Fire-making materials linked to firefighter

From the Sacramento Bee:

Yolo County prosecutors Friday revealed key aspects of their case against a volunteer firefighter accused of setting wildfires in the rural Capay Valley of California.

Robert Eric Eason, 39, from the hamlet of Guinda, sat beside his lawyer in Yolo Superior Court as investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection testified about years of effort to catch the suspected serial arsonist.

Cal Fire Deputy Chief Alan Carlson said a search of Eason’s home in October 2006 yielded materials for making time-delay incendiary devices from mosquito coils, spirals of a claylike substance that smolder for hours.Carlson said experiments showed the coils could be hurled from speeding cars and would fly “like a Frisbee” into tinder-dry grass. An investigator of hundreds of fires, Carlson said he had never seen the coils used before.

No coils were found at the sites of the 16 fires Eason is charged with setting in 2005 and 2006, some of which he helped fight. Carlson said that wasn’t surprising. The burned material “disappears in the other ash” and could be trampled or washed away by firefighters.

A remnant of a mosquito coil was found at the site of a suspicious wildfire in 1999, said another witness, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Eric Hoffmann.

Eason is not charged with that fire or others because the statute of limitations expired. But Carlson testified he suspects Eason of having set fires since he was in his late teens.

“The evidence indicates to me that he started back in the ’80s,” the investigator said under cross-examination by defense lawyer Rodney Beede.

On average nationwide, about 30 percent of arson fires are set by firefighters, Carlson testified. Arsonists commonly operate in areas close to home, where they are familiar with the landscape, he said. They use time-delay devices so they can be elsewhere and have alibis when fires start, he said.

“They feel they have the odds on their side to light a fire and get away with it,” Carlson said.

Some of the fires Eason is charged with setting were in the rugged Rumsey Canyon, at the top of the Capay Valley, while others were lower down the valley, near Guinda and Esparto.

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Garrett Hamilton is set to take the case to trial in late September. Friday’s hearing was held to determine whether evidence of fires that Eason is not charged with could be admitted at trial.

Roadside surveillance videos shot in 1999 and 2003 showed vehicles Eason might have driven traveling into areas where wildfires occurred soon afterward, Hoffmann testified. The fires attributed to Eason range from a 1,000- acre blaze to small burned patches. No one was injured in the fires he is charged with igniting.

The hearing before Judge Stephen L. Mock is scheduled to continue Friday in Woodland. Eason remains free on bail.

Firefighters saved by broken hose

Here is a report of a very close call–you could call it an entrapment and burnover–that was reported on FirefighterCoseCalls.com It is surprising that it is only now coming to light, and in this manner. If anyone knows on which fire this happened, let us know.

LCES Fails at Wildland Fire

Monday, August 4, 2008

My engine company had been assigned to work on a fire in the Northern California area. The date of the incident, July 15,2008 at about 1800.

We were assigned to support a critical backfiring operation on the division we were assigned. There was a Type II Fire Hand crew from Alaska that was put in charge of the burning operation for the evening. I was asked to walk down a trail and assist with water support, due to the fact that the intensity of the fire had increased in the area.

Throughout the course of the fire we had been unable to secure the proper LCES protocols due to the terrain and fuels on the fireground. Somehow the communications were not passed on that we needed to stay off from the trail, another issue was the fact that communications to cease all burning operations had also not been properly conveyed.

My engine company proceeded down the trail as was requested by the Strike Team Leader on the division. As I led the two other people from my engine down the trail, we encounter a few large pockets of smoke that were very thick and white in color. This was not a great deal of concern at the time, the firing operation was being done on a mid-slope with burning down hill to create a backing fire.

We noted that a hose line had blown on our way down the trail, as we came through the third large patch of smoke, everything turned black. We then realized that we were in trouble and we had fire coming right at us.

Within a matter of a few seconds we had flames all the way around us and lapping over our heads. I instructed my crew to run back toward the blown hose and seek cover under the water curtain that it was providing. We had two choices at this time, make it back to the blown hose or deploy a fire shelter. We were able to reach the blown line after running about 150 feet, we stayed under the water curtain while the flame front pushed passed us.

After the flame front passed we were then able to push up hill and out of any further harm. We all did what we were trained to do, covered our airway and get out of the heat. I am happy to say that other than a few mild burns, scorched hair and delamination of my right boot we were able to escape major injury.

After going back to the site of the burn over, we found that we had been walking across the top of a narrow canyon. We were later informed that there had been a great deal of roll out causing fire to establish itself in the bottom of the canyon, causing the large push below us.

I can honestly say that this was a close call, I have never felt heat like this in the seven years that I have fought wild land fire or the four years that I have fought structural fire.

LESSONS LEARNED:
Communications should be conveyed properly at all times. If you have any doubt that communications are not understood, please take the time to ask.

Take the time to have good crew cohesion, the fact I did not have any of the firefighters I was in charge of question me made it easier to provide a safer outcome.

LCES, 10 Standard Fire Orders are there for a reason, just because you follow the rules does not mean that every crew on your fire will do the same. Be safe in all you do…. we all go home, every time!!!

Thanks go out to Dick for the tip.

Wildfire news, August 22, 2008

Life on an inmate fire crew

You don’t hear very much about what it is like to be on an inmate crew, unless you have had the unfortunate experience of committing a crime and serving on one. Here are some excerpts from an interesting article NewWest.net:

“It doesn’t hit you right away that you’re off prison ground until you’re sitting there at night and you see the stars above you,” he says. “Being out there you’re just like ‘Whoa!’ It’s different. It just brings you back down, you know. You say ‘Hey, look, I could be doing this on the streets instead of doing other criminal activities with alcohol and drugs.'” 

For others, the first moments of freedom hit like an ice-cold wave, frightening but refreshing at the same time.

“It was scary,” Joseph James Paoni recalls about the first time he went out with the crew. “It was a shock just leaving the prison uncuffed after being transported from regional to regional shackled and cuffed, you know. It was kind of a different feeling.”

——

In Montana State Prison, being on the Con Crew is highly sought after because it offers the best pay ($12 a day working fires) and a sense of freedom, however fleeting.

For these reasons and others, it isn’t uncommon for crew members to be harassed by jealous inmates, so the crew sticks together, meeting every morning in an old Korean War tent working on tasks assigned by Gillibrand, including occasional visits to nearby sites around the valley that need cleaning or fix-up.

“I tell the guys every year, this is the fire crew. You have the elite job in the prison. This is the hardest job to get here, so don’t screw it up,” says Gillibrand, a 6-foot-5 brick-house of a man who takes great pride in his crew, like a father demanding nothing but the best from his sons.

Every spring, Gillibrand gets heaps of applications from hopeful inmates, but only about one in ten meet the security requirements. There are strict guidelines, like keeping a squeaky-clean record on the inside, having no prior convictions of arson or sex offenses, and being classified as minimum security.

Beyond the DOC’s requirements, Gillibrand has a few of his own. If an inmate is considered safe enough to be on the crew, and passes the physical tests, they must sign Gillibrand’s “Inmate Pledge,” composed of 24 declarations, including: “I will complete all assignments; pledging to do my best from time of departure until the time of return to the institution and will perform in a manner to bring credit to the program and myself…I understand that there is a ZERO tolerance for any substance abuse. Any usage of drugs, alcohol or tobacco will result in my removal from the program…I pledge that I will not have any one-on-one conversations or contact with any female on any fire or project.”

Curtis Jessen fatality update

More information is available about the death of Curtis Jessen who died in a fall while working on a fire near Saluda, North Carolina. He worked for the NC Division of Forest Resources and was the division’s assistant district forester in Asheville. From BlueRidgeNow:

He suffered critical injuries after falling at least 50 feet from the Big Bradley falls near Saluda at about 10:30 a.m., Thursday. The falls are about 65 feet tall. Medical personnel pronounced Jessen dead a short time later. 

Jessen began working with Forest Resources in February 2002. He was a forest inventory analysis forester and a service forester before being promoted to assistant district forester.

Jeremy Gregg, a spokesperson with Saluda Fire and Rescue, confirmed at 1:35 p.m. Thursday that rescue workers had reached Jessen.

Gregg said members of the Saluda Fire Department noticed a brush fire at about 6 p.m. Wednesday in the area of Bradley Falls.

“The firefighters contacted the county ranger, and along with the Forest Service, began fighting the fire,” he said. As night started to fall, firefighters decided to cease their work and come back Thursday morning, according to David Brown, public information officer with the Forest Service.

“The victim was here mopping up the fire Wednesday morning when the accident occurred,” Brown said. “The victim was scouting the perimeter of the fire when he fell. The fire was near the top of Big Bradley Falls.”

Brown said the fire was on the south face and at the very top of the falls. It was contained Thursday afternoon. At least 40 rescue workers used all-terrain vehicles to reach Jessen.

Fire use fire ban lifted in California

According to the Sacramento Bee the U.S. Forest Service’s Regional Forester has lifted the ban he imposed last month on “fire use” fires in California.

“Rather than require local units to wait until the preparedness level has been reduced,” Moore wrote, “I have decided to again consider (controlled fires) on a case-by-case basis.” 

Forest Service spokesman John Heil said California faced an “epic” fire situation after June 21, when lightning storms triggered thousands of fires. This spread crews thin and made smoke a health concern in many communities.

Moore originally said he would reconsider the ban if conditions changed. Heil said Moore’s latest directive reflects that change since many fires have been contained and smoky conditions have lifted.

“We have a lot fewer fires going on right now than we did back on July 9,” Heil said. “So, a lot of things have improved at this point.”

Gunbarrel fire update

Pushed by strong winds, this fire use fire between Cody, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park made a large run on Thursday, adding another 5,600 acres, making the total size 48,670 acres.

About 1,000 of the additional acres were outside the Maximum Manageable Area (MMA) on the east side of the fire northeast of Jim Mountain. Stopping the “unwanted fire” in this area will be top priority for the firefighters on Friday. Additional resources were ordered and will be working on the fire today, including five more engines, a heavy-lift helicopter, and another hotshot crew. In addition to those, working on the fire are 168 people:

  • 5 crews: 1 hotshot crew, 2 hand crews, and 2 fire use modules
  • 3 helicopters: 2 medium and 1 light
  • 7 engines and 3 water tenders

Here is a map produced after an infrared flight last evening. The “unwanted fire” outside the MMA is shown as separate unit of fire on the extreme east side; it later grew to 1,000 acres. From the incident management team:

The attached map shows a moderate-size spot fire east of Jim Mountain. The infrared flight from which the map was made occurred shortly after sunset last night, before the plane continued on to map fires in other states. During the night that spot grew to about a thousand acres. Entirely within the National Forest, the fire has burned about as far east as the intersection of Trout and Robbers Roost Creeks. 


Fatal helicopter crash–rescuer’s account

John Pettijohn, a fir
efighter/paramedic with th
e Layton, Utah fire department, was working on a helitack crew on the fire in northern California when the helicopter crashed, killing nine.

Pettijohn had just arrived at his helibase at 7:45 p.m. when the call about the crash came in. 

About a dozen firefighters were at the scene when the helicopter took off from the remote helispot around 6,000 feet elevation. The craft traveled about 150 yards and crashed, then burst into flames. Three occupants escaped, and one ran back and pulled out another survivor.

Within five minutes, Pettijohn and another dozen firefighters arrived on the mountain via helicopter. Pettijohn realized he didn’t have the help or medical equipment he would have had on his engine in Layton. The helicopter’s emergency medical kit was equipped to handle emergencies involving one or two victims, not four, he said.

“This was a different element I was working in,” Pettijohn said.

Emergency medical technicians among the firefighters on the scene may not have had the medical experience of Pettijohn’s Layton co-workers, but “they performed well,” he said. The wildfire, which had consumed 100,000 acres, was right there, but Pettijohn’s main worry was the victims.

“Mainly, they had facial and hand burns and traumatic injuries,” he said. The traumatic injuries included fractures, but Pettijohn couldn’t tell how severe they were.

The facial burns posed another problem because the victims were breathing the heat from the burns into their airway and lungs. The main thing, Pettijohn said, was to get the men off the mountain before dark because “we can’t fly when it’s dark.”

Luckily, the smoke from the fire was not hampering visibility, he said, and helicopters were able to evacuate the injured.

The above is from Standard.net

NASA’s smoke, CO, and fire images

A NASA site has some images of smoke and also profiles of carbon monoxide near fires. Many of the images are weeks or months old, and I could not get a video of carbon monoxide to work, but the site is fairly interesting.

NASA also has some infrared images taken by the unmanned aerial vehicle, Ikhana. Here is one of the Gap fire near Santa Barbara on July 11.


Thanks, Chuck, for the tip about the smoke images.

North Carolina: firefighter dies in fall from cliff

A North Carolina Forest Service firefighter who fell off a cliff at Big Bradley Falls and died has been identified as Curtis Jessen, the division’s assistant district forester in Asheville. Jessen suffered critical injuries after falling from the Big Bradley Falls near Saluda. Medical personnel pronounced Jessen dead a short time later.

“This is a very sad day for the entire Division of Forest Resources and all of our firefighting partners,” said Wib Owen, the director of the Division of Forest Resources. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Curtis and his family.”

Jessen, 32, was working on the fire when he fell from a cliff. Authorities are investigating the circumstances surrounding Jessen’s fall and the fire.

Jessen began working with the N.C. Division of Forest Resources in February 2002. Since that time he has worked as a forest inventory analysis forester and a service forester before being promoted to assistant district forester.

From BlueRidgeNow

Wildfire news, August 21, 2008

East Slide Rock Ridge fire

I hate the name of that fire. Whatever happened to one-word names of fires?

But aside from the stupid name, the fire use fire is doing stupid things by starting to burn outside the Jarbidge Wilderness Area of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near the Nevada-Idaho line. The fire has been managed as a fire use fire, not being suppressed, for the last two weeks. However, over the last 2 days it grew from 3,296 acres to over 8,000 acres.

Firefighters are using “multiple air tankers” in an attempt to keep it within the wilderness area in northeast Nevada. One five-person squad and a Division Supervisor were assigned to the fire, but four 20-person crews, engines, and dozers have been ordered.

Helicopter lost power before crash

Some initial findings from the National Transportation Safety Board conclude the Sikorsky S-61 that crashed on August 5 lost power to the main rotor as it took off from the helispot. The NTSB said the ship came to rest on its left side before bursting into flames. Nine on board died, including seven firefighters, a USFS check pilot, and one of the pilots.

Update:

KDRV reports:

Investigators say the crash was similar to other Sikorsky S61 helicopter crashes. In four other instances, the helicopters crashed as they were lifting off due to a clutch mechanism failure. The helicopter belonged to Grants Pass-based Carson helicopters. At this point Carson is not grounding any of its choppers. 

The AP has this information:

A fire-damaged voice-data recorder salvaged from the burned aircraft was sent to its British manufacturer, which determined that both the cockpit voice recording and flight data contained on the device were still intact, NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak said. The agency plans to analyze the data in the coming weeks, she said. 

18 structures burn in Swanson Lake fire

The fire is 4 miles southwest of Creston, Washington and has burned 19,000 acres, as well as 1 residence, 2 seasonal cabins, and 15 other buildings.

Update on Bridge Creek fire

This fire use fire in central Oregon that escaped from the Maximum Manageable Area on August 16 and burned onto private land is now 45% contained and has burned 4,902 acres, 2,291 of them on private land. The fire received from .05″ to .15″ of rain.

Ellreese Daniels' sentencing – a perspective from inside the courtroom

We received this from Dick Mangan. It is reprinted with his permission.

===================================================

Friends – my day was spent in the Federal Courthouse in Spokane, attending the Sentencing Hearing for Ellreese Daniels.

As most of you are well aware, he was originally charged in December 2006 with 11 felonies; in May 2008, just a few days before the trial, the US Attorney offered a plea agreement of two (2) misdemeanors of making a false statement in an Administrative hearing. Rather than risk a jury trial on 11 felonies, Ellreese agreed.

The Judge sentenced Ellreese to 90 days in a “Work-Release Facility” where he’ll work a job during normal hours and then return to a lock-down center at night. He also gets 3 years probation, and will not be active again in wildfire activities on the line.

Not great by a long shot, but way better than taking a risk that a jury “of his peers” in Spokane would find him innocent of all 11 felony charges. Ellreese keeps his USFS job and future retirement, is NOT a convicted felon, and most importantly, can get on with his life after more than 7 tortured years!

Some Observations:

1. The US Attorney Tom Hopkins allowed family members of the deceased to offer comments: Karen Fitzpatrick’s mother read from a 4-5 page prepared statement, critical of Ellreese and the USFS; Devin Weaver’s father offered 15-20 minutes of emotionally charged off-the-cuff comments, again critical of Ellreese and the USFS; Jessica Johnson’s cousin talked about them growing up together like sisters, and asked the Judge to give Ellreese the maximum sentence possible; and then Tom Craven’s father talked: he said all of his 6 children were USFS firefighters: several have been in California this summer; he respects the USFS and won’t talk bad about the outfit; and said that “Ellreese was not in control of the fire or the wind” and said that Ellreese should “not spend even 1 day in jail for what happened”.

2. Hopkins kept trying to bring all of the manslaughter charges back into the play, even though they had been dropped with his approval;my notes as he talked said “boring beyond belief!”

3. Federal Defender Tina Hunt did an excellent job trying to keep the issue focused;

4. The Judge seemed concerned about Ellreese’s plea of guilty to making false statements during an investigation, and wanted to send a message that the truth is critical in investigations.

5. The Judge said specifically: “the cause of the deaths was NOT yours”‘

6. He also complimented Ellreese for overcoming a less-than-ideal youth, saying he went to Job Corps, got on with the USFS, and “you were there because you worked hard.”

7. Tina talked about the implications of this case to firefighters across the US and around the world.

8. US Attorney Hopkins accused Ellreese of not ordering shelters deployed earlier because ” it’s a sign of weakness” and that he “gambled with his crew” to be sure he had a chance for future fire OT.

9. The USFS was there in uniform supporting Ellreese: Forest Supervisor Becki Heath, Forest FMO Bobbi Scopa, and Deputy Regional Forester Cal Joyner; several Wenatchee folks as well, some on government time and others on their own; a fair mix of retirees as well, all there to support Ellreese and “the cause”

Some personal comments:

1. This should have never taken place: a well-intended US Senator and a Congressman bought off on a flawed bill-of-goods from a constituent, and here we are 6 years after PL 107-203;

2. After 40+ years in wildland fire: “there but the grace of God go I”

3. Ellreese will survive this, somewhat battered but alive and well in the end, with a USFS job and someday a retirement package;

4. In my not-always humble, non-lawyerly Forester opinion, the US Attorney in Spokane Jim McDevitt and his Assistant Tom Hopkins are poster children of what you get when Alberto Gonzales and Monica Goodling apply their “special criteria” to hiring folks for the US Justice Department;

5. Lastly, it is my view that after today, wildland firefighting will never be the same! If any mis-fortune befalls you on the fireline, my only advice is to “Lawyer UP!!”

Ellreese may still need our support, both moral and financial, in the coming months; stay tuned for further details!

Thanks for your ongoing support to date, and stay Safe on the fireline!

Dick Mangan
Blackbull Wildfire Services

==================================================

From the Associated Press:

U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle emphasized during the sentencing that Daniels was being punished for the statements, not the deaths.

“I don’t think the cause of these sad, tragic deaths was yours,” he said.

But prosecutor Tom Hopkins, who sought four months in prison and a $1,000 fine, continued to blame Daniels — as did many relatives of those who died.

“Personally, I have a hard time calling that true justice,” said Kathie FitzPatrick, mother of 18-year-old Karen FitzPatrick. “I will never have any grandchildren.”

FitzPatrick said she wore her daughter’s charred wristwatch and a pair of her daughter’s shoes into court.

“If Ellreese Daniels had not been on that fire line, my son would have probably lived,” said Ken Weaver, the father of 21-year-old Devin Weaver.

Daniels, of Lake Wenatchee, did not speak. His public defender, Tina Hunt, said her client was a scapegoat for decisions made by numerous Forest Service supervisors and employees, and that the deaths were the result of a dangerous wildfire that ran amok.

“What Mr. Daniels did up there that day was not the sole cause of those firefighter deaths,” Hunt said. “The person who keeps getting blamed for everything is Ellreese Daniels.”

The other firefighters killed were Tom Craven, 30, and Jessica Johnson, 19. All four were from central Washington.

Craven’s father, Will, said Daniels should not serve any jail time.

“Wind and fire killed the four people on the rocks,” said Craven, who has had six children work as firefighters. “Fighting fires is dangerous.”

Daniels continues to work for the Forest Service, but no longer fights fires.

In addition to the three months of work release, Daniels was sentenced to three years of probation. The judge said he also must complete mental health and alcohol abuse evaluations and any treatment that is needed. He was ordered to abstain from alcohol during the probation period and may not work as a firefighter.