Our Favorite Fire-Related Rural Legends

As with any emotionally engaging event, large fires breed their share of far-fetched tales. And otherwise smart and discerning people have a way of suspending their natural skepticism when a story lends credibility to a cherished belief (i.e. the government is conspiring against us, Wilderness designation is a bad thing, irresponsible rural homeowners have only themselves to blame, etc.). Anyway, of the many legends currently making the rounds, here are a few of our favorites …..

Legend 1: Getting dozers started building fire lines on the Marble Cone, Kirk Complex and now Basin Complex fires was delayed by the need to get an act of Congress allowing the use of motorized equipment in the Wilderness.

This is related to the much more elaborate legend that firefighters had the Marble Cone Fire surrounded and almost put out while it was still small, but they were then ordered to stop using their chainsaws because they were in a Wilderness – which allowed the fire to get away.

Reality: Emergency situations, which specifically include fires, are expressly exempted by law from the ban on the use of mechanized equipment in Wilderness areas. This means it is up to the Forest Service to determine whether or not such an emergency exists. No act of Congress has ever been needed or sought for building dozer lines in the Ventana Wilderness. Any delay would be more appropriately blamed on Forest Service bureaucracy. But has there even been any delay? In all three fires, the dozer lines were completed long before the fire arrived. In 1999, the fire went out far short of many of the dozer lines, suggesting they were, if anything, built prematurely.

The old Marble Cone “They Wouldn’t Let Us Put it Out” legend is implausible for any number of reasons, but notable for the way it combines dislike of Wilderness designation with overtones of Forest Service conspiracy. For anyone who thinks the Forest Service would issue such an order in spite of the fact that there are no legal problems with using chainsaws to fight fire, let us just point out that the Marble Cone Fire, in its early days, was not one raging and completely out of control fire, but four – in widely separated parts of the Santa Lucias.

Legend 2: MODIS heat detecting satellite data was edited by the Forest Service to play down the actual extent of the fire and to cover up Forest Service mistakes.

Reality: While the Forest Service DID make misguided efforts to withhold important information from the public and WAS extremely reluctant to admit mistakes – waiting hours, if not days, before acknowledging breaches of the fire line – there is no evidence to suggest that they manipulated the satellite data. On the contrary, the satellites consistently revealed the failures of fire lines long before the Forest Service was willing to admit them – and due to their lack of precision, the satellites frequently made the situation look worse than it was, rather than better (as when numerous heat detections were located west of Highway One in the Big Sur valley). Had the Forest Service been editing the data, we’re sure these mistakes – at the least – would have been corrected. Never ascribe to conspiracy that which is easily explained by technical limitations and/or human incompetence.

Legend 3: The fire was worse than it should have been because environmentalists and/or rural homeowners (pick whichever group you dislike) have prevented the Forest Service from conducting controlled burns.

Reality: The Forest Service cannot conduct controlled burns without having a forest management plan in place. They have been promising such a plan since 1999, but have still not completed one. Far from opposing controlled burns, the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and other environmentalists have been pushing the Forest Service to get the plan completed. We know of no one, including homeowners, who has opposed the idea of controlled burns in the Ventana – although should controlled burns ever be used and should one run out of control, there’s little doubt that the Forest Service and environmentalists would be blamed (probably by many of the same people who are now accusing them of making fires worse by preventing controlled burns) – which may explain some of the Forest Service’s reluctance to move forward.

5 Responses to Our Favorite Fire-Related Rural Legends

  1. Boon says:

    Thanks for shining some needed light on these important and fairly widespread misconceptions, XT. The deafening silence in the comments quarter leads me to believe that a lot of folks out there may not be ready to accept the fact that their convenient whipping-boy during trying times like these is in fact a completely innocent bystander, and often a fellow agonist.

  2. Ivan J. Eberle says:

    You’re absolutely full of shit, and if you want to hide behind some veil of internet anonymity to “debunk” me, you’re also a fucking coward.

    Dozer lines in both directions from Chews Ridge were delayed in the Basin Complex both by administrative decisions within the Forest Service (Basin Complex) and then after the decision was made at 3 PM on a Friday by Regional Forester Randy Moore a lack of communication to the dozer operators themselves resulted in further 15 hour delay . The secondary line that was not cut this time until the 11th hour and not successfully completed (which had been in 99 and firing held it) had it been cut in time and fired might have prevented the breach of the Big Box which failed so spectacularly on July 12th and threatened many lives. (Had the winds not then laid down and luck not been with the local dozer operators who punched 8 miles of line in one day around that slopover into the SRA, we would be discussing all this in open court– not on some penny-ante blog that no one important is ever likely to read.)

    In ’99 in the Kirk Complex, this secondary line was in fact delayed 4 days by the need to reconvene Congress in a special session while on summer break. Only after the 2000 fire season, did this become a simple administrative decision. Front line dozer operators were not inventing a rural legend, only recalling and repeating their direct 1999 Kirk experience. Further, what was only NF land buffering the wilderness in 99 where fire breaks didn’t require such permissions, now are designated wilderness. Moratoriums on drilling worked, making it ALL wilderness is the kind of parochial thinking just makes everyone think wilderness advocates/environmentalists are whacko sociopaths! Step 100′ off Tassajara Rd and you now are entering the Wilderness. No attempt was made to cut line on the ridge above Tassajara Rd and that would have allowed the potential for stopping it from blasting the Big Box line a couple of days later– stupid, stupid, stupid.

    MODIS data is not streamed; there is a one hour delay from downlinking to posting. Outages on MODIS versus direct visual observation were strongly suggestive that there were attempts to quash the cluster fuck that was the burning out operation on Chews Ridge and not contradict the official “whoops” lies about the severity of the event. Further, earlier the data but not the fire stopped in a straight line vectoring S-N as the Gallery Fire approached Anderson Pk. When it was became public knowledge that the previously classified missile tracking station on Anderson had been decommissioned, the data mysteriously resumed.

    Ivan, Thanks for providing such excellent insight into the kind of thinking that generates these rural myths. But why all the anger? We didn’t blame any of these legends on you. We don’t even know you. And besides, we’re just a penny-ante blog and, while we have had a couple hundred thousand readers in the past couple of months, we’re sure you’re right and that none of them was anyone “important.” BTW, if you’re actually interested in the subject, you might want to check out Section 4(d)1 of the Wilderness Act. That’s where the authority to use motorized equipment in Wilderness Areas to fight fires comes from (and it’s been in effect since the day the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964). If you check the Congressional schedule from 1999, you will also note that Congress was already back from their summer break and in session by the time the Kirk Complex fires started on the night of September 8. With a little more research, you might even stumble onto the fact that the last special session of Congress was in 1948. We know some of those cat skinners too. They’re fun to hang around with. But their tall tales should definitely not be mistaken for fact. – The Whacko Sociopaths at Xasauan Today

  3. Ivan J. Eberle says:

    No problem, you’re welcome.

    You can’t debate me on the recent and most salient points, because you can’t. I called you a fucking coward for a good reason, but that reason may not be obvious to casual visitors here. Anyone who was a regular at the now largely defunct forum at The Ventana Widerness Alliance will know that you started this site as an insider’s snark site after you were taken to task over there. Your constant contrarian suggestions to newcomer’s seeking winter camping advice that if followed would surely have put them in harm’s way does indeed smack as sociopathic. Similarly, obstructionist environmentalist politics that favor scrub oak over human lives might clinically be so recognized.

    And no, I wasn’t in Washington DC the week after the Kirk Complex started, I was up on Chews Ridge agitating to get that a goddamn line cut so that USFS could fire out away from me and not burn through my home as was the plan when dozers were stopped in their tracks, called back before the Marble Cone lines were re-cut. The fact remains, however, that it widely reported at the time in the local press, that running dozers on that line, newly within the Ventana Wilderness now required Congressional Approval, and that Congress was on break and had to be called back. I don’t have the interest nor the resources to pursue this to dredge up that ancient history. It was certainly the perception at the time. It also is ancient history that following the historic fire season of 2000, the decision to run mechanized equipment in the exigencies of a disaster in Wilderness was changed to be a regional decision. But NOT prior.

    The point is, what were formerly buffer zones for the LPNF are now Wilderness, where once natural fire breaks that exist on the ridgetops that were excluded from not wilderness have now been incorporated into the wilderness. Now, whenever fire breaks out, the expansion of Wilderness into these former buffer zones either greatly ties the hands of those who’d fight the fire direct, in the early stages, or it causes fires not to be fought. As was so, in the Basin Complex. The feds stood off at the perimeter of the forest, never going direct.

    You think I’m angry now? Nowhere near as pissed as I was when so many of my friends lives were threatened by these bureaucratic cluster-fuck. That no one died in Jamesburg and Cachagua due to this obstructionism the week of July 13th, was wholly due to both a combination of luck–as the SE wind lay down and humidities rose– and the local expertise and balls of those dozer operators you’re so quick to impugn– those guys who punched out 8 miles of containment around Anastasia Canyon in a single day after the fire rolled out of the forest into the SRA.

    You’re right, Ivan. We can’t debate you. We can’t debate you because even after wading through another round of your tantrum-like personal attacks and painstakingly reading and rereading your mangled grammar, we still haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. We started this site because we were “taken to task” (presumably by you?) on the VWA Forum and were too cowardly to face your righteous wrath and indignation there??? We’ve read your comment over again and that does actually appear to be what you’re struggling to say. Have you looked at this site and the range of issues it covers? Are you really egotistical enough to think we created this entire site (or even this one post) as some kind of response to your crackpot Forum postings? Dude … get over yourself. Seriously. We don’t even know you.

    As for “constant contrarian suggestions to newcomer’s seeking winter camping advice,” while we think the phrase “constant contrarian” has a nice poetic ring to it, we’re a bit unsure as to what such advice would entail and wonder if you aren’t mistaking us for someone else. And what is this new rant about how expansion of Wilderness “either greatly ties the hands of those who’d fight the fire direct, in the early stages, or it causes fires not to be fought. As was so, in the Basin Complex. The feds stood off at the perimeter of the forest, never going direct.” Are you serious? Are you actually suggesting that the feds never fought the Basin Fire directly because a few new pieces of Wilderness had been added around the edges over the years??? What have you been smoking?

    Oh yes. Those dozer operators we’re “so quick to impugn.” We think it’s a safe bet we’ve drunk a good deal more beer with those guys over the years and heard a lot more of their stories than you have, Ivan, and when we start believing their stories we hope (to paraphrase Mark Twain) we’ll have the good sense not to admit it.

    All we did, in the above post (written long after this site was created), was to point out that the widely circulated stories about Congressional approval being needed before dozers or other mechanized equipment can be used to fight fire in the Wilderness ARE NOT TRUE. And that Congressional approval has NEVER been required for the use of mechanized equipment to fight fires in Wilderness areas – as anyone can easily ascertain for themselves by spending 5 minutes researching the question using Google.

    We are sorry if we have gored some sacred cow of yours by letting the air out of this legend, but those are the facts. – Xasauan Today

  4. felicia fisher says:

    All I know is what I saw with my own eyes and what I heard with my own ears. That did not jive with what we were being told by the USFS. Why would the firefighters out on the line lie? Why were the dozers and operators sitting around for more than three days at the helibase waiting for clearance to open the lines? I know because I was there. Digital manipulation is easy. Check out my cousin’s website http://www.deanboland.com. He’s a federally recognized expert in the field of digital manipulation. You will see how easy it is to manipulate images to fit your needs.

    The dozer operators were waiting for the Forest Service, not Congress, to give the order to start work. We agree that much of what the Forest Service said did not match reality (in fact, we’ve reported pretty extensively on this problem) and that manipulation of digital images is easy. What we haven’t seen is any evidence that MODIS images have been manipulated to make them agree with Forest Service pronouncements – Xasauan Today

  5. Big Sur Resident says:

    please watch this series…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smxolkjC5nA

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