Newspaper story: not enough firefighters

Reporters for the Mercury News in Silicon Valley in California reviewed Incident Status Summary forms, ICS-209’s, from many of the California fires and harvested narrative comments from the forms regarding the availability of resources. The entire article is worth reading, but here are a few excerpts:

“A shortage of equipment and manpower has contributed to the spread of fires across the state, according to frustrated fire commanders trying to subdue the state’s 320 raging wildland blazes.

Internal reports from experts out in the field reveal repeated requests for additional help – and concern for their firefighters’ lives.

“All fires on the Complex are minimally staffed . . . Due to limited resources, there are some divisions unstaffed,” according to an incident status summary by Ron Roberts at the Shasta and Trinity County fire, the site of 34 injuries. “Operational adjustments have been made due to the lack of resources.”

In Kern County’s Piute Fire, commander Chris Hoff asked repeatedly for more officers, writing “Lack of overhead positions continue to hamper suppression efforts.” In a Humboldt County fire, called Hell’s Half Complex, commander Jess Secrest wrote that “Continued inability to fill critical resource orders increases the fire’s ability to enter residential areas, expected later this week.”

More than 700,000 acres have burned – and 99 homes lost – since a series of wildfires scorched the state. The destruction – particularly the expansion of a blaze into several Shasta-based towns – prompted the governor to deploy the state’s National Guard, the first time in 31 years.

On Thursday afternoon, secretary of the Homeland Security Michael Chertoff promised to provide federal helicopters to dump water. He also said he would send out-of-state fire fighters to train incoming National Guardsmen.”

[…]

“The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which supervises staffing of the nation’s fires, has issued a report warning that California’s needs were “stretching the national response capability.”

“The situation in California, particularly the northern part of the state, is perhaps unprecedented and the needs for crews, aircraft, equipment and support are already acute,” it said. The group cautioned that “The rate of ‘unable to fill’ orders is increasing.”

Documents called “incident status summaries,” submitted by on-site commanders to U.S. Forestry Service and Cal Fire authorities, show repeated requests for help.

In the Canyon Fire, in Plumas County, two blazes have been reduced to “patrol status,” with no one to fight them, according to Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley. She wrote: “Lack of sufficient suppression resources, especially hand crews. . .Multiple crews are reaching their maximum work assignment. . .This reduction in resources may affect the predicted containment date and strategies if replacement crews are not assigned.”

At Hell’s Half Complex, “fire growth has continued. . .five fewer crews being available to work today’s shift.”

The number of concerns written into official reports signals how extreme the situation has become, some said.

[…]

An estimated 84 wildfires in California are burning “unstaffed,” according to the national coordinating group, “and have the potential to burn through much of the summer and into the fall until rainfall increases.”

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Meanwhile, Governor Schwarzenegger today sent a letter to President Bush requesting help with the fires in California. Some of his requests include:

  • Federal active duty forces to provide additional Type II firefighting handcrews to meet shortages;
  • Additional out-of-state federal firefighters to provide training for National Guard personnel as Type II handcrews;
  • Increasing the “Maximum Efficiency Level” (MEL) for the U.S. Forest Service to 100 percent.

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I wonder if the federal bean counters are still being assigned to all the large fires with the mission of nagging Incident Commanders to fight fire on the cheap?

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Today the U.S. Forest Service sent out their almost-annual “let my people go” letter, reminding managers that:

Our foundation principles guide us to support local fire emergencies as a priority over resource targets. Non-local fire emergencies can be supported at the local line officer’s discretion…. Line officers must support these fire suppression efforts and ensure employees are available to support the current national response to wildfires.”

Sometimes the letter is referred to as “The Moses Letter”.

And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.
— Exodus 5: 1 (KJV)

44 Australia and New Zealand firefighters coming to help the U.S.

On Saturday, U.S. time, 44 Australian and New Zealand firefighters will depart for the United States to assist with the wildland fires in California. The contingent will travel to the National Interagency Fire Center for a briefing and to be issued equipment.

From there they will be deployed to various fires, most likely in California. They will be working two 14-day assignments with a break in between. The entire expedition for them, including travel, briefing, fire assignments, and R&R, will last about 40 days.

We are always honored to accept the help of our bushfire bretheren from down under. What is this, the 3rd or 4th time they have sent a contingent over? I wonder if this is the earliest in the season they have done this? It might be a long summer. Pace yourself.

Update, July 11:
They will be sending Division Supervisors, Task Force Leaders, Helicopter Managers, and liaison personnel. This is the fifth time in the last eight years firefighters from down under have traveled to the U.S. to assist with fires. The last time was in 2006.

Photo courtesy of The Courier
Thanks to Dick for the tip.

Piute Fire Update, July 10

Since we last updated information about the Piute fire, south of Lake Isabella, California, it has grown on the north side, but is still quite some distance from primary roads and major population centers. It is 33,992 acres and is 28% contained.

Kern County FD reported this morning:

Yesterday, the fire was active in the northeast corner near Cortez Canyon and Dry Meadow. Crews continue to work on establishing a northern control line in the Erskine Creek and the Bob Rabbit Canyon areas utilizing hand crews supported by retardant drops; indirect control line on the northeast corner has been completed.

Dozers and hand crews have completed the control line on the western edge of the fire and will conduct a small burnout operation today. Firefighters have made excellent progress with direct control efforts on the eastern perimeter near Kelso Valley. There were no smokes visible on the south flank of the fire yesterday; crews plan to burnout a small piece of line along Piute Mountain Road today.

Ground crews are well supported by aerial resources with water bucket and retardant drops; in addition to the six assigned helicopters, eleven air tankers are on order today.

This map was updated at 0900 today. Click on it to see a larger version.

CA: BTU or Butte Lightning Complex, July 10

The Butte lightning complex near Concow and Paradise, California, was moderately active during the night. It still has not crossed the West Branch of the Feather River as of 7 a.m. this morning, which would open the door to the fire moving into Paradise, but it burned intensely in places east of the river. The fire is still just east of Paradise, and about 12 miles north of Oroville. It burned through and around Concow, taking out about 50 houses. Evacuation information for Paradise can be found on the city’s web site. CalFire’s web site for the fire is still broken, due probably to not being able to handle the load.

The map below shows heat, in red, orange, and black, detected by satellites, with the red areas being the most recently burned. The yellow lines are the latest perimeters uploaded by the incident management teams. Click on the map to see a larger version.

CA: Basin fire, July 10

The Basin fire near Big Sur is now 90,114 acres and is 41% contained.

South Side:
It is largely symbolic at this point, but the Basin fire has bumped up against the Indians fire. The fires met about a mile north of the fire line on the Rodeo Flats trail.

I am hearing that the fire burned intensely late yesterday near the remaining open line on the Rodeo Flats trail, just south of where the two fires met. There is a chance that the fire burned across the line and progressed 2 miles south almost to the Cook Springs campground near the Carrizo trail, but this is not confirmed. If this is true, it is going to significantly delay the containment of the fire on the south side. But there are secondary lines in this area that the firefighters can fall back to.

North side:
The fire did not spread a great deal on the north side with the exception of the firing the crews are accomplishing along the dozer line. Working to the east, they progressed about a mile past Devils Peak, getting into even rougher, more remote terrain.

East side:
There was no major fire movement on the east side, except for areas near Tassajara. The fire is approaching the road to Tassajara 1.6 miles north of the facility at Wildcat campground. It is also still spreading a mile to the west, and 1.4 miles to the south at Willow Springs campground.

The folks at Tassajara decided to evacuate yesterday, and it’s probably a good thing. At best, it will be extremely smoky there for a while… maybe a long while. At the worst, well, we don’t want to think about that right now.

East side update, July 10 @ 10:45 PT:
We received a call today from a Wildfire Today reader who said that 5 of the Tassajara folks are still there. We confirmed this on their web site. Apparently as the entire group of 19 drove out, they encountered a check point and were told that if they left, they would not be able to return, so five of them went back to Tassajara.

Someone who posted on Wildlandfire.com’s Hotlist Forum said:

In listening to scanner traffic the people at The Zen Center off Tassajara Road decided to leave as the fire approached from the north and west. This is presenting a problem for the crews on scene as the fire has become very established in the Church Creek Area. The East Basin (Air Attack) Diverted all the (air tankers) to this area to try to buy time for them to evacuate by vehicle. Fire has spotted half mile ahead presenting more problems. They have 2 MAFFS ships enroute also.

If the report from the forum is true, it sounds like they waited too long to evacuate, and all of the air tankers on the fire had to be diverted from their missions to cool the fire down near the road enough to allow them to drive through the fire area. I hope the remaining five will be OK at Tassajara. And I hope that the firefighters that had been using the air tankers didn’t have problems when they lost them to protect the people driving out on the road.

Thanks, caller, for the update.

Big Sur side:
The mandatory evacuation for the Big Sur valley has been lifted and a few businesses are beginning to open for the locals and firefighters. The valley is still only open to residents, but the agencies are re-evaluating the closure and there is hope that the public will be allowed into the area around the first of next week, but that decision has not yet been made. This is a real hardship on the businesses, who rely on the summer season for the majority of their income.

The firefighters:
The next 5-6 miles of the open line on the north side, firing from the dozer line, is going to be exceedingly difficult, tactically and logistically. The task these firefighters have been doing, and especially what they have done recently and will be doing over the next several days, is as difficult as it gets. It is very steep, remote, heavily vegetated country, loaded with poison oak.

I was on the El Cariso Hot Shots when we fought fire in the Big Sur area on the Molera fire in 1972. That memory is seared into my brain as one of the most challenging assignments I have ever experienced as a firefighter. We need to appreciate the work these crews are doing, and we need to find ways to thank them. They are putting out our fires as we sit comfortably at home in front of our computers.

Fire information:
The Los Padres National Forest has stopped putting fire updates on their web page, shrewdly deciding to put all of their eggs into the InciWeb basket. For a week or so, InciWeb was not able to handle the capacity and was out of service, then it worked for a couple of days, and this morning it is out again. Maybe it is just a temporary outage, but for now, there is no official fire information available on the Internet. Again.

The map below shows heat, in red, orange, and black, detected by satellites at about 1 a.m. on Wednesday, with the red areas being the most recently burned. The yellow lines are the latest perimeters uploaded by the incident management teams. Click on the map to see a larger version.


The map below was current at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday.

CA: BTU or Butte Lightning Complex

The Camp fire, part of the BTU complex east of Chico, CA near Paradise, continued to move slowly south on Wednesday. Strong down canyon winds were forecast for Wednesday night, prompting additional evacuations for Jarbo Gap, Yankee Hill and Big Bend.

This map, maintained by the Chico Enterprise Record newspaper, has a great deal of information, but we can’t vouch for it’s accuracy. But the CalFire web site is having problems due to very heavy visitation.

The size of the fire according to CalFire is 49,000 acres and it is 45% contained. Burning embers have been landing in Paradise and areas south of the fire during the day on Wednesday, according to our contact in the area.