Thursday, January 31, 2013

[californiadisasters] Report Critiques Lassen Park's Response To Reading Fire

Report critiques Lassen Park's response to Reading Fire

The National Park Service on Wednesday published a review of last summer's notorious Reading Fire in eastern Shasta County, saying Lassen Volcanic National Park officials were too shortsighted about the fire's growth potential and were overly focused on deflecting the criticism that grew along with the destructive 28,000-acre blaze.

The fire broke out on July 23 in Lassen Volcanic National Park and spread to the nearby forest, ultimately engulfing more than 28,000 acres after the park's superintendent made the controversial decision to let the lightning-sparked fire burn in its first two weeks to control undergrowth rather than immediately be extinguished.

Two weeks later high winds and unusually dry conditions caused the fire to balloon out of control, sparking fury from county residents and even legislators, who held a hearing at the state capitol in October on the fire controversy.

The fire also irked many residents because the park didn't tell them about it until around two weeks after it broke out, causing many to wonder what was causing the growing mass of smoke in the eastern sky.

In the Park Services's review of the fire, specialists from several agencies pointed out a handful of key flaws that should serve as "lessons learned" for the future.

According to the review, park officials should have:

- Planned for a worst-case scenario.

Analysts wrote that, while park officials felt the fire was manageable at first, "it became obvious that planning for a larger, more complex scenario would have been advantageous."

An unidentified park staff member was quoted in the review as saying he or she didn't "what-if" enough.

"I should have painted a darker picture," the employee said.

- Done a better job at informing the public.

Park officials didn't announce the fire to the public until after news of it was published in the Record Searchlight. The review of the fire says that lapse left many residents confused and scared, and also sparked rumors.

"Early and frequent communication with local communities, visitors, and partners is critical to reduce uncertainty, anxiety, and to quell rumors," the review reads. "Even if a fire never leaves the park, smoke impacts to neighboring communities need to be addressed and communicated early."

In addition, the review says the park needs to use consistent and current terminology so the public isn't misled about fires in the future, and its own employees need to be filled in ahead of time.

"Early fire information would have been helpful for background — before the media call," a park administrative assistant was quoted as saying in the report.

- Focused less on proving it was right to let the fire burn.

The writers of the review said the park needs to avoid the "tunnel vision of success" in the future and focus less on proving that a plan is working.

"Look for reasons to suspect that your plan might not work. Have a preoccupation with failure," the review reads.

In addition, it says, park officials need to be more open to the idea that they might not be right in their initial ideas.

"Fire managers are often 'salespeople' for what they think is the right thing to do...But fire managers need to find a balance between taking advantage of good opportunities to manage fire, and also playing 'devil's advocate' and arguing against fire at times."

- Paid more attention to the environment.

According to the review, the environmental conditions, including humidity and surface fuel amounts, changed between the time the fire started and the two weeks later when it jumped out of control.

"Recognizing these environmental changes over time and incorporating them into the fire management decision making are critical parts of the process," the review says.

- Been more flexible.

The review says future fires need a team that is more adaptable when things don't mesh with the initial plan.

"When the tempo or urgency of the fire changes, be willing to rapidly adjust and change any scheduled or structured logistical commitments, such as debriefings and feeding. Don't let what seems important trump what really is important," the review reads.

One crew leader was quoted in the review as saying, "We were working on a schedule at this point. But the fire wasn't working on that same schedule."

The review recommends that the park form an interdisciplinary support group to make risk assessments and estimates on operational needs that are then approved by the administrator.

The review also praised the park for several accomplishments, including its dedication to safety that resulted in zero fatalities and having an effective medical response plan, as well as a strong relationship with the Lassen National Forest.


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