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Before a wildfire grew into an out-of-control blaze, the Forest Service decided to let it burn

<i>Noah Berger/AP</i><br/>The Tamarack Fire burns in Alpine County
Noah Berger/AP
The Tamarack Fire burns in Alpine County

By Sarah Moon and Stella Chan, CNN

A massive wildfire raging out of control in the rugged mountains straddling the California-Nevada border, tearing through tens of thousands of acres was initially determined by US Forest Service officials to not be a threat and allowed to burn.

The lightning-sparked Tamarack Fire, first discovered on July 4 in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, was initially confined to a single tree burning on a ridgetop “with sparse fuels and natural barriers to contain it,” according to the Forest Service, which posted a video of the small smoldering fire in a Facebook post.

“The tactical management decision is not to insert fire crews due to safety concerns, however, this is not an unresponsive approach,” the Forest Service said in a July 10 Facebook post along with the video. “Smoke might be visible to Pacific Crest Trail hikers but the .25 acre fire is surrounded by granite rocks, a small lake and sparse fuels.”

Despite the Forest Service’s statement, which assured that the fire “poses no threat to the public, infrastructure or resource values,” the wildfire has since gone on to scorch 58,417 acres and at least 10 structures in California and Nevada.

As of Friday afternoon, it was only 4% contained, with more than a thousand firefighting personnel on scene.

The decision to not initially put out the fire has outraged lawmakers in California and Nevada.

In a letter to Forest Service Chief Vickie Christiansen dated Tuesday, California Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents the rugged Sierra Nevada region where the fire was sparked, demanded to know “why there was a lack of suppression action to combat the Tamarack Fire that began on July 4, 2021 until after July 10, 2021,” according to a statement from his office.

“Given the number of wildfires and their increasing size coupled with severe fire danger conditions throughout the West, I recommend that you immediately reevaluate current US Forest Service direction that allows wildfires to burn and instruct all Regional Foresters that all wildfires should be suppressed as soon as possible,” said McClintock in the letter.

The Forest Service defended its decision to not initially douse the fire, saying in a statement “the steep, rugged, and remote terrain presented challenges to safely suppress this wilderness fire” and added that resources were limited and had to be assigned to higher-priority fires, like the East Fork Fire.

“The initial suppression strategy stemmed from the need to prioritize resources for wildfires that posed immediate threats to communities, as well mitigating risks to our firefighter safety in comparison to the threats from the fire at that time,” the Forest Service said.

Growing fire crosses state line

Instead, the Tamarack Fire was monitored by air and fire cameras, the Forest Service said, until July 16 when the still-small fire was fanned by powerful winds and low humidity, causing it to rapidly spread.

On Tuesday, the growing blaze crossed the state line and into Douglas County, Nevada.

Nevada state Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, who represents that district, tweeted his incredulity.

“Firefighters doing everything they can to stop this monster. Still can’t believe the USFS and Cal Fire let it grow from ¼ acre when it was first discovered,” he wrote Thursday.

Like McClintock, Wheeler wants to know why the fire was allowed to burn and is requesting an investigation by the state attorney general.

Wheeler told CNN Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford “received the letter and will look into it.”

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak declared an emergency in Douglas County on Friday, freeing up more resources to fight the blaze.

“Now, more than ever we must stand united and use all our available resources to combat this growing threat in order to help our fellow Nevadans receive the aid they need,” Sisolak said in a written statement.

California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom also proclaimed a state of emergency in Alpine County on Friday due to the fire.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Susannah Cullinane and Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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  1. Not surprised.
    The catastrophic fire in oregon that ultimately burned the Detroit area was left to smoulder for a long period of time before it exploded.
    That is why many of us call fefer to this agency as the US forest Circus.
    They should be held responsible for homes and property that are lost in these situations. They are the “stewards” of OUR forest and should know better by now than to let this crap happen over and over.

  2. Many years ago, those who worked for the USDA Forest Service and some of the other agencies, were people who KNEW the Forests. They understood how important it was to log forests and plant seedlings of the same species to then take the place of the mature to old, trees. Millions of hard-working people were involved with the whole timber industry in logging, driving the big trucks to get the product to the mills, many mill workers whose parents and grandparents and cousins had all worked in the forests or the mills. Small towns grew around the mills and flourished with churches, schools, grocery stores, hardware stores, restaurants and a steady paycheck for a hard worker. Then the environmentalists, many with college degrees started getting involved and over not all that many years, almost all the mills and jobs and small towns withered away. In the 1980’s especially the Government’s Forest Service (the Department of Agriculture) started hiring ONLY people with college degrees who were “schooled” about the forests but many of who had never hiked a trail, fished a stream, gone hunting and who thought THEY were so wise THEY could clean up the environment and allow “nature to take its course” and allow fires to burn. Since then we have had huge, devastating fires burning millions of acres, destroying towns, thousands of homes and killing many people. The Government no longer has very many people working in the higher positions who have any common sense and it is their fault we have sad, gigantic fires and thousands of tons of ash going into our air every year instead of the young trees utilizing the carbon dioxide that all mammals exhale and turn it into oxygen. We NEED to log and harvest and thin all of our forests, be they state of federally controlled and plant millions of young seedlings which are not only going to provide oxygen to our earth’s atmosphere but also are much less likely to catch fire in the first place. Common sense needs to come back into ALL government agencies and offices, and until it does, we all are in trouble here in America.

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