Fire whirl full of tumbleweeds

This very impressive fire whirl was captured on video March 14 at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado during a prescribed fire. The swirling wind swept up tumbleweeds, some of them burning, and created a problem for firefighters. It was posted on YouTube by Bellevue Wildfire.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Jim, Steve, Tristan, and Andrew.


Ten things I think I think

As the Aerial Firefighting conference winds down at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, these are the 10 things I think I think (with apologies to Peter King).

1. I think 150 scoops in a water-scooping CL-215T in a 13-hour flying day is pretty amazing. That’s what a pilot from Spain told me he accomplished on a fire one time before his agency changed the policy of no limit on the number of hours flown to nine hours per day. The average number of scoops he usually completes now is 10 per hour.

basket2. I think the extraction/insertion upside down folding “umbrella” demonstrated by Aviation Safety Tactical today for hauling personnel by helicopter to a remote area is pricey at $75,000 each. A representative said the price will come down if it ever goes into mass production.

3. I think it will be interesting to see if the only purpose-built Type 1 air tanker, the Be-200, ever obtains FAA and Interagency Air Tanker Board approvals. The Be-200 is the Russian-made, jet-powered, 3,170-gallon, amphibious water scooping air tanker made by Beriev. The manufacturer and an American company headed by David Baskett are still trying to push the approval through the bureaucracy. We need more purpose-built air tankers.

4. I think it is surprising that with the highly publicized California drought the two hotels I stayed in while in Sacramento both had high-volume shower heads — the large saucer-shaped versions that Holiday Inn Express advertises on billboards. One community not far from here is requiring residents to reduce their water consumption by 25%, under threat of large fines if they don’t comply.

5. I think I was lucky to be routed into the expedited screening security line at the Rapid City Airport. I was pleased that I did not have to remove the boarding pass from my pocket, take off my belt and shoes, or remove my computer from my carry-on while it went through the machine.

6. I think I miss the days when on a flight we at least were given a tiny bag of peanuts. It is only a distant memory now. How long will it be before they start charging for a soda pop or a glass of water?

7.  I think hotels need more electrical outlets. In order to plug in the coffee maker, I could crawl under a table and unplug the TV or a lamp that I needed, or carry the machine across the room where there was a vacant outlet. Then there’s other devices that also need electricity, like the computer, camera battery charger, and the cell phone.

8.  I think that since the Lions Gate Hotel at McClellan totally screwed up my reservation, telling me I had none in spite of the printout I showed them of the email confirming the damn thing, I will never go near that hotel again.

9.  I think it is impressive that to get ready for the grid test of their BAe-146 air tanker, Minden Air Corp obtained and pounded into the earth 3,155 four-foot “T posts” to hold the cups that will catch and measure the retardant. The grid test is a requirement to obtain certification from the Interagency Air Tanker Board. The retardant caught in the cups, which are spread over a large area, can determine the distribution of the retardant.

10. Requiring suits and ties for a fire conference is stupid. Hey Tangent Link and conference chair retired Admiral Terry Loughran formerly of the Royal Navy — the 1950s called and they want their “dress code” back!


Throwback Thursday

Today at Wildfire Today we’re looking six years back, at what we were writing about March 16-22, 2008.

Oklahoma State Trooper burned in grass fire. Trooper Josh Tinsler, 23, was severely burned while checking to see if there was anyone at home in a house that was threatened by a grass fire near Hollis, OK.

Update on study about large fires and greenhouse gases

Brush fire at Monkey Junction

The sweet smell of smoke. That was the headline above an editorial in the Payson Roundup in Arizona. They were “giddy” about the Forest Service reducing fuels and burning piles.

Lawsuit against Mark Rey and the USFS dismissed. A lawsuit that forced the nation’s top forestry official to apologize in a Missoula courtroom was over.


Pattern recognition in today’s wildfire community

Today we have an article from a guest author, Derrick Davis, a Fire Captain with the Kern County Fire Department in southern California.


Pattern recognition in today’s wildfire community

There is no doubt in everyone’s eyes that fires are burning more intensely than before and the fire service is getting more and more complex day by day. But what has changed from the fires of the early 1900′s?  Have our tactics changed? Has fire taken on a new role and become a beast that is hard to understand?  There is no doubt that things are harder now than they were back then, with land management policies, urban interface and many other factors that leave us in bondage when we try and do our jobs.

But one thing that really hasn’t changed is fire. It still burns exactly the same as it did when man first discovered it, right?  Or are we missing something?  What’s different from the firefighters that arrived to fires via horseback with back pack pumps, Pulaskis, shovels and crosscut saws?  Were their tactics truly any different from ours now? Anchor, flank and pinch. If the fire is too hot, back off and if the conditions allow, go after it. So why are people getting hurt and killed?

If we take a look at some of the recent fatality and near-miss fires, what are some common things we see that leads us down a road into trouble?

  • Unburned Fuel between Us and the Fire
  • Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zone (LCES) Not in Place (all components of it)
  • Wildland Urban Interface

These are three major things that can eventually lead to game changing outcomes. We already know that we must face and mitigate them. But the reality of it is, are we truly mitigating them or just checking boxes so that we can move forward?  We know there are many other things, that play serious roles in injuries and near-misses on fires, like human factors, inexperience and the nature effect. Let’s face it, our jobs are dangerous, nature is far more powerful than us, but we step out there and combat against it every summer.  Why not try increasing the odds in our favor?

Unburned Fuel between Us and the Fire

It’s no longer a “watch out” situation. It’s a killer, it’s behind every corner and it’s on every rooftop waiting for the right time to pull the trigger or plant the ambush. We need to really re-evaluate (seriously evaluate) every time that we consider being placed in that situation. The way “today’s” fires have the potential to burn and are burning, our time wedge is greatly reduced and we are having a hard time truly estimating and understanding real and true potential of fire spread and intensity.

LCES Not in Place

It’s a pretty simple concept and is the key to safety and going home at night if you understand its true meaning. It’s not a something we can just cover in a briefing so we can move forward with the plan. It is constant and needs to be continually re-evaluated to ensure safety.

Every crew has at least one lookout, but if it’s only one, can that one person truly see everything that’s coming our way?  Two or three of them plus, a set of outside eyes always helps. What’s the phrase? One is none and two is one. So if two is one, then four is really two? The more lookouts, the better, and other people’s eyes and voices are good to confirm that little voice in your head saying “this isn’t feeling so right” when it’s hot and heavy. Remember that using air resources is great. They can see a lot when they focus directly on you, but air should not be your only lookout.


Communication is the key to clarity. It’s a must, and not just internally. You need to have multiple sources. Share information with everyone. Let all the necessary people involved know exactly what your intentions are and ask for feedback. It’s not reality unless it’s shared.  If your assignment or intentions are effectively communicated,and understood by everyone, then everyone knows the plan. If there is uncertainty in the plan it draws questions that will lead to plan modification, probably for a safer working environment.

Escape routes 

We must have escape routes and they must be known. They have to be validated so that in this “new normal” fire environment they will be adequate to lead to the bigger picture (safety zones).

Safety zones

What is a good safety zone anymore? Is it the black? And if that’s the case, what is a good black or burned area?  It’s a topic that needs to be revisited over and over again. If it’s not the black then what is it?  Structures? Roads? Vehicles?  Is the safety zone adequate for the fire behavior that is forecast, predicted and being observed?

LCES is vital to our safety and it needs to be properly understood, developed and practiced.

Wildland Urban Interface

It’s unavoidable that people build their houses in the woods. Who wouldn’t want to be in the woods?  We are asked every year to go out there and save those structures from fire. We get target fixated at times during structure defense. LCES goes out the window and we put ourselves out in front of the fire. These are the things that can spell disaster with a capital D. We will continue to do this every year, so we need to do a much better job of recognizing the patterns that lead to disaster.

So how do we mitigate it and make it fighting fire safer?  Pre-planning to ensure the public is doing their part in creating defensible space is key. This firefighting game is a partnership between us and the public. No partnership lasts very long in an 80/20 effort. It needs to be a 50/50 relationship.

Each year about this time we start preparing for this season’s challenges after catching our breath and look back at the adventures of the past summer. Most of us go “wow that was a good one, glad we got out of that one safely”. But why are we still having the “that was close” conversations? Are we failing to recognize the patterns that lead to trouble?  Is our situational awareness not built up enough?  As it’s been said before, we go out each year and go to war with a force that is always much stronger and more powerful than us. Don’t you think we should start stacking the odds in our favor?

Keep your head and senses up and come home safe.


Sid Beckman, NPS regional FMO

Sid Beckman NPS FMO

Sid Beckman. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After five years with the National Park Service (NPS) and 16 months as the Fire Management Officer (FMO) for the NPS’s Pacific West Region, Sid Beckman looked comfortable today in his office on the fifth floor of a high-rise building in downtown San Francisco. He came to the position after 29 years with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and three years in the fuels side of the program under Regional NPS FMO Sue Husari who retired after 39 years of federal service.

This week Mr. Beckman and his staff are looking back at the last year to see if there are any lessons learned that should be addressed as they move into Fire Season 2014. They are going through program reviews, preparedness reviews, and accident investigations looking for common themes. Individual reports are of course read routinely, but this is the first time NPS fire management in the region, at least in recent years, has studied a variety of documents at the end of a fire season looking for common threads. Their findings will be presented upstairs to the Regional Director, the Assistant Regional Director, and the park FMOs in the region.

The fire budget for the NPS, after suffering a 30 percent decline, stabilized this year, and his understanding is that next year’s budget will be similar.

We asked about the impacts of the 257,000-acre Rim Fire that started outside Yosemite National Park but burned into some of the back country areas of the park. Gus Smith, the park’s ecologist, is leading a fire science team in an effort to determine the research needs related to the effects of the huge fire. Some of the topics they will look at include how previous prescribed fire and fuel treatment projects affected the fire, and if they were effective in mitigating the fire behavior as the fire approached or burned through the areas. The USFS is also involved in looking at the effects of the fire, which cost about $127 million to suppress.

Mr. Beckman described how firefighting has changed during the course of his career.

My first season was in 1976. I worked on hotshot crews in southern California. You worked for a Superintendent, you showed up for work, you wore your boots, you spoke when spoken to, and that was your job. Now, we’ve shifted to a learning culture. And I truly believe that today we have greatly improved the training of our firefighters and our expectation for them to be part of the process. It is not the safety of the individual alone but the safety of the entire team. Now firefighters have a voice. Firefighting is some of the hardest, most challenging work we can do. At times it is dangerous. Most of the time it is dangerous. And the danger is not just on the fire line, but traveling to and from. You can get hit by a rock or a tree — that is far more common than burn overs.

When asked what he liked most about the job, he said:

Hopefully, that I’m supporting people in the field, that the decisions we’re making at this level are helping them and making their job easier.

We told Mr. Beckman about a large sign that Rick Gale, the former Chief Ranger of the NPS in charge of fire and law enforcement, posted above his office door in Washington, DC. It read: “What have you done for a Park today?”

When we asked what he liked least about his job, he smiled and said:

Filling out my travel [forms] online.

His advice for a firefighter that might want to advance into an upper management position at a Park, Forest, State, or Regional Office, included:

First of all become a good firefighter. And when I say become a good firefighter, understand fire. Understand fighting fire, understand lighting fire, understand managing fire. Get those root skills. Spend time in the dirt dragging your knuckles. Don’t get in a hurry to get to the top. Because you’re going to learn the most when you’re out there making those decisions in the field.

And then take every opportunity to learn. When you’re on the fire line find the old salts. Pay attention to what they are doing.

If the agency offers you the opportunity in the off season to get some formal education never turn it down. Don’t get preoccupied with getting a Red Card as much as becoming smarter and more knowledgeable about what you do. And that includes all the things that may not seem important like understanding fire policy.

[Paul] Gleason talked about being a “student of fire”. There’s the fire side, and then there’s the fire management side and understanding all of that. That was the biggest benefit to me, taking those opportunities to raise your hand when it really didn’t sound that exciting, “Hey, do you want to learn about NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]?” Then you understand how the machine works, and hopefully learn to make better decisions.


Photos from the Pine Fire in southern California

Pine Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Jeff Zimmerman was kind enough to send us these excellent photos he took at the Pine Fire in Los Angeles County that started Friday on the south side of Highway 138 in Gorman. The last we heard, on Sunday firefighters were calling it 109 acres and 85 percent contained.

Jeff said the brush and trees in the Los Angeles area really seems to be showing the effects of drought and has not exhibited much change recently in spite of the four inches of precipitation in the last few weeks. The affected vegetation is very noticeable along the Interstate 5 corridor, he said, between the 2,500-foot and 4,400-foot elevation where the bathtub ring of air pollution accumulates.

You can see more of Jeff’s photogaphy at his site. Thanks Jeff.

Pine Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Pine Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Pine Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Pine Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Pine Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Thanks Jeff!