Predicting the severity of fire seasons

I stopped trying to predict the severity of fire seasons long ago. The most important factor is the weather during the season. If it is hot, dry, and windy, you can have a busy season. If it is not, even with a heavy fuel buildup and/or drought, you are not likely to have numerous large fires.

An article in the March/April issue of Wildfire by Krista Gebert, an economist with the US Forest Service, showed a relationship between the average spring-summer temperature and total fire suppression expenditures in the US Forest Service’s Northern Region (Montana, and parts of Idaho, North Dakota, and Washington). The threshold was 59-degrees (15 degrees C). When the average was below 59, the total fire suppression expenditures were generally less than $50 million per year. When the average was above 59, expenditures ranged from as low as $25 million to as high as $350 million.

Isn’t it great when a researcher, or even an economist, crunches numbers at a desk and tells us what experienced fire managers already know. But you don’t see experienced fire managers writing up stuff like this. The fact that Ms. Gebert is documenting it, and backing it up with data, reduces the learning curve for people coming into the wildland fire game. And this data may improve some of the predictive services tools and products.

In the article below, from the San Diego Union about the fuel buildup in Arizona, a fire meteorologist takes a bold step and predicts a “substantial fire season” for the greater Phoenix area.

12:45 p.m. April 3, 2008



PHOENIX – An abnormally wet winter has spawned a rare profusion of grass and brush in the Phoenix metro area and other parts of the state – setting up much of Arizona’s desert lands for an active wildfire season, according to fire management officials.

That same wet weather has been a blessing for the state’s higher-elevation forests, which have been dried out by years of drought and left with millions of dead trees because of a beetle infestation.

For the forests, above-normal snowfalls mean trees and undergrowth will have high moisture content, and the fire danger is expected to be relatively low.

But by May, searing temperatures and arid conditions are expected to dry out the often hip-high grasses now blanketing desert areas.

“It’s almost like Ireland it’s so green out there right now,” state Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh said recently, referring to one area just north of Phoenix. “But we know that’s going to turn brown here in a few weeks, and certainly by early May it’ll be cured out enough to start to carry fire.”

The conditions are reminiscent of those in 2005, when a blaze named the Cave Creek Complex became the second-largest wildfire in state history. It scorched nearly 250,000 acres of desert and destroyed 11 homes in a small community northeast of Phoenix.

“It looks like the greater Phoenix metro area and for many miles around that has grass growing at this point is going to see some kind of substantial fire season,” said Chuck Maxwell, a fire meteorologist at the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque. “It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of how severe it is.”


Fire at FEMA

Today there was a fire at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington, DC. It was contained to an office on the first floor by automatic sprinklers and the fire department, but 200 employees evacuated for 50 minutes.

More FEMA news:

  • An internal FEMA evaluation gave themselves solid ratings in seven out of nine categories of readiness while raising concerns about coordinating federal resources and the agency’s ability to provide housing for displaced disaster victims. The coordination issue is not good news for state and federal agencies providing support for disasters through FEMA.
  • David Paulison, the FEMA Administrator, said yesterday that hurricane victims should not expect to receive free ice and generators during future FEMA-managed recovery efforts.
  • Paulison said that regardless of who is elected as our next President, he will resign before the new President takes office.

Group files second suit against USFS about retardant

From the Missoulian, an excerpt:

“An environmental watchdog group on Wednesday sued the U.S. Forest Service for a second time over the agency’s use of aerial fire retardants.

The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an Oregon-based nonprofit group, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

The lawsuit is part of the group’s campaign to reform the Forest Service’s wildland firefighting mission.

The campaign includes banning retardant airdrops nationwide unless people or homes are threatened, focusing on fire prevention around communities, and allowing more remote wildfires to burn as a natural part of the ecosystem.

The lawsuit accuses the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service of failing to fully evaluate the environmental impact of the aerial retardants.

Studies show the ammonium-based retardants are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms, and promote the spread of flammable invasive weeds.

FSEEE won an earlier retardant-related lawsuit against the Forest Service when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the agency had violated federal law by failing to properly review the environmental impact of retardants on national forests.

That lawsuit – which was filed in 2003, a year after a retardant airdrop killed 20,000 fish in an Oregon stream – was dismissed in February when the Forest Service complied with Molloy’s order to complete an environmental assessment of aerial retardants.

FSEEE’s latest lawsuit challenges the Forest Service’s assessment, which found that the chemical red slurry has no significant environmental impact.

In their biological opinions, the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service said retardants jeopardize 45 endangered or threatened fish, plant, insect, mussel and amphibian species and their critical habitats.

The lawsuit includes those two agencies because they said the Forest Service could avoid jeopardizing the environment if it followed “reasonable and prudent alternatives” when dropping retardants.


The new lawsuit challenges the three agencies’ environmental analyses, conclusions and decisions, saying they violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws.

FSEEE said the Forest Service should be forced to complete an environmental impact statement, which is more detailed than an environmental assessment, and that the “reasonable and prudent alternatives” do not prevent harm to the protected species and their critical habitat.”

The Flathead Beacon at Kalispell, Montana had this to say, in part:

“Nuts? Yep, yet FSEEE righteously claims its “mission is to forge a socially responsible value system for the U.S. Forest Service.” They intend to ram their retardant version of social responsibility through the courts, and just might.

Don’t be surprised if FSEEE files their case, and on some trivial technicality, an injunction comes down at the worst possible time. Some poor fire boss will have to announce: “Folks, we need to ground our air fleet and wash out the tanks today. We’re also pulling all our crews, as the bombers were the last chance we had of holding this line without killing someone. Sorry. The judge says a one in 5,000 chance of killing a few minnows overrides any of your trivial concerns. We hope you got your heirlooms and families out in time, have a nice day.”

Retardant justice, indeed.”

Photo courtesy of the Zion Helitack blog

El Cariso Hot Shot Reunion

My old crew, the El Cariso Hot Shots, is having a reunion April 11-12 at Temecula, CA. I won’t be able to attend, but I dug out some of my old photos from 1970-1972. If you click on them, you can see slightly enlarged versions.

Doing PT’s in 1971. We had to wear our boots while we ran. Don’t ask me why.

Dining at fire camp.

Taken in 1972 on the San Bernardino NF after we got chased out of the fire and hung out at a safety zone.

Barry Koncinsky running the chain saw.

A TBM making a drop near our fireline in 1972.

Below are some much more recent photos of El Cariso, from YouTube. Be warned it has some loud music.

Feel free to leave a comment below. You’ll have to register with Google, but it’s painless.

Montana: Legislative panel warns about increasing fire risk

A legislative committee in Montana submitted an interim report on Friday recognizing that fires are getting larger and more difficult to suppress. Here’s an excerpt from the Billings Gazette:

“A draft legislative report warns of the likelihood that towns will burn and people will be injured or killed if Montana does not change how it deals with wildland fires.

The report was released Friday by the Fire Suppression Interim Committee as lawmakers plan a series of meetings across the state to come up with better ways to fight fires.

Last year in Montana, more than 700,000 acres burned in 72 fires tracked by the federal government. Most were sparked by lightning.

The draft report predicted more bad fire seasons because of extended drought across much of the state, rising demand for firefighting resources and more homes built in rural areas prone to fire.

“With limited resources,” the report concludes, “it is likely that communities will burn and firefighters and members of the public will be injured or killed.”


The committee’s chairman, John Cobb, R-Augusta, said the dire warning was a call to action.

“Where we are going now, there are going to be hundreds of homes burned up,” Cobb said. “What can we do differently?”

Mary Sexton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said agencies such as hers are trying adapt their firefighting strategies. But so far, she said, they have not kept pace with the threat.

“Because of the drought and the buildup of fuels, we just are not able to be as effective as we have been in the past,” Sexton said.”

House burned in fires in 2003 and 2007

The Associated Press has a story about a couple at Cuyamaca, California, east of San Diego, who lost their house in forest fires in 2003 and 2007, in the same spot. They are going to rebuild again. The photo shows the house that burned last October. Here is a small excerpt.

“The Millers lost their house to a wildfire in 2003, then rebuilt it, only to watch the replacement house burn to the ground last October in another wildfire. They were the only family in San Diego to lose a house twice on the same spot. Now they plan to build there a third time — only the house will be mostly underground this time.”

Photo from Associated Press