Wildfire briefing, July 31, 2013

Two reports released about air tankers

The U.S. Forest Service recently released two reports about firefighting aircraft, the products of contracts issued by the agency. The details are over at Fire Aviation, but here is a summary:

  1.  AVID, a Virginia-based company that employed a crew of retired and current aviation professionals, produced a report “…to build analytical data that can be used to estimate the requirement for airtankers in the future.” The Fire Aviation article about the report can be found here.
  2. The U.S. Forest Service has released a study on how the C-27J could be used by the agency if the Air Force gives them seven of the aircraft as expected.

Summary of fire stats

The National Park Service’s Morning Report written by Bill Halainen has a table that tracks some of the statistics about fires over the last five days. Here is an example from today’s report:

Fire summary, July 31, 2013

Judge rejects California’s lawsuit over 2007 fire

A judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by the state of California against the state’s largest timber company over liability for the 2007 Moonlight Fire which burned more than 65,000 acres in Northern California. The state was hoping to recoup some of the $22.5 million spent fighting the fire.

Last year the company, Sierra Pacific, agreed to pay nearly $50 million and donate 22,500 acres of land to settle a federal government lawsuit over the Moonlight fire.

Congressional Task Force Links Worsening Wildfires to Climate Change

On Tuesday the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change convened a panel of experts on climate and wildland fire to discuss the impacts of climate change on wildfires. Below is an excerpt from an article at the National Journal:

…Panelists cited a number of reasons for wildfire flare-ups, including land-use patterns and insect activity. But the discussion kept circling back to climate change.

“Scientists tell us these changes are not just random variability,” Waxman said. “Bigger and more-intense fires are one of the red flags of climate change.”

Climate-change expert William Sommers, a researcher at George Mason University’s EastFIRE Laboratory, agreed. Sommers cautioned that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will only worsen wildfires in decades to come. “If current greenhouse-gas emission trends are not sharply reversed in the immediate future, we will see observed trends in wildfire risk accelerate,” he warned.

Waxman and Whitehouse asked firefighting and forestry experts for policy recommendations to help mitigate the situation.

Panelists, including Santa Fe, N.M., Fire Chief Erik Litzenberg and Rick Swan, director of supervisory personnel and health and safety for the California Department of Forestry Firefighters, cited budget cuts as a major stumbling block in efforts to combat wildfires, and called for increased funding for park services and firefighters.

“We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of fires, especially in California,” Swan said. “But we are not seeing the same increase in staffing levels and funding.”

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Red Flag Warnings and wildfire smoke map, July 31, 2013

Distribution of smoke from wildfire

Distribution of smoke from wildfires, 2:13 p.m. MDT July 31, 2013

Wildfire Red Flag Warnings, July 31, 2013

Red Flag Warnings and Fire Weather Watches for enhanced wildfire danger have been issued by the National Weather Service for areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah.

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The Red Flag Warning map above was current as of 2:40 p.m. MDT on Wednesday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts. For the most current data, visit this NWS site.

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Apology issued for statements Arizona state official made about Yarnell Hill Fire

(UPDATE at 12:20 p.m. MDT, August 1, 2013)

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said Wednesday that Arizona State Forestry Division Deputy Director Jerry Payne actually did make the statements about the cause of the fatalities that John Dougherty, of Investigative Media, reported. She said this, in spite of the vigorous denials made earlier by Payne and the department’s spokesman, Jim Paxon. Investigative Media has more details on these developments.

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The Arizona State Forestry Division has issued an apology for “unauthorized opinions made by Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne regarding the Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities”.

All but one of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew were overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire and killed on June 30 just north of Yarnell, Arizona.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday the state agency issued a news release after receiving numerous inquiries about statements attributed to Mr. Payne in an article written by John Dougherty of Investigative Media. The Deputy State Forester was quoted as listing a number of mistakes that he said the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots made on the fire, including, according to the article, violating…

… several basic wildfire rules including not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter observing the fire and leading his crew through thick, unburned vegetation near a wildfire.

The news release issued Tuesday by the Office of the State Forester after Mr. Dougherty’s article was published, said in part:

State Forester Scott Hunt wants to make it clear that State Forestry has taken no position on the causes of the fatalities and awaits the results of the two independent investigations that are currently being conducted by the Serious Accident Investigation Team and Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health.

State Forestry apologizes for Mr. Payne’s inappropriate expression of opinion as fact and unfounded speculation that prejudges the ultimate conclusion of the investigation.

Wildfire Today originally wrote about Mr. Payne’s opinions in an article earlier on Tuesday.

Our Analysis

The State Forester did the right thing by putting out an unequivocal apology right away — a smart move that will make this a one- or two-day story, rather than letting it fester for weeks or months. The publicity the apology generates may discourage others from jumping the gun, making half-assed proclamations about who was right and who was wrong before we actually know what occurred on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

With the few facts that are known at this stage about what happened on the fire, what the firefighters knew, and who made which decisions, anyone (including state or local officials or people who leave comments on Wildfire Today), is very premature in pointing fingers and casting blame — or, for that matter, saying no one is to blame. Making assumptions is irresponsible, and is not fair to the 19 deceased firefighters or those who eventually hope to benefit from lessons learned after the facts are known.

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Arizona state official says Granite Mountain Hotshots made mistakes

Granite Mountain Hotshots

(UPDATE at 12:20 p.m. MDT, August 1, 2013)

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said Wednesday that Arizona State Forestry Division Deputy Director Jerry Payne actually did make the statements about the cause of the fatalities that John Dougherty, of Investigative Media, reported. She said this, in spite of the vigorous denials made earlier by Payne and the department’s spokesman, Jim Paxon. Investigative Media has more details on these developments.

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(UPDATE at 12:15 a.m. MDT, July 31, 2013)

The Arizona State Forestry Division has issued an apology for the “unauthorized opinions” expressed by Deputy Director Jerry Payne.

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(Originally published at 12:42 p.m. MDT, July 30, 2013)

An official with the Arizona State Forestry Division told a reporter Monday that the Granite Mountain Hotshots made mistakes and violated procedures that led to the deaths of 19 members of their crew on the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.

John Dougherty, of Investigative Media, recently interviewed Jerry Payne, a deputy director of the Arizona State Forestry Division, who told him that Eric Marsh, the Superintendent of the hotshot crew, was serving as Division Supervisor the day of the fatal accident. One of the captains on the crew took Mr. Marsh’s place and the hotshots were assigned to Marsh’s Division.

Mr. Dougherty wrote that the deputy director told him that while the hotshot crew was hiking from the black, or burned area of the fire toward the ranch house:

…it appears that Marsh violated several basic wildfire rules including not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter observing the fire and leading his crew through thick, unburned vegetation near a wildfire. “The division supervisor broke those rules and put those people at risk.”

The crew became entrapped by the fire and died while they were still 1,900 feet away from the safety zone at the ranch house.

Mr. Payne also said, according to Mr. Dougherty:

The lawsuits are going to start. The sharks are circling.

You can read the entire article at Investigative Media.

Our analysis

It is surprising that key officials are making statements such as the ones above by the state and the opinions expressed earlier this month by Chief Willis of Prescott Fire Department. After most serious accidents or fatalities on wildland fires, individuals wait until the official investigation report is released — and even then may be very reluctant to talk about the incident. It could cause a person to wonder what motivated Mr. Willis and Mr. Payne to be so vocal.

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