Q&A Tuesday: District ranger: Forest analysis foresaw Waterfall fire
Gary Schiff is district manager for the Carson Ranger District. He oversees 6.3 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land in two states and eight counties in a stretch of 96 miles.
He supervises 140 employees (half of that in the winter) and, at 49, recently won the Wayne Foltz Award as Intermountain Ranger of the Year (which he insists is due to the outstanding people who work with him).
Schiff lives in Carson City with his wife, son and two daughters.
The week before the Waterfall fire, his office issued an executive summary of Clear Creek/Kings Canyon Landscape Analysis and Strategy, a suggested course of action to protect Kings Canyon and Clear Creek from fires.
This would prove to be a work in progress that was strangely prophetic.
What did you see coming in the analysis?
In the Clear Creek/Kings Canyon area, we found an increased risk of catastrophic wildfires threatening properties, structure and other ecological values in the National Forest System areas.
It’s almost as if you could see the Waterfall wildfire coming. What did you envision for Kings Canyon?
We looked at three things: recreation facilities, maintaining limited use of the Kings Canyon Road and treatment of vegetation and fuels. We looked at returning vegetation such as bitterbrush and sagebrush to the area to reduce fire risk. What we recommended was the creation of a day-use area in Kings Canyon Griffith Grove, in cooperation with Carson City.
How about trails?
We suggested creating five trailheads, an information center in Fuji Park and improvements in the Spooner Summit day-use area. We also looked to four other major trails, working again with Carson City. We also suggested taking the Kings Canyon Road to Spooner Summit in good enough condition to allow for public recreation and to be maintained for high-clearance vehicles to fight fires.
Anything about wildlife?
Yes, we think that we should implement mule habitat upgrades, including seeding of fire-damaged lands with sagebrush and bitterbrush. Cheatgrass invasion is a problem after fires, and control is vital for habitat restoration. Old-forest habitat by mechanical thinning or prescribed fire would reduce wildfire danger.
The Waterfall fire was started by humans. Did that enter into the report?
Yes, we noted that the Kings Canyon and Clear Creek areas have many incidents of late-night outdoor parties, trash dumping, illegal campfires and unauthorized OHV use. Teaming up with Carson City to patrol the areas would reduce nuisances.
What continuing actions are you concentrating on?
We have about 100 fires a year in our area. We have one chopper, and we work with 23 interagency partners. We try to prepare for fires with tabletop exercises, working out ways of fighting specific fires and how to respond to wildfires. We work on creating interfaces as buffers between potential fires. And we work on sustainable forest areas, crown to crown.
How does this year stack up as far as moisture goes?
It’s devastating. We are at a 10-year low of water. It’s a condition made for wildfires.
We hear a lot about strife between motorized riders and hikers and cross country skiers. What’s going on there?
At Tahoe Meadows, it’s going well. We strive to separate the two types there, and the snowmobilers do a good job of policing things there themselves. At Hope Valley, we thought we had things under control, but then the compromise didn’t work out, and now it’s up to the courts.
The Waterfall fire must not have been a big surprise.
Our analysis scenario is almost exactly what happened. We had begun some measures, such as improved patrolling of Kings Canyon, and we had started fuel-reduction work. Kings Canyon area has been undergoing increased use by the public, and we were beginning to define safe routes, planning safe-use areas. But it’s a free country, and people do what they will do. So we have the Waterfall fire.