Catching wildfire arsonists

Miller-McCune has released the fourth in their series of five articles about the latest advances in managing wildland fires.


These are really well-done articles and are worth reading. Here is how the latest one, Part IV, about wildfire arsonists, begins:

Sixty-year-old grandmother Charmian Glassman, aka Ma Sparker, started 11 separate fires at Northern California’s Mt. Shasta in 1995, setting each within 10 feet of where she stopped her new Buick at the side of a winding woodsy road.

Her motive? To give her forest firefighter son enough fires to fight to prove himself a hero.

Consultant Paul Steensland, a veteran fire investigator and retired U.S. Forest Service senior special agent, frequently mentions this case when lecturing fire investigators. It’s a cautionary tale about getting too deeply invested in “profiles” of arsonists derived from the analysis of past offenders.

Although every arson case is different, these profiles — the most notable generated by research conducted by the FBI and the South Carolina Forestry Service in the mid-1990s — are markedly similar: Caucasian males in their teens or 20s, unemployed or marginally employed, blue-collar background, living alone or with parents. The profiles’ acceptance is why, even as officers were desperately searching for their arsonist on Mt. Shasta, Charmian Glassman managed to set a couple of fires right under their noses.

“She literally lit two fires within less than 50 feet of where officers were in the brush,” Steensland recalled, “because they just saw her pull by and could see her in her car and said, ‘She’s a grandmother.’ They had been conditioned to look for young white males.”

Thanks Dick

Type 1 and 2 IMTeams to evaluate USFA Type 3 IMTeams in pilot program

In an unusual development, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group has announced a new pilot program in which Type 1 and Type 2 Incident Management Teams will evaluate and mentor the U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA) Type 3 All-Hazard Incident Management Teams. The intent of the pilot program will be to provide recommendations on the possible integration of all-hazard resources in support of wildland fire incidents.

The USFA is responsible for the Type 3 All-Hazard Technical Assistance Program and has developed Basic (I-100) through Advanced (I-400) ICS training as well as position-specific training courses and task books that match NWCG competencies. Currently approximately 70 Type 3 IMTeams have been formed through this system.

The Type 1 and 2 IMTeams that are mentoring or supervising a Type 3 IMTeam, either on or off an incident, will be expected to sign off on their USFA task books and complete performance ratings when appropriate. When Type 3 IMTeams are assigned to an incident the cost for their assignment will be absorbed by the team members’ agencies and the USFA. The costs will not be charged to the incident.

According to the NWCG:

The goal will be to evaluate the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)/USFA program as a nationally viable program to be validated, endorsed and utilized for future national deployment in support of wildland teams or other national mobilizations under ESF4 or other auspices.

It is important to recognize that the intent of this pilot is not to have the FEMA/USFA Program qualify or endorse state and local resources to manage wildfire incidents independently. This would require meeting the National Wildland Fire Qualification System Guide (PMS 310-1); rather, it is to help build all-hazard response capabilities and boost resource availability to support large scale incidents.

The successful outcome of this Pilot Program will enable the wildland and the all-hazard communities to work more effectively together, thereby enhancing the overall national response capabilities.

I am having a hard time picturing how this would work, after a Type 3 IMTeam has gone through this process and had some USFA task books signed off. If they are not going to “manage wildfire incidents independently”, how would they be used? Maybe individuals from Type 3 teams will be cherry-picked to fill individual positions, for example, using a USFA-qualified Type 3 Logistics Section Chief on a fire if there was a vacancy on a Type 1 or 2 team. Surely not. If a Type 3 team had some Unit Leaders on their team (many don’t), it would be easier to integrate them into a Type 1 or 2 team.

Or a full Type 3 team might be used to perform a specific job on a fire, such as running a Functional Group, doing long-range planning, or working with local law enforcement to coordinate evacuations.

If the real goal is to simply give the Type 3 teams more emergency management experience while getting some task books signed off, that makes more sense.

via @FireInfoGirl

Military base uses prescribed fire prior to removing unexploded ordinance

Fort Ord prescribed fire helitorch
Contractors burn vegetation at Fort Ord in the fall of 2009. Photo: Chris Prescott, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Fort Ord, an Army base south of Monterey, California, (map) was closed in 1994. Since then the Army has been restoring portions of the base to a more natural condition. One of their toughest challenges is finding and removing inert and live ordnance in the impact areas which are covered in dense stands of brush, or in this case, “central maritime chaparral”, or CMC.

The ordnance removal teams can’t easily find the unexploded bombs and shells unless the brush is removed. They considered cutting it, but decided that a prescribed fire is the most environmentally friendly method when dealing with one of the last remaining stands of CMC in the state.

Contractors have been doing some of the burning as well as the burn planning. Barry Callenberger, the Principal of Wildland Rx, has been involved in the project. Barry used to work for the U.S. Forest Service on the Cleveland and Eldorado National Forests and in the Regional Office in California, until moving to the private sector in 1997 to work for North Tree Fire before forming his own company.

At least one burn, 500 acres in the fall of 2009, has already been conducted, and the Army plans to continue burning about 800 acres a year on portions of a 6,800-acre area of CMC.

Since 2001, ordnance specialists have removed unexploded ordnance from nearly 2,500 acres, finding over 12,000 unexploded ordnance items and 89,000 pounds of munitions debris.

I wonder if anyone receives hazard pay while working on these prescribed fires?

Via @FireInfoGirl

What are you doing for Prescribed Fire Awareness Week?

Who KNEW that the state of Georgia has designated the first full week of February, February 8-14 this year, as Prescribed Fire Awareness Week? Governor Sonny Perdue recognizes “this valuable tool for improving the health of Georgia’s 24 million acres of forest land”.

A little research uncovered other Prescribed Fire Awareness Weeks:

Florida: since 1997 it has been the second week in March.

North Carolina: had their first one, and possibly their last one, February 7-13, 2010. The Governor’s proclamation only designates a one-time event. Damn. And I missed it.

New York: The Nature Conservancy “celebrates Prescribed Fire Awareness MONTH in June” in the state of New York.

Do other states celebrate prescribed fire?

A rookie firefighter’s view of a season on a Fire Use Module

Joshua Berman has written books about foreign travel and living in Belize and Nicaragua, but when he took a job on the Whiskeytown Fire Use Module in northern California in 2003 it must have seemed to him that he had entered a world as foreign as those central American countries. In an article he wrote for a travel web site, Worldhum, he exaggerates and uses inflammatory language to describe life on a Fire Use Module as seen through the eyes of a rookie. It is a little disturbing to see the job described this way, but judge for yourself. Here is the beginning of the article:

Joshua Berman spent a glorious summer exploring some of America’s most beautiful wilderness areas — with a drip torch in hand.

That summer, my job was to burn, to lay flame across the earth and watch some of America’s most remote and spectacular wildernesses go up in columns of black. It was beautiful.

“Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean,” wrote Ray Bradbury.

But instead of destroying books with flamethrowers, as the futuristic firemen of “Fahrenheit 451” did, our job was to burn forests. Mostly, we used drip torches—heavy, metal cans with crudely soldered handles. These were the tools of choice for manual ignition, clutched in leather gloves, diesel-mix sloshing inside. When the terrain didn’t favor torches—when the fuel (trees, brush, and grass) was patchy, or farther than arm’s length away—we had other methods. We dropped ping-pong balls of napalm from helicopters, set off small bombs in thickets of brush, and shot flaming disks from pistols.

As if none of this was fun enough, we were also mobile, making that fire season one of the most memorable (and lucrative) traveling summers of my life. I worked for the National Park Service, roaming from parkland to parkland, charting our success by numbers of acres burned and number of overtime and hazard-pay hours earned. Not much else mattered. The kicker was, for most wildland firefighters I knew, that money saved in fire season was money spent soon after—usually on travel—when our jobs ended in late fall.

But first, we burned. The idea was, the more land burned, the less fuel there was to go up later. In essence, we were fighting future fires by beating them to the punch. With each new record-setting blaze burning out of control on the nightly news, we learned that treating fire as an invasive, evil force instead of a restorative one, and trying to completely exclude it from our wildlands, was an unnatural, impossible, and ultimately disastrous approach.

On a related note:

–In 2008 the Whiskeytown Fire Use Module’s office was threatened by the Motion Fire when it burned into Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, but previous fuel treatments resulted in lower fire intensities near the structure, making it possible to conduct a safe and controlled burn-out.

–Someone calling himself “duckvariety” is trying to sell a “Whiskeytown Prescribed Fire Module” patch on Ebay. Is that legal? I know, for example, it is illegal to sell uniforms with the National Park Service patch.

Anchorage and Colorado Springs to lose funding for helicopters

The Anchorage Fire Department is losing the funding for the firefighting helicopter that it has been using for the last four years. The grant that had been financing the helicopter is expiring and unless they can obtain new funding from the state of Alaska or another grant, they will not have the use of the helicopter this summer.

Anchorage helicopter
Anchorage Fire Department helicopter. KTUU photo

Colorado Springs can no longer afford to operate their two OH-58C military surplus police department helicopters which were sometimes used on wildfires. They are trying to sell them on the Internet. The minimum auction bid on one of them for $170,000 has been met.

Colorado Springs helicopter
Colorado Springs helicopter

Colorado Springs has some very serious budget problems. They are laying off three firefighters, as well as the police officers and a mechanic that were assigned to the helicopters. The city is turning off one-third of its street lights in order to save $1.2 million in energy and bulb replacement.

UPDATE March 24, 2010:

Colorado Springs sold both helicopters. Here is an article from KKTV dated yesterday:

A bidder from North Dakota has purchased a Colorado Springs Police helicopter that was auctioned off on-line after the city came up short of funds to keep the police choppers in the air.

Michael Kratz bought the helicopter for just over $179,000, That’s $20,000 more than the opening bid. The two helicopters were military surplus and given to the city but the city had to ground the choppers to make up for a budget shortfall.

The first helicopter, a 1968 Bell OH58-C, sold for $170,000 in late February, the second was a 1970 model of the same helicopter.

The sale of the helicopters was handled by City Utilities, that department is responsible for disposing of surplus property.