Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mill Flat "Controlled Burn" Wildfire In Pine Valley Wilderness Gets Out Of Hand, And Now The Community Of New Harmony, Utah May Pay The Price

Note: All posts about the Mill Flat fire available HERE, with the most recent post first.

Another U.S. Forest Service "controlled burn" gets out of hand

Remember the so-called "controlled burn" in Los Alamos, New Mexico in May 2000? Yes, the same one that torched 25 percent of the city. Well, it looks like a repeat of that debacle may be in the offing for the community of New Harmony, Utah.

According to the Deseret News, the Mill Flat wildfire, which began in the nearby Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness on July 25th as a result of a lightning strike, was suddenly pushed towards New Harmony on Saturday August 29th after a combination of canyon winds, high temperatures and low humidity pushed the fire from the top of the mountain, past a fire break and into the town all in a matter of hours. Continued strong winds and high temperatures are expected to worsen the fire on Sunday. Additional stories by the St. George Spectrum HERE and more recently HERE, on KSTU Channel 13, and on KSL Channel 5, HERE (with photo gallery), and an Aug 29 story with video HERE.

Here's an I-Report from someone who took pictures of the fire from her backyard. The fire is billowing over the mountain towards Kolob Ranches. The wind has picked up speed and if the wind changes, she will have to evacuate. Photo below:

As of this post, about 10,000 acres and at least six structures, including three homes according to the Salt Lake Tribune, have been burned so far, but there were no reported injuries. Approximately 150 residents were evacuated Saturday night, and fire officials urged remaining residents in the town to leave their homes on Sunday. The main threat to the town is now from the west and the north; a total of 550 homes and 58 commercial properties are considered under threat. "It's an extremely dangerous situation right now," Kenton Call, with the U.S. Forest Service, said. "Much of the town is evacuated. There's a lot of lumps in people's throats."

Map of area available HERE. You can see how close New Harmony is located to the northern boundary of the wilderness.

But this may be a disaster of the Forest Service's own making. According to the Deseret News, the Forest Service appears to have made the deliberate decision to allow the Mill Flat wildfire to become one of those notorious "controlled burns" in order to get rid of dead vegetation in the area. Officials claim the natural fire was being monitored and used to restore so-called "ecosystem health", although they also claim that they had fuel breaks and other fire suppression methods in place.

As the fire drew closer to New Harmony during the past week, the Forest Service belatedly bestirred itself and began working the fire with a helicopter to try and keep it from getting into the canyon. But Kenton Call admits they may have miscalculated. "What we think probably happened is the heat of the fire continued to dry that vegetation--mahogany--out," Call said. "It happened very rapidly."

Just like the National Park Service miscalculated in Los Alamos. How many cities do we allow the National Park Service and the Forest Service to burn down before we re-visit the whole concept of "controlled burns"?

Meanwhile, emergency responders are reacting efficiently and even heroically. Firefighters from all parts of the region were being called to help protect the threatened structures, while air tankers are available to drop retardant. There are 140 firefighters, 30 fire engines, three helicopters, three single-engine air tankers, and two large air tankers on hand to fight the wildfire. Susan Thomas, spokeswoman for the Greater Salt Lake Chapter of the American Red Cross, said Red Cross volunteers in both counties were combining services to open a shelter around 80 South Main St. at an LDS Church ward house in Kanarraville in Iron County. The shelter is available to people needing a place to sleep or food or clothing. Evacuees can also call the main Red Cross switchboard at 801-323-7000.

Controlled burns can be a useful way of regenerating forests and preventing greater wildfires, but more attention must be paid to weather forecasts, and loggers should be allowed to go in and thin out forests before controlled burns are set. The Forest Service needs to be held strictly accountable for allowing this "controlled burn" to get out of hand. Congressional hearings would not be out of line. I want to see the head of the Forest Service sweating under the klieg lights in front of Congress.

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