Evaluation of fatal explosion in West, Texas

Above image: A screen grab from the video produced by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about the explosion in West, Texas in 2013.

You may remember the terrible fire and explosion that injured 260 people and killed 15 in the small town of West, Texas April 17, 2013. Ten firefighters died. The incident occurred at the West Fertilizer Company when 30 tons of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate exploded after being heated by a fire at the storage and distribution facility.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board just released this excellent video with professional quality animations explaining how it occurred. They also point out some training, zoning, and regulatory issues that if implemented may have prevented a large-scale catastrophe.

Powerline Fire burns near headquarters of Big Bend National Park

(UPDATED at 7:35 p.m. CST February 5, 2015)

Big Bend National Park reports that the 1,792-acre Powerline Fire is 98 percent contained. They will begin demobilizing firefighting resources Saturday.


(UPDATED at 5:42 p.m. CST February 4, 2016)

Below is an updated satellite map of the Powerline Fire in Big Bend National Park in south Texas.

Map Powerline Fire 148 pm CST 2-4-2016
Map showing heat detected by a satellite (the red squares) on the Powerline Fire at 1:48 p.m. CST February 4, 2016. The fire appears to be spreading toward the southwest.  Some areas of the fire, especially east of the road, burned and cooled between satellite over flights, and were not detected. The park headquarters and employee housing area can be seen north of the fire.


(UPDATED at 10:55 CST, February 4, 2016)

Powerline Fire
Poweline Fire in Big Bend National Park, the afternoon of February 3, 2016. NPS photo.

Better mapping has revealed that the Powerline Fire in Big Bend National Park in south Texas had burned 1,537 acres as of 5 p.m. CST on Wednesday, which is a revision of the earlier estimate of 1,995 acres.

Late on Wednesday the park reported that the fire had approached the southern side of the road between Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village, but it had not jumped the road since Monday February 1st and there was no active fire on the north side of the road.

Powerline Fire map
Map of the Powerline Fire for the February 4 operational period. Park Headquarters and the employee housing area are just northwest of the fire. NPS.

Continue reading “Powerline Fire burns near headquarters of Big Bend National Park”

Wildfire potential February through May

On February 1 the Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center issued their Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for February through May, 2016. The data represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

If their forecasts are accurate it looks like mild fire potential until April and May when conditions could become more favorable to the spread of fires in the Midwest and south-central Alaska. Hawaii could become busy starting in February or March.

Here are the highlights from their outlook.


February wildfire potential

  • Below normal significant fire potential will persist across most of the Southeastern U.S., mid-Atlantic and Puerto Rico as El Nino storm systems continue to bring significant moisture to most of these areas.
  • Significant fire potential is normal across the remainder of the U.S., which indicates little significant fire potential.


March wildfire potential

  • Below normal significant fire potential will continue across most of the Southeastern U.S., mid-Atlantic and Puerto Rico as El Nino continues to bring significant moisture.
  • Above normal fire potential will also develop across the Hawaiian Islands thanks to long term drought.
  • Significant fire potential will remain normal across the remainder of the U.S., though potential for pre-greenup fire activity increases through early spring.

April and May

April May wildfire potential


  • Above normal significant fire potential will develop across the Great Lakes into the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys where less precipitation has occurred.
  • An area of above normal fire potential is also likely to develop across south central Alaska because warm temperatures and rain have limited snowpack.
  • Above normal fire potential will continue across the Hawaiian Islands as drought persists. Below normal significant fire potential will continue across most of the Southeastern U.S. and Puerto Rico.
  • Significant fire potential continues normal across the remainder of the U.S.

In addition to NIFC’s outlook, here’s bonus #1: the Drought Monitor released January 28, 2016.

Drought Monitor 1-28-2016

Bonuses #2 and #3, 90-day temperature and precipitation outlooks:


90 day temperature outlook


90 day precipitation outlook

2015 wildfire ignitions in New Mexico were lowest in last 15 years

Image above: number of wildfires and acres burned in New Mexico between 2000 and 2015.

Below is an excerpt from a summary of the 2015 wildfire activity in New Mexico. The complete article posted on the Albuquerque New Mexico NOAA web page, has much, much, MUCH more information, mostly related to weather and how it influenced the occurrence and behavior of fires.


Wildfire ignitions across New Mexico were the lowest since a complete record began in 2000. Despite the lower overall numbers there were a few heightened periods of fire activity.

Many areas experienced extensive grass and fine fuel growth during the 2014 growing season while the 2014/15 winter snowpack was sporadic and moisture found within the mountain snowpack was largely below normal. The result was active lowland fire activity during the pre-growing season period of February to mid April. Timely and sometimes extensive wetting events from mid April through the early summer led to a robust green-up and muted fire danger levels. Strong wind events accompanied by low humidity, an unstable atmosphere and an ignition source were also lacking. May through early July generally represents the height of the fire season but just as much fire activity occurred during the pre-greenup and monsoon periods versus the traditional height of the fire season. Fire managers took advantage of the lower fire danger and allowed lightning ignited fires to grow and spread naturally. Sometimes these fires lasted one to three months. Several long-duration managed fires occurred across the state. Notable fires included the Red Canyon (17,843 acres) southwest of Magdalena and the Commissary (2,536 acres) southwest of Las Vegas (Fig. 1). Several more occurred across the Gila region – the most notable was the Moore Fire which burned 3,670 acres. In some cases, incident management teams were ordered to manage the larger fires.

Despite a robust monsoon across the majority of the state, a few dry pockets developed. Large wildfires during the monsoon season are generally rare but on occasion weather, fuel and an ignition source align. Two such examples occurred during 2015. The Fort Craig Fire, along the Rio Grande south of Socorro, was caused by a human source on July 26th and burned nearly 700 acres before being put out ten days later. The Navajo River Fire near Dulce started on August 18th and burned nearly 1400 acres in almost one month’s time.

Prescribed burn activity during the fall period was sporadic due to a few extensive wetting events. There were a few active periods when fire managers could take advantage of the proper alignment of ventilation and dried fuels. The growing season ended later than normal with some lowland areas containing live fuel into early November. The later fall may have also impacted some of the larger broadcast burns due to the green fuel. December ended with mainly pile burns, although a few broadcast grass burns were conducted across the eastern plains before significant snow impacted the area. Graphs found in Figures 2 and 3 show yearly acreage and wildfire ignition trends. Acreage and ignition values for 2015 place the year among the lowest since 2000.

Fort Craig Wildfire

Are there 4 or 5 common denominators of fire behavior on fatal fires?

Our article about adding to the list of common denominators of fatal fires led someone to ask in a comment, “When and why was Wilson`s 5th Common Denominator dropped ?”

In 1976 four firefighters were entrapped on the Battlement Creek Fire, killing three near what is now Parachute, Colorado. Following the tragedy, Carl C. Wilson, who at one time was the Chief of Forest Fire Research at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, published a paper titled Fatal and Near-Fatal Forest Fires: The Common Denominators.

Carl WilsonIn developing his paper, Mr. Wilson studied 67 fires that occurred during the 61-year period from 1926 to 1976 on which a total of 222 firefighters were killed from “fire-induced injuries”. He also evaluated 31 other “near-fatal” fires, searching for common themes or causes of the deaths in all of the fires. His results were considered ground-breaking. Since then his lists of Common Denominators have been republished, quoted in fatality reports, and included in many standard publications that are very familiar to firefighters.

When we listed his Common Denominators in the January 29 article we used the four that are seen in all of the recent and semi-recent publications that we looked at, including the last paper version of the Fireline Handbook (2004), the 2014 Incident Response Pocket Guide, and the report authored by Dick Mangan, Wildland Firefighter Fatalities in the United States: 1990-2006. The only revision of the Fireline Handbook since 2004 was completed in 2013 and was renamed Wildland Fire Incident Management Field Guide (PMS 210). It does not include the Common Denominators. The 2004 and 2006 editions of the Incident Response Pocket Guide also include the four-item list.

After a great deal of searching we found that there is another list of Common Denominators attributed to Mr. Wilson that has similar but different wording, and has five instead of four. The five-item list was in a 2011 paper by by Martin E. Alexander and Miguel G. Cruz and also in the 1998 version of the Fireline Handbook.

Finally we found a copy of Mr. Wilson’s paper, Fatal and Near-Fatal Forest Fires: The Common Denominatorsthat was published in 1977 in The International Fire Chief. It has two different lists.

The first, the five-item list, is printed on the first page just below the heading “Common Denominators of Fatal Fires”.  Here is the text just below that heading:

“Based on personal knowledge and information obtained from reports and reviewers, the following generalizations can be made about the fatal fires in Tables 1 and 2 [tables 1 &b 2 are fatal fires]:

  1. Most of the incidents occurred on relatively small fires or isolated sectors of larger fires.
  2. Most of the fires were innocent in appearance prior to the “flare-ups” or “blow-ups”. In some cases, the fatalities occurred in the mop-up stage.
  3. Flare-ups occurred in deceptively light fuels.
  4. Fires ran uphill in chimneys, gullies, or on steep slopes.
  5. Suppression tools, such as helicopters or air tankers, can adversely modify fire behavior. (Helicopter and air tanker vortices have been known to cause flare-ups.)”

A key to that list is that it only applies to the 67 fatal fires he studied, and not the 31 that were near-fatal.

Toward the end of the paper in the “Conclusions” section, Mr. Wilson wrote:

“There are four major common denominators of fire behavior on fatal and near-fatal fires. Such fires often occur:

  1. On relatively small fires or deceptively quiet sectors of large fires.
  2. In relatively light fuels, such as grass, herbs, and light brush.
  3. When there is an unexpected shift in wind direction or in wind speed.
  4. When fire responds to topographic conditions and runs uphill.” 

We’re not sure why Mr. Wilson broke down the common denominators into fatal and near-fatal fires. I don’t know that it adds value, but can, and has, produced a little confusion when two different versions of the lists are floating around.

If all of the situations in the two lists were combined into one, it would look something like this:

  1. On relatively small fires or deceptively quiet, innocent appearing sectors of large fires.
  2. In relatively light fuels, such as grass, herbs, and light brush.
  3. When there is an unexpected shift in wind direction or in wind speed.
  4. When fire responds to topographic conditions and runs uphill in chimneys, gullies, or on steep slopes.
  5. Suppression tools, such as helicopters or air tankers, can adversely modify fire behavior. (Helicopter and air tanker vortices have been known to cause flare-ups.)