The Mendocino Complex has taken its place in the record books–but probably not for long–as the largest wildfire in California state history. While the River Fire is 100% contained at this time, it is possible that the Ranch Fire may eventually burn over a majority of entire Mendocino National Forest before it stops its advance.
One thing that leaps out with a casual glance at the current fire map is the extensive use of dozers in primary and contingency firelines. Several of these dozerlines a.k.a. “catlines” come right up to and possibly encroach into the Snow Mountain Wilderness. In fact, the California Regional Forester gave permission for dozers to enter the wilderness with the blessing of the Mendocino Forest Supervisor.
A noble but futile attempt at direct attack with dozers on the northern portion of the fire failed to stop the fire earlier. The fire breached the dozerlines and eventually spread into the wilderness area. This fireline was constructed despite the visiting Risk Management Assessment Team (RMAT) informing the agency leaders that it had a low probability of success.
No matter, the Forest Service leadership felt that they had a duty to try something, anything, anyway to stop the fire spread. But now we have several miles of useless dozerlines scarring the landscape for a long, long time. A costly maneuver for mere posturing to the public that the agency was doing everything it could to attack the fire.
This sad spectacle is an example of what some local forest conservationists are calling “overaggressive attack syndrome,” and it raises a couple of key questions:
Question #1: Why did the agency leadership attempt to stop the fire from entering the wilderness area?
Was it merely an attempt to limit the fire size and/or speed up containment time? Or was it to avoid having the fire impact the wilderness area?
If it was the former objective–limiting the fire size or duration as a means of reducing taxpayer costs or firefighter exposure–well, it did not work, and the RMAT had warned the leadership that it most likely would not work. So the expense of putting those dozers to work was an unacceptable waste of money. And the exposure of firefighters to risk in a futile attempt at direct attack on the fire is even more unacceptable. This season has already had the tragic death of a dozer operator on the Ferguson Fire (harkening back to the loss of another dozer operator on the 2016 Soberanes Fire) and two near-misses of dozer operators on the Carr Fire, and a firefighter was recently killed on the Mendocino Complex. Firefighter fatalities are the highest cost of suppression, and risk assessments must always prioritize those potential losses above all.
If it was the latter objective–keeping fire out of the wilderness–then what the #@&% were they thinking?! Sparing the wilderness from impacts of fire? Fire helps enhance both wildness and naturalness, and these are some of the defining qualities and highest values of designated wilderness areas. In short, fire keeps the wild in wilderness! On the contrary, dozerlines intruding into wilderness are the worst kind of trammeling imaginable. Again, an unnecessary, inappropriate, and unacceptable use of dozers in this plan.
Question #2: Why did the leadership ignore the RMAT’s input?
Again, the RMAT crew warned the leadership that going direct attack with dozers to try to stop the fire from entering the wilderness had a very low probability of success. This marks the second time that the RMAT’s recommendations were ignored by incident leaders and area administrators, and then the RMAT were later proven right.
Admittedly, RMATs are a novelty at this time and it will take some time for IMTs to get comfortable with them and fully utilize their analyses. But, it also seems that, like Resource Advisors who offer advice on ways to limit the impacts of suppression actions on natural and cultural resource values, the RMATs have yet to gain respect by Incident Commanders and are not seen as “equals” in the hierarchy of fire administration. Type 1 ICs are all about containing and controlling fires, and all this stuff about resource damage or risk assessments is a bunch of pointy-headed bleeding-heart liberal hogwash that doesn’t belong in a paramilitary organization devoted to aggressively attacking fires.
The day must come when RAs and RMATs and LTANs are fully integrated and equally respected members of IMTs, especially on large-size/long-duration wildfire incidents. We need to manage fire in wildlands intelligently with firefighter safety and fire ecology and taxpayer expenditures at the forefront of developing operational strategies and tactics. Throwing whatever wherever whenever at wildfires to try to limit their size or duration as the end-all be-all is obsolete and is bankrupting the system. And now that we’re headed into the traditional peak of fire season with PL-5 and all resources tapped out, we’re seeing the consequences of the overaggressive attack syndrome waged on other earlier fires that might have been managed for “other than full suppression” and spared those resources.
So, the Ranch Fire of the Mendocino Complex continues its steady spread onward, leaving the cut-and-runover catlines literally in the dust.