USFS postpones prescribed fire because county commissioners object

The District Ranger at the Pawnee National Grassland in northeast Colorado (map) has postponed a planned prescribed fire after the local county commissioners adopted an ordinance prohibiting it without local permission.

Mountain Plover
Mountain Plover

At the center of the controversy is the rare and inappropriately-named Mountain Plover. Unlike it’s name, the bird prefers to nest on flat ground that is bare or has short grass. This type of vegetation, or lack of it, can be found following a fire, very heavy grazing, or in prairie dog habitat. The bird is being considered for listing as a threatened or endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Of the 5,000 to 11,000 Mountain Plovers that are estimated to still exist, many of them like to nest at the Pawnee National Grassland. This would be no problem, except that the U. S. Forest Service, which manages the land, likes to conduct regular prescribed fires to enhance the habitat for the bird. And the ranchers who lease the grazing rights on the public land get very grumpy when the grass they lease is burned off. The Federal grazing fee for 2010 is $1.35 per animal unit month, which is a pretty sweet deal for ranchers, and very generous of the U. S. citizens.

The ranchers think their cattle should be used to graze the area and shorten the grass for the Mountain Plover, but the USFS says this  does not reduce enough of the grass to create a good habitat for the the bird.

So the County Commissioners took the side of the ranchers last week and passed an ordinance prohibiting the burns on the USFS land without their permission. Lori Bell, the District Ranger, says the County has no jurisdiction on the federal land, but she has agreed to postpone the prescribed fire until she has a chance to meet with the commissioners on Monday, March 22.

In December of 2008 Ms. Bell signed a Finding of No Significant Impact for a plan to implement a prescribed fire program on the Pawnee National Grassland. There were many opportunities for public input during the planning process. The plan calls for burning up to 6,000 acres each year, with a fire return interval of 10 to 35 years. No more than one-third of any one grazing allotment will be burned in any one year and no more frequently than every 10 years.

In our opinion, sure, the concerns of local residents and permittees should be solicited during the planning process for prescribed fire and other large-scale land management projects, such as when an Environmental Assessment or prescribed fire plan is being written. But after obtaining the input and mitigating any concerns that are appropriate, the best interests of the land and the citizens should be the primary driving force, and not necessarily the loudest of the special interest groups.

Update on Wildland Firefighter Foundation NASCAR design

Wildland Firefighter Foundation
The Wildland Firefighter Foundation (WFF) design for the NASCAR car is currently ranked seventh out of 78,576 entries. In case you missed our earlier posts, NASCAR is sponsoring a contest in which you can design a paint scheme on one of their drivers’ cars, then anyone can vote once a day on their favorite design. The winning paint scheme will actually get painted onto a car and will help pace the field at the 2010 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 22. Tom Stein and his wife, of Boise, Idaho, designed this car to benefit the WFF which assists the families of fallen and injured wildland firefighters.

The rules are a little confusing, but here’s how it works. Each design can be voted on for 15 days, and March 15 was the last day to submit entries. That 15 day period for our car has ended, but some cars are still eligible for votes until the end of the month.

The ten cars receiving the most votes in the first round will move on to the second round which will be between April 1 and April 15.

After the public voting for the ten cars in the second round is complete, judges will select the winner based upon:

1. Number of votes in the second round (20%),
2. Originality of design (20%),
3. Feasibility of design (20%),
4. Creativity of design (20%), and
5. Ability of the design to inspire consumers (20%).

If this car wins it will result in a lot of recognition for the WFF and could help support the families of our fallen and injured firefighters.

Very large air tankers under contract this year

Cal Fire and the U. S. Forest Service are finalizing their contracts for very large air tankers for this year. Here is what we have been told by the two agencies.

DC-10 air tanker dropping
DC-10 drops retardant during a test last week near Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Photo: Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre.

The two DC-10’s, operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier

Cal Fire will have one on an exclusive use contract, and one on a call when needed (CWN) contract. The USFS will have one on a CWN contract. One of these DC-10’s is currently on a contract in Australia, but it should be ending soon. It has only been used on one fire so far this Australian summer.

747 air tanker dropping
747; Evergreen photo

747 operated by Evergreen

The USFS will have it on a CWN contract. It appears that Cal Fire will also have it on a CWN contract, but this is not yet certain.

Martin Mars air tanker
Martin Mars. Photo: Coulson Flying Tankers.

Martin Mars operated by Coulson Flying Tankers

At this time neither Cal Fire nor the USFS have any plans to contract for this aircraft this year. Last year the USFS had it on an exclusive use contract for 2-3 months, stationed at Lake Elsinore in southern California.

ESF-4 to move from USFS to USFA?

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Framework designates the U. S. Forest Service as the “coordinator” and the “primary agency” for Emergency Support Function #4, which is Firefighting. When FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security get involved in an emergency, the purpose of ESF #4 is:

…provides Federal support for the detection and suppression of wildland, rural, and urban fires resulting from, or occurring coincidentally with, an incident requiring a coordinated Federal response for assistance.

We are hearing that the new Director of FEMA, William Craig Fugate, and the Department of Homeland Security are pushing for the U. S. Fire Administration to take over as the coordinator and primary agency for ESF #4. If this occurs, and it was discussed last week at a meeting in Emmitsburg, it would be a big change.

Panther Fire fatality report released

Dan Packer
Dan Packer

The Wildfire Lessons Learned Center has posted the Accident Investigation Report, the Fire Behavior Analysis, and the Time Line for the Panther Fire on which Dan Packer was entrapped and died on July 26, 2009 in Northern California.

Briefly, Mr. Packer, a Division Supervisor (DIVS), was scouting the fire with another Division Supervisor DIVS the day before their incoming Type 1 Incident Management Team was scheduled to assume command of the fire. When the fire behavior increased as predicted, the other fireline personnel withdrew to safety zones, but the two DIVSs did not. As the fire overtook their position, one of them escaped downhill through very thick vegetation, but Mr. Packer deployed his new generation fire shelter. However, the intense heat of the fire and its residence time exceeded the capability of the fire shelter.

Here are the recommendations from the report:



1. Submit the task of evaluation of the Safety Management System (SMS) to the National Safety Council and to Research and Development with respect to the following:

a. Forest Service Wide implementation of SMS
b. Just Culture
c. Inclusion of standard HF analysis in all accident investigations
d. Establishment of Doctrine (Leader‟s Intent) in Forest Service Manual Systems
e. System Safety
f. Organizational Risk Management
(Findings 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9)

2. Solicit Forest Managers to develop a safety briefing procedure for newly arriving personnel that personalizes the safety briefings used in high risk operations. Establish a working group to assess the current forms of communication of safety information transmitted through briefings. This group should produce guidance to reflect actual conditions facing the firefighters on the line and prepare them for the hazards unique to the specific conditions that crews are likely to encounter. The briefings should address safety considerations and procedures unique to the assignment, based on thorough risk assessment.
(Findings 2, 7, 8, 9)

3. Develop a policy to fully evaluate and, if indicated, develop a system which standardizes communication of safety critical information and Crew or Team Resource Management for ground firefighters. If indicated, include this language and CRM training for personnel engaged in high risk operations.

High Reliability Organizations know that odd things can occur and want their people to be on the lookout for these odd or unusual things instead of assuming that they don’t matter or are not important. They train their people to look for anomalies and recognize decoys and most importantly to decouple systems when problems are discovered and then empower employees to act. This was absent as evidenced by the assumptive behavior observed on this fire and common to many fire and aviation accident investigations. Recent investigations have identified this as the “Need for upward voice”. An example of a successful briefing used the phrase, “Let me know if you see anything Dumb, Different or Dangerous.”
(Findings 3, 7, 9, 10)

Family volunteers at Arizona wildfire academy

The Brown family, left to right, Harold, Lindsay, and Cheryl. Photo: Joanna Dodder/The Daily Courier

All of the instructors and staff members at the Arizona Wildfire Academy in Prescott are volunteers, including the Brown family, Harold, Cheryl, and Lindsay, 8. Here is an excerpt from a story in the Daily Courier.

Harold Brown is a 23-year veteran of the Sun City Fire District, working as a paramedic and engineer (fire engine driver). He spent his first three years at the Wildfire Academy as a student, transitioning to the staff last year.

“I’m really glad I came. I felt like I would have missed out, because he comes home talking about it,” Cheryl said.

Harold has served as a base camp manager on wildfires across the country for as long as 21 days at a time, helping set up tent communities for hundreds of firefighters at a time. Now he is training at the Wildfire Academy as a facilities unit leader, another base camp job.

“It’s very rewarding to see all the young students coming in, and there is a lot of camaraderie,” Harold said.

Cheryl is working at the academy check-in desk, helping students find their class locations and selling academy banquet tickets.

“I like helping people,” Cheryl said. “You give in life, it all comes back. And I’m learning, too.”

Lindsay is helping her mom and dad, as well as running around delivering items to various parts of the campus. She’s had the opportunity to ride in her dad’s fire truck before and sometimes eat meals with him at the fire station, but this is the first time she’s worked with him.

While Lindsay was talking about her work Tuesday, she got an assignment to deliver an academy T-shirt to one of the instructors and quickly ran up the hill to another building on the sprawling Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus.

“She’s incredible,” Howard said. “Eight years old and she came in here and did not miss a beat.”

One of Lindsay’s favorite jobs has been reading quiz questions to students in the Interagency Incident Business Management class.

“They’ve worked really hard in that class,” she said.

Lindsay has been collecting firefighter pins and attaching them to the lanyard that holds her name card around her neck. Her pins feature everything from Smokey Bear to the Montecito (California) Fire Department logo. She also has a new T-shirt that reads, “Firefighter’s daughter – keep back 50 feet.”

She is proud to point out that she is the youngest employee at the Wildfire Academy, and even more proud of the Certificate of Appreciation she received Tuesday.

“It’s really hard to get one of these,” she beamed. “You’ve got to work really hard.”

With that, she ran off to deliver something else.

“She just runs and runs and runs,” observed Todd Rhines, a longtime Prescott-area firefighter who is the Wildfire Academy’s safety officer. “My granddaughters would be crashing by now.”

Attending the academy this year are 619 students from 20 states and Canada.