House of Representatives adjourns without taking action on fire funding bill

Myrtle Fire
Firefighters conduct a burnout on the Myrtle Fire along Song Dog Road, June 22, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The U.S. House of Representatives shut down for the rest of the year today without taking action on a bill that would have improved the way wildfires on federal land are funded.

Below is an article from the National Association of State Foresters:

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December 9, 2016 (Arlington, Va.) — With the bipartisan energy bill now stalled in Congress, time has run out for a permanent and comprehensive fire funding solution to be enacted this year. A fire funding fix was included in the most final drafts of the energy bill, but the House of Representatives concluded its business for the year without acting on the bill.

The Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus, a diverse set of international, national, tribal, and local organizations interested in sustainable land management, strongly supported a fire funding fix and hoped to see it passed through this Congress. Last month, [129] groups signed a letter asking House and Senate leaders to ensure a comprehensive fire funding solution.

“Congress let an incredible opportunity to fix the fire funding problem slip through its fingers by not acting on the energy bill this year,” said Cecilia Clavet of The Nature Conservancy, on behalf of the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus. “The lack of a funding solution will continue the negative effects to all other programs funded through the Interior appropriations bill. We are indebted to all the members of the House and Senate who supported a fire funding fix, and are especially grateful for the efforts and commitment of Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell. In getting us closer this year, we hope we can get to a final point of success in the next Congress.”

“This problem of rising suppression costs stripping resources from non-fire programs is not going away, and we are eager to continue efforts to solve this problem in the next Congress,” concluded Clavet. “The incredibly broad spectrum of groups supporting this legislation clearly demonstrates this is not a partisan issue, but one that affects the health of people, water, and wildlife.”

“The National Association of State Foresters is disappointed that Congress missed an opportunity to address wildfire funding challenges this year. However, we recognize that there is more bipartisan support than ever before for a resolution. In order to conserve, protect and enhance America’s forests, leaders in Congress must address this challenge before the spring wildfire season begins,” said Bill Crapser, Wyoming State Forester and President of the National Association of State Foresters.

“For almost a decade, a diverse coalition has advocated for reform in the way wildfire suppression is paid for, citing the serious damage to natural resource programs, many of which, if adequately funded, would reduce the catastrophic impacts of such fires,” said James L Caswell, Chairman of the Board at the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. “It is astounding that over this time Congress was not able to find a solution, despite these best efforts. As a result, America’s rural communities continue to be threatened by the failure of Congress to come to agreement. As we look to the new year, we hope the 115th Congress will recognize that solving this problem will protect lives, help to restore forests, increase employment in forest dependent and adjacent communities, and take the next step to enactment. We need to get this fixed!”

Two juveniles charged with starting fire that burned into Gatlinburg

The juveniles were taken into custody Wednesday after an interagency investigation.

Above: Chimney Tops 2 Fire. Incident Management Team photo.

On Wednesday two juveniles were charged with aggravated arson for starting the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The fire resulted in the deaths of 14 people and damaged or destroyed 2,460 structures.

The juveniles were taken into custody after an investigation conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, National Park Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office.

Due to laws regulating the handling of juveniles, very little was disclosed about the two individuals, except that they do not live in Sevier County but are residents of the state of Tennessee.

Steve Kloster, Chief Ranger of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Steve Kloster, Chief Ranger of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, speaks at a news conference about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, December 7, 2016.

Steve Kloster, Chief Ranger of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the phone line established to gather information proved to be valuable.

The public was critical in responding to that tip line and giving the investigators something to work with. The tip line had about 40 tips within just a few minutes of going online.

The fire was reported November 23 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By November 27 it had grown to 35 acres while being monitored by the National Park Service. A cold front brought very strong winds into the area on November 28 which caused the fire to spread explosively north into Gatlinburg, destroying lives, homes, businesses, and eventually 17,006 acres.

Below is a video of the press conference announcing the arrest.

For the most current information about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, see our articles tagged “Chimney 2 Fire”.

Bushfire in Western Australia closes highway, stranding hundreds of travelers

Above: Wind in Western Australia produces an interesting trajectory of smoke from a bushfire near Madura. NASA image, December 7, 2016 U.S. time.

A large bushfire in Western Australia forced authorities to close a major highway resulting in hundreds of long-haul truckers and tourists being stuck on the road for hours. Some of them were stranded between roadblocks that were 170 kilometers (105 miles) apart.

Wednesday morning the Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor was closed between Caiguna Roadhouse and Madura. By evening it was open again.

There were two large fires south of the highway that were being pushed by the wind toward the road.

The fire started from lightning four days ago 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Cocklebiddy.

Below is a time-lapse video of satellite photos of smoke from fires in the area.

Bushfire Madura, Western Australia
Bushfire near Madura, Western Australia. Photo by DFES.

Thunderstorm initiated by a wildfire

This time-lapse video of the pyrocumulus cloud over the Sedgerly Fire in Queensland, Australia is fascinating. According to the description by the Bushfire Convective Plume Experiment it shows a thunderstorm initiated by the fire. If you look closely you will see rain and lightning.

How Gatlinburg attempted to notify its residents to evacuate as the fire burned into the city

This WBIR video explains the various systems for communicating emergency messages, such as evacuations, to the public, and why they did not work very well as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee last week.

There are multiple emergency alert systems but according to WBIR the one used by the National Weather Service can only push an emergency message to cell phones for one of the following situations: tornado, flash flooding, extreme wind, hurricane, typhoon, dust storm, or tsunami. Wildfire is not on the list, which seems, especially in retrospect after Gatlinburg, to be a serious oversight.

It is a good lesson that could be learned by communities at risk from wildfire and other emergencies.

Analyzing the fire that burned into Gatlinburg

Above: The Drought Monitor issued November 29 showed “Exceptional Drought”, the highest category, for the Gatlinburg area and large sections of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

On Monday, December 5, the Incident Management Team (IMT) on the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned from Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) into the Gatlinburg area reported that it has caused the deaths of 14 people. Over 130 sustained injuries, and 1,684 structures have been damaged or destroyed. Approximately 14,000 residents were originally forced to evacuate.

There are three broad categories of conditions that affect the way a wildfire burns: weather, fuels (vegetation), and topography. When the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into Gatlinburg on November 28, 2016 and destroyed those structures it was driven primarily by weather — specifically, very strong winds.

But the condition of the fuel was also important since it happened during what the National Weather Service (NWS) calls “exceptional drought” conditions. Much of the southeastern United States had been suffering extremely dry conditions for two to three months.

One indicator of drought and its effect on how wildfires burn is the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI). (The fire was in eastern Tennessee near the North Carolina border.)

Keetch-Byram Drought Index
We have asked for a standard KBDI graph usually used by fire managers showing the 2016 KBDI, the average KBDI by date, and the maximum recorded by date. When we receive it, we will add it to the article.

On November 23 when the fire was discovered the KBDI was 599, Molly Schroer, a spokesperson for the IMT told us. For reference, 600 or above would indicate severe drought and increased wildfire occurrence. Intense, deep burning fires with significant downwind spotting should be expected. A fire burning under those conditions would likely burn more intensely, have a rate of spread faster than normal, and have more resistance to control. Many fire managers in that situation would immediately attack emerging fires very aggressively with overwhelming force, that is, many firefighters on the ground assisted by numerous aircraft dropping water or fire retardant.

Ms. Schroer said she was not aware of any actual on-the-ground fire suppression efforts, other than perhaps some work on a distant indirect fireline, until Monday November 28, after the fire had grown large and crossed US Highway 141, the main road into the park. That is when it began moving rapidly toward Gatlinburg. Firefighting aircraft were not used until helicopters dropped water on the fire Sunday afternoon, November 27 four days after it started.

Wednesday, November 23, the day the fire started

At about 5:20 p.m. the fire was discovered near the top of a steep hill called Chimney Tops not far from where another fire occurred about a week before. GRSM firefighters spotted the new fire as they returned from responding to a report of a vehicle fire.  The earlier fire on the hill was named “Chimney Tops” — hence the name “Chimney Tops 2” for the new blaze.

According to Ms. Schroer, firefighters walked up the Chimney Tops Trail to the top of the hill to size it up. But very little if any fire suppression activity occurred until Monday, November 28. The action taken by firefighters on Monday was defensive, to protect threatened structures at a nearby National Park Service picnic ground.

Investigators have determined that the fire was human-caused and are asking for information from anyone who has information about people or vehicles that were seen in the area that day. The Tip Line is 888-653-0009.

Narrowing it down to human-causes is easy for an investigator. It means they eliminated natural causes, such as lightning and volcano eruptions. The fire could have been accidental, or it may have been intentional.

investigator national park service
An investigator from the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch looks for evidence at Chimney Tops. NPS photo.

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