New USFS firefighter recruitment video

On September 23 The U.S. Forest uploaded to YouTube this video that appears to be a new firefighter recruitment tool. Like any advertising campaign asking people to apply for jobs, it certainly glamorizes what firefighters do.

One person is even shown saying:

Our job is better than your best vacation.

The video strongly emphasizes smokejumping and rappelling, as if those jobs make up a large percentage of the firefighting work force. And it shows a lot of women, as if they comprise more than 10 percent of the work force.

I only noticed one firefighter with his shirt sleeves rolled up and that was on screen for about 1/4 second. I wonder how much footage they had to discard that showed firefighters with safety or personal protective equipment infractions.

The production values are very high, perhaps the best I have seen coming out of the USFS or the folks at the National Interagency Fire Center. It gives producer credit to the Creative Media and Broadcast Center, USDA Office of Communications, Washington, DC.

It is a little over the top at times, but I give it a…thumbs up

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Scientists set up equipment in front of a spreading fire

(Note from Bill: A Fire Behavior Assessment Team (FBAT) has been studying the King Fire east of Placerville, California. Rae Brooks, an Information Officer at the fire, sent us this article describing what a FBAT does.)

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These scientists set up equipment in front of a fire to collect fire behavior data

by Rae Brooks

FORESTHILL, Calif. — Fire scientists call them “plots.” Dotted ahead of the leading edge of the King Fire, they were deliberately placed in the anticipated path of the flaming front. Each plot contained a video camera, wind-speed gauge and other monitoring devices.

If the flames came, a data logger buried a foot underground would collect information that would allow the scientists to better understand the science of wildfire, gauge the effectiveness of fuel treatments, and contribute to firefighter safety.

So while thousands of firefighters were building line, clearing brush from roads and bulldozing contingency lines to suppress the King Fire, the scientists patiently waited for flames to sweep over their plots, if control efforts failed.

“We want our plots to burn,” said Carol Ewell, co-lead of the FBAT, or Fire Behavior Assessment Team, at the King Fire. “Firefighters put the fire out. It’s a difficult balance.”

fire behavior plot

A plot BEFORE the fire passed through. Photo by FBAT team at the King Fire.

fire behavior plot

The same plot AFTER the fire passed through. Photo by FBAT team at the King Fire.

Mark Courson, a division-qualified firefighter and an operations section trainee, served as operations lead for the FBAT at the King Fire. His job was to keep the team safe and advise on site selection.

“Usually I’m thinking of putting the fire out,” said Courson. “Now I’m bucking the system, thinking where suppression might not hold it.”

The team, a U.S. Forest Service module, draws members from around the country to work 14-day assignments on wildfires. Since 2006, the FBAT has recorded data at 16 wildfires, including last year’s Rim Fire, the third largest in California history. Generally, emerging fires with potential for growth suit the FBAT better.

At the King Fire, just three of 10 sites selected burned over. The team averages 50 percent, but sometimes gets lucky and finds all its plots burned.

“It’s a big gamble,” said Ewell. “Our success rate is quite variable, and I’m not sure that’s a hurdle that we can fix.”

The King Fire was particularly difficult to read after it made a speedy 15-mile run northward beginning late in the afternoon of Sept. 17, Ewell said. Rain has since quelled the fire, which is now 89 percent contained.

Despite the inherent difficulties, free-burning wildfires provide conditions that cannot be replicated in laboratory, experimental or prescribed fires. For instance, no prescribed fire would ever be set during California’s current historic drought. The team has recorded active crown-fire runs, fire whirls, spot-fire ignitions, and merger of spot fires with the main flame front.

The team’s prime mission at the KIng Fire is to study the effectiveness of fuel treatments. Team members set up plots in treated and nearby untreated areas to provide comparisons.

Because they are working ahead of the flaming front, they follow standard firefighting safety protocols, carefully considering whether they can get safely into and out of selected sites. “Unburned fuel between you and the fire,” is one of the 18 Firefighting Watch Out Situations, and, by necessity, their equipment must be placed in unburned fuel ahead of the fire.

“There is risk involved,” said team member Matt Dickinson, an ecologist at the Delaware, Ohio, location of the Forest Services’s Northern Research Station. “One way we mitigate is to set up plots early in the day before the peak burning period. We pull out quite often when we’re not feeling comfortable.”

It takes about an hour for nine FBAT members to install their gear and inventory the vegetation at each site. If firefighters are trying to build line and the team is trying to set up a plot, the firefighters, of course, have priority, said Ewell. “In comparison, we’re just a geek squad,” she said, although most FBAT members are experienced firefighters.

Some of the team's equipment. Photo by Mike McMillan.

Some of the team’s equipment. Photo by Mike McMillan.

At each plot, the team sets up temperature sensors, heat flux sensors, anemometers to measure wind speed, and video cameras encased in heat-resistant steel boxes. The cameras start when trigger wires are burned over. Each camera captures about 80 minutes of footage.

The flames often melt the anemometer’s plastic cups, so wind speeds might only be collected before flames arrive. At each site, team members also bury a data logger in a military surplus ammunition box. Other members collect information about the vegetation, down to counting sticks on the ground.

At the King Fire, the team also recorded fuel moisture data to help fire behavior analysts working on the fire.

In the future, Ewell would like to equip the team with more heat-flux sensors, Go-Pro video cameras with new triggers, and anemometers that can better withstand heat. The team relies on grant money and project funding from the Forest Service to continue its work.

When sites burn over, team members return, when it is safe, to collect their equipment and the data. They also record how the vegetation has fared. Plots that don’t burn are permanently marked with rebar, so they can provide fuels information for other uses.

The team spends evenings entering data and crunching numbers, and tries to complete a summary report before demobilizing from a fire.

Seeing a wildfire burn during severe drought has been an eye-opener, said Dickinson. Most of his experience has been with prescribed fires. He found the tremendous consumption of fuels and the severe damage to trees hard to witness.

William Borovicka, who normally works at the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest in McArthur, Ohio, was a first-time FBAT member at the King Fire. Back home, he studies how oak and hickory forests, if left undisturbed, convert to beech and maple woods. His work in Ohio, he feels, plays into management techniques to stabilize the oaks and hickories.

Using FBAT findings to gain a deeper understanding of fire behavior might similarly help forest managers someday with decision-making, Borovicka said.

“Maybe more prescribed fires, or different harvesting techniques,” he said. “Whatever it takes to prevent this kind of blow-up.”

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Crew that deployed fire shelters on King Fire had three minutes to run to a safer area

Gary Dahlen award

Pilot Gary Dahlen, center, is recognized for his actions to aid a crew that was threatened by a rapidly spreading fire. Photo courtesy of CAL FIRE.

The 12 people that deployed fire shelters on the King Fire in northern California on September 15 were in a spot near heavy timber that may or may not have been survivable, even in the shelters they had climbed under. Gary Dahlem, flying a Bell 205 overhead, told the crew that they should relocate, and they had three minutes to run out of the timber to an area with lighter fuels.

Amy Wang of the Arizona Republic interviewed Mr. Dahlem and got his story about how it all developed. Here are a couple of excepts from the beginning of her article:

The command that blared from the radio was one Gary Dahlen had never heard before, not in all his years piloting helicopters over wildfires.

“All available helicopters prepare for an emergency launch.”

He hardly knew what to make of it. “I was thinking maybe structures were threatened,” Dahlen said later.
[...]

He quickly climbed into his flight suit, then into his seat. As the helicopter’s turbo engine whined to life, someone from the fire command staff came sprinting toward the aircraft, reached in and punched latitude-and-longitude coordinates into Dahlen’s GPS.

That was when he learned the emergency: It was a shelter deployment.

We were listening to the radio traffic during the incident and live-blogged about it that day.

On September 23 Mr. Dahlen received an award for his actions.

One thing the excellent article does not mention is that the pilots were given incorrect lat/long coordinates for the location of the crew, which would have sent them many miles off course. There was just one digit that was wrong, but the pilots figured out what it should have been and found the firefighters. Describing a location using lat/long requires about 13 to 20 digits, providing many opportunities for errors as they are communicated and punched into navigation systems. If we switched over to the U.S. National Grid a location could be described using only 6 to 8 digits (depending on the degree of accuracy required) if you already know what region of the country the location is in. Add 2 characters to specify the region, and 3 more to make it a unique location world-wide.

 

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Fire that orphaned mountain lion cubs was started by exploding target

mountain lion cubs fire

Sara Steele and Liz Shellenbarger dry off the mountain lion cubs found under a burning log. Photo by Cory Rennaker, Bitterroot National Forest Helitack, USFS.

Investigators have confirmed that shooters using exploding targets started the Three Mile Fire nine miles east of Florence, Montana in August. The fire burned about 50 acres before firefighters extinguished it at a cost estimated at $94,000.

During the initial attack on the fire, Bitterroot National Forest firefighters rescued a pair of mountain lion cubs. The kittens, just a few weeks old, were taking shelter under a burning log. Firefighters called in a helicopter bucket drop to cool the log, and the kittens, although wet from the 600 gallons of water, were rescued.

Mountain lion cubs

Photo by Cory Rennaker, Bitterroot National Forest Helitack, USFS.

A few weeks after being rescued, the cubs, named Lewis and Clark, were adopted by the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium, and on September 23 made an appearance on David Letterman’s show. During the first two minutes of the video below, Jack Hanna tells Dave about the blank spot in his brain, and then the cubs are brought on.

We have written about exploding targets many times before. The dangerous devices consist of two ingredients that when mixed by the end user create an explosive when shot by a high-velocity projectile.

Exploding targets have caused many fires since they became more popular in recent years. They have been banned in some areas, and caused the death of one person. In June, 2013 a man attending a bachelor-bachelorette party in Minnesota was killed after shrapnel from the device struck him in the abdomen causing his death. The Missoulian reported that two years ago a woman in Ohio had her hand nearly blown off while taking a cellphone video of a man firing at an exploding target placed in a refrigerator about 150 feet away.

The U.S. Forest Service has banned exploding targets in the Northern Region, which includes Montana. The Three Mile Fire occurred on state protected land in a Wildlife Management Area where target shooting is not permissible. The state of Montana has not taken action to specifically prohibit the use of exploding targets, although they can become illegal when fire restrictions are in place.

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