Is prescribed fire science still developing?

Last week the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) in Victoria, Australia told the Royal Commission that is looking into last year’s Black Saturday fires that he would not support a 4 to 6 percent increase in prescribed burning, partly because the science was still developing.

But a seven-member panel made up of fire ecologists, CSIRO fire researcher Phil Cheney, and Jerry Williams, former Chief of the U. S. Forest Service, said there is plenty of science available to support burning 5 to 10 percent of Victoria’s forests each year.

Cheney said a good prescribed fire will stop a bushfire for one to two years, and after three years will have a “profound effect” in reducing the rate of spread. For as long as 20 years embers and flame height will be reduced.

Jerry Williams said prescribed fire had an effect even in extreme conditions.

A person might say the science of prescribed burning has been developing for many centuries since indigenous people began routinely setting prescribed fires to enhance the habitat for the plants and animals they needed for survival. In 1804 and 1805 Lewis and Clark documented the use of prescribed fire by native Americans (but at least one of them had an unfortunate result). At some point we have to admit that the science has reached a level of maturity.

Abraham Lincoln said:

Things may come to those who wait…but only the things left by those who hustle.

From the DSE’s Fire Ecology web page:

Fire is a natural part of the Australian environment and has been so for millions of years. Natural ignition (lightning) and indigenous burning practices have shaped our ecosystems over tens of thousands of years.

From Bill Gabbert, February 22, 2010:

Prescribed fire, when applied wisely by experienced fire management personnel, is an essential land management tool.

via @FireInfoGirl

Crews to burn piles on frozen lake

Pactola reservoir, during warmer times.
Pactola reservoir, during warmer times.

UPDATED @ 1:35 MT, Feb. 22, 2010

I talked with the dam keeper at the lake. He said he has never seen piles burned on a lake before. It was done at Pactola about 15 years ago, he said, but no one currently in the area with the Bureau of Reclamation was around then to see it. According to the dam tender, crews from the Rapid City Water Department will actually do the burning. The piles have already been constructed and are near the dam.

The burning is expected to take place on Tuesday, Feb. 23, beginning sometime between 8 and 10 a.m.

UPDATED @ 2:28 p.m. MT, Feb. 22, 2010

The Bureau of Reclamation has postponed the pile burning that was going to occur tomorrow. It turns out that they still have some details to work out, and they want to get the Rapid City Fire Department and/or the U. S. Forest Service involved in the project.

UPDATE @ 12:20 p.m. MT, Feb. 23, 2010

The latest plan is for them to begin burning the piles between 8 and 10 a.m. tomorrow, Feb. 24. There are only six piles and they will be ignited with  a propane torch or “brush burner”, rather than gas and diesel, as Ray suggested in the comments. I am thinking that they will use an attachment something like this one, which is sold by Harbor Freight for $25 and burns at 3,000° F.

Propane Torch

UPDATE Feb. 24, 2010

They burned the piles today.


The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages a lot of dams and lakes around the country, plans to burn driftwood that they will pile onto the frozen Pactola Reservoir this week. Pactola is 15 miles west of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Has anyone ever done this, or heard of burning piles on a frozen lake? My first impressions:

  • The piles would be difficult to light, unless you carefully placed a lot of small branches, twigs, or dry leaves at the bottom. Or, used a great deal of an accelerant to get it going.
  • It is typical to ignite burn piles using a drip torch, using a mix of gasoline and diesel as the fuel. Depending on the content of the pile, it can take a fair amount of the fuel to get a pile going. Some of that burning fuel from the drip torch would fall to the ice and most likely be extinguished. Then when the ice melts you introduce these petroleum products into the lake.
  • When the pile is burning, the heat from the fire will melt the ice, then it becomes a question of which will occur: the ice melts and the burning pile falls into the lake, or the ice is so thick that a significant portion of the burn pile is consumed by the fire before the ice melts completely. So how thick must the ice be to burn a significant portion of a pile?
  • Even if the ice does not completely melt all the way down to the water, the bottom of the pile will be sitting in water soon after the pile is lit, so the wood at the bottom will not completely burn. And as the pile burns and settles, the burning wood will fall into the water on top of the ice.
  • Burn piles with medium to large logs, like driftwood, need to burn for hours for the larger logs to be consumed. I can’t imagine this happening on top of ice.
  • Even if the pile completely burns, which is unlikely, you will be left with a bunch of ash on the ice. Is this what you want in a reservoir that is used as a source for drinking water? On the other hand, if a fire burns near a reservoir, ash can sometimes be washed by rainfall into the lake.

South Dakota governor vows to fight fire in federal wilderness area

According to quotes in an article in the Rapid City Journal, Mike Rounds, the governor of South Dakota, appears to be bellicose and aggressive about fighting fire in the federal Black Elk Wilderness area in the Black Hills National Forest.

The 1964 Wilderness Act includes these provisions:

…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.


….measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases, subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable.

Fire suppression routinely occurs in wilderness areas on national forests, but the use of motorized equipment in a wilderness area usually requires incident-specific approval from the Forest Supervisor, the highest-ranking federal employee at the national forest.

In the article, Governor Rounds implies that he would order state fire resources to take action on federal lands on which the fire suppression responsibility lies with the U. S. Forest Service (USFS). He appears to assume that the USFS would not suppress fires within the wilderness area, but as far as we know, that is not the case.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Gov. Mike Rounds says wilderness designation won’t stop him from sending in state firefighting crews if a blaze breaks out in the Black Elk Wilderness, where a mountain pine beetle outbreak has increased the risk for a major wildfire.

“In an emergency, they’re going to have to stop me from going in,” Rounds said in a recent interview.

But federal forest managers say they, too, plan to fight fire within the Black Elk Wilderness. In fact, crews have fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years, according to Black Hills National Forest supervisor Craig Bobzien. The amount and type of equipment they would use depends on the fire threat level, Bobzien said.

Rounds has cited the Black Elk Wilderness, where pine beetles have killed up to 80 percent of the trees, as one reason for his opposition to a wilderness proposal for parts of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland east of Rapid City and his support for the National Park Service’s cancellation of fireworks for the Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The Black Elk lies next to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and now poses a threat of wildfire for the central Black Hills, including Rushmore to the northeast and Custer State Park to the south, Rounds said.

Even without fireworks, one lightning strike after a dry period could set off a conflagration, Rounds said. “It’s a matter not of if, but when you have a major fire there.”

Rounds said state firefighting crews would be aggressive if fire breaks out in the Black Elk.

“If it means going onto some wilderness areas in order to stop it, then so be it,” he said. “We’re going to stop it before it gets out and does damage to public property that belongs to the state of South Dakota and before it damages private property and before it gets out and has an opportunity to impact human life.”

But Rounds said he and other state officials are talking with Black Hills National Forest managers to prepare for the coming fire season, including the possibility of a fire in the Black Elk Wilderness or the surrounding Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.

Rounds and Joe Lowe, coordinator of the state Wildland Fire Suppression Division, say cooperation between the state and local Forest Service officials is good.

Bobzien agrees and says that the Forest Service can — and will — fight fire in the Norbeck and even in the Black Elk Wilderness. He said, in fact, that the Forest Service has fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years.

Bobzien said the 1964 Wilderness Act allows firefighting in wilderness areas, with varying restrictions for varying levels of emergency.

The greater the risk of catastrophic fire, the more that mechanized equipment can be used within the wilderness, he said. For example, if a lightning strike starts a fire in moist conditions, Bobzien can authorize hand crews with crosscut saws.

“We have done some of that already,” he said. “That’s routine throughout past fire seasons.”

But if fire breaks out in hot, dry conditions, mechanized equipment up to and including helicopters can be used to fight fire in the Black Elk, Bobzien said.

Gov. Bill Janklow and South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe look over a map during the Battle Creek Fire of 2002. Photo: Rapid City Journal
Gov. Bill Janklow and South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe look over a map during the Battle Creek Fire of 2002. Photo: Rapid City Journal

Governor Rounds’ attitude reminds me of his predecessor, Governor Bill Janklow, who threatened during the 83,508-acre Jasper fire in 2000, to order state fire crews to set backfires out ahead of the fire without any coordination with the Type 1 Incident Management Team that was running the fire. This, of course, would have put firefighters and probably private property at great risk. Bill Waterbury, the Incident Commander, ordered federal marshals to stand by at the incident command post who were prepared to arrest state employees (or even the governor?) if the backfires had been lit.

Janklow also ordered that National Guard dozers be used to build dozer lines way out ahead of the fire, independent of the organized fire suppression effort, creating significant safety and resource damage concerns.

When questioned about the safety of the dozer operation he ordered that did not have adequate supervision, Janklow said if a dozer gets burned over because the operator knows nothing about wildfire, he will just buy another one. When asked, “What about the operator” that gets burned over, he said, “Anyone can outrun a fire”.

In an excellent article by Denise Ross and Bill Harlan in the October 29, 2002 issue of the Rapid City Journal, the situation was described, in part, this way:

When Waterbury arrived as Type I commander, he and Janklow had a frank discussion about who was in charge of the fire.

Waterbury said he told the governor there would be only one incident commander on the fire. “I did make the comment that if it came down to a point of putting firefighters at risk or independent actions, whether that be private citizens or the National Guard, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull all of our firefighters off the line,” Waterbury said in a recent interview. “If necessary, we’d use our federal authority to arrest people who were interfering with our firefighting.”

Janklow recalled the conversation this way: “I told him, ‘You’re not going to arrest me or anybody else. Unless I have your word that this fire won’t go on private property, I’ll fight this fire wherever it’s at.’ And I did.”

But federal firefighters said the fire line Janklow cut damaged forest roads without helping to stop the fire.

I was the Incident Commander during the early stages of the Flagpole fire in 2000 when I received a midnight phone call from Governor Jankow informing me that he was sending fire engines and 17 dozers from all across the state to the fire. I told him that we had plenty of resources and didn’t need them, but those words fell on deaf ears.

Over the next few hours those resources started showing up, with no resource tracking or order numbers, and with no idea where to go or what to do. They just headed to the smoke with no assignment, accountability, briefing, or integration into the organization, creating huge safety issues.

When we turned the fire over to an incoming incident management team, Governor Jankow attended the inbriefing and sat in the front row. I kept waiting for him to speak up and try to dictate the strategy and tactics, but surprisingly and uncharacteristically, he remained silent while I facilitated the briefing.

After leaving the Governor’s office, Bill Janklow became the state’s Representative to the U.S. Congress. But after driving his white Cadillac through a stop sign at 63 to 70 mph and hitting and killing Randy Scott who was on a motorcycle going through the intersection, he was convicted of manslaughter and in 2004 was sentenced to 100 days in jail. In his State of the State speeches, Janklow had boasted about his lead-footed driving habits. After the felony conviction and two days before the sentencing, he resigned from Congress.

I hope Governor Rounds is not using Governor Janklow as his role model. And I suggest that all governors leave the firefighting to the professionals. Any fires in the Black Elk Wilderness will be suppressed, regardless of any ill-informed and ill-advised politicians’ blustering, which tend to strain interagency relationships.

Director of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service dies on Colorado ski trip

Sam D. Hamilton. USF&WS photo
Sam D. Hamilton. USF&WS photo

The Director of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service died Saturday afternoon while on a ski trip at the Keystone Resort southeast of Dillon, Colorado (map). Samuel Hamilton, 54, was pronounced dead after he was transported off the mountain.

The Summit County coroner, Joanne Richardson, in a press release said Mr. Hamilton had suffered chest pains and that the circumstances were consistent with an underlying heart-related condition. He was on a ski trip with friends, and was pronounced dead at 1:16 p.m.

Hamilton was sworn in as the Director of the USF&WS on September 1, 2009 after having been the Regional Director of the agency’s Southeast Region.

The USF&WS manages lands with over 75 million burnable acres and has a very active fire management program.

The Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, issued the following statement after Hamilton’s death was reported Saturday:

The Interior Department family has suffered a great loss with the passing of Sam Hamilton. Sam was a friend, a visionary and a professional whose years of service and passionate dedication to his work have left an indelible mark on the lands and wildlife we cherish. His forward-thinking approach to conservation — including his view that we must think beyond boundaries at the landscape-scale — will continue to shape our nation’s stewardship for years to come…

Our condolences go out to the family and co-workers of Mr. Hamilton.

New NWS fire weather site


The National Weather Service in the U.S. has launched a new “EXPERIMENTAL…EXPERIMENTAL…EXPERIMENTAL” (as they say) web site that contains a great deal of information related to fire weather. An example is above. You can click on the Google Map to get a large variety of information, including fire weather forecasts, activity planner, hourly graphs, spot forecasts, and other products. All of these items have previously been available, but as far as I know, not all in one place.

Here is an example of a map that shows the location of spot weather forecasts.


At the site, you can click on the icons and view the recent spot forecasts. You may have to click on the Calendar to see older forecasts.

Interestingly, the site was created because the server that was hosting an earlier version of the national fire weather site broke, and they are not going to replace it, so it is being hosted at this new web address. *Necessity is the mother of invention.

Thanks Dick

*Borrowed from Plato, in The Republic. Based on the line “Necessity, who is the mother of invention”. Plato was a Greek author & philosopher in Athens (427 BC – 347 BC) I wonder if his copyright has expired?

NFPA confirms Dave Nuss’ selection as wildland fire division manager

Dave Nuss
Dave Nuss

On December 3, 2009 Wildfire Today told you that the NFPA selected Dave Nuss as the Manager of their Wildland Fire Protection Division, succeeding Jim Smalley who retired in September after serving in that position for 13 years.

Today the NFPA issued a press release announcing the appointment. Here is an excerpt:

February 19, 2010 The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has named Dave Nuss the Wildland Fire Protection Division Manager. He will manage all of NFPA’s wildland fire activities, including the well-known Firewise Communities program and will expand NFPA’s role in national and international wildfire partnerships. Nuss was promoted from NFPA’s Denver Region where he provided support and outreach in a 10 state region to NFPA members, fire service professionals, code officials, and other health and safety advocates since 1999.

“Dave is a tireless champion of fire safety and public education. He was a natural choice to head NFPA’s growing involvement in wildfire challenges as fires continue to burn hotter and faster than ever before,” said Gary Keith, NFPA vice president field operations and education.

In his new position, Nuss will oversee NFPA’s wildfire codes and standards for public safety, coordinate a new advisory board of federal, state and non-profit representatives and expand wildfire safety and training opportunities for fire service professionals.

“I’ve devoted my career to fire safety and prevention,” said Nuss. “In my next chapter, I will enhance NFPA’s wildfire initiatives to not only provide critical fire safety training, but to increase promotion of Firewise principals in community and building design.”

Nuss is a career firefighter and progressed through the ranks to deputy chief; he has over 22 years of service in Colorado and Oregon. As a firefighter, he served on various state and national committees regarding technical fire code development and public education and outreach. A graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, Nuss holds an undergraduate degree in Technical Management from Regis University in Denver and a graduate degree in Public Administration from the University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Affairs.