USFS wants residents to breathe easier

By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun

Many Kern Valley residents remember all too well the fall of 2017, when smoke from the Lion Fire blanketed much of the valley, almost completely obscuring the entire northern portion from view and making it hazardous to breathe the usually clean mountain air for almost six weeks. Recently, a meeting was coordinated with the United States Forest Service (USFS) Sequoia National Forest (SNF) at the Western Divide Ranger station in Porterville on behalf of the community. The goal of the meeting was to share perspectives and information on wildland fire smoke management decision processes, discuss how these decisions impact cumulative days of smoke in the Kern River Valley, and identify opportunities to better incorporate those impacts into future management decision processes to alleviate and possibly prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.

The Kern Valley residents who braved the rain and traveled two hours to the USFS Porterville offices were warmly greeted by an impressive gathering of USFS personnel, which were Brent Skaggs, Forest Fire Chief for the SNF and Giant Sequoia National Monument; Trent Proctor, Regional Air Program Manager for SNF; Eric La Price, District Manager overseeing the Western Divide Ranger District which encompassed the Lion Fire territory; Angie Sanchez-Hand, Deputy Forest Fire Management Officer for SNF; Jack Medina and Ernie Villa, Incident Commanders for SNF assigned to the Lion Fire; Alicia Embrey, Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for SNF; and by phone, Kat Navarro PhD, in Public Health and Air Resource Advisor for SNF assigned to the Lion Fire. It was somewhat disappointing that, in spite of efforts to include them, no one from the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District (APCD) was able to attend.

To help give the USFS personnel a better insight, the residents gave an overview, a kind of “who we are” as a community. Generally, residents of the Kern River Valley skew to an older, lower or fixed income population. Most here do not have central air conditioning, relying on swamp coolers in hotter months, which means that advising residents to go indoors to escape the smoke simply does not work. Our economy is heavily reliant upon tourism, with the remaining majority either employed by Forest Service, Fire Department, Schools and the Hospital (KVHD). Many people in the valley are either a firefighter, a former or retired firefighter, are related to and/or close friends with a firefighter, and all care deeply about firefighter health and safety. Due to the valley’s close proximity to the SNF and Monument, it is a fire-adapted community and accustomed to fires and a certain amount of smoke, but concern and ire erupted last year from the extended, or cumulative number of days that local residents suffered exposure to unhealthy levels of smoke and 2.5 Particulate Matter (PM). Multiple studies have shown that repeated and continued exposure to these levels can have extremely negative long-term health effects such as increased risk to asthma, CPD, and lung cancer. The community of Kernville is particularly susceptible, with its location being central to the funneling effects of smoke coming down the river canyon and settling in before eventually dissipating over the valley and desert floor.

The community understands the concept and importance of re-introducing fire back into the ecosystem, and are supportive of that goal. Residents also understand that years of drought, massive bark beetle infestation, stressed trees and unreasonable federal budget cuts have put the Forest Service in a very difficult position. However, the cumulative number of PM 2.5 days well above the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (which the majority of residents in the KRV are), into “Unhealthy” and even “Hazardous” ranges in both 2017 and 2016, when residents similarly suffered through an extended period of smoke from several events including the Erskine Fire, Cedar Fire, Pier Fire and finally the Lion Fire, that put them into a state of “Smoke Fatigue,” simply mentally and physically exhausted from the smoke. Long-time residents spoke for the first time about moving away, and many who were considering retiring or relocating to the valley expressed reservations about doing so. Campgrounds, hotels, rafting centers and other tourism-dependent businesses reported multiple cancellations and revenue loss specifically attributed to the smoke-filled skies. If events like this continue to occur, residents are deeply concerned about the community’s ability to remain viable and ultimately survive.

The USFS then presented an overview of the Lion Fire itself, including causes, decision processes and strategies. First La Price discussed the cause of the Lion Fire, which was a lightning strike in the Golden Trout Wilderness. He then described how the USFS drew “safe holding points for containment,” with “firefighter safety as paramount importance.” Several boundaries were drawn in ever widening circles, with the largest “contingency box” drawn to encompass 110,000 acres. La Price stated that this acreage was the contingency plan and they were hopeful to be able to extinguish the fire well before that range was met. La Price also stated that smoke management was a factor in their initial plan, that they consulted the Air Quality Board and “it was never our intention to impact the community with smoke.”

Medina and Villa described their objective as a “confine and contain” strategy, concentrating efforts on Flat Iron and trouble spots and working within drawn boxes and safe boundary access points. He stated that their major concerns were the “remoteness of the fire, time of year and personnel safety.” La Price interjected that the remote terrain made it difficult to reach the fire by foot or traditional aircraft, forcing them to mostly employ helicopters as their primary method. Additionally, La Price stated that the fire’s proximity to the river prevented them from utilizing retardant that could have adversely affected the watershed. Another factor worrying them were multiple burn scars that remained from the 2011 Lion Fire. These burn scarred areas contain a higher risk to firefighter safety and are carefully navigated.

Following the presentation of both perspectives, the Lion Fire became a springboard for the ensuing discussion focused on coming up with a plan to address smoke issues for future fire seasons, because, as Skaggs put it, “There are over 600,000 acres of tree mortality out there. That’s over 17 million trees. That’s almost half the Sequoia National Forest. This is our new normal. We have to be prepared to deal with the possibility of extended fire seasons and more off-season fires.” Procter, who in his position as Regional Air Program Manager closely monitors these factors, stated, “We need to look at the consequences. We are still learning. We are getting better, but we have a lot to do. Models are good, but it’s really all about the monitoring.” Navarro agreed that negative smoke effects are mathematically “a function of time plus the amount of exposure.” La Price added, “We do take the smoke impact on local communities seriously. It does weigh into our decisions.” Skaggs described how the USFS utilizes Management Action Points, or MAPs, which include trigger points for strategic decisions when directing or responding to fires. The residents suggested several items that they would like to see become a part of ensuing suppression strategies, specifically, (1) integrating cumulative smoke days into the equation, (2) factor in the time of year, when environmental factors are more inclined to increase smoke exposure, (3) installing or activating breathing centers within the Kern River Valley if and when these fire and smoke events arise, and (4) opening up better channels of communication between the USFS and the valley residents.

As PAO, Embrey was especially surprised and dismayed to discover that her efforts to get information disseminated to valley residents had simply failed to be communicated. After further discussion, all felt that a pre-fire season meeting with valley residents as well as informational meetings early on in any impactful fire event would be beneficial for fostering an environment of trust and understanding. Embrey and Skaggs proposed to hold such a public meeting this coming April at the Kernville Elementary School to help prepare the community for the impending fire season and answer any questions they may have. It was also suggested that during fire and smoke events, Air Quality readings and advisory communication sheets be regularly disseminated, not only to the local USFS offices, but to at-risk populations, such as schools, the KV Hospital, retirement homes, the Lake Isabella Senior Center, high traffic business outlets, as well as specific individuals who can assist in spreading the word through social media channels.

All agreed that breathing centers, regularly made available to Bakersfield residents when their air quality is considered “Unhealthy” for extended periods, was a no brainer. Proctor expressed some frustration at his efforts to bring Kern County’s Public Health Department (PHD) into the mix. He suggested that residents contact our PHD and request locations for breathing centers be put in place so they can be easily implemented during times of smoke crisis. Additionally, Proctor suggested that the PHD and local Red Cross should be contacted to offer annual informational meetings or training to help teach residents methods in which they can better deal with smoke events, such as when to use masks and seek out breathing centers. It was suggested that if the PHD could add health “advisories” to the USFS, then they could add those to their Air Quality Index communications. Valley residents proposed the PHD and Red Cross personnel be included in the annual pre-fire season meeting in April.

Other MAPs that Skaggs intended to incorporate were: (1) making a “trigger point” for cumulative smoke days, (2) ensuring no personnel get hurt in the process, since firefighter safety is always their top priority, (3) refer to the air monitor located at the USFS HQ in Kernville regularly and communicate readings to the community with appropriate advisories, (4) sharing data from cameras and lookouts to increase transparency.

At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, all felt that the discussion had been particularly positive, that better understanding was achieved on all sides, and some tangible, constructive solutions had been introduced. A few days later, Skaggs followed up with the residents, stating, “I believe our MAP for smoke in Kernville is a great idea. We will incorporate that into all communities around our forest. Thank you.” Everyone concerned is hopeful that, in spite of facing the probable consequences of a drought affected forest becoming our “new reality,” the Kern Valley will be breathing easier in the future.