiences. I was thinking of the words of a friend of mine who’s since passed and he always said, “Don’t plan for the next ridge. Plan for the ridge where you can actually do something worthwhile.” We don’t know how to use those ridges, because we are finding that under the extreme conditions, burnouts are spotting. They’re difficult to control, so you have very little time to do them.

Zeke: So you mentioned 24-hour burning periods. Can you talk a little as a firefighter just about what that means? What about the fact that we have such limited windows where the fire actually lays down?

Sue: I haven’t been on these fires in the last few years. I experienced the smoke and I looked at your analysis and other people who have the infrared data. What appears to me from talking to people that have actually been on the fires, is that there’s a very short window of opportunity where things cool down and humidity goes up a tiny bit where you could potentially do burnouts during the night. Teams are always reluctant to light these things. It seems like we have a very short window where we used to have much longer. In the past on fires that I was on in California, except under wind conditions, we’d have a pretty long period at night when we could burn ahead of the fire to create a black line. Now that period is much shorter and it makes it much harder to put in direct line, especially with crews going direct. It’s become more difficult to do direct line with dozers, too, so we’re having to move way back from the fire and take huge risks of burning very large areas of the country. And if that doesn’t work, it’s the next ridge.

Fire often ‘lays down’ at night, giving firefighters an opportunity to build firelines or do firing operations. Photo by Zeke Lunder.

Zeke: Right. And meanwhile, you’ve advanced the fire several miles by putting fire on the ground.

Sue: And that’s not criticism. We only have so many tactics we can use. I think you asked how big would the Dixie Fire be if we hadn’t moved it forward? Again, that’s not something you can know when you’re in the moment. Hindsight, it’s great. The fire would have been smaller if we would have just left it alone. That’s hindsight. When you’re in the moment, when there’s resources, towns, structures and ranches in the way, especially where the majority of the land is private, there’s not a lot of options. You can’t just say well, we’re just gonna burnout on the other side of this town! I do think on the Caldor Fire, taking advantage of where there’s been fuel treatments in the past, that should be a lesson to us.

Talking About Fuel Treatments and Prescribed Fire for Forest Management

Sue: I know I was always concerned, upset and annoyed as a fire behavior analyst. No one could tell me where fieldwork (fuel reduction or forest thinning) had been done in the fire area. So I couldn’t advise the operations people on how they could use that. I think we’ve learned how important it is to have it mapped in advance and to get that information to the teams and firefighters in real time. When things go right, then that information can be used like it was on Caldor. That includes areas that have burned in previous wildfires where we know, I’m not going to say the fire is going to lie down, but we know that the fire behavior is going to change when it enters those areas. But for them to work, they have to be… Like the Tahoe Basin resources were extensive, right? There had to be a huge number of engines in place to support the operations, as there were on the Caldor Fire because it was South Lake Tahoe, Meyers and Christmas Valley. It’s harder to do when you’re dealing with lower priority fires. Because there are priorities set for fires in the state of California. And usually they’re set based on what fire started first.

Zeke: One thing that was telling on the Caldor Fire is that all of that fuel treatment (forest thinning) didn’t stop the fire. The fire still jumped across Christmas Valley and ran up the other side of the mountain. I think there’s this expectation that somehow fuels treatments are going to be useful in stopping these fires and what we saw in South Lake Tahoe is they were useful in protecting an asset. But they didn’t stop the fire and so we maybe should have a different expectation with fuel treatments. They’re going to help us protect the town, but they aren’t necessarily going to save the forest and they’re not going to stop the fire.

Caldor Fire – Slowed by fuel treatments around structures, the fire still jumped the valley and kept running.

Sue: True. Fuel treatments, especially large, prescribed burns or earlier fires, do change the fire behavior and give you opportunities. But you have to be lucky. The fire has to hit that area in the night, instead of the middle of the burning period, when it’s spotting a mile or two ahead. You also have to have the resources and it takes a lot of them to support line construction or whatever it is that you’re doing. I think we have always overestimated the effectiveness of fuel treatments in stopping fires. They don’t. They just give you an opportunity.

Zeke: The more that you have on the landscape, then the more likely you’ll get lucky.

Sue: Yes, but it’s also important for teams and fire departments to know where they are so they can be used. That’s something I think that started to happen because of the availability of GIS products, layers that show you where they are, which have been tough on private lands because no one collects the information.

Zeke: What we’ve started to do in our work is just rely on satellite imagery to map fuel treatments on private lands. Different landowners collect information differently and have different desires of whether or not they want to share their GIS data. But satellite imagery doesn’t really lie and you can see where nothing’s happened. Even so, on the Dixie Fire, especially in the area around Chester, I was pretty shocked at the destruction in this area that’s had tens of thousands of acres of thinning over the past 30 years. (West of Chester) There’s no green trees for about 50,000 acres. Because we hadn’t had large fires there in the past and because there’s such good access, I was really shocked by that. It made me question if it’s worth thinning in the name of fire suppression if we aren’t going to follow up with burning.

Thinned forest west of Chester, California, burned in Dixie Fire. Photo by Zeke Lunder

Sue: I think we all know that nothing except a moonscape could have stopped the fire when it got in alignment with those drainages given how incredibly dry it was. So there has to be a balance, because there are times when those activities will help, but under the worst … I don’t even know what the worst case is anymore after seeing the way that fire behaved. Do you think following up with prescribed burning would work then? Because when the fire is entirely not a surface fire at all… and that one probably wasn’t. I’m sure that there were times when the fire on the surface influenced the movement of the fire, through spotting and crowning and torching. But when it was very dry, when everything, every piece of vegetation is potentially susceptible. There are those times, I’m hoping that there won’t be… this will be not an anomaly, but a less regular situation where you get those kinds of conditions. I have always thought that we need to use a combination, in almost every case where we’re trying to do restoration activities, that a combination of different treatments is almost always necessary. Don’t you?

Zeke: I think you’re right, but that might not have changed the outcome in this area to the west of Chester. A big part of the problem is we’ve removed all the largest trees from that landscape. And so you know, when the largest tree on landscape is 80 feet tall, (and the crowns of the trees are generally fairly low to the ground) you’ve got such a high proportion of the forest which is susceptible to crowning and torching.

Sue: Yeah, well, uniformity. The Park Service, who I worked for a long time, I think recognizes that heterogeneity in forest structures is pretty important to making them more resilient to damage from fire. It’ll be interesting to see when the park gets a chance to go into the KNP Complex, which is still burning in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It’ll be interesting to see what some places, which are very close to my heart like Redwood Mountain, where there’s been a history of a combination… not always, but there was quite a bit of thinning, combined with prescribed burning there. It was quite controversial, actually, when it was first started, when the parks said, yeah, you know, there are places we need to go in and remove some of the white fir under the Giant Sequoias. This is important and they did. It was controversial, because the removal of trees wasn’t for a commercial purpose. They didn’t sell the material. Just the use of chainsaws is controversial in the national parks… mechanical harvesting machines. And it’s expensive. If you don’t commercialize the product, then you have to pay for it.

Zeke: So coming back to the heterogeneity of forest structure, I see this huge challenge that everyone is talking about scaling up prescribed fire. But we’re faced with shrinking windows of opportunity, because of the drier climate and the drought. I’ve thought for a long time that the public needs to understand that killing trees is often the objective of prescribed fire. When we use mechanical thinning, we often are looking to remove 50% or more of the trees with logging. In places where it’s not practical to do that on the landscape scale, prescribed fire is one of those tools we can use. Yet people, when they see a bunch of trees killed by prescribed fire, they think that that’s a failure. I’m curious what your thoughts are on how to make it more acceptable to the public that we’re going to kill a lot of trees with prescribed fire, given our shrinking windows and just the enormity of the scale of the land that we need to treat.

Mixed severity burn from Dixie Fire in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo by Zeke Lunder.

Sue: When you or agencies or burn bosses or managers write objectives for prescribed burns, they almost always put in a level of acceptable mortality. The problem is that nobody likes the way it looks. It really is hard for people to explain that prescribed burning is going to kill some trees. It may be the objective. Prescribed burning is not a selective tool and you can’t use prescribed fire to necessarily kill every other tree. I learned that in Everglades when I went back after Hurricane Andrew. We’d been trying to thin out those Dade County pines for years with fire and they’d refuse to die. So when Hurricane Andrew came through, it took out about a third of them in a very regular pattern. It was weird… took out about a third of the stand. It was a valuable lesson for me that you don’t always know. Certainly, I think writing better objectives, more realistic objectives of prescribed burns, and then explaining that beforehand, is a good idea.

But you know… I was listening to the news coverage about an escape prescribed burn that was on private land, the day before yesterday. It ended up burning 130 acres in a location where there was also a lot of scattered development. There were some evacuations, because once the fire was converted over to a suppression fire, they started evacuating people. I think that it’s always good in concept, until you see the reality. And a lot of these landscapes haven’t had a lot of fire, so the people that live there haven’t seen it, don’t understand it and it’s mostly in California. It’s an educational issue.

The public really does need to understand the trade-offs. You take some risk, and not just the risk of escapes, but also the risk of producing effects that appear, at least in the very short term, unacceptable. But we have to look at the consequences of not doing the work… not so much the fires, but also that massive die-off of trees that we had just a few years ago with an inability to deal with it, because of the scale. I own 10 acres up in a National Forest and lost quite a few trees, but because of the location and because we got together with our neighbors and hired a forester, got a permit and had all of the dead trees removed by one of our neighbors who is a logger. We were able to not pay to do it, but most private landowners can’t do that. I think the scale of the bark beetle epidemic will be followed by more… there’s just too many trees too close together under drought conditions. That die-off event was the equivalent of what we would consider a pretty devastating wildfire. But we need to accept that the land management goals for the lower elevations are going to have to move… we’re gonna have to move our thinking about where we can grow trees up. I don’t know that we’ve really addressed that.

Zeke: Okay, so what you’re talking about, there’s just the idea that because the climate’s growing warmer that trees right now that are happy growing at 1500 feet elevation, maybe they’ll be better off growing at 2500 feet in the future.

Sue: There’s been quite a bit of research on this, especially out of UC Merced. I think it’s great conceptually, but how do we do this in practice?

Zeke: Right? I think that around here, fire is forcing that conversation. We have landowners like Sierra Pacific Industries locally here in Concow that have lost land in 2008 fires that had been planted in the mid 2000s. And then they replanted and lost it again in 2018. Now they’re just leaving those lands alone, they’re not going to plant them again. So we see industry adapting to this climate change by retreating.

Burned plantations in the 2018 Camp Fire area. These areas were planted after fires in 2008. Photo by Owen Bettis.

Sue: Or refocusing efforts? I haven’t talked to them about that. I think that’s something that you maybe know more about than I do.

Zeke: I think the private landowners see the writing on the wall in some of these lower elevation areas like Concow. It’s just clear that they will never grow a tree for 60 years to get it large enough to turn it into a 2×4 if we’re pretty much certain we’re gonna have fire there every 10 years.

Sue: That was a beautiful forest, Concow. That was really a tragic fire. But again, Paradise, Concow and Magalia have been threatened by fire, because of the wind patterns, on a number of occasions. Even in spite of the climate change, I think we’ve been sort of lucky with not having something… I’m not saying that the Camp Fire and some of the other recent fires weren’t influenced by climate change and the dryness, but the weather patterns… When I worked on an engine out of Butte Meadows, we used to drive around in the area and I was just kind of amazed that it hadn’t burned. It was just remarkable that we’d been lucky by keeping the fire small. But that allowed that even more fuel to accumulate!

Zeke: It’s amazing to me you were having these thoughts almost 40 years before the Camp Fire! So we took the forest that looked scary to you in the late 1970s and kept fire out of it another 40 years.

Sue: We did have that fairly large fire that came into Paradise, but didn’t get onto the ridge and blow down the ridge..

Zeke: That was a midsummer fire, so we weren’t under the influence of the east wind.

Sue: It was interesting, though, because during that fire siege I was in Sacramento working on Cal MAC, which is an interagency group that coordinates the distribution of resources. Even though it wasn’t a wind event…. That was the other scenario where we had so many lightning fires that started in sequence going up the state that… we ran out of resources and had to make some really hard decisions. In that case, the Forest Service and CAL FIRE did move resources to the edge of Paradise. There were some houses lost (in Concow), unfortunately, but there was a redistribution of resources because that fire was considered to be very high priority. And it should have been! But when you move resources from other fires, or don’t make them available for other initiating fires, you get large fires that cause problems. That’s the conundrum of California that has more resources than anybody else.

Managed Wildfire and Prescribed Burning in California

Zeke: That’s a good segue to talk about managed wildfire and our lack of progress in that realm. In California… In my career, I feel like I have seen us go backwards with using wildfire for resource benefit. When I started my career, we had fire-use teams, and a real focus on looking for opportunities to manage fire. And here we see the Chief of the Forest Service putting a national ban on managed wildfire. Where do you see us going with that? Have we lost all that momentum that we built since the 1960s towards using fire for ecological uses?

Sue: I don’t think so. I think there are years like this, where those letters have to go out, because otherwise… The problem is that managed wildfires compete for resources with fires that are threatening structures. I still have a lot of optimism for that program in the wilderness and national parks. It is going to be hard in California. There’s tremendous political pressure to put the burn bans in place because… in this year, it was because of the Tamarack Fire. There was a real outcry about that particular fire, which I don’t know that much about. I do know that it started in a place where it was almost impossible to do an initial attack and I would guess that the reason that it was being monitored was firefighter safety, more than using it to meet resource benefits. But I do think that there’s still a lot of momentum there.

There are lots of plans that recognize the benefits, but it’s not appropriate on private land. Most people that own private land don’t want a fire to be managed through their property. So we need to do it where there are large blocks of public land that are far enough away from other values at risk, smaller parks and wilderness areas. It’s really difficult to do because you have to keep the fire inside the area where it’s allowed to do its thing. The National Park Service has that benefit and the advantage. I’ve been able to manage up into higher elevations (let fires burn upslope into the High Sierra where they hit rock and go out) and it’s still very hard.

There were lightning fires managed in Yosemite this year. Not a huge number of acres… I believe the Fire Management Officer there told me about 3,500, which for this year was a good number. They stayed in a mosaic (of various spacing between trees) that we created with earlier fires. You have to be able to manage within a mosaic of earlier fires and take advantage of every opportunity and manage within that mosaic, and then use prescribed burning to keep fires within areas where they can be used. A lot of it is semantics, that the name of “managed lightning fire” has changed. I believe in my career it started as “let it burn” and then went to “prescribed natural fire.” Anyway, there’s your wildland fire… We just had different suppression strategies to manage fire, but they were still suppression fires. So what you call it doesn’t really matter. It’s what the fire does that matters.

Zeke: Now we have this kind of de facto where we’re managing wildfires because we don’t have the resources to put them out.

Sue: That’s what happens. The first time I saw it happen was 1977 and then in ‘87… it moves around the country… When the Northern Rockies burned in 2000, I think the tactic (of letting fires burn freely in the backcountry while protecting cabins and other assets) was called “point protection.” We human beings can invent all kinds of names for this phenomenon, but it’s kind of the same thing no matter what you call it.

Zeke: Fire doesn’t really care what we have to say about it. It’s gonna keep burning til the rain.

Sue: In some places it rains earlier you know… it’s already snowing up in the Rockies. Those fires in Washington, Montana and Wyoming that were really problematic earlier in this fire season have been getting snowed on for a while. California… We have this really long period when fires can burn. So when you decide you want to manage a lightning fire in July, you have to plan to manage it all the way into October or November. And that’s hard to do because the situation is going to change, and other fires are going to start, mostly from human ignitions during same time period and they’re going to be a higher priority. All of a sudden, you’ve got this thing out there, that is starting to get more active and requiring resources. It’s hard.

Zeke: Thinking about the climate, we end up having fire on the landscape when it’s doing the least good ecologically, while the fires that are doing the most good ecologically are the easiest fires to put out. You go out in June and you can put the fire out with your foot, but if you let it burn for a month, then it becomes a really bad fire. And now you can’t do anything about it, so there’s this conundrum of how do we maximize the amount of fire we can get on the ground, in those periods when we have the good fire, without it getting away from us later? Do you think that’s possible? Can we get better at pre-planning areas and say we’re gonna burn within this 10,000 acre block? Or is that assuming more control than we actually have?

Sue: We can’t know the future. That’s all. The people that live on the Klamath River know more about this than the series of (Incident Command) teams that we bring in for two weeks at a time. You have the people that live on the river and they’ve been living with fire for their entire lives, and living with smoke, which is usually the most debilitating part about fires on the Klamath. The tribes have taken a lot more interest and have gotten very involved in prescribed burning, for basketry materials… like they’re doing a willow burn up there right now for basketry materials, and they’re starting to do this yearly training. A two-week training just happened for people, private citizens, to learn how to prescribe burn. When the people that live on the land understand, then they put pressure on the agencies to think creatively about how to manage the fires that are up on the hill in the big blocks of public land. The Klamath is probably the best example of that.

There’s been some real pioneers… Jay Perkins was the FMO on the Klamath, my contemporary for a long time, did lots of planning documents related to how to use fire there. There’s so few people and most of the people that live there understand that because there’s a lot of tribal land… there’s a couple of tribal crews who I’ve met who are taking more of an interest in those issues. I don’t know how the federal government will respond, but I do know that because there’s not a lot of houses and because there’s a pretty good mosaic that by default this year, those were the lowest priority fires. It appeared to be the lowest priority in getting resources, both from the national level and also from the state. There’s been considerable focus up there on fireproofing the community .

They’re doing a burn around Patterson right now. Earlier this year, we were spending millions of dollars putting in structure protection. And it was effective! Nobody lost their house. There were a few outbuildings…

Zeke: I’d like to see us get better at using the black from wildfires in dozer lines from fires in burning communities. Right inside the community.

Sue: Well, we’d have to talk to the people that live there. There’s always differing opinions about once you move out of the public land and you’re starting to move into the private land. It gets dicey.

Zeke: I think that the Klamath River communities are a great example of how the public can take the lead on prescribed fire. I am heartened that CAL FIRE is finally putting funding and training effort back into prescribed fire, but when you look at their year-round workload, it seems unreasonable to expect firefighters to want to do much in the late fall except burn annual leave, and go to therapy and marriage counseling – everyone is exhausted after these terrible mega-fire seasons.

Sue: They do provide good examples of what a firesafe council can accomplish with their prescribed fire training right now. They really pushed hard for this change in liability, which makes a big difference.

Zeke: They’ve haven’t taken no for an answer. Since 2013, and just about every year, unless it is pouring down buckets of rain, we have had to fight all the way to the top of CAL FIRE to get permission to do October burns in the Klamath Country. And on the Fed side, we are still having to fight things like Randy Moore’s nationwide ban on prescribed fire that said we had to wait until we got to a National Planning Level 2 (almost no fires burning anywhere in the USA) before we could put fire on the ground with USFS partners at all. (Here is an example of the lobbying we had to do in the middle of a 2019 training event where we stood down 120 firefighters for several days at a cost of $60k/day because we couldn’t get permission to burn units that were almost too wet to ignite.) (And you can read a 2020 letter from local prescribed fire leaders in the Klamath asking top Forest Service leadership to step up their rx fire game, here).

Sue: I wasn’t there. I’m not surprised. But I was really surprised that they actually were able to do burns in the last few weeks and pleased. So someone must have said yes. I don’t know who it was.

Zeke: They wouldn’t have said yes if we had red flag warnings anywhere in Northern California during that time.

Sue: True. Everybody has gone home? We had red flag warnings in Southern California.

Zeke: We have some of the best meteorologists in the world doing our fire weather forecasts but political decisions often shut down burning, even when the data and professionals are telling us the risk of escapes is extremely low. When we have a good burn window in NorCal this time of year, I’m always worried we’ll have red flag warnings or a wind event in Southern California and they’ll shut down burning in the Klamath or in Butte County. To me, that’s crazy – like shutting down burning in Pennsylvania, because you’ve got red flag warnings in Florida. California is such a big state.

Sue: It is. When I worked for the agencies, the Forest Service and the Park Service, that was one of my favorite things to try to work on as we came into good burning weather in Northern California, because it almost always starts up north and then moves down, that we would be able to give those forests permission to go ahead. It takes agency administrators with, well… It’s hard. It depends on who the Forest Supervisor is and how hard they push to get those programs going earlier. All it takes is one thing like what happened the day before yesterday (escaped prescribed burn in Santa Clara County), to scare the hell out of everybody who’s in charge of the programs because there’s an immediate reaction: “Why did they do that? Why were they burning?” You know, that was stupid… That’s the immediate response from the media and what gets on TV. I did notice that there was less of a knee jerk reaction to that escape than there is usually. I don’t know what happened at the local level though, which is where politics are made.

Zeke: I was thinking about when we’ve been burning in the Klamath last few years. CAL FIRE doesn’t want to write you a permit until you’ve had a solid amount of rain, and then you really need several days of north winds to dry the fuels out to where you can even burn. As soon as we have north winds now, I think in part because of the North Bay fires in 2017… As soon as we have north winds and red flag warnings anywhere in Northern California, it’s really difficult to get an exemption from CAL FIRE’s statewide burn bans. I think people don’t realize you need just enough rain to dampen some of the heavy fuels, but then you need some really dry weather to dry out the pine needles and leaf litter before you can actually get things to burn at all! So when we talk about these windows shrinking, they’re very small already. So after two or three days of north winds, we’re ready to burn on the Klamath, but we’re suspended because of red flag warnings elsewhere in the state. And when the pattern finally shifts back to onshore winds and you can get a permit, it rains! It just creates this kind of impossible situation.

Sue: Well, smoke is a real big deal, too. I live in rural Sonoma County which is in the Bay Area Air Quality District, which has the most restrictive… for good reason, there’s a lot of people, a lot of people that have health problems. I can’t burn anything and also the dump won’t take green waste because… it’s a long story. But Sonoma County doesn’t have a green waste program, in the sense that you can’t just load your truck up with a bunch of stuff and take it to the dump. You can take it to a place that makes commercial compost, which is what I do. Every week, I fill up three gigantic green containers with debris. There are some limited exemptions for agricultural burning, but very limited, so it makes it expensive and very difficult for people in those counties to get rid of the stuff. It’s close to impossible unless you’re willing to pay. I can do it because I only have an acre and a half and have goats. I’m sure their methane emissions are worse than anything I could do with the fuels, but it is one way that we can. I like them. They’re pets and they eat the grass, so there you go.

It’s very difficult for people in California constituencies… so many people with so many conflicting priorities. There is a real lack of understanding of rural California from urban California. It’s just amazing how people think, that live where most of the people live. There’s social justice issues, with air pollution and kids and rates of asthma, all that kind of stuff… Adding another two months of smoke to that to what they’re already dealing with from other kinds of air pollution is… I don’t know how responsible that is.

People in the Bay Area, I’ll tell you… I grew up in San Francisco and then I lived in Marin for quite a long time. There were just no smoke events until just a few years ago. We just never had smoke! So it’s a shocker for people. It’s just a shocker. They’re horrified but I’m like… well, I’ve lived in it my whole career. But it’s a shocker for the public. I don’t know what the solution is to the smoke thing. I know that the Air Resources Board and the air quality management districts are trying very hard to find ways to help. It isn’t you know, CAL FIRE gives the permits based on the two inches of rain, but then every Air Quality Management District has a different plan in California. They are much more cooperative than they used to be.

The Limits of Suppression, Home Losses in the Wildland Urban Interface

Zeke: Let’s talk about the limitations of fire suppression. I think, in part because we got so good at fire suppression for in the 20th century, people in California generally have unrealistic expectations we can put out every fire, almost to the point of believing conspiracy theories that say the only reason fires like Dixie get big is because we didn’t want to put them out.

Sue: We can under some conditions and we need to recognize that under certain conditions, in some places, fire suppression works. But it doesn’t work under all conditions in all environments. For example, desert environments. Cima Dome burned last year. I don’t know if you know where that is, but it’s my personal favorite Joshua tree forest. It had a native grass understory and it burned in a lightning fire, which killed all the Joshua trees. When it’s rainy in the desert, you get a lot of fine fuels built up. In those cases, air tankers work. In a case where we don’t want something to burn, because we, for example, we’ve introduced exotic grasses and they form a solid understory of fine fuels under something that wouldn’t have burned in the past. From a resource management perspective, we want to go out and get those (put the fires out). The chaparral biodiversity has really declined because of repeated burning, and the invasion of fine fuels, that carries fire in places where it wouldn’t have in the past. We don’t want that to keep happening. Not to mention all the houses. There’s a lot of conditions, when the wind stops blowing, where fire suppression works.

There’s nuance to everything, but we’re so focused right now on these major fires that are pretty unstoppable with any suppression techniques. People are saying it doesn’t work, so let’s just not do it. We just need to be judicious about where we throw lots of resources at things and take advantage of opportunities. There’s still many days during the fire season when fire suppression works, when initial attack works. There are places where we want to make decisions to let fires burn under more manageable conditions, but it’s not a question of it working. It’s a question of what conditions it won’t work under, like in extremely high winds we can’t fly air tankers, so we don’t use them and we don’t drop retardant. There are a lot of the worst case conditions when fires are spotting and the wind is blowing too hard. It’s unsafe for helicopters and air tankers to fly, and so we don’t use them. It’s not a question of taking more risk. We just can’t do it because if you try to fly under really bad conditions, it doesn’t work and also subjects everybody to a lot of risk for no reason.

Zeke: Yes, and on the bad days, it doesn’t matter how many large tankers we have in our fleet – the worst fires are happening under conditions when more air tankers really aren’t the solution.

Sue: Well there’s always breaks in the weather when they can fly and then they should be used judiciously in combination with ground resources. Maybe it’ll hold that part of the line. That did happen quite a bit when we kept herding that Dixie Fire, generally north and east and on the flanks. Suppression was effective, right? It just wasn’t effective on the head. And then it really didn’t work. When the wind changed and a whole flank started to go.

Zeke: Right, with our typical frontal passage, today’s flank is tomorrow’s head, so if your air tankers are successful on a flank, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be successful once that flank turns into a head unless you have enough ground resources to keep up with them.

Sue: That’s the whole game with planning your operations. Don’t get out too far ahead of the available resources to put in line where you were using the air tankers. Tankers in general are most effective on initiating fires on the initial and extended attack. The public can watch it in real time. Twice in the last few weeks there’s been fire starts in Marin County, which is a place where we really don’t want them to start getting big under worst case conditions. I can get on my computer and watch the fire. The air tankers are coming from Santa Rosa, so I hear them come over, I hear the air attack. I usually don’t listen to any radio traffic, but you can watch with those PG&E alert cameras. You can watch the air tankers dropping on those. One in Lucas Valley and one on the flanks of Mount Tam, in the last few weeks. Because air tankers were available out of Santa Rosa and because it’s a really high priority for CAL FIRE to put out those fires at the initial attack stage in Marin County.

Zeke: After living through the Camp Fire, I went on a bike ride. We rode down the coast in Marin County and through Fairfax, Ross and Kentfield, and I just had this feeling that that place is totally doomed. We’re going to keep putting out the fires that you’re talking about and eventually we’re going to have a north or east wind event, and it’s going to take that all out. I just feel like there’s this inevitability about it.

Fairfax, California, Eastern Marin County

Kentfield, California, Eastern Marin County. Homes will be the major fuel type when this area eventually burns.

Zeke: When we talk about land use planning, we really need to be talking about what we’re gonna do after the catastrophic fires we know are coming actually happen. In Paradise, we knew for decades that a fire would burn (you mentioned feeling this was inevitable in the late 1970s) and that it would take out the town, but we didn’t plan for what we’d do after. If we had, we could have had a plan that maybe the State could buy 5,000 lots, redraw lot lines, and redesign a neighborhood that actually had a footprint that made sense for a fire-prone landscape. We spent $2 billion cleaning up Paradise, so what’s another $100 million to buy up a bunch of lots? Paradise doesn’t even have a sewer, and they are undergrounding all the electrical utilities now, after grading most of the land in town, and the town really needs a whole new transportation network to be evacuateable, so why not really get radical and do it right? I think that part of looking forward with fires is to acknowledge the inevitability that we’re eventually going to lose Grass Valley or we’re going to burn large portions of Eastern Marin County. These places are eventually going to burn despite our best efforts and we need to be thinking hard about what we’re gonna do after that happens.

Paradise, California, May 2018.

Paradise, California, May 2021.

Sue: I think the area you’re talking about in Marin, where the biggest problems are not all of Marin, but the area immediately around Mount Tamalpais, which last burned in a large fire in the ‘30s I believe. There’s been a lot of modeling and I think the town’s very aware of what the problem is. They’re doing a lot of work on the only thing they can do which is improving ingress for firefighters and egress for evacuation. Also defensible space, as much as it can be done. But even there, the number of days a year when we have severe fire weather is fairly limited, but all it would take is one ignition on one of those days. Marin County Fire does close all the roads through the water district on red flag days, the few that occur.

I know when I moved to Sonoma County that night that the lightning storms came through… Is it only a year before? The LNU Complex… all those fires last year? That was the one before that that burned through Santa Rosa. I woke up at one in the morning, smelled smoke and went outside. The wind was blowing from the north and I lived in San Rafael. I smelled smoke, looked up the hill and didn’t see anything. Turned on the TV and watched the evacuation of Kaiser in Santa Rosa. That lightning pattern could have just as easily gone over the open space that’s above the house that we used to own and wreaked havoc in that community instead of the one where it did. Most of those towns are now really focused on trying to put in some fuel breaks. I mean, there’s a lot of goat use, which…

Zeke: I think the tough thing is that the houses are the fuel. And you can’t really thin them like you would remove brush.

Sue: Exactly… But we can retrofit houses and I’m hoping the state is moving towards funding more of that for existing houses. In a lot of these communities, we have some fairly good rules for new construction and in many counties, if you do a certain amount of remodeling, you have to retrofit to standards for the roofs. Houses that have been there for a long time and still have wooden decks, vegetation… The reason people do that is because it creates privacy, so it’s difficult to ask them to remove everything. Now our new rule requires people to create a five foot ember-free zone around houses. That’s where you have your rose bushes… that’s where I have my rose bushes. It’s a challenge. I’ve been removing a lot of stuff around our house because it’s a ‘70s ranch house.

I think a model for what we do after a fire is what’s going on in Santa Cruz right now. Santa Cruz County is really struggling with how to deal with houses that burned that were originally summer homes and cabins. People want to rebuild because they had put in a large house on a very narrow road. The county road is not to standard, but they want to rebuild. That’s a real struggle. It was a huge struggle in the Berkeley Hills. I went to a lot of meetings about the Tunnel Fire and the need to to change the infrastructure and improve road widths. A lot of those houses were rebuilt with better materials. We need to find a way to help people in rural communities that don’t have a lot of money to replace their roofs and do all the things they could do… put up nonflammable siding, replace their soffits. But we have to trust them to also deal with the defensible space around their houses.

Zeke: I think the tough thing in Paradise is that there was never any sort of planning. You have some really small lots where you can’t work on your defensible space because the radiant heat from your neighbor’s house burning is going to be what takes your house out.

Sue: True. In counties going to a good neighbor policy where if your neighbor’s house is close to your property line, you have to allow them or help them. I’m not sure exactly how that will work to improve the defensible space that comes onto your property, but you’re right. When all the houses are close together, they’re all flammable. And everybody wants to have a few shade trees.

Zeke: And you don’t want to see your neighbor’s house. You don’t want to look in your neighbor’s window.

Sue: No, you don’t. The retrofitting, better windows, all those things… all that stuff is incredibly expensive. I just did it. We just replaced all of our windows. I don’t want to tell you how much that cost, but I feel a lot better now that I don’t have single pane windows that all it would take is one spark to ignite one bush, five feet from my house, shatter the window and catch everything on the interior on fire. We love our decks in California, and they burn pretty well, especially older ones.

Zeke: I did some work with Eric Knapp and Yana Valachovic. I took them out to look at the Camp Fire and they just published a paper about the home losses there. Something like 50% of the homes built with the new fire safe building standards were destroyed by the fire. I think that we need to think in a more radical fashion about what fire safe construction looks like. Does it mean that you use more concrete? Does it mean that you are almost in more of a bunker? No one wants to think that way. We think that living in California should have a Sunset Magazine kind of aesthetic. But some of these places that we’re building are… nothing we’re gonna do with wood frame construction is gonna hold up to a Camp Fire.

Sue: There was a house… I’ll never forget it. I was part of a safety review on the Cedar Fire in San Diego County and there was one house outside Julian, on a ridge top, where there was a slope of chaparral below. It was built by a guy specifically to withstand wildfire. And it was an engineering marvel for sure. There were no windows on the downslope side. It was a beautiful house, but it was very expensive to build. What I thought afterwards was, who wants to live here? A good friend of mine saved his house in Paradise, and he saved his neighbor’s house because he had a really extensive water system. He stayed. Afterwards, the question is, do you really want to be the only one or two houses in the middle of a neighborhood where everybody else’s house has burned? There’s a lot of decisions that individuals make., but I think you’re correct. We need to make those decisions as a town, as a county, as a society… about how we deal with a post-fire environment where lots of houses are burned.

Zeke: It just seems that in Paradise, we’re missing a great opportunity to rebuild a more resilient footprint. If we just go and rebuild all the houses in the same places, as they were before, we’re just setting ourselves up for another fire in the next 40-50 years.

Sue: It’s driven by insurance. The insurance industry will have more to do with whether houses are rebuilt or not. Unfortunately, many of the poorest people in these communities that burn don’t have fire insurance. So they don’t have the option of rebuilding that other people do. We do have guaranteed insurance in California, as you know, but it’s very expensive. So the insurance industry is paying a lot of attention to where fires have burned. Not so much in the rebuilding process, because people that have fire insurance are going to get some money to rebuild, but the question is what gets insured in the future?

Zeke: Well they’re some of the only people that really have the leverage to affect change.

Sue: They have with hurricanes, too. If you can’t get insurance, then you can’t get a loan. And if you can’t get a loan, you can’t buy a house. Most people can’t. We never really know in our society who’s really steering the ship, but my opinion is, for what it’s worth, the insurance industry is steering the ship. If anything really forces change in where communities are constructed and are reconstructed, it probably will be fire insurance.

Zeke: What a drag… towns burning down.

Sue: It’s tragic and it’s always poor people. You referenced Marin County… when it happens in wealthier communities like Fountaingrove in Marin, in Sonoma County, it’s easier for those communities and they seem to have… Well, you’d have to go drive around and see what has resprouted just like it did on the Tunnel Fire.

The Reading Fire – What is Success and Failure in Managed Wildfire?

Zeke: Okay, so this summer during the Dixie Fire, when the fire got about halfway through Lassen Park, it came to an area that had burned in 2012, the Reading Fire. The Reading Fire made the national news in 2012 because it went from being a managed lightning fire the Park was letting burn for resource benefits to being a wildfire that left the Park and burned onto the National Forest. Though it was looked at as being a fiasco at the time, the changes in the forest brought by the Reading Fire slowed the spread of the 2021 Dixie Fire significantly, and likely kept Dixie from burning a much larger area north and west of Lassen Park.

Dixie Fire’s progression thru the Reading Fire area. Map by Peter Hansen for The Lookout.

You were the Chief of the Park Service Pacific Region wildfire program when this happened, so maybe you can lay out the story of the Reading Fire and how it evolved from a small lightning fire to being a major news story?

Sue: Well, I don’t know all of that, but I’ll tell you what I do know. The Reading Fire was… I don’t know what terminology we were using then? I think it was a ‘wildland fire use’ fire. Okay. And I was the Regional Fire Management Officer. So my boss and I went up there when it was above the road, not doing very much. People from the Regional Office come out and annoy the field people by looking at the projects they’re doing. We talked to the Park Superintendent and we talked to the Park FMO (Fire Management Officer) and the Fuels Manager, just to verify that things were going okay.

Then we went back to the regional office, and I don’t actually remember the specifics of the wind event, but there was torching of some trees above the highway and then the fire spotted and there was a pretty strong… everybody uses this term now, especially the journalists, there was “alignment.” The fire blew down towards the edge of the park, which is the (National) Forest. The Forest Service didn’t want to accept it and the fire was converted to suppression, and it was suppressed. It blew through an area where there was a very uniform stand of trees that had grown up in the 100 years following Mount Lassen’s eruption, so there was quite a bit of fuel. It blew through that area, and it wasn’t an area that had been prescribed burned or had a natural fire. So it took out a lot of large trees. Eventually the wind stopped blowing and it was suppressed. That is the story of the Reading Fire. It did line up with the predominant wind direction. I couldn’t tell you what’s happened with the Reading Fire scar since the time that it burned and the time that the Dixie Fire burned into the Reading Fire.

Zeke: Can you talk a little bit about how, as Regional FMO, once it was a wildfire, what kind of political action was happening? What were you dealing with as the Regional FMO?

Sue: No one was very happy about this fire from other agencies, but I had a good working relationship with the National Office (National Park Service), and they did a lot of coordination at the National level. And I had good working relationships with the other agencies, so suppression resources were made available (Zeke note: The Chips Fire was burning nearby, in Plumas County at this time, threatening homes at Lake Almanor, so this was one of the reasons the Reading Fire was considered to be a real problem – it was competing for suppression resources during the peak of fire season).

Then a review was initiated after the fact and the national office really wanted to see a change in national policy to rename everything, you know, and to reinforce the need for wildland fire use. So the national office put a lot of high powered people on that. I was not involved in it, but my deputy was, and in the end, the program was validated. There were some recommendations. The park is relatively small and when fires burn, they tend to burn towards the boundary on the north side. So unless fires run into the lava or a lake or a previous burn, and this one did not, they go towards the Lassen National Forest.

My recollection is that the Park Service got a lot of support. There were some other fires burning at the time, so there was some competition for resources and that was a problem. But all fires get suppressed or go out eventually, and the politics did not change the policy. The Park Service continued to have wildland fire use. The Reading Fire scar, like I said, when you have a previous burn when another fire burns into that area, if it’s large enough, then the fire behavior changes.

Zeke: In the case of the Dixie Fire, it took almost two weeks for the Dixie Fire to burn through the Reading Fire scar. What I took away from that was that it only took about three days for the Reading Fire to burn that same distance, so we could expect that the Dixie Fire probably would have burned through the park. Nine years later, you could look back at this as a success.

Sue: There are a lot of complications of going into the Dixie Fire, I think, and a lot of the issues related to snags and hazards, because it’s a giant brush field. It was a giant brushfield of I believe greenleaf manzanita and ceanothus bushes. Big tall brush, but fairly green, with a lot of snags. As you know, putting in fireline within a giant snag patch is very hazardous for crews, so I imagine that’s why there was…

Zeke: I think during the Dixie Fire we just didn’t have the resources.

Sue: …to put a bunch of hand crews in there and fall all those snags.

Zeke: At the same time that the Dixie Fire got to the Reading Fire, the Caldor Fire had started, so we lost 1,500 firefighters on the Dixie Fire pretty much overnight, to the Caldor Fire.

Sue: I saw that shift in resources and it made sense to move them. That’s always difficult.

Zeke: What the Reading Fire brings up for me though, is that during this time period we didn’t have the resources to put the Dixie Fire out anyway. The resources that didn’t have to get to the north end of the Park and save Old Station right away were able to help hold the line that saved Westwood, keep the fire out of Susanville, keep the fire out of Janesville, Milford, and finished buttoning up the part of the fire that was threatening Chester.

When I think of our use of prescribed fire at landscape scale, I think that we have to accept that even having 5,000 acres of high severity fire on the landscape buys us an advantage down the road. When we’re looking at doing landscape-scale treatment, if we are going to look at doing 10,000 acre burns somewhere, we have to be accepting of that higher severity. Maybe our objective isn’t to have high severity, but if we end up having it, it’s likely to buy us an advantage in containing future fires.

Sue: I think the Reading Fire conditions, because it was very dry and windy, it would have been preferable if that area had burned in more of a mixed severity. Because that forest arose all at one time, parts of it anyway… I’m not positive about this because I can’t remember and the mapping from the eruption is pretty rough regarding where forest was killed versus where there was actual lava… But clearly, there was a fairly uniform stand. It’s like we said previously in this discussion, homogenous stands are difficult to deal with because they burn with the same fire effects throughout the whole thing if nothing else (weather) changes. People learned a lot from the Reading Fire. I did.

Zeke: What did you learn from the Reading?

Sue: It reinforced that Lassen Park is kind of narrow and fires burn across it. I learned that, at least in the Park Service, if you’ve done all your planning documents correctly, if things go south, that I could be supported in not blaming fire managers for something that they did everything we told them to and they followed their plan. When unexpected weather occurred, I learned that I would be supported and that I was going to support them. That’s on a personal level.

We can’t expect fire managers to take risks if they’re not going to be supported by the people above them. It reinforced for me that I always felt like you could make all kinds of mistakes on suppression fire, you know, light the wrong side of the line, do all kinds of crazy stuff. That happens. And then there’d be no censure unless somebody was hurt or killed. If people do the right things on a prescribed fire for a managed fire, and then there’s unanticipated weather, we need to support them. That’s going to happen. And that support hasn’t always happened in the past.

Zeke: Where do you feel like we’re at now with the Forest Service? As far as having a national leadership that supports people making these types of decisions at the regional level?

Sue: Um, I don’t know, I worked for Randy Moore. He’s the new Chief of the Forest Service, I think he will support his employees.

After a break..

Reforestation and Fire Resilience

Zeke: So we’ve seen a lot of fires in the past few years burning in plantations that were put in after large fires in the past, for example, the 2013 Rim Fire burning up many of the trees planted after the 1987 Stanislaus Complex or earlier fires. It seems like the Forest Service was good at planting trees, but not very good at all about thinning the plantations 10 or 20 or 30 years down the road? Let’s talk about what we have learned about planting trees after major wildfires.

Plantations on the Stanislaus National Forest, most planted after previous fires. 2012.

Most of the plantations were destroyed in 2013 by the Rim Fire.

Sue: You should talk to the (USFS) Regional Silviculturist… his last name is Sherlock and he used to be on the Stanislaus NF. We used to go on a lot of field trips and talk about planting density in the Forest Service. When he came to talk to the Board of Forestry, they recognised that they needed to change the spacing.

Zeke: The distance between the trees they plant. The Board of Forestry has come up with new standards for how many trees we need to plant after logging or fires, right? During your tenure, did the Forest Service start to look critically at the survival of plantations and think about different ways to deal with post fire landscapes?

Sue: I think they’re doing that now.

Zeke: On the Dixie fire, that’s burned so much of what we have always thought of as being prime timberlands managed by the Forest Service, how do you see us moving forward in this kind of era of climate change? How can we adapt our land management? Do you think that we should consider not managing some areas of our forests for conifer timber production?

Sue: All evidence points in that direction. I don’t know how the Forest Service is going to deal with that. There’ll be an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) to support any salvage logging. There will be salvage, but the question I would have is, how much value is there out there? Would salvaging the trees have enough value to even support the operation? I would guess that a lot of the smaller timber won’t. There’ll be an EIS, and if things go as per normal, it’ll be appealed. Which will delay removing any timber that has value. There’ll be compromises, areas that are salvaged and areas that aren’t. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the condition of what’s left out there or if it potentially could have any value or not. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing to pay for it. The budget for replanting areas has been low. Congress could appropriate more money for that, but they haven’t. So it’s almost a foregone conclusion that large areas won’t be salvaged, and therefore they won’t be replanted. It gets more difficult in areas like the Lassen… they’re not huge trees that we’re looking at salvaging and we’d have to have that infrastructure, which is missing. The loss of mills and all that sort of thing to process the timber. There’ll be a lot of it available. I don’t know what the economics of salvaged timber will be this year.

Plantations on private timberlands in Western Plumas County, after 2000 Storrie Fire and 2012 Chips Fire. Image from 2014.

Same area after 2021 Dixie Fire. Pink and red areas have no living forest canopy.

Sue: You know how few mills there are right now, so I don’t know that things will happen organically, driven by economics and the lack of infrastructure. I would guess that the area’s most likely to be salvaged would be areas where there are some large trees.

Zeke: Based on your experience, what are our options for using fire to manage the fuels burned with high severity by the Dixie Fire? We look out 10, 20, 30 years, are there places where people have used fire on a regular interval after a large fire like this to reduce the fuel loading?

Sue: You mean when there’s lots of snags?

Zeke: Yeah.

Sue: The Park Service has tried. You’d have to talk to them about how successful they’ve been. Once the brush gets established, (and it will) because I don’t think there’s going to be large areas where, you know, they use a lot of herbicide, then the area will not be particularly flammable for quite a while (Northern California brushlands are not very flammable until late in the summer, because they are full of moisture and actively growing thru the summer). To me, nature just has to take its course and it’s going to be a really long term process.

Zeke: On the Dixie Fire, we had a snag patch from the Reading Fire, fire made its way through there over the course of a couple of weeks. In doing so, I’m sure it reduced a lot of the branches and other fuels.

Snag forest in 2012 Reading Fire footprint. Photo by Zeke Lunder.

Sue: We had some fires during the Rim Fire in Yosemite where the areas burned really hot. Then there was a subsequent wildfire, an escape prescribed burn, the Meadow Fire. What you get is sort of a cigar thing where the fire burns through the downed logs, then goes to the next downed log, and makes it through the brush patch.

I have no idea how the Dixie fire burned in the Reading parts, but in Yosemite, it’s a problem to do prescribed fire or managed fire in those areas because of the hazards from all the snags. It becomes even more problematic where the trees are really large. We really don’t want to put firefighters in those snag patches. The bigger the snag patch, the harder it’s going to be to put people in there to manage fire.

Like I said, I think the economics are gonna drive the management for timber production on Forest Service designated lands. I always advocated, once we get a large fire to blow holes in the landscape, to try to introduce some landscape variation instead of having everything this same age. As the fires in California get bigger and bigger, you get more and more uniformity in the age and structure of what’s left in those areas.

Zeke: When you talk about blowing holes in it, what are you talking about? How would you do that?

Sue: With fire. People have discussed doing salvage in a way that would be less uniform as a strategy to create heterogeneity. I don’t know whether that’s ever been done, but that’s another way that you could potentially approach it. There’s a possibility that Congress can appropriate more money for replanting. I don’t think there’s enough residual green trees in most of the Dixie Fire to get natural regeneration of trees for a really long time. Some of the large patches… What are they like? 100,000 acres? There’s 100,000 acres of high severity fire. I don’t think we have any research that supports patches of that size having occurred in the past,

Zeke: I think there’s been quite a lot of seed that’s fallen out of those trees, out of the pine cones. I’m not sure how viable it is, but it’s not 100,000 acres of purely black sticks.

Sue: Are there any green trees?

Zeke: Yes.

Prefire/Preattack Planning in a Changing Climate

Zeke: Looking at the amount of dozer line that we put in on the Dixie fire, and how much of it didn’t hold or never even got fired, begs the question: What can we do, planning wise, to get better at this?

Black lines are dozer lines inside of the fire perimeter that didn’t hold the fire.

Sue: Pre-attack planning (common in the 1970s) was really useful because it got people out in the woods, to learn the landscape and think about how they would respond when a fire happened. There’s not as much of that that goes on in the field anymore because it’s so expensive to drive the large (fire) engines. It’s way-more expensive to drive the large engines around. I don’t think engine crews drive around quite as much as they used to looking at water sources and all that sort of thing. Now, we would hope that that would happen through a GIS platform, and everything would be marked. That’s what I think is the most important thing about pre-attack planning.

As far as pre-designating (fireline locations)… I was thinking about the Rogie Fire where we actually brought in an old hotshot superintendent from the El Dorado NF to show us where they had put the line in down to the Clavey River the last time it burned. We ended up putting the line there and the fire was stopped because it was a place in the landscape where… There was a turn in the river right and some different soil type that made for less thick vegetation. That’s where the line was put in.

The more pre planning and pre attack planning you do, the better. Now the problem is that we’re not we’re not staying ahead of potential fire conditions that can happen in this climate change scenario. As my friend Sneeze said to crews working for her during the Dixie Fire, ‘forget everything you ever learned about fire. This fire is doing other things’. There are scenarios now that don’t respond the way they have in the past, so if you base future actions on past experience, you may get some miserable surprises.

I think there’s pros and cons to pre planning based on past fire experience because we’re not staying ahead of these massive runs that we’re getting on these fires. The other thing we need is to be aware of vegetation types at higher elevations burning that didn’t before and where the fire would drop down to the ground or spot or just noodle around some of the higher elevation types, like red fir, seem to be burning more intensely than they did in the past. If you look at what happened around the edge of Desolation Wilderness or over by Kirkwood on that Calder fire, there’s a lot of things that I wouldn’t have expected to burn.

Zeke: I’ve always heard that red fir often had high severity fire that happens every couple hundred years, and we are just living through one of those periods right now. When I look at mountains or other roadless areas in Deer Creek, I see dense red fir there from the last event. Do you feel like we’re in this particularly exceptional time? Or are we just in one of these extended droughts where the fire history tells us we’ve been before in the past?

Sue: That’s what people who don’t think climate change is occurring would say. Periodically, of course, there were more extreme events. The argument that there are these high severity patches, like in red fir… Were they this big?

Zeke: If you look at Butt Mountain, it had a high severity burn. Maybe 30 or 40% is not burned in there, so we have these large patches, By no means the totality of the Dixie Fire.

Butt Mountain Roadless Area, south of Black Forest Lodge – Dixie Fire Severity Imagery by The Lookout.

Sue: That’s what all the fire ecology literature says. That there’s these long period, severe events and that makes sense to me. But year after year after year… it doesn’t make sense.

Forest Management – Scale and Funding Issues

Zeke: I hear a lot of people saying that we just need to get back to active forest management. For me, that brings up some questions of scale. I found a statistic recently that Sierra Pacific Industries owns something like two million acres and they’ve logged a about 350,000 acres in the last 10 years. So when I hear people say that the target is going to be a million acres of treatment a year…. Well, if the people who have the bulk of the capacity in the industry are doing maybe 35,000 acres a year, how do we think that we could actually scale up to a million acres? If you were the Regional Forester or in a position to influence how we would move forward with large scale forest management, what would your toolbox have in it?

Sue: With every tool that there is we can’t do the million acres in California that the governor set. I won’t speak specifically to that, but when we had the National Fire Plan in 2000 I was working for the Forest Service. Congress, basically the Forest Service, made an argument that at the national level, if we got this large influx of money, that we would reduce suppression costs, because there was the concern that if you could do enough fuel treatment, you could reduce suppression costs. That did not happen. Suppression costs continued to go up.

I think that what we need to do is stay in it for the long haul. When you get a whole lot of money to do fuels treatment or timber management, whatever it is that we’re going to do to reduce fire size or influence fire regimes, let’s call it that… When you get a one-time influx, there’s not enough stuff planned, that’s been approved through NEPA/CEQA, the VMP that we have in California… There’s not enough projects in the pipeline to do a lot of large scale work and spend all that money.

It’s like a self fulfilling prophecy because the money comes in, you take it, you try to give it out, but there’s not enough projects. Somehow it goes out there and projects are done, but the promised outcome of less fire, less damaging fire or reduced suppression costs, doesn’t pan out. We need to commit to investing that amount every year and not lose interest. It has to be a constant effort over a very long period, without a lot of expectations of changing something on a large scale. I’ll use the national fire plan as an example. The money came in, it got allocated, we hired a lot of people. And then, you know, inflation… The money gradually gets absorbed into the system and legislators lose interest in continuing. They move on to the next big thing.

Zeke: You hired a bunch of fire ecologists and people to write NEPA. Fuels planners, archaeologists…

Sue: We hired a lot of people, but we needed to have enough time to put that into effect with the same amount of money so that the program could sustain itself. Normally, when that happens, people have already moved on. There are a lot of cycles that occur with funding like that.

Zeke: How much of that work, when we hear about environmental litigation slowing the implementation of projects… Would you say that you have an idea of what percentage of the acreage that you planned never got done because of objections?

Sue: I don’t really think that was a big factor in the forest. The Forest Service has the appeals process and that usually is exercised with NEPA documents that include things like salvage. So it depends on how you define fuels treatment. That varies over time. What is fuels treatment? What can be funded with money that is set aside for fuels treatment has changed and evolved over time.

The current objections to environmental groups that are keeping agencies from doing work, I just got to say they could be a little disingenuous. There’s lots of barriers to getting work done. It’s usually just one of the many things and it isn’t always the most important thing. But it’s convenient right now to try to point the finger in that direction, I would be pointing it in a wide range of directions and not directing it at one individual or one group. Because if that was the only problem, we would have solved it.

Zeke: I think the hardest thing to communicate is just the scale of the problem. We’ve got 30 million acres of forest in California and it’s extremely expensive to treat this stuff. A lot of it’s not merchantable. The industrial capacity is based around long-term trends in housing construction and Federal land management. No one’s going out to build a new sawmill tomorrow just because the Forest Service says they want to cut a bunch of trees.

Sue: What industry will say is that they need some kind of guaranteed stream of product to fund something very expensive like that over the long term. When we lost most of the mills in California over a relatively short period, getting them back to process the material has been very difficult. The international trade in timber is a big deal, too. We get a lot of our lumber from other places.

It’s so obscure, really. People go to Home Depot and they’re mad because lumber costs a lot right now, but the reason it costs a lot right now is that everybody wanted to do home projects when they were stuck inside for two years. I think that’s kind of what’s driving the current trend.

Zeke: A lot of the mills reduced capacity because of Covid, and yeah… just like everything else with manufacturing and supply chains.

Sue: We’re going into another toilet paper shortage, I heard. I guess I need to run out and buy T-shirts. There’s always leaves…

On Wimpy Firefighters and Crusty Blowhards, Retention Issues

Zeke: I see a lot of old retired foresters and other people saying that we need to return to the 10am policy of putting on all fires. What does that mean? We talked earlier about how fire doesn’t really care what we call it, that we’re still gonna have bad fires when the conditions are wrong. Do you think that managed wildfire is ever going to be a thing in California? Besides the Siskiyou Mountains or remote areas, the Shasta, Trinity…

Sue: …or the or the national parks. It is still a thing there. Well, because of resource shortages… All the 10am policy says is that our goal is to suppress all fires by 10am the next day. That was when I first started, that’s when we switched from fire control to fire management. It was a semantic shift.

I have a lot of opinions about colleagues my age implying that if they were still fighting fire, this wouldn’t have happened. I get a lot of emails from old firefighters and see a lot of jokes on the old firefighter Facebook page about how if they were still fighting fire, they wouldn’t be a bunch of wimps and they’d be taking more risks. “These guys won’t go direct…” There’s a lot of that verbiage out there.

I just think things aren’t the same. Even if you could still use a brush hook and stay out all night and eat C-rations and not stay in a motel… That is not the reason that we’re having such a hard time putting these fires out. It’s illogical to say that if we went back to what we used to do, everything would be fine, because nothing is the same.

First of all, the proliferation of development in the WUI is a huge complication because a lot of the energy we used to put into direct line has to be redirected to protecting people’s houses that have moved out into the wildland. And then the change in fire behavior… It is almost delusional to imply that if we went back to the way we used to do it, that we’d be able to put out these fires, all of them, and go home in less than two weeks.

When I first started working on fires, until 1977, there weren’t any fires where you stayed out forever. Then Yellowstone happened and they had to implement this 14 or 21 day limit on the amount of time you could spend on a fire as a team. When I first started on teams, they almost always put the fire out and went home within 14 days. There was the occasional fire where they had to call a second team. Now, it’s really unusual to have the first team that arrives on a fire be able to hand it back to the unit. It’s rare.

I get a little annoyed at my friends and former colleagues who seem to think that if they were running it, it would be different. I think that things are so different, and that if they were running it, they would be having the same problems that everybody else is having trying to deal with these fires,

Zeke: I hear a lot from people in Plumas County, they feel like if the Forest Service would have tried harder, they could have saved Greenville. If they would have done this, if they would have done that. We can all second guess what tactics worked and which ones didn’t, but to assume that people were just sitting around and didn’t want to put the fire out is… It’s hard to hear that.

Sue: It’s hard to hear that if people just still went out and slept on the ground… There’s no relationship between whether people stay in a fire camp and sleep on the ground, or stay in a motel, and whether they’re going to be successful putting a fire out or not. But this is normal… I totally sympathize with the people in Plumas County that are heartbroken over what’s happened. It is completely reasonable for them to lash out because they’ve lost so much, but we’ve all lost it. Most firefighters are pretty heartbroken about the situation and feel that they should have been able to do more. They don’t need to hear it from anyone else. They already hear it in their own heads.

There was a young woman who wrote a piece on Grizzly Flats, which is the little town where the Caldor Fire started, and the criticism of the initial response. I think what people don’t know about the initial response to the Caldor Fire, as I have heard it, is that the winter before in January, there was 120 mph wind that came over Kirkwood, and the whole El Dorado, and knocked down thousands and thousands of large trees… uprooted them. I was hiking up there and it was just phenomenal from one year to the next. Around Loon Lake, there were hundreds of huge trees that had been uprooted by this wind. From what I heard, it took six hours to cut the trees out of the road to get to the initiating point of the Caldor Fire. They sent it a large number of engines and they had to cut their way in. Everybody running chainsaws, everybody working to get the road cleared so that they could get in. By the time they got in, six hours later, it was a much bigger fire. I don’t know what started it. I think it was human caused.

Zeke: That brings up staffing. The fact that the Forest Service has really limited capacity to do anything outside of fire season, managing lands, keeping roads open… We’ve evolved this landscape over the last 100 years where we’ve built a ton of roads to serve timber programs that really have been gone for almost 40 years now. As the Forest Service’s capacity has shrunk, the workload has increased, but our hiring and the money we pay people, all those things have stagnated.

Do you have anything to say about retention issues and do you have any ideas to solve some of these problems? We’re seeing this massive exodus of experienced people to jobs that have better conditions and pay more.

Sue: I absolutely understand why people are leaving, people who live in California that are trying to survive on the wages… if we’re talking strictly about the fire community. It’s hard for people to even understand why people are willing to work that hard for that little money, and it’s amazing that as many people stay as they do. It was that you could survive and live a Spartan lifestyle on a firefighter salary, GS-4, GS-5, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But now rents and expenses are so high, even in rural areas, and that’s not really possible. A typical hotshot crew member makes a lot less than someone who works in an Amazon warehouse. I think that’s the analogy that a lot of people have made.

It isn’t so much that we should be surprised that they’re leaving. We should be surprised that any of them are staying! Why would they? I think the answer is that they still love the work. The people that they work with are still phenomenal people. It’s the same reason people have always done the job.

But now that people are staying in those jobs longer, they’re not just in their early 20s. They’re getting older. They’re fighting fire longer during the year. They have families and spouses who are left home by themselves. At a certain point, and especially for women, if you want to have children, it’s nearly impossible to do this thing where you can get called on two minutes notice and then be gone for 14 days.

Zeke: It seems that if we really want to scale up prescribed fire, we can’t expect firefighters to do anything in November. Most of the firefighters I know, the only thing they want to burn in November is their annual leave.

Sue: Well, they’re staring at the wall. I always used to tell my supervisors when I was in management, that when people got back at the end of October… I said, don’t be surprised that so-and-so is just gonna stare at the wall for the next month. Pretend you don’t notice. They’re just gonna stare at the wall, that is what they’re going to do. And then they’re going to take their annual leave.

The way that politicians have in the past and continue to try to control this is by saying that we want fuels crews that only do fuels work. But most people that go into the job want to fight fire. We have to find a balance because… The way you make up the difference between food stamps, EBT and being able to live a decent, very lower middle class lifestyle on overtime. Typically, people that are devoted strictly to fuels management don’t get a whole lot of overtime. We need to rethink that. There’s a couple of organizations that are working really hard right to try to get this thing turned around for federal firefighters anyway. CAL FIRE has fuels crews, and they have gone on suppression incidents. Once things get bad enough on a fire, then everybody gets to go. I think when you were in the Forest Service, there would be this letter that came out that all of a sudden said… everybody, all the foresters, all the archaeologists, the secretaries… everybody you can go to fires if you have a fire qualification.

Zeke: But we’ll never get ahead of it, even if we spend all our energy on suppression. We spent $650 million on the Dixie fire so far, and all we’ve got to show for it is a million acre burn.

Sue: I think they’re spending a lot of money on rehabbing dozer lines right now. Is that not true? They’re doing suppression rehab?

Zeke: That’s not the majority of the expenditure.

Sue: There were a lot of people.

Zeke: A lot of aircraft, a lot of type one engine strike teams.

Sue: (4 hours later) Are we done now?

Bravo, Sue Husari! I loved our conversation, I am very grateful for the time we got to spend in my little office shack.