Crews make progress on San Diego-area Gate Fire

The Gate Fire, burning in San Diego County since Saturday morning, grew to 1,500 acres by Sunday morning, though crews made progress overnight.

No structures have been damaged, and no injuries were reported.

Rising overnight humidity levels allowed firefighters to make meaningful progress toward complete containment, Cal Fire reported. The fire was primarily burning in grass with some sparse brush and was 30 percent contained by Sunday morning.

Evacuation orders lasted into Sunday.

Fire spreading at ‘dangerous rate’ near San Diego Saturday

A wildfire east of San Diego quickly charred 500 acres and forced evacuations Saturday as hot temperatures and low humidity settled into the region, ending a string of cool and soggy weather.

First reported shortly before noon, the Gate Fire had a “dangerous rate of spread” in a remote area near the community of Jamul, Cal Fire reported via Twitter.

It was 5 percent contained by mid-afternoon.

Five airtankers and three helicopters were making drops on fire at one point, said Cal Fire Capt. Isaac Sanchez, according to the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper. Fire crews from several agencies were helping on the ground.

Wildfire risk? There’s an app for that — in San Diego

Above: Southern California fires, October 2003. The smoke plumes rising from the fires. Moving northwest to southeast along the coast, the first cluster of red dots is a combination of the Piru, Verdale, and the Simi Incident Fires; The next cluster-to the east of Los Angeles-is the Grand Prix (west) and Old (east) Fires; To their south is the Roblar 2 Fire; Next is the Paradise Fire; Then the massive Cedar Fire, whose thick smoke is completely overshadowing the coastal city of San Diego; Finally, at the California-Mexico border is the Otay Fire. (A fire in Baja California is also visible.) NASA photo.

Firefighters in Southern California will soon be able to check their smartphones to monitor a fire’s behavior in real-time — and in some cases predict the future.

Fire agencies convened Friday in San Diego for a Wildfire Preparedness Summit hosted by San Diego Gas & Electric in conjunction with the San Diego Fire Foundation.

Weather stations around the region already record wind speed and humidity levels, vegetation maps document moisture and growth levels, and historical data already informs risk analysis. The utility provider has plans to combine all of those variables in a smartphone app that doubles as a predictive tool, the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper reported. 

The tool would compute scenarios in real time and better inform firefighters about resource needs and future fire behavior.

From the Union-Tribune’s report: 

“San Diego Gas & Electric owns and operates the largest weather utility network anywhere in the country,” said Brian D’Agostino, a meterologist for the utility who has overseen the weather networks construction which began eight years ago following the 2003 and 2007 firestorms that swept large parts of San Diego County.

“We run weather models and we’re getting to the point now that we’re taking all of this information and data and integrating it into world-class fire behavior models that have never been built before,” he said. “They are being built for the first time right here in San Diego.”

A developer working on the new smartphone app program said it is already semi-operational and should be refined for more widespread use before Santa Ana winds arrive in the fall.

The utility company’s efforts on the weather prediction front have made headlines in the past. Those weather stations — more than 170 in total — monitor every electrical circuit in SDG&E’s highest fire risk area, providing real-time readings of wind speed, humidity, and temperature every 10 minutes, Dave Geier, vice president of electric transmission and system engineering, wrote in a 2016 piece for The Energy Times.

The company in 2014 worked with the U.S. Forest Service, UCLA and the National Weather Service to develop another tool dubbed the “Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index” for Southern California.

San Diego County, of course, has repeatedly been ground-zero for destructive and deadly wildfires. Among the most notable: the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 With Creek Fire.

Utility equipment has been found to have ignited fires in the past, including during the 2017 firestorm. In turn, that has ignited a debate about fault and who should be held accountable to cover ensuing costs.

Colorado studying water enhancer effectiveness on fire attack during 2017 wildfire season

Above: State-contracted SEAT T-831 drops brilliant blue FireIce HVO-F®. Courtesy photo.

Efforts are underway in Colorado to better evaluate how water enhancers delivered from a single engine air tanker can be more effective than retardants in fighting wildfires.

Colorado historically has only loaded long-term retardant into SEATs. These chemical concentrates are mixed with water and alter fuels so they do not support combustion. Retardant is dropped adjacent to — or ahead of — the fire to create a chemically induced fire break at its perimeter.

Molecular bonds from water enhancers, however, slow evaporation by creating a thermal protective coating. SEAT drops of water enhancers are mainly used in direct attack to slow or halt the fire’s rate of spread long enough for ground resources to access the fireline and mop up or supplement the knockdown process.

These gels have generally been limited in use in recent years, and field testing has been minimal. Information about water enhancers’ availability, use and effectiveness is sparse at best.

The study, lasting throughout the 2017 wildfire season in Colorado, has the following objectives, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control:  

  1. Observe and evaluate drops of water enhancers on wildfires and record information about 1) whether the water enhancer stopped or slowed the forward advance of the fire; 2)whether the water enhancer reduced fire intensity to a sufficient level for ground crews to manage the fire; and 3) whether the water enhancer persists on the surface fuels long enough to prevent hotspots from redeveloping or the fire from burning through the drop.
  2. Determine whether water enhancers delivered from a SEAT are effective on wildfires in Colorado. Effectiveness will be viewed in terms of how effective the products were in achieving the desired suppression objectives.
  3. Collect as much data as possible regarding the effectiveness of water enhancers used during initial attack and on emerging fires.
  4. Share lessons learned from the evaluations with interested parties, including cooperators and researchers.
  5. Test and evaluate newly developed ground-based mixing/batching equipment to assess the efficiency of the mixing and loading processes and the ability of the equipment to reduce response times.

“SEATs loaded with water enhancers will respond to fires on State and private land, as well as to fires under the jurisdiction of BLM, the National Park Service, and USFS. Mixing will be at the recommended ratios in the USFS Qualified Products List for each product on all drops. For the first load on each fire, State and Federally contracted SEATs will respond to the incident with water enhancer unless the ordering unit clearly specifies the need for LTR instead.

Decisions regarding where, when and how to apply a particular aerial retardant or suppressant are typically under the discretion of the Incident Commander, so if at any time the Incident Commander or the Air Tactical Group Supervisor feels that the enhancers are not performing as desired, the Incident Commander can immediately order that the SEATs be loaded with retardant.

The three water enhancers being evaluated in the study are: FireIce HVO-F, BlazeTamer 380, and Thermo-Gel 200L — each is approved by the U.S. Forest Service for use in SEATs.

The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, with support from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Aviation Unit and the Bureau of Land Management, is conducting the study.

After weighing input from researchers and firefighters, investigators will compile a preliminary and final report about the project’s findings.

Wildfires, logging topic of conversation in Washington D.C. this week

Above: The High Park Fire in Poudre Canyon about 15 miles from Ft. Collins, Colo., June 18, 2012. (Official Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Jess Geffre/RELEASED)

A University of Colorado fire ecologist testified during a Congressional hearing this week that climate change stands to exacerbate fire size and intensity in the West.

The Wednesday hearing — previewed in this memo — focused on “the impacts of wildfire, disease and infestation on America’s overgrown and fire-prone federal forest lands and the need to significantly increase forest management activities to improve the health of our nation’s forests.”

Among those called to testify:

  • Dr. John Ball, professor and forest health specialist at South Dakota State University
  • Steven A. Brink, vice president of public resources for the California Forestry Association
  • James L. Cummins, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi
  • Dr. Tania Schoennagel, Department of Geography and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado.

Schoennagel said increasing temperatures, drought, and earlier snow melt lead to longer fire seasons and increased fire risk.

“That warming and drying is going to translate to more area burned across the west,” Schoennagel said, as quoted in a wrap-up piece on the hearing by the Durango Herald newspaper in Colorado. “We will also see more drought-related mortality.”

The full video of the two-hour hearing — “Seeking Better Management of America’s Overgrown, Fire-Prone National Forests” — is available below.

Military training exercise sparks 4,000-acre Florida wildfire

A military training exercise in Florida this week sparked a wildfire that has since burned thousands of acres and sent smoke billowing for miles.

The fire started Wednesday in the weapons-impact area of Avon Park Air Force Range in central Florida. Officials had restricted training activities that involved exploding or incendiary devices, but the fire still sparked and quickly grew to about 4,000 acres, news outlets in the area reported. 

Firefighters are generally letting the fire burn to containment lines, citing concerns about the possibility of encountering old munitions or un-exploded devices.

The range is used for air-to-ground training exercises  and consists of more than 100,000 acres of land. No structures were immediately threatened, and no injuries were reported.