Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wildfire news, September 6

Ministry for Extraordinary Situations requests air tankers

We're thinking that Bulgaria's "Ministry for Extraordinary Situations" is equivalent to the United States' Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their country has requested air tankers through the European Union and NATO to assist with a forest fire burning in Rila National Park. France will be sending two air tankers for the 130 hectare (321 acre) fire.

Model plan for hurricane response

Commissioner (Ret.) David H. Fischler of the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Fire Rescue has prepared for the International Association of Fire Chiefs "Model Procedures for Response of Emergency Vehicles During Hurricanes and Tropical Storms".

From the introduction:
The purpose of this guide is to provide guidance to chief officers in establishing a policy for response during hurricanes and coastal storms to minimize the risk to fire/EMS personnel and to protect the human, physical and cyber infrastructure critical to safeguard a community before, during and after a storm.

This guidance provides a common framework on which departments may build a local protocol tailored to a specific community.
Gunbarrel fire

This fire between Yellowstone National Park and Cody, Wyoming is pretty much done, at least for now. Earlier this week the Type 1 incident management team turned it over to a Type 3 team, which then turned it over to the National Forest District on Saturday. The fire has received a significant amount of rain and even some snow. They are calling it 78% contained--full containment is predicted for October 15. The 67,141-acre fire cost about $153 per acre, which is much less than your typical suppression-type fire.

Cut trees down to protect house or not?

Many property owners are resistant to cutting down any trees near their house. They expect the fire department to protect their house during a wildland fire regardless of what they have done or not done to manage the vegetation and fire risk. But according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, other property owners are cutting down trees unnecessarily, or in some cases all of their trees, thinking that is what they must do to make their house safe from fires.
Chuck Eckels cut down six Australia-native Brisbane box trees on his half-acre Escondido lot about a month after the Witch Creek fire roared past.

“I look at trees as detrimental to the property as opposed to beneficial,” Eckels said.

His attitude is not an aberration. A “less vegetation, the better” approach, Cal Fire urban forester Lynnette Short said, has led many people to needlessly chop down healthy trees.

“People are taking drastic measures,” Short said. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there.”

Local foresters and arborists want trees to stand tall again. They met last week to begin crafting policies that communities can use to save trees while protecting property. They say most well-tended trees pose little fire risk and can even prevent houses from igniting in some instances.

Pete Scully, a division chief for Cal Fire, said healthy trees have gotten a bad rap.

“Live trees, properly maintained and spaced adequately, are fine,” he said.

Arborists say the threat from pines and eucalyptuses in particular has been exaggerated. They say healthy trees aren't the guzzlers people think they are, so tearing them out to conserve water is often unwarranted.

“We want the public to realize that trees are not the problem but part of the solution,” said Mike Palat, an arborist and chairman of the San Diego Urban Forest Council, which includes arborists, government agencies, landscapers and nonprofit organizations.

Good and bad

Fire-conscious arborists say the Mexican fan palm is one tree they won't defend. Drew Potocki, urban forester for the city of San Diego, said the palm's fibrous material ignites easily, and strong winds often turn burning bark chunks into “flaming, flying Frisbees.”

But pines and eucalyptuses – if solitary, properly spaced and 30 feet from a home – are equipped to survive most blazes, Short said.

“One of the major misconceptions I get, even from fire departments, is that eucalyptus are time bombs ready to go off in the next fire,” Short said. “That's really wrong. I have eucalyptus on my property, and I would never think of cutting them down.”

Arborists say no matter the variety, keeping the ground around trees free of litter is key in fire prevention. Yet many people erroneously conclude that any tree's presence greatly raises the risk.

Arborists say eucalyptus trees, such as these along Golden Hill Drive in Balboa Park, are equipped to survive most blazes if they are properly spaced and at least 30 feet from a home. That's how Eckels viewed it. He said some of his 15-foot trees, which all were more than 20 feet from his home, had singed leaves and blackened trunks, though the fire was hundreds of yards away. That was all the evidence he needed. He said he saw plenty of green trees going up in flames on television, and he wanted to eliminate that possibility on his property.

“I actually liked the trees,” Eckels said. “They provide shade, and they made the property look nice. But I don't want tiki torches next to my house.”

Eckels' fears are largely unfounded, said Anne Fege, co-founder of San Diego Partners for Biodiversity and the San Diego Fire Recovery Network.

“Fires don't ignite a house because your trees have a few scorched leaves,” said Fege, also a member of the San Diego Urban Forest Council.

Cal Fire's “100 feet of defensible space around the home” mantra has been taken to extremes, said Short, a former firefighter. The standard doesn't mean remove all vegetation within 100 feet, yet that's what many people are doing, she said.

Cal Fire says healthy, pruned trees 30 feet or more from a home, including pines, can safely remain if owners have created “horizontal and vertical spacing between plants” within 100 feet of the home.

Many houses that burned in 2003 and last year ignited when wind-driven embers from a mile or more away landed on a flammable part of a home. Shade trees lining a property will catch flying embers before they can hit a home, Potocki said. “The trees could be doing you more good than harm.”

Some people have made matters worse since the fires by scraping their property clean down to the dirt, said Rick Halsey, a biologist, wildland firefighter and director of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido. He said that's what a man down his street did.

“What these people end up doing is creating a bowling alley for embers to blow right through to the house,” he said.

BLM: Grazing can reduce fuel

That, of course, sounds intuitive, but the Bureau of Land Management decided to study the fire behavior and post-fire effects of the Murphy fire which burned 650,000 acres in southern Idaho and northeast Nevada in July, 2007. Some of the recent newspaper stories reporting on the study gave the impression that grazing was the answer to preventing large fires, but the actual findings are more complex than that. Here is an excerpt from the abstract in the report.
The team found that much of the Murphy Wildland Fire Complex burned under extreme fuel and weather conditions that likely overshadowed livestock grazing as a factor influencing fire extent and fuel consumption in many areas where these fires burned. Differences and abrupt contrast lines in the level of fuels consumed were affected mostly by the plant communities that existed on a site before fire. A few abrupt contrasts in burn severity coincided with apparent differences in grazing patterns of livestock, observed as fence-line contrasts.

Fire modeling revealed that grazing in grassland vegetation can reduce surface rate of spread and fire-line intensity to a greater extent than in shrubland types. Under extreme fire conditions (low fuel moisture, high temperatures, and gusty winds), grazing applied at moderate utilization levels has limited or negligible effects on fire behavior. However, when weather and fuel-moisture conditions are less extreme, grazing may reduce the rate of spread and intensity of fires allowing for patchy burns with low levels of fuel consumption.

The team suggested that targeted grazing to accomplish fuel objectives holds promise but requires detailed planning that includes clearly defined goals for fuel modification and appropriate monitoring to assess effectiveness.
Some insurance companies requiring 1,000-1,500' clearance around houses

Allstate insurance in response to the massive fires in recent years in southern California is no longer selling new homeowner policies in the state. Some companies that are still selling new policies are requiring massive clearances around structures.

Daniel Sparks, a 29-year-old investment manager, bought a home last July in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood of San Diego, where thousands of houses burned down in October 2003. He had to scramble to find coverage, saying his old insurer, Mercury Insurance Group of Mercury General Corp., refused to issue a new policy.

"I tried to use the same insurance provider, and he would not cover my new house,"
Mr. Sparks says. "They said (his property) had to be 1,000 feet away from brush." Since his lot abuts a Marine air base, he can't clear it because it's government property, he says. (A spokesman for Mercury said its clearance requirement for the area isn't new.) Mr. Sparks finally found insurance from another company.
Companies also impose tougher policy conditions. Some have recently started requiring property owners to increase clearances to as much as 1,500 feet of vegetation from around homes in some fire zones. That's 15-times more clearance than what's currently required by California law. Indeed, Allstate says that 1-in-5 houses in high-risk areas it has inspected had hazardous brush conditions.

Increasingly, some insurers also won't issue policies for homes on steep slopes, because wildfires burn uphill faster. Some are underwriting policies only where the home is located near a professional fire department, not the volunteer fire departments common in some rural areas, agents and brokers say.

Most insurers are using satellite imaging to inspect properties, agents say. And more companies also are physically inspecting houses and requiring documentation for safety measures like fire-resistant roofing. Homeowners whose properties are cited for hazards are given a period of time, usually six months, to correct the problems or their policies can be dropped.

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