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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Three preliminary accident reports

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published preliminary reports for three recent accidents — two burnovers and one very serious snag incident. Below are the summaries of the three accidents. It usually takes many months for the final, complete reports to be written and released.

Snag accident on the Freezeout Ridge Fire, Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, one injury, September 21, 2014:

Firefighters from the Winema Hotshot crew were working on the Northeast edge of the Freezeout Ridge Fire when a snag fell and struck a Firefighter. The individual was knocked unconscious and it was determined by personnel on scene that life flight medical attention was needed. The individual was treated on scene by crew members, then transported via helicopter, long lined to a heli-spot where he was treated by a paramedic and transported to a hospital in Boise. He is being treated for severe head injuries including a skull fracture, broken jaw, lacerations to the face and head, two broken arms, dislocated thumb, and minor burns.

A Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) team has convened and began to assess the incident.

Because a decision was made to deviate from aviation policy in order to potentially save the life of the injured firefighter, a SAFECOM was filed. That aspect of the incident is covered at Fire Aviation.

Entrapment on the King Fire in northern California, no serious injuries, September 15, 2014:

We wrote about this entrapment live as it was developing.

Below is the information from CAL FIRE’s preliminary report:

SYNOPSIS:
The following information is a preliminary summary report referencing a Heavy Fire Equipment Operator , a Fire Captain B and CAL FIRE inmate fire crewmembers involved in a burnover during a wildland fire incident. There were no serious injuries suffered by CAL FIRE personnel or inmate crewmembers. The extent of the damage to the CAL FIRE bulldozer is unknown at the time of this report.

NARRATIVE:
On September 15, 2014, a CAL FIRE Fire Captain (FCB-1), with inmate fire crewmembers (CRW-1), and a CAL FIRE Heavy Fire Equipment Operator (HFEO-1) were assigned to Division K (DIV K) on the King Incident in El Dorado County. CRW-1 and HFEO-1 were working on the northeast side of the King Incident. The reported assignment was to go direct and contain a slop over on a mid-slope road. At approximately 1245 hours, FCB-1 observed an increase in the fire behavior, and determined to cancel the assignment. FCB-1 notified HFEO-1 and with the inmate crewmembers took refuge at a deployment site. HFEO-1 was forced to leave the bulldozer by foot and took refuge at the deployment site with FCB-1 and CRW-1. The personnel deployed their fire shelters. Air support was requested, accountability maintained and their location was communicated. The personnel were evacuated by helicopter and transported to the helibase. They were evaluated by paramedics and returned to the Incident Base later the same day. There were no serious injuries suffered in this incident.

Entrapment on the Black Fire in California’s Mendocino County, September 13, 2014, two minor injuries, three engines damaged:

The Willits News has a photo of one of the engines that burned.

Below is the summary from the CAL FIRE preliminary report:

SYNOPSIS
On Saturday September 13, 2014, at approximately 1625 hours, a rapidly moving wildland fire burned over two local agency Type III engines and one CAL FIRE utility vehicle; destroying one of the two engines and the utility. The second engine sustained significant heat damage. Two local agency fire personnel suffered minor injuries, and were treated and released at a local medical facility. During the same fire run, firefighters on a CAL FIRE engine having to take refuge in a structure. The CAL FIRE engine sustained minor damage. The engine operator suffered minor injuries and was treated and released at a local medical facility.

NARRATIVE
On Saturday September 13, 2014, the BLACK fire was approximately 50 acres and actively burning with spotting at ¼ mile. The fuel type was primarily oak woodland intermixed with grasslands and areas of chamise. Two local government Type III engines were operating at a structure (Structure 1) along a ridge with the Division Group Supervisor (DIV C) in a utility. At the same time, a CAL FIRE engine had staged next to a separate structure (Structure 2) approximately 100 yards to the south along the same ridge within DIV C.

At approximately 1625 hours, the fire made a rapid, upslope run through a large area of chamise and manzanita located below the road that accessed the structures. All of the structures along the ridge were threatened. Structure 1 ignited and the residential propane tank began to vent. DIV C determined personnel couldn’t safely take refuge in the structure or the fire apparatus. Ultimately it was determined the apparatus couldn’t be moved quickly enough to ensure a safe exit and all personnel at the structure exited the area on foot to a Temporary Refuge Area.

During this increased fire activity a CAL FIRE engine crew took refuge in Structure 2. When the fire front passed, all personnel exited the structure and drove from the fire area. There was minor damage to the state engine.

 

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Forest Service attempts to clarify wilderness photography rules

Alaska mountains

Photo by Bill Gabbert

After a public outcry about a very poorly written and ambiguous proposed rule that would govern the use of still and video photography in U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas, the agency attempted to clarify the draft rule, issuing a press release at 8:45 p.m. on Thursday, stating in part:

“The fact is, the directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only – if you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required. We take your First Amendment rights very seriously,” said Tidwell. “We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive.”

The proposed rule, the way it was explained to the Oregonian’s reporter, would have required permit fees of up to $1,500 for reporters who took photographs in wilderness areas, unless they were covering breaking news. Many critics of the Forest Service’s rule said it violated the first amendment to the Constitution — freedom of the press.

There are several other provisions in the written version of the draft rule that are troubling and give Forest Service employees far too much discretion about what could and could not be photographed or reported on in a wilderness area.

The proposed rule states several times that permits are required for “still photography and commercial filming”. It does not specify that still photography for non-commercial uses does not require a permit. In fact, it implies the opposite.

The application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area”. Employees in the local National Forest get to use their photographic editing skills to make that determination.

A permit can also be denied if a Forest Service official decides that the project does not have “a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. That is a lot of subjective criteria to put in the hands of a Forest Service employee. And it appears to be an attempt to control the thoughts and motives of photographers and film makers. Exactly WHY a person, commercial photographer or not, WANTS to take a photo or make a film should NOT be subject to review by a Forest Service employee. Their only concerns should be to prevent physical damage to the natural resources and to not interfere with the ability of other citizens, also the owners of the public land, to enjoy the wilderness. If the Forest Service is going to incur costs during the filming, such as having a minder there to insure there is no physical damage from a large crew, then the agency is within their rights to charge a permit fee.

The details about this rule are to be found, not in the published draft rule, but in multiple USFS manuals that are referenced, which then refer you to another manual, which then says, for example, the price of the photography permit fees are to be determined by each individual National Forest. So, it’s very confusing and time consuming to attempt to find out what the rules really are. There are 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Navigating that jungle of bureaucracy could be a challenge. And I say that as a former employee of the Forest Service and Park Service.

The Forest Service needs to rewrite the poorly written draft rule to clearly say what it covers and what it does not cover. If more details or requirements are in other publications, those important passages should be included in the rule, rather than forcing a person to go off on multiple scavenger hunts in an attempt to discover what the Forest Service is really trying to say.

The Forest Service also needs to remind their staff, who are employees of the citizens of our great nation, that Forest Service lands are not solely the property of USFS employees. The land belongs to the people of the United States. The Forest Service should be working on ways to make it easier, not more difficult, for the people to enjoy their National Forests.

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