Above: The image from the new GOES-16 satellite is from March 6, 2017 just as the wind was shifting 90 degrees from the southwest to the northwest near the Kansas/Oklahoma border.
This article is for the weather and remote sensing geeks out there and anyone who is interested in the latest developments about the real time detection of wildfires from space.
During the siege of wildfires on March 6 and 7 in Kansas, Oklahoma, and northern Texas strong winds before and after a frontal passage fanned existing small fires into huge firestorms that burned about a million acres in Kansas alone. Six people were killed and firefighters were stretched far beyond the capabilities of the mostly rural departments they served.
While this was going on a few meteorologists with access to the new, still being tested GOES-16 satellite were monitoring the emerging wildfire situation. This game-changing satellite orbiting hundreds of miles overhead has a baseline imager that will view the Earth with 16 different spectral bands (compared to five on current GOES satellites) and it will provide three times more spectral information, four times the spatial resolution, and more than five times faster temporal coverage than the current system. It also has the first satellite sensor dedicated to detecting real time lightning.
This video explains how data from GOES-16 was used as the fires were burning, including notifying fire departments of what the fires were doing, where they were, and what they were likely to do as the front passed, shifting the wind and the direction of fire spread 90 degrees from the southwest to the northwest.
If you don’t have time to view the entire 12-minute presentation, at least check out the change in direction of spread of the fires that begins at 8:30.
The U.S. Border Patrol has confirmed that one of their off duty agents is being investigated in the cause of the Sawmill Fire that has burned over 46,000 acres 23 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. In an email to several media outlets the public affairs office of the agency wrote:
We are aware that the Sawmill Fire investigation involves an off-duty Tucson Sector Border Patrol agent. The agent was involved in recreational shooting and immediately reported the fire after it begun. All questions regarding the investigation should be directed to the state fire agency.
The Green Valley News reported earlier that multiple sources they spoke with said a recreational shooter using exploding targets started what became the Sawmill Fire. Those reports also said the shooter tried to put it out, but when that failed, he notified authorities.
Exploding targets are known to have started numerous fires and are banned many areas.
On Thursday resources assigned to the Sawmill Fire included 799 personnel, 16 hand crews, 67 engines, and 5 helicopters. The suppression cost to date was $3 million.
BLM Unimog Engine 2410 when it was new in 2006. BLM photo.
The Bureau of Land Management has released an Accident Investigation Factual Report for the July 10, 2016 engine rollover north of Winnemucca, Nevada in which two firefighters were killed and a third was seriously injured.
Jacob O’Malley and Will Hawkins lost their lives in the single-vehicle accident on Nevada State Route 140 when a rear tire suddenly and catastrophically failed. The truck only had four tires, there were no duels on the rear. When the right-rear rim dragged along the pavement the left-front was in the air, eliminating any possibility of control by the driver. The 33,000 pound GVWR engine fishtailed and then rolled several times.
The cab was higher than the water tanks and pump package, so it took the majority of the impact as the top of the vehicle struck the roadway during the rollover. All three occupants were wearing seat belts but with the top of the cab and the A pillar being damaged or sheared off, the restraint system failed to operate as designed. Mr. Hawkins was ejected from the cab and then was hit by the rolling wreckage.
Below is an excerpt from the report:
Finding 3.1 (Material): During the rollover, the upper cab structure (made of reinforced carbon fiber) sheared away from the truck frame, exposing the vehicle’s occupants to a hazardous environment. The disintegration of the cab compromised the driver’s and right side passenger’s seatbelt systems.
Discussion 3.1: The lack of cab crashworthiness did not cause the rollover; however, it contributed to the fatal conditions which occurred during the crash. The reinforced carbon fiber cab on the Unimog was manufactured in France and was built to United Nations Code ECE r29 (commercial vehicle occupant protection), which exceeds U.S. cab crashworthiness standards. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) submitted a report to Congress in 2015 on the need for improved heavy truck crashworthiness standards; however, no action has been taken on this report as of February 2017.
Above: Map of the Sawmill Fire east of Green Valley, Arizona as of April 26, 2017.
Firefighters battling the 46,954-acre Sawmill Fire 23 miles southeast of Tucson have been able to slow the spread over the last two days in spite of strong winds. Satellite imagery from early Friday morning did not show any large concentrations of heat over the previous 24 hours. This does not mean the fire is out, and there is no doubt a lot of line building and mopup work still has to be accomplished.
For the last two days the Sawmill Fire has been most active on the northeast side where aircraft have been assisting firefighters on the ground to slow the spread.
A Red Flag Warning for strong winds is still in place for the fire area as well as most of southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico.
On Thursday the Arizona Department of Transportation reopened Arizona Highway 83 south of Interstate 10.
The Pima County Office of Emergency Management has lifted the pre-evacuation order for residents on the west side of Arizona Highway 83. Residents in the Hilton Ranch area remain under pre-evacuation notice. An evacuation order remains in place for Rain Valley.
The Green Valley News is reporting that several sources they spoke with said a target shooter using exploding targets started what became the Sawmill Fire 8 miles east of Green Valley, Arizona. The shooter reportedly tried to put out the fire, but after he failed he called to report it. The officials in charge of suppressing the fire have not confirmed what caused it.
As of Thursday April 27 the fire has burned approximately 40,000 acres and required the evacuation of several areas. The Green Valley News reported that approximately $1.6 million had been spent to suppress the fire as of Wednesday afternoon.
Exploding targets consist of two ingredients that when mixed by the end user create an explosive when shot by a high-velocity projectile. They have caused many fires since they became more popular in recent years, have been banned in some areas, and caused the death of one person. In June, 2013 a man attending a bachelor-bachelorette party in Minnesota was killed after shrapnel from the device struck him in the abdomen causing his death. The Missoulian reported that several years ago a woman in Ohio had her hand nearly blown off while taking a cellphone video of a man firing at an exploding target placed in a refrigerator about 150 feet away.
I have to admit that I have become a bit cynical about firefighter legislation. We dutifully report when a bill is introduced that specifically affects wildland firefighters, but they almost never progress beyond the committee stage. A person has to wonder why these bills are drafted if they stand so little chance of seeing the light of day. Is it because Congress is so dysfunctional that very few bills get passed at all unless they are absolutely critical to keeping the doors of government open? Or, do politicians simply want to get their name out there hoping voters will remember it the next time they are up for reelection? Maybe this year with both houses and the Presidency controlled by one party more can get done (he thought very optimistically).
Having said that, below we have information about two bills that were introduced in the Senate on April 26. They are both cosponsored by Senators Steve Daines (D-MT) and Maria Cantwell (R-WA). A handful of other Senators have said they intend to sign on as cosponsors.
S.949 – Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act
It would require the Director of the Office of Personnel Management to create a classification that more accurately reflects the role of wildland firefighters in the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. Their official title would become “Wildland Firefighter”. Employees currently employed, many of them with the title “Forestry Technician”, would have the choice of retaining their previous job series or moving to the new Wildland Firefighter series.
In a press release, the two Senators wrote:
Providing wildland firefighters with the proper title will improve recruitment efforts and morale and also give due recognition to those brave individuals who risk their lives to protect others’ and their property.
This bill has a number of provisions, some of which have been proposed before in various forms:
A pilot program would authorize the department Secretaries to allow seasonal employees to work beyond their 1,040-hour per year limit “in a given year if the covered Secretary determines the expansion to be necessary to stage fire crews earlier or later in a year to accommodate longer fire seasons.”
The incident qualification systems of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture would be merged into one, and no agency would be allowed to require additional competencies to become qualified for a position.
It would allow a firefighter who was injured and disabled on the job to retain the 20-year firefighter retirement track if they return to work in a non-fire position, rather than converting to the 30-year retirement program of ordinary federal employees. It would also allow the injured firefighter’s history of overtime pay to be considered as income for purposes of calculating worker’s compensation disability benefits.
In our April 20 interview with Dan Buckley, the National Fire Director for the National Park Service, he talked about the need for extending the terms of seasonal firefighters, the first item listed in the description of the above bill. That topic begins at 11:49 in the video.
One hurdle to overcome is the fact that little or no action can occur legislatively until the Administration first says yay or nay. And the politically appointed positions that would review these proposed bills are still vacant.