Esperanza fire trial update, January 28

The Press-Enterprise has an update about the trial for Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of arson and murder in the 2006 fire that resulted in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in southern California.

Photos of the charred remains of three firefighters were shown to the jurors, a CalFire arson investigator was questioned, and it was pointed out that the house that the firefighters were protecting had been determined to be indefensible according to a 2002 fire-risk map created by CalFire/Riverside County fire Department.

New MAFFS units

Loadmaster Bill Whitlatch operates a new MAFFS 2 unit aboard a C-130J aircraft Tuesday with the Channel Islands Air National Guard. Photo by Stephen Osman, Ventura County Star.

The U. S. Forest Service has accepted the delivery and started training with two new Mobile Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, MAFFS, which will be used in C-130 aircraft operated by the Air National Guard based at Port Hueneme, California. In development by Aero Union since 2000, the two units are the first of a total of eight new systems, called “MAFFS 2” that should be delivered and ready for firefighting by May. These will replace the older units that have been used for a very long time.

The MAFFS 2 are designed to be rolled into the back of C-130 aircraft and hold about 3,000 3,400 gallons of retardant.

MAFFS II air tanker tank
The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) II tank is displayed for the local media during the MAFFS 2008 annual certifying training at Channel Islands Air Guard Station, Calif., May 7, 2008. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brian E. Christiansen.

Some of the changes in the design include:

  • The nozzles, instead of exiting out the rear loading dock, are routed through a sealed portal (a modified paratrooper door) on the plane’s left side. This makes it possible for the plane to be pressurized; in addition, the crew and the rear door will no longer be soaked by the retardant.
  • The old and new MAFFS use compressed air to pump the retardant out of the tanks. The old system required that the aircraft land to be pressurized by a dedicated air compressor system at a MAFFS base. The new system has on-board air compressors, which will enable the C-130’s to reload the retardant at any air tanker base and refill the air tank on the fly, so to speak. It takes 35 minutes to recharge the compressed air tank after a drop.
  • The retardant is pumped out under greater pressure and velocity. That feature, and the reconfigured side nozzle will result in a denser stream of retardant which will hopefully penetrate timber canopy better than the original systems. This may make it feasible for the pilots to fly higher and faster, adding an additional margin of safety. Pilots hate flying slow and low over mountainous terrain.
  • The new system delivers retardant at twice the coverage rate of the older systems, at “coverage level 8”, or 8 gallons of fluid per 100 square feet, which is the maximum required by the U. S. Forest Service.
  • There is one report that claims the new system holds 400 more gallons, but that is not yet now confirmed. UPDATE: The new single-tank system will hold 3,400 gallons.

MAFFS are operated out of four three Air National Guard bases in California, Colorado, Wyoming, and North Carolina, and a Reserve base in Colorado.  Each unit has two MAFFS, however the base in California has not flown any MAFFS for 2 years since the unit upgraded from C-130E’s to J models, which cannot accommodate the original MAFFS. The new units can be used in either C-130 model.

There has been heavy criticism during the last 2 years from politicians and others about the inability of the California C-130’s to use the MAFFS.

The aircraft can be requested by the U. S. Forest Service after it is confirmed that all commercial air tankers are committed. It takes about 24 hours to configure a C-130 to utilize a MAFFS.

Photo of an older MAFFS dropping the retardant out of the rear door. Air Force photo, by Staff Sgt. Alex Koenig.

The U.S. Forest Service has a web site with information about the development of a MAFFS 2 prototype, but it has not been updated since July, 2006.

Sen. Cantwell's Wildland Firefighter Safety Bill reintroduced

In 2007 Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington introduced Senate Bill 1152: Wildland Fire Safety and Transparency Act of 2007. It never made it to the Senate floor and died in the 110th Congress which ended in December. The bill had one co-sponsor–Colorado Senator Ken Salazar, who is now President Obama’s new Secretary of Interior.

In this Congressional session Senator Cantwell included the provisions of that bill in the new Senate Bill 22: Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, introduced on January 7, 2009. The language appears to be very similar to the 2007 legislation which did not pass. The section about wildland fire safety is HERE. This huge catch-all bill passed the Senate on January 15, 2009 with a vote of 73 to 21. The next step is to go to the House of Representatives.

It requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to:

…jointly submit annual reports to Congress on the wildland firefighter safety practices of the Secretaries, including training programs and activities for wildland fire suppression, prescribed burning, and wildland fire use.

Senator Cantwell issued a press release on January 15 which included some endorsements from two wildland fire organizations:

Timothy Ingalsbee, Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology said, “A commitment to the best safety practices can reduce some of the risks that wildland firefighters face out on the fireline. Requiring federal fire management agencies to report to Congress on their safety training programs and field activities is an excellent means of improving accountability of the agencies towards giving firefighters the tools and training they need to be safe.”

 

Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association said, “We support [Cantwell’s] position that the land management agencies must provide clear information to Congress as to their efforts to improve safety and costs associated with those efforts.”

The International Association of Wildland Fire also endorsed the 2007 bill after polling their members on three pieces of legislation affecting wildland fire. The Yakima Herald wrote an editorial today praising the bill.

 

Wildfire Today wrote this in December, 2008 about the original bill:

I know what you’re thinking, that we need to jump at every chance to make firefighting safer, but having worked for the federal government for 33 years, I know that this legislation would not have done that. It would have just created another series of reports that would have to be completed that would only contain estimates and wild-ass guesses, an additional upward reporting requirement that would keep firefighters from doing their real jobs.

 

Thanks, Dick.

Homeowners attend forum about Montecito's Tea fire

The November 13 Tea fire, in Montecito, California near Santa Barbara destroyed 210 homes and burned about 2,000 acres. Here are some excerpts from a report in noozhawk about a recent forum concerning the fire attended by local residents:

According to Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace, a perfect storm of conditions led to the blaze. Fuel, aridity, steep terrain, limited access and near hurricane-strength winds all played into the combustible mix.

“This fire, once it started, was going to happen,” Wallace said.

So fierce and fast moving was the blaze that for the first few hours, the fire department’s only hope was to evacuate residents with the help of law enforcement and Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue volunteers while trying to make a stand against the flames. Attempts to box in the fire were thwarted by embers hurled by gale-force gusts. Late that Thursday, with the help of many out-of town strike teams, firefighters finally were able to adopt a more offensive stance against the blaze.

Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace said perilous night-time flights by water-dropping helicopters helped firefighters gain the upper hand in his community.

A critical element, said Wallace, was the deployment of night-flying firefighting helicopters at the peak of the fire. Although it was extremely dangerous, with weather conditions, darkness, treacherous topography and power lines, the aircraft made more than 800 sorties from a staging area at Santa Barbara Junior High.

While ultimately grateful to the firefighters and law enforcement for their heroism, many residents remained frustrated by things they thought could have been handled better, as well as unforeseen difficulties presented by the disaster.

Some reported getting reverse 9-1-1 calls at 10 p.m., hours after the Tea Fire had eaten through their neighborhood. Others claimed they did not see any fire engines in their neighborhoods during their evacuations. Traffic was another concern for the semi-rural community, as neighbors reported difficulties getting away in the general confusion, smoke and ash.

For the Montecito Fire Department, there were several lessons learned, as well: better staging in the brush-heavy, mountainous terrain, better communication.

“We don’t have a common radio frequency for the front country,” Wallace said of an element on which the department is currently working.

As for the too-late reverse 9-1-1 calls, tied-up or damaged phone lines were to blame: too many calls from concerned family and friends created a digital traffic jam for cell-phone users while downed communication lines made it impossible for other calls to reach homes.

Idaho: former firefighter convicted of arson

A firefighter from southwestern Idaho faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. From the Idaho Statesman:

A former volunteer Parma firefighter will be sentenced April 30 in federal court for setting a series of wildfires in the summer of 2007 that burned more than 1,000 acres.

 

A federal jury on Friday found Clyde Dewayne Holmes guilty on six counts of arson on federal lands. Each charge is punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. The jury deliberated for about an hour following a four-day jury trial.

Federal prosecutors say they still don’t know why Holmes set the fires. Money does not appear to be a motive since Holmes was a volunteer firefighter who didn’t get paid – even though he worked to extinguish several of the fires he set, assistant U.S. Attorney Monte Stiles said.

“He has never admitted to doing it; he never got any money … the reason remains unclear,” Stiles said.

Holmes is accused of setting several wildfires that burned more than 1,000 acres of federal land northeast of Parma.

Federal prosecutors say Holmes set fires that collectively burned 1,162 acres in the summer of 2007: July 10, 106 acres; July 16, 222 acres; July 23, 512 acres; July 25, 156 acres; Aug. 2, 47 acres; Aug. 10, 52 acres; Aug. 14, 67 acres.

Stiles said Holmes called in several of those fires and worked to put them out. A Bureau of Land Management agent spotted Holmes on Aug. 14 driving away from a fire that had just started, federal officials said.

Investigators also accumulated evidence at other fire scenes, including tire tracks and boot prints, that were linked to Holmes, Stiles said.

Several people testified as alibi witnesses on Holmes’ behalf during the jury trial – saying they knew he was somewhere else at the time the fires were ignited.

Wildfire news, January 26, 2009

Comet did not start continent-wide fires

Recently some researchers came up with a theory that 12,900 years ago a comet exploded over North America igniting wildfires that spread across the continent at hundreds of kelometers per hour….

“…turning the sky ablaze, sending a shock wave across the landscape and scorching forests, creatures, people and anything exposed to the heavenly fire.”

Now another researcher tested that theory by examining charcoal and pollen records and said that the theory is basically, bullshit.

 

Montana senator proposes “unconstitutional” process to reduce fuels

On December 31 Wildfire Today told you about Montana state senator Dave Lewis who wants to authorize county and local governments to come onto federal land and conduct fuel reduction projects. As we said then:

Lewis wants to put hazardous forest fuels in the same category as junk cars or trash piles. In legal terms, as a source of community decay. He also wants to give county governments the ability to deal with the problem directly.

 

“It basically says that counties can go onto federal land and determine that it’s a risk to the community and go in and clean up the fire hazard,” Lewis said.

Senator Lewis has now written a guest column for Headwaters News where he elaborates on Montana Senate Bill 34, which he admits is unconstitutional. Here is an excerpt:

I proposed Senate Bill 34 to the Montana Interim Fire Committee last summer. The concept was, effectively, if a federal agency let fuel build up on its land to the point that such buildup threatened private property owners then Montana counties could step in and reduce those fuels.

 

The point of the legislation is that since the Forest Service is hampered by lawsuits every time a timber sale is proposed, county governments would have the ability to step in and reduce the risk, which might enable the work to get done. The committee recommended the bill and I presented in on the floor of the state Senate last week. It passed 42-7 on Saturday.

I was pleased that senators understood the risk to the people of Montana brought on by the build-up of fuel in the national forests. The bill exempted private land used for agricultural purposes, which would be any land used to grow trees or grass for grazing. I believe that it is clear that only federal land is affected. It was a good long debate with lots of good questions.

The biggest problem with the bill is that it may violate the federal Constitution. My theory is that if you allow yourself to be slowed down by something like that, then you will never get anything done.

The Supremacy Clause of the federal Constitution that says state and local governments have no say about how federal lands are managed. That provision has never been tested, to my knowledge, on the basis that the buildup of fuel on federal lands puts the property and lives of the neighboring landowners at risk. I think that it is time to test it. Sometimes you have to keep driving until you hear glass breaking!

Thanks, Dick.