Wildfire news, September 6, 2008

Ministry for Extraordinary Situations requests air tankers

We’re thinking that Bulgaria’s “Ministry for Extraordinary Situations” is equivalent to the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their country has requested air tankers through the European Union and NATO to assist with a forest fire burning in Rila National Park. France will be sending two air tankers for the 130 hectare (321 acre) fire.

Model plan for hurricane response

Commissioner (Ret.) David H. Fischler of the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Fire Rescue has prepared for the International Association of Fire Chiefs “Model Procedures for Response of Emergency Vehicles During Hurricanes and Tropical Storms“.

From the introduction:
The purpose of this guide is to provide guidance to chief officers in establishing a policy for response during hurricanes and coastal storms to minimize the risk to fire/EMS personnel and to protect the human, physical and cyber infrastructure critical to safeguard a community before, during and after a storm.
This guidance provides a common framework on which departments may build a local protocol tailored to a specific community.
Gunbarrel fire
This fire between Yellowstone National Park and Cody, Wyoming is pretty much done, at least for now. Earlier this week the Type 1 incident management team turned it over to a Type 3 team, which then turned it over to the National Forest District on Saturday. The fire has received a significant amount of rain and even some snow. They are calling it 78% contained–full containment is predicted for October 15. The 67,141-acre fire cost about $153 per acre, which is much less than your typical suppression-type fire.
Cut trees down to protect house or not?
Many property owners are resistant to cutting down any trees near their house. They expect the fire department to protect their house during a wildland fire regardless of what they have done or not done to manage the vegetation and fire risk. But according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, other property owners are cutting down trees unnecessarily, or in some cases all of their trees, thinking that is what they must do to make their house safe from fires.
Chuck Eckels cut down six Australia-native Brisbane box trees on his half-acre Escondido lot about a month after the Witch Creek fire roared past.
“I look at trees as detrimental to the property as opposed to beneficial,” Eckels said.
His attitude is not an aberration. A “less vegetation, the better” approach, Cal Fire urban forester Lynnette Short said, has led many people to needlessly chop down healthy trees.
“People are taking drastic measures,” Short said. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there.”
Local foresters and arborists want trees to stand tall again. They met last week to begin crafting policies that communities can use to save trees while protecting property. They say most well-tended trees pose little fire risk and can even prevent houses from igniting in some instances.
Pete Scully, a division chief for Cal Fire, said healthy trees have gotten a bad rap.
“Live trees, properly maintained and spaced adequately, are fine,” he said.
Arborists say the threat from pines and eucalyptuses in particular has been exaggerated. They say healthy trees aren’t the guzzlers people think they are, so tearing them out to conserve water is often unwarranted.
“We want the public to realize that trees are not the problem but part of the solution,” said Mike Palat, an arborist and chairman of the San Diego Urban Forest Council, which includes arborists, government agencies, landscapers and nonprofit organizations.
Good and bad
Fire-conscious arborists say the Mexican fan palm is one tree they won’t defend. Drew Potocki, urban forester for the city of San Diego, said the palm’s fibrous material ignites easily, and strong winds often turn burning bark chunks into “flaming, flying Frisbees.”
But pines and eucalyptuses – if solitary, properly spaced and 30 feet from a home – are equipped to survive most blazes, Short said.
“One of the major misconceptions I get, even from fire departments, is that eucalyptus are time bombs ready to go off in the next fire,” Short said. “That’s really wrong. I have eucalyptus on my property, and I would never think of cutting them down.”
Arborists say no matter the variety, keeping the ground around trees free of litter is key in fire prevention. Yet many people erroneously conclude that any tree’s presence greatly raises the risk.
Arborists say eucalyptus trees, such as these along Golden Hill Drive in Balboa Park, are equipped to survive most blazes if they are properly spaced and at least 30 feet from a home. That’s how Eckels viewed it. He said some of his 15-foot trees, which all were more than 20 feet from his home, had singed leaves and blackened trunks, though the fire was hundreds of yards away. That was all the evidence he needed. He said he saw plenty of green trees going up in flames on television, and he wanted to eliminate that possibility on his property.
“I actually liked the trees,” Eckels said. “They provide shade, and they made the property look nice. But I don’t want tiki torches next to my house.”
Eckels’ fears are largely unfounded, said Anne Fege, co-founder of San Diego Partners for Biodiversity and the San Diego Fire Recovery Network.
“Fires don’t ignite a house because your trees have a few scorched leaves,” said Fege, also a member of the San Diego Urban Forest Council.
Cal Fire’s “100 feet of defensible space around the home” mantra has been taken to extremes, said Short, a former firefighter. The standard doesn’t mean remove all vegetation within 100 feet, yet that’s what many people are doing, she said.
Cal Fire says healthy, pruned trees 30 feet or more from a home, including pines, can safely remain if owners have created “horizontal and vertical spacing between plants” within 100 feet of the home.
Many houses that burned in 2003 and last year ignited when wind-driven embers from a mile or more away landed on a flammable part of a home. Shade trees lining a property will catch flying embers before they can hit a home, Potocki said. “The trees could be doing you more good than harm.”
Some people have made matters worse since the fires by scraping their property clean down to the dirt, said Rick Halsey, a biologist, wildland firefighter and director of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido. He said that’s what a man down his street did.
“What these people end up doing is creating a bowling alley for embers to blow right through to the house,” he said.
BLM: Grazing can reduce fuel
That, of course,
sounds intuitive, but the
Bureau of Land Management decided to study the fire behavior and post-fire effects of the Murphy fire which burned 650,000 acres in southern Idaho and northeast Nevada in July, 2007. Some of the recent newspaper stories reporting on the study gave the impression that grazing was the answer to preventing large fires, but the actual findings are more complex than that. Here is an excerpt from the abstract in the report.
The team found that much of the Murphy Wildland Fire Complex burned under extreme fuel and weather conditions that likely overshadowed livestock grazing as a factor influencing fire extent and fuel consumption in many areas where these fires burned. Differences and abrupt contrast lines in the level of fuels consumed were affected mostly by the plant communities that existed on a site before fire. A few abrupt contrasts in burn severity coincided with apparent differences in grazing patterns of livestock, observed as fence-line contrasts.
Fire modeling revealed that grazing in grassland vegetation can reduce surface rate of spread and fire-line intensity to a greater extent than in shrubland types. Under extreme fire conditions (low fuel moisture, high temperatures, and gusty winds), grazing applied at moderate utilization levels has limited or negligible effects on fire behavior. However, when weather and fuel-moisture conditions are less extreme, grazing may reduce the rate of spread and intensity of fires allowing for patchy burns with low levels of fuel consumption.
The team suggested that targeted grazing to accomplish fuel objectives holds promise but requires detailed planning that includes clearly defined goals for fuel modification and appropriate monitoring to assess effectiveness.
Some insurance companies requiring 1,000-1,500′ clearance around houses
Allstate insurance in response to the massive fires in recent years in southern California is no longer selling new homeowner policies in the state. Some companies that are still selling new policies are requiring massive clearances around structures.
Daniel Sparks, a 29-year-old investment manager, bought a home last July in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood of San Diego, where thousands of houses burned down in October 2003. He had to scramble to find coverage, saying his old insurer, Mercury Insurance Group of Mercury General Corp., refused to issue a new policy.
“I tried to use the same insurance provider, and he would not cover my new house,”

Mr. Sparks says. “They said (his property) had to be 1,000 feet away from brush.” Since his lot abuts a Marine air base, he can’t clear it because it’s government property, he says. (A spokesman for Mercury said its clearance requirement for the area isn’t new.) Mr. Sparks finally found insurance from another company.
Companies also impose tougher policy conditions. Some have recently started requiring property owners to increase clearances to as much as 1,500 feet of vegetation from around homes in some fire zones. That’s 15-times more clearance than what’s currently required by California law. Indeed, Allstate says that 1-in-5 houses in high-risk areas it has inspected had hazardous brush conditions.
Increasingly, some insurers also won’t issue policies for homes on steep slopes, because wildfires burn uphill faster. Some are underwriting policies only where the home is located near a professional fire department, not the volunteer fire departments common in some rural areas, agents and brokers say.
Most insurers are using satellite imaging to inspect properties, agents say. And more companies also are physically inspecting houses and requiring documentation for safety measures like fire-resistant roofing. Homeowners whose properties are cited for hazards are given a period of time, usually six months, to correct the problems or their policies can be dropped.

Survivor talks about helicopter crash

Michael Brown, one of the four survivors of the August 5 helicopter crash in northern California that killed nine firefighters, talked to the press while recovering from his injuries at his mother’s home in Rogue River, Oregon. An excerpt:

As the helicopter lifted off, it felt “sluggish,” he said. Then, Brown heard a sickening thump and watched as the helicopter’s main rotor smashed into tree limbs and splintered.


“All these alarms started going off,” Brown recalled. “I remember the ‘beep beep beep’ and then I heard the pilot shouting ‘Mayday! Mayday! Helicopter going down!’ into his headset.”

William Coultas, the co-pilot, shouted at the men to put their heads between their knees.

“It was pretty scary — it all happened so fast,” Brown said. “The helicopter was leaning to the left. Then I remember hitting the ground really hard.”

There was a fire, he said, and thick smoke.

“Rick Schroeder told me later that seats had collapsed on top of us, and he must have pushed them off. I couldn’t unbuckle the harness, but somehow I wriggled out. Rick said he jumped out the side door,” Brown said.

Brown, who doesn’t remember how he got there, was found by other firefighters 200 yards down the slope from the burning wreckage.

Schroeder and 18-year-old Jonathan Frohreich were found about 20 yards away from the crash site, Brown said, “because they were hurt much worse than I was. I made it a lot further.”

Coultas, the fourth and final survivor, was badly burned. He remains in fair condition at UC Davis Medical Center. The others have returned home.

Killed were Roark Schwanenberg; Jim Ramage; Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.

A preliminary report on the crash by the NTSB found that the helicopter lost power to its main rotor as it took off. The investigation — which could take up to a year before a final report is issued — is focusing on the downed helicopter’s engines, drive shaft and transmission.

Most of Brown’s injuries were to his face — including broken cheekbones, a broken nose, a dislocated jaw and a concussion. It will take another two to three months before he can return to work at Grayback, where he hopes to work in the forest this fall and winter.

Meanwhile, he is “sitting around and getting better” at his mother’s house, cashing his workers’ compensation checks to make ends meet. He has trouble sleeping, but says he will return to fight fires next season.

His thoughts are with the men who died that day.

“I lost seven guys who were really close to me,” Brown said. “I do my best to remember them the way they were.”

From Oregonlive


Wildfire news, September 4, 2008

San Diego’s new helicopter

The City of San Diego introduced their new firefighting helicopter to the public yesterday. Copter 2, a Bell 412, is the city’s second helicopter. From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

The city is paying for the nearly $11 million helicopter with a 15-year lease-purchase agreement, financed by Koch Financial Corp., said Deputy Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. The helicopter will cost $15.9 million over the term of the lease. 

The Bell 412 is quieter, carries more weight, and is faster than Copter 1, the city’s Bell 212, Fennessy said. He said Copter 2 can be flown with instruments in zero visibility, while Copter 1 requires some visibility to be operated.

According to the city, Copter 2 can drop 375 gallons of water. While hovering over a lake, a pilot can refill its drop tank in 17 seconds.

File photo of an LA County Bell 412


Fire quiz
The Rhinelander Daily News web site has a “Fire prevention quiz“. Some of the questions are Wisconsin-specific, but see how many you can answer correctly.

Last fire of the season in western Colorado?

There is a good chance the reporter from the Citizen Telegram in Rifle, Colorado misquoted or misinterpreed what they were told by Chris Faronetti from the Grand Junction coordination center. The headline of the article is: “Porcupine Fire could be last one of fire season.
The smoke that rose high into the air outside Rifle at the end of last month should be the last time residents have to worry about a large wildfire for this year, according to federal and local fire officials.
With the arrival of September, cooler weather and more predicted moisture mean firefighters shouldn’t have to rush out again, said Chris Faronetti, operations specialist for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit in Grand Junction.
The group sends firefighters to wildfires across more than 4.5 million acres of federal land, oriented along the Interstate 70 corridor from the Continental Divide on the east to the Utah state line on the west.
“This pretty much puts us in fall conditions,” Faronetti said. “We’re going to recommend to the counties pretty soon that they lift any fire restrictions they might have in place.”
The less likelihood of a major fire comes after 17 lightning stike-caused fires of at least 150 acres in Northwestern Colorado during the last week of August, according to Faronetti.
“We took the stance of hitting ‘em hard with retardant drops so we wouldn’t have any large fires,” he said.
The Porcupine Fire outside Rifle burned 130 acres but no buildings at the end of August. It took several days to completely extinguish.


NTSB: jet engine disintegrated on Tanker 09

More information is confirming that one of the jet engines on the air tanker that crashed on Monday, Tanker 09, failed just before the accident.  
(NTSB lead investigator Tom) Little told reporters on Tuesday that investigators had recovered several large pieces of metal beginning about one-quarter mile north of the runway that appear to have come from the burning engine.
“It appears it had disintegrated and subsequently left the aircraft,” he said.
Little said investigators completed accounting for all of the pieces of the plane that remain on Wednesday. He also confirmed there was no last-minute radio communication from the pilots.
“There was no distress call,” he said. “When you are in a situation low to the ground and you have an emergency, the last thing you try to do is communicate.”
But the investigators are baffled about what actually caused the jet engine to fail.  
“The cause of the fire, that is the question. And that might not be forthcoming for some time,” Little said at a briefing Wednesday night.
“I asked the operator if they had ever experienced anything like this and they haven’t,” he said.
Wildfire Today wrote more about the P2V aircraft and the engines HERE.
A 7-minute video of still photos of Tanker 09 is on YouTube.  It was uploaded to YouTube in December, 2007


Neptune Aviation press release

Neptune Aviation, the operator of Tanker 09 that crashed on Monday, issued this press release on Wednesday. Our condolences go out to the families and co-workers.


Press Release Neptune Aviation Services, Inc.


It is with profound sorrow that we report the loss of three of our Neptune team members and most trusted employees in the tragic crash of Tanker 09 in Stead, Nevada on Monday September 1, 2008. These brave men gave their lives fighting wildfire. They left us doing what they loved to do.

Our employees mean everything to us. Right now, we are focused on taking care of their families. They are all in our hearts and prayers.

In loving memory we express our gratitude to these fine men:

Gene Wahlstrom was the Captain of T09 and Chief Pilot for Neptune Aviation. He began his professional flying career as a crop duster and combined that job with drag racing and working as a lineman for the power company. He began his history in airtankers with Black Hills Aviation out of Alamogordo, New Mexico and has over 35 years in the aviation industry. In the early 80’s, he decided to join the US Forest Service as a Lead Plane Pilot and worked his way into a supervisory position. He spent many years and developed many friendships with individuals at the Forest Service. However, the airtanker industry was calling Gene’s name and he answered by joining the Neptune team in 1999. Gene was an excellent leader and mentor for many people at Neptune. One of Gene’s greatest qualities was his loyalty to his friends, family and Neptune Aviation. He was a great communicator and was an excellent Chief Pilot, respected by all who knew him. Gene is greatly loved and will be remembered as a kind, genuine, accomplished and dedicated member of our Neptune family.

Greg Gonsioroski, “Gonzo”, was the First Officer of T09 and has been with Neptune for fifteen years. Greg began his career at Neptune as an A&P mechanic. He continued on to get his pilot’s license. He flew support aircraft during the summer months and was a mechanic in the shop during the off-season. He was able to gather flight hours and shortly thereafter began training as a First Officer for Neptune. Greg was dedicated to becoming an airtanker Captain and was well on his way. He received his type rating for the P2V in the spring of 2006. Greg was a superior mechanic as well as a dedicated and knowledgeable First Officer. He was a family man with great integrity. He loved his wife and three children and always offered to share family moments with coworkers and friends. Greg made a lasting impression on his friends at Neptune as a kind, fun loving, caring and competent man.

Zachary Vander Griend was one of the newest members of Neptune’s team and was welcomed warmly into the fold. He came to us as an eager, driven, and energetic A&P mechanic. He was as happy to be with Neptune as we were to have him. Zachary was also a pilot and dreamed of flying from the early age of two. He got his pilot’s license when he was seventeen and spent much of his time in volunteer programs such as the Young Eagles. He made a great impression on everyone he came in contact with. Zachary was eager to do his job and a joy to be around.

On behalf of all of us at Neptune, we want to express our deepest gratitude and love for the crew of T09 and their families. Gene, Greg and Zach will live forever in the memories of everyone at Neptune Aviation.

Wildfire news: September 3, 2008

California: Report released about cause of October fires

The cause and origin investigations by CalFire of three of the major fires in southern California that scorched hundreds of thousands of acres last October concluded months ago that powerlines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires. But a report just released by the state’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division of the state utilities commision confirms these findings and further accuses the power company, San Diego Gas and Electric, of refusing to fully cooperate with the investigation.
From the San Diego Union:
The 32-page analysis not only cites failures by SDG&E but also by Cox Communications, which maintained lashing wires blamed for sparking the Guejito fire. The report calls on the Public Utilities Commission to further investigate the extent of violations and recommends rule changes to avert future fire danger.
Investigators singled out SDG&E for delaying the final report, saying the power company failed to fully cooperate by not making witnesses and evidence available.
One utility official “instructed me to contact SDG&E’s attorneys to determine when CPSD staff would be allowed to interview SDG&E personnel,” lead investigator Mahmoud Intably wrote.
Intably recommended the utilities commission make special note of SDG&E’s lack of cooperation and issue a separate order clarifying that utilities must “provide immediate access to witnesses, sites or any other evidence requested” by regulators.
SDG&E issued a statement rejecting virtually every finding from safety inspectors.
“This report . . . is full of speculation and faulty conclusions, with sparse evidence – if any – to support its claims,” the statement read.
In a separate statement, Cox Communications also said the report’s conclusions were not supported by evidence.
The company said the Cox Communications wire identified as the cause of the Guejito fire “was fully intact prior to the extreme Santa Ana winds, which caused SDG&E’s lines and our lines to come into contact.”
Cal Fire said in July that a Cox lashing wire broke loose and connected with an SDG&E power line, sparking the Guejito fire. Lashing wires are thin strands used to bundle cables and other wires together.
Intably said he found other broken lashing wires during his investigation, indicating the problem might be more widespread. He suggested commissioners strengthen the rules regulating such wires.
The Witch Creek fire combined with the Guejito fire and killed two people, burned almost 200,000 acres and destroyed 1,141 homes. The Rice Canyon fire charred almost 9,500 acres and destroyed more than 200 houses.
Hundreds of plaintiffs are suing SDG&E to recover damages caused by the three fires.