The Lassen County Board of Supervisors and meeting attendees shared their concerns and frustrations with Plumas National Forest administration and the visiting deputy regional forester during the Tuesday, Sept. 28 meeting.
Throughout the years, the board has expressed its discontent with how they believe Plumas National Forest handles fires that start in PNF lands and migrate toward Lassen County communities and have asked the agency for data regarding the equipment and personnel used on various parts of the fire — information they are continuing to ask for.
The agenda item was set to be a verbal report from the Plumas National Forest regarding the July Sugar Fire of the Beckwourth Complex that burned more than 30 homes in Doyle, and the Dixie Fire, which affected five counties and threatened several Lassen communities and burned some Lassen homes, and the planned post-fire restoration of federal lands; however, the discussion also provided time for board members, county staff and residents to air frustrations on how they believe fires on the PNF are managed.
Plumas National Forest Supervisor Chris Carlton and Deputy Regional Forester for the Pacific Southwest Region Tony Scardina attended the meeting.
“There was a lot of homes lost, a lot of property damage, a lot of valuable resources lost. The whole state and everybody lost a vast number of recreational opportunities,” Supervisor Aaron Albaugh directed to the visiting USFS personnel, adding the local leaders need to get more invested in policy making to instigate change. “You guys sit there and let something like this get away from you, and you wonder why there’s no trust.”
Overall, Scardina noted he would provide the board this week with sought after information regarding the initial responses, resources and personnel on the requested fires .
During the meeting, Scardina started off by noting the fires this year were not being managed under a “let it burn” philosophy, as some call it. He shared forest supervisors all were aware of what this year could hold due to the fuels problem.
However, some on the board voiced what the USFS said it was going to do and what happened seemed different.
“The problem is, I think perception doesn’t match your statement about not letting the fires burn,” said supervisor Chris Gallagher. “We’ve had people on the ground in two of these fires tell us that there wasn’t even a piece of equipment on that fire for over 24 hours. Then when we ask for the documents to see what exactly where the equipment was, and when it got there, we get nothing. We get crickets. That does nothing but substantiate for us that what the people on the ground are telling us is true … To us, it seems like what you said is not true, that the forest service still seems to just want to let it burn because that’s the way to manage the forest.”
During the meeting, some posed questions regarding lack of equipment on some areas of the fires, why meetings were held during the morning hours, taking up time to fight fires in cooler temperatures, if the USFS requested Cal Fire’s help initially when the Beckwourth made it’s way toward Doyle, and how would damage on private land be repaired, amongst.
Residents from communities that were impacted by the Beckwourth and Dixie fires also shared their frustrations with the agency.
A Doyle Resident alleged when the Beckwourth Fire came into Doyle, he had to ask Cal Fire trucks waiting on call to come help save his house.
A Janesville resident noted she and her husband stayed behind with evacuation orders were issued during the Dixie Fire “because we didn’t trust you.” She questioned what it would take in order to easily volunteer to help fight the fire and save neighbors’ homes.
Carlton noted the agency needed to work on getting more local volunteers in the VIPR program and streamlining the process.
Some questioned how the Beckwourth was able to quickly grow and make its way to Doyle.
Carlton noted the fire was never fully contained, and its peak was about 40 percent contained, when winds kicked the blaze out into the dry fuels. He said the Beckwourth always had resources and staff was increasing daily. He said rumors of a backfire reigniting the Sugar Fire were not true.
Others simply noted the way the agency was fighting fires was simply “not working.”
Alabugh questioned if paying firefighters a bonus if the region doesn’t have fire “events,” rather than paying hazard pay for would increase incentive to put out fires.
“Fire is a major industry,” he said.
Scardina “disagreed wholeheartedly” to the idea fire crews let fires burn for longer to make more money.
“I know our agency’s values,” Sacrdina said. He also noted it was love for the land that encouraged him and others in the USFS toward their fields.
Overall, the tension filled meeting ended with Scardina agreeing to provide the board with the sought after information — if he failed to produce the data, Albaugh suggested he tried to go even higher up and contact Randy Moore, the Forest Service Chief.
The board did not take any action during the meeting.