Wednesday morning one-liners

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014.

*The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published a report on a BIA engine that rolled over near Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014. Two people were injured, one seriously. The LLC says more than 50 fire vehicles have rolled over in the last 10 years.

*A Colorado artist has created a work consisting of rectilinear pillars suspended from the ceiling, each measuring nine feet tall, meant to convey the idea of a wildfire.

*A man spotted running from the 50-acre Foothill Fire in Ventura, California was arrested on suspicion of setting the blaze.

*Fire officials in Washington state suspect an arsonist is responsible for igniting 23 fires in less than two weeks. Most of them have been vegetation fires.

*A firefighting vehicle in Australia has been outfitted with drop-down steel wheels so that it can follow a steam-powered train, putting out wildfires started by the steam engine.

*In other news from Australia, a Senator gave a speech, titled, Thank you For Smoking, praising nicotine fiends for their $8 billion a year contribution to the economy. He said he did the math: Last year smokers cost the health care system $320 million and another $150 million in bushfire control.

*Researchers have found that “recent (2001–2010) beetle outbreak severity was unrelated to most field measures of subsequent fire severity, which was instead driven primarily by extreme burning conditions (weather) and topography.” Unfortunately, to read the article, researched and published by government employees, it will cost you $10 for two days of access. If the researchers, Brian J. Harvey, Daniel C. Donato, and Monica G. Turner, are going to hide the results of their taxpayer-funded research behind a pay wall, what’s the point in hiring researchers? Support Open Access.

*Firefighters are on alert in the Philippines for wildfires that may start from an eruption of the Mayon volcano.

*Firefighters are on lessened alert in the Black Hills after the area received two to five inches of rain over the last few days.

*California has burned through its wildfire-fighting budget — $209 million — just as it faces what is historically the worst of the fire season.

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More details emerge about the fire shelter deployment on the King Fire

An article in Vertical Magazine, a publication for the civilian helicopter industry, adds more details about the incident that occurred on the King Fire east of Placerville, California where 12 firefighters deployed their fire shelters in front of advancing flames.

On September 15 we live blogged about the deployment while listening to the radio traffic, and the Arizona Republic interviewed the crew boss for an article published on September 29. The story in Vertical, published on September 30 and written by Dan Megna after interviewing the crew boss and the helicopter pilot, recounts what happened, with more details about the aviation side of the story. It, like the first article, is worth your time. It cleared up a few questions I had, such as who programmed the GPS coordinates into the helicopter’s navigation system (it was not a “Command Staff” person), the handoff from the Bell 205 to the Helicopter Coordinator for directing the crew to safety, and specifics about the extraction of the crew from the landing zone.

Below is an excerpt from the Vertical article:

…Within minutes of [dozer] 1642 arriving and beginning work to access the flames, the atmosphere over the fire began to change, and very quickly. Light breezes turned to hot upslope winds as the inversion layer lifted, allowing the smoke to billow up out of the trees.

The clearing visibility through the trees now revealed a much different — and far more menacing — scenario. Fleming and the dozer operator immediately determined they would be unable to hold what was now apparently a large front of fire.

The dozer operator quickly began to back the machine back up the hill, and Fleming ordered his crew back to the designated “safe zone.”

As Fleming began walking up the hill to join his crew, he heard the sound of the dozer accelerating to what he believed to be full throttle, and the tractor’s track squealing to grab traction.

“I turned around to look, and saw sustained independent crown fire [fire jumping tree to tree in 100-foot-plus tall timber] coming right behind him,” Fleming said…

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Enhanced wildfire danger in southern California Thursday through Sunday

Southern California forecast

Southern California forecast, Thursday through Sunday. NWS Los Angeles.

The National Weather Service is predicting a mild Santa Ana, or offshore, wind for southern California Thursday through Sunday. The wind will not be strong, but the relative humidity in some areas will be in the single digits along with temperatures around 100, at least in the Riverside area.

The new Santa Ana Threat Index that was rolled out September 17 only lists some “Marginal” to “Moderate” Santa Ana conditions on Thursday and Friday. That could change, of course.

Explanation of Santa Ana or offshore winds.

Explanation of Santa Ana or offshore winds. NWS San Diego.

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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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