Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wildfire news, August 24

Gunbarrel fire converted to suppression fire

This fire has been burning for almost a month now. It started and is still burning in an area that is nearly impossible for firefighters.... the proverbial "steep, inaccessible terrain". Make that very steep, and throw in massive amounts of bug-killed timber, and you have the definition of a fire that will burn until the snow flies.

The Shoshone National Forest and the incident management teams labeled this a fire use fire from the beginning, but the reality is they have only one option for managing the fire--wait until the fire moves into an area where it is safe for firefighters to do something effective. Until then, they are doing point protection--defending structures, private property, and other man-made improvements.

The season ending weather event for that part of the country typically occurs around mid-September, so they most likely will have several more weeks of weather conducive to fire spread.

As of midnight last night the team changed the official designation of the fire from fire use to suppression. Here is how it was described by the team:
For People Interested in the Paperwork: In response to the fire’s spread to the east last Thursday, incident objectives were reviewed yesterday. They changed only in catching up with the fact that the places being protected as the fire spreads east now include private property as well as cabins and lodges on public land. Objectives are to:
  • Ensure the safety of firefighting personnel and the public.
  • Allow re to play its role in the ecosystem.
  • Minimize fire impacts to improvements and private property.
  • Provide timely and accurate fire education and information to the public.
  • Ensure that interruptions to traffic flow are minimized and coordinated with Park County Sheriff, Wyoming Highway Patrol and other affected agencies.
Smart strategy has been and will continue to be limited to protecting buildings and other things people have built. It is neither safe nor effective to try to stop the fire’s spread directly. The terrain is too steep and complex, the weather is too dry and periodically windy, and there are too many dead trees. Instead, time and money are being focused where they can be useful, near houses and other improvements.
Cost to Date: $6,100,000, or $117/acre
53,000 acres
203 people committed:
  • 5 crews: 2 hotshot crews, 1 hand crew, and 2 fire use modules
  • 4 helicopters
  • 12 engines and 3 water tenders
The map below was current as of August 22, which is the last fire perimeter uploaded by the team. We are looking west, with Yellowstone National Park in the background. The faint green line at the bottom of the image is the national forest boundary. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Why wildland firefighters fight fire

Bill Kettler of the Mail Tribune in Oregon was a firefighter for three seasons 25 years ago. In a very good article, he describes what for him was the attraction. Here is an excerpt:
But there's more to firefighting than the fat pay checks. It's really about fire itself. Scratch a firefighter and you'll likely find someone who's attracted to the flames just like a moth. There's nothing in the ordinary world that matches the sheer power and awesome spectacle of large-scale fire. Nothing like the terrible beauty of a hillside in flames at night.

Nobody stays in wildland fire for long unless that primal connection burns deep inside. There are easier, safer ways to make money than standing in hot ashes on a 100-degree day, chipping away at a smoldering stump with a hand tool.

Besides the money and the attraction of the flames, there's a measure of excitement and intensity in firefighting that I haven't found in any other work. It's about as close to going to war as you can get without the shooting.

The military comparisons are obvious. Firefighters have their uniforms, and there's a chain of command any soldier would recognize. There are hours of boredom in between moments of heart-stopping intensity.

An intense camaraderie develops when you're doing brutal physical work 10 or 12 hours a day with the same people for days on end. When your shift is over, you eat with them and sleep with them, and you watch out for them while they watch out for you.

Like soldiers, firefighters are deployed to a place they've never seen before. Flames crackle a stone's throw away, and smoke drifts across the landscape, obscuring your vision and irritating your eyes until the tears run. Now and then a helicopter buzzes overhead, dropping hundreds of gallons of water just uphill from where you're standing.

Big airplanes lumber in now and then just above the trees, showering purple rain on the fire and sometimes on you and your crew.

Your crew boss is talking on the radio to his bosses, trying to understand what the fire's doing so he can keep you and the rest of his crew safe if the wind and weather change suddenly.

There's a clear sense of purpose in firefighting that's often lacking in other jobs. Firefighters know exactly what they're supposed to do — whether it's dig line, mop up hot spots, or search for tiny spot fires beyond the line.

There's danger, too — stumpholes that can swallow you up, nests of angry yellow jackets, rattlesnakes, rolling rocks, falling trees, smoke from poison oak that can infect your lungs.

Everybody knows the risks and hears about the occasional fatality, but nobody really expects to become a statistic. You're probably more likely to die in your car than on the fireline.

Wildland firefighting isn't supposed to get you killed. It's supposed to give you memories.

More information about the suspect in the Griffith Park fires

SUSPECT: Investigators saw Lintz riding in a group of bicyclists and stopped him for questioning, a fire official said. Lintz stood out because he was not in racing apparel. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Fire Department

Wildfire Today covered this yesterday, but now more information is available about the person who was arrested for starting at least one of the eight recent fires in Griffth Park in Los Angeles. From the LA Times:
Gary Allen Lintz was spotted by hikers leaving an area near Griffith Park Drive where a slow-moving brush fire broke out shortly after 2 p.m. Saturday, said John Miller, battalion chief for the arson and counter-terrorism unit of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Undercover arson investigators then observed Lintz riding in a group of bicyclists and stopped him for questioning, Miller said. Lintz stood out because he was not dressed in racing apparel.

"He didn't fit in with the other bicyclers," Miller said.

Miller said that after questioning Lintz, investigators came to believe he had a connection to all eight recent fires. Miller noted, however, that Lintz was arrested only in connection with the Saturday fire.

In February 2007, Lintz was convicted of arson resulting in a structure or forest land fire, according to court records and officials who spoke at Saturday's news conference.

In addition, court records indicate Lintz had at least two convictions on charges of drinking in public, in 2006 and 2007, and a 1996 conviction for trespassing on railroad property.

Villaraigosa thanked the public and law enforcement officials for apprehending Lintz, who is being held in lieu of $75,000 bail.

Lintz was arrested at 3 p.m. and booked into a Los Angeles jail shortly after 5 p.m., according to jail records.

Lintz's arrest came the same day that stepped-up patrols began in the park, less than a week after fire officials said they suspected a single person was responsible for five fires in two hours Aug. 16 and may have had a hand in two previous suspicious fires.

In part because all five blazes began near roadsides, fire officials said earlier this week that they suspected that someone either on foot or bicycle was responsible.

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