Wildfire news, October 15, 2008

California: Power company criticized for fire danger related power shut-off plan

San Diego Gas and Electric announced earlier that they planned to shut off power to large areas of San Diego County during periods of strong winds and high fire danger. It turns out that not everyone is crazy about the concept. From CBS8:

SDG&E is under fire for its proposal to shut off power during high winds in wildfire-prone areas.

At a meeting Tuesday night in front of the State Public Utility Commission, San Diegans voiced their concerns about the idea.

Also present at the meeting, county officials asked the commission for a full investigation into the matter.

“To convince the commission to do the right thing and hold SDG&E’s feet to the fire to do what they should’ve done years ago, changing the poles from wood to steel, more spacing between the lines and better tree-trimming vegetation management,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

A SDG&E representative at the meeting said the company is committed to doing whatever is possible to make its system safer.

HERE is a link to a video news report on the subject.

Night flying helicopters in San Diego County

Some politicians in the San Diego area continue to be obsessed with night flying firefighting helicopters. Some of them still think that a few water drops when the 2003 Cedar fire began as the sun was setting could have prevented it from growing to 270,000 acres. The fact is, the strong Santa Ana winds at the time would have made any helicopter drops ineffective.

Here is an excerpt from a story in the North County Times:

Five years after local officials were infuriated by a decision to ground aircraft at sunset rather than attack California’s largest wildfire in its infancy, the region is moving —- albeit slowly —- to battle blazes from the air after dark.

State fire officials said helicopters did not fly at night during this week’s San Diego County wildfires, largely because pilots were able to knock down flames with water and fire retardant during the day.

But the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, has opened the door to making drops at night over the backcountry areas it is responsible for protecting, including 1 million acres in San Diego County.

And the state agency gave the city of San Diego the green light in September to fly its two twin-engine firefighting helicopters over those areas, in the event another inferno like those of 2003 and 2007 breaks out.

“CalFire has agreed to allow night flying in state responsibility areas if they determine that the equipment is safe,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents much of the backcountry, including Ramona. “This is a historic change in policy.”

While it is disappointing the state did not give a green light to the county because it does not consider its helicopters to be safe, Jacob said a future aircraft purchase, possibly with money from a November ballot measure, could put the county in the night firefighting business.

For now, said sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust, county helicopters will focus on flames during daylight hours.

“During the day, we can do any mission that is asked of us,” Brust said. “But once the sun goes down, they (CalFire officials) are not comfortable flying in those helicopters.”

The county sheriff helicopters are both single-engine Bell 205 models.

Division Chief Tom Humann, aviation safety officer for CalFire in Sacramento, said the state agency doesn’t consider single-engine helicopters safe because, if the engine goes out, the pilot has no choice but to bring the aircraft down.

In daylight, a pilot has a 180-degree range of view to rely on for spotting an emergency landing spot, he said. But at night, even with night-vision goggles, a pilot’s range is 40 degrees.

“It’s kind of like looking through a couple of toilet paper rolls,” Humann said.

And a pilot is much more likely to crash at night in a single-engine aircraft, he said.

Washington, D.C wildland fire presentation

The folks at the Department of Interior in D.C. apparently think that the residents of their fair city need wildland “fire-proofing tips for homeowners”.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of the Interior will host a multi-media presentation on wildland fire prevention and containment, featuring fire-proofing tips for homeowners and first-hand experiences of Interior firefighters, on Saturday, October 18, 2008, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. in the Yates Auditorium of the Main Interior Building. The public is invited to attend this free family event, entitled “Smokejumpers, Groundpounders and Shots – Tales from Wildland Fire” at 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.

California: Update on Sesnon and Marek fires, October 15

Sesnon Fire

The Sesnon fire has grown over the last 24 hours to an officially reported size of 13,285 acres, but it is probably more than 14,500 acres. The Santa Ana winds have decreased, making it possible to obtain 20% containment. The fire consumed 47 structures, with 15 of them being residences. All evacuations have been lifted.

Fire department personnel initially considered the possibility that the fire could burn south across Highway 101 and eventually all the way to the ocean. They even went so far as to identify Branches on the path that the fire could have taken to the Big Pacific Fuel Break.

Here is a updated map that we put together today that shows the approximate perimeter of the Sesnon fire at sunset on Tuesday. Click on it to see a much larger version. As far as we know, there are no other semi-accurate maps of this fire available to the public. The ridiculous map on the LA County web site is absurdly inaccurate to the point of being insulting. The citizens affected by this fire deserve better.

Marek Fire

This fire has not grown in the last 24 hours and as of late on Tuesday there was no significant fire activity. It is still 4,824 acres and is 80% contained. The fire burned 44 structures and there is still a mandatory evacuation order for Lopez Canyon. More information is at the LA County web site.

The map below, created by the Incident Management Team, is looking toward the northeast. AT the bottom of the image is the intersection of the 118 and 210 freeways.

LA City engine crews survive entrapment

Two engine crews from Los Angeles City Fire Department had a very close call on the Sesnon fire Monday morning. From the LA Times:

In an instant, flames surround L.A. fire crew

The captain of the trapped engine company faces life-and-death decisions as erratic winds fan canyon blaze. ‘The fire exploded and started raining embers . . . It was incredible,’ he says.

By Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 15, 2008

It was one of those moments firefighters fear most.

Los Angeles Fire Capt. Scott Gould was riding inside Engine 228 as it maneuvered along a winding canyon above Porter Ranch. He was talking on the radio with Capt. Richard Brunson, who was just ahead in Engine 8.

Commanding the first two units to arrive at the Sesnon fire Monday morning, the captains were coordinating their assault on the wind-whipped blaze. What had been a half-acre fire only a few minutes earlier was now 20 acres and growing.

As Brunson reached the flames along Limekiln Canyon, Gould could see that a spot fire had broken out several hundred yards below. If the new fire got going, he recalled thinking, Brunson would be trapped. Gould and his crew pulled a hose from their engine and began trying to knock down the blaze.

In what seemed like only an instant, the two captains later recalled, flames were everywhere.

“The fire exploded and started raining embers all around that canyon,” Gould said Tuesday. “It was incredible. All the ridge lines were going up in flames.”

Brunson, meanwhile, faced another wall of fire, fanned by winds in excess of 30 mph. He decided to try pulling back a couple miles down the road, where he and his crew could join other units to protect structures and help with evacuations.

“We went into defensive mode,” he said.

But as he headed down the canyon, he saw that flames were beginning to devour brush all around Gould and his crew. Brunson jumped out of his engine and ran toward Gould.

“Drop your hose and leave!” he recalled shouting. “Get the hell out of here!”

Brunson’s engine led the way down the road as Gould and his crew jumped in the cab of their truck. But it was too late. It was as if incendiary bombs were exploding everywhere, Gould said.

“It just started spotting all around,” he said of the flames.

Gould weighed his options and knew they weren’t good. “Engine 228 is trapped,” he barked into his radio. “We’re surrounded.”

Firefighter Paul Clark, who was with Gould, said that the flames were on both sides of the road.

“It was safer to stay where we were,” he said.

Looking at his map book, Gould radioed in his coordinates and asked for a “priority” water drop. He and his three-man crew hunkered down in the cab of their engine as flames raced around them.

The smoke was so thick the crew could see only a few feet in front of them, and the water-dropping helicopter overhead couldn’t see them either.

“Can you spot the copter so we can get a drop on you?” Gould recalled the dispatcher asking.

For the next 15 minutes, Gould and his crew kept shifting their fire engine into small areas that were partially burned — offering a bit of protection — as the wind fanned the flames back and forth across the canyon.

“We were lucky because of the winds,” Clark said. “It didn’t light everything off at the same time.”

In the end, Gould said, it was the erratic winds that allowed his crew to escape.

They received word from the helicopter that the road was clear. He and his men made it out and spent the rest of the day fighting the Sesnon fire.
Photo by Louie

Wildfire news, October 14, 2008

See the post submitted earlier today for an update and maps on the Marek and Sesnon fires north of Los Angeles, California.

Bob Mutch receives the IAWF’s Wildland Fire Safety Award

Bob Mutch receives the IAWF’s Wildland Fire Safety Award from president Chuck Bushey at the recent “The Fires of ’88: Yellowstone and Beyond” conference.

From the International Association of Wildland Fire:

From his early days at what was then known as the US Forest Service’s Northern Forest Fire Laboratory in Missoula, Montana to his various roles within that agencies fire management program Bob’s distinguished 38-year career has continually championed both firefighter and public safety.

His involvement in developing the Fire Behavior Service Center concept in the early 1980’s further illustrates his active involvement and commitment to wildland firefighter safety. Even his very early work within the US Forest Service’s wilderness fire program can now be viewed as contributing significantly to firefighter and public fire safety, while at the same time helping to change agency policy and return fire as an ecological process to wildlands.

Following his agency retirement Bob continued his fire career as a renowned wildland fire consultant promoting wildland fire safety.

New Camp Pendleton Fire Forces Closure of I-5

Camp Pendleton, the Marine base about 40 miles north of San Diego, has been plagued by wildland fires over the last several days. Here is a report from KTLA:

A new wildfire is burning at Camp Pendleton, forcing the closure of Interstate 5 for 20 miles in both directions. CHP Officer Rob Sanchez says the freeway was closed once Tuesday morning, briefly reopened and then closed again after
winds shifted and the fire flared up.

A North County Transit spokesman says Amtrak and Metrolink trains are being held at Oceanside and at San Clemente stations.

Marine Cpl. Priscilla Vitale says it is not immediately known how many acres are involved in the new fire, but she says no structures are threatened.

It is the third fire to start on the base in two days. Vitale says two fires started Monday on the base’s training ranges; she says neither fire was caused by any type of military training. More than 3,000 acres have been scorched; there is about 25 percent containment.

An evacuation order for about 1,500 homes in Oceanside. A spokeswoman for the City of Oceanside says some residents have been allowed to briefly return to neighborhoods near the base to get their pets and collect personal items.

Marine spokesman 2nd Lt. Riley Whaling says an unknown number of families were evacuated Monday by military police from a housing area threatened by the fire.

The Juliet fire, named for the training area where it started, was reported some time after 3 p.m. Monday. It was not immediately clear how the fire started.

Whaling said a second fire was burning on the base in a training area. No buildings were threatened by that fire.

Update on the Angel fire in San Francisco Bay

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
An inmate fire crew mops up Monday after a blaze on Angel Island. The fire charred more than half of the island but spared scores of historic structures.

On October 13 Wildfire Today told you about the fire burning on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Here is an update, courtesy of the Press Democrat.

Firefighters working through the night on Angel Island brought the wildfire that burned more than half the island to 90 percent containment by Tuesday morning, a fire officials said Tuesday.

Photo from October 12.

Fire crews expect to have the fire fully contained by Tuesday evening.

Crews will be on the island for the next few days, making sure no hot spots remain to threaten flare ups.

What started the wildland blaze remains under investigation.

“We’re focusing on the area on the east side, where there was a campsite. We need to interview the campers,” said Kent Julin, a forestry with Marin County Fire Department.

On Tuesday morning there was little evidence of the conflagration Monday when flames swept over half the island, created a glow in the sky and filled the air above San Francisco Bay with heavy smoke.

There was no lingering smoke Tuesday as firefighters worked under clear, blue skies, Julin said.in the bay just off the Marin County coast.

A force of nearly 400 firefighters saved the state park’s historic buildings from destruction.

Colorado: five homes burn near Hotchkiss

From the Grand Junction Sentinel:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A wildfire that started Thursday afternoon destroyed five homes and at least a half-dozen outbuildings on Redlands Mesa near Hotchkiss before it was fully contained Sunday, Delta County emergency manager Rob Fiedler said.

Fiedler said only three of the homes were occupied.

The fire was likely caused by humans, Fiedler said, and is still under investigation.

“We had eyewitnesses who reported seeing some human activity and investigators are still checking out all leads and running them down to check the veracity,” he said. “But it has never been considered malicious from the outset.”

With 45 to 50 mph winds pushing the fire early on, it spread from 80 acres Thursday, when 34 homes in its path were evacuated, to approximately 240 acres Friday. By Friday evening the fire was 40 percent contained. No one was injured in the fire, but it took the lives of one cat and three dogs.

Fiedler said air tankers from the Bureau of Land Management dropped flame retardant on the fire Thursday and Friday. More than 100 firefighters from all Delta County fire departments fought the blaze along with a 20-person hand crew from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility.

The chance for wildfires still exists, Fiedler said.

“Things are still very dry below 8,500 feet,” he said.

West Virginia: Coal refuse fire

Wildfire Today has reported on two previous fires in coal refuse. Here is another one, courtesy of WCHS Radio 58. We are fascinated by these fires. They can pop up unexpectedly in surprising locations, they can cover many acres, they can burn for dozens of years, and they can be very difficult to put out.

(Glen Jean) — Firefighters say there’s very little they can do to stop a coal waste dump in Fayette County from burning. The gob pile caught fire about three weeks ago and has been smoldering underground ever since.

Mt. Hope Volunteer Fire Chief Shane Wheeler says the process probably started with spontaneous combustion after the area was reclaimed with a thick coating of sawdust, replanted with vegetation.

“Pressure over time caused the coal under that saw dust to catch fire,” said Wheeler.

The chief says there’s really no good way to put out the fire. Therefore the strategy has been to just let it burn within a set perimeter.

“The big hazard would be the ground giving way. You walk across it and you could literally fall into a burning crevice,” said Wheeler. “There’s been some cases where people have been killed trying to put them out, where bulldozers have literally been swallowed up.”

Some gob piles will burn for years. The biggest danger is when the fire reaches into the air and jumps fire breaks into the forest. Right now, the leaves are dry, brittle, and littering the forest floor. The gob pile fire is about 25-acres and Sunday it jumped into a nearby woodlot, taking out another 25-acres of woods.

Wheeler says the best they can do is continue to improve the fire line they’ve cut around the perimeter and hope it holds the fire to the interior.

Montana: Prepare, Stay, and Defend

On May 30 Wildfire Today told you about this concept being discussed in Montana. We just received a report from Alan Tresemer of Painted Rocks Fire and Rescue, one of the speakers at a conference where it was presented:

Just thought I’d update you on the presentation at the Idaho Wildland Fire Conference in Boise this week. Keith Harrap (Executive Director Ops/Support, New South Wales Fire Service) and I were the keynote speakers and covered the Australian Prepare, Stay, and Defend system for wildland fires. Idaho State Lands really is ahead of the pack on this.

About a month ago, Steve Kimball sent out the Tasmanian “Bushfire” DVD to all fire chiefs and county commissions, so the audience was primed to hear the details. Keith covered the big picture of how Australia has dealt with the issue and their great success at reducing deaths, injuries, and loss of property by preparing homes (FireWise) and having people stay at home to keep their homes from burning. I related our fire company’s success at implementing this system in our small Montana community of Painted Rocks. There were around 250 attendees representing the bulk of Idaho’s fire services.

The message was very well received and Idaho is on its way to finding better ways of protecting its communities. Idaho Lands really deserves a pat on the back for their proactive efforts.

Alan Tresemer
Batt. Chief
Painted Rocks Fire & Rescue, Montana

Thanks Alan–we’re glad it went well. We used to call it “Shelter in Place”, but Prepare, Stay, and Defend is a better term.

California: Update on Sesnon and Marek fires

Update @ 11:30 p.m. Tuesday

The incident management team posted a perimeter map of the Marek fire. It shows the perimeter as of Monday night. In this view, we are looking toward the northeast. Click on it to see a larger version.

The Sesnon fire has now grown to 13,285 acres. Lighter winds during the day on Tuesday enabled firefighters to make some headway constructing firelines on the east flank. No containment figure has been announced.

The Sesnon fire is still listed at 4,824 acres and 70% containment.

Update @ 4:20 p.m. Tuesday

After realizing that LA County FD and LA City FD were not going to produce any usable maps of the fires, using our sources within the fire community, we produced a rough map of our own based on where the fire was at about 9 p.m. PT Monday night . The perimeters are only approximate, but they are a little better than what has been available to the public. Click on the map to see a much larger version.

7:44 a.m. PT, Tuesday


Here is a map of the Sesnon and Marek fires. It shows heat, in red, orange, and black, detected by satellites last night, with the red areas being the most recently burned. Click on the map to see a larger version.

The map below of the Sesnon fire is provided by LA County Fire Department and it shows only an approximate location of the fire. It should update automatically with data provided by the LACFD if you refresh your browser.

View Larger Map

The map below of the Marek fire is provided by LA County Fire Department and it shows only an approximate location of the fire. It should update automatically with data provided by the LACFD if you refresh your browser.

View Larger Map

It is ridiculous that two of the largest fire departments in the world (Los Angeles City FD and Los Angeles County FD), with fires going that are affecting millions of people and have killed two, are capable of only producing these two pitiful, inaccurate, Google maps. The satellite map at the top of the post is far more helpful. These fires have been burning for 2 days. There is no excuse for not providing better information to thier customers.


Local residents can get information about fire-related traffic, evacuations, and shelters by calling a recording provided by the LA Fire Department at 800-439-2909.


The fire has burned 9,872 acres, is 5% 0% contained, 19 structures have burned, and it is being fought by 1,400 firefighters. This fire is still very active and numerous residences are threatened.


This fire has burned 4,824 acres and is 70% contained, with 1,355 firefighters assigned. 39 structures have burned, with 38 of them being mobile homes.


Current weather in the fire area:
Newhall Pass @ 6:35 a.m.: winds east @ 6 with gusts to 31, RH 18%.
Little Tujunga @ 6:54 a.m.: winds NE @ 3 with gusts to 33, RH 12%

A Red Flag warning is valid until 10 p.m. Wednesday for strong Santa Ana winds and low humidities.

A wind warning is in effect until noon for LA, Ventura, Orange Counties, Mountains, and Inland Empire for NE winds from 30-45 mph, gusting to 70.

A wind advisory is in effect until 3 p.m. for the rest of southern California.

Photo courtesy of LA Times

California: Sesnon fire

Update @ 11:50 p.m. Monday

The Sesnon fire has now burned 5,000 acres. The map below in the 1:33 p.m. update revises automatically with data provided by LA County Fire Department. Local residents can get information about fire-related traffic, evacuations, and shelters by calling a recording provided by the LA Fire Department at 800-439-2909. A Newhall pass weather station at 10:35 p.m. showed SSW winds at 6 mph with gusts up to 22. The RH was 17%. The Santa Ana winds are expected to increase tonight between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m.

Update @ 4:50 p.m. PT Monday

At a news conference that is just now concluding, officials announced:

  • The winds tonight after 11:00 p.m. will have gusts exceeding 60 mph.
  • The fire is being manged in a Unified Command, with LA City, LA County, and Ventura County.
  • There are about 800 firefighters assigned.
  • Damage assessment teams are working in the burned areas, but there is no official count on damaged structures yet.

Update @ 3:39 p.m. MT Monday

Inspector Ron Haralson of the LA County FD just announced that the Sesnon fire is over 3,000 acres. If needed, and wind permitting, he said some of the helicopters will continue to fight fire after dark tonight.

There was a traffic collision on the 118 freeway today that resulted in a fatality. It may have been related to reduced visibility caused by the smoke. If so, this would be the second fatality caused by this fire bust. The first was the homeless person that died in his cardboard shelter.

At a news conference earlier today, one of the fire chiefs raised the possibility that one of their objectives was to keep the fire from burning all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Holy Crap!

The Santa Ana winds, which have decreased a bit today, but are still too strong for effective air attack, will be their strongest between 11 p.m. tonight and 11 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday).

Local residents can get information about fire-related traffic, evacuations, and shelters by calling a recording provided by the LA Fire Department at 800-439-2909. Other information about evacuations can be found at the LA County FD web site.

Update @ 2:30 p.m. PT Monday

The Sesnon fire at 3:15 p.m. MT Monday

The Sesnon fire is now over 2,000 acres. The winds have decreased a bit, but are still pretty strong.

A weather update now predicts that the winds will continue through Tuesday night for some areas in southern California and into Wednesday night for other areas..

Update @ 1:33 p.m. PT Monday

Here is a map showing the approximate location of the Sesnon fire in the Porter Ranch area, current as of about 1 p.m. Monday…provided by Los Angeles County Fire Department. This map should update automatically.

View Larger Map