Saturday, January 31, 2009

Florida: Follow-up on escaped Rx fire, smoke, fog, and crashes

The wreckage of the January 9, 2008 crash on Interstate 4 in Florida. The Ledger.

Last year Wildfire Today covered the January 9 escaped prescribed fire near Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa. An unexpected drop in the relative humidity, according to Division of Forestry investigators, caused the 50-acre project to get out of control and burn an additional 200 acres and one of their dozers. The smoke mixed with fog and reduced visibility on Interstate 4, causing a 70-vehicle accident that claimed the lives of 5 people.

Friday the eleventh of 12 reports about the accident, covering 24 of the 70 vehicles, was released. Here are some excerpts from The Ledger:
No charges will be filed in the biggest crash that claimed the most lives in last year's massive Interstate 4 pileup, prosecutors said Friday.

Smoke, fog and human error led to the 24-vehicle crash that left four people dead, according to a report released on Friday by the Florida Highway Patrol.

Visibility was very poor, investigators wrote, but the fact that a number of drivers were able to stop, pull over and avoid a collision shows that some crashes during the morning of Jan. 9, 2008, could have been avoided.

The report released Friday dealt with one of a series of crashes that happened that morning, when, in all, 70 cars collided on I-4 in dense fog and smoke.

Over and over, drivers told FHP they drove into a wall of smoke and fog, the report shows. But investigators attributed most crashes to drivers not slowing down enough.

"As bad as the conditions were at the scene, it was possible to avoid crashing into other vehicles," the report said. "Those vehicles that were able to stop were then involved in this crash due to the careless driving of others."

The report concluded the smoke came from a nearby wildfire that had started when a controlled burn set north of I-4 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission got out of control as weather conditions changed unexpectedly.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said a month after the crash that the smoke from the fire played no part in the near-zero visibility. And at the time, some officials said fog alone was to blame or that smoke from burning vehicles in the first crashes contributed to problems for later drivers.

But the FHP report backs up what was said by drivers involved in the crashes, including a Polk County sheriff's deputy, who insisted they were nearly blinded by a combination of smoke and fog.

There has been one lawsuit over the pileup filed in Polk County against the wildlife commission. There have been five other lawsuits among drivers and companies that owned vehicles in the crashes.



After the accidents, the state has investigated whether there were mistakes involving the controlled burn that grew into the wildfire and contributed to the wrecks.

But state officials maintain everything went by the book and that the book doesn't need changing. Unpredictable weather changes are to blame, they say.

Division of Forestry spokesman Gerry LaCavera said conditions were fine to start the burn in the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area off I-4. The forestry division was responsible for issuing wildlife commission workers the permit for the controlled burn.

State investigators say the problem started when humidity dropped unexpectedly, and flames began to jump the controlled burn's lines.

LaCavera said there haven't been any changes at the Division of Forestry since the crashes last year.

"We haven't seen a new need for them," LaCavera said.

He said people within the Division of Forestry check forecasts each morning before issuing burn permits.

"It is based on the best information," LaCavera said.

On Friday, Gary Morse, a spokesman with Fish and Wildlife, declined comment, citing legal action some of the drivers have taken against Fish and Wildlife.

Burning our bucks in the woods

From the Oregonian

The Winter fire near Paisley in 2002; The Oregonian

By Andy Stahl

There's nothing like a good forest fire year to stimulate the economy. Last year the federal government spent $1.4 billion to fight forest fires. Daily spending on a single wildfire can top $1 million as the Forest Service pumps out contracts to rent porta-potties, retardant bombers and bulldozers.

Firefighting is shovel-ready spending. Within minutes of a fire's ignition, the Forest Service has on-the-ground incident command teams with contracting officers authorized to cut hundred-thousand dollar checks on the spot.

Firefighting does have some unintended consequences - unhealthy forests, massive insect epidemics, old-growth trees crowded out by invasive newcomers. But like the federal debt, we let the next generation pay these costs while we reap the short-term benefits.

OK, I'm only kidding. I don't really want big forest fires this year. Firefighting is a cost, not a benefit. Like all costs, it should be incurred only when its benefits are greater. And that's the question I have for the economic stimulus spending our government has embarked upon this year. Is each of its costs, which our children will end up paying, outweighed by its benefits?

The Forest Service is slated to receive from Congress $300 million to pay for hazardous fuels reduction projects on federal land. Hazardous fuels reduction includes removing small trees from forests, mowing brush and prescribed burning.

The National Fire Plan created the hazardous fuels reduction program. The Forest Service says the fuels program is intended "to help save the lives of firefighters and citizens and to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire to our communities, forests, and rangelands." Since its adoption in 2001, the NFP's hazardous fuels program has treated fuels on 29 million acres at a cost of $2 billion.

So what's been the return on our $2 billion investment? Has the program saved lives, reduced fires or protected communities? From 2001 through 2007, 136 firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty. In the preceding seven-year period (1994-2000), 130 firefighters died. Under the NFP, fires have burned an average of 7 million acres each year. In the seven-year period before the NFP, fires burned 4 million acres a year. In the last seven years, firefighting costs averaged $1.4 billion a year. In the preceding period before the NFP, costs averaged half that amount. Under the NFP, 1,482 houses have been lost annually to wildfires (most are in Southern California), compared to an average 563 houses lost yearly in the two years (for which I have data) before the NFP.

Economist John Maynard Keynes advised that government should spend its stimulus money on something "sensible," but even if it chose to "fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal mines, which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again," that would be better than nothing.

Congress and the Forest Service appear to have taken Keynes at his word.

Andy Stahl is executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene.

Thanks Dick

Friday, January 30, 2009

NTSB: Pilot lost control in Colorado SEAT crash

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued more information about the April 15, 2008 crash of the Single Engine Air Tanker in which Gert Marais of Fort Benton, Montana was killed. Here is the AP report:
Federal investigators say a Montana pilot's failure to keep control of his plane after dropping water and foam on a Colorado wildfire is the probable cause of the crash that killed him after an inadvertent stall.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in a brief adopted Thursday that other factors contributed to the crash last April, including an improperly configured aircraft, wind gusts and pressure to complete the firefighting mission.

An earlier NTSB report said the plane, from a contractor, was configured with agricultural equipment, which should not have been allowed on the firefighting mission.

Stimulus bill: $850,000,000 for wildland fire management

The economic stimulus bill that was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday included $850,000,000 for wildland fire management and related activities, as well as a shitload of money, $3,475,000,000, for construction and capital improvements for the five major federal land management agencies. There will no doubt be some changes as the bill goes through the Senate and a conference committee, but below is some data (direct quotes) from the latest version according to OpenCongress.org.

HERE is an interactive map that shows the allocation of the funds in the entire bill for each state.

U. S. Forest Service

‘Wildland Fire Management’, $850,000,000, of which $300,000,000 is for hazardous fuels reduction, forest health, wood to energy grants and rehabilitation and restoration activities on Federal lands, and of which $550,000,000 is for State fire assistance hazardous fuels projects, volunteer fire assistance, cooperative forest health projects, city forest enhancements, and wood to energy grants on State and private lands.

‘Capital Improvement and Maintenance’, $650,000,000, for reconstruction, capital improvement, decommissioning, and maintenance of forest roads, bridges and trails; alternative energy technologies, energy efficiency enhancements and deferred maintenance at Federal facilities; and for remediation of abandoned mine sites, removal of fish passage barriers, and other critical habitat, forest improvement and watershed enhancement projects on Federal lands and waters.

National Park Service

‘Construction’, $1,700,000,000, for projects to address critical deferred maintenance needs within the National Park System, including roads, bridges and trails, and for other critical infrastructure projects.

Bureau of Land Management

‘Construction’, $325,000,000, for priority road, bridge, and trail repair or decommissioning, critical deferred maintenance projects, facilities construction and renovation, hazardous fuels reduction, and remediation of abandoned mine or well sites.

Bureau of Indian Affairs

‘Construction’, $500,000,000, for priority repair and replacement of schools, detention centers, roads, bridges, employee housing, and critical deferred maintenance projects.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

‘Construction’, $300,000,000, for priority road and bridge repair and replacement, and critical deferred maintenance and improvement projects on National Wildlife Refuges, National Fish Hatcheries, and other Service properties.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

There is a 2-year "window of opportunity" following devasting fire

A study conducted after a fire burned 204 homes in Kelowna, British Columbia in 2003 found that there is a 2-year window of opportunity during which there is an increased interest in adopting new mitigation strategies. Here is an excerpt from an article in canadianunderwriter.ca:
The 2003 Kelowna, B.C., wildfires created a two-year window of opportunity in which public and private interest in adopting and improving mitigation strategies was heightened, an Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) study found.
The ICLR released a major study evaluating the measures taken by the City of Kelowna to mitigate the impacts of the September 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire and prevent a repeat of such an event. The fire had destroyed 240 homes in the city.

Dan Sandink, manager of resilient cities and research at ICLR, found through interviewing city officials that various mitigation measures were developed or improved during the two-year window following the fire, including post-wildfire flood risk.

But, litigation brought against the city as a result of the fire served to reduce Kelowna’s ability to implement new mitigation strategies during the window of opportunity, an ICLR release says.

Power company sues their customers after burning down their houses

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), whose powerlines have been identified by CalFire investigators as causing the devastating Witch and Rice fires that burned large areas of eastern San Diego County in 2007, have said they intend to sue 14 of their customers whose homes burned in the fires. More than 1,100 homes and 197,000 acres burned, but SDG&E claims that the homeowners "failed to maintain property in respect to brush clearance". The power company's strategy is a countersuit to offset the suits of their customers who lost their homes.

Some of the homeowners are understandably stunned by this development.

This is like, for instance, if someone had a vicious dog who escaped through an improperly maintained fence, then attacked you and caused serious injury. Could the dog owner sue you for not carrying a weapon so you could have fought off the dog just before it attacked you?

As Wildfire Today reported on January 25, there are a gazillion lawsuits related to these fires. which so far are keeping over 150 lawyers gainfully employed and involve $1 billion.

Attorneyatlaw.com has more details.

HERE is a link to a map of the Witch fire.

UPDATE: January 30 @ 2:03 MT

As we have written in the past, we are strong advocates of the Prepare, Stay, and Defend program, for less flammable building materials, for property owners to maintain a fire safe environment around their structures, and for firefighters not being forced into unsafe situations fighting fire at unprepared homes. But if it turns out to be the case, as it appears now, that the fire was caused by negligence of the power company, it is unconscionable for them to sue their customers whose homes would not have burned down if the power company had not started the fire.

Wildfire news, January 29

Water powered jet pack

A new way to use fire hose.

Montana: Man sentenced for starting fire

Chad Truscott, 20, was ordered to pay $763,000 in restitution for starting a fire near Helena, Montana in 2007 with a homemade firework. After being originally charged with felony criminal endangerment he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of negligent arson. The fire burned 44 acres, destroyed two vacant homes, and required the evacuation of about 500 residents.

Mr. Truscott's homemade firework consisted of a pipe welded to a steel plate. Inside the pipe was flash powder from dismantled fireworks with newspaper stuffed on top of the flash powder.

The judge ordered Mr. Truscott, who is in college, to work full-time during the summer in order to begin paying the restitution.

Video of close call on vehicle fire

It looks like these firefighters did everything right. However, something, a piece of the front bumper or a portion of a tire, explodes off of this burning Volvo in Florida.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

1981 report about the Internet

Here is an interesting report from a San Francisco television station in 1981 about this new thing called the "Internet", and how you could download the daily newspaper, called the "telepaper", in only 2 hours at a cost of $5 an hour.

The report concludes by saying that a newspaper vendor need not worry about being out of a job. Well, the day has finally come when newspaper vendors ARE worried, after newspapers are about to start falling like dominos. We are increasingly getting our "telepapers" news via the Internet, while lucrative print ads in newspapers are drying up as subscriptions to the paper versions decline.

What can brown (vegetation) do for you?

Freezing weather in parts of Florida is adding to the available fuel load in some areas. The rare three-day freeze killed off grass and other vegetation near Lakeland in Polk County, adding to the possible future workload of firefighters.

Their Keetch Byram Drought Index, and indicator of drought, is at 624, which translates to a severe danger of fires being difficult to suppress.

More information is at theledger.com

LYLE COMBEE, a firefighter with the Florida Department of Forestry, surveys a brush fire off Old Grade Road early Tuesday just east of Polk City. Photo: Jeremy Maready, The Ledger

Esperanza fire trial update, January 28

The Press-Enterprise has an update about the trial for Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of arson and murder in the 2006 fire that resulted in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in southern California.

Photos of the charred remains of three firefighters were shown to the jurors, a CalFire arson investigator was questioned, and it was pointed out that the house that the firefighters were protecting had been determined to be indefensible according to a 2002 fire-risk map created by CalFire/Riverside County fire Department.

New MAFFS units

Loadmaster Bill Whitlatch operates a new MAFFS 2 unit aboard a C-130J aircraft Tuesday with the Channel Islands Air National Guard. Photo by Stephen Osman, Ventura County Star.

The U. S. Forest Service has accepted the delivery and started training with two new Mobile Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, MAFFS, which will be used in C-130 aircraft operated by the Air National Guard based at Port Hueneme, California. In development by Aero Union since 2000, the two units are the first of a total of eight new systems, called "MAFFS 2" that should be delivered and ready for firefighting by May. These will replace the older units that have been used for a very long time.

The MAFFS 2 are designed to be rolled into the back of C-130 aircraft and hold about 3,000 3,400 gallons of retardant. Here is a photo of the older model that is being replaced with the new design.

Some of the changes in the design include:
  • The nozzles, instead of exiting out the rear loading dock, are routed through a sealed portal (a modified paratrooper door) on the plane's left side. This makes it possible for the plane to be pressurized; in addition, the crew and rear door will no longer be soaked by the retardant.
  • The old and new MAFFS use compressed air to pump the retardant out of the tanks. The old system required that the aircraft land to be pressurized by a dedicated air compressor system at a MAFFS base. The new system has on-board air compressors, which will enable the C-130's to reload the retardant at any air tanker base and refill the air tank on the fly, so to speak. It takes 35 minutes to recharge the compressed air tank after a drop.
  • The retardant is pumped out under greater pressure and velocity. That feature, and the reconfigured side nozzle will result in a denser stream of retardant which will hopefully penetrate timber canopy better than the original systems. This may make it feasible for the pilots to fly higher and faster, adding an additional margin of safety. Pilots hate flying slow and low over mountainous terrain.
  • The new system delivers retardant at twice the coverage rate of the older systems, at "coverage level 8", or 8 gallons of fluid per 100 square feet, which is the maximum required by the U. S. Forest Service.
  • There is one report that claims the new system holds 400 more gallons, but that is not yet now confirmed. UPDATE: The new single-tank system will hold 3,400 gallons.
MAFFS are operated out of four Air National Guard bases in California, Colorado, Wyoming, and North Carolina. Each unit has two MAFFS, however the base in California has not flown any MAFFS for 2 years since the unit upgraded from C-130E's to J models, which cannot accommodate the original MAFFS. The new units can be used in either C-130 model.

There has been heavy criticism during the last 2 years from politicians and others about the inability of the California C-130's to use the MAFFS.

The aircraft can be requested by the U. S. Forest Service after it is confirmed that all commercial air tankers are committed. It takes about 24 hours to configure a C-130 to utilize a MAFFS.

Photo of an older MAFFS dropping the retardant out of the rear door. Air Force photo, by Staff Sgt. Alex Koenig.

The U.S. Forest Service has a web site with information about the development of a MAFFS 2 prototype, but it has not been updated since July, 2006.

Sen. Cantwell's Wildland Firefighter Safety Bill reintroduced

In 2007 Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington introduced Senate Bill 1152: Wildland Fire Safety and Transparency Act of 2007. It never made it to the Senate floor and died in the 110th Congress which ended in December. The bill had one co-sponsor--Colorado Senator Ken Salazar, who is now President Obama's new Secretary of Interior.

In this Congressional session Senator Cantwell included the provisions of that bill in the new Senate Bill 22: Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, introduced on January 7, 2009. The language appears to be very similar to the 2007 legislation which did not pass. The section about wildland fire safety is HERE. This huge catch-all bill passed the Senate on January 15, 2009 with a vote of 73 to 21. The next step is to go to the House of Representatives.

It requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to:
...jointly submit annual reports to Congress on the wildland firefighter safety practices of the Secretaries, including training programs and activities for wildland fire suppression, prescribed burning, and wildland fire use.
Senator Cantwell issued a press release on January 15 which included some endorsements from two wildland fire organizations:
Timothy Ingalsbee, Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology said, “A commitment to the best safety practices can reduce some of the risks that wildland firefighters face out on the fireline. Requiring federal fire management agencies to report to Congress on their safety training programs and field activities is an excellent means of improving accountability of the agencies towards giving firefighters the tools and training they need to be safe.”

Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association said, “We support [Cantwell’s] position that the land management agencies must provide clear information to Congress as to their efforts to improve safety and costs associated with those efforts.”
The International Association of Wildland Fire also endorsed the 2007 bill after polling their members on three pieces of legislation affecting wildland fire. The Yakima Herald wrote an editorial today praising the bill.

Wildfire Today wrote this in December, 2008 about the original bill:
I know what you're thinking, that we need to jump at every chance to make firefighting safer, but having worked for the federal government for 33 years, I know that this legislation would not have done that. It would have just created another series of reports that would have to be completed that would only contain estimates and wild-ass guesses, an additional upward reporting requirement that would keep firefighters from doing their real jobs.

Thanks, Dick.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Homeowners attend forum about Montecito's Tea fire

The November 13 Tea fire, in Montecito, California near Santa Barbara destroyed 210 homes and burned about 2,000 acres. Here are some excerpts from a report in noozhawk about a recent forum concerning the fire attended by local residents:
According to Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace, a perfect storm of conditions led to the blaze. Fuel, aridity, steep terrain, limited access and near hurricane-strength winds all played into the combustible mix.

“This fire, once it started, was going to happen,” Wallace said.

So fierce and fast moving was the blaze that for the first few hours, the fire department’s only hope was to evacuate residents with the help of law enforcement and Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue volunteers while trying to make a stand against the flames. Attempts to box in the fire were thwarted by embers hurled by gale-force gusts. Late that Thursday, with the help of many out-of town strike teams, firefighters finally were able to adopt a more offensive stance against the blaze.

Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace said perilous night-time flights by water-dropping helicopters helped firefighters gain the upper hand in his community.

A critical element, said Wallace, was the deployment of night-flying firefighting helicopters at the peak of the fire. Although it was extremely dangerous, with weather conditions, darkness, treacherous topography and power lines, the aircraft made more than 800 sorties from a staging area at Santa Barbara Junior High.

While ultimately grateful to the firefighters and law enforcement for their heroism, many residents remained frustrated by things they thought could have been handled better, as well as unforeseen difficulties presented by the disaster.

Some reported getting reverse 9-1-1 calls at 10 p.m., hours after the Tea Fire had eaten through their neighborhood. Others claimed they did not see any fire engines in their neighborhoods during their evacuations. Traffic was another concern for the semi-rural community, as neighbors reported difficulties getting away in the general confusion, smoke and ash.

For the Montecito Fire Department, there were several lessons learned, as well: better staging in the brush-heavy, mountainous terrain, better communication.

“We don’t have a common radio frequency for the front country,” Wallace said of an element on which the department is currently working.

As for the too-late reverse 9-1-1 calls, tied-up or damaged phone lines were to blame: too many calls from concerned family and friends created a digital traffic jam for cell-phone users while downed communication lines made it impossible for other calls to reach homes.

Idaho: former firefighter convicted of arson

A firefighter from southwestern Idaho faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. From the Idaho Statesman:
A former volunteer Parma firefighter will be sentenced April 30 in federal court for setting a series of wildfires in the summer of 2007 that burned more than 1,000 acres.

A federal jury on Friday found Clyde Dewayne Holmes guilty on six counts of arson on federal lands. Each charge is punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. The jury deliberated for about an hour following a four-day jury trial.

Federal prosecutors say they still don't know why Holmes set the fires. Money does not appear to be a motive since Holmes was a volunteer firefighter who didn't get paid - even though he worked to extinguish several of the fires he set, assistant U.S. Attorney Monte Stiles said.

"He has never admitted to doing it; he never got any money ... the reason remains unclear," Stiles said.

Holmes is accused of setting several wildfires that burned more than 1,000 acres of federal land northeast of Parma.

Federal prosecutors say Holmes set fires that collectively burned 1,162 acres in the summer of 2007: July 10, 106 acres; July 16, 222 acres; July 23, 512 acres; July 25, 156 acres; Aug. 2, 47 acres; Aug. 10, 52 acres; Aug. 14, 67 acres.

Stiles said Holmes called in several of those fires and worked to put them out. A Bureau of Land Management agent spotted Holmes on Aug. 14 driving away from a fire that had just started, federal officials said.

Investigators also accumulated evidence at other fire scenes, including tire tracks and boot prints, that were linked to Holmes, Stiles said.

Several people testified as alibi witnesses on Holmes' behalf during the jury trial - saying they knew he was somewhere else at the time the fires were ignited.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Wildfire news, January 26

Comet did not start continent-wide fires

Recently some researchers came up with a theory that 12,900 years ago a comet exploded over North America igniting wildfires that spread across the continent at hundreds of kelometers per hour....
"...turning the sky ablaze, sending a shock wave across the landscape and scorching forests, creatures, people and anything exposed to the heavenly fire."
Now another researcher tested that theory by examining charcoal and pollen records and said that the theory is basically, bullshit.

Montana senator proposes "unconstitutional" process to reduce fuels

On December 31 Wildfire Today told you about Montana state senator Dave Lewis who wants to authorize county and local governments to come onto federal land and conduct fuel reduction projects. As we said then:
Lewis wants to put hazardous forest fuels in the same category as junk cars or trash piles. In legal terms, as a source of community decay. He also wants to give county governments the ability to deal with the problem directly.

"It basically says that counties can go onto federal land and determine that it's a risk to the community and go in and clean up the fire hazard," Lewis said.
Senator Lewis has now written a guest column for Headwaters News where he elaborates on Montana Senate Bill 34, which he admits is unconstitutional. Here is an excerpt:
I proposed Senate Bill 34 to the Montana Interim Fire Committee last summer. The concept was, effectively, if a federal agency let fuel build up on its land to the point that such buildup threatened private property owners then Montana counties could step in and reduce those fuels.

The point of the legislation is that since the Forest Service is hampered by lawsuits every time a timber sale is proposed, county governments would have the ability to step in and reduce the risk, which might enable the work to get done. The committee recommended the bill and I presented in on the floor of the state Senate last week. It passed 42-7 on Saturday.

I was pleased that senators understood the risk to the people of Montana brought on by the build-up of fuel in the national forests. The bill exempted private land used for agricultural purposes, which would be any land used to grow trees or grass for grazing. I believe that it is clear that only federal land is affected. It was a good long debate with lots of good questions.

The biggest problem with the bill is that it may violate the federal Constitution. My theory is that if you allow yourself to be slowed down by something like that, then you will never get anything done.

The Supremacy Clause of the federal Constitution that says state and local governments have no say about how federal lands are managed. That provision has never been tested, to my knowledge, on the basis that the buildup of fuel on federal lands puts the property and lives of the neighboring landowners at risk. I think that it is time to test it. Sometimes you have to keep driving until you hear glass breaking!

Thanks, Dick.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hi-res photo of inauguration

Photographer David Begman made an extremely high-resolution composite photograph of the Inaugural audience while President Obama was giving his address. You can zoom in and clearly see famous faces. The photo is HERE.

Some of the folks appear to be really cold. I especially like the fashion statement of a cowboy hat accessorized with ear muffs.

Spain: strong winds, fires, and 14,000 evacuated

Winds in Spain and southern France downed power lines which started at least three large fires. Over 14,000 people evacuated in front of the fires, which were pushed by winds gusting at 60 to 120 mph. More than 500 firefighters are working on the fires, aided by 170 soldiers. Their Canadair "super scooper" air tankers are grounded by the winds.

Several people were killed by falling trees, and a 78-year old man was killed by flying debris outside his home. Four children were killed when the wind collapsed the roof and a wall of a sports complex near Barcelona. Millions of homes are without power.

From Reuters:
The toll for the Landes forest, one of Europe's largest which provides a living for thousands of small and large timber companies, was dramatic.

Footage filmed from helicopters and broadcast on France 2 state television showed vast areas where there were more trees lying on the ground than standing. Experts estimated that 50 percent or more of the trees had fallen.
The narration in this video about the fires is in Spanish, but you'll get the idea.

Wildfire news, January 25

Powerlines and lawsuits

Electrical lines have been blamed for starting a number of large, devastating fires over the last several years. One lawsuit over property destroyed in the 2007 Witch and Rice fires east of San Diego is keeping over 150 lawyers employed and involves at least $1 billion in damages. An interesting article about powerline-caused fires in Colorado and California is at the Daily Camera.

Texas fires

Firefighters in parts of Texas have been busy lately, working on a 2,600 acre fire west of Dallas that destroyed 6 homes, and another one-acre fire in central Texas where a 53-year old man died near several homeless camps on the outskirts of Austin.

A 1,000 acre fire on North Padre Island did not threaten infrastructure and was allowed to burn itself out.

Friday, January 23, 2009

IAFF: abandon "stay and defend" program

Revised January 23, 2008 @ 4:50 p.m. MT

Harold Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a union, has written an article for the LA Times criticizing the "stay and defend" or "shelter in place" program that is being proposed for some areas in California.

Here is an excerpt from Schaitberger's article:
Hearing anyone suggest that homeowners should not get out of harm's way is appalling. Hearing a public safety professional make the suggestion is shameless. Stay-and-defend is clearly a half-baked idea from people who believe that saving money is more important than saving lives.

Stay-and-defend has had limited success in the Australian bush, where the tactic has been used for some time. But it has also led to disaster, and the homesteader program would not translate to a state as populous as California. It would thrust thousands of homeowners in the path of raging wildfires without proper equipment or training, unless the state's fire chiefs want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars training Californians and equipping them with their own protective gear and firefighting apparatus. Even if California were to do this, firefighters would still have to rescue the people who stay behind. So what will have been accomplished?
The "stay and defend", "prepare, stay and defend", or "shelter in place" concept began in Australia and South Africa and has been implemented in several locations across the U.S. One of the primary benefits is that it can reduce the deaths of civilians attempting to evacuate and then becoming entrapped by the fire.

For example, 8 of the 14 citizens who died in the 2003 Cedar fire near San Diego perished while they were evacuating. And 19 died while trying to evacuate from the Tunnel (or East Bay Hills) fire in Oakland in 1991.

Most organizations call the program "Prepare, Stay, and Defend". It can only work if the PREPARE phase is complete. If a residence is not fire safe it can't be defended and SHOULD be evacuated.

Of the Cedar fire victims, all of their homes burned in the fire except for one. So in that case Prepare, Stay, and Defend may not have worked, unless those homes had been "prepared", in which case the structure and the homeowner may have been saved from the fire if the residents had stayed and defended.

It is possible that the reason someone may be against using the prepare, stay, and defend program in the West is that they have an erroneous mental picture of the various scenarios of how a wildland fire may approach a structure. If all of their fire experience is in the eastern United States or with urban fire departments, their knowledge of western brush or timber fires could be limited to dramatic videos seen on television with 100-foot flames. But in favorable weather, fuel, and topography conditions, many "prepared" homes can be easily saved, while the homeowner avoids a dangerous evacuation.

If a residence is "prepared" and fire safe, they can in some cases be easily defended by a resident with a garden hose. Sometimes the burning of a structure begins with a single ember, or multiple embers, that ignite a small pile of leaves under a deck, or from fire spreading slowly through dry but mowed grass, or leaves in a gutter--small ignition sources that can be extinguished by a homeowner without any extraordinary equipment.

Wildfire Today wrote on July 23, 2008:
Researchers determined that of the 199 homes destroyed in last October's Grass Valley fire near Lake Arrowhead, California, only 6 of them were directly hit by the fire. The other 193 homes ignited and burned due to surface fire contacting the home, firebrands accumulating on the home, or an adjacent burning structure. The report, by Jack Coen and Richard Stratton, concludes:

"In general, the home destruction resulted from residential fire characteristics. The ignition vulnerable homes burning in close proximity to one another continued the fire spread through the residential area without the wildfire as a factor".
PREPARE is the most important part of this program, and the word should always be used in the title when describing it.

Prepare, Stay, and Defend can work if implemented properly. The IAFF, the International Association of Wildland Fire, and other fire organizations should endorse the program.

More information:
Montana's Preparing Your Home for Wildfire
How American, Australian, and Canadian WUI programs are hitting home
Prepare, Stay, and Defend: A Case Study of Hobart's Urban Interface
Prepare, Stay, and Defend checklist

New study: tree mortality rates double in the west

A new study released on January 22 by the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the journal Science suggests that there will be more dead fuel available for wildland fires. Warming temperatures are responsible for the death rates of trees in the western U.S. and Canada doubling over the last two decades in old-growth stands. Phillip van Mantgem, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and co-leader of the research team, said forests are losing trees faster than new ones are able to grow.

Temperatures in California, Colorado, British Columbia, and Arizona have risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit during the last 20 years, reducing the snowpacks and lengthening summer droughts. The higher temperatures may also be aiding insects and diseases, further increasing tree mortality.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Esperanza fire trial begins

After the last two alternate jurors were selected this morning the actual trial began for Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of 45 counts of murder and arson, including starting the October, 2006 Esperanza fire that overran and killed the 5-person crew of Engine 57 of the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California. Both attorneys made their opening statements today and the first witness was questioned, CalFire Battalion Chief Andrew Bennett.

The prosecutor expects to call about 100 witnesses in this trial which is expected to last at least 40 days. The jury trial is in recess until Monday at 9 a.m.

The Press-Enterprise had numerous brief updates today, and the San Diego Union also has an article about the trial written by an Associated Press reporter. The P-E will have "full coverage" of the trial in Fridays' edition.

Is anyone attending this trial other than reporters and the families of the deceased firefighters? If so, contact me.

Can a forest "receive" a prescribed fire?

Sometimes the person who writes the headline for an article in a newspaper or magazine is not the author. I know this from personal experience after seeing an article I recently wrote for Wildfire magazine appear in the magazine and on their web site with a headline that contradicted the text I wrote in the article.

So I am going to give the author of an article on the Argus Leader's web site the benefit of the doubt about the headline that says:
"Black Hills National Forest to receive prescribed burn"
I have never heard of a forest "receiving" a prescribed fire. The forest issued a press release, but two other news outlets here and here published similar stories without using the "receive" word.

A fire use manager I used to work for on fire use fires, Wayne Cook, frequently referred to fire "visiting" an area. I thought that was cute, and when he used the phrase in front of land managers who were nervous about allowing a fire to burn on their home unit for weeks at a time, it may have calmed their fears just a bit. Allowing a fire to "visit" sounds less terrifying than saying "we are going to let the fire burn".

Sometimes we get locked in to our own jargon, and when someone not in our profession uses terms that are different from our in-house language, we tend to snicker. It's part of the fun of being a firefighter.

And by the way, the official term "Wildland Fire Use for Resource Benefits" is one of the stupidest terms ever invented. I was at the meeting where the term was coined, and argued against it then, but was out-voted.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A sea of cameras

Photo: VentureBeat

A sea of cameras greeted the new President and First Lady at the Youth Ball yesterday. Sometimes people spend more time taking photos at an event than actually witnessing it.

Wildfire news, January 21

Sprint asks for $2 billion for emergency communications network

Sprint Nextel sent a proposal to Obama's transition team on January 6 asking the government to fund a $2 billion emergency network to improve communication among first responders during disasters.

The system would consist of 100 satellite-based light trucks and 100,000 mobile handsets to be staged at 40 sites around the country. Sprint claims the system could be programmed to be interoperable with existing public safety networks.

Fire on Moore Air Base

A 2,500 acre fire on the former Moore Air Force Base 14 miles northwest of Mission, Texas destroyed four structures, including one aircraft hangar. Initial estimates placed the damage to the base at $10 million.

A recent picture of Moore Air Base

The Air Force used the base for training pilots off and on between 1941 and 1962, when it was turned over to the U. S. Department of Agriculture to be used as a base for aerial screwworm fly control. It then became known as Moore Air Base. The USDA ceased using the base in 1982 and it is now a private airfield.

Esperanza fire opening statements expected on Thursday

Jury selection in the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of starting the fire that killed the 5-person USFS engine crew in 2007, is almost complete. An additional 80 jury candidates will be interviewed today, Wednesday, with Thursday being the likely day on which the actual trial will begin with opening statements. Oyler faces the death penalty and has been charged with 45 counts, including five first-degree murder charges.

The Press-Enterprise has been providing excellent coverage of this fire, the fatalities, and the legal proceedings.

Hydrogen-powered UAV may stay aloft for 7 days

The AeroVironment company is developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) named the Global Observer that will be powered by liquid hydrogen and will be able to cruise at 65,000 feet for up to 7 days. The primary use of the aircraft is for the military, but it may also be used for civilian operations including wildfires--for detection, monitoring, and communications.

AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, California, began testing a prototype of the 8-engine aircraft in 2005. It carries 1,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen which is converted to electric energy by an onboard fuel cell, generating electricity for the 8 ironless-core electric motors.

HERE is a link to a 1 minute 45 second video of a 2005 test flight of the Global Observer.

AeroVironment is the company that created the Helios UAV powered by sunlight and batteries which could stay aloft for days at a time. It had massive amounts of photovoltaic cells embedded on the top of the wings and flew unmanned on solar power alone up to 96,863 feet, setting a record in 2001 for sustained horizontal flight by a winged aircraft. It crashed in 2003 off the coast of Hawaii after encountering turbulence.

Helios solar-electric-powered UAV

Helios disintegrates as it falls into the Pacific Ocean

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Report issued about East Slide Rock Ridge fire

The East Slide Rock Ridge fire received the Wildfire Today award for the Worst Fire Name of 2008. We covered this northeast Nevada fire back in late August, and now a report has been released.

It started on August 9 and was managed as a Fire Use fire until August 23 when it was declared a suppression fire when Paul Summerfelt's Type 1 incident management team assumed command.

Here are some excerpts from an article in the Elko Daily Free Press:
The report claimed there were a shortage of rangers and staff with Wildland Fire Use experience; the one ranger with training to administer the fire was handling three additional wildfires hundreds of miles away; analysis of current and predicted fire weather, behavior and fuels indexes was lacking; weather and fire potential predictions were not considered in the decision process to use the wildland fire strategy; and the fire’s management area was not defensible.

“Because of the lack of critical information, it is not clear from reviewing the documents if the East Slide Rock Ridge fire met guidelines for (Wildland Fire Use),” the report said.

Edward Monnig, Humboldt Toiyabe Forest supervisor, said the report identifies a number of management and process steps that could be improved in the future fire management.

“However, I would also add that few of those items identified in the report would have significantly affected the outcome of the East Slide Rock Ridge Fire,” he said.

Monnig said the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest will take a “hard look” at how it conducted 2008 operations, but will continue to use fire as a tool to manage the “ever increasing amount of fuels in our forests.”


The August blaze began in steep, rugged terrain. Summer winds quickly spread the fire beyond where it was originally anticipated to stay, eventually encompassing a 60,000 acre area — the equivalent of 94 square miles — although it left large pockets of unburned area within its perimeter. It escaped the forest and burned more than 2,000 acres of BLM land and 1,661 acres of private rangelands.

The Forest Service has secured about $160,000 to reseed these private areas and speed the natural recovery process.


Elko County Commissioner Sheri Eklund-Brown, who participated in a team that reviewed the fire, said there were lessons learned from the East Slide Rock Ridge Fire.

“The problem with this fire in particular was it was a new process being used by the Forest Service here and we had an interim district ranger and a new district ranger in charge who were not completely familiar with the process and the area,” she said. “Mistakes were, unfortunately, imminent in that kind of situation with the weather changes that occurred. ... All agencies will work together to try and remedy those types of situations in the future.”
The Inciweb page on the fire is HERE, and HERE is a link to a Google Earth map of the perimeter.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Colorado: Bark beetles, and a dinner honoring firefighters

Colorado is in the wildfire news again today.


The bark beetles that are devastating large areas of Colorado expanded their infestation by 400,000 acres last year, bringing the total number of affected acres in the state to 2 million. More information is at the Coloradoan.

More Beetles

The Colorado Independent created a kerfuffle when the newspaper ran an article on January 9 criticizing FEMA for not taking action in Colorado to mitigate the ongoing bark beetle problem and the threat of fires in the infested areas, saying in the article:
FEMA, for the most part, turned the same deaf ear to the problem that the margarita-quaffing (former FEMA Director) Brown offered Hurricane Katrina victims.

The Colorado Independent's Ready, Fire, Aim article got the attention of FEMA. Today the newspaper published a rebuttal article written by Derek Jensen, an External Affairs Specialist for FEMA in their regional office in Denver. Here is an excerpt from Mr. Jensen's article:
We have forged close ties with various fire agencies, including West Metro Fire District and the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which coordinates resources to battle wildfires within the Rocky Moutain region. We certainly acknowledge we have areas and relationships where we have a role, and we are actively participating in the preparations and discussions about the catastrophic wildfire threat.

However, the article failed to recognize that under current law, forest health is not FEMA’s charge, nor would it be legal for the agency to reduce fuels on federal forest land. Well-intentioned individuals and organizations have approached FEMA in the past suggesting the agency eliminate the wildfire threat by simply declaring a federal disaster and removing the bark beetle infested lodgepole pines. This is not a legal option since FEMA has no statutory authority to address long-term, large scale forest management issues in undeveloped wilderness.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act does allow FEMA to focus on mitigation projects that directly affect the built environment and reduce the costs of all hazards. FEMA funding for such mitigation projects are typically provided on a nationally-competitive basis. Colorado Springs received such a grant in the past for a successful fuels reduction project along the city’s Wildland Urban Interface.

While we do not have the legal authority to remove the beetle kill fuel load in the National Forests, we have used a broad set of mitigation alternatives to prevent losses from wildfire and we will continue to work with our local, state and federal counterparts to prepare for this inevitable disaster. To suggest otherwise is simply ignoring the facts.
A Thank-You Dinner for Firefighters

Community groups and businesses in the Boulder area are organizing a dinner Saturday night to honor the firefighters who worked on the January 7 Neva fire. The dinner is open to the public and anyone affected by the fire. Several businesses are donating kegs of beer, cases of wine, and platters of sushi. This is certainly a very nice gesture. I have not developed a taste for raw fish, but I have learned to appreciate beer and wine, and even more so when it's free.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Colorado senator criticized for fighting fire

Colorado state Senator Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, (in picture on the right) is being criticized by one of his constituents for helping to fight the 3,000+ acre Neva fire near Boulder on January 7. Gibbs, who has been a qualified Type 2 Wildland Firefighter since 2007, missed the second day of the legislative session while he was working on the fire.

The criticism was in a letter submitted to the Summit Daily News by Breckenridge resident Jason Kaufman. In part, Mr. Kaufman said:
If you did miss a day of work or more, for which you were elected, to fight a fire, then I’m a little confused. Obviously your priorities are not in order and I’m having a difficult time understanding your actions.

Sen. Gibbs, in case you didn’t notice, there is a huge inferno engulfing many of us. We don’t need any more tough guys or heroes, what we need are people who will show up for work and do the job they were elected to do. I know your pal Gov. Ritter gave you a pat on the back for you outstanding job on the front lines of a devastating wild fire. But like I said, that’s not the problem at hand.
In the fall of 2007 Senator Gibbs traveled to California to work on some of the fires that devastated areas in the southern part of the state.

The Art of Fire

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, pilot

The wife of the pilot who made the incredible "landing" in the Hudson River yesterday was interviewed on TV. She of course is stunned and proud of her husband, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, as many of us are. It must take a massive amount of training, skill, and experience to safely glide a powerless airliner down to a safe landing into a river adjacent to New York City. And of course all of the passengers and crew evacuated safely while the huge airplane floated slowly down the Hudson River. Just freaking amazing.

In the interview, Mr. Sullenberger's wife said:
"He is a pilot's pilot, and he loves the art of the airplane."
He is indeed an experienced pilot, having flown F-4's for the Air Force. He is graduate of the Air Force academy, a flight instructor, a licensed glider pilot, a consultant in risk management, and has investigated several aircraft accidents for the Air Force and the NTSB.

He also was instrumental in the development of the guidelines for Cockpit (or Crew) Resource Management (CRM), training that has been used extensively by the airlines. CRM has been adopted by the fire service and is used in our wildland fire leadership courses.

I was intrigued by the "Art of the airplane" comment. I am not a pilot, but can imagine that many high-risk occupations, including pilots and firefighters, require not only formal training and years of experience to be successful at a high-performance level, but these occupations also require something more. Call it common sense, plus the ability to be situationally aware throughout your career and absorb knowledge as situations unfold before you.

I have known people who were otherwise "smart", but did not have the ability to turn an otherwise insignificant event into a learning opportunity. Those who can wring knowledge out of experience, and develop "slides" upon which they can draw as needed later, become artists in their field. They love the "art of the airplane" or the "art of fire".

The behavior of fire is based on the laws of physics. It is not a "dragon" as some say, but a natural process that can be predicted. Some people are better than others at predicting what a fire will do. When confronted with a fire situation, we don't have time to pull out a computer and run fire behavior models. The fire artist does it in his head in seconds, matching the situation in front of him with the slides filed away in his memory bank saved from previous, similar experiences.

An example that comes to mind is igniting a prescribed fire. Anyone can carry around an ignition device and set vegetation on fire. But it is a joy to watch an artist with a drip torch. There are dozens of factors to consider when you have the responsibility of setting the woods on fire, but you can't really think about them all at the same time. It requires skill, knowledge, and matching what you see in front of you with your slides.

The drip torch artist, practicing the Art of Fire, can confidently ignite the vegetation knowing that the result will match one of those slides, not only seconds and minutes later, but even years later as the long range objectives are considered.

Firefighter Eye Candy

Photo by Spencer Weiner, LA Times

There are not too many wildland fires burning right now, so to remind you of what a retardant drop looks like, here is Aero Union's Tanker 00 performing a drop on July 4, 2008 in southern California. It is an actual un-Photoshopped image.... probably taken with a very long telephoto lens, making it appear that the air tanker is very close to the structure.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rocket-launched nozzle

Some "rocket scientists" have designed a device that supposedly would use compressed gas to launch a nozzle with a connected fire hose into a burning building, after which the hose would be charged and the nozzle would flop around destroying everything in the room before finally being pulled out the window by the weight of the charged line, causing the firefighters below to run like hell.

Firing that thing right next to your face, and then having 100 feet of fire hose dragged at Mach 3 across the side of your head, would no doubt give you a story to tell around the fire house for years to come. At least the guy in the photo is wearing SOME personal protective equipment... GLOVES!

I especially like the way the "firefighter" is carrying the hatchet, slipped casually through his belt, ready to put out the fire with a few swift chops or perform a do-it-yourself kidney biopsy.

Insurance companies: part of the solution?

We have wished for a long time that insurance companies would be smart enough to find ways to encourage homeowners to build in fire-safe areas, and to base their premiums in part on the amount of defensible space and the type of construction materials used on the structure.

The Montana legislature is considering 30 bills related to wildland fire. One of them encourages insurance companies to offer discounts to fire-wise homeowners, but numerous insurance companies are whining.

Here is an excerpt from helenair.com:
Spending to stomp out wild fires could be reduced by training and rewarding homeowners to practice fire-safety defense, lawmakers said Wednesday as they presented several bills intended to cut costs.

The bills could force insurers to offer discounts to homeowners living in the wildland-urban interface who take fire precautions, and compel insurers to educate and inspect for preparedness.

Republican Sen. Rick Laible of Darby, a sponsor of two of the bills, said offering discounts on insurance premiums would reward homeowners for being fire-wise.

"You want to change people’s behavior, then give them an incentive," Laible said.

Good fire-safety practices typically include things like clearing brush or using flame-retardant building materials.

Numerous insurers voiced their opposition to the bills during the hearing.

"We want to be part of the solution, but we don’t think it’s fair or correct to tell us to write inaccurate premiums to cover the risk," said Bruce Spencer, spokesman for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Arizona: 6 people, including 4 firefighters, arrested for arson

There is entirely too much of this crap going on. An excerpt from PVVT.com:
Six men were arrested Monday in connection with numerous suspicious fires in the Ehrenberg, Ariz. area dating back to January 2008. Four of the individuals arrested were volunteer firefighters with Ehrenberg Fire Department.

Brothers Joshua Hall, 19, and Joseph Hall, 20, Fernando Lizarraga, 21, Jacob Hicks, 18 and Eldon Campbell, 25, all of Ehrenberg, and James Seaton, 23, of Blythe, were arrested and booked on fraudulent schemes, arson, burning of wild lands and conspiracy to commit arson after the La Paz County Sheriff's Office began investigating fires involving haystacks, wild lands and unoccupied structures occurring on private property and in unincorporated areas of Ehrenberg.

Both of the Halls, Lazarraga, and Seaton were volunteers with the Ehrenberg Fire Department.

According to Lt. Glenn Gilbert of the La Paz County Sheriff's Office, through investigations into several of the fires over a period of a few months, everything pointed back to the fire department.

"Through thorough investigative techniques and tips from the community, the investigative unit was able to determine that current members of the Ehrenberg Fire Department were involved in the fires," said Gilbert in a press release.

Detectives from the La Paz County Sheriff's Office located one of the volunteer firemen on Tuesday and after several interviews, he reportedly admitted to starting the fires. This led to additional names of suspects who were possibly involved and arrest warrants were issued.

The fires were alleged to have been lit for income. Early reports from Sheriff officials stated that the volunteers received approximately $10 per hour for fighting fires.

Gilbert also reported that the Sheriff's office is working with the County Attorney's office for the issuance of five more arrest warrants for individuals that include former members of the Ehrenberg Fire Department.

"Stimulus" for Fires, Parks, and Forests?

In the confirmation hearing today for Ken Salazar, nominated to be the new Secretary of Interior, one of the topics of discussion was how the pending economic stimulus package would affect fire suppression, parks, and forests. From cqpolitics.com:
Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman , D-N.M., questioned Salazar about the economic recovery plan that House Democratic leaders outlined earlier. The summary included funding to fight forest fires and clear wildfire hazards but no money designated for national parks.

Bingaman urged Salazar to make sure the final plan includes funding to address billions of dollars in deferred maintenance projects for national parks, forests and water infrastructure.

In particular, Bingaman said he wants to address a $9.5 billion backlog in maintenance projects at the Park Service, a $5 billion backlog at the Forest Service and $3 billion for aging water infrastructure. He also said the recovery plan could help fund Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

Salazar said he would help the new administration “understand the importance” of those issues. “We know that there are over $2.5 billion of projects ready to go in our national park systems, so we hope to be able to address those in our recovery package,” he said.

Salazar also pledged that he would “clean up the mess” at the Interior Department after a series of ethical controversies under the Bush administration. A recent investigation found that industry officials engaged in sex and drug use with employees responsible for oil and gas leasing. Also, a political appointee was forced out after she overruled scientific opinions on endangered species.

HERE is a related story about pleas for the National Park Service to receive additional funding.

Quadrennial Fire Review is released

The final version of the 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review has been released. Here is a description from the introduction:
The Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR) is a strategic assessment process that is conducted every four years to evaluate current mission strategies and capabilities against best estimates of the future environment for fire management. This integrated review is a joint effort of the five federal natural resource management agencies and their state, local, and tribal partners that constitute the wildland fire community. The objective is to create an integrated strategic vision document for fire management.

The 2009 QFR presents incoming federal policy leadership and the agency senior executives with the driving forces for change, suggested mission strategies, and analyses of workforce and operational capabilities. The document provides a solid foundation for policy discussions within the federal agencies and, importantly, among the federal agencies and state, local, tribal, and other partners. While the QFR is not a formal policy or decision document, it sets the stage for a “strategic conversation” about future direction and change in fire management.
The "Advance Briefing Report" used by the panel that developed the QFR can be found HERE.

NTSB releases report on crash of Flagstaff medical helicopters

The National Transportation Safety Board today released their Factual Report and other information about the mid-air collision on June 29, 2008 of the two medical helicopters in Flagstaff, Arizona. One of the ships carried as a patient firefighter Michael MacDonald of the Chief Mountain Hot Shots who was being evacuated from a fire in Grand Canyon National Park.

Wildfire Today initially covered the incident HERE, and later we provided more information about Mr. MacDonald HERE.

The Factual Report is not the final word from the NTSB on the accident nor does it provide any conclusions, analysis, or opinions. It only provides facts, as the name implies.

Having read through some of the dozens of files that were released about the accident, it appears that there are no earth-shaking revelations. As previously known, the two Bell 407 helicopters, operated by two different medical transport companies, Classic Lifeguard and Air Methods, collided shortly before they were to land at a hospital in Flagstaff. Everyone on board both ships was killed, including the two patients, medical staff, and the two pilots. The Air Methods ship burned after hitting the ground, starting a small vegetation fire, and the other did not.

The report states that both of the ships' dispatchers notified the hospital dispatcher that the ships were enroute along with their ETAs, but only one of the pilots communicated directly with the hospital by radio in the minutes before they were to land.

Wildfire Today learned after reading the NTSB reports that Tom Clausing, 42, formerly a Grand Canyon National Park employee, was the flight paramedic on the same helicopter as Hot Shot Michael MacDonald. Mr. Clausing worked for the park as a Paramedic/Ranger from 2000 to 2006 but at the time of the accident was an employee of the helicopter company, Classic Lifeguard, out of Page, Arizona. He was also a member of the U.S. Army Reserve as a Combat Medic Instructor. Through his own company he taught Wilderness First Responder and rescue courses.

HERE is an article in the Wenatchee World about Mr. Clausing, and a guest book for him can be found HERE. The Red Alder Ranch web site has some information about him written by someone familiar with him through his Wilderness First Responder courses.

Tom Clausing, Wenatchee World photo

Michael MacDonald, photo courtesy of MacDonald family

Classic Lifeguard wreckage

Air Methods wreckage

Book about rescued bear cub

The CalFire firefighter who rescued the "Lil' Smokey" bear cub on the fire in northern California last summer is writing a book about the experience. The cub's paws are almost healed and the rescue center expects to release him back into the wild this winter.

Here is a link to a 34-second news video about the book and the bear.

CalFire helicopter pilots help apprehend arsonist

The Willits News has an article about how last August some CalFire helicopter pilots observed someone setting a fire and then used the rotor wash to pin him down so they could get a good look at him. It sounds rather bizarre, I know. Here is an excerpt from the article:
Mendocino County Superior Court Judge David Nelson on Monday sentenced Gerardo Soto-Gonzales, 33, a Mexican national with a Clearlake residence, to four years in state prison for arson of forestland.

Soto-Gonzales pleaded guilty to setting an arson fire while firefighters were already responding to a major fire east of Willits in August 2008. The charges for the two other fires set near the same location were dropped with the agreement they could be considered by the judge to determine Soto-Gonzales' sentence.

In August, CalFire helicopter pilots spotted Soto-Gonzales setting fires while they were ferrying crews and dropping water on the Island Fire located northwest of Lake Pillsbury near Big Signal peak. The CalFire pilots observed a Hispanic male in camouflage gear kneeling down and lighting a brush pile on fire. The pilots used the force of the air driven by the helicopter rotor to push Soto-Gonzales down, allowing the pilots later to identify him.

A fire crew had to be rescued and flown to a safe area after the arson-set fires threatened their safety. Firefighting efforts were then suspended in the immediate area to allow federal, state and county law enforcement officers to apprehend the arsonist. Soto-Gonzales was arrested on a forest road near the fire's origin.

Soto-Gonzales told arresting officers he was a Mexican national and admitted to starting the fires. He had a lighter in his possession when arrested and other evidence linking him to marijuana cultivation. When arrested, he admitted to officers he was one of a group growing pot in the area.

Investigators estimate the three arson fires burned 45.2 acres of private forestland before being extinguished at a cost of $175,000.

The US Forest Service hired a number of officers in 2007 specifically to target marijuana eradication on public lands. In the week prior to the arson, the officers conducted a series of raids on nearby gardens.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Esperanza fire suspect may have set 46 fires

The suspect charged with murder for setting the Esperanza fire that killed all five members of the crew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 in southern California in 2006 may have set twice as many fires as he is charged with. This information became available when a 30-page brief was filed on Monday, which spells out some of the details of the prosecution's case against Raymond Lee Oyler.

Raymond Lee Oyler, Press-Enterprise photo

He is charged with setting 23 fires, but according to the brief may have set another 23. The judge in the case, W. Charles Morgan, will decide on Friday if the jury will be allowed to hear evidence about all 46 fires.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Press-Enterprise:
Fire by fire, the document says, Oyler improved his skills as an arsonist, setting bigger and more stubborn fires with improved cigarette-and-match devices on terrain increasingly more conducive to spreading a fire.

When Oyler told cousin Jill Frame just before the Esperanza Fire that that he wanted to "burn down the mountain," he was by that time "a proficient and deadly arsonist. He was confident and even cock-sure as he arrogantly predicted that he could start a devastating fire at will," the document said.

The brief reveals background evidence, investigation details and, in the case of three fires, witnesses.

The brief analyzes the time of the fires; describes forensic evidence that matched tire tracks from Oyler's car to one fire; and includes test results that matchsticks from several fires were identical.

Only by looking at all 46 fires, prosecutors contend, will jurors "understand how the defendant taught himself the skill of using grassland fires as a weapon of mass destruction," Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin wrote in the brief.


The document also said tests showed that the wooden matches used to set several fires were chemically identical to each other and concluded they came from the same box, and some were identical to matches found in boxes taken from the home of Breazile's mother.

DNA samples from cigarette butts used for arson devices in fires on June 9 and 10, 2006, matched Oyler's DNA, prosecutors said.

The brief also reveals prosecutors have witnesses for three of the fires.


The 23 newly disclosed fires are often on the same day and near the same location as fires in the complaint against Oyler.

On Oct. 26, the day of the Esperanza Fire, prosecutors say Oyler set four fires, but is charged only with the deadly blaze that started at 1:11 a.m. Other small, quickly extinguished fires were set at 4:11 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Oyler checked into work at 7:52 a.m.

By then the Esperanza Fire was heading up the San Jacinto Mountains -- and shortly after 8 a.m. it overtook the five firefighters of Engine 57 as they defended a home near Twin Pines.

Four of the firefighters -- Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto -- died at the scene. The fifth, Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, died Oct. 31.

The fire burned 43,000 acres and destroyed 39 homes.

The final Oct. 26 arson fire was at 5:06 p.m., about nine hours after the four firefighters' deaths. It burned less than half an acre.

BNSF railroad sued for starting fire

Eleven property owners near Marshall, Washington, just south of Spokane, have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against BNSF Railway for allegedly causing a 365-acre fire in 2007. According to the Seattle Times, the suit...
...cites a state Department of Natural Resources investigation that concluded a carbon buildup in the stack of a BNSF locomotive spewed hot cinders, which started a series of fires along the railroad's right of way.

BNSF was negligent, the suit contends, because 36 similar fires caused by the railroad's locomotives broke out along the same right of way since 1970.

Several of the fires sparked on Aug. 11, 2007, merged, becoming what was called the Marshall Complex Fire, causing evacuations of homes between Marshall and Cheney.

Wildfire Today has written previously about irresponsible railroad companies who fail to perform routine maintenance on their turbocharger exhaust systems and cause fires like those above. It can be very difficult for a cause and origin fire investigator to prove within a reasonable doubt that a particular piece of carbon or brake piece caused a fire, since there is usually a lot of carbon and brake debris along railroad tracks.

On November 22 we wrote:
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 turbochargers 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.
As a former cause and origin investigator, I like to see other investigators doing their jobs well, and getting the attention of irresponsible railroad companies.