Tribal fire chief set fires the department was paid to fight

The former chief of the Kickapoo Tribal Volunteer Fire Department in Kansas was indicted Wednesday on federal charges of setting fires the tribe was paid to fight, Acting U.S. Attorney Tom Beall said. Also indicted was a former volunteer firefighter.

Stephen D. Ramirez, 26, of Horton, Kansas, former chief, and Arlene M. Negonsott, 34, also of Horton, Kansas, are charged with four counts of wire fraud. The indictment alleges Ramirez recruited Negonsott, a volunteer firefighter, to set fires on the Kickapoo Reservation from July to November 2015 that the Kickapoo fire department was called to fight.

The Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas contracted with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide fire suppression services on the reservation. The contract called for the bureau to pay the tribe $600 for each fire it fought. The indictment alleges the defendants set six fires on the reservation.

If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on each count. The U.S. Department of Interior – Office of Inspector General, the Kickapoo Tribal Police and the FBI investigated.

Stupid people are confident, while the intelligent are doubtful

Here is a blast from the past — an article we wrote May 12, 2010.

That headline is how an introduction to a transcript from a radio program begins on the Australian network, ABC. On the program The Science Show, they explored the conclusions reached by David Dunning and Justin Kruger when they studied people’s perceptions of their own talents. Now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, it helps explain why moderately skilled people act as experts, and inept politicians get our votes.

We’ll touch on how this relates to wildland fire in a moment, but first here are some excerpts from the radio show transcript.

…And here’s the kicker; across every test, the students at the bottom end of the bell curve held inflated opinions of their own talents, hugely inflated. In one test of logical reasoning, the lowest quartile of students estimated that their skills would put them above more than 60% of their peers when in fact they had beaten out just 12%. To put that misjudgement in perspective, it’s like guessing that this piece of music [music for 5 seconds] lasted nearly half a minute.

Even more surprisingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect leads high achievers to doubt themselves, because on the other end of the bell curve the talented students consistently underestimated their performance. Again to the test of logic; those topping the class felt that they were only just beating out three-quarters of their classmates, whereas in reality they had out-performed almost 90% of them.

The verdict was in; idiots get confident while the smart get modest, an idea that was around long before Dunning and Kruger’s day. Bertrand Russell once said, ‘In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’ From his essay ‘The Triumph of Stupidity’, published in 1933.

Charles Darwin once said, ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,’ and Dunning and Kruger seem to have proven this point. In light of this, it suddenly becomes clear why public debate can be so excruciating. Debates on climate change, the age of the Earth or intelligent design are perfect real-life examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It beautifully explains the utter confidence of those who, with no expertise, remain stubborn in their views regardless of overwhelming evidence. It makes you want to shake them by the collar and scream about how stupid they are. But evidence shows that’s not the best strategy.

Have you ever been on a fire and met a Squad Boss, Crew Boss, or Division Supervisor who you knew was not the sharpest tool in the cache, but who was supremely confident in their abilities? They might be the person who just can’t understand why their supervisors have not recognized their huge potential and wonder why they have not been promoted every year.

In some cases, this person may be ineffective but benign. Their screw-ups may be inconvenient or costly but not life-threatening. But if someone on a fire, with power and authority, over-estimates their skill and ability, the consequences can be disastrous.

Some people don’t know what they don’t know. They have no idea or self-awareness about the holes in their knowledge and experience. You may know of a politician or two that can be described this way coughsarahpalincough.

I can think of several fatality and near-miss incidents on wildfires where this was, in my humble opinion, the primary cause of the accident. But it is not politically correct for the writers of the accident reports to spell it out so clearly. One report that came close is the one about last August’s escaped prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park where the the writers used the term “hubris”.

How do we avoid the trap of over-confident people making poor decisions on fires?

  • The first step is to be sure that firefighters can proficiently perform the jobs that appear on their red cards.
  • Next, be sure that everyone receives an honest performance rating on every fire, at least a verbal one, and preferably a written one for significant fires or assignments.
  • Conduct After Action Reviews at the end of shifts or fires.
  • And, if you are given an assignment that does not make sense, or causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, say something.
  • If an individual does this to you repeatedly, have a chat with their supervisor or the Safety Officer. Filing a SAFENET form that does not list names may not be effective.


More about the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Santa Ana winds expected in southern California through the weekend

Above: the Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index.  The conditions for Sunday are highlighted on the map.

Firefighters in southern California could be busy over the next few days with Santa Ana winds in the forecast through Sunday. The winds have already started, and caused a new fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base on Thursday to grow quickly pushed by a strong breeze out of the north. Firefighters stopped the fire after it burned 204 acres.

The most severe wildfire conditions will occur on Sunday with “marginal” to “high” threats from Ventura County south to San Diego County, according to the Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index.

Red Flag Warnings and Fire Weather Watches for September 23, 2016.
Red Flag Warnings and Fire Weather Watches for September 23, 2016.

Today there are Red Flag Warning in effect for areas in southern California and along the front range of Colorado.

The Red Flag map was current as of 11 a.m. MDT on Friday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts and maps. For the most current data visit this NWS site. However, that site has not been properly displaying warning areas in recent days. This one may work better.

National Park Service whistleblowers testify to Congress about sexual harassment

Thursday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was at times captivating. For 2 hours and 17 minutes two current National Park Service employees testified as “whistleblowers”, possibly putting their careers in jeopardy and risking retaliation as they described allegations of sexual harassment and a lack of accountability.

The statements and questions from the committee members exhibited very little partisanship. Many of them seemed genuinely shocked and deeply troubled at the numerous examples of sexual harassment that came to light during the session. They frequently thanked the two NPS employees for coming forward and vowed that the committee would be watching closely for any retribution against the whistleblowers.

Four National Park Service units were discussed in regards to sexual harassment incidents: Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Cape Canaveral National Seashore.

Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, has had a 32-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. For the last 10 years she has served as the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management in the park. She described “..a hostile work environment in Yosemite where dozens of individuals have come forward with personal statements of demoralizing behavior to include acts of bullying, gender bias, and favoritism.”

Ms. Martin was asked to describe three of her experiences with sexual harassment.

I was a victim of a peeping tom at the Grand Canyon in 1987. It was a very difficult and painful experience for me. I reported it to two supervisors immediately that first day that I was able to positively identify a park ranger in uniform that was peering through my bathroom window. I had reported it to two supervisors. Visibly shaken, it was very, very difficult for me to do.

She said she was presented with options: do nothing, file a criminal complaint, file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, or agree to a meeting with the two supervisors and the Park Ranger. She chose the meeting. She said she didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaker. The Park Ranger continued his career and recently retired as a Deputy Superintendent at a park.

Representative Jason Chaffetx, Chair of the committee, added that the park ranger was arrested in 2000 for peeping at naked women at a YMCA. In 2001 he was investigated for suspicious behavior or voyeurism behavior near a building. He recently retired as a Deputy Park Superintendent.

In another incident at Grand Canyon National Park Ms. Martin said a U.S. Forest Service employee took photos of her and put them above the visor in his vehicle and told others about the photo. In her office at the Grand Canyon he tried to kiss her, but she pushed him away. Later he applied for the job of Chief of Fire and Aviation at the Grand Canyon. She spoke to the Deputy Superintendent about this incident and that person was not selected for the job.

In a third situation that occurred at a meeting while working in fire management for the USFS, one of her supervisors ran his fingers through her hair. She talked to her immediate supervisor about it, but did not pursue it further, in order to preserve her career. When she reported it to upper management, she was told “It’s his word against yours”. This led her to believe, she said, “There was a culture of tolerance and acceptance of this kind of behavior in her work force… I honestly felt the preservation of my career and the status with my peers was more important than filing a complaint.”

Referring to an investigation of sexual harassment at Yosemite, Chairman Chaffetz said: “It is our understanding that of the 21 people the investigators interviewed, every single one of them, with one exception, described Yosemite as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent.”

The person that did not agree with that assessment, Chairman Chaffetz said, was the Superintendent.

Continue reading “National Park Service whistleblowers testify to Congress about sexual harassment”

Researchers study how to reduce soot produced by agricultural fires

agricultural burning smoke
Smoke plume from the burning of wheat residue on the Nez Perce Reservation. The field was burned using a head fire. The dark color of the smoke plume indicates high soot content. Photo by Emily Lincoln.

The production cycle of cereal crops and grasses in many areas of the United States includes burning fields of post-harvest residue such as wheat stubble. Like smoke from forest fires, smoke produced by agricultural burning can have harmful effects on public health.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Washington State Department of Ecology conducted a study to determine the effects different ignition tactics had on the smoke produced by agricultural burning of wheat residue.

agricultural burning smoke
Smoke plume from the burning of wheat residue north of Walla Walla, Washington. The field was burned using a backing fire. The light color of the smoke plume indicates low soot content. Photo by Emily Lincoln.

They found that smoke plumes produced from burning wheat residue using head fires contained more soot than plumes produced using backing fires.

Soot particles are black aerosols composed primarily of elemental carbon. The World Health Organization reports that soot particles may have significantly greater negative health impacts than other particle types found in smoke and air pollution since these particles can act as a carrier for toxic combustion-derived chemicals.

Red Flag Warnings, September 22, 2016

wildfire red flag warning

The National Weather Service has posted Red Flag Warnings or Fire Weather Watches for areas in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.

The Red Flag map was current as of 9:15 a.m. MDT on Thursday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts and maps. For the most current data visit this NWS site. However, that site has not been properly displaying warning areas in recent days. This one may work better.