Long Island fires, 1995 and 2012, and Senator D’Amato’s air tankers

Long Island Energy Release Component

The April 9 fires on New York’s Long Island were described by Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County executive, as being “The most serious fire incident we’ve had since the 1995 wildfire”. The fire weather station near Brookhaven on Long Island, New York is setting records for extreme fire danger. As you can see in the graph above, the Energy Release Component is running extremely high this Spring, even higher than in 1995. The ERC describes how hot a fire will burn, and is related to the available energy (BTU) per unit area (square foot) within the flaming front at the head of a fire. Daily variations in ERC are due to changes in moisture content of the fuels (vegetation) present, both live and dead. More graphs showing additional fire danger indices for Long Island can be found on the Eastern Area Coordination Center’s web site.

All of this data helps to explain the nearly unprecedented fire behavior being seen on fires in the area. When we posted the video interview with the local firefighter who became entrapped on April 9 and was seriously burned, Tom Plymale commented about the recent incident:

I was on the 1995 Sunrise fire and personally saw 5 of these burned up “stumpjumpers”. What I learned from talking to locals is they got quite a few wildland fires in the Pine Barrens but they are typically small and easily handled. The lack of fire behavior training and experience during extreme burning conditions is what they lacked. After 1995, there was a group put together to try and help these folks get better training but its been 17 years and they could have a whole new generation of people there. Just my opinion.

The 1995 fire and the “CNN Drop”

The Sunrise fire in late August of 1995 burned about 7,000 acres on Long Island, exhibiting fire behavior most firefighters had never seen in that area. The fire is infamous among wildland firefighters for the battle between a U.S. Senator from New York, Alfonse M. D’Amato, and the Type 1 Incident Management Team running the fire. D’Amato called President Bill Clinton, who was vacationing in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and told him that he wanted military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tankers to help put out the fire. (As a side note, that First Family vacation was in itself an Incident for the local parks and national forests, and the impacts of it were managed by a National Park Service Incident Management Team, with this author as Planning Section Chief).

After talking to the president, D’Amato held a news conference, telling reporters that the C-130s were on the way. But the IMTeam had not ordered any large air tankers, and the fires were nearing containment using only some smaller air tankers and 12 helicopters. D’Amato went to Long Island, and wearing a Fire Chief’s turnout coat, met with several high-ranking FEMA officials, Department of Agriculture executives, and the IMTeam. He was told the C-130s were not needed on the fire. The Senator vehemently insisted, and ultimately a request was placed for two C-130 air tankers from an Air National Guard base in North Carolina, along with a third plane carrying support personnel. When the aircraft arrived, the fire was contained, but an area was found that had a little grass still burning near a highway, with plenty of room for TV trucks. A C-130 was directed to drop there, but before it could release its load a warning light came on in the cockpit and it had to return to the airport. The second C-130 was ordered to make the drop on the still-smoldering grass, and it did, to the delight of the media and Senator D’Amato.

This incident may be one of the first times the term “CNN Drop” was used to describe an air tanker drop whose primary objective was to placate local residents, politicians, and the media.

Thanks go out to Tom and Midwest

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

10 thoughts on “Long Island fires, 1995 and 2012, and Senator D’Amato’s air tankers

  1. The White House actually called the USFS Chief while this cluster was going on. They wanted him to order the C-130s. He explained that the Chief does not order aircraft, the IC does. They pressured him to do it, and he explained to them how chain of command works: he told them on a fire, the IC is God.

  2. I really hate to wander into this discussion and confuse it with facts, but as the OSC1 (Ops Section Chief 1) on the 1995 Sunrise Fire, I can offer some first-hand observations about the use of A/Ts on this fire. When I arrived at the Community College that was to become our ICP, I was greeted by a guy in a white shirt and neck-tie, wearing a USFS baseball cap: his name was Jim Lyons, and he was an Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the USDA. I had met Jim the previous year during the investigation of the South Canyon Fire. His first comment was something to the effect that “Dick, I’m glad you’re here; I’ve got some air tankers ordered.” This was before any of my Division Supes, Air Ops folks or I were on scene or had looked at the fire. And of course, he had never involved NIFC in the ordering process. From there, it went downhill: Senator D’Amato got involved, FEMA Director James Lee Witt showed up as well as Presidential Adivsor Harold Ickes. To call it a serious “cluster-F***” would be an understatement.
    The wind-driven 5000 acre fire event became a non-happening, with our control lines holding using local volunteer engines and a bunch of western Hotshot crews, but the political egos still required that the A/T drop happened. The order to the pilots was to fly high and safe, look good for CNN and then go home. I ended up later talking to the Governor about air drops on NY fires, and came away with the highest regard for the NY State Emergency Management folks as well as the State Forest Ranger staff. NY State adopted ICS later that winter, and it served them well just a few months later when PanAm 109 went down off their coast. I ended up going back to DC in the Spring of 1996 to give the “ICS for Executives” class to the USDA Assistant Secretaries so that they would – hopefully – understand the role of ICS in emergency management of wildfires and never again order air tankers on their own. Politics and wildfire mix together like oil and water! One Assistant Secretary told me that “the White House wants to know about entrapments and burnovers before we see it on CNN.” I laughed in his face, but didn’t get fired! Ah, the memories……..!

    • Dick, you were there, so I’m sure your observations are correct. Here’s an article that has a version of some things that happened before you arrived at the fire. But, it’s written by a reporter in Los Angeles, not a firefighter that was on the scene.

  3. Seems like a common thread of politicians and political appointees NOT listening to the experts.

    I’m not sure when this trend surfaced and triumphed, but I’d bet it probably started when Forestry Technicians and Foresters were marginalized within the Forest Service, and its associated wildland fire mission. Seems all of the “other” ‘ology’ professions steered the ship forward (full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes) without looking at the projected “end state”… ie. – COMMANDERS INTENT.

    One must ask. When was the last time a Forester with a Forestry Technician background was APPOINTED as Chief of the Forest Service (Chief Forester)?

    In terms of COMMANDERS INTENT, it is easily weighed and balanced by the public as a whole. Politicians and political appointees SHOULD be listening to as the experts. Somewhere the trust was lost. Something went FUBAR.

    The public expects and deserves the best. At the minimum, they deserve:

    “Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” ~ Gifford Pinchot

    SAVE THE ARROYO TOAD!!! (pun intended). (FACT: the ‘protected’ Arroyo Toad thrives in the unprotected gutters and waterways of Tijuana, BC, Mexico).

    IMHO

  4. >Daily variations in ERC are due to changes in moisture
    >content of the fuels (vegetation) present, both live and
    >head

    I looked through the NWS statistics last night.

    This is the driest first quarter of the year in Connecticut since record began in 1895. 5.13″ is over an inch less the the #2 year. Massachusetts it’s the fourth driest start to the year, but they’re all clustered from 6″ to 6.25″ so let’s call that a four way tie for all practical purposes.

    It’s a good assumption Long Island is similar.

    Halfway through April we’re on track for a record/near record dry month. I’m not going to hit the panic button yet, since things can change quickly. I’ve seen more then once May deliver two straight weeks of gloom and rain.

    But it’s a year things are getting hinky; I stopped by a fire yesterday and it was Day 2 of hose-and-grub like this was a mid-summer fire. Fires in April are *supposed* to just run along the surface here and not go deep!

  5. Although interesting to ponder why things get so screwed up, this approach to dropping on wildfires that are contain or even controlled isn’t new news. In the fire business its called 3 “P”s, (not P3′s unfortunately) Politicians,Press, Public. With less than the number of fingers on your hands of fixed wing tankers available for fire season 2012 we will be seeing alot more 3 “P’s”.

  6. > In the fire business its called 3 “P”s, (not P3′s
    >unfortunately) Politicians,Press, Public.

    A very experienced Chief explained to me one day, many years ago, part of the decision making that goes into whether to use a “blitz attack” (deliberately flowing more water then your water supply can sustain) was the likelihood of success.

    There may be no way an 1-1/2″ hose would control the fire, but it may well be beyond the 2-1/2″ and 1500 gallon booster tank we had at the time. If you blew your entire load and killed the fire, you were a hero. If you ended up watching a fire burn with nothing left, you’re a zero. If you kept water flowing, at least it looked like you tried your best.

    From a strictly rational firefighting point of view, going for it with the blitz and hope you get lucky might be the right tactic…but from a PR perspective having some guys on an 1-1/2″ flowing water continuously until mutual aid tankers arrived or a hose lay was completed was the better thing — from the perspective of the un-trained residents it would look like you were doing *something* the entire time, not that you failed.

    I’m probably rambling, but PR is inherently part of what we do for better or worse.

  7. I believe the “Smaller planes” that were used were Ag Cats, 6 of them from New Jersey On contract with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. And from what I remember they did a great job, they were being directed by a NY Air Guard C-130. From what I recall, the Maffs C130 were sent away after the CNN Drop, and the Ag Cats were kept on duty for another week or so.

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