If two acres of trees are mistakenly cut down in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness during fire season, do they make a sound? Like most good koans, this one doesn’t come with a plain yes or no answer.
Yes, the Forest Service will talk openly about the mistake it made this summer fighting the Cedar Fire on the Clearwater National Forest. No, it didn’t volunteer the information to the general public; and no, it evidently hasn’t been previously reported by Montana or Idaho media.
In early August, lightning sparked a fire about a half-mile inside the wilderness boundary and a couple of miles from Elk Summit Road, which spurs off Idaho’s Highway 12 and climbs about 20 miles before ending at Hoodoo Lake.
Wilderness fires are treated differently than most, due to the 1964 Wilderness Act, which declares that designated wilderness, unlike most of the planet, “is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Practically speaking, this means federal agencies need approval for each and every incursion, from deciding whether to suppress a fire to determining which tools can be used to get the job done, says Chris Ryan, who’s charged with overseeing wilderness management in the Northern Region.
Bob Lippincott, fire management officer for Idaho’s Powell Ranger District, says a combination of variables led forest officials to opt for fire suppression: The weather was hot and bone dry; the drainage was densely packed with fir; and the Elk Summit Guard Station was about a mile and a half away. Plus, says Joni Packard, the Powell District ranger charged with making the decision, the drainage was near Plum Creek-owned land, thus there was the possibility of fire escaping onto private lands where damage would require compensation.
So the Cedar Fire, which burgeoned to 50 acres in its first few hours, was monitored for a few days while the agency rounded up crews and leaders. The fire season was at its peak, Lippincott says, and the small, out-of-the-way Cedar Fire was low on the priority list.
After a few days, an incident commander with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was brought in from out of state and put to work. He received permission for crews to make a fire line with chainsaws and douse it with water pumps, Lippincott says, and sought permission to clear an opening so a helicopter could land in case of emergency, since the nearest road was a few miles away.
Lippincott says he made it clear to the incident commander that he needed clearance from Packard to cut the helispot. But somehow, Lippincott says, there was a miscommunication: The incident commander thought he had permission and ordered the crews to carve a two-acre clearing.
After the error was discovered, and after the 250-acre fire was out several days later, crews returned to “rehab” the area, a typical action after any fire, Lippincott says. The modest fire line was easy to erase, but the helispot took more work.
“Once that area was created, we needed to mitigate it to make it look the best it could and so it fit in with the natural landscape,” says Packard, who has since transferred to the Forest Service’s Missoula office. Packard says the agency “did take action after the incident,” though she cites personnel confidentiality in declining to specify that action, or supply the incident commander’s name.
To rectify the mistaken cut, the Forest Service decided to make the scene look like a microburst—a strong, localized wind storm—had caused a large blowdown, Packard says. A team of horses dragged downed trees back into the clearing. A crew used crosscut saws and other hand tools to hack up the stumps’ surfaces so they didn’t look like they’d been cut with chainsaws. Dynamite blasting made the clearing’s edges look feathered instead of square and made massive rootballs look like they’d been pulled up by fierce winds.
Then, wilderness managers were notified, as was Friends of the Clearwater, a Moscow, Idaho, advocacy group.
Packard explains that she contacted wilderness advocacy groups so they wouldn’t be surprised later by the news, but didn’t think public notification was necessary.
“In my view, it was just what occurred as part of the fire…It was something that we just document and then go ahead and take care of,” Packard says. “It didn’t seem that it was something we needed to put out in a news release.”
Had Friends of the Clearwater asked for a public news release, she says, she would have drafted one in a heartbeat.
Gary Macfarlane, Forest Watch director for Friends of the Clearwater, says he was angry to hear about the mistake, especially since he thinks the fire should have been allowed to burn in the first place. He was surprised and further upset by the news that the rehab work had already been performed, which he didn’t know until contacted for this story. He says he thought the work would be done next spring, after the public had been notified and a solution developed and analyzed.
“They had talked to us and told us they had made the mistake, but I assumed the cleanup would be a public process,” Macfarlane says. “Because when they do something in wilderness, they have to make sure the cure isn’t worse than the disease…They at least needed to go through the process.”
Packard says Macfarlane must have misunderstood what she told him. When she talked to him in early September, she says, the rehab plans hadn’t been worked out, but she knew they were going to be implemented this year. It’s standard to do rehab soon after a fire is put out, she says, while crews are still available.
But Macfarlane maintains that he thought the Forest Service was going to go public—and seek input—about its mistake before fixing it.
Not that what’s been done can be undone. Because when a mistake is literally covered up in the forest, and nobody’s there to see it, it’s almost like it never happened at all.