Updated: missing firefighter in Montana found

(UPDATED at 8 p.m. MDT, July 28, 2014)

The missing firefighter that got separated from his crew overnight in Montana has been identified as 30-year old Justin Wall, in his fourth summer fighting fire with the Bitterroot National Forest.

When he was found at 3 p.m. today he did not have any obvious injuries, but was described as “disoriented” and very hungry by the searchers who discovered him. As this is written Monday evening Mr. Wall is still in the hospital in Hamilton, Montana undergoing a CT Scan and other tests, according to U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Tod McKay.

The search involved multiple aircraft and more than 50 searchers on the ground. Ravalli County Search and Rescue was assisted by the Bitterroot National Forest, Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and Granite County Search and Rescue.

“We are so thankful and relieved that Justin was found today and is in stable condition,” said Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King. “I would like to thank Ravalli County Search and Rescue and all the volunteers and organizations who assisted with this search. It was because of their quick response, teamwork, and professionalism that this search ended positively.


(UPDATED at 3:19 p.m. MDT, July 28, 2014)

The firefighter that had been missing since Sunday, July 27, has been found walking on Skalkaho Rye Road three miles from where he was last seen. Initial information from U.S. Forest Service sources reported that the firefighter was not injured and did not need medical assistance, but later information said he was transported to Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, Montana.

While the crew was hiking 1.5 miles in to the fire on Sunday, he was lagging behind and told the supervisor that he was having trouble with his boot and would catch up with them later. The rest of the crew continued to the fire, but when he did not show up they began searching for him.


(Originally published at 11:23 a.m. MDT, July 28, 2014. This article will be updated as more information is available.)

A wildland firefighter working on a fire on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana is missing. Tod McKay, the Public Affairs Officer for the Bitterroot National Forest, said the firefighter was a member of an eight-person hand crew working out of Darby, Montana mopping up the one-acre Weasel Fire Sunday afternoon July 27 when reported missing. The other firefighters began a search and notified Ravalli County Search and Rescue, which is continuing the effort today.

The Weasel Fire is about 10 miles east of Hamilton and 40 miles south of Missoula near the border of the Bitterroot and Beaverhead/Deerlodge National Forests. The fire had been contained on Saturday and was being checked and mopped up by the Darby crew on Sunday.

In August of last year another U.S. Forest Service firefighter was reported as missing while fighting a fire in New Mexico. Seven days later the body of Engine Captain Token Adams was found, the victim of a fatal all terrain vehicle crash. That fatality prompted additional discussion about systems that could track the location of firefighters.

We hope there will be a better outcome for this latest missing firefighter.


Two fires in Yosemite; one threatens structures

(UPDATED at 11 a.m. PDT, July 29, 2014)

Map of the El Portal and Dark Hole Fires

Map of the El Portal and Dark Hole Fires, 10:30 p.m., July 28, 2014. Yosemite NP is on the right or east side of the green line.

Above is an updated map of the El Portal and Dark Hole Fires in Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. California Incident Management Team #5 assumed command of the fire on July 27 but does not have a current update on InciWeb.

El Portal Fire

The El Portal Fire has burned 3,060 acres and the incident management team is calling it 19 percent contained. Resources assigned include 640 personnel and 7 helicopters. One structure burned in the community of Foresta; others are still threatened.

Dark Hole Fire

This 580-acre fire  4.5 miles north of Yosemite Valley is being managed “for minimum impact to wilderness character” by the same Type 1 Team suppressing the El Portal Fire.


(UPDATED at 9:30 a.m. MDT, July 28, 2014)

Map of El Portal Fire, July 27, 2014

Map of El Portal Fire, July 27, 2014. (click to enlarge)

Carlton Joseph’s Type 1 Incident Management Team assumed command of both the El Portal and the Dark Hole Fires Sunday night.

El Portal Fire. NPS photo.

El Portal Fire. Undated NPS photo.

El Portal Fire

On Sunday the size of the fire was reported at 2,632 acres, and includes land in both Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. Firefighters are reporting no containment on the fire. It started Saturday afternoon in the Old El Portal area of the park’s administrative site and grew rapidly from there.

Evacuations are still in effect for Foresta and Old El Portal. One structure has burned in Foresta and approximately 90 residences are threatened.

The Big Oak Flat Road between Crane Flat and the El Portal Road is temporarily closed. There is no access to Yosemite Valley via the Big Oak Flat or Tioga Roads or Highway 120. Tioga Road is open and accessible via Big Oak Flat and Tioga Pass Entrances.

The fire is threatening the Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias within the National Park. Due to the steep and remote terrain there will be a heavy dependence on Type 1 Hand Crews and aviation assets.

Dark Hole Fire

The Dark Hole Fire is 4.5 miles north of Yosemite Valley and about 2 miles south of Highway 120/Tioga Road. Following a lightning storm it was detected on July 16 about a mile south of Yosemite Creek campground.

Information about the fire provided by Yosemite National Park on July 24 seemed to indicate that the fire was to be “managed”, and not totally suppressed. That strategy may be reevaluated in light of the fact that it has grown to 585 acres, spreading to the east and north over the last 24 hours, and with 2 to 4 months of fire season remaining.

Half Dome at 9:23 a.m. PDT, July 28, 2014.

Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, obscured by smoke at 9:23 a.m. PDT, July 28, 2014.

Continue reading


California: Sand Fire south of Placerville

(UPDATE at 7:15 p.m. PDT, July 28, 2014)

Firefighters continue to make progress on the Sand fire south of Placerville, California. The Incident Management Team still maps the fire at 3,800 acres but the containment has increased from 65 to 75 percent. These percentages are generally very arbitrary and meaningless. They are sometimes pulled out of the air (or other places), depending on the political climate, the evacuation situation, and the phase of the moon. Back in the old days it was actually the percentage of fireline that had been constructed vs. the total perimeter of the fire, as described in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s glossary of firefighting terms.

There has been a decrease in the areas under evacuation orders and the number of firefighting resources assigned, as well.


(UPDATE at 6:23 p.m. PDT, July 28, 2014)

Map of Sand Fire

Map of the Sand Fire, July 28, 2014. CAL FIRE. (click to enlarge)

According to CAL FIRE the Sand Fire south of Placerville, California has not grown over the last 24 hours, with the size Monday morning remaining the same as on Sunday — 3,800 acres – while the containment has increased to 65 percent.

The number of structures burned has increased to 13 residences and 38 outbuildings. The resources assigned to the fire include 1,937 personnel, 196 engines, 51 hand crews, 30 dozers, and 52 water tenders.


(UPDATE at 8 a.m. PDT, July 27, 2014)

CAL FIRE is releasing very little detailed information about the Sand Fire near Placerville, California, but a few minutes ago they announced that the revised size of the fire is 3,800 acres (down from 4,000) and said it is 35 percent contained. The fire has burned 10 residences and 7 outbuildings. The Sacramento Bee reported that Chris Anthony, A CAL FIRE spokesperson, said the fire was caused by a vehicle driving over dry vegetation. We will post an updated map of the fire when it becomes available.  


(UPDATE at 9:30 p.m. PDT, July 26, 2014)

CAL FIRE reported at 8:15 p.m. that the Sand Fire south of Placerville, California has grown to 4,000 acres with 20 percent containment. There is no change in the number of structures burned; five residences and seven outbuildings. Resources working on the fire include 1,464 personnel, 149 engines, 45 hand crews, and 16 dozers.  


(UPDATE at 7:43 p.m. PDT, July 26, 2014)

At 4:34 p.m. PDT CAL FIRE estimated the size of the Sand Fire south of Placerville at 3,000 acres with 20 percent containment.


(UPDATED at 4:25 p.m. PDT, July 26, 2014)

Map of Sand Fire at 2:14 p.m.,  July 26, 2014.

Map of Sand Fire at 2:14 p.m., July 26, 2014. (Click to see a larger version.)

The red icons on the map of the Sand Fire above represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:14 p.m. PDT, July 26, 2015. It shows significant growth on the east side, compared to the map below from about nine hours earlier. The yellow icons represent heat from Friday. The fire is putting up a large column of smoke visible from Sacramento. Air Attack has requested more air tankers of any type; with the numerous structures that are threatened and the ongoing evacuations, he is not particular at this time which type shows up. Firefighters are burning around some of the structures ahead of the fire to reduce the fuel available when the fire reaches them. **** (Originally published at 2:29 p.m. PDT, July 26, 2014)

Map of Sand Fire

Map of the Sand Fire showing heat detected by a satellite at 3:15 a.m., July 26, 2014. We will update the map as more current information is available. (click to see a larger version)

The Sand Fire, 10 miles south of Placerville, California, required the evacuation of several dozen homes a few hours after it started at 4:30 Friday afternoon. The spread of the fire slowed down by sunset under an aggressive aerial assault, but picked up again during the night. As this is written at 2 p.m. PDT, spot fires are helping the fire spread toward structures. Air Attack has ordered a total of seven air tankers, including one of the DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers. Five strike teams of engines, with five engines each, were ordered earlier. The fire is 14 miles north of Jackson and 33 miles east of Sacramento. (See the map of the Sand Fire above.) At least 13 structures have burned, including 4 residences. CAL FIRE reported at 8 a.m. on Saturday that the fire had blackened 1,300 acres and they were calling it 20 percent contained. It is being fought by 672 personnel, 53 engines, 21 hand crews, and 9 dozers. The weather on Saturday is making it difficult for firefighters, with a prediction of 98 to 103 degrees, a relative humidity of 8 to 13 percent, and winds gusting up to 18 mph out of the west in the afternoon.


Firefighter injured by tree felled by another firefighter

A firefighter working on the Quaking Fire 40 miles southeast of Fredonia, Arizona was injured by a tree that was being felled by another firefighter on July 24. The firefighter was knocked to the ground and sustained injuries. Several EMTs evaluated, packaged, and arranged for transportation by a National Park Service helicopter to the South Rim Helibase in Grand Canyon National Park. From there a medivac helicopter took the firefighter to the Flagstaff Medical Center for evaluation.

The 273-acre Quaking Fire, reported on July 13, is not being totally suppressed, but is being managed for “protection and resource benefit objectives”.

At least three other fires are burning in the greater Grand Canyon area:

  • Sitgreaves Complex, 5 miles northwest of Parks, Arizona; 2,689 acres.
  • McRae Fire, 5 miles southeast of Tusayan, Arizona; 3,142 acres.
  • Kanabownits Fire, on the Walla Valley Peninsula on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 270 acres.

The video below was shot on the Sitgreaves Complex July 21, 2014.



Disney’s “Planes:” Fostering myths or spreading the good news?

When I first saw the trailer for Disney’s Planes: Fire and Rescue, I felt like a really giddy nerd. A so-called kid’s animation flick that bandies words like “SEAT” and “fireline” seemed too good to pass up—one of those movies you might see because it’s too ridiculous to be real.

But last week when I rounded up a group of journalists to go see it—all of us having cut our teeth in the business covering Colorado wildfires—we realized Planes is a little bit more than a fire nerd’s dream movie.

Sure, it was not a feat of cinematic genius. It was rife with racial, cultural and political stereotypes that made me wince. Nonetheless, it speaks to a colossal natural phenomenon that affects millions of North Americans every year.

Wildfire is more than a backwoods problem. And the fact that Disney chose to focus on it—involving extensive collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service—is a big statement, I think. Fires are in the public consciousness—but I didn’t need a Disney movie to tell me that.

I would argue that wildfires have seldom been more in public eye than they have in the past decade. Now, there’s more to burn and more extreme conditions that fuel fire. As the West’s population expands, more people are moving into the wildland urban interface. Just this week I was on a conference call with scientists discussing their concern for how wildfires are made worse by climate change, bringing rising temperatures and persistent drought.

But let me back up a bit. It’s clear from watching Planes that Disney did its homework— however, it also got some things wrong. The story begins with a broken down crop-duster, named Dusty Crophopper, who has to find another life calling. He picks firefighting, flying off to some mythical Western national park (vaguely reassembling Yellowstone) to learn the tricks of the trade. There he joins a crew of re-purposed aircraft and some plucky dozers fighting fires in the wilderness.


For those savvy in the politics of wildfire, the movie has many subtle nods to the budget woes that plague the forest service. (“We never get anything new!” a plane mechanic quips at one point.) Not to mention the slight irony that defunct or retired planes are commissioned to fight explosive fires.

But here is where the message gets mixed: Are firefighting aircraft the panacea that will solve all of our wildfire problems?

In a movie where planes are people, it can certainly seem that without aircraft our firefighters are doomed. The movie’s actual “boots on the ground” crew is a handful of dozers that can be airlifted from fire zones when they get trapped. When fire gets close, the paint blisters on one helicopter and Dusty’s wings get severely singed, but no character dies.

Indeed, airtankers are a spectacular display of firefighting and certainly the most visible. From many miles away people can watch as curtains of retardant fall on a burning forest, but they cannot see the crews on the ground—for whom the airtankers are clearing the way.

I don’t know that a child needs to pick up on the political entanglements of the planes and fires. But there was at least one big moral conundrum that I’m a sure younger watcher couldn’t miss: What’s more important, man or nature?

The movie gives conflicting answers to that. At one point a greedy, obnoxious park manager (humorsly cast as a shiny white Cadillac Escalade) taps into the firefighting crew’s precious water supply to save a massive new lodge. The movie’s message here is clear: that’s bad. Water is needed to save “people” (cars, for this movie’s purposes) and the put out the fire, not to douse an ostentatious building.

How does this align, I wonder, with statistics? The forest service spends a third of its fire suppression budget defending homes. Not everyone agrees on this score, but some fire experts blame increased firefighting deaths on the need to defend homes in the WUI.

Then of course there is the portrayal of fire itself—a spectacular beast of nature that must be extinguished at all costs. There is absolutely no mention in the movie about fire ecology, nor does any character explain that many of our Western forests are adapted to fire.

Some might say that’s beyond a child’s comprehension. But if a kid’s movie can have a central character that is a Single Engine Air Tanker, I’d like to think that some mention of the balance of fire and nature could be understandable, too.

Ask anyone—a firefighter, a fire survivor—if fire is “good” or “bad” and you’ll get different answers every time. Fire is destruction and rebirth, even for those who have lost homes to it.

But in the end, and to its credit, Planes is really a movie about being prepared. Dusty Crophopper returns home a true firefighter ready to help defend his local airport from encroaching flames. And maybe that’s all we can do in a nation entangled in a snarl of budget concerns, expanding wilderness populations, and a changing climate—namely, be prepared.

I’m picturing a modern rendition of Uncle Sam pointing his finger at me, at you, at firefighters and politicians: What can you do to be prepared?

The answer will be different for everyone.


Suspected California pot-grower charged with starting Nicolls Fire

A second California man suspected of running an illegal pot-growing operation has been charged with igniting a wildfire, this time in the Sequoia National Forest.

Edgardo Fournier was indicted by a federal grand jury on Thursday and charged with cultivating thousands of marijuana plants, damaging forest lands and starting the Nicolls fire, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Fournier allegedly ignited the blaze when he learned that other men working on the grow planned to kill him, according to court documents. Fournier told investigators he was fleeing other men on July 11 when he decided to light small fires with a cigarette lighter to stop the pursuit, The Bee reported.

The fire eventually grew to more than 1,600 acres and could incur millions of dollars in damages.

The same day the Nicolls fire ignited, California authorities say that Freddie Alexander Smoke III allegedly started the Bully Fire as he was driving a truck to a marijuana grow he was tending.

The Bully Fire has burned 12,661 acres and destroyed 21 structures. A body of person was also later found within the fire perimeter.