Official report shows Fort McMurray Fire created lightning-started fires 26 miles away

Officially named the Horse River Fire, it burned 589,552 hectares (1.4 million acres) in 2016, destroyed 2,400 structures, and forced 80,000 to evacuate.

Above: These two fires started at about the same time on May 1, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Seen just after they started, on the left is the MMD-004 fire inside the city limits of Fort McMurray. The Horse River Fire, often referred to as the Fort McMurray Fire, is on the right. Alberta Forestry photo.

(Originally published at 4:04 p.m MST November 2,1 2017)

As the wildfire season slows in the western United States and Canada we have had a chance to look back on some of the more significant blazes. One of the largest in recent years, if not THE largest, was in 2016 in Alberta, Canada, the 589,552-hectare (1.4 million-acre) Horse River Fire that generally became known as the Fort McMurray Fire. It burst into the headlines when it burned into Fort McMurray destroying 2,400 structures and forcing 80,000 residents to evacuate for about a month.

No one was killed directly by the fire, but two young people died during the evacuation when their SUV collided head-on with a logging truck. One of them was a firefighter’s daughter, 15-year old Emily Ryan, one of three triplets. The other was Aaron Hodgson, her stepmother’s nephew.

Firefighters talk about “extreme fire behavior”, but this fire took it to a different level. For example, according to the report released in June, on May 4 high spread rates and downwind spotting drove the fire 40-45 kilometres (26-28 miles) to the southeast by the next morning. Convection column heights on the afternoon of May 4 reached 12.5 kilometres (41,000 feet or 7.8 miles) and lightning from the pyrocumulonimbus cloud atop the column started a number of new wildfires 40 kilometres (26 miles) ahead of the main wildfire front.

Yes, lightning from the smoke column and clouds created by it started multiple new fires 26 miles downwind.

As climate change extends the length of wildfire seasons, Alberta is no exception. Since 1994 50 percent of the wildfire acres (or hectares) burned in the province have occurred in May. And right on schedule, two fires started at about the same time on May 1, 2016, one within the city limits of Fort McMurray and another west of the city.

They were both detected by a “loaded patrol”, which is a helicopter with firefighters whose mission was to find new fires soon after they started and attack them quickly. The first air tanker group, two air tankers with a bird dog (lead plane), was on scene within 30 minutes. It would have been quicker but the nearest air tanker base, at Fort McMurray, was not staffed with tankers that day.

Below is an excerpt from the report where it discusses decisions made in the first few hours after the fire was detected by the firefighters patrolling in the helicopter.

“Complicating the situation was another wildfire that was reported almost simultaneously with the Horse River wildfire. This wildfire (known as wildfire MMD-004) was located immediately inside the boundary of Fort McMurray, and was in similar forest and weather conditions as the Horse River wildfire. Both wildfires received ground wildland firefighting crews. When air tankers arrived, AF [Alberta Forestry] officials were forced to choose between the Horse River wildfire and MMD-004 for initial air attack. [The photo above shows] both the Horse River wildfire and wildfire MMD-004 on May 1, at 18:35h.

“At the time, wildfire MMD-004 was in closer proximity to structures in the community than the Horse River wildfire and thus posed the greater immediate risk. It was also evident to the first air attack officer that applying air attack on wildfire MMD-004 was more likely to yield a successful result (a decision balancing risk and probability of success). With the exhibited fire behaviour and the time that had passed for the wildfire to gain some momentum, the Horse River wildfire was likely to outpace the actions of the dispatched air tanker groups. Crews on the ground could begin to fight the Horse River wildfire near the origin, but neither ground or air attack would be successful directly on the head of the wildfire. In the end, this judgement proved correct, and wildfire MMD-004 was successfully suppressed without damage to the surrounding values. The consequence was a further delay in the use of air attack to slow or redirect the Horse River wildfire.

“Within the first hour of commencing suppression activities on the Horse River wildfire, it became clear that initial attack efforts would not be successful in containing the wildfire. This awareness required another transition in the thinking of AF and RMWB [Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo]. Operational personnel would continue to attack the wildfire, but the plan needed to shift to the requirement for expanded operations.”

Horse River Fire resources assigned
A graphic from the report showing the growth of the Horse River Fire and the resources assigned.

Short documentary about the disastrous wildfires in Portugal

Above:  Screenshot from the documentary.

Euronews produced this 10-minute documentary about the deadly wildfires that occurred this year in Portugal. The 360 video is very interesting and worth seeing but I could not get it to work properly using the Chrome web browser, however it displayed fine in Firefox.

If the video does not work, you can view it on YouTube.

In 2017, wildfires in Portugal burned about 560,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) of forest, representing 60 percent of Europe’s wildfire total, for a country that makes up just 2 percent of the continent’s landmass.

The fires were the deadliest in the country’s history, claiming more than 100 lives.

Professor accused of stalking members of hotshot crews

During the investigation one crew was grounded — unable to be dispatched to wildfires.

Melissa Ann Santana firefighters hotshots stalking
Melissa Ann Santana. Photo: Flagstaff Police Department.

A former college professor has been indicted and charged with stalking wildland firefighters on two Arizona hotshot crews. Melissa Ann Santana, who at the time was an associate professor of interior design at Northern Arizona University (NAU) at Flagstaff, was arrested October 30, 2017. On November 14 she was indicted by a federal grand jury on eight felony charges, five for stalking, and three for making false statements to federal officials of the U.S. Forest Service.

The day after her arrest her employment ended at the University.

The 36-page federal complaint prepared by Sophia Fong, a Special Agent with the U.S. Forest Service, lays out in intricate detail numerous allegations of Ms. Santana harassing, threatening, following, calling supervisors of firefighters, and posting false information on social media sites. The investigators used multiple search warrants on the sites and Ms. Santana’s cell phone to link her to the false identities used.

Her main targets were firefighters with the Globe and Flagstaff Interagency Hotshot Crews. The victims of the stalking charges include two members of the Flagstaff Hotshots, the fiancée (and later wife) of a Flagstaff Hotshot, a student at NAU, and an unlucky man who was visiting his father in Flagstaff.

The felony “making false statements” allegations are for contacting the Superintendents of the two crews telling both of them, using a false name for herself, that one of their firefighters had impregnated her. She complained that he was not returning her calls — when in fact Ms. Santana had no relationship with the firefighter. She is also accused of telling three supervisors on the  Flagstaff Hotshots, again while using a false identity for herself, that her teenaged daughter was sexually assaulted by firefighters while they were assigned to a fire in Wyoming. The complaint says Ms. Santana does not live in Wyoming, does not have a daughter, and no such assault took place.

On September 9, 2016, during the investigation, the Flagstaff Hotshots were grounded, and prevented by the Forest Service from accepting an assignment on the Soberanes Fire south of Monterey, California. This was near the end of their fire season and would have probably been their last fire. It resulted in a significant loss of overtime income for the crew.

The personal vehicles of two of the victims were vandalized, but the complaint does not say it was done by Ms. Santana. One of the cars was spray painted and the license plate was stolen. The plate later mysteriously appeared at the incident command post at a fire. On the  other car the word “s***” was  was “keyed”, or scratched into the paint and a tire was punctured with a knife.

Of course the accused is innocent until proven guilty, but below we list some of the allegations against Ms. Santana in the federal complaint.

A member of the Flagstaff Hotshots was matched on Tinder to “Ann, 29” in August of 2016. Initially he communicated with her until he realized it was the same person who had contacted one of his co-workers. The next month he received a Tinder message from “Kendall”, but he deleted it and blocked the sender. Then “Kendall Patterson” sent him a message on Facebook:

Hey (redacted) yea, remember me. You are a worthless piece of s***. You do a job that requires no brains what so ever. You are just a tree cutter and hole digger. The government finds you as a disposable front line against fire. You can easily be replaced by a younger dumber version. You are worthless that they don’t really care if a whole crew the the granite mountain guys die. Because you guys don’t provide a unique service….. Be a success like the granite guys and die at your next fire.

In other messages through another Tinder account, this firefighter confronted her to find out what was going on. She explained it was a Snapchat game where they post conversations of guys they “screw over”. More points were awarded for hotshots than engine crews. She mentioned a number of hotshot crews, including Flagstaff, Blue Ridge, Mesa, Black Mesa, Prescott, Morman Lake, Carson, Payson, Sawtooth, and Snake River.

Ms. Santana used 19 different identities to initially contact, threaten, and harass the victims:


  • Ann, 29
  • Ann, 27
  • Amanda, 25
  • Kendall
  • Ann


  • Melissa Santana
  • Ann Santa 73
  • Kendall Patterson 127
  • Kendall Patterson 7393
  • Amanda Foster
  • Jo Hotshot
  • Kelli Torrance
  • Lara Towner
  • Lauren Kholey
  • Brandi Scroggins


  • Amanda Foster
  • Msantana1030

Kik messenger

  • ms1930

And an unspecified alias on Craigslist Las Vegas.

We listed them here in case there are other firefighters that were stalked or harassed by this person that have not yet been contacted by the Forest Service investigators.

The fiancée, now wife, of one of the Flagstaff Hotshots, was targeted by Ms. Santana who posted on the fiancée’s Facebook page the following comment below an engagement photo:

Look at these love birds, Too bad I f***** her fiancé over and over while he was out fighting a fire. He even wanted to keep the relationship going. Said he regretted proposing.

Two weeks later Ms. Santana sent a text message to the woman saying she and the woman’s fiancé were in love and that since the fire season was over they could see each other more often. When she did not respond, Ms. Santana texted back, saying “You’ll regret not talking to me”, and later, “I will show up at your work to address this”. Later that day she was in a restaurant, McMillan Bar and Kitchen, near her workplace. Just after arriving she received a text from Ms. Santana, saying, “Hopefully the mcmillan is fun”. This terrified the woman who two days later purchased a handgun for protection from the stalker.

Ms. Santana knew the time and place of the planned wedding and texted the fiancée, “I guess I will see you [there]. I will probably be f****** in the coat check before you walk down the aisle, unless he dumps your ass before then”. Ms. Santana continued to send similar messages in the months leading up to the wedding, prompting the couple to hire security for the event.

Researchers develop model to predict wildfire occurrence

Their model uses temperature and precipitation to determine probability

A team of researchers from the University of Missouri and the U.S. Forest Service are continuing an effort to research how climate influences wildfire frequency. The model focuses on two variables – temperature and precipitation – to understand how climate drives wildfire across the world.

After acquiring historic fire occurrence data from tree ring and other studies they developed a mathematical model using temperature and precipitation as the two variables. In validation runs, the predictions the model generated were close to actual fire patterns.  As they continued to collect additional historic data from locations around the world during the last several years, they refined the model making it more accurate.

research wildfire probability temperature precipitation
A Combustion-Climate diagram (CCd) of climate influences on fire probability. Climate simulated fire probabilities for ‘natural’ ecosystems using mean maximum temperature and annual precipitation in the PC2FM. This rate diagram explains two temporal differences related to the combustion of ecosystems. Temperature and precipitation affect the reaction rate at the time the reaction occurs while the rate of fuel production determines the fuel concentration and its combustion rate. These two timing conditions differentially determine the rates of the two components of the PC2FM model: ARterm and the PTrc3. (From the team’s research)

“You can see patterns in global wildfire frequency that are obviously predictable,” Michael Stambaugh, an associate research professor in forestry, said. “For example, ¹Greenland doesn’t burn. It’s too icy and wet. It’s on one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is a place like the Sahara Desert, which doesn’t burn either. It’s too dry and there’s not enough fuel. Between those two extremes, we were confident that there was a way to describe the transition.”

The work is being done by Richard Guyette, Michael Stambaugh, Daniel Dey, and Rose-Marie Muzika who developed what they call the “Physical Chemical Fire Frequency Model (PC2FM)”.

More information about their research.


¹Note from Bill: To be clear, Greenland RARELY burns

State cites employer of firefighter killed on Tubbs Fire

KQED reports that Tehama Transport, the owner of the truck that rolled over, failed to provide workers compensation insurance for their employees.

According to KQED the state of California has cited the company that employed the firefighter killed in Northern California October 16 while operating a water tender on the Tubbs Fire.

water tender accident in Napa County
Screen capture from KCRA video of water tender accident in Napa County October 16, 2017.

Garrett Paiz, 39, died when the water tender he was driving rolled over while descending Oakville Grade west of Highway 29. Mr. Paiz was the only firefighter killed on the numerous large fires that broke out during a wind event in Northern California October 8-9. About 40 civilians died in the fire storms which also destroyed thousands of homes.

Investigations by the California Department of Industrial Relations and the state Labor Commissioner’s Office found that the owner of the truck, Tehama Transport, failed to procure workers compensation insurance for their employees.

Below are excerpts from articles at KQED:

The company, like scores of other contractors, has provided water tenders and bulldozers to firefighting efforts. Firms that contract with Cal Fire for heavy equipment are required to provide copies of their current workers’ compensation insurance policies for their employees.

But Tehama Transport did not have to abide by that requirement because it registered as an “owner/operator.” Under that classification, the company was saying that Paiz either had ownership in the company or was a relative of someone who did.

Without that coverage, Paiz’s family, his wife and teenage daughter, might lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.

Cal Fire has hired the company 56 times and the U.S. Forest Service has hired the firm 47 times since 2006, according to documents obtained by KQED.

Tehama Transport appealed the penalty, leading to a hearing that took place Monday. A hearing officer’s decision on the dispute is pending.

In April both a private contractor and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) were issued citations by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) related to a fatality when a dozer rolled over. Robert Reagan, 35, of Friant, California, was killed while fighting the Soberanes Fire south of Monterey, California July 26, 2016.

Minutes after Mr. Reagan began operating the piece of equipment for Czirban Concrete Construction on contract to CAL FIRE, it rolled over.

According to KQED news, Cal/OSHA issued five citations to Czirban totaling $20,000. The largest was $13,500 for not wearing a seat belt.

Czirban had not secured workers’ compensation insurance for Mr. Reagan as required, and had been cited eight times in four years by the Contractors State License Board, several times because of worker’s compensation issues.

CAL FIRE was cited for failing to report a serious injury within eight hours and another for failing to maintain an effective injury and illness prevention program.

Tubbs Fire: garage door in a tree

Garage door in a tree. #wildfire #tubbsfire #santarosa #wind

A post shared by Josey Goggin (@joseygoggin) on

Joseygoggin posted this photo on Instagram taken in the Tubbs Fire, indicating that the object in the tree is a garage door.

The very strong, up to 90 mph, winds during the large wildfires in Northern California October 8-10 caused extreme fire behavior resulting in the destruction of thousands of homes and the deaths of at least 40 people.