Life magazine fire photos

From the LIFE magazine archive: “Senator Richard M. Nixon on roof of his home in Los Angeles, putting out fires caused by brush blaze.”

Google, in an effort to “organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” is digitizing and putting online never-before-seen images from the LIFE magazine photo archive. So far they have put about 20% of the 10,000,000 photos online.

Kent Maxwell, via FireNet, called this to our attention and pointed out that many of the photos are dated August 8, 1949 with the citation Helena, Montana. The Mann Gulch fire, in which 13 smoke jumpers died, started on August 5, 1949 in the Helena National Forest. One of the photos shows 10-12 boxes about the size of caskets.

To search in the photo archive, go to Google and enter: (your search terms) source:life

HERE are the results, showing 200 images, of a search for: forest fire source:life

The Nixon photo above was probably taken at Nixon’s Yorba Linda home, in the same area that was impacted by the Freeway Complex fires in southern California in November (Wildfire Today coverage). I don’t think Nixon ever took off his tie. I remember seeing a photo of him walking on the beach near his retirement home at San Clemente, wearing a coat, tie, and dress shoes.

Fireman caught "rescuing cat" on Google Street View

You may be familiar with Google Maps Street View. Google cruises around the country in vehicles equipped with a GPS receiver and a shitload of cameras and takes geo-referenced pictures. For areas where this has already been completed, you can search for an address on Google Maps and see photos from many different angles of that location. Look for the photo and the “Street View” link on the pop-up window for that address.

On May 3, 2008, Robin Hewlett and Ben Kinsley of Pittsburg, along with some local residents, decided to have some fun when the Google folks took pictures on Sampsonia Way. They staged a bunch of different scenes, including firemen rescuing a cat from a tree, a marching band, a garage band, a sword fight, someone dressed up as a ham, and a giant plucked chicken.

Here are the fireman rescuing the cat on Fireman Way near the intersection of Sampsonia Way on Google Maps. (You can zoom in and pan back and forth.)

View Larger Map

And the marching band

View Larger Map

And the sword fight

View Larger Map

You can see other scenes HERE.

Alarm company technician accidently fills hangar with foam

This is not the Long Beach incident, but is a December 11, 2008 photo from a test of a fire suppression foam system at a new aircraft hangar in Salina, Kansas. The system put three feet of foam on the floor in 52 seconds.

An alarm company technician working on an aircraft hanger door at the Long Beach, California airport accidentally triggered the high-expansion foam system, filling the hangar with foam to a depth of six feet. A police helicopter, a police car, and other vehicles were buried in the stuff. Here is a video showing the aftermath.

(the video is no longer available)

HERE is a link to a video shot from the interior of a hangar in Las Vegas during a scheduled test of a similar system.

By the way, in 2006 the Department of Agriculture approved the use of firefighting foam to kill commercial chickens infected with the deadly bird flu virus. In 2002 and 2003 some of our wildland firefighters and incident management teams were used to kill chickens that were infected with Exotic Newcastle Disease using more hands-on methods.

Is FEMA a “turkey farm”?

While I was in south Florida in 1992 working on the rescue and recovery from hurricane Andrew, I was aware of the criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including their slow response and their difficulty in rendering aid to the victims of the hurricane. Sound familiar? Our incident management team was seriously challenged in attempting to obtain any meaningful assistance from FEMA.

Before hurricane Andrew, a report by Congress said:

“FEMA is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment …”

When President Clinton came into office, the Director of FEMA was Wallace Stickney, whose previous job was a commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. In April, 1993, Clinton replaced Stickney with a person who actually had emergency management experience, James Lee Witt, who had been the head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services where he reorganized the state’s emergency management process. During his tenure, FEMA made great progress and lost much of it’s reputation as an inept organization.

President George W. Bush decided to go back to the FEMA as a “political dumping ground, turkey farm” concept, first appointing Joe Allbaugh director in February, 2001. Allbaugh’s main qualifications were that he had been Bush’s campaign manager during Bush’s campaigns for governor and president, working closely with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, the three of them forming the “Iron Triangle”. Allbaugh called the trio “the brain, the brawn and the bite”, with himself as the brawn at 6 feet 4 inches and 275 pounds.

Bush stayed with this theme, in 2003 replacing Allbaugh with Michael Brown, a long-time friend of Allbaugh. Brown had no emergency management experience. His job before becoming a lawyer for, and then Director, of FEMA, was serving as the Judges and Steward Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association. He was forced to resign from the horse group after numerous lawsuits were filed about disciplinary actions. Brown was chased out of FEMA in 2005 following the hurricane Katrina debacle, in spite of being praised by Bush: “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie”.

Bush redeemed himself somewhat in 2005 with the appointment of David Paulison, formerly the Fire Chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and head of the U.S. Fire Administration.

But where do we go from here? FEMA is being criticized today for their slow response after hurricane Ike, where a 30-mile stretch of shore in Texas remains buried in smashed homes, dead animals and splintered trees nearly three months after the storm. The governor is angry and has named a commission to oversee repair work after giving up on FEMA. He decided to pay for most of the $2 billion cleanup and send them the bill.

The governors brought up the topic with President-elect Barack Obama earlier this month. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose state is still suffering the effects of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, provided a status check. “It has gotten better, but the problem you’ve got with FEMA is that they’re looking for reasons to say ‘no,’ ” he told the Washington Post.

There is even talk about bringing back James Witt to be director of FEMA.

But coming next will be a fuller debate about kicking the agency up to Cabinet-level status and bringing in new leadership. A study on the idea is due next year. One candidate for the next agency leader is former head James Witt. He’s credited with whipping the place into shape during his tenure.

Sounds like a very good idea, bringing back Mr. Witt, a proven entity. It takes very special skills to fix a huge, screwed up federal bureaucracy. Emergency management experience should be the number one evaluation criteria for the Director of FEMA, but turning around a broken organization should be number two.

The town of Gilchrist, Texas before and after Hurricane Ike. Image credit (top):, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Houston-Galveston Area Council. Bottom: National Geodetic Survey.


Claim: Yorba Linda slopes left dry by city fueled fire

A month before the Freeway Complex fire burned through the Yorba Linda community in November, the city stopped watering some city-owned easements in an effort to reduce their liability from landslides on the watered slopes. Now at least one resident is suing them, claiming the dry vegetation in the easement caused their house to burn during the fire.

Here is an excerpt from the Orange County Register:

In October, the city sent out two notices to the 13 homes that were directly affected by the dry easements – spanning parts of Hidden Hills Road, Green Mount Place and High Tree Circle. The first notice told residents the water was already off and the second stated the city’s intention to completely abandon the easements.

Why? To prevent any more lawsuits against the city for land movement and inverse condemnation in the Hidden Hills area, officials said.

“The city is liable because we maintain the easements by watering them,” interim City Manager Bill Kelly said in October. “Water may not have been the issue in those suits, but because of that we still get sued. The city is the closest deep pocket.”

During the past four years, the city spent $4.8 million on litigation costs, according to the city attorney. To cut costs and eventually lift its responsibility of the slopes, the city started taking steps to completely abandon the easements.

Residents were also told they could not water the easements. If they did, they would be violating municipal code.

“We’re asking residents not to water. If vegetation starts to die we will clear the area of dead plants to prevent a fire hazard,” Mark Stowell, the public works director and city engineer, said in October.

The Johnsons’ claimed the city did not clear the dead brush around the easement, according to Traut.

A view of a charred landscape easement above the Hidden Hills Road coul-de-sac. The city stopped watering this easement a month before the Freeway Complex Fire. Below is what is left of a home at 22590 Hidden Hills Road. ERIN WELCH, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Orange County Fire Authority and city staffers were checking on the slopes frequently before the fire, Stowell said.

“Nothing had died out yet, and there was no need to clear brush,” he said. “The easements up there now are green. In fact, it was the easements we kept watering that got completely burned.”

About two weeks before the fire, OCFA did not declare the easements as a hazard, officials said.

“We were monitoring those slopes regularly,” Stowell said.

Group organizes to support Rx burns on Mendocino NF

A group calling themselves “Restore the Mendo” has formed in an effort to promote the use of prescribed fires on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California. Even though the Forest is currently doing some burning, the group would like to see the number of acres burned increase substantially.

Some of the organizations supporting the group are:

Mendocino County Board of Supervisors
California Wilderness Coalition
Environmental Protection Information Center
Forest Guild
The Wilderness Society
Willits Environmental Center

I talked with Rich Fairbanks, the Fire Program Associate for the Wilderness Society’s California-Nevada Region, about their support for the “Restore the Mendo” initiative. He worked in fire management for the U.S. Forest Service, including several Hot Shot Crews, before signing up with the Wilderness Society. I asked him why they began this push for more prescribed fire, and doesn’t the “Mendo” already do this?

Rich said that yes, they do, but of the 300,000 acres of mixed conifer on the forest, they only have the funding and personnel to accomplish 2,000-5,000 acres a year. One fire manager on the forest told Rich that he would like to see them burn 20,000 acres each year.

The group’s strategy is to convince politicians to increase the funding for the prescribed fire program on the Mendocino.

From my experience, when you are beginning to restore a forest by re-introducing fire, you will need to conduct multiple burns in the first 20-30 years before you can then enter a maintenance phase with less frequent burns. So 20,000 acres a year on a 300,000 acre forest seems conservative.

The Mendocino forest is one of the least complicated locations for prescribed fire, in that there is little urban interface, and population centers are far enough way that smoke management is not as big a concern as it is in some areas.

I have burned in one location where the fireline on the burn was adjacent to the backyards of homes, literally 30-feet from houses. It can be a luxury, relatively speaking, to have the nearest house miles away.

The group has produced a 30-second TV ad featuring a local rancher that began running November 12 on stations in northern California. Here is an image from the ad:
I began participating on prescribed fires in the 1970s, and if you are reading this blog, you are probably also a believer in the process. Forests are going to burn eventually. It is not a question of IF, but WHEN. We can control that burning in prescribed fires and do it on our own terms, or we can elect to do nothing and let nature (and careless fire-starting humans) do it for us with unplanned ignitions…sometimes with catastrophic consequences and/or massive amounts of smoke.