Unlearned Lessons Exacerbate Little Bear Forest Fire
By J. Brian Meskill, student, University of Connecticut School of Law
The Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso, New Mexico continues to burn but is slowing and is now 60 percent contained. The fire, covering almost 40,000 acres, has caused at least 3 injuries, consumed 252 structures, and has been a great stress on the Ruidoso community. The fire, started by a lightning strike a week ago, was originally contained but when winds shifted the fire became uncontrollable. U.S. Senator Tom Udall (NM) stated that the fire is New Mexico’s “biggest fire in terms of property loss…my heart goes out to them, to their loved ones and I just feel very strongly about their losses.”
Roadblocks in protocol may have prevented prompt and efficient responses to the fire. When the fire first started, two local Type 3 fire helicopters with water buckets went unused. KOB News reported that “the helicopters are long-line qualified and red carded, which means they are ready to go when needed.” Rather than use the local helicopters, the U.S. Forest Service called in an already contracted helicopter that was farther away. “They haven’t been overlooked,” said Fire Incident Commander Joe Reinarz. “We have a processes, and it’s dispatch.”
The dispatch protocols referred to by Reinarz may delay the response and exacerbate an already dangerous situation. Some critics believe that the red tape is aimed at lowering costs. In 2010 the L.A. Times reported a “desire to control costs slowed the arrival of ‘critical resources’ in the attack on last year’s disastrous Station Fire as the U.S. Forest Service delayed ordering reinforcements from other agencies that had crews and equipment at the ready, according to an internal federal review.” A review of fire costs by the USDA found that state and local resources in California “typically cost much more than similar Federal resources.”
In addition to helicopters, local firefighters are often told not to help. KOB news reported that a “crew of firefighters battling the Little Bear Fire said they saved 50 to 70 homes after they ignored orders to stand down and stop home rescues.” A firefighter with the crew stated that he called those in charge of the operation by phone and told them that “we were still battling fire and that I was not going to be at that meeting and told them what trucks and what numbers.” Shortly after the call, several fire safety officers told the crew “to pull out of the fire fight because they didn’t attend the meeting.“
Red tape that can slow down the firefighting response to wildfires has been a concern raised in the past. U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (CA-29) along with other members of congress led an inquiry into the response to the 2009 Station Fire in Los Angeles County in which Schiff “was deeply troubled to learn that critical U.S. Forest Service dispatch recordings from the start of the fire were withheld from federal review teams. Representative Schiff called for a GAO investigation to “evaluate whether the actions in response to the fire were taken in the most efficacious way possible.”
The San Gabrial Valley Tribune reported that the GAO report “concluded the U.S. Forest Service needs to clear up foggy policies that could cause confusion when working with local firefighters, but it stops short of suggesting the Station Fire could have been snuffed in its early stages.” The GAO report recommended that the U.S. Forest Service “(1) clarify when it expects agency firefighting assets be used instead of assets from other sources and (2) document the steps it plans to take in response to the lessons identified in its review of the Station Fire.”
According to the GAO as of December 2011 this issue has yet to be resolved. With the ongoing Little Bear fire, and a questionable initial response, the U.S. Forest Service should demonstrate that lessons from fires such as the Station Fire have been learned.
Mingyang Sun, student, Fordham University School of Law, also contributed to this blog post.
Amelia Carter, student, University of Mississippi School of Law, also contributed to this blog post.