The “Safety Matters” group releases article about wildland firefighter safety

Photo above: a fire in Idaho, September 2, 2012, by Kari Greer

In January of 2014, about six months after 19 men were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, a group of five former wildland firefighters formed a group they called “Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change”.  Their goal was “to call attention to deficiencies in wildand firefighter safety presented by current wildland fire management systems”. Since then they initiated a Twitter account and a Facebook page and in June, 2014 wrote a 16-page document titled Safety Matters Forum Briefing which identified some commonalities in fatality fires and provided suggestions for improvements in the areas of fatality investigations, the role of the Agency Administrator, fire program leadership, emergency communications, and mapping.

Today, in what one of their members said may be their “swan song”, they released another article about firefighter safety. The entirety of the document is below, but before that is my interpretation and summary of what Safety Matters released:

A. Investigators of serious accidents need to have adequate time to complete their task, and not be given an arbitrary short timeline.

B. There needs to be a single interpretation of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders that is clearly understood by all in order to eliminate any further confusion.

C. It needs to be clarified and understood throughout all levels of the agencies and fire organizations that firefighters will not accept additional risk in order to attempt to save structures. Personnel need to know in advance what the expected response will be if a fire threatens a structure.

D. “Rules of Disengagement” need to be developed.

E. Agency managers need to always work closely with firefighters during critical conditions to eliminate any unnecessary or unacceptable risk to firefighters.

(end of summary)


The Safety Matters document as released today:


Mass gun violence. Police shootings of unarmed civilians. These incidents always – rightfully so – result in public outrage. Yet, mass wildland fire fatalities result in the fallen hero sentiment, though these fatalities were also avoidable. One would think that firefighter safety is the highest priority during wildland fire incidents, right? A repetitiveness of common factors in mass wildland firefighter fatalities over the past 100 years says otherwise. Investigative efforts into the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire found gaps in the application of the goal of making firefighter safety the highest priority on all wildland fire incidents.

On June 28, 2013, lightning ignited a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, and on June 30, the fire overran and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Two separate investigations into the circumstances and conditions of the Yarnell Hill Fire were conducted: One commissioned by the Arizona Forestry Division, which used the federal interagency Serious Accident Investigation Team, and one commissioned by Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH), which used independent contractor Wildland Fire Associates. Although the Arizona State Forestry Division was responsible for managing the fire, any state agency has yet to admit guilt or negligence.

Individual members of the group hired by ADOSH found that mandated time constraints and the refusal of interviews with key players critically limited its ability to fully and accurately complete the investigation. Concerns were encountered through the investigation.

First, the investigative process into serious wildfire incidents is flawed. A single investigation should be conducted by an independent group. Adequate time needs to be allowed to conduct a complete and comprehensive investigation. This group’s final report would be turned over to all vested parties and each party would pursue their own mandate or goal. The National Transportation and Safety Board currently uses such a protocol for investigating aviation accidents.

Second, the role and responsibilities of wildland firefighters aren’t consistently defined and enforced. There needs to be a single interpretation of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders that is clearly understood by all in order to eliminate any further confusion. Agency managers need to state that wildland firefighters will not accept additional risk in order to attempt to save structures. Firefighters also need to consider developing “Rules of Disengagement” so that when they feel the potential risk to their well-being is too great, they can disengage without concern for reprisal. Agency managers need to always work closely with firefighters during critical conditions to eliminate any unnecessary or unacceptable risk to firefighters.

Third, there is a lack of a cohesive plan and understanding among the involved parties of wildfire incidents. There needs to be a clear understanding by all parties, prior to the start of a fire that if a fire threatens a structure what the response will likely be. Conversations between these parties should also address what can be done to alter this response.

Although no agency has accepted responsibility for the missteps of the Yarnell Hill Fire, as former firefighters, we hoped the findings of the investigation would effect change in wildland firefighter safety. But alas, firefighter security on the list of priorities during a wildland fire incident has yet to reach the top. — at Yarnell Hill Fire Fatality Site, January 30, 2016.”

Concerns raised about the choice to lead an inquiry into fatal bushfire in Western Australia

The government of Western Australia is conducting an inquiry into the Waroona Bushfire that in early January, 2016 killed two people, burned 31,000 hectares (76,600 acres), and destroyed 95 homes near Yarloop. Some of the residents were evacuated by boat after they found themselves trapped between the Indian Ocean and the fire.

Below is an excerpt from an article in The Australian:

The man appointed to lead an ­independent inquiry into the ­Yarloop bushfire, Euan Ferguson, ran South Australia’s rural fire service when it was heavily criticised in a coronial report for failing to warn the public about a fire that killed nine people in 2005.

The finding is relevant because Mr Ferguson is now examining complaints from angry Yarloop residents that they also were not adequately warned about the blaze last month in which two people died.

Mr Ferguson was in charge of the Country Fire Service during the so-called Black Tuesday bushfire in Port Lincoln that destroyed 93 homes and wiped out 77,000ha of land [in 2005].

South Australia’s deputy coroner, Anthony Schapel, found the CFS under Mr Ferguson failed to adequately warn the public when the fire began and did not adequately respond to the fire.

“The community to the southeast and east of the fireground were unaware of the risk of the fire in many instances until it was too late,” Mr Schapel found in 2007.

“The fact of the matter was that no adequate measures were put in place or attempted which meant that opportunities to alter the outcome were not taken.

“Because the risk to the public was never properly addressed or appreciated, none of those measures were ever adequately considered. For the same reason no adequate warning was given.”

Yarloop residents say Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services failed to convey the danger they faced before the deadly bushfire destroyed their town on January 7.

The department did not issue its first emergency warning that explicitly mentioned Yarloop until 7.35pm — just minutes before the fire hit…

Red Flag Warnings, February 8, 2016


The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings for areas in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and California.

In the California counties of Ventura and Los Angeles 20 to 35 mph northeast winds with gusts of 40 to 50 are in the forecast until 6 p.m. tonight. The Texas and Oklahoma areas under Red Flag Warnings from noon until 6 p.m. CST tonight will experience relative humidities in the teens with wind gusts out of the north to northwest at around 30. Firefighters in south-central Kansas should expect 20 to 30 mph northwest winds gusting to 45 mph along with a minimum humidity of 30 percent from noon until 7 p.m. CST tonight.

The map was current as of 8:45 a.m. MDT on Monday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts and maps. For the most current data visit this NWS site.

Did humans learn how to use fire as a management tool from birds?

It is thought that birds in northern Australia help spread wildfire by carrying burning twigs.

On 16 occasions in the past we have jokingly used the term “animal arson” when a critter played a part in starting a fire. Examples include a mouse chewing through a power cord (and for a while was thought guilty of manslaughter), a dog chewing on strike-anywhere matches, a pigeon and a sparrow carrying lit cigarettes to their nests, a bird dropping a fish onto a power line, and a bird’s wings contacting two power lines.

Black kite in Bangalore, India. Photo by Yathin S. Krishnappa.

There may be more to this than we originally thought. Researchers have documented multiple instances of anecdotal evidence leading to the belief that birds have helped spread wildfires in Australia’s Northern Territory. There are two primary suspects, the black kite, Milvus migrans and brown falcon, Falco berigora, but other birds of interest are the grasshopper buzzard, Butastur rufipennis in central Africa, and the crested caracara, Caracara cheriway in the southern United States.

Black Kites are found on four continents, but not in North or South America. They feed on small live prey, fish, lizards, carrion, large insects, and have been known to take birds, bats, and rodents. They are attracted to vegetation fires and will fly in from miles away to dine on small animals escaping the flames.

Black Kites fire prey

They like it so much that it is believed they keep the fire going by picking up burning twigs in their claws and carrying it some distance to a patch of unburned vegetation. They will wait with their feathered friends until the fire gets going and their table is set, and then grab the scurrying critters. If the fire slows down too much in that area, the story goes, they will find another burning twig to propagate the fire again.

There is also an account of a black kite dropping bread in a river. When fish congregated around the bait, the kite dived in for a meal. It is not a huge stretch from using bread as bait to carrying fire in order to herd small animals.

The evidence to support this behavior is all anecdotal, but it has aroused the interest of scientists Bob Gosford and Mark Bonta who presented some of their preliminary research on this issue at the Raptor Research Foundation meeting in Sacramento, California November 8, 2015. Their presentation included this theory:

It is also possible that humanity’s acquisition and manipulation of fire may be a result of the observation of intentional avian pyrophilic behaviour rather than solely from some relationship with lightning-caused fire.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “animal arson“.

Very strong winds predicted for Black Hills

Wind gusts up to 60 in the forecast

Weather forecast-Black Hills
Weather forecast for the Pactola Lake area of the central Black Hills in South Dakota, created at 1:30 p.m. MST, February 6, 2016. Click to enlarge.

The National Weather Forecast has issued a High Wind Warning for the Black Hills in Wyoming and South Dakota for this weekend. From 11 p.m. CST Saturday until 8 p.m. CST on Sunday forecasters expect northwest winds of 25 to 35 mph with gusts up to 60.

wind forecast 2-7-2016 black hills
Updated graphic forecast added at 8:20 a.m. MST, February 7, 2016.

In the Central Black Hills area near Pactola Lake, elevation 4,797, the temperature on Sunday will max out at about 33 degrees with a minimum humidity of 39 percent. The winds there on Sunday will be northwest from 28 to 38 mph with gusts from 40 to 53 mph.

At Rapid City, 3,600 feet, it will be warmer on Sunday — 37 degrees — with an RH of 37 percent and wind gusts up to 64 mph.

We can’t find a fire weather forecast, but have heard nothing about a Red Flag Warning.

Wildfire Briefing, February 5, 2016

The above image is from Headwaters Economics

Land use planning to reduce wildfire risk

Headquarters Economics released a report about how five cities have used innovative land use planning techniques as a way to adapt to the growing threat from wildfires. The authors met with city planners, elected officials, and firefighters in Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; San Diego, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico—all communities with a recent history of wildfire and a reputation for being problem solvers.

wildfire planning map
Headwaters Economics

Prescribed fire escapes in Florida

In St. Johns County, Florida on Tuesday a prescribed fire intended to treat 140 acres off County Road 208 escaped control when an unexpected 20-25 mph wind gust scattered burning embers. About 270 acres later the Florida Forest Service was able to contain the blaze.

Spokesperson Julie Maddux said statewide in 2015 the Florida Forest Service burned more than 236,000 acres during prescribed fires and none of them got out of control.

U.S. Forest Service releases findings on the effects of drought for forests and rangelands

The U.S. Forest Service this week released a new report, Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis, that provides a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. This report will help the Forest Service better manage forests and grasslands impacted by climate change.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This report confirms what we are seeing, that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns. Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on our 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year.”

Utah seeks jail time for drone operators that interfere with wildfire operations

Last year there were numerous instances across the West of drones flying into the airspace above active fires and interfering with the operations of firefighting aircraft.

From the AP:

..A new proposal in the Utah Legislature aims to address the growing problem by creating a possible penalty of jail time for people who fly drones within 3 miles of a wildfire.

A House committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon but the hearing was postponed.

Republican Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City, the proposal’s sponsor, said he asked to postpone the meeting so he could get more input from interested parties. He said he may add exemptions for certain entities, such as public utility companies that need to use drones to see if the fire will impact gas lines.

Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry said he hopes lawmakers back the bill…

“I really hope it doesn’t take a major mishap and somebody to lose their life for the public to take it seriously,” Curry said.

Washington state treats less land with prescribed fire than their neighbors

Washington prescribed fire acres

From the Seattle Times:

Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands.

After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.

“I’ve had it. I think it is time to delve into the policy,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represents a large swath of North Central Washington scorched in last year’s record-setting fires that burned more than 1 million acres.

Parlette is sponsoring a pair of “fight fire with fire” bills that would require more controlled burns on state lands and loosen smoke regulations to make it easier for federal and private land managers to conduct burns.

Experts say expanding the use of controlled burns is vital to restoring forests to health, leaving them less vulnerable to massive blazes when the summer fire season hits.

But some U.S. Forest Service officials and other critics say the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, has discouraged controlled burns in recent years because of fears over smoke drifting into communities.