“Would you do it again?”
It was the most telling question asked of Dave Uberuaga during a controlled burn that escaped last month to blacken 7,425 acres near Foresta before a two-week-long, $15 million effort involving 1,300 firefighters bottled it up.
“Yes,” was the acting Yosemite National Park superintendent’s answer.
No apologies, no admissions, no concessions that touching off a prescribed burn in August — the month in which the catastrophic, 147,000-acre Stanislaus Complex Fire took off in 1987 — may not have been wise.
Instead Uberuaga cited the “good science” of the planned 91-acre burn’s prescription — a list of conditions that must be met for a successful and safe burn.
Typically included in such documents are temperatures, humidity, fuel moisture, winds, historical trends, firefighting equipment on hand, resources deployed on other fires and more. Uberuaga has refused several requests to disclose the details of the Foresta prescription.
One element seemed to be conspicuously absent in the Big Meadow recipe: common sense.
Few issues have sparked the public outrage as much as last month’s burn gone bad.
“Why on earth would the National Park Service start a ‘controlled burn’ when California’s hills and mountains are tinderboxes ready to go up in flames?” asked one letter to the editor.
“You have all year to choose a sensible time,” wrote another correspondent. “Why now?”
“Obviously and stupendously moronic,” decreed a third.
“Duh?” reacted a fourth, perhaps echoing the sentiments of hundreds more.
Yes, rain did fall in Yosemite before the planned burn. But how many times have Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service fire managers warned us civilians not to be fooled by such unseasonal showers, and told that fuel moisture levels can within days return to highly dangerous levels?
Burning permits have been suspended since May and anyone rash enough to burn brush could be thrown in jail.
In smoke-shrouded Groveland, which the fire-driven closure of the Highway 120 into Yosemite Valley turned into an economic ghost town over the Labor Day weekend, the verdict was unanimous.
“I heard the same question from everyone,” said Tuolumne County Supervisor John Gray, who with his board colleagues is asking disaster relief for impacted South County businesses. “Did anybody have any common sense when they struck that match?”
Which is not to condemn controlled burns, which have proved a valuable fire prevention tool.
Since 1993, for instance, more than 2 million acres on California national forests were the target of planned burns, and now the U.S. Forest Service is torching between 250,000 and 300,000 acres annually to rid the woods of volatile underbrush and fuels.
But here’s the difference: According to Jason Kirchner, fire information officer for the Forest Service’s California region, virtually all such burning is done in the fall and spring.
“We generally stop by July,” Kirchner said.
The policy has paid off: Less than one-half of 1 percent of all Forest Service control burns have escaped.
Although Kirschner said planned burns are “not unheard of” in August, they haven’t been set on the Stanislaus National Forest.
“We were never able to meet prescription that time of year,” said one fire-management veteran.
Yosemite is beloved by local residents and the National Park Service is widely respected. Sadly, some of that respect has now eroded.
The poor decision-making on this controlled burn was compounded by bureaucratic arrogance and denials by the Park Service. An apology is in order for this $15 million mistake. More questions need to be answered and more coordination and communication should be extended to local communities and government agencies.
Lastly — and most importantly — National Park Service forest management practices should be overhauled and new “prescriptions” adopted.