Pearce wrong about Little Bear firefighting efforts
If Congressman Pearce thinks that the U.S. Forest Service should be able to respond to fires faster than on foot, he and his fellow Republicans should stop cutting the Forest Service budget.
There’s a lot of misinformation being spread about the initial efforts to contain the Little Bear fire. I have pieced this account together mostly from the online log available on the USFS website.
“Monitoring” is a totally inadequate term to describe the efforts that were made to contain the fire during the first five days.
On Monday, June 4, the fire was spotted at 3:30 p.m., and the size was estimated at 1/4 acre. A helicopter immediately flew in two firefighters who started trying to clear the area around the fire with chainsaws. They were operating at 10,200 feet in rugged area with treacherous footing on a 70-percent slope.
The firefighters cut down 300-foot tall trees to clear the area around the fire, which was then about 1/2 acre in size, until it was too dark to operate safely. Congressman Steve Pearce has no idea of what it is like to work for hours on a smoky, low visibility, 70-percent, steep slope.
Other considerations to keep in mind – the firefighters cannot work at night, but the fire can continue to burn. Also, there was a 300,000-acre fire burning in the Gila, and fires in Colorado, that needed firefighters too.
Tuesday morning, June 5, 20 members of the Sacramento Hotshot crew hiked to the fire. The only helicopter available was not some fancy Blackhawk assault vehicle that could carry that large a crew, and if Congressman Pearce thinks that the USFS should be able to respond faster than on foot, he and his fellow Republicans should stop cutting the Forest Service budget (4-5 percent every year for the three years since they became the majority party in the House).
The hike was followed by a full day of trying to clear the area around the fire under the harsh conditions of steep, rocky terrain and high altitude. Cutting down the trees was hazardous, care had to be taken to avoid injury to the crew. I live in Cloudcroft, and Highway 82 down to Alamogordo is considered dangerous because it has a 6-percent slope in some places, so try to imagine what it is like to work on a 70-percent slope!
Almost containing the fire
Cutting continued on Wednesday and Thursday, June 6 and 7, and attempts were made to drop water on the fire. Dropping 75 gallons (about 625 pounds of water) was ineffective as the trees were so close together that the water just wet the tops and never reached the ground. Some soft-sided bladders of water, again with a limit of 75 gallons, were delivered.
Long hoses could be attached to these bladders (called blivots) so the fire could be more directly attacked, but it must have been very difficult to wrassle a 650-pound floppy blivot and all that length of hose to the areas that needed dousing. This would also reduce the number of firefighters available to continue clearing with chainsaws.
By Friday, June 8, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, the two dozen firefighters had just about contained the fire. Then the winds picked up, and spot fires appeared outside the contained zone.
Two air tankers were immediately ordered, but remember that the density of the forest made it very difficult to get the water to the ground where it was needed. The spot fires started spreading. The Hotshots were in danger.
Additional crew arrived at 3 p.m. Friday, and by 6:30 p.m. total resources on their way to the rapidly expanding fire were at least nine hotshot crews, 36 engines, seven water tenders and multiple aircraft. By 8 p.m. a 56-member IMT1 team had also been requisitioned. But none of the crews could work in the dark, especially in that rough terrain.
The fire continued through the night, and by Saturday morning, June 9, it had spread to 8,000 acres and was out of control. Firefighters worked frantically in 90-degree heat, with winds gusting to 30 mph, but by nightfall the fire had doubled in size to 15,000 acres and evacuations had been ordered. My friends in Alto received a telephone notice to evacuate at 5 a.m. Saturday, and by the time I tried to reach them, about 2 p.m. that afternoon, the phone service was completely disrupted.
Who made the budget cuts?
That evening Congressman Pearce stormed into town and demanded that the Lincoln National Forest staff, which was trying to help coordinate approximately 430 firefighting personnel as well as organize evacuations, drop everything so he could tell them how badly they were handling the emergency.
He even stated, “I just came from the other side of the state where we’ve got a 300,000-acre fire more or less going right now.” But he didn’t make the connection that, with two fires going in our state, firefighting resources were strained to the limit, and the last thing that was needed was for him to cause an additional disruption.
As Lincoln National Forest supervisor Robert Trujillo said, “Right now, Mr. Congressman, we have an active fire out there and I don’t see that this conversation is very productive, with all due respect.” But Pearce insisted that “it is productive to say ‘Who made the decisions?’”
Maybe so, congressman. Maybe now it would also be productive to ask, “Who made the budget cuts?” But at that time theoretical analysis and scapegoating on his part were irresponsible and counterproductive.
Wedum lives in Cloudcroft and is the Democratic candidate for N.M. Senate District 34.
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