Smoke plumes in the southeast

NOAA is now generating maps that not only show heat from vegetation fires detected by satellites, but now they have maps that show graphic depictions of smoke plumes from fires. On the map below, the red dots are heat sources, but not all are necessarily vegetation fires. The gray smoke plumes are visible from the larger fires.

Florida has a number of fires going including two fires that burned together forming a 3,500 acre fire that is burning grass islands in Lake Okeechobee. Arson is suspected as the cause of those fires. The names of the fires are “Myakka Cut” and “Grassy Island”.

Below is a photo of the fire on a grass island in Lake Okeechobee. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Yakima Herald-Republic's editorial about Thirtymile plea bargain

The Yakima Herald-Republic has always taken the position that Ellreese Daniels and others should be punished severely for the errors in judgment that led to the deaths of the four firefighters on the Thirtymile fire in 2001. They are not pleased with the recent plea bargain in the case, according to their editorial published yesterday:

“In a New Year’s Eve editorial on the last day of 2006, we were willing to concede at the time that “four manslaughter charges brought against a U.S. Forest Service crew boss nearly 51/2 years after the deadly Thirtymile Fire in Okanogan County could finally be proof that justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied.”

That hope has been dashed now that a plea-bargaining deal has led to fire crew chief Ellreese Daniels pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in Spokane Tuesday to two misdemeanor charges of making false statements to investigators.

The magnitude of the reduction in charges is staggering: In exchange, the government dropped four felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven felony counts of making false statements.

Sentencing is set for July 23 August 18.

“Like all plea agreements, there was a recognition of the evidence and the law as it exists,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice said in an Associated Press report out of Spokane. “We feel this is an appropriate disposition of the case.”

Really? Will there ever be “appropriate disposition” of a case in which so many nagging doubts and unanswered questions remain? Four people died and the only person charged in the incident gets a plea-bargaining slap on the wrist and won’t have to face trial — during which a more complete story of what happened up to and during that fateful day could unfold during testimony.

Frankly, we’ve been less than impressed from the start with the federal government’s handling, at all levels, of the Thirtymile incident.

We also take note of the fact that Daniels was the only one to face criminal charges out of the fire near Winthrop that killed four Central Washington firefighters on July 10, 2001: Tom Craven of Ellensburg, and Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver, all from Yakima.

We remain convinced that Daniels must answer in part for the tragedy because he was directly responsible for the safety of his crew. But we also maintain that the blame for the Thirtymile debacle involves much more than just what happened on the fire line that day. Blame must also extend further up the chain of command and include a culture of stonewalling and cover-up so prevalent in the U.S. Forest Service at the time.

In addition, a September 2001 investigation by this newspaper revealed that the Forest Service broke more than a dozen of its own safety rules. Federal investigators came to an even more damning conclusion: The Forest Service had 28 rules in place to keep crews safe. At Thirtymile, 20 of them were broken, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The negligence, according to the original charges, included Daniels failing to prepare the crew for the possibility of being overrun by flames.

The fact he was singled out prompts memories of the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq when Iraqi prisoners were mistreated by United States military personnel. Of 10 people convicted out of that debacle, none ranked higher than staff sergeant. That in a system noted for its chain of command that demands the following of orders.

Reforms within the agency were supposed to ensure a tragedy such as Thirtymile never happened again. Yet, seven firefighters have been fatally trapped since by forest fires in Idaho and California.

That’s not to simply say the lessons of Thirtymile have not been heeded. After all, we’re talking about a very dangerous line of work, one in which every possible step must be taken to ensure the safety of firefighters on the line.

But we also don’t totally agree with the fears of many in the firefighting community that the unprecedented prosecution of Daniels might send a chilling message into the ranks of his colleagues across the nation — that they could face felony charges if something similar happened on their watches.

Anyone responsible for neglect of duty that leads to tragic consequences should face such charges. In our system of justice, whether such charges are justified is determined in a trial with all the pertinent facts on display, not with plea bargaining.

The plea deal may have technically closed the books on the prosecutorial phase of Thirtymile. But the nagging question remains: Will justice ever be completely, and adequately, served in this case?”

Prescribed burning in Arkansas

The Arkansas News Bureau has a thoughtful article about prescribed fire as one of the tools used for managing forests. It is written by Joe Mosby, the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Here is an excerpt:

“This is what those earlier people found in Arkansas, said John Andre, ecologist with the Ozark National Forest. He told of records from the 1829-1845 period in the Government Land Office that said (this area) was surveyed with an average of 29 trees per acre, and these had an average diameter of 14 inches. Today, the choked forest has anywhere from 60 to 100 or more trees to the acre.

 

“In those days, they drove wagons through these forests. Can you imagine trying that today?” Andre said.

Historical accounts of Southern woodlands include descriptions of enormous trees and open, grassy floors. These accounts often detail the abundance of animals that inhabited the woodlands as well. Take a walk in the Ozarks today and you’ll likely find a dense canopy of smaller, shade-loving trees instead of a more open forest landscape.”

An article at NWAnews.com, also about prescribed fire, has a different point of view from an official with the Arkansas Sierra Club. An excerpt:

“Some don’t agree with the controlled-burn policy.

 

Tom McKinney, forest chairman with the Arkansas Sierra Club, said the Forest Service is burning too much Arkansas forest. He said the Forest Service is mistakenly trying to convert the forest from an uplands oak forest to an oak-pine savannah.

Much of the forest doesn’t need fire to rejuvenate itself, he said. The wet climate rots dead trees and leaves unlike Western forests that are in dryer climates.

He said the Sierra Club believes the Forest Service should revert to burn levels of the 1980s, about 20, 000 acres a year.

“We think their policy is to spend money in the guise of restoring biodiversity,” McKinney said.”

NM: Trigo fire

The Incident Management Team on the Trigo fire southeast of Albuquerque, NM, just made the first map available since the fire made the big runs of April 30 through May 2. The acreage now is 13,790 and the Team is calling it 35% contained. The weather has moderated, making it possible for firefighters to make more progress. They are reporting that “less than 100 homes were damaged”.

The map shows the progression of the fire day by day. Click on it to see a larger version. (The map, which was on Inciweb, is no longer availiable.)

Reno helicopter disabled

In February the Washoe County sheriff’s office (Reno, NV area) unveiled a helicopter they had just finished outfitting for firefighting. Now due to a rotor strike it will be out of service for much of the fire season.

Initially reported as a main rotor “bird strike”, it turns out that the rotor struck the ground when taking off during training on April 3. The helicopter will need to have a full overhaul of the drive train at a cost of approximately $143,000. If they can find parts.

I’m not sure how you would mistake a main rotor striking the ground for a “bird strike”. Somebody has some explaining to do.

File photo of the helicopter in it’s better days, courtesy of RGJ.com.