Sunday, November 30, 2008

Climate change and larger fires

The Sacramento Bee has an interesting article about how climate change is affecting wildland fires. Here is an excerpt.
Wildfire has marched across the West for centuries. But no longer are major conflagrations fueled simply by heavy brush and timber. Now climate change is stoking the flames higher and hotter, too.

That view, common among firefighters, is reflected in new studies that tie changing patterns of heat and moisture in the western United States to an unprecedented rash of costly and destructive wildfires.

Among other things, researchers have found the frequency of wildfire increased fourfold – and the terrain burned expanded sixfold – as summers grew longer and hotter over the past two decades.

The fire season now stretches out 78 days longer than it did during the 1970s and '80s. And, on average, large fires burn for more than a month, compared with just a week a generation ago.

Scientists also have discovered that in many places, nothing signals a bad fire year like a short winter and an early snowmelt. Overall, 72 percent of the land scorched across the West from 1987 to 2003 burned in early snowmelt years.

Across the Sierra, satellite imagery shows that today's wildfires are far more destructive than fires of the past, leaving larger portions of the burned landscape looking like nuclear blast zones. That searing intensity, in turn, is threatening water quality, wildlife habitat, rural and resort communities and firefighter lives.

As the climate warms, the ability of the region's mixed conifer forest ecosystem to recover from these destructive fires is in danger.

"We're getting into a place where we are almost having a perfect storm" for wildfire, said Jay Miller, a U.S. Forest Service researcher and lead author of a recent paper published in the scientific journal Ecosystems linking climate change to the more severe fires in the Sierra.

"We have increased fuels, but this changing climate is adding an additional stress on the whole situation," Miller said. "When things get bad, things will get much worse."

Longer, more intense fire seasons

That future may already have arrived. This year, the fire season got off to an early June start in the north state and only recently came to a close. Statewide, 1.4 million acres burned in 2008, just shy of last year's 1.5 million acres, the highest total in at least four decades.

"When I started fighting fire, the normal fire season was from the beginning of June to the end of September," said Pete Duncan, a fuels management officer for the Plumas National Forest. "Now we are bringing crews on in the middle of April and they are working into November and December."

"And we're seeing fires now burning in areas that normally we wouldn't consider a high-intensity burn situation."

Just a few weeks ago, Duncan heard about one such incident: the Panther fire on the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border.

"It made an eight-mile run one afternoon, in late October. It burned through an area of fairly high elevation old-growth timber and at very high severity," Duncan said.

"I was kind of amazed," he added, "that something would have burned to that scale. To make a 40,000-acre run in an afternoon is significant for any time of year – but particularly for that time of year."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Arizona: Rick Lupe honored at Wildland Firefighter memorial

Rick Lupe's brother Randy and his three surviving sons, Daniel, Shawn and Brent raise the flag at the Wildland Firefighter Memorial in a November 21 ceremony in Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona. The bronze statue can be seen in the background on the left.

Following the 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski fire and the tragic death of Rick Lupe a year later, Richard Genck, a 16-year old Eagle Scout, had an idea to erect a memorial in the town of Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona (map) to honor Lupe and all wildland firefighters. Genck went door to door collecting donations from local businesses and residents, found someone to donate their time to make a wax sculpture, and then had it cast in bronze.

The statue was erected in 2005. This year a local business donated a flagpole and on November 21 the flag was raised by Lupe's family during a ceremony honoring him and all wildland firefighters.

Lupe and his hotshot crew were instrumental in suppressing the Rodeo-Chedeski fire that burned more than 460,000 acres and caused the evacuation of 30,000 people. He was featured in an article about that fire in the Arizona Republic on July 7, 2002. Here is how the article begins, but unfortunately you have to pay to read the whole piece:
Rick Lupe was leaning on the hood of his ash-stained silver pickup, his black baseball cap pulled low over his forehead and his dark eyes blazing out of brown sunglasses. Lupe, a division supervisor on the "Rodeo-Chediski" fire, was running a part of the fireline that was crucial not only to this city's survival but also to other towns. His dark eyes were blazing that day not because of the smoke in the air, but because there was fire on the wrong side of...
Rick Lupe died as a result of burns he suffered on May 14, 2003 while working on the Sawtooth Mountain prescribed fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, six miles west of Whiteriver, Arizona. He passed away after surviving for 5 weeks in a burn unit.

The "Factual Report" about the incident describes the burnover (click on the image to see a larger version):

Unfortunately the death of Mr. Lupe is marred by some unsettling facts about the prescribed fire. According to the report, the approval of the April 2001 burn plan was rescinded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Western Regional Director on May 9, 2001 after a significant escape during blacklining operations. No approved burn plan existed at the time of ignition on May 12, 2003. In addition, a letter dated May 12, 2003 from the Tribal Forest Manager recommended against conducting the burn because of a recent escaped prescribed burn in New Mexico.

In spite of the administrative and operational issues surrounding the prescribed fire, we honor Rick Lupe for his service and his sacrifice and hope one day to see the memorial .

Florida: Smoke from fire causes accidents, one fatality

Smoke from a 5-acre brush fire reduced the visibility on a road near Palatka, Florida to 20-30 feet, causing a multi-car accident and one fatality, 88-year old Ellis Barnes.
Barnes apparently missed a driveway in the smoke and drove his truck into a ditch. The trailer he was pulling blocked the southbound lane of County Road 315, about three miles north of State Road 100.

A small two-door hatchback, driven by 51-year-old Ellen Wilder of Keystone Heights, collided with the trailer.

While Barnes was on the phone with E911, a small pickup stopped just short of the hatchback.

A 1-ton dual-rear wheeled truck then struck the small pick-up, pushing it into the hatchback, which in turn hit the trailer again.

The force of the crash caused the small pickup to spin counter-clockwise and pin Barnes between it and his own truck.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

We hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

Firefighters prepare Thanksgiving meal for fire victims

We love stories like this.

Firefighters of the Los Angeles Fire Department will be preparing Thanksgiving meals for some of the victims of the recent Sayer fire where about 500 mobile homes burned. The Fire Department has contacted residents of the mobile home park and thanks to members of Fire Station #27 some of them will be eating a warm meal today. Many residents have accepted the offer and up to 50 of them will be shuttled to the station from the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar.

California: Former firefighter sentenced to 40 years for arson

In two earlier posts Wildfire Today covered the conviction last month of a former Yolo County volunteer firefighter, Eric Eason, for starting a dozen wildfires. Wednesday he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for starting fires that started ranged from small ones, to one that burned 1,000 acres and killed 200 sheep.

Evidence was developed against Eason by using roadside cameras and a GPS tracking device attached to his car. Arson investigators said that to start the fires, he used matches and mosquito coils, slow-burning spirals of a clay-like insect repellant.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Another bizarre cause of a wildfire

Yesterday Wildfire Today told you about a fire that was caused when two men exchanged a lit cigarette, which ignited...
"aspen cotton fluff floating in the air and started the fire."
That one was new to me. Floating aspen cotton fluff. Hmmmm.

Now we just heard about another weird cause of a fire.

Investigators are still working on this case, but it appears that a six-acre fire near Tooele, Utah was caused by a flock of birds. I've heard of large birds, hawks and eagles, causing fires when their wings touch two powerlines, which completes a circuit, and the flaming bird hits the ground, causing a vegetation fire.

Here is what the power company is thinking in this case:
Margaret Oler, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, said the downed line was a result of a huge flock of European starlings — an 8-9 inch glossy black bird — landing on the lines. When the starlings all took off at the same time, it caused the lines to bounce too close to each other, causing the circuit to open up and cutting off power and causing a neutral line to fall to the ground.

“A neutral line is a line that is not energized,” Oler said.

Rocky Mountain Power isn’t sure that the downed line is the cause of the fire, but is still investigating the incident, according to Oler.

Often when two powerlines touch, hot molten metal falls to the ground and starts a fire. This was the cause of one of the large fires in San Diego County last year.

Conflicting stories about evacuations in SoCal burn areas

At Wildfire Today we have previously pointed out conflicting newspaper headlines and articles about wildland fire. Now the San Diego Union-Tribune and MyFox in Los Angeles need to get together and figure out what the hell is going on. The articles below are about the threat, or non-threat, of mudslides forcing evacuations in the areas that burned in southern California a couple of weeks ago.

The San Diego Union-Tribune says:

California burn areas escape storm damage

6:31 p.m. November 26, 2008

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Weary residents ordered to evacuate during heavy overnight rains returned home Wednesday as the threat of mudslides and flash flooding in Southern California's wildfire burn areas eased on the eve of Thanksgiving.

All 1,500 people ordered to leave their homes in the Orange County city of Yorba Linda were allowed back in and no major flooding was reported in the hilly suburban communities that burned so dramatically earlier this month.

MyFox says:

Rain Storm Hits Southern California, Prompts Evacuations
Orange County residents on edge due to chances of mudslides.

Last Edited: Wednesday, 26 Nov 2008, 5:16 PM PST
Created: Wednesday, 26 Nov 2008, 2:27 AM PST

Yorba Linda -- A rainstorm that swept through the Southland overnight caused flash flooding, power outages, traffic accidents, and evacuations in Yorba Linda, where hillsides scorched by the recent wildfire were at risk of mudslides.

The Onion satirizes Calilfornia wildfires

The Onion, a satirical magazine, has created a video that pokes good-natured fun at the annual tradition of shock and awe displayed by California residents, politicians, and newscasters when the brush fires burn thousands of acres.

We will go on the record as being sympathetic to the plights of the hundreds of residents who lost their homes, and, of course, the injuries and deaths of the firefighters are indeed tragic. But we can still see the humor in this video:

Californians Gather To Celebrate Annual Wildfire Tradition

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Wildfire legal news roundup

It's odd how sometimes there is a flurry of similar news stories about wildfire. Here are four stories about decisions that were made today about fire causes and financial responsibility.

1. Two men, $300,000

Two men have been told that they have to pay $300,000 for costs related to the 2003 Alta Fire in the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest in Colorado. The fire allegedly started when John D. Wesson and Matthew D. Allen exchanged a lit cigarette, which ignited...
"aspen cotton fluff floating in the air and started the fire,"
according to U.S. Forest Service investigators.

Jeff Dorschner of the U.S. Attorney's office said the settlement was reached...
"because we got as much as we could possibly get out of the defendants."
The money, paid by Wesson's and Allen's State Farm homeowner's insurance policy, was delivered to the U.S. Attorney's office on Tuesday.

I have investigated the cause and origin of many fires, but this is a new one to me. And that must have been a very special "cigarette" the two men were exchanging.

2. Government not liable for $7 million in damages from Hayman fire
From Examiner.com
DENVER - A judge says the federal government doesn't have to pay for damage caused by the Hayman wildfire, the worst in Colorado history.

U.S. Forest Service [Fire Prevention Technician] Terry Barton pleaded guilty to starting the fire in 2002 by burning a letter from her estranged husband. Insurance companies then sued the government to recover the approximately $7 million paid out in claims.

U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel ruled Tuesday that the government is only liable for the actions of its employees if they are performing within the scope of their duties.

Daniel said Barton violated a fire ban by the Forest Service when she burned the letter in a fire ring. He said he didn't think she intended for the fire to spread beyond the ring.

3. Cause determined for Spokane fire that destroyed 12 homes.

A fire in the Spokane, Washington area last summer destroyed 12 homes, cost $3 million to suppress, and did $50 million in property damage. An investigation recently concluded determined that it was caused by a 16-year old boy's campfire. The boy had permission from the landowner for the fire which was built in a fire pit that had been used many times before. However, the fire was illegal because burning restrictions were in effect.

The county prosecutor's office and the attorney general's office will decide if anyone will be charged with a crime and if they will pursue cost recovery.

4. Bullet fragments caused fire near Fort Collins

Investigators determined that a 90-acre fire currently burning 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colorado was caused by bullet fragments. The Paradise fire started Monday and is 50% contained.

And, other incidents, not related to fire.

I am not a vegetarian by any means, but I am amused by demonstrations put on by PETA, the animal rights organization. HERE is a link (not safe for work) to a slide show of demonstrations in Hong Kong, Australia, Paris, Calcutta, New Delhi, and New York. They certainly know how to get attention, but I can't imagine how anyone could take them seriously.

Another perspective of Engine 5 entrapment, Freeway fire

Wildfire Today previously reported on some of the details of the November 16 entrapment of Corona Fire Department's Engine 5 on the Freeway Complex in southern California. The engine had a 4-person crew--three men and one woman. The woman, Anita Jackson, is originally from New Zealand and is a firefighter/paramedic for Corona. A New Zealand web site has her story. Here is an excerpt:
Anita's mother, Barbara Bryan, described what happened in an email to the Hutt News.

Her daughter left Stokes Valley in 1999 to complete her paramedics degree at the University of California. She married and lives in Anaheim. She is a paramedic / fire fighter for the City of Corona (Los Angeles).

On November 16 (in the US, 9.23am on Saturday the 15th) the engine she was on fighting the wildfires was engulfed in flames when hurricane-force winds caused the blaze to change direction.

The engineer was able to climb up on the rig and use the master stream (a huge nozzle capable of releasing 1200 gallons per minute) to spray water around to try to buy them some time. With just 500 gallons in the tank it rapidly ran out, leaving them with no protection.

The heat was so intense that the hoses ignited and the tyres on the engine started to burn and melt. The captain radioed their position and all available helicopters with monsoon buckets and water-carrying aircraft were dispatched to the area.

A specialised bush fire engine was also sent to help.

The one protection hose they had been using was burnt rubber but Anita hadn't realised it had melted and picked it up to move it. The rubber burnt through her gloves, leaving her with second-degree burns to her hands and no water to take away the heat. It was so hot that she couldn't remove her glove to stop the burning and had to continue to work beyond the pain.

Even though she was wearing her specialised protective gear, her legs felt like they were on fire as the ground ignited around them. With no water left in the engine, they had to beat back the flames with shovels until help arrived. She said that although it was terrifying, no-one panicked they all stayed focused and in survival mode.

Barbara, husband Tony and Anita's brother Paul in New Zealand were frantic when the news came through that Anita had been hurt.

But Barbara says Anita's husband Jack reassured them that all four crew had got out and were being treated in hospital. Anita's worst injury was burning to her throat, airway and lungs. She is healing well, but Barbara says her daughter has confided that the emotional scar will take a little longer.

"They all stayed totally positive throughout the ordeal but reality hit the following day when they realised just how lucky they were to survive," she says.

Barbara is particularly proud that despite her own injuries, Anita wanted her crewmates one of whom had eye injuries checked out first.

"In her line of work Anita continually deals with injury and death and always says to her family that we can never be guaranteed of tomorrow," Barbara says. "Although she is miles away she always remains in close contact with home."

Anita's husband told the family in New Zealand that despite the harrowing experience, she is anxious to get back to work as soon as she gets a medical clearance doing the job she loves, which is helping people.

Inaja fire: 52 years ago today

It was 52 years ago today on November 25, 1956, that 11 firefighters died on the Inaja fire east of San Diego near Santa Ysabel, California.

From the IAWF's Infamous World Fires:
Eleven firefighters - two Forest Service personnel and nine from Viejas Honor Camp - lost their lives fighting this human-caused fire west of Julian, California. Soon after this fire, the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders were developed. This was one of the first fires where sodium calcium borate was used as a fire retardant dropped from an air tanker. It was quickly discovered that this chemical sterilized the soil, and by 1957 it was no longer used. However, the term "borate bomber" lingered on for decades.
The fire was started by a 16-year old boy who "got a crazy idea" to throw a match into some grass to see what would happen.

The plaque on the memorial off highway 79 east of Santa Ysabel says:
"IN HONOR OF THE MEN WHO LOST THEIR LIVES FIGHTING THE INAJA FOREST FIRE ON NOVEMBER 25, 1956. Joseph A. Anderson-Albert W. Daniels-Miles F. Fallin-William D. Garcia-George R. Hamilton-Virgil Hamilton-Carlton R. Maxwell-Forrest O'Hara-Joseph P. Sheperd-Lonnie L. Tibetts-Leroy (Jack) Wehrung."
The remains of ten of the firefighters were claimed by their families and buried in their hometowns. The body of Virgil Hamilton was never claimed and was headed to a pauper's grave. But, grateful area ranchers banded together and claimed his body which was interred in Greenwood Cemetery in San Diego with full honors.

HERE is more information about the Inaja fire.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Firefighter instructor" indicted for forging documents

On November 17 Wildfire Today covered the conviction of a Bitterroot Valley, Montana resident, Jay M. Gasvoda, for making false statements to a federal agency. He is a fire contractor who lied about the results of the physical fitness test (pack test).

Now there is news about David Monington of Miles City, Montana being...
...indicted last week in federal court in Rapid City, SD on two counts of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud.

The indictment alleges he forged about 14 signatures of South Dakota firefighting officials in an attempt to gain certification from the National Wildfire Suppression Association. The documents fraudulently attest to his training and experience as a firefighter.

“A number of the printed names and signatures of certifying officials were misspelled, while others were followed by incorrect listings of the certifying officials’ titles,” the indictment states.

Monington also was arrested in Miles City late last year on theft charges related to his fire business.
Of course he is indicted, and not yet convicted. But he misspelled names and screwed up the titles of people on the documents? Imagine how this turkey would perform as a fire instructor!

I love stories about Stupid Criminals.

Reminds me of the time...(yes.... a war story!)... that I encountered one. I used to work at a park where we used pagers to summon firefighter-trained park rangers to help out with 2nd alarm vegetation fires. One of the rangers had her purse with her pager stolen out of her car. We reported it to the park law enforcement rangers and the police, but nothing happened for about a week.

So I took matters into my own hands. I sent a page with my phone number to the stolen pager. When the Stupid Criminal called a few minutes later I then had their phone number recorded on my caller ID. After I gave the phone number to the law enforcement officers, they went to the residence attached to that phone number and recovered the pager along with some other stolen items.

Case closed. Stupid Criminal went to jail.

source: Argus Leader

Wildfire news, November 24

Fire in Hawaii is out

The fire on the island of Lanai is now declared out, thanks to 0.65 inches of rain over a 12-hour period. The 1,000 acre fire, previously covered by Wildfire Today, caused 600 people to begin evacuating the island in boats.

What You Need to Know about Filing a Wildfire Insurance Claim

HERE is an article that has some tips about dealing with insurance companies, for homeowners whose homes have burned in a wildfire.

Private fire crews

It is becoming more common to see private firefighting companies provided by insurance companies protecting expensive homes threatened by large wildfires. Wildfire Today covered this phenomenon earlier, but the LA Times has an article about how this worked during the recent fires in southern California.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New study on how smoke from wildland fire affects the public

Photo by Bill Gabbert

It was just on November 21 that Wildfire Today covered a new study about the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters. Now another new study on the emissions from wildland fires provides more data on the particulates produced by the fires and how they affect the public. Some of the findings include:
The health threat to city dwellers posed by Southern California wildfires like those of November 2008 may have been underestimated by officials.

Detailed particulate analysis of the smoke produced by previous California wild fires indicates that the composition posed more serious potential threats to health than is generally realized, according to a new paper analyzing particulate matter (PM) from wildfires in Southern California.

The paper, entitled "Physicochemical and Toxicological Profile of Particulate Matter (PM) in Los Angeles during the October 2007 Southern California Wildfires," will appear in Environmental Science and Technology. It confirms earlier studies by air polllution specialist Constantinos Sioutas of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who is also co-director of the Southern California Particle Center.

For the study Sioutas and colleagues from USC, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and RIVM (the National Institute of Health and the Environment of the Netherlands) analyzed the particular matter gathered during the fall 2007 blazes.

"Fire emissions produce a significantly larger aerosol in size than typically seen in urban environments during periods affected by traffic sources, which emit mostly ultrafine particles," Sioutas said.

"Staying indoors may not provide protection from smoke particles in the absence of air conditioning or the ability to recirculate filtered indoor air. This is because the fire particles can penetrate indoor structures more readily than particles from vehicular emissions."

According to Sioutas, the fires produce a dangerous mix. "The chemical composition of particles during the fire episodes is different than that during 'normal' days impacted by traffic sources.

The ability of the particulates to penetrate structures, even if windows are closed, and their potential ability to be absorbed by human tissues are a matter of concern. "More aggressive measures to avoid smoke seem to deserve study, including distribution of masks and evacuation to air conditioned environments, and closure of non-smoke secured schools," said Sioutas, who holds the school's Fred Champion Professorship of Civil and Environmental Engineering.


The study's recommendation about the "distribution of masks" is questionable, in light of other data reported by Wildfire Today. If they are referring to the cheap, disposable dust masks, the information we have seen (below) indicates that they cannot remove the small particulates in wildland fire smoke.

Click on the image above to see a larger version.

Wildfire news, November 23

Memorial service for air tanker 09

Tanker 09's last drop

The Missoulian has an article about a memorial service that was held Saturday at Neptune Aviation Services' hanger in Missoula. Air tanker 09 crashed on September 1, killing Calvin “Gene” Wahlstrom, 61, of Utah; Gregory Jess Gonsioroski, 41, of Baker; and Zachary Jake VanderGriend, 25, of Missoula. May they Rest In Peace.

Thanks, Dick, for the tip.

Retardant used on the Freeway Complex

CalFire says air tankers dropped 308,452 gallons of retardant on the 29,000 acre Freeway Complex fires west of Corona, California. And, during the early stages of the fire the Santa Ana winds were too strong to allow the use of air tankers.

New standards for mobile homes

Residents evacuate from the Sayre fire, Monday, Nov. 13

State and county officials in California are considering new fire-related standards for mobile homes after about 500 burned in the Oakridge mobile home park last week on the Sayre fire near Sylmar. They will look at the spacing of mobile homes, the number of dwellings per acre, the removal of brush and flammable debris, and the amount of flame-retardant building materials required in a mobile home.

Obama administration's effect on land management and wildland fire

In other posts, Wildfire Today wrote about speculation concerning the candidates for Secretaries for Interior and Agriculture and Obama's written policy about wildland fire. The parlor game continues in an article in McClatchy Newspapers. Here are some excerpts:
Obama received an 86 out of a possible 100 in the environmental scorecard for members of Congress published by the League of Conservation Voters. He was also a co-sponsor of a bill that would have protected about 58 million acres of federal lands. The Bush administration had sought to open up those roadless lands to development.


The new administration also faces more fundamental issues. The budgets of such agencies as the U.S. Forest Service have been sharply trimmed in recent years. The Forest Service budget has been sliced by a third, while at the same time more than half its budget is now spent in the fight against catastrophic wildfires.

During the campaign, Obama indicated his administration would "aggressively pursue" a fire prevention, mitigation and land and forest management plan to reduce fire risks.

The Forest Service manages almost 200 million acres across the country, including the Midewin Tall Grass Prairie, near Chicago. While Obama has never officially visited Midewin, Forest Service officials say he and his staff have been supportive.

"It's a very anxious time," Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said in an interview. "But I think the Forest Service is well prepared to take on the issues the Obama campaign has been discussing."

Kimbell acknowledged that budget issues, particularly the firefighting costs, have taken a toll. But she said the Forest Service is well aware that climate change has created an extended drought that has stressed trees and left them susceptible to such things as the mountain bark beetle. That has led to a fire season that lasts from January to November.

Dead and dying trees need to be removed and the forests thinned, even if that means felling some of the older trees, she said.


As the Montana primary approached in May, Obama, in perhaps his most succinct statement on public lands issues, answered questions from the Flathead Beacon newspaper in Kalispell.

He said he believed that sustainability — using resources in a way that provides for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs — was the most important factor in managing federal lands.

"If we're going to have timber industries operating on public lands, then we should make sure that old-growth forests aren't destroyed but it's that second-growth" that harvested, he said.

Obama also told the newspaper that it was critical to designate additional wilderness areas for permanent protection, but that a balance needed to be struck by competing interests on federal lands. He also said his administration would "listen rather than dictate" in working with state and local officials.

"What I want is to be able to pass onto our children and grandchildren the same extraordinary gift that we received from our parents and grandparents," Obama said.

According to McClatchy:

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles

Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal

Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

John Leshy, former Interior Department solicitor

Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc.

On November 3 Wildfire Today wrote about the transition to another administration at the Department of Homeland Security, including FEMA and emergency management.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Follow-up on Freeway fire

The Orange County Register has an interesting article about the first engine strike team that arrived at the Freeway fire. It is the first-person account of Marc Hawkins, the Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief who was the Strike Team Leader.

A great deal of attention has been directed toward the Yorba Linda Water District and the lack of water at some fire hydrants during the Freeway fire. As many as five homes were lost because the water system failed in one area, requiring firefighters to haul water in water tenders, or shuttle the engines back in forth, refilling from hydrants that were a considerable distance away. The Los Angeles Times has the story.

USFS sues railroad for starting fire

The U.S. Forest Service has filed a lawsuit against the Union Pacific Railroad for starting a 2002 fire in Price Canyon in Utah. The fire burned 3,200 acres and the government is seeking $653,364 in restitution for suppression and rehab costs.

The suit also names MotivePower, the company that installed and maintained the turbo charger which is blamed for starting the fire.

Fires caused by railroads are much more numerous than people think. Most railroad fires are caused by improperly maintained turbo chargers on the engines. If not maintained, large pieces of red-hot carbon can be blown out of the turbo chargers, starting fires. A smaller percentage of railroad-caused fires originate from brakes that lock up, become super-heated, disintegrate and shower the area with hot metal. I once responded to a series of 11 fires over several miles that started from hot brakes.

A cause and origin fire investigator, looking for what started a fire near railroad tracks, can usually find many pieces of carbon along the tracks. To definitively say that a single piece started a particular fire can be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

In some parts of the country, including northwest Indiana, railroads have gotten a free ride. They save money by reducing the maintenance on their turbo chargers, start fires, then many times get away with it.

I know of one instance where a National Park Service manager directed that cases against railroads not be pursued, because the railroads might then be temped to reduce the vegetation along their tracks through the park by using herbicides.

USFS employee investigated for arson in Esperanza fire area

The Press-Enterprise has a stunning article about a southern California U. S. Forest Service Fire Prevention Technician (FPT), Michael Karl McNeil, 35, who was investigated for arson at several places where he has worked.

The newspaper obtained a copy of a confidential July 2008 report that formed the basis for their lengthy, carefully worded article which says four of the fires for which the FPT was investigated were the same fires that match the dates and circumstances of fires that are associated with Raymond Lee Oyler, who has been charged with setting the 2006 Esperanza fire that resulted in the deaths of five firefighters on Engine 57 of the San Bernardino National Forest. However, investigators determined that McNeil was not responsible for the Esperanza fire.

It appears that two arsonists may have been working in the same general area in 2006, the Banning Pass area. This may complicate the prosecution's case against Oyler during his trial for the Esperanza fire which begins January 5. His defense attorney is already claiming that "McNeil is a viable suspect" in some of the fires for which Oyler is charged.

McNeil has worked at the following locations:
  • 1996, Utah, volunteer firefighter
  • 2001-2002, Angeles National Forest, firefighter
  • 2003-2004, U.S. Fish and Wildlife service; the report is vague about this employment. It does not state there was an increase in arson fires, but that "his employment with the agency ended with a termination and settlement agreement that prohibited supervisors and co-workers from discussing McNeil."
  • 2005-2006, San Bernardino National Forest, Fire Prevention Technician at the Banning Pass station.
The Utah, Angeles National Forest, and San Bernardino National Forest locations had very high arson rates while he worked there.

His last job with the USFS was with the Lassen National Forest in northern California, where in 2007 he was promoted into an Assistant Fire Management Officer position. In June of this year he was placed on leave without pay status.

McNeil has a checkered past. He pled guilty to a felony criminal-threat in 1998 and failed to disclose it on his USFS applications.

In August he was arrested by Los Angeles County authorities where he is being held on a 36-count arson and terrorist threat complaint. Bail has been set at $2.8 million.

The Los Angeles County case includes a list of threatening McNeil e-mails to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff's detective investigating the case, and Lassen County officials, including two judges, the district attorney and the public defender. The report also says McNeil set fire to his father's South San Gabriel home.


All I can say is: Holy Crap. Read the article--I only hit the high points. McNeil is being held on 36 counts of arson and terrorist threats. Any arson is disturbing and potentially fatal, as the Esperanza fire proved. McNeil may or may not be found guilty, but firefighter-arson is something that horrifies other firefighters.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Southern Californians are not like the rest of us

A Segway rider works on his Blackberry while the Freeway Complex fire burns in the background in Yorba Linda, California, November 15.

Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Entrapped on Freeway Fire; Corona Engine 5

The Los Angeles times has the story about the engine crew that was entrapped on the Freeway Fire west of Corona, California. Here is an excerpt:
For the Corona Fire Department, that moment came at 9:23 a.m. Saturday, 22 minutes after the first 911 call reported a small brush fire in the vegetation off the 91 Freeway.

It was a distress call from Engine 5, the first truck to attack the blaze. Using a tactical frequency, the captain of the four-person crew -- three men and a woman -- cried out to battalion chief Mike Samuels, stationed on the freeway above:

"We're completely surrounded. Send help."

From his position, Samuels could see the flames tearing through the brush toward homes, pushed by 20 mph gusts of Santa Ana winds, the fire intensifying as it struck what he called "heavy fuels" -- 8-foot-tall patches of oak and chaparral.

"I've been in the fire service 21 years, and I've never seen a fire move out that fast," Samuels would say later.

Other trucks were attacking the fire and one of them, Brush One, was heading to protect homes. Samuels decided to divert it to rescue the crew of Engine 5.

As Brush One fought its way through black smoke and heat toward the encircled firefighters, Engine 5 stayed on the radio, awaiting help and using its training to survive. A common tactic in such a situation is for firefighters to "get in the black" -- position themselves and their truck in an area that has already burned. To help, Samuels called in helicopter water drops.

The extrication of Engine 5 took 15 to 20 minutes, by Samuels' estimate, and soon the four crew members were heading to hospitals for treatment of minor burns and smoke inhalation. They were all released that day.

New study: wildland firefighters and smoke

There have been a number of reports about the effects of smoke on firefighters. Now there is a new one by the Institut de recherché Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST).

Here is an excerpt from the report's abstract:
The substances of greatest concern are carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein, and respirable and inhalable particles. A second group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations, includes benzene, carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides, PAH, ammonia, and furfural. A third group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations again, includes acetaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, methane, methanol, styrene, acetonitrile, propionaldehyde, toluene, methyl bromide, methylethylketone, acetone, methyl chloride, xylenes, phenol, tetrahydrofuran, methyl iodide, and mercury. Data suggests that if wildland firefighters are exposed to 25 ppm of carbon monoxide (below the permissible exposure value), they may be overexposed to formaldehyde, acrolein, PAH (benzo[a]pyrene), and respirable particles.

The U.S. National Fire Protection Association has recently announced that it is proceeding with the development of a new wildland firefighting respiratory protection Standard, but it will be some time still before respirators certified for wildland firefighting will become available.

If administrative controls are unsuccessful in reducing exposures to acceptable levels, wildland firefighters should be provided with air purifying respirators for formaldehyde, respirable particulate matter, organic vapours and acids, acrolein, and PAH. However, wildland firefighters should be cautioned that at high work levels the effectiveness and duration of air purifying cartridges is unknown. There is also a concern that firefighters using air purifying respirators may unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of contaminants not removed by their respirator than they would otherwise. Until a respirator is developed for wildland firefighting that effectively removes carbon monoxide, air purifying respirators should be used in conjunction with a carbon monoxide alarm.

Like "a mosquito through an open door".

Firefighters, especially new ones, frequently ask if bandannas over the face will protect them from smoke. The answer is hell no.
"Respirable smoke particles, gases, and vapours would pass through a bandanna as readily as a mosquito thorugh an open door."
Click on the image above to see a larger version.

In fact, even respirators, as inconvenient as they are, will not do the job according to the report.
None of the filtering respirators remove carbon monoxide (CO). All of the currently available respirators have serious shortcomings for use in a wildland fire situation. Even if they were effective, some wildland firefighters are understandably reluctant to accept negative pressure air purifying face masks for use at high work levels for long periods of time.

A full face mask is generally more comfortable than a half-face mask and it provides full eye protection. Full eye protection is necessary the case of contaminants exceeding the threshold limit value where the threshold limit value is based on irritant effects.

Since the contaminants having warning properties such as odour or irritant effects are removed by air purifying respirators, there is a legitimate concern that firefighters wearing such respirators might unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of toxic contaminants not removed by the respirator than they would otherwise. This could easily result in over exposure to carbon monoxide and lead to serious, perhaps deadly, consequences. To avoid this, a carbon monoxide monitor with alarm should be used in conjunction with air purifying respirators used when fighting wildland fires.
So, forget about the bandanna, and throw away that $84 piece of crap Hot Shield mask that is advertised to have the " benefit of blocking & reducing the inhalation of smoke & ash particulate". These smoke particulates are so small, that if one were released near the ceiling in a room with calm air, it would take eight hours to fall to the floor.

The sad truth is, in 2008 there is no practical way to protect wildland firefighters from the byproducts of combustion. Maybe the new 8-pound SCBA being developed will lead to something that could benefit wildland firefighters. Using this new technology, perhaps a 15-pound unit would give you an hour's worth of air? This might help for initial attack, but for the hot shot crew on the line for 16 hours, sorry, you're out of luck.

Lessons learned from Australian incident

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has "obtained" a copy of the internal report about the 2006 entrapment of 11 New Zealand firefighters on a fire in Victoria, Australia. It appears that the major contributing factor was that the crew was uphill from the fire with unburned fuel below them. We've seen this situation before in numerous fatality reports.

What is surprising is that the report does not appear to have been released publicly. I don't know how the ABC "obtained" a copy of the report; I've searched for it online and can't find it. Maybe this report from a 2006 fire is still in draft and will be released later. But if we don't release the findings from close calls and fatalities, we will not be able to benefit from the lessons learned.

A spokesman from the United Firefighters Union in Australia, Greg Pargeter, had this to say:
Mr. Pargeter says the union found it difficult to get the report.

"We've had to go to New Zealand to obtain a copy," he said.

"And we would say that the CFA should be open and transparent with its stakeholders, including the United Firefighters Union, so that we can learn from the mistakes that have been made, and hopefully that they're not repeated."

Here is the article about the report, from the ABC website.
An internal report has found authorities underestimated the risks posed by a Victorian bushfire that injured a group of New Zealand firefighters in 2006. Eleven fire fighters were injured and forced to run for their lives when they were caught in a flare up near Mansfield in north-east Victoria.

The ABC has obtained a report by Australian and New Zealand fire authorities that criticises the management of the team. It shows they were working on a steep slope with the fire below them and unburnt ground in between.

Former chief fire officer Athol Hodgson says the crew should never have been sent into the area.

"The people in charge of the situation knew the night before, in fact they knew the day before that the fire had crossed Steiner's Road," he said.

"They knew there was unburnt country below the road.

"Someone should have reviewed the situation the night before and said 'no, it's not on'."

Mr Hodgson says that breaks one of the most basic rules of firefighting.

"It's an absolute no everywhere, it doesn't matter if the fuel is heavy or not," he said.

"Firefighters around the world have died because they've been working uphill of an uncontrolled fire below them."

However, the Department of Sustainability and Environment's assistant chief fire officer, Liam Fogarty, says the decisions of the fire authorities did not substantially contribute to the incident.

"Ultimately it was an assessment of local area risks and not quite taking on board the complexity of the environment they were working in," he said.

HERE is a link to a video news segment about the entrapment and the report.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wildfire news, November 20

California: Freeway fire may have been started by exhaust

Investigators are evaluating the possibility that the 30,305 Freeway fire west of Corona may have been started by the catalytic converter on a vehicle. The fire was officially contained on Wednesday. The fire caused minor injuries to 14 firefighters, destroyed 187 residences and damaged 127 others, while four commercial properties were either damaged or destroyed.

Westmont College says its students didn't start Tea fire

From the LA Times, concerning the fire near Montecito and Santa Barbara, California:
Westmont College, the 1,200-student Christian university that was damaged in last week's disastrous Tea fire, announced Wednesday that none of its current students were involved in the incident that sparked the blaze.

On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department said the fire that damaged or destroyed 219 homes was ignited by a group of 10 students who had built a bonfire and abandoned its smoldering remains.

The department, however, did not say which school the suspects attended, raising speculation among some residents that the students attended Westmont.

On Wednesday, college President Gayle D. Beebe responded to the rumors in a written statement.

"On Wednesday afternoon at approximately 2:45 p.m., Drew Sugars, the public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's [Department], officially informed the college that no current Westmont students were present nor in any way involved with this tragic incident," he wrote.
HERE is a link to an article about the unusual history of Santa Barbara's Tea Gardens, where the Tea fire started from the abandoned bonfire.

Hawaii fire on Lanai contained

The fire on the island of Lanai is now contained at about 1,000 acres. Yesterday Wildfire Today covered the evacuation of 600 people, some in boats.

San Diego County suing power company for fires

San Diego County is suing San Diego Gas and Electric over the damages caused by the fires of October, 2007. The suit includes damages for the loss of property tax revenue; loss of wildlife habitat; debris removal; and destruction of public buildings.

Three of the most damaging 2007 wildfires – the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires – were started when sparks from arcing SDG&E power lines ignited brush during high winds, two separate state investigations have found.

Arizona: Marteen fire still active

Marteen fire on Squaw Mountain. USFS

This fire northwest of Flagstaff has been burning since August 7. It is a fire use fire, so it's not being suppressed. Thought dead after the summer monsoons, the fire, 700 acres at that time, sprang back to life on October 15. Now it has burned 10,788 acres. It is expected to continue to burn slowly and creep around as long as conditions remain dry.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Co-pilot flips out, flight attendant helps land airliner

It sounds like a script from a bad movie but it actually happened. While over the Atlantic, flying a Boeing 767 from Toronto to London, a co-pilot with 6,500 hours of flying time had a mental breakdown. He had to be wrestled from the cockpit by a group of flight attendants, restrained, and sedated.

Here is an excerpt from an article at MSNBC:
The pilot concluded that his colleague was now so "belligerent and uncooperative" that he couldn't do his job.

The report said the pilot summoned several flight attendants to remove the co-pilot from the cockpit, and one flight attendant suffered an injured wrist in the struggle. Doctors from Britain and Canada on board determined that the co-pilot was confused and disoriented.

The report did not mention how the co-pilot was restrained. Departing passengers at the time said his arms and legs had been tied up to keep him under control.

The pilot then asked flight attendants to find out if any passenger was a qualified pilot. When none was found, one stewardess admitted she held a current commercial pilot's license but said her license for reading cockpit instruments had expired.

"The flight attendant provided useful assistance to the commander, who remarked in a statement to the investigation that she was `not out of place' while occupying the right-hand seat," the report said.

Lessons learned about fire resistant home construction


I have DirectTV and receive the local Los Angeles stations. I have to admit it was fascinating watching the live coverage of the southern California fires, especially the live helicopter video in high definition. Mesmerizing, for a firefighter.

Listening to the live on-air commentators was interesting….some of them are pretty good and others…. not so much. It has to be extremely difficult doing live coverage…of anything…. for hours and days on end. A couple of the helicopter pilots who were doing live commentating were pretty knowledgeable. Some of them have been watching vegetation fires burn from 5,000 feet for a long time. You can't help but learn something about fire behavior and aerial firefighting after years at that vantage point.

The live anchors frequently talked about defensible space and were always amazed at why some houses burned and others didn’t in the same neighborhood. They frequently mentioned tile roofs, and they were stunned when they saw some houses burning that had them. As if… having a tile roof and maybe cutting some weeds was all you needed to do to fireproof your home.

We need to emphasize to homeowners that a having a fire resistant roof is only one of many considerations for a homeowner. We should also educate the on-air personalities so they can talk intelligently on the subject when homes are burning. It is a teachable moment we should take advantage of.


The "Randomness" of homes that burned or didn't burn was often mentioned by the news anchors. It's not randomness, it is science, the laws of physics, weather, fuels, topography, home construction, and fire preparedness. It is also the availability of firefighting resources and infrastructure. Like... is there water in the water system? It's a question that is being asked after the water system failed as mega-mansions burned west of Corona, CA the other day. But I digress.

Some firefighters and fire groupies refer to fire as "The Dragon", as if fighting fire were like fighting a living, breathing, thinking animal. If it were, fire would be totally unpredictable, and getting burned by the "dragon" would be.... almost random. But it's not. It is based on the laws of physics.

Firefighters who educate themselves, have an intellectual curiosity, and take advantage of opportunities to really observe fire, can learn to predict what it will do....and how to keep themselves and others safe. Be envious of that TV news helicopter pilot. Some firefighters naturally pick up this knowledge through taking advantage of opportunities and by osmosis. Others, who may otherwise be intelligent, don't.


A friend sent me an article that is in today's edition of the Christian Science Monitor about the lessons learned in southern California regarding fire resistant construction. Here is an excerpt from the article:
LOS ANGELES - The dramatic news footage depicting towering walls of flame, exhausted firefighters, and plumes of smoke don't tell the story. Tearful, day-after tours of the rubble do.

That's when local newsmen with video cameras walk house to house and ask the troubling question: Why was this structure spared when the homes on both sides were incinerated?

Sometimes, even bigger questions nag. Why was this neighborhood obliterated while that one was passed over unscathed?

The facts are slowly emerging. Aside from the heroic efforts of firefighters, improved logistical planning by local officials, increased funding for better trucks, planes, flame retardant and other tools, a key factor in fighting fires here is the proactive initiative of homeowners.

Stricter enforcement of codes adopted by scores of communities in the past two decades has residents clearing out trees, brush, and shrubbery next to their homes. Also, homeowners and communities are taking voluntary preventive measures such as practicing fire-resistant construction.

New California building codes, which took effect in January, ban wood siding and wood-shake roofs from new construction in fire-prone areas. But residents in existing homes are also replacing wood shingles with cement tile and wood siding with stucco as well as rebuilding wood porches to be more fireproof. Entire developments have adopted so-called shelter-in-place construction.

The newer luxury development at Olinda Ranch, near Brea in Orange County, for instance – about 660 homes built with cement-tile roofs, stucco walls, and sprinkler systems – escaped with minimal charring, while the adjacent community of Oak Ridge lost nearly 500 homes. Many of those homes were in a mobile-home park, which prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for a new review of state building codes.......

Park Service employee catches fatal plague from mountain lion

This happened in October, 2007, but the word is only now getting out.

From ReporterNews:
PHOENIX -- A wildlife biologist who was never trained about disease risks he could encounter while on the job died from the plague after handling a deceased lion without protective gear, according to a federal report. The report by a National Park Service review board said Eric York, 37, didn't wear gloves or a protective respirator in October 2007 while handling and performing a necropsy on a mountain lion that had died of the plague.

York's supervisors didn't monitor his activities or review job hazards, he was never trained on the potential of catching diseases and the Park Service didn't formally assess the danger he and other workers could encounter on the job, according to the report, released Tuesday.

York worked in the park's cougar collaring program and fell ill days after he used a locator beacon to track a mountain lion that had stopped moving.

He recovered the body, took it to his home at Grand Canyon National Park and did a necropsy in his garage. Several days later, be began feeling ill and went to a clinic.

A physician suspected flu and wasn't told of York's regular exposure to wild animals. The report noted that workers and medical personnel should be trained to ask about possible exposures when seeking or giving medical help.

York was found dead in his home six days after retrieving the dead animal.

Deputy park superintendent Palma Wilson acknowledged Tuesday that the agency made mistakes.

"There were protocols in place, but we were not necessarily ensuring that those protocols and safety standards were being followed," Wilson said.

The report was completed in May, although it was just made public. It recommends a series of changes to ensure worker safety.

"As soon as we got the initial report back from the Board of Review we started implementing those recommendations," Wilson said. "This was a tragic death, but if some good could come from it, it would be that we can get the word out, we can get the safety protocols out so that no one else has to go through this."

An average of 13 plague cases are reported in the United States each year.

Wildfire news, November 19

Photos of southern California fires

The Lassie, Get Help blog has some great photos of the fires in southern California.

600 people evacuate from fire in Hawaii

A vegetation fire on the island of Lanai caused 600 people to evacuate from a hotel and begin to flee the island by boats. The 300 acre fire, pushed by 40 mph winds, threatened the Four Seasons Resort and other areas on the island.

At least four boats loaded with evacuees left the island headed for Maui and Lahaina, but the fire situation eased and the boats were later recalled.

The five firefighters on Lanai had their hands full with this fire. They were eventually joined by 16 firefighters from other islands.

HERE is a link to a site that has a 3 minute video about the fire.

Students' bonfire caused Tea fire

Firefighters working on the Tea fire on the Westmont College campus gather their equipment.

The Santa Barbabra County Sheriff's office said that an abandoned bonfire built by a group of students caused the Tea fire near Montecito and Santa Barbara. The fire destroyed 210 homes, injured 20 people, and burned about 2,000 acres.

A tipster led investigators to the bonfire where 10 people had been partying in an area known as the "Tea House" the night before the fire started. About 13 hours after the students left, embers remaining in the bonfire, encouraged by winds that gusted to 70 mph, started the Tea fire which was reported at 5:45 p.m.

The students left the area between 3 and 5 a.m. Thursday and thought they had extinguished the fire. All ten of the men and women, aged 18-22, who attended the bonfire have been identified by investigators, but their names and the school they attend have not been released. Prosecutors are deciding whether to charge them with crimes.

Westmont College, a Christian university with 1,200 students, sits immediately below the mountain ridge where the Teahouse is located. The fire burned through the campus, destroying the Psychology building, Math building, Physics building and three dozen Clark Hall dorm rooms. The off-campus homes of 14 professors also burned.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wildfire news, November 18

Update on southern California fires

Most of the 50,000 evacuees have been able to return to their homes in the areas burned by the three huge fires. Thanks to diminishing winds, and extraordinary efforts by firefighters, the spread of the fires has been slowed and containment percentages are increasing. However record high temperatures and single-digit humidities are kept the fires alive over the last couple of days. But conditions will moderate today thanks to a weak on-shore breeze.

As far as we know there have been no deaths or major injuries in any of the fires, but six firefighters were injured on the Freeway fire and 5 were injured on the Sayre fire.


Kazaam, a Los Angeles search dog, rests after examining the destruction at the Oakridge mobile home community.

Residents of the Oak Ridge mobile home park, where almost 500 homes burned, were bused into the park yesterday to get their first looks at the devastation. The buses made brief stops so residents whose homes were still intact could collect medication or other essential items before returning to an evacuation center at Sylmar High School. The residents were not allowed to sift through the ruins of the burned homes because the cadaver-sniffing dogs were still searching the area to make sure no one had died in the fire. The fire destroyed 484 of their homes in the park but firefighters were able to save 120.

Though only about 360 of the park's estimated 1,700 residents have so far come forward, authorities say they had no reason to believe anyone died. Search crews have scoured the wreckage with cadaver dogs in the last two days but found no bodies.

The Sayre fire has burned 11,207 acres and is 64% contained. It is still active on the northeast perimeter south of Placerita Canyon. The fire is creeping down slope with upslope runs in some of the canyons.


This fire, 75% contained now, destroyed approximately 155 residences. It has burned 28,889 acres.


This fire which burned 210 homes, many of them mansions that once had sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, was fully contained Monday night.

LA Mayor "Greatful" for Obama's wildfire support

President-elect Barack Obama called Los Angeles Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa and Governor Schwarzenegger to express his support for the wildfire situation in southern California.

On Obama's old campaign web site he is asking people to help. It says in part:
"... Throughout the campaign, we saw time and again that when ordinary people act together, they can make a huge difference. To help those in need, visit CaliforniaVolunteers.org"

Arsonists and others who started fires

There is a surprising amount of news on the legal front today about people who started wildland fires.

1. Boy arrested for starting Gap fire

From the Daily Sound:
A 16-year-old boy was arrested on arson-related charges connected to last July’s Gap Fire, Santa Barbara County Fire officials said.

The blaze broke out on July 1 near the Lizard’s Mouth area of the Los Padres National Forest. Twenty-eight days and $20 million later, the fire was contained. The fire forced the evacuation of thousands of residents living near the foothills above Goleta.

Though the Gap Fire didn’t burn any homes, officials fear the brunt of the fire’s wrath could be felt this winter via widespread flooding. The lack of vegetation in the foothills and thick sediment in the creeks, combined with heavy winter rains, could cause severe damage to property, officials fear.

The boy is being held in a juvenile detention center in Santa Maria. Officials said more details will be released as they become available.

2. Homeless man sentenced for starting Day and Ellis fires

From the LA Times:
A mentally ill homeless man was sentenced Monday to 45 months in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $100 million in restitution for starting two wildfires in 2006 and 2002 that burned more than 162,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest.

A self-described nature lover, Steven Emory Butcher, 50, was convicted in February of igniting the monthlong Day fire in 2006 that injured 18 people, destroyed 11 structures and cost more than $100 million to suppress, according to the U.S. attorney's office. He had been burning debris on Labor Day in Piru Canyon, where he had set up a campsite.

The jury also convicted Butcher of starting the 70-acre Ellis fire four years earlier, about two miles southeast of where the Day Fire began.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said "the likelihood of [Butcher] being able to meet that restitution payment is extremely slim. But we'll do everything we can to recover whatever we can from him."

Mrozek said his office "wanted to send a message to people that if you're engaged in this type of activity, you may be held liable."

Butcher was found guilty of two felony counts of starting fires and three misdemeanor counts of allowing a fire to escape his control, violating restrictions by building a fire on federal forest land and smoking in a federal forest.

"If I would have been on the jury, I would have found myself guilty too," Butcher told U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank.
3. Two plead guilty to arson in Eastern Idaho

From KPVI.com
Two Idaho Falls residents have pled guilty to arson in setting a wildfire that occurred on public lands in Eastern Idaho in 2003.

On November 5, 2008, Brad Sims, 33, pled guilty in federal court to one felony count for setting a wildfire. On November 12, 2008, Jonathan Barrow, 28, pled guilty to one misdemeanor count of setting a fire. The lesser charge for Barrow resulted from his early cooperation.

Sentencing for both individuals is scheduled for February 9, 2009, at the federal courthouse in Pocatello.

The 2,766 acre wildfire, which was started on July 19, 2003, burned a five-mile section of utility poles. It was started at mile marker 282 on U.S. Highway 20 between Idaho Falls and Arco. The federal government will seek restitution for damages to utilities and public lands. The amount will be determined by the judge at sentencing.

"STARFIRE": New tool to analyze fire risks and benefits

We can add another tool to the long list of programs that fire managers can use to help make decisions. Here are some excerpts from a news release from Colorado State University.
The system, known as Starfire, or Strategic Treatment Assessment Response Spectrum and Fire, is the first of its kind to generate fuel treatment priorities across an entire planning unit or national park; address appropriate management response - assessing when and where to encourage or suppress fires; and the first to address strategic smoke management where communities and local air quality can be adversely affected.

"Federal agencies now have access to a powerful tool that is easy to use in the heat of battle or in long-term fire planning to address environmental compliance. By integrating fire effects, fuels and smoke programs, federal fire agencies can now assess action options more quickly and effectively. "

Once all of the data is compiled and properly assessed, Rideout and Wei develop a series of maps that support collaborative decision-making and inter-agency cooperation.

"Starfire is primarily designed to provide strategic-level fire risk and benefits information used in long-term fire management and planning. However, after a lightening strike causes a fire, managers can also use it to do a quick prediction of the potential consequences of the specific fire," said Wei, assistant professor in CSU's Department of Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship.

First developed and tested at the Tehipite wildfire in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California this summer, Starfire contributed to a "landmark cooperative decision," according to Jeff Manley, National Park Service official and CSU College of Natural Resources alumnus. Starfire is set for wider deployment to assess Yellowstone as the next national park and with additional funding from the Bureau of Land Management to use the system in other Western states.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fire videos

Here is a video shot by firefighters of the DC-10 air tanker making a drop. Very Nice. 1 min. & 13 sec.

Having trouble lighting your burn piles? Here's the tool you need. The video is 23 seconds long.

Here is a cool video of civilians driving through the Freeway fire on highway 91 with fire on both sides... before they closed the highway. Listening to the reactions of the passengers is fun--they are having a great time. This is in Southern California near Corona on November 15. 1 min. & 16 sec. Warning: you might hear a couple of 4-letter words.

This is not exactly a "fire video" but you will enjoy it. John Hodgman, aka "PC" from the Get a Mac campaign plays "Tonight You Belong to Me" on a ukulele at a recent event promoting his book, "More Information Than You Require". He's accompanied by Jonathan Coulton on guitar.

Wildfire news, November 17

The debate about the use of retardant continues

As you probably know, the group "Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics" has a lawsuit against the U. S. Forest Service concerning the use of retardant on fires. In fact, for a while there was speculation that Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey might end up in jail.

The case is still working its way through the court system. In the meantime, the New York Times has a article about retardant. Here is an excerpt.
In the federal lawsuit in Montana, the Forest Service is being sued by a group of current and former employees and others who are demanding that the agency conduct a comprehensive environmental study of the impact of retardant under the Endangered Species Act. The suit cites a 2002 retardant drop on a river in central Oregon that killed 20,000 fish.

Current federal policy encourages pilots not to drop retardant within 300 feet of a body of water, but it allows for exceptions if flying conditions require it or if lives or property are in danger. By 2011, according to officials with the Forest Service in Montana, the most common type of retardant will have lower amounts of ammonia and will therefore be less harmful to fish and aquatic environments. Private companies have also used other chemicals to develop gels and foams that are popular among some firefighting agencies, though retardant is used by most.

The Forest Service says that the number of cases it has found where retardant affected waterways is so small — 14 out of thousands of retardant drops since 2000 — that mitigation measures already in place suffice.

In January, the judge in the Montana case, Donald W. Molloy, threatened to jail the head of the Forest Service, Mark Rey, and to halt its use of retardant because it did not respond to court orders on time. After a hearing the next month, Judge Molloy decided against jailing Mr. Rey and allowed the use of retardant to continue. But Judge Molloy let the case proceed, and last month the plaintiffs asked him to make a decision in the case.

“The chance of some stream being hit by retardant is virtually certain, and so, of course, you have to consider the consequences,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of the group that brought the suit, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “It’s already happened 14 times.”

Photo of the TBM air tanker on the 1972 Vista fire on the San Bernardino National Forest, California, by Bill Gabbert

Montana fire contractor convicted; lied about pack test

From the Great Falls Tribune:
HELENA -- A man who contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to fight wildfires in 2003 awaits sentencing for telling the agency incorrectly that personnel he provided had passed a mandatory physical fitness test.

A federal jury last week convicted Bitterroot Valley resident Jay M. Gasvoda of making false statements to a federal agency. The conviction, handed down in U.S. District Court in Missoula, likely will be appealed after Gasvoda is sentenced Feb. 6, defense attorney Martin Judnich said.

"I never lied about a thing," Gasvoda said in a telephone interview Friday. "I was set up by some people that I fired." Any inaccuracies in his contract information were unintentional, he said.

The Forest Service requires firefighters to have passed a fitness test [pack test] by walking three miles in 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound backpack. They also must complete survival instruction.

Comment on Quadrennial Fire Review

Until November 30th you can comment on the (wildland fire) Quadrennial Fire Review. Send your comments to Achyde@aol.com

Here is the way the review is described in the introduction to the document:
In 2004, the U.S. Forest Service, the four U. S. Department of Interior agencies and their state, local, and tribal partners that constitute the wildland fire community chartered the first Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR). Like its predecessor, this 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review is designed as a strategic evaluative process that develops an internal assessment of current programs and capabilities for comparison to future needs for fire management. In terms of time frame; projections of future conditions and risks potentially affecting fire management are longer term --set in a 10 to 20 year reference timeframe. While strategies for new mission requirements and building new capabilities are near term -- defined in a 4 to 5 year period.

The QFR is based on the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review model which for the past two decades has served as a vehicle for the military to reexamine shifts in military strategy and changes in organizational tactics and capabilities. Conceptually, the intention of the QFR is to use the four year interval between reviews as an opportunity to reassess the future environment in wildland fire, summarize shifts in mission, roles and responsibilities, and agency relationships and chart new course directions for fire management. It should also be noted that the QFR is not a plan or a policy making document. It contains no recommendations, action items, or time tables. As an interagency assessment, it is purely advisory in tone. Its value is that it reaffirms interagency fire management priorities and outlines investment decisions for the future.


The International Association of Fire Chiefs and TV Worldwide has launched IAFC TV...
"...an innovative Internet television channel that will serve as an interactive, informative and educational resource for the fire and emergency service communities worldwide. IAFC TV will present newscasts, town hall meetings, coverage of IAFC conferences, interviews with fire service leaders and emergency alerts."

A quick look at the videos that are available on the site shows that they have a "Monthly Newscast", quite a few videos that are specifically about the IAFC, and some that are on a variety of subjects, such as communication, emergency response maps, and leadership. The site has a wildland section but it has nothing in it except "videos will be available soon".

I wonder if the introduction of this "channel" has anything to do with the rumored bankruptcy of the Fire and Emergency Television Network?

More information from the IAFC about the new channel is HERE.

Update on southern California fires, November 17

Sayre fire near Sylmar

UPDATE @ 2:00 p.m. PT Monday

Here is a new map provided by the incident management team. Their map is very similar to the one I made earlier, so I am pleased to see that theirs is accurate. LOL

Click on the map to see a larger version.


This fire is still active in the Placerita Canyon near Santa Clarita. It has burned 10,077 acres and is 40% contained. The fire connects the two large fires that burned last month, the Marek and Sesnon fires. We made the unofficial map of the Sayre fire below that shows the approximate locations of the three fires.

The residents of the Oak Ridge mobile home park, where 500 homes burned, will be bused into the park today and will be able to get their first looks at the site. Some of them still may not know if their mobile home burned until they arrive in the park today. They will have 10 minutes to look around and gather anything remaining that they want to salvage.

Click on the map to see a larger version.

Freeway Complex near Corona, Yorba Linda, Anaheim, Chino Hills, Carbon Canyon, and Brea

UPDATE @ 1:48 p.m. PT Monday

Here is a new map of the Freeway Complex provided by the incident management team, as shown in Google Earth. We are looking toward the northwest.

Click on the map to see a larger version.


This fire is still active on the northwest side in the Diamond Bar and Tonner Canyon areas. It has burned 28,889 acres and is 40% contained. At least 120 homes have burned.

Our post from yesterday has a map of the Freeway fire that should still be current if you refresh your browser.

Tea fire near Montecito and Santa Barbara

UPDATE @ 1:55 p.m. PT Monday

Here is an updated map of the Tea fire, provided by the incident management team. We are looking north.

Click on the map to see a larger version.

Here is a map of just the south (populated) side of the Tea fire. We are looking straight down and north is at the top. You might be able to make out a few street names if you click on the map.

As usual, click on the map to see a larger version.


All of the evacuation orders have been lifted for all but 260 homes. This fire started on Thursday, destroyed 210 residences, and burned 1,940 acres. It is 90% contained this morning but may be totally contained as early as tonight.

Westmont College lost 15 faculty houses, a dormitory complex, and its physics and psychology buildings. Officials of the college said over the weekend that they were busy assessing the damage, fencing off ruined buildings, and figuring out how soon the semester could resume.