When firefighters use their past experiences to affect how they make present day decisions at a fire, sometimes the process is compared to having photos, or slides, in a file or slide tray (for those of us who remember when a photograph could be developed on transparent film, to produce a slide which could be shown on a large screen using an analog projector). Having years of experience with each emergency incident represented by an image or slide in your memory, guides a person on what to expect when a similar scenario is presented. “I have seen this situation before, so I have a good sense of how to deal with it, safely and efficiently”.
Big Sur Kate’s photo above is a situation that not every firefighter has encountered. You’re on a bridge 50 to 75 feet above a fire. The fire can burn under you. What do you consider about how to be in that situation safely? What are your trigger points when your safety begins to be compromised and you move to a different location? I’m not criticizing the tactics of the firefighters in the photo. It just makes me think, since I’ve never been in a similar situation. I have no similar slide.
Kate’s photo is of the Front Fire that was reported around 1:30 p.m. PDT Sunday. As of mid-morning on Monday it has burned approximately 1,000 acres and is being fought by 700 personnel. It is 20 air miles northeast of Santa Maria, California on Highway 166.
Not every part of the country, like Southern California, has the luxury of having 700 firefighters on a fire 18 hours after it starts. The 7,835-acre Howe Ridge Fire north of West Glacier, Montana that has been burning for 10 days has destroyed 27 structures and is causing evacuations. The Incident Management Team can only muster 191 personnel. Part of that fire is in “less than full suppression” mode, with the probable exception of the areas that are being evacuated and where structures burned.
Above: Fire tornado filmed by the Helicopter Coordinator on the Carr Fire July 26, 2018 near Redding, California. The video can be seen HERE.
A “Green Sheet” report on the two firefighter fatalities that occurred July 26, 2018 on the Carr Fire was released this week. Extreme fire behavior during a two-hour period led to a Redding Fire Inspector (FPI1) and a dozer operator (Dozer 1) being overrun by the fire and killed. The report concluded that FPI1, “suffered fatal traumatic injuries when entrapped in a fire tornado while engaged in community protection operations. Dozer 1 suffered fatal thermal injuries while he was improving fireline”, but the report did not say the entrapment was related to the fire tornado.
At times the media or the general public loosely throws around the term “fire tornado”, giving the name to fairly common much smaller fire whirls. But documented fire tornados are much larger, and usually a very destructive weather-induced fire phenomenon.
Below are excerpts from the Green Sheet report:
A large fire tornado was one of the primary causes of the entrapment and death of FPI1 on July 26, 2018. The fire tornado was a large rotating fire plume that was roughly 1000 feet in diameter at its base. Winds at the base of the fire tornado reached speeds in the range of 136-165 mph (EF-3 tornado strength), as indicated by wind damage to large oak trees, scouring of the ground surface, damage to roofs of houses, and lofting of large steel power line support towers, vehicles, and a steel marine shipping container within ½ mile of the entrapment site. The strong winds caused the fire to burn all live vegetation less than 1 inch in diameter and fully consume any dead biomass. Peak gas temperatures likely exceeded 2,700 °F.
Current understanding of how large fire tornados form and propagate suggests that necessary factors include high energy release rates, sources of vorticity (rotating air), and low to moderate general winds. All of these factors were present in the area of Buenaventura Boulevard on July 26. Observations from witnesses and other evidence suggest that either several fire tornados occurred at different locations and times, or one fire tornado formed and then periodically weakened and strengthened causing several separate damage areas.
[…] (From page 8-9; Dozer 1 was improving a dozer line toward Spring Creek Reservoir)
At approximately 5:44 p.m., the fire jumped the top of the dozer line near the access road (picture 2). Multiple spot fires became established in the area. Approximately two minutes later, CREW1 Leader returned to the water treatment plant and asked where Dozer 1 was located. CREW1 Leader was told that Dozer 1 had proceeded down the dozer line. CREW1 Leader made several attempts over the radio to contact Dozer 1 in order to tell him to “get out of there”.
Two firefighters from a local government engine strike team were positioned near the top of the dozer line and recognized the urgency of the situation. They attempted to chase Dozer 1 on foot, but were unable to make access due to increasing fire activity.
CREW1 Leader was finally able to establish radio contact with Dozer 1. Dozer 1 stated he could not get out because he was cut off by the fire, and he would push down instead. Sometime between 5:46 p.m. and 5:50 p.m., radio traffic was heard from Dozer 1 that he was on a bench attempting to make a safety zone. Dozer 1 was also requesting water drops.
At approximately 5:50 p.m., a CAL FIRE Helicopter (Copter 1) began making numerous water drops through the smoke in and around Dozer 1’s last known location. Copter 1 notified the Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO) of Dozer 1’s situation, and HLCO assigned three more helicopters to drop water in the area. HLCO noticed a dramatic increase in fire behavior; however, the helicopters continued to make water drops as conditions worsened. At approximately 6:08 p.m., Copter 1 was forced to land due to a temperature warning light resulting from the high atmospheric temperatures. Approximately 30 minutes later, Copter 1 returned to service and continued to drop water on Dozer 1’s location.
Above: CL-215 water scooping air tankers working the Howe Ridge Fire August 16, 2018. InciWeb photo.
During the last four days the Howe Ridge Fire has spread almost three miles toward the southwest, and also moved south along the shore of Lake McDonald where it is 7 miles north of West Glacier, Montana. On the north end it is less than half a mile west of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
There are 134 personnel are assigned to the 7,835-acre blaze. That is a small number considering its size and the fact that the fire is causing evacuations, has destroyed 27 structures, and is threatening numerous others. Fire officials have not been able to acquire the number of firefighting resources that they need. This is due to reductions in the budgets of the federal land management agencies and competition from the other 55 large wildfires burning across the western states, many of which are also making do with inadequate staffing on their fires.
Below is a video posted to YouTube August 16 by Justin Bilton. He described it like this:
We were camped 2.5 up the North Macdonald Trail when we saw the then small Howe Ridge Fire began to spread from 5 acres to over 2000 in a matter of hours. We hiked back to the car to get out where it was parked at the end of a dead end road. We had just driven this road (safely) 3 hours before to get in and it was our only way out, apart from trying to stay ahead of the fire on foot. After we were stopped by the downed tree, we reversed back through all of this and were rescued by two park employees on a boat. They saved our lives. We were not joyriding through a wildfire.
Very dry weather and record-setting high temperatures in the Glacier National Park area in the last several weeks have dried out the fuels and are causing the fire to spread much more rapidly than is typical for the area. Usually firefighters have days to think about rates of spread and to run fire behavior computer models, but this blaze is shortening those time frames making it difficult, for example, to evacuate the west side of Lake McDonald as quickly as needed.
A weather system will bring slightly cooler temperatures, but the frontal passage will increase winds and cause shifts in wind directions. This could significantly affect fire behavior on the southern and western flanks of the fire. Saturday smoke over the fire prevented aircraft from dropping water.
Crews are working around structures in the Fish Creek Campground area and along the Inside North Fork Road to reduce fuels and to set up sprinkler systems. Structure protection efforts continue along the north end of Lake McDonald using sprinkler systems around the remaining structures on North Lake McDonald Road. Personnel are installing hoses and sprinklers to minimize potential fire spread towards the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Fire managers will continue to proactively plan for protection of other areas as the fire progresses.
The Fish Creek Campground area is now under an evacuation order. Evacuation orders remain in place for the North Lake McDonald road (private residences and the Lake McDonald Ranger Station), Lake McDonald Lodge area (all businesses, employees, and private residences), private residences along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and Sprague Creek and Avalanche Campgrounds.
The National Interagency Fire Center embedded this video in a tweet on August 17, titled “Week in Wildfire”. It is not dated, but apparently covers the week beginning August 12, 2018.
Firefighters, support personnel and military and national guard soldiers continue to work on wildfires across the country. Here’s a look at this Week in Wildfire. Credit: NIFC, Inciweb #PL5#WeekinWildfirepic.twitter.com/grQIC0tOs4
Two fire vehicles fighting the North Eden Wildfire were destroyed August 17 by wind-driven flames. A heavy engine from Woodruff Fire Department and a light engine from the State Division of Forestry Fire & State Lands responded to the fire’s west flank.
One engine experienced a mechanical problem and as both crews tried to make the vehicle mobile again flames quickly moved toward the scene cutting off their escape route. The group of three firefighters was forced to leave the vehicles and escape into the black. No injuries were reported.