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+

Three preliminary accident reports

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published preliminary reports for three recent accidents — two burnovers and one very serious snag incident. Below are the summaries of the three accidents. It usually takes many months for the final, complete reports to be written and released.

Snag accident on the Freezeout Ridge Fire, Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, one injury, September 21, 2014:

Firefighters from the Winema Hotshot crew were working on the Northeast edge of the Freezeout Ridge Fire when a snag fell and struck a Firefighter. The individual was knocked unconscious and it was determined by personnel on scene that life flight medical attention was needed. The individual was treated on scene by crew members, then transported via helicopter, long lined to a heli-spot where he was treated by a paramedic and transported to a hospital in Boise. He is being treated for severe head injuries including a skull fracture, broken jaw, lacerations to the face and head, two broken arms, dislocated thumb, and minor burns.

A Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) team has convened and began to assess the incident.

Because a decision was made to deviate from aviation policy in order to potentially save the life of the injured firefighter, a SAFECOM was filed. That aspect of the incident is covered at Fire Aviation.

Entrapment on the King Fire in northern California, no serious injuries, September 15, 2014:

We wrote about this entrapment live as it was developing.

Below is the information from CAL FIRE’s preliminary report:

The following information is a preliminary summary report referencing a Heavy Fire Equipment Operator , a Fire Captain B and CAL FIRE inmate fire crewmembers involved in a burnover during a wildland fire incident. There were no serious injuries suffered by CAL FIRE personnel or inmate crewmembers. The extent of the damage to the CAL FIRE bulldozer is unknown at the time of this report.

On September 15, 2014, a CAL FIRE Fire Captain (FCB-1), with inmate fire crewmembers (CRW-1), and a CAL FIRE Heavy Fire Equipment Operator (HFEO-1) were assigned to Division K (DIV K) on the King Incident in El Dorado County. CRW-1 and HFEO-1 were working on the northeast side of the King Incident. The reported assignment was to go direct and contain a slop over on a mid-slope road. At approximately 1245 hours, FCB-1 observed an increase in the fire behavior, and determined to cancel the assignment. FCB-1 notified HFEO-1 and with the inmate crewmembers took refuge at a deployment site. HFEO-1 was forced to leave the bulldozer by foot and took refuge at the deployment site with FCB-1 and CRW-1. The personnel deployed their fire shelters. Air support was requested, accountability maintained and their location was communicated. The personnel were evacuated by helicopter and transported to the helibase. They were evaluated by paramedics and returned to the Incident Base later the same day. There were no serious injuries suffered in this incident.

Entrapment on the Black Fire in California’s Mendocino County, September 13, 2014, two minor injuries, three engines damaged:

The Willits News has a photo of one of the engines that burned.

Below is the summary from the CAL FIRE preliminary report:

On Saturday September 13, 2014, at approximately 1625 hours, a rapidly moving wildland fire burned over two local agency Type III engines and one CAL FIRE utility vehicle; destroying one of the two engines and the utility. The second engine sustained significant heat damage. Two local agency fire personnel suffered minor injuries, and were treated and released at a local medical facility. During the same fire run, firefighters on a CAL FIRE engine having to take refuge in a structure. The CAL FIRE engine sustained minor damage. The engine operator suffered minor injuries and was treated and released at a local medical facility.

On Saturday September 13, 2014, the BLACK fire was approximately 50 acres and actively burning with spotting at ¼ mile. The fuel type was primarily oak woodland intermixed with grasslands and areas of chamise. Two local government Type III engines were operating at a structure (Structure 1) along a ridge with the Division Group Supervisor (DIV C) in a utility. At the same time, a CAL FIRE engine had staged next to a separate structure (Structure 2) approximately 100 yards to the south along the same ridge within DIV C.

At approximately 1625 hours, the fire made a rapid, upslope run through a large area of chamise and manzanita located below the road that accessed the structures. All of the structures along the ridge were threatened. Structure 1 ignited and the residential propane tank began to vent. DIV C determined personnel couldn’t safely take refuge in the structure or the fire apparatus. Ultimately it was determined the apparatus couldn’t be moved quickly enough to ensure a safe exit and all personnel at the structure exited the area on foot to a Temporary Refuge Area.

During this increased fire activity a CAL FIRE engine crew took refuge in Structure 2. When the fire front passed, all personnel exited the structure and drove from the fire area. There was minor damage to the state engine.



Forest Service attempts to clarify wilderness photography rules

Alaska mountains

Photo by Bill Gabbert

After a public outcry about a very poorly written and ambiguous proposed rule that would govern the use of still and video photography in U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas, the agency attempted to clarify the draft rule, issuing a press release at 8:45 p.m. on Thursday, stating in part:

“The fact is, the directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only – if you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required. We take your First Amendment rights very seriously,” said Tidwell. “We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive.”

The proposed rule, the way it was explained to the Oregonian’s reporter, would have required permit fees of up to $1,500 for reporters who took photographs in wilderness areas, unless they were covering breaking news. Many critics of the Forest Service’s rule said it violated the first amendment to the Constitution — freedom of the press.

There are several other provisions in the written version of the draft rule that are troubling and give Forest Service employees far too much discretion about what could and could not be photographed or reported on in a wilderness area.

The proposed rule states several times that permits are required for “still photography and commercial filming”. It does not specify that still photography for non-commercial uses does not require a permit. In fact, it implies the opposite.

The application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area”. Employees in the local National Forest get to use their photographic editing skills to make that determination.

A permit can also be denied if a Forest Service official decides that the project does not have “a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. That is a lot of subjective criteria to put in the hands of a Forest Service employee. And it appears to be an attempt to control the thoughts and motives of photographers and film makers. Exactly WHY a person, commercial photographer or not, WANTS to take a photo or make a film should NOT be subject to review by a Forest Service employee. Their only concerns should be to prevent physical damage to the natural resources and to not interfere with the ability of other citizens, also the owners of the public land, to enjoy the wilderness. If the Forest Service is going to incur costs during the filming, such as having a minder there to insure there is no physical damage from a large crew, then the agency is within their rights to charge a permit fee.

The details about this rule are to be found, not in the published draft rule, but in multiple USFS manuals that are referenced, which then refer you to another manual, which then says, for example, the price of the photography permit fees are to be determined by each individual National Forest. So, it’s very confusing and time consuming to attempt to find out what the rules really are. There are 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Navigating that jungle of bureaucracy could be a challenge. And I say that as a former employee of the Forest Service and Park Service.

The Forest Service needs to rewrite the poorly written draft rule to clearly say what it covers and what it does not cover. If more details or requirements are in other publications, those important passages should be included in the rule, rather than forcing a person to go off on multiple scavenger hunts in an attempt to discover what the Forest Service is really trying to say.

The Forest Service also needs to remind their staff, who are employees of the citizens of our great nation, that Forest Service lands are not solely the property of USFS employees. The land belongs to the people of the United States. The Forest Service should be working on ways to make it easier, not more difficult, for the people to enjoy their National Forests.


Satellite photo of wildfires in Northern Idaho and northwest Montana

Satellite photo of fires in N ID and NW MT 9-25-2014

Satellite photo showing fires in northern Idaho and northwest Montana, September 25, 2014. NASA. (click to enlarge)

This satellite photo from mid-day on Thursday shows wildfires in northern Idaho and northwest Montana. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite.

Smoke appears to be trapped in some drainages in Idaho, which was probably produced by the 8,500-acre Johnson Bar Fire and the 8,000-acre Selway Complex of fires. The fire across the state line near Thompson Falls, Montana, north of the smoky drainage in Idaho, is not showing up on the InciWeb maps.


San Diego County hopes to get better fire maps from CAL FIRE

When 14 fires broke out in May of this year in San Diego County many of the fires were managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). A report about the firestorm identified some problems and areas for improvement. One of those was the failure of CAL FIRE to make maps of the fires available to some county officials and the public. The San Diego County Office of Emergency Services has now reached an agreement with CAL FIRE to make mapping a priority.

CAL FIRE is often criticized for their failure to provide maps of ongoing wildfires in the state. The U.S. Forest Service often post maps of the fires their agency is managing on InciWeb, either on the incident’s main page on the site, a.pdf file on the Maps page, or a link where the perimeter can be downloaded in a format compatible with Google Earth. It can take two to five days after a fire starts before maps from a USFS fire are available, but at least most of the time, eventually, the public can view or download maps of a large fire that they fear may be threatening their property. The USFS can do a better job consistently making maps available, especially early in an incident, but in comparison to CAL FIRE, they are far more responsive to the needs of the public.

In the video above, CAL FIRE Capt. Kendal Bortisser said one of the reasons fire maps are not released is because they may cause confusion and panic. It could be argued that keeping the location of fires secret adds more to confusion and panic than the release of a map ever could.