Wildfire news, November 6, 2008

Ex-firefighter arsonist receives 10 years in plea

Wildfire Today earlier covered news about the fired Honolulu firefighter who was arrested for setting three fires. He was fired for trying to get his fellow firefighters to give him a urine sample for the fire department’s random drug tests. Now we know why he needed that clean sample.

Kenton Leong, 42, admitted in court yesterday that he smoked crystal meth before setting the fires in July. He pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree arson as part of a plea deal with prosecutors that calls for a 10-year prison sentence. Leong was a firefighter for 17 years before he was fired. He was originally charged with two counts of first-degree arson and one of second-degree arson, but admitted to the reduced charges as part of the plea agreement reached with prosecutors.

Leong’s cooperation with the investigation and his willingness to seek drug treatment may make him a good candidate for parole, prosecutors said. Leong also agreed to pay the cost of fighting the fires. That amount will be determined later.

Former USFS Ranger turns 100

Harold Bush worked for the U. S. Forest Service on six national forests, including the Allegheny in Pennsylvania and the Daniel Boon in Kentucky. He just turned 100, and he seems like he would be an interesting person to have a cup of coffee with.

Talking about Mr. Bush, an employee of the George Washington National Forest has noticed a trend that many of us have–the specialization and compartmentalization within the land management agencies.

“Back then … forest people had to be a little bit of everything, a jack-of-all-trades,” Debbie Kiracofe of the U.S. Forest Service said, explaining that workers didn’t specialize in areas they do now, such as hydrology and fire. “They pretty much did what they thought was right.” 

Here is an excerpt from an article at rocktownweekly.com

Harold “Hal” Bush never wanted to work for the government. 

But he took a job with the U.S. Forest Service in 1935 working with the Civilian Conservation Corps because “it was too big a program to miss.”

“I went into the Forest Service with a temporary job, and that ‘temporary’ job lasted 35 years,” the Bridgewater resident said. “The work was fascinating.”

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests’ Dry River District in Harrisonburg hosted a birthday party Wednesday for Bush, who will turn 100 on Tuesday. He was the district ranger there in the 1940s and ’50s.

About 30 people, many of whom are retired Forest Service employees, showed up to wish Bush well and get signed copies of his book, “Flashbacks of a Forest Ranger.”

The book mostly deals with Bush’s experience working in the CCC.

Many things have changed since Bush was a ranger, especially how the agency is structured and regulated, said Debbie Kiracofe of the Forest Service.

“He has such a unique perspective on the Forest Service,” she said. “He told me one time if he signed on to the Forest Service now, he wouldn’t last one week because of all the rules and regulations.”

As Bush admits, “I kind of bended the rules a little bit.”

Who will head Interior and Agriculture?

Who will President-Elect Obama recruit to be the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the two departments that oversee federal lands and the firefighters that manage them? The Guardian, a United Kingdom newspaper, speculated on these positions on October 30. Here is how they did it:

We asked campaign advisors, nonprofit conservation advocates, think-tank types, lobbyists, academics, and friendly looking folks behind us in line at the co-op. It’s a cardinal sin in Washington to openly speculate on these matters before an election, so we promised confidentiality to many sources.

For Secretary of Interior they came up with these names:

  • Brian Schweitzer, governor of Montana
  • Jamie Rappaport Clark, former Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Clinton administration. She now works for Defenders of Wildlife.
  • Jay Inslee, a Washington state congressman in the Seattle area.

Secretary of Agriculture:

  • Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and presidential candidate.
  • Tom Buis, president of the National Farmer’s Union, former senior agricultural policy advisor to Tom Daschel, the Obama buddy and former Senate majority leader.
  • Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota’s representative in the U.S. House. She previously directed the South Dakota Farmer’s Union Foundation. She sits on the House Agriculture Committee.

Wildfire issues in the election

San Diego County “Fire Tax”

Proposition A in San Diego County failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority required to approve a new tax increase. The $52 per year for most property owners would have created a regional fire agency and provided funds for firefighting aircraft, engines, and other equipment. The measure received 63.2% of the vote, about 3.4% less than needed to pass.

Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands

Peter Goldmark, who has been a wildland firefighter with the Okanogan County Fire District No. 8 for over 30 years, is trying to unseat two-term incumbent Doug Sutherland. The latest returns show Goldmark with 50.53% of the votes with 55% of the precincts reporting. Some areas in the state are extremely slow in counting ballots. Final results may not be available until late this week or even next week.

The Lands Commissioner oversees the Department of Natural Resources and their firefighting organization.

Goldmark is the past Director of Agriculture for the State of Washington and has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. According to Goldmark’s web site, he is not your average wildland firefighter. He…

…maintains a small scientific research facility at his ranch and has published scientific articles in national and international journals. He currently maintains a wheat-breeding program at his facility and has recently released new varieties for Washington wheat farmers.

Barack Obama’s position on wildland fire

Now that he is the President-Elect, how will wildland fire be affected? Of course campaign promises don’t always materialize, but Obama has an official two-page position paper on wildland fire. We don’t recall any Presidential candidate having a specific, written position on wildland fire before this election.

Here are some excerpts:

Barack Obama will focus the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s efforts on working with local communities on hazardous fuels projects to make communities safer and forests healthier.

An Obama-Biden Administration will use controlled burns and prescribed natural fire to reduce such fuels in close coordination with those communities that are most at risk.

Reducing the dangers of wildfires cannot be addressed through federal action alone. Under an Obama-Biden Administration, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies will work with local and state governments and insurance companies to pursue effective wildland urban interface planning, develop building codes and other “best practices” to prevent and mitigate fire impacts in high risk areas.

The U.S. Forest Service firefighting budget is based on a ten year average of firefighting costs that is out of step with the increased frequency, size and intensity of wildfires. Over the last decade, fires have burned an average of more than 7 million acres a year – twice the average of the 1990s. Barack Obama will work with the Congress on a bipartisan basis to ensure agencies have the funds needed to suppress and manage wildfires without taking money from other important programs within the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.


Were there other election issues or candidates that are of interest to wildland fire personnel? Let us know in the comments.

Wildfire news, November 4, 2008

New book about wildland fire smoke

Andrzej Bytnerowicz of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, along with three other federal employees, edited a book that contains 26 research papers about smoke impacts in from prehistoric times to the present day.

The 686-page “Wildland Fires and Air Pollution, Volume Eight” is divided into four sections: fire in the Middle Ages, mega-fire events, climate change, and predictive tools.

A press release says the U.S. Forest Service and the Joint Fire Science Program provided funding for the book. More information about the book can be found at the Elsevier web site. Elsevier publishes FireRescue magazine and also published Wildland Firefighter magazine until they ceased its publication earlier this year.

The book can be ordered from Elsevier for $185. This is an interesting arrangement. Funding was provided by the U.S. Government (for something… editing?) but it is being sold by a private company for $185. Maybe this is similar to research papers by government scientists being published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Update @ 4:52 MT Nov. 4

We have learned that the Joint Fire Science Program, which receives funding from the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, contributed $7,000 towards the publication of the book. It was used for technical editing and the production of color plates. We were unable to confirm that the U.S. Forest Service actually contributed any funds directly, as the press release stated.

Elsevier has the copyright for the book. We know that it exists in electronic .pdf format (and could be distributed at no cost now that the editing is done) but the only way that the citizens who paid for the research can see the results of their investment is to pay Elsevier $185.

The researchers whose work appears in the book are from the United States, Australia, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, Spain, Portugal, China, Greece, Poland, and Canada.

This book is very expensive and is priced out of the range of many who could benefit from the information that was developed at taxpayer expense.

Here is an image of the cover of the book.

Scientific journals are quite pricey, with most of them having subscription fees of hundreds of dollars a year. An institutional subscription to the journal “Nature” costs $2,920 a year, while the “International Journal of Wildland Fire” is $990 for an online subscription and $1,240 for online and print. Personal subscriptions for both journals are much less expensive. International Association of Wildland Fire members can receive large discounts for individual subscriptions to the Journal of Wildland Fire.


Oregon: The cost of fighting fires

A television station in Oregon, “News Watch 12”, is doing a two-part series on the cost of firefighting. Their web site with the first installment has a short article and also a video which includes interviews with fire managers.

Fire hazard maps upset residents

California has a law that requires communities to provide maps showing the level of risk from a wildland fire, and that owners of homes at very high risk must disclose that before selling their properties. Some residents of the city of Vista, north of San Diego, were disturbed when they recently saw the ratings for their homes.

The city council was scheduled to approve the new map last week, but after receiving dozens of complaints removed the item from their agenda. Now they are going to have two more community meetings to “explain more about how this works”, said Fire Chief Gary Fisher.

Some residents are concerned that high fire risk ratings will lower their property values, make it more difficult to sell their homes, raise their insurance rates, or even make it impossible to find fire insurance.

They may be right. Allstate insurance has stopped selling new policies in California due to massive claims resulting from wildland fires. Some other companies are requiring vegetation clearances of 1,000-1,500 feet around structures.

The crew of Engine 57 died two years ago trying to protect a house that had inadequate clearance and was located at the top of a chute. The Esperanza fire zeroed in on that house, and the firefighters protecting it, like it was shot out of a rifle.

Would the Esperanza fire have turned out differently if that house at the top of the chute had been publicly identified as high risk, been properly evaluated by an insurance company, or had adequate fire clearance? Or would it have been there at all if the fire risk were known and made public?

Firefighters need these fire risk assessment systems. Home owners need them too.

Fictional movie: "Smokejumper"

We’ve been watching the HBO series “Entourage” this season, and the latest episode, number 63, titled “Pie”, features the lead character “Vince”, played by Adrian Grenier, acting in a movie called “Smokejumpers”.

In this latest episode, which is still being shown on HBO until the next one comes out Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, Vince begins shooting the movie. It is supposed to be a “big” blockbuster movie, and Sunday night they showed lots of flames and many, many explosions. The explosions were in wildland fuels and structures. OK, so this “movie” will not be realistic. It would not be the first movie about wildland fire to be over the top. I remind you about the 1988 movie “Firestorm” when Howie Long (former defensive end for the Oakland Raiders) playing smokejumper Jessie Graves saves ornithologist Jennifer caught in a forest fire.

The big flames and explosions in the wildland scenes were probably computer-generated. But in one of the scenes (see screen grab below) the cast is walking through a recently burned fire, which was out, but had a few propane props supplying some small flames here and there. This looked like a recent, real fire, and I wonder where it was filmed? Griffith Park in Los Angeles maybe? Wildfire Today covered several fires there in August.

The costumes (Nomex, radio harnesses, etc.) for the firefighters looked pretty realistic, although we’re not sure if they were carrying fire shelters….possibly not. Several actors were carrying fire axes like you might see on a structure truck…. something “smokejumpers” never carry.
The plot in the next episode will include more scenes about the filming of the “Smokejumpers” movie. A fictional movie within a fictional drama. Got it?

Here are some more screen grabs from an episode recap on HBO.

Vince, the lead actor in the series, is in the middle.