Wednesday, July 31, 2013

2013 Mountain Fire: Utilizing a Tragic Event to Evangelize Bad Ideologically Driven Science

2013 Mountain Fire - image by Kevin Snow

The latest News on the 2013 Mountain Fire which burned 27,531 acres, was started by an electrical equipment failure on private property in the Mountain Center area and destroyed 23 structures, seven of which were homes, in the first 24 hours while also forcing the evacuation of hundreds. At its peak, the fire, fueled by extremely dry brush, hot weather and wind, blackened skies over much of the Coachella Valley and rained ashes on homes and cars, spurring health warnings due to poor air quality caused by the smoke. The New Reports that I followed throughout this fire event were quoting all the experts who were saying the fire was extremely unusual as it was behaving like a Santa Ana wind driven fire which are normally encountered in the Fall. It destroyed prime wildlife habitat which in my opinion, given Climate Change circumstances, will not recover as well as they believe it will. But then, that's just my opinion.

image: allthingshealing
But then a couple days ago, there was an article in the San Diego Union Tribune which interviewed several experts [one Media Darling in particular] who were actually celebrating that terrible wildfire in the San Jacinto Mountains in which many people lost homes and other property and almost 30,000 acres of pristine untouched wildland was destroyed in about a week. Why ? Because there is this uneducated ideologically driven mistaken idea that continual fire is needed in order for Nature's plant communities to be healthy and thrive.  Sometimes Media Press Reporters are like Vultures in a feeding frenzy especially where Richard Minnich[the article's main character] is concerned. Anytime there is a fire story, he's like a magnet. I'm sure this guy has a lot of knowledge about a lot of things, but his personal ideological bias interferes with his reality of Nature, especially here in the San Jacinto Mountains. You can't help but view his love relationship with the Press like a storytelling Shaman relating a fable to a bunch of ignorant gullible tribesman sitting around in front of a Campfire hanging on unquestionably to every word uttered. Unfortunately, most uninformed readers will accept what he states without question as well, often parroting what this authority tells them for no other reason than, well because the authority say so and well after all, he's the Authority. Many of the statements in this Union Tribune San Diego article [by Minnich in particular] celebrating the wonderful thing the Mountain Fire did for Nature, were not so much of a scientific peer-review [which in itself does not equate unquestionable TRUTH] backed explanation as much as it seems to mirror the religion, or more politely, the metaphysics of Rich Minnich's own personal commandeering of Fire Ecology Science for decades.  Of course the Press here isn't innocent here either. Quote mining and taking people out of context is common among the Press. When I lived in Anza CA, Carl Long who owned the Anza Valley Outlook would often do that to me all the time, so I finally refused to comment when asked a question. This may be the case here with some quotes of others. But also never underestimate the power a real scoop on anything controversial, especially from a sensational entertainment angle which translates as Ratings for Newspapers. It's all about the ratings baby! Here are a few of the peer-pressured as opposed to peer-reviewed storytelling comments quoted from the article 
Forest passes trial by fire  
To Richard Minnich, a fire scientist at U.C. Riverside’s Department of Earth Sciences, this disaster is a poster child for how Southern California wildfires should burn. 
“We got an old growth forest that burned slowly in good weather,” he said. “We got a fantastic housecleaning. Someone finally vacuumed the rugs.”
by JFK

Data from:
So lets analyze this statement. “We got an old growth forest that burned slowly in good weather,” ? This is a fabricated untruth. Take a look at the chart to the right here. It shows the truth of what the weather pattern was like in the beginning of this fire and how it suddenly and luckily turned against the fire. The constant News quotes by the Fire Management site team was that this fire was behaving as if there were Santa Ana winds and was characteristic of Fall weather fires. This was the complete opposite of what Minnich said. While the firefighters were doing their heroic and courageous best to fight this Mountain Fire with heavy equipment and hand to hand combat, the fire was still winning with no end in sight. They simply lucked out because of a change in weather pattern called the Summer Monsoons. This fire was reminiscent of the 1990s Bee Canyon Fire which exploded up the mountainside east of Soboba Indian Reservation in the San Jacinto Valley, burned across foothills to reach the North Fork of the San Jacinto River Canyon, finally burning up at Pine Cove's [Idyllwild/Pine Cove already evacuated] backdoor, was burning fiercely driven by western winds and in fact on that last fateful day was already a crown fire poised to consume Idyllwild, when suddenly the winds shifted from an east monsoonal flow direction which blew this fire back into itself. Same identical thing with on the Beauty Peak Fire south of Anza from the Buck Snort Mountains and this was the same exact thing with this Mountain Fire earlier this month. Had the monsoonal flow not happened, they wouldn't be high-fiving each other and celebrating what a wonderful thing this was, but rather we would be talking about the fire's unchecked progress towards Pine Cove, Idyllwild, the beautiful old growth Forest of North Fork and other possible points west towards Banning and Beaumont California. This wasn't any win win thing for anyone involved, especially Nature. Take a look at some other statements. The article spoke of a research team which was already up there doing a five-year resurvey of the historic Grinnell Transectzoologist Joseph Grinnell’s landmark 1908 study on flora and fauna of Mt. San Jacinto. Here what they said:
“That forest until last week was much denser than it was in 1908,” said Phil Unitt, the museum’s curator of birds and mammals.  Dense enough to alter fauna, said researchers, who note that three species have vanished since Grinnell’s time.  One of those is the San Bernardino flying squirrel – a big-eyed, gliding rodent which sails through open canopies. Its disappearance has been attributed to changes in food, water and climate, but Tremor thinks it may have simply lost the space to soar."
Okay, so now the Flying Squirrels probably had no place to soar because of all the dense chaparral smothering the Trees and that's why they're in decline or totally gone in some areas ?  Has anybody here reading ever hiked up into the high country of Mount San Jacinto Wilderness State Park ? Can you tell me, what does the forest cover look like up there ? Is it really as dense and crowded like Idyllwild or as the lower chaparral plant community ? Remember, they were talking about an area of mostly 7000' and up to Mount San Jacinto Peak of  10,833' (3,302 m). Now for those unfamiliar with the terrain and plant community up there, please take a look.

photo image: & Nick E.
Take a good look at the landscape to the right in the photo here of plant density of Mount San Jacinto Wilderness Park. Does this landscape look like it would impede a Flying Squirrel's soaring life style because of heavy chaparral choking  trees ? This photo angle is on Mount Jacinto  looking south towards Idyllwild's upper Fern Valley and Humber Park. Thomas Mountain is in the background and Santa Rosa on the far left side. I don't see any overgrown old growth chaparral,  do you ? The growing season is also  different up in the high country. Not like  below and so is the plant community. It  doesn't recover as quickly as it has shorter  grow season. Even the types of plants are  not the same either, but I see nothing to  impede a Flying Squirrel's heart's desire  to glide and soar as it wishes. And yet here is another gem worth mentioning. Take a look at what allowing chaparral growth to develop into old growth Elfin Forest community did for the local wildlife up there in the high country with all these years of evil fire suppression. Here's the quote:
"Another suite of animals, however, 'thrives on the thicket'. Two birds, the Hermit Thrush and Townsend’s Solitaire, weren't present when Grinnell studied the mountain, but have appeared in recent years, Unitt said. The Brown Creeper was present in Grinnell’s time but is far more numerous now."
Now I'm really puzzled, the chaparral is almost always demonized, but as a result of old growth Chaparral Elfin Forest in some areas, these birds and perhaps other wildlife have actually benefited and increased as a result of old growth Chaparral ? So was this a bad thing or a good thing then ? One of the components I rarely see mentioned or spoken about is how abundant wildlife[especially larger animals], aside from fire may have dealt a housekeeper service with keeping vegetation down and perhaps not allowing fires to no get so out of control. Also fires no doubt would have happened in Nature during those very real moderate weather events with monsoon or winter storms when conditions would have been less favourable for megafire. But again, here's another quote:
“When the fire got into the park it was for the most part not a crown fire, it was a creeping ground fire," Ken Kietzer said. "That is going to be very favorable to reducing the buildup of ground fuels and thinning out some of the smaller, shade tolerant understory, which will probably in the long run be a benefit for the park.”
The conditions up in the high country have a sparser vegetation than down below and there were no favourable moderate conditions. Even just before the fire was shut down by Nature's downpour of almost 2 inches of rain, the winds were heavy and blowing the thing in a westerly direction towards Pine Cove/Idyllwild. [see image at bottom of post]  During the fire and watching the video recordings of News Reports, and listening to the Fire Management Spokesman, they kept saying what a dangerous fire this was because it's behavior was that of an Autumn Fire when hot dry Santa Ana winds blow a fire into an unstoppable megafire. So it wasn't a good weather pattern after all. So much for that theory. Then other quotes like this one:
“Some of the fuels out there are really old and really decadent, and have changed the forest,” said Anne Poopatanapong, district biologist for the Forest Service. “So what you’re seeing is not necessarily the way the fire would naturally occur.”
image: Press Enterprise

Bald Eagle nest in dead tree snag at Big Bear Lake, CA
I've never found anything decadent or unnatural about anything old growth when it comes to forests and that includes chaparral. I'm actually surprised at this description of older dead snags being described as decadent by this biologist especially since she works with Bald Eagles. But this is not unique to her view, it has been the attitude for decades. This is reminiscent of adjectives used to describe chaparral of National forests as being boring and mundane by other Forest Service experts. In the San Jacinto mountains there is this unique official Mandate to keep the Palms to Pines Hwy - Palm Desert - Idyllwild - Beaumont looking like a Park for viewing pleasure of traveling motorists. So the Palms to Pines Road beautification mandate is more of a Public Relations issue that let's the public feel the government is doing a good job. This is why so many of the tree planting projects I remember in the almost 24 years I lived there were mainly done along both side of this specific tourist promoted highway. 
Especially in Garner Valley have they normally kept dead trees cut down. Whenever a tree dead or was sickly, some local resident there would acquire the Forest Service's wood cutting tape, mark the tree and submit a cutting permit before someone else did. The service would send out a Patrol Officer to assess the tree, determine it's wood value and charge a fee accordingly to the woodcutter. The other thing these snags provide is potential nesting sites for woodpeckers and Mountain Bluebirds, but instead, the new nesting site normal are countless nesting boxes nailed to living Jeffrey Pines. But is that really what people want to see ? As Richard Minnich says, this is all part of the new normal. Below here are some of my pictures I took in early May 2013 of Garner Valley and the ongoing mandate to physically shape this valley into their own image or not necessarily what it once was, but rather their own biased image of what it should be.

Photo: Mine
The above stripped bare landscape in and around the trees is to supposedly spare the poor trees from evil chaparral encroachment [background] which would encourage wildfire to damage the Palms to Pines P.R. image. This valley hasn't always looked like this. In fact the forest use to be solid from the valley floor all the way up to the present limited treeline up there on Thomas Mountain. Two major Human error caused brushfires started over at Santa Rosa Indian Reservation took care of all that, aside from what historic logging did in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

photo: Mine
The article's celebrating attitude of those interviewed is also reminiscent of when I lived there and the Baldy Mountain Fire took place. Of course it was an arson set fire right on Hwy 74 from near the South Fork San Jacinto River Trailhead, but it was championed as a good burn because that old growth forest and chaparral hadn't burned in over 100 years and in fact, they had tried previously to get permission for control burns before, but studies were held up for some unknown reason. Now this brings me to the article's other misquoting of history as to what old forest conditions were like and a quote from Minnich as to natural fire intervals. Remember this is only a fraction of what was reported and NOT about any mountains of the San Jacinto, let alone anywhere in Southern California:
"A 1898 timber assessment by U.S. Geological Survey surveyor John B. Leiberg stated that the absence of decayed ground cover and leaf litter in the San Jacintos makes “the occurrence of hot and lasting fires in the forest impossible.”
"Southern California forests are two to three times denser than they were then, Minnich said, and pack far more ground fuel. The thickly wooded peaks of Mt. San Jacinto hadn’t burned in 130 years he said – more than twice the site’s historic 50-year fire cycle." 
Ah yes, John B. Leiberg. Please take note that the statement about absence of decayed ground cover along with lack of leaf litter was originally NOT describing the conditions of the San Jacinto Mountains or any other So-Cal mountains, but rather northern California. And the 50 year burn cycle preached by Minnisch is also another falsehood. It's a modern day myth sprinkled with the peer-pressured pixie dust of Government Mandates for the way it ought to be. Here is what Prof. Chad Hanson had to say on this same exact study, but along with more context. First off, Chad Hanson has a Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California at Davis, with a research focus on forest and fire ecology in western U.S. conifer forests. He's the Director of the  John Muir Project (, and is a researcher in the Plant and Environmental  Sciences department at the University of California at Davis. Here's the quote from his website on the same exact John B. Leiberg study: (found here, pg, 14 & 15)
"In the late 19th century, John B. Leiberg and his team of United States Geological Survey researchers spent  several years mapping forest conditions, including fire intensity in the central and northern Sierra Nevada.  Leiberg recorded all high-intensity patches over 80 acres (32 ha) in size occurring in the previous 100 years The Myth of  “Catastrophic” Wildfire A New Ecological Paradigm of Forest Health 15 (Leiberg 1902). Using modern GIS vegetation and physiographic information, Hanson (2007a) compared fire  locations to forest type and site conditions to examine patterns of high-intensity fire events, excluding areas that  had been logged in the 19th century in order to eliminate the potentially confounding effect of logging slash  debris (branches and twigs left behind by loggers). Hanson (2007a) used areas that Leiberg had mapped as  having experienced 75-100% timber volume mortality."
Hanson (2007a) found that high-intensity fire was not rare in historic Sierra Nevada forests, as some have  assumed. Over the course of the 19th century, within Leiberg’s study area, encompassing the northern Sierra  Nevada, approximately one-fourth to one-third of middle and upper elevation westside forests burned at highintensity (75100% mortality) (Hanson 2007a). This equates to fire rotation intervals for high-intensity fire of  roughly 400 to 300 years (i.e., for a fire rotation interval of 300 years, a given area would tend to burn at high  severity once every 300 years on average). Available evidence indicates that current rates of high-intensity fire  are considerably lower than this overall (Hanson 2007a). For example, the Final EIS for the 2004 Sierra Nevada  Forest Plan Amendment indicates that, on average, there are about 15,000 acres of high-intensity fire occurring  per year in Sierra Nevada forests (entire Sierra Nevada included) (USDA 2004). Given the size of the forested  area in the Sierra Nevada, about 13 million acres (Franklin and Fites-Kaufman 1996), this equates to a highintensity fire rotation interval of more than 800 years in current forests (longer rotation intervals correspond to  less high-intensity fire).
May I suggest you click on the link and read the page 15 in it's entirety  John Muir Project Technical Report 1 • Winter 2010 •
photo: Mine

This tree is bigger than you think.
Notice the still living lower limbs ?

(click to enlarge)
There is a wealth of great material there that flatly debunks everything Minnich is saying about the nature of fire interval which being every 50 years which is a gross falsehood of the truth. While others have stipulated that 130 years is more appropriate, I disagree with that as well, but only from a forest mechanism growth perspective which takes place in stages. For example, prior to any logging anywhere, there was old growth and not just any old growth, but the kind of the mammoth order. Ever see early logging pictures where loggers are having difficulty of trying to transport these insanely enormous tree trunks on horse and wagon ? Even when local rail eventually became available, these cut up logs took up whole flatcars and I'm not talking about Redwoods here. Viktor Schauberger even mentioned this in his early 1920s logging flume he engineered in Austria with the challenges of moving and transporting logs of such great width which no longer exist today. There are some, but only in protected Parks or as I pointed out in this Post here , remnants as you can find even in Idyllwild. The intervals of fire cycle from what Hanson wrote can on a low average be between 300 to 400 years and given percentages of acreage burned, there may be some conditions where 800 years were common. This is where understanding gradual forest regeneration and plant replacement comes in. One of the things Minnich doesn't discuss is chaparral's important first phase forest establishment. And why not ? , because it's considered evil an invasive good for nothing and that fit's perfectly with government ideologically driven policies of mismanagement for which he no doubt gets much celebrity status for. He said 50 years in his research for fire intervals where fire would clean out understories leaving this Forest floor pristine and carpet swept as he put it. BTW, one more note: He said that area hadn't burned for almost 130 years and that was a flat out lie. There have been many fires in this region that formerly burned and have done so back in the 1980s. The Apache Peak fire in the 80s caused an evacuation of Trails End, Girl Scout Camp and other residents on Morris Ranch Road and there was also fire in May Valley which is back up in Apple Canyon. So his timeline here is twisted. 

photo: Mine
 I wrote a post which no one really paid attention to about the 1982 Mountain Center Fire in which I took photos this past Spring in April 2013, where not all pine trees died in the fire, other than losing their lowest limbs and other branches. See photo on the left. No replanting was done or attempt made to replant. Trees along with heavy Chaparral grew aggressively back together. The age of this regrowth  is over 30+ years old now. Take a look at my post and view all the abundance of trees which are actually five or six times as many trees before the fire. 1982 Mountain Center fire  Does anyone think or truthfully believe that if another fire went through here 2032 that ONLY the understory would be cleaned out ? The fact is, that entire vegetation cover would go. The Chaparral is still there and probably will be until forest canopy degrades it through sunlight competition and other natural normal biological degradation for another 130 years. Of course the larger animals don't exist anymore to help out and we are now in an unnatural climate change position, so the older long time natural phenomena cannot be counted on the work as once did. Still, if you look at that pine in Idyllwild, There are no char mark remnants anywhere, as well there should be had fire gone through every 50 years. I mean, at least some speck char marks. 

Another point he insisted on is that the every 50 years the fire burn kept everything looking like a Park. While I believe large valley floors like Garner Valley and Strawberry Valley [Idyllwild] probably could have been this way, it still didn't acquire such status of every 50 years of burning. The Mountain Fire burn though was not on a valley floor however, it was on steep slopes where dense growth is necessary for holding a mountain together like so much rebar in concrete. Valleys and chaparral are different. Ground is richer in nutrients, there is generally more water and graslands tend to dominate. Both of these places also were targeted by the logging companies who harvested the majority of those giant trees unchecked and without any consideration to restoration management programs. Early pioneers were greedy idiots. Now take a look at one more picture comparison. Minnich says that if Firefighters allowed  everything to go ahead and burn instead of suppressing the fires, he insists all would turn into that perfect mythical park. The problem is he is blaming the fire fighters themselves for saving people's homes and lives, in what he calls fire suppression. And to make clear here again, there was NO favourable weather happening with this Mountain Fire, not till the end after most of the damage was done. So what is a fire fighter supposed to do ? The worst hit place with loss of buildings and homes was the Pine Springs Ranch up Apple Canyon Road. I've been to this ranch and the end of the road community back in the early 1980s and it was always extremely well manicured manicured and park-like just as he insists will save things. Take a look at the historical photo of the Ranch before the fire.

by Gerry Chudleigh (2011) 
"The biggest personal loss was the house occupied by the facility manager, Fritz Wuttke, his wife and two teen sons. Their home burned to the ground with everything they owned. Other structures destroyed included the camp store, the maintenance building, and the multi-million dollar sewage treatment plant. Several other buildings were damaged, including the Town Hall and staff houses, but the largest buildings on the property – the 80-room lodge, the dining room and kitchen, the multi-purpose building and the camper cabins -- were not damaged."

Oh gee lookie there, the trees did make it, but
no such luck for those Pine Springs Ranch
buildings. But by golly, give me five, it is a
win for Nature after all.
But these above statements in that article made me think of the way science is often irresponsibly practiced and authoritatively shoved down a greenhorn Public's throat who for the most part take it all on blind faith. After all, it's peer-reviewed, it must be an absolute truth since it came from the Authorities! To me these these ideological viewpoints have all the religious dogma insistence as anything conventionally religious, but with a Scientific label. That brings me to future subject matter point and that is the all too common gut felt metaphysics involved in Science which is otherwise promoting as rock solid hard facts. As with conventional religion, it is also shackled to political ideology and personal philosophy of the leadership guru claiming to speak for the majority. Well, more on that in a future post, but I hope people here reading start using their heads. Oh and who am I ? I'm irrelevant, start paying less attention to celebrity peer-review and more time spent on observation and logical reasoning which is what the Scientific Method [far superior to peer-review which is more about peer-pressure] is all about anyways.
On a sad note, studies will be done to determine if they need to seed the area for flood and erosion control. Best thing they could do now is leave well enough alone, they've already done enough damage. Who knows what that will bring to the table.
 What Is BAER? Burned Area Emergency Reponse
BTW, here below is a Satellite image link of the last gasps of the Mountain Fire before massive wave of Thunderstorms saved the day for fire fighters and the communities threatened by it. You'll notice Palm Springs and other community lights, see the two major  Lightning Storms and what is still a pretty intense fire in the high country of the Mount San Jacinto Wilderness Park itself being now blown by very intense high east blowing winds towards the west as the smoke trail reveals. In the Satellite image, you can clearly see it headed towards Idyllwild/Pine Cove, but not before high humidity and 1.6 inches of rain fall on it.
NASA Satellite Image of Mountain Fire
(click to enlarge image) 
"Lightning storms inland of Los Angeles and San Diego as seen from the International Space Station on July 21.  The storms helped douse California’s Montain Fire. Click for a larger version. (Photo: Karen L. Nyberg/NASA)"
Further reading on Land Management & Fire Ecology

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