CAL FIRE’s Butte Fire investigation blames power company for poor line maintenance

CAL FIRE is seeking $90 million in restitution from Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Map Butte Fire
CAL FIRE’s map of the Butte Fire dated September 12, 2016

An investigation of last September’s 70,868-acre Butte Fire by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined that poor maintenance of a power line led to a tree contacting the line, causing the blaze. The fire destroyed a total of 921 structures, including; 549 homes, 368 outbuildings, and 4 commercial properties. Only five other fires in California have destroyed more structures.

Two residents were killed in the fire.

In addition to the $90 million that CAL FIRE is seeking from PG&E, 17 law firms are representing 1,800 people who expect to be reimbursed for damages.

And that is not all of the lawsuits. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

…Calaveras County supervisors say they will seek “hundreds of millions in compensation” from PG&E for the fire, estimated to have caused more than $1 billion in damage in that county.

The county expects to file a civil lawsuit in Superior Court, seeking to recover the county’s costs of responding to the fire, cleanup efforts, and losses of public property, county officials said.

“We are shocked and dismayed by the extent of PG&E’s negligence and will actively seek justice for Calaveras County and its citizens,” said Cliff Edson, chair of the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors.

The county will also ask the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate PG&E’s role in the fire, much like the agency did following the fatal 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, said county counsel Megan Stedtfeld. The San Bruno blast killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood, leading the commission to order the utility to make $1.5 billion in payments to the state and customers and for safety improvements…

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Butte Fire.

More research confirms insect damage reduces wildfire severity

pine beetle damageAdditional research about the effects of insect outbreaks on fires confirms that generally, insect damage reduces burn severity.

Researchers from the University of Vermont and Oregon State University studied 81 Pacific Northwest fires that burned in areas affected by infestations of two prevalent bark beetle and defoliator species, mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and western spruce budworm (Choristoneura freemani). The fires spanned the years 1987 to 2011.

Insect fire severity

Few of the 81 fires occurred in forests while the needles were still on the trees in the red highly flammable stage of the outbreak shortly after the trees were killed by mountain pine beetles. The researchers recommend more studies in this area.

Aside from the transient red stage the burn severity decreased for more than 20 years following a MPB attack. Forests affected by western spruce budworm (WSB) exhibited a sharp decrease in fire severity immediately after an attack but that slowly increased after 20 years to a neutral condition, then continued to increase in the 5 to 10 subsequent years. The researchers elaborated on that effect:

The relatively rapid increase of the budworm-fire coefficient with time indicates that the thinning effect on fuel profiles is less persistent for the defoliator (WSB) than for the bark beetle (MPB). In addition to relatively lower per-unit-area tree mortality impacts, WSB affects host forests that are more productive than those affected by MPB in the study region , leading to more rapid accumulation of live overstory and understory vegetation. Thus, as time elapses following WSB outbreaks, fuel density and connectivity likely increase in multiple strata, including dead surface fuels and total live biomass, the latter of which is associated with higher burn severity.

The research was conducted by Garrett W. Meigs, Harold S. J. Zald, John L. Campbell, William S. Keeton, and Robert E. Kennedy. The paper is titled, Do insect outbreaks reduce the severity of subsequent forest fires?


Our analysis

There is legitimate cause to be concerned about fires during the one or two year red needle stage after an insect attack, although I think more research studying actual fires is needed in this area. And there is danger from falling snags 5 to 20 years after an attack. Snags are dangerous for firefighters and any structures, hikers, traffic on roads, and any improvements that could be damaged by the falling trees. But as numerous researchers have found, after the needles are on the ground fire behavior, intensity, and severity decrease.

We first wrote about a post-attack decrease in burn intensity in a 2010 article titled Firefighters should calm down about beetle-killed forests.

Rather than panicking and rushing out to cut every tree affected by insects, preventive measures to keep forests healthy could be more effective, such as prescribed fire and thinning.

Forest Service Chief vows to protect communities “no matter what the budget”

Tom Tidwell
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell before the Senate Appropriations Committee April 6, 2016.

Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, discussed the 2016 wildfire season in two venues recently. Earlier this month he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, and on Wednesday he talked with the Associated Press while he was in Denver for a conference about forest health.

In Denver Chief Tidwell discussed the outlook for the wildfire season, funding for fire suppression, and Smokey Bear.

Here are some excerpts from the AP article, and below that we have information about the committee testimony.

The upcoming wildfire season across the U.S. isn’t expected to be as bad as last year’s infernos, when a record 15,800 square miles burned, the nation’s top wildland firefighting official said Wednesday.

But parts of the nation should expect a rough season after a warm, dry winter or because of long-term drought, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.

Southern California, other parts of the Southwest, Alaska and Montana are all vulnerable, he said.

“So where we anticipate the severity of the fire season will not be at the same level as last year, we still expect to have some areas that will be really active,” Tidwell said.

[…]

The overall bill for wildfires, including prevention programs and the cost of putting crews, equipment and aircraft on fire lines, is consuming a growing share of the Forest Service budget. That has forced cuts in forestry research, campground and trail maintenance and other areas, Tidwell said.

The Obama administration has been pressing Congress to pay the cost of fighting the worst fires from natural disaster funds, rather than the Forest Service budget. Tidwell said the largest 1 or 2 percent of wildfires account for about 30 percent of the costs.

Congress has not agreed to the change, but it did approve an additional $520 million for fighting fires this season, Tidwell said.

[…]

With a chuckle and a smile, Tidwell defended Smokey Bear, his agency’s memorable mascot, from allegations of making things worse by portraying fire as evil instead of part of the natural cycle that kept forests healthy. Smokey’s original message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” has been updated to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

“Really, Smokey was just talking about those human-caused fires which actually occur at the wrong time of the year, not where the natural fire occurs,” Tidwell said. Those are the fires that the Forest Service still wants to stop, he said.

“Smokey Bear gets no blame for the situation we have today,” he said.

On April 6 before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief Tidwell discussed many different USFS responsibilities. In his introductory remarks, he summarized wildland fire at 38:50 in the video. (I could not get the video to play using the Chrome browser, but it worked with Firefox. This probably has something to do with the government using Flash to serve the video, a much-hated and insecure platform.) 

The budget request also will provide for the level of fire suppression resources that are needed to be able to protect not only the national forests but to provide the support for the states and our local firefighters. We’ll have the adequate number of large air tankers this year, we’ll have the helicopters, the hot shot crews that we need to be able to continue to provide that support when we work in conjunction with our states and local fires.

Later in the hearing, at 1:07:01 in the video, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall brought up the issue of fire borrowing, scavenging money from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression when the fire funds are depleted during a busy fire season. The Senator mentioned the Chief’s boss, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Secretary apparently had said that funds would not be taken from non-fire accounts to pay for suppression.

Senator Udall:

Secretary Vilsack has been very public in his disappointment about failing to pass the disaster cap adjustment. He has stated for the record that he will not authorize transfers for fire suppression. He said that most recently at the Agriculture appropriations hearing last month. That essentially bars the normal practice of fire borrowing as you know. As I said in my opening statement I share the Secretary’s frustration that we don’t have a cap adjustment in law yet and I hope this is the year that we will be able to enact a fix for the firefighting budget. But until that happens, we must be clear. We expect the Forest Service to use all of its existing legal authority to fight catastrophic wildfires. Chief Tidwell can you assure us that when the time comes the agency will use all available tools to protect the public and the nation’s resources from wildfires.

Chief Tidwell replied:

Senator we will continue to carry out our responsibilities on the ground to be able to protect the communities no matter what the budget. I share the Secretary’s urgency and as I shared with the Chair earlier, the longer this issue goes on the less and less discretion you have to be able to solve it… We will continue to work with the committee, and I am optimistic that so far with the projections that we should be OK with the level of additional funding you have provided. But as the season progresses we definitely will have ongoing discussions about informing the Committee about where we are with the rate of expenditures so that hopefully we can avoid that situation of running out of money for fire suppression this year.

The statement about protecting communities “no matter what the budget” reminded me of an article we posted on April 25, when Jerry Williams, the former Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, in 1995 talked about can-do, make-do, and tragedy.

After the discussion of fire-borrowing, at 1:09:05 in the video Senator Udall asked about the plans for utilizing the seven HC-130H aircraft that in 2013 began the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. They will become the first government-owned/contractor-operated air tankers in the United States federal government. All of them are receiving programmed depot maintenance and will need to have retardant delivery systems installed in addition to new paint. Most of them will also have the wing boxes replaced, a process that takes about 10 months and around $7 million per aircraft.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015. In 2016 it will be replaced by another HC-130H that may have the new USFS-approved paint scheme.

In the meantime, this year, like last year, there will be one HC-130H available for firefighting based at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. It will use a borrowed slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) since the Air Force, responsible for maintaining and retrofitting the seven aircraft, has not yet arranged to install the permanent retardant tanks.

Chief Tidwell told the Committee he expects the seven HC-130H air tankers to be operational on the following schedule:

2016: one
2017: two
2018: four
2019: seven, all with permanent retardant delivery systems

Bison closer to becoming the national mammal

Above: A bison in Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert, February 28, 2015.

The bison is closer to becoming the national mammal after the House voted Tuesday to approve the National Bison Legacy Act. In December the Senate approved a slightly different version of the bill. If they approve the amended House version, which may happen this week, all that will then be needed is the President’s signature.

Below is an excerpt from an article at CNN:

..”No other indigenous species tells America’s story better than this noble creature,” Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, said in a statement.

Clay and several other members of the House and the Senate across both parties wrote and co-sponsored the bill.

“The American bison is an enduring symbol of strength, native American culture and the boundless Western wildness,” Clay said.

“It is an integral part of the still largely untold story of Native Americans and their historic contributions to our national identity.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, compared the bison to the bird that already is an official U.S. symbol.

“The bison, like the bald eagle, has for many years been a symbol of America for its strength, endurance and dignity, reflecting the pioneer spirit of our country,” Hoeven said in a statement…

Below is some video footage Bill Gabbert shot in Custer State Park on April 13 of bison with very young calves probably not more than one to two weeks old.

Time lapse of prescribed fire at Homestead NM

This is a time lapse of the 23-acre prescribed fire that was partially ignited by an unmanned aircraft system, or drone, April 22 at Homestead National Monument in southeast Nebraska. During the test, firefighters with drip torches lit the perimeter, while the drone ignited the interior.

More information about the use of the drone on the project.

Todd Pechota receives FMO of the year award

The U.S. Forest Service announced that Todd Pechota, Forest Fire Management Officer (FMO) on the Black Hills National Forest, is the recipient of the 2015 National Forest FMO of the Year award. He received the honor during a recent ceremony at the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office in Colorado.

The Black Hills National forest is in the Black Hills of western South Dakota and northeast Wyoming.

Todd Pechota
Todd Pechota, in a screen grab from a video as he was interviewed about the Whaley prescribed fire north of Hill City, SD, January 13, 2016.

The award recognizes the most outstanding fire manager in the U.S. Forest Service each year.  It has a long and prestigious history of honoring fire managers who have exhibited exceptional leadership in Forest Fire Management leadership as a Forest Fire Management Officer.

“Todd is an exceptional leader in wildland fire,” said Craig Bobzien, Black Hills National Forest Supervisor.  “This award is a testament to the work he has accomplished. It underscores the relationships he has developed locally and across the nation, and the special care that he has shown for all those that have worked with him.”

In addition to his position as FMO on the Black Hills National Forest, Pechota serves as the Incident Commander for the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team and is past Chairman of the Great Plains Regional Dispatch Board of Directors.