CAL FIRE Riverside County Chief removed from position

Above: Chief John Hawkins speaking at the 9th IAWF Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Pasadena, April, 2006. IAWF photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 12:05 p.m. MST January 20, 2018)

John R. Hawkins, the longtime chief of the CAL FIRE Riverside Unit and Riverside County Fire Department was suddenly removed from his position Friday. Chief Hawkins’ firefighting career has spanned 54 years and he had been in his County Chief position for 12 years.

Replacing him temporarily is Deputy Chief Dan Talbot.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Idyllwild Town Crier:

“All I have right now is Chief Hawkins is no longer the fire chief and the department has put an intern chief in as of now. Chief Hawkins is still an employee and that’s all I have as is now,” said CAL FIRE Chief Mike Mohler of the Southern Region Communications for CAL FIRE’s South Ops.

Chief Hawkins was the CAL FIRE Incident Commander for the 2003 Cedar Fire that burned 273,000 acres in San Diego County. He is beloved by many and is a very dynamic speaker sought after for conferences and training.

CAL FIRE Chief John Hawkins
Chief John Hawkins speaking at the Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Pasadena, April, 2006. IAWF photo by Bill Gabbert.

How does tree mortality caused by drought and insects affect forests accustomed to frequent fire?

Research results were published January 17, 2018

This week a group of nine scientists and researchers published the results of their work considering how unusually high tree mortality affects wildfires in California’s Sierra Nevada forests that over thousands of years have adapted to frequent fire. They point out that fire suppression-caused forest densification has increased competition among trees for water and other resources, destabilizing many frequent fire forests by making them prone to mortality from other agents such as bark beetles.


Scott L. Stephens, Brandon M. Collins, Christopher J. Fettig, Mark A. Finney, Chad M. Hoffman, Eric E. Knapp, Malcolm P. North, Hugh Safford, Rebecca B. Wayman

The abstract and conclusions are below. The entire paper can be accessed at BioScience. The illustrations are from the document.


Massive tree mortality has occurred rapidly in frequent-fire-adapted forests of the Sierra Nevada, California. This mortality is a product of acute drought compounded by the long-established removal of a key ecosystem process: frequent, low- to moderate-intensity fire. The recent tree mortality has many implications for the future of these forests and the ecological goods and services they provide to society. Future wildfire hazard following this mortality can be generally characterized by decreased crown fire potential and increased surface fire intensity in the short to intermediate term. The scale of present tree mortality is so large that greater potential for “mass fire” exists in the coming decades, driven by the amount and continuity of dry, combustible, large woody material that could produce large, severe fires. For long-term adaptation to climate change, we highlight the importance of moving beyond triage of dead and dying trees to making “green” (live) forests more resilient.

Fire Responses Post Drought Beetle
A conceptual diagram showing fuel load and expected fire behavior in a mixed-conifer forest prior to and following a major bark-beetle-caused tree-mortality episode, with either (a) no follow-up-fuels treatment or (b) periodic prescribed fire to consume fuels. Surface-fire intensity is expected to roughly follow surface fuel load, whereas crown-fire potential is regulated by the amount of surface fuel (necessary to heat and dry live fuels to the point of combustion), as well as crown bulk density.


Forest Responses Severe Drought
Forest responses following a severe drought (1999–2002) in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir (SSPM), Baja California, Mexico (a, drought and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality followed by wildfire; b, drought- and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality only) and in the southern California mountains (SCM), California, United States (c, drought- and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality at larger scales; d, drought and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality at stand scale. Note no wildfire in either SCM area). The SSPM and SCM photos were taken in 2004 and 2003, respectively. The SSPM site experienced a wildfire immediately following the multiyear drought (picture from 2003), with the photos capturing effects of both drought- and wildfire-related tree mortality. Pictures (a), (b), and (d) from SLS, (c) from G. Barley.



Unprecedented Sierra Nevada tree mortality has rapidly occurred after a severe drought with effects compounded by forest densification from decades of fire suppression. In the central and southern Sierra Nevada some areas have experienced more than 90% tree mortality, producing extensive landscapes of standing dead trees. This differs from mortality resulting from stand-replacing wildfire because bark beetles do not reduce surface fuels or jumpstart succession of shade-intolerant, fire-resistant pines. Forest managers have been struggling to determine whether these new postmortality conditions will increase wildfire intensity and/or severity, what the near- and long-term effects on forest communities will be, and what the appropriate intervention measures are.

In the first decade, wildfire severity in bark beetle killed frequent fire (FF) forests may be little affected over current conditions. Other than a brief increase during the “red phase” when most dead needles are still on recently killed trees, the reduction in canopy fuels is counterbalanced by an increase in surface fuels (figure 2). However, these are no grounds for complacency because current conditions in the majority of mixed-conifer and yellow pine forests in California already consist of unnaturally high surface fuel loads and corresponding elevated fire hazards (figure 2; Lydersen et al. 2014, Stephens et al. 2015).

The more troubling projection is how extensive loading of large-sized woody fuels in future decades may contribute to dangerous mass fires beyond the predictive capacity of current fire models. These fires can generate their own wind and weather conditions and create extensive spotting, making fire behavior and its impact on structures and public safety difficult to manage and predict. In addition, such intense fires could prevent forests from becoming re-established. Lacking the legacy of live trees that historic FF would have left (Stephens et al. 2008), large unburned areas of dead trees may also produce unusual forest succession patterns. These patterns will likely favor shade-tolerant and hardwood tree regeneration, limited shrub growth, and accumulating large woody fuels that would likely kill regenerating forests when wildfire inevitably occurs. The scale of contiguous tree mortality entrenches the homogeneity produced by fire suppression, reducing the fine-scale heterogeneity of forest conditions that contributes to resilience and biodiversity. Management could enhance adaptation to climate-change-induced stress if it focused more of its resources on creating spatially and temporally variable patterns in green FF forests that are better aligned with local moisture availability and fire patterns (North et al. 2009).

Many of our FF forests have failed to receive the very management that could increase resilience to disturbances exacerbated by climate change, such as the application of prescribed fire and mechanical restoration treatments (Stephens et al. 2016). Recent tree mortality raises serious questions about our willingness to address the underlying causes. If our society doesn’t like the outcomes from recent fires and extensive drought-induced tree mortality in FF forests, then we collectively need to move beyond the status quo. Working to increase the pace and scale of beneficial fire and mechanical treatments rather than focusing on continued fire suppression would be an important step forward.

White House: if the government shuts down, firefighters will work but not get paid

At noon EST Friday, January 19, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget said in a briefing at the White House that if Congress can’t agree on a federal budget or continuing resolution by Friday night, “firefighters will work but not get paid”. Parks will stay open, Director Mick Mulvaney said, but some services in the parks would be suspended.

The video below includes Mr. Mulvaney’s statement about firefighters and parks.

There have been a number of government shutdowns over the last few decades when the Senators and Congressmen have failed to do their jobs and pass budgets. As far as I know, in all cases when “essential” personnel like firefighters continued to work, they eventually were paid for the time served during the shutdown. Up to 80 percent of federal employees have worked through shutdowns in at least one example.

PIlliga Fire closes Newell Highway in New South Wales

Above: The Pilliga Fire 60 km southwest of Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia. Modified Copernicus Sentinel satellite data  processed by Pierre Markuse.

(Originally published at 8:46 MST January 19, 2018)

The Pilliga Fire in Australia between #Coonabarabran and #Narrabri has burned approximately 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) in New South Wales, requiring the closure of the Newell Highway. The fire is burning near Dipper Road, Dandry, in the Pilliga Forest west of the highway.

Pilliga Fire New South Wales
Pilliga Fire 60 km southwest of Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia.

The Rural Fire Service reports that smoke is likely to drift across the Wee Waa, Gwabegar, and Baradine areas. There is, however, no current threat to homes.

Pilliga Fire New South Wales
Pilliga Fire 60 km southwest of Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia.

map Pilliga Fire New South Wales

Revised National Fire Danger Rating System approaches rollout

In this video Dr. Matt Jolly talks about his current project — the first revision of the U.S. National Fire Danger Rating System in 40 years.

After I ran across the video above which mentions the revision of the National Fire Danger Rating System, it made me wonder about the status of the project.

The system tracks weather events through their effects on live and dead fuels and adjusts them accordingly based on forecasted weather. The most visible product, which is used by most large land management agencies in the United States, is the predicted fire danger, often expressed as adjectives ranging from Low to Extreme. (The system used in Australia has those five categories plus one more — “catastrophic” or “code red”.)fire danger rating

The NFDRS was first released for general use in 1972 and was revised in 1978 and 1988. Work on another revision began in 2000 and was last scheduled for completion in 2017. Reportedly this latest version is much simpler and more automated than its predecessors and represents a vast improvement in fire potential assessment capabilities.

Jon Wallace, a member of the team revising the system, said that in tests last year they discovered a flaw in the Nelson model which had been in use for several years that needed to be corrected. And, rounding methods and decimal points in Firefamily Plus and WIMS did not match.

National Fire Danger Rating System 2016

The team feels that all of the hidden issues and bugs have been squashed and rollout plans are being finalized. The U.S. Forest Service has released their plan, and Mr. Wallace will present one to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group the week of January 22.

TBT: Fire effects in Yosemite NP, 1897

For Throwback Thursday we’re throwing WAY back, to 1897. This photo shows Yosemite National Park Superintendent Capt. Alex Rogers standing next to a fire-scarred tree near Tioga Road in September, 1897.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.