How the media covers wildland fires

The media usually has a tough time reporting on wildland fires. Unlike a structure fire confined to a relatively small geographic area, a vegetation fire can be spread out over many square miles. It can be difficult for even the Incident Commander to maintain situational awareness.

Pity the poor, inexperienced cub reporter who arrives at a rapidly expanding urban interface fire and is expected to size up the whole incident within minutes, usually from standing in one spot at a distance from the fire.

It can take years for a professional firefighter to learn the jargon. We still have reporters calling air tankers “Borate bombers”. Borate has not been used in air tankers since it was briefly tested on fires in southern California in 1956 and found to be a soil sterilant.

Today I was amused at two examples of how the media covers wildland firefighting.

1. A news anchor on CNN was talking live via satellite with a reporter at the Santa Anita fire in southern California. In asking her a question about the 490-acre urban interface fire, the anchor said:

“…. I know these things have a tendency to spread….. “

Well thanks, CNN, for the fire behavior lesson. Glaciers have a “tendency to spread”.

2. In today’s edition of the Rapid City Journal the newspaper had a front page story about volunteer fire departments. The story included three pictures on the front page of volunteers engaged in wildland fire training. (It must have been a slow news day in the Black Hills.) The captions of two of the pictures had these phrases:

“Crews practiced digging and clearing forest ground cover to create breaks where hoses can be run.”


“…a volunteer firefighter in Johnson Siding works with a ground crew practicing clearing forest ground cover to make a path for hoses.”

Well…..rarely do firefighters have to cut a path in order to put in a hose lay. I have only had to do it a few times in extremely dense chaparral. If you can crawl through the vegetation, you can put in a hose lay. Often a hose lay or a “wet line” is put in instead of constructing or digging a hand line.

In the grand scheme of things, these little errors in the newspaper don’t make a lot of difference to the average reader, but to the knowledgeable, it would make you wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the article.

In some areas of the country wildland fire agencies put on a 1-day training class for reporters who cover fire. It covers topics like, safety for reporters, jargon, where a reporter can go and where they can’t go, a little about fire behavior, descriptions of firefighting resources, fire organization, and sometimes even how to use a fire shelter.

If your agency puts on training like this for reporters, leave a comment with a few details.

Santa Anita fire near Sierra Madre, California

The news is full of coverage of the 490-acre fire in southern California near the city of Sierra Madre. About half of the acres are in the city, and the other half are in the Angeles National Forest. Approximately 1,000 people have been evacuated from Sierra Madre residences.

The fire made a run in the early morning hours, crossing some fire lines, coming within a few yards of houses, and sending an ember shower onto the roofs of some homes. This reduced the containment from 30% to 23% as of 9 AM local time today.

HERE is a link to a live web camera on Mount Wilson above the fire.

Photo courtesy of CNN; map produced by the incident, 4/27/2008 @ 2000.

Aerial firefighting in Chile

Here is a video of some excellent single engine air tanker work in Chile. The pilots appear to be very skilled, making very accurate drops. Almost all of the video was taken from the air. The sound track, all music, is very loud.

I used Babel Fish to translate the description… it’s pretty rough:

“Forest fire video in Chile this I complete veranno of the 2008, from its base in aerodromo of Litral in Quillon these airships salian day to day to fight fires next to the terrestrial brigades and firemen with the support of conaf.”

Massachusetts: Dog reports fire, saves house

Robert Lane and his dog, Max

In Ipswich, Massachusetts yesterday, a dog escaped from his leash, discovered a fire, then like Lassie, barked at his 13-year old master and led him to the fire.

Like a scene out of “Lassie,” Robert Lane, 13, followed his barking dog yesterday to a brush fire burning in the woods behind the family’s home, then ran to a vernal pool to soak his T-shirt in water to try to put out the 10-foot circle of flames.

“I just wanted to get it out as fast as possible,” Robert said.

Discovering the fire was bigger than he thought, Robert ran home to tell his mother, who called the Fire Department at 12:30 p.m. If not detected early by Robert and the family dog, Max, who had escaped its leash, the brush fire could have easily spread and damaged the home and construction business located on their property at 285 High St., David Lane said.

“It could’ve been 10 times worse,” David Lane said by phone last night. “If it wasn’t for the dog getting off the leash, we wouldn’t have a house.”

Firefighters from six communities were able to contain the fire to a 400-by-800 foot area of woods, about three-quarters of an acre, on property across from the Dow Brook Reservoir, said Ipswich firefighter Lee Prentiss. Lane’s antique horse-drawn manure spreader was destroyed, but an estimated 30 to 40 pieces of his equipment were not damaged.

From the Salem News. Photo courtesy of the Daily News.

CO: Details about SEAT crash

More information has been released about the single engine air tanker that crashed on April 15 near Fort Carson in Colorado.

Gert Marais reported a mayday and said, “I’m going down,” just before his single-engine air tanker crashed while fighting the 9,800-acre Fort Carson fire last week, the National Transportation Safety Board reports.

But the preliminary report from the NTSB does not identify a crash cause.


Marais, 42, of Fort Benton, Mont., (see photo below) was a pilot and mechanic and worked as a contractor for Aero Applicators of Sterling.

The Colorado State Forest Service had called the company to help fight the fire.

Two planes left Sterling at 5 p.m. with full fuel tanks, 500 gallons of water and Class A foam, the report said. Marais was flying an Air Tractor AT-602.

When the planes arrived at the site, a U.S. Forest Service agent on the ground maderadio contact to give the pilots directions.

The agent worked with Marais to do a practice run over the drop site, a line of pine trees to the north of a gravel road bordering the wildfire. The goal was to douse the trees in case the fire jumped the road.

Marais flew over the site, the NTSB report said, with the other plane about 500 feet overhead as a spotter.

Then Marais made the real drop. He flew over the top of a tall pine tree and released his load 500 feet west of the target, right on top of the U.S. Forest Service agent and his car.

A second or two later, the agent told investigators he heard Marais report a series of maydays and say, “I’m going down.”

The agent watched the plane’s right wing hit the ground on a grassy hill just off Colorado 115. The time was 6:10 p.m.

The tanker landed upright, with the right wing and fuselage crushed. The U.S. Forest Service agent told investigators that wind gusts at the time were 30 to 40 knots.

Fire investigators with the U.S. Army and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office have yet to release the cause and specific point of origin of the fire on the base, which was declared fully contained Wednesday.

A funeral for Marais, who was a native of South Africa, will be Friday in Montana.

His wife, Esme, and the couple’s children had planned to move to Sterling this summer.

The couple were married 10 years ago this month. He was already caring for three of his children from a previous marriage, ages 19, 17 and 12, and together he and Esme had a 5-year-old.

Photos and excerpt courtesy of the Denver Post.