Appropriate Management Response in Montana

The Clark Fork Chronicle has a story about a debate going on in Montana about the role of the US Forest Service on interface fires. Here is an excerpt.

U.S. Forest Service officials will not formally respond to recommendations that Montana fire chiefs offered last month to the legislature’s interim study committee. But officials emphasized to the Chronicle that the protection of homes and outbuildings–structure protection–remains near the very top of firefighters’ priorities.

The top priority, always, is life safety–the safety of firefighters and the public, explained Chuck Stanich, the fire management officer for the Lolo National Forest.

“Life safety we hold in highest regard on every fire, every time, everywhere,” Chuck said. “Once we take care of that, then we go to the next priority.”

The next priorities are typically protecting the community’s “values at risk,” which usually include structures, and other cultural and natural resources, such as watersheds.

Those objectives and priorities are established in discussions long before the first start of the fire season, documented in formal plans and agreements, and communicated across a wide range of federal, state, and local firefighting partners, Chuck explained.

Frenchtown Fire’s Scott Waldron appeared in Helena earlier this month to present the state fire chiefs’ report, and offered his perspective on the Black Cat Fire in response to the committee’s questions. He alleged that Forest Service firefighters were not allowed to engage in structure protection, and testified that the agency’s policy of “Appropriate Management Response” could endanger communities.

Without directly addressing Waldron’s statements, Forest Service officials said they hoped to clear up any possible misconceptions about Forest Service policy.

Scottsdale, 2-day exercise, 25 fire agencies

KPHO.com has the story:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — More than 25 statewide fire agencies, fearing an active wildfire season, are taking part in a major training exercise at McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Scottsdale.

They are learning how to work together to protect the land, homes and lives when the brush fire season starts in mid-April.

Firefighters said they believe that the aggressive growth of desert grasses triggered by soaking winter rains will spell danger once the vegetation dries out in hotter weather.

“We’re expecting a pretty active desert fire season,” said Mike Guardado, one of the firefighters involving in the training. “We’re getting to know each other and getting to know each other’s equipment.”

Guardado spent four years fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service. He said he knows the dangers and difficulties when flames meet dry brush.

“It’s pretty challenging,” he said. “It can be frightening at times, especially working with hand tools when there’s no water around.”

While crews are training to protect homes and land, they’re also learning to protect themselves.

Last year, crews across the state battled 1,926 wildfires devouring 63,908 acres, according to the Arizona State Forestry Division. That was a dramatic decrease from the 3,080 wildfires seen in 2006 that burned more than 152,000 acres.

The two-day training event, which ends Thursday, is an effort by the Scottsdale Fire Department and the Central Arizona Wildland Response Team.

The team is a consortium of approximately 15 fire agencies in central Arizona that participate in state and nationwide wildland fire response.

Frequent fires causing type conversion

The LA Times has an interesting story about the effects of frequent fires on the vegetation. Here’s a key quote:

“Ecosystems forged over time to thrive by being burned every 60 to 100 years are now being scorched every 10 to 15 years — or even more often.”

And a larger excerpt:

As scientists comb through Southern California’s burnt landscape, they’re finding new evidence that frequent fires are gradually replacing chaparral and sagebrush with highly flammable and prolific nonnative weeds.

Orange County’s canyons offer a stark illustration. The 28,400 acres that burned over three weeks are in various stages of recovery. Upper elevations of the Santa Ana Mountains remain a moonscape.

But throughout the foothills, weeds are in full bloom amid blackened native sagebrush and grass.

Known as “type conversion,” the landscape change is having a profound effect: extending the region’s annual fire season, deepening the threat of mudslides and endangering animal species.

The culprit isn’t the size of wildfires, but their frequency. Ecosystems forged over time to thrive by being burned every 60 to 100 years are now being scorched every 10 to 15 years — or even more often.

Nonnative weeds have been encroaching on Southern California’s wild lands for centuries, carried over in the hoofs of Spanish livestock, accidentally spread through contaminated crop seed, intentionally planted along streams to control erosion.

In recent years, scientists have argued that a fire frequency that would benefit a conifer forest through thinning would destroy a coastal ecology by helping to spread invasive species, such as mustard, star thistle and ripgut brome.

Rich Hawkins, a veteran fire chief for the Cleveland National Forest, learned the rule of thumb from an old forest ranger 30 years ago.

“If a site burns three times within 20 years,” Hawkins said, “you’ll see most of the chaparral lost on that site.”

Because of imprecise historical habitat mapping, just how much of Southern California’s wild lands have undergone type conversion because of fire is unknown.

“But clearly, a large part of the native landscape has already been lost,” Keeley said.

Firefighters hate nonnative weeds as much as biologists do. Mustard, for instance, can quickly grow hip high with winter rains, then dry out just as fast, becoming a field of kindling.

It’s one reason the region’s fire season is getting longer and more destructive. “It makes it impossible to fight a wind-driven fire,” Hawkins said. “That’s why thousands of homes burned down in San Diego County.”

Kansas firefighters burned over in engine

From Salina.com:

Two McPherson firefighters are recovering after being burned when their firefighting brush truck was swept over by a grass fire Saturday southwest of McPherson.

Lt. Randall Willems and firefighter Josh Brewer were treated at the burn unit of Via Christi St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Wichita.

Brewer was treated for burns to his hand and face, and smoke inhalation. He was released from the hospital Sunday. Willems was treated for burns to his hands, arms and face and was released Monday morning, McPherson Fire Chief Dennis Thrower said.

The McPherson department was one of six area departments responding Saturday to two separate fires occurring about 12:35 p.m. in southwest McPherson County. The larger fire covered about 700 acres, the smaller blaze spread across about 90 acres, Capt. Neal Schierling with McPherson County Rural Fire District No. 5, said Monday.

Officials think the fires may have been started in ditches from sparks from a pickup truck with a worn wheel bearing, Schierling said. The fires were about a mile apart and were close to the McPherson-Rice county line. They were under control by about 3:30 or 4 p.m., he said.

Stuck in the mud

Willems and Brewer’s fire unit became stuck in a mud hole that wasn’t visible because of tall grass, Thrower said.

The fire “advanced on them unexpectedly and overtook them so quickly,” Thrower said, that they had no chance to use the truck sprayer to keep the flames at bay.

“The vegetation is very dry right now, due to it just coming out of winter,” Thrower said.

Afterwards, the two men were able to walk to the road where there were other fire units there to assist. A helicopter flew Brewer to the medical center in Wichita, while Willems was taken there by ambulance. Both are expected to fully recover from their injuries, Thrower said.

Alabaugh fire staff ride planned

Alabaugh fire
Alabaugh fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The Alabaugh Fire burned 10,324 acres and dozens of structures near Hot Springs, SD in July of 2007. During suppression operations, two firefighters were entrapped and they deployed inside one fire shelter.

There will be staff rides featuring this fire on April 8, 9, and 10 at Hot Springs. One interesting thing about the staff ride is that it will serve as the required 8-hour annual fire refresher.