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The conversion of the Sims Prescribed Fire to the Grape (Wild)Fire brings up a scary ghost from the past.

In 2000, the crew managing the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Fire in Bandelier National Monument had difficulties getting the fire to ignite and spread.  Test burns were ignited in moist grassy fuels at the top of a mountain in 50 degree air temperature with upslope winds 1 to 2 mph. Hardly a reckless action, but, mistakes were made in the planning process that resulted in a smaller crew size than could handle the fire as it progressed downslope, moving from grassy fuels to shrubs and eventually timber stands with lots of downed fuel. When a 30 x 30 foot slopover at the top of the unit occurred, the National Park Service crew put in a request to the U.S. Forest Service to get some extra “contingency” resources to bring the “escaped” fire back into prescription. This is where things went terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, when Bandelier (NPS) put in a call for more resources from the Santa Fe Dispatch Center (USFS), they were told that no additional resources could be sent unless and until the Park Service declared it a wildfire. This was woefully incorrect information that was contrary to the 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy that permitted contingency suppression resources to be used on prescribed fires to prevent them from becoming wildfires.

This mistake involved more than ignorance of fire policy, though. Much of the apparent “miscommunication” with the Dispatch Center flowed from years of interagency rivalry between Bandelier (NPS) and the adjacent Santa Fe National Forest (USFS). This, too, was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Federal Fire Policy that pledged interagency collaboration and cooperation across all federal land management jurisdictions in order to jointly manage fire.

Basically the NPS was “extorted” by the USFS to convert the prescribed fire slopover into a full-suppression wildfire in order to get additional resources. But that conversion set in motion a whole new mindset that led to tragic consequences. Crews continued igniting fires but these changed from blacklining to become backfiring. Tragically, one of these backfires was ignited at the base of a steep slope in one of the densest fuel zones just a few hours before a major windstorm hit the mountain and literally blew the burn out of the park.

What started out as a slopover that was eventually contained at approximately 30 acres in size set in motion–after the prescribed burn was converted to a wildfire–to a backfire that led to 48,000 acres burning uncontrollably across the fuel-choked Santa Fe National Forest. The renamed Cerro Grande Fire was an epic disaster that spread into the city of Los Alamos, destroying approximately 200 homes, and entered the grounds of Los Alamos National Lab where the fire exposed several long-forgotten dumps of radioactive waste that nearly became the nation’s fire “nuke” wildfire.

Opponents of the Park Service and prescribed burning had a field day vilifying Bandelier, at times charging NPS with “criminal negligence.” At that time, Bandelier had one of the nation’s vanguard fire restoration programs, but it was dismembered in the aftermath of the disaster. To this day people blame the NPS for its escaped prescribed fire, not the USFS for the escaped backfire. Literally buried on the last page of the 134-page Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report is the fire behavior analyst report that revealed the main culprit for the blow-up:

“In summary, it is believed that had sufficient contingency resources been available on site the morning of May 5th, they would have been able to control the slop-over fire and the need to convert to a wildfire would not have occurred. It was the suppression action that put fire along Road 4 that resulted in the escape from the project area.”

Yes, mistakes were made by Bandelier staff in the planning and implementation of the prescribed fire, and the rapid change in weather conditions were unforeseen, but that is why contingency resources are supposed to be available to call in, to make up for resource deficits or changing conditions.

Which brings up the recent Sims Prescribed Fire ala Grape (Wild)Fire. The same flawed reasoning drove the decision to convert the burn to a wildfire in order to tap into suppression funding and gain additional resources to manage a slopover. What is different about the Grape Fire compared to the Cerro Grande Fire is that the extra suppression resources ordered seem to be wildly excessive given the changing weather conditions (i.e. incoming rainstorm vs. incoming windstorm) and the values-at-risk (a few isolated structures vs. a city and nuclear lab). It appears from a distance that the Grape Fire was not as “wild” as it was made out to be, and the conversion to a wildfire was more about gaining resources than about managing fire.

Another difference between the two fires that is most perplexing is that unlike the Cerro Grande fire that was triggered in part from interagency conflict, the Grape Fire was the result of intra-agency non-cooperation, between two units of the same federal agency! Again, this runs afoul of the Federal Fire Policy and warrants more investigation.

All of this brings up a potential danger of Congress’s recent authorization to allow the USFS to tap into disaster recovery funds in order to pay for firefighting costs. Will any future escaped prescribed fire qua wildfire be declared a “disaster” in order to gain contingency suppression resources, this time from near-limitless disaster recovery funds–even if they are accomplishing resource benefits? Should we call these “Hype Conversion Burns”? Well, Public Enemy said it best: “Don’t believe the hype!”