Criminal investigators receive award for their work on the fatal Iron 44 Fire helicopter crash

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 crash of a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson Helicopters on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California.

The following information was released yesterday by the U.S. Attorney’s Oregon office.


“WASHINGTON – On October 20, 2016, Byron Chatfield, Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Oregon, received an Award of Excellence in Investigation from the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) for his work on the investigation and prosecution of two corporate executives linked to a fatal 2008 wildland fire helicopter crash in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weatherville, Calif.

On August 5, 2008, in the midst of the Iron Complex Fire, deteriorating weather conditions made it necessary to evacuate backcountry firefighters to safety. A helicopter owned and operated by Carson Helicopters, Inc. of Medford, Ore. was dispatched to the location. On a third pick-up attempt, the aircraft, overweight with fuel and passengers, crashed, killing nine and injuring four others. The crash was the deadliest wildland fire aviation disaster in United States history.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chatfield, along with five other federal investigators, embarked on a seven-year investigation of the crash that led to the conviction and sentencing of two Carson Helicopter executives. The investigation proved that the executives had falsified documents detailing weight capacities and balance charts of their aircraft in order to win more $51 million in Forest Service contracts. All told, the investigation team conducted 246 witness interviews in five different countries, issued 84 trial subpoenas, executed 3 computer forensic exams, and amassed over 129,000 pages of evidentiary discovery.

“I applaud Byron and his colleagues’ extraordinary efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict those responsible for this unthinkable tragedy” said Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon. “The work of Byron and team” continued U.S. Attorney Williams, “demonstrates the tremendous lengths those in our law enforcement community will go to bring justice to individuals responsible for similar acts of fraud.” ”


One of the executives with Carson Helicopters was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and the other was ordered to serve 2 years.

More information about this tragedy and the aftermath can be found in articles at Wildfire Today tagged “Iron 44”.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Nina.

Nominations being accepted for Wildfire Mitigation Awards

wildfire mitigation awardDo you know of someone or an organization that has achieved success or set a good example for wildfire mitigation?

The October 30th deadline for nominations for a 2017 Wildfire Mitigation Award is approaching. If you know an individual or organization that is doing great work in wildfire preparedness and mitigation, please try to help them get the recognition they deserve by nominating them for an award.

Established in 2014 in response to an overwhelming number of great wildfire mitigation efforts across the nation, the Wildfire Mitigation Awards are the highest national honor one can receive for outstanding work and significant program impact in wildfire preparedness and mitigation.

The awards are jointly sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fire Protection Association, and the U.S. Forest Service. They are designed to recognize outstanding service in wildfire preparedness and safety across a broad spectrum of activities and among a variety of individuals and organizations. By honoring their achievements, the award sponsors also seek to increase public recognition and awareness of the value of wildfire mitigation efforts.

Nominations can be can be completed and submitted online. Additional information about the Wildfire Mitigation Awards is available online, as are the criteria and guidelines.

For additional information, contact Meghan Rhodes, Wildland Fire Programs Coordinator with the IAFC, at (703) 896 – 4839, MRhodes (at)

Firefighters continue to battle the Junkins Fire west of Pueblo, Colorado

Above: Map of the Junkins Fire, October 21, 2016. The black line is completed fireline, while the red line is uncontained. Produced by the incident management team.

(UPDATED at 10:48 a.m. MDT October 22, 2016)

The number of structures burned in the Junkins Fire west of Pueblo, Colorado has been updated. Officials are now saying 8 homes and 19 outbuildings burned, but only one of the homes was a primary residence. The incident management team is still calling the fire 17,809 acres.

The last of the evacuation orders for the portion of the fire in Pueblo County have been lifted. Evacuations are still in effect in some areas of Custer County.

The number of personnel and equipment assigned to the fire has significantly increased, to 722.

The map below shows heat detected by an aircraft at 12:18 a.m. MDT October 22, 2016.

map junkins fire
Map showing heat detected by an aircraft over the Junkins Fire at 12:18 a.m. MDT October 22, 2016.

Continue reading “Firefighters continue to battle the Junkins Fire west of Pueblo, Colorado”

Weather forecast for the prescribed fire in Arizona that led to accidents on Interstate 40

prescribed fire smoke accidents arizona
Map, produced at 11:41 a.m. MDT Oct. 20, 2016, showing heat detected on the Green Base prescribed fire. The dots nearest the Interstate represent heat that was detected during the afternoon of October 18, 2016. The northernmost dots are from October 17, 2016. Click to enlarge.

We looked further into what led to the smoky conditions that resulted in numerous vehicle crashes on Interstate 40 west of Flagstaff, Arizona early Wednesday morning, October 19. The smoke on the highway from a prescribed fire was referred to as “pea soup”, and was clearly the cause of some of the accidents, but investigators are not yet ready to say the smoke caused the one fatality when a vehicle was sandwiched between two semi trucks.

During the very early morning hours of Wednesday, October 19, smoke settled into the areas around Interstate 40 between Parks and Williams. An electronic sign warned motorists about smoke, but the severely reduced visibility was not anticipated by the U.S. Forest Service. After the accidents started occurring the Interstate was closed for five hours.

ADEQ smoke permit green base prescribed fire
Data from the smoke permit issued by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality for the Green Base prescribed fire. Click to enlarge.

The Kaibab National Forest ignited the Green Base Prescribed Fire on Tuesday, October 18, 2016 immediately north of Interstate 40. The smoke permit issued by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality anticipated moderate “impacts on sensitive areas”:

Smoke impacts to the following communities of Flagstaff, Parks, Spring Valley, Pittman Valley, Sherwood Forest Estates and some smoke may impact Williams. I-40 may experience moderate smoke impacts in low-lying areas.

The Flagstaff office of the National Weather Service issued a Spot Weather Forecast for the Green Base Prescribed Fire at 5:28 a.m. MST on Tuesday October 18, 2016. It anticipated a “good” maximum ventilation rate for Tuesday, did not specify one for Tuesday night, and for Wednesday it was described as “fair”.

spot weather green base prescribed fire
Spot Weather forecast for the Green Base Prescribed Fire, October 18, 2016. Click to enlarge.

The ventilation rate provides an estimate of how high and how far smoke will disperse. A high ventilation rate suggests that smoke will spread out quickly and through a deep layer of the atmosphere, so that surface concentrations downwind will be lower than they would be with a lower ventilation rate.

The transport winds (from the ground to the mixing height) for Tuesday night were predicted to be “west 5 to 10 knots shifting to the north after midnight, then shifting to the northeast early in the morning.” The wind speed after the shift was not specified. Perhaps this was interpreted by fire managers to mean it would continue at 5 to 10 knots.

The prescribed fire was just north of the east-west Interstate, so a wind out of the northeast would likely push the smoke toward the highway. And if an area is prone to nighttime inversions, visibility can be compromised.

Fox News reported that Cory Mottice, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Flagstaff, said, “[Smoke] always gets trapped after dark,” he said. “It’s just a question of where the wind blows it.”

However that analysis was not described in detail in the spot weather forecast issued by Mr. Mottice’s office. As in many spot weather forecasts, much of the information appears to be generated by a computer, with little interpretation or discussion about how the information will affect the fire. Meteorologists are not expected to be Fire Behavior Analysts, but sometimes a little human-created discussion and interpretation can add value to a computer product.

Below are excerpts from an article at the Arizona Daily Sun:

… A Highway Patrol captain at the scene said smoke in the area reduced visibility down to about 20 feet, Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said. Sherwood Forest Estates Fire Chief Wayne Marx said even his crews had to stick their heads out the window to watch the yellow stripe on the road as they escorted commuters away from the interstate.

“You couldn’t see past the end of the hood,” Marx said.


One retired meteorologist who lives in the area believes more precautions should have been taken. Parks resident Byron Peterson, who retired from National Weather Service station in Bellemont, said the smoke was already bad on Old Route 66 Tuesday afternoon. Firefighters waved him on, he said, even though there were times when he could not see 10 feet in front of him.

“It was very frightening to say the least,” Peterson said.

He said strong southwest winds coming up over Bill Williams Mountain near Williams formed an eddy of swirling air that then dove down over the prescribed burn, keeping the smoke from dissipating.

“I tried to explain that to people at the Forest Service and it was just like talking to a wall,” he said.


Interstate highway closed after accidents caused by prescribed fire smoke

Investigators will determine if poor visibility was the cause of a fatal accident.

Above: Vehicles at the scene of an accident on Interstate 40 Wednesday, October 19, 2016. Photo by Arizona Department of Public Safety.

(On October 20 we wrote a follow-up article about this incident which looks at the weather forecast and the smoke permit that preceded ignition of the prescribed fire.)

After numerous accidents occurred in thick smoke from a prescribed fire, authorities closed Interstate 40 west of Flagstaff, Arizona on Wednesday. The Kaibab National Forest conducted the burn Tuesday and knew that a wind shift would push the smoke toward the interstate, but they were surprised that the smoke settled near the ground early Wednesday morning rather than being moved out of the area. Electronic signs warned drivers about the potential hazard.

Below is an excerpt from Fox News:

Multiple collisions with minor injuries to motorists and passengers were blamed on smoky haze that settled over the highway for about five hours. Authorities closed I-40 for hours to prevent more accidents.

Police had not immediately determined whether the poor visibility was the cause of a fatal accident after a vehicle was sandwiched between two tractor-trailers before dawn, said Arizona Department of Public safety spokesman Bart Graves.

But the area at this time of year experiences temperature inversions allowing smoke to be trapped close to the ground and hover over the highway, said Cory Mottice, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Flagstaff.

“It almost always gets trapped after dark,” he said. “It’s just a question of where the wind blows it.”

Forest officials thought weather conditions would vent smoke near the freeway more than it did in low-lying areas, Smith said.

“I believed they used good judgment based on the conditions and the information that they had,” said Brady Smith, a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson.

Rainfall in western states slows wildfire season in many areas

Rainfall last 2 weeks washington oregon
Rainfall last 2 weeks, Washington and Oregon

Rainfall over the last two weeks has slowed or in some cases, ended the wildfire season in some areas.

On October 19 we ran the numbers for the accumulated precipitation for the last 14 days in the western states. These maps show amounts that exceeded 0.05 inches at some of the Interagency Remote Automatic Weather Stations (RAWS).

Washington, Oregon, and northern California have received a good soaking and I would imagine that local fire officials may be declaring an end to the fire season. Of course this is not unusual for these areas this time of the year, and some locations had already seen their season end. But what IS unusual, is the high amount of moisture that occurred in just two weeks.

You can click on the images to see larger versions.

Rainfall last 2 weeks, northern California
Rainfall last 2 weeks, northern California
Rainfall last 2 weeks central California
Rainfall last 2 weeks, central California

Continue to see maps for the other western states.
Continue reading “Rainfall in western states slows wildfire season in many areas”