2016 Southwestern U.S. wildfire report now available

Above: Engine 337 of the Tonto National Forest monitors the Juniper Fire, which started by a lighting strike on May 20, 2016 approximately 10 miles south of Young, Arizona. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service, Tonto National Forest.

Wildfires burned nearly 600,000 acres last year in a three-state region of the Southwest U.S., more than double the number of acres burned in each of the previous two years, according to a new report published this week detailing the 2016 fire season.

The report is the fourth in a series of annual overviews made available from the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Ecological Restoration Institute intended to serve as a summary for past years and allow for a comparison with previous fires.

Specifically, the report describes effects from the 12 largest fires — each larger than 8,000 acres — in Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas.

Twelve fires are examined in detail. Four occurred in New Mexico: the North, Dog Head, McKenna and Clavel fires; seven in Arizona: Cedar, Jack, Juniper, Brown, Fuller, Rim and Mule Ridge; and one in Texas: the Coyote Fire.

These 12 largest fires represent nearly half of the acres burned by wildfire in 2016.

Colorado county approves first-of-its-kind deal with Global SuperTanker Services

Above: 747 Supertanker making a test drop with water at Colorado Springs May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A Colorado county on Tuesday approved a deal that sets the stage for a response from the largest firefighting aircraft in the world if and when major wildfires flare up near Denver, marking the culmination of a first-of-its-kind contract.

Commissioners in Douglas County on Tuesday approved the one-year, $200,000 deal with Global SuperTanker Services LLC that gives the county access to the mammoth Boeing 747-400 aircraft that can drop roughly 20,000 gallons of water or retardant — nearly double the capacity of its closest rival, the DC-10.

The deal is unique in that it gives the 800-square-mile county situated between Denver and Colorado Springs exclusive access to the SuperTanker.

“Douglas County is establishing a model for wildland fire-prone municipalities to follow,” Bob Soleberg, senior vice president and program manager for Global SuperTanker, said in a statement Tuesday night to Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation. “Their planning is comprehensive and designed to protect lives, property and the natural resources.”

Additional details about the new deal and information about Douglas County’s partnerships with other aircraft entities in the region is available on FireAviation.com.

USGS to study fuel break effects on wildfires, sage-grouse

Above: Roads through areas prone to wildfire act as fuel breaks, disrupting the fuel continuity, potentially reducing the rate of fire spread. The areas on either side of the road have also been mowed to reduce vegetation height. Photo courtesy of BLM.

The U.S. Geological Survey is gearing up for a project across the Great Basin studying how effective fuel break are, simultaneously evaluating their ecological costs and benefits.

Fuel breaks like sandy roads or other barriers are intended to reduce fire size and frequency by slowing or altogether halting fire’s spread to the other side of the break. Still, questions remain about whether fuel break protect sagebrush and sage-grouse, the USGS said in a comments discussing the new research. 

“We want to determine the extent to which fuel breaks can help protect existing habitat from wildland fires, paying particular attention to how such breaks affect sagebrush habitat, sage-grouse, and other sagebrush-dependent species,” the USGS said in a statement. 

Additional information about the research can be found on the USGS site. 

75 jobs to be cut in Mississippi Forestry Commission due to budget shortfall

The Mississippi Forestry Commission this summer will have to axe 75 positions as part of a reorganization and effort to comply with state-mandated budget cuts, officials announced last week.

The Commission said in a news release it had to address a $2.67 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year — a figure that represents a 16 percent decrease from the current fiscal year. To meet the mark, the state’s seven districts will be consolidated into four new regions. Approximately 75 positions — two-thirds of them reportedly firefighting jobs —  will be eliminated when the reorganization model takes effect July 1.

“Preserving the Mississippi Forestry Commission’s statutorily mandated responsibility to protect forestland, lives and homes from wildfire is our top priority. After much deliberation, the difficult decision was made to consolidate and reorganize districts, leaving as many wildland firefighting ‘boots on the ground’ in place as possible — within the constraints of our current budget restrictions,” Charlie Morgan, State Forester for the Mississippi Forestry Commission said in a news release announcing the changes. 

“The decision to reorganize our districts was not made lightly. We are deeply saddened to lose these faithful employees and appreciate their years of service to the state of Mississippi.”

Some employees will be allowed to apply for new positions in the new regions, though additional details were not immediately available on how many would be eligible.

Mississippi’s fall wildfire season has grown in intensity over the past two years. The Mississippi Forestry Commission responded to and suppressed 1,228 wildfires that burned 13,983 acres in fiscal year 2016 fall wildfire season, officials said. More than 31,000 acres burned statewide in fiscal year 2016, and the governor issued burn ban proclamations in each of the past two years due to dangerous drought conditions.

That’s troubling context, especially given this additional reporting last week about the new round of cuts from The Clarion-Ledger newspaper:

Last year, the commission laid off 25 workers, including all its arson investigators and equipment mechanics, and eliminated six vacant positions because of state budget cuts. With $1.2 million in cuts to personnel last year, the commission is up to nearly $4 million in staff cuts in two years.

“This one will be testing our limits,” said Charlie Morgan, state forester with the Mississippi Forestry Commission. “There was no fat. We took care of that last year if there was fat then.”

New documentary chronicles March wildfires across Midwest ranchland

A new documentary published online last week chronicles the terror and heartbreak ranchers faced in areas of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas when wind-swept fires tore through their communities in March.

Titled “Fire in the Heartland,” the 16-minute film includes interviews with fire personnel and ranchers about the firestorm that ripped through the prairie lands. The video is the latest enterprise work to come out of the disaster — this New York Times piece also detailed some of the tragedy.

And here’s an excerpt about the fire from Climate.gov.

The wildfires tore through cattle country, feasting on grasses made dry by long-term drought and exacerbated by recent warm weather.  Once the fires were started, strong winds whipped the flames, helping them spread more rapidly. According to Reuters, a wildfire in Texas during the beginning of March moved at speeds up to 70mph as it raced across the Texas Panhandle. By the third week of March, the fires had killed at least seven people—not to mention thousands of livestock—and burned more than 2 million acres.

West Mims Fire headlines fade away; firefight and drought continues

Above: A helicopter carries a bucket of water on a drop at the fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo via InciWeb, posted May 14, 2017. 

Remember the West Mims Fire?

The massive blaze that generated national media attention for days, threatened a Georgia town and sent ash falling over densely populated cities has all-but-faded away for most of the country. Aided by Mother Nature, crews continue to gain the upper hand on the 152,000-acre lightning-sparked wildfire, which was 60 percent contained as of this weekend.

Seven helicopters, two air tankers, 135 wildland fire engines, 62 bulldozers, five hand crews, and 1,025 personnel were assigned to the blaze Sunday.

“The fire remained relatively inactive,” officials said in an update.

While “inactive” is the name of the game for the West Mims Fire — and for spring fire situations across much of the U.S. inundated with spring storms and abundant moisture — it’s anything but quiet in the Sunshine State.

Twenty-eight fires in excess of 100 acres burned over the weekend within Florida Fire Service jurisdiction, charring 36,000 acres, according to state figures.

Such blazes blackened 109,415 acres of land so far this year.

Fire danger indices were “high” or “very high” in more than a dozen Florida counties this weekend. Citrus growers “are irrigating daily to keep moisture on the trees,” the USDA reported, and “ditches and canals are very dry in all [citrus] areas.” Plus, livestock producers are having to have hay shipped in as a result of the dry conditions.

And even though some rain was in the forecast for some Florida residents, state officials said they’re not out of danger by any stretch of the imagination.

“We are buckled up for a very long and very hot wildfire season,” said Adam Putnam, the commissioner of agriculture in Florida, according to Bloomberg News. 

Florida drought monitor report May 18, 2017.
U.S. Drought Monitor report May 18, 2017.

Meanwhile, others around the country are enjoying a relatively unusual drought-free reality as June nears.

Feet — yes, feet — of snow fell in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountains late last week as a potent spring storm plowed through the region. And places accustomed to persistent drought, like California, continue to bask in aftermath of an especially soggy winter.

“An active weather pattern continued to result in widespread showers, with some of the heaviest rain falling across the Plains, Midwest, and mid-South,” the U.S. Drought Monitor reported last week.

“Another area of significant precipitation stretched across the middle and northern Atlantic States, while showers also dotted the Northwest. In contrast, mostly dry weather prevailed from California to the lower Rio Grande Valley, as well as large sections of the lower Southeast.”

National drought snapshot, via U.S. Drought Monitor May 18, 2017, report.
National drought snapshot, via U.S. Drought Monitor May 18, 2017, report.

Though hot temperatures are forecast for parts of California early this week, a cold front is expected to move through the Pacific Northwest, bringing cooler conditions and more moisture, according to the National Weather Service. 

Floridians in the meantime will have to keep waiting for the rainy seasons to finally begin, later this month and into June.

“It’s kind of like an ugly cycle. Hot breeds dry and dry breeds hot,” meteorologist Grant Gilmore told the Tampa Bay Times last week. “…It doesn’t look like the cycle breaks in a big way any time soon.”