Court of Appeals: backfire was "discretionary function"

On the Spade fire in 2000 in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, Montana, firefighters ignited a backfire in order to keep the fire from jumping a highway and possibly entrapping firefighters on other fires and threatening other homes and property. In 2002, 114 families filed a $54 million lawsuit against the federal government claiming that the backfire burned their property and homes.

In a very important decision that will affect wildland firefighters, a Court of Appeals just affirmed a District Court judge’s opinion that the actions of the firefighters was within their “discretionary function”. More information is at The Missoulian.

Roundup of Fire News, April 22, 2008

Firefighter burned on wildland fire in North Dakota

From MSNBC today:

Burke County, North Dakota, authorities say a firefighter has been flown to a Minnesota burn center with injuries after battling a blaze that burned nearly 1,500 acres near Columbus.


The sheriff’s office says 28-year-old Mitchell Strom of Columbus suffered burns to his face and other extremities. Sheriff Barry Jager says the fire started Saturday afternoon when a man used a torch to cut a swather to fit on a trailer.

Thirty-three-year-old Cory Klitzke of Stanley was cited for violating Burke County’s burn ban. The violation carries a $500 fine. A barn and a garage were destroyed but the house on the farm was saved.

Firefighter entrapped and burned in Virginia


A firefighter with the Virginia Department of Forestry was badly burned on Saturday when he was overrun by a fire while operating a dozer. Steve Morris has third-degree burns and is being treated at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Two other firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation injuries.

New Mexico and Arizona wildland fires

The 4,130 acre Trigo fire, on the Cibola National Forest southeast of Albuquerque, has burned nine homes, nine outbuildings and two recreational vehicles. Evacuations have occurred around the towns of Manzano and Torreon. Containment is reported to be 27%.

The Alamo fire, 13 miles west of Nogales, Arizona, has burned 5,072 acres in the United States and Mexico; 300 acres are on the Mexico side of the border. According to a report on InciWeb:

Mexican bomberos (firefighters) from the national commission of forestry, as well as the chief of civil protection for the City of Nogales, Sonora, are working closely with an Arizona incident management team and interpreters. Officials from both countries have established a unified operations effort, which entails a joint planning process.

California teenagers plead guilty to starting wildland fire


Two teenagers from Julian, CA yesterday plead guilty of starting a campfire that escaped and ignited the 850-acre Angel fire in September. The fire destroyed one house and part of a church retreat. From the San Diego Union:

Francisco Javier Abarca, 19, and Mario J.W. DeLuca, 18, pleaded guilty in El Cajon Superior Court to one misdemeanor count of letting a fire escape, Deputy District Attorney Gordon Paul Davis said.

In addition, DeLuca pleaded guilty to an unrelated residential burglary charge, Davis said.

Judge Peter C. Deddeh sentenced DeLuca to three years’ probation on the fire charge, and he faces up to six years in prison on the burglary charge at a hearing May 19, Davis said.

Judge DeAnn M. Salcido placed Abarca on three years’ probation and fined him $500, Davis said.

The two also may face a $3 million bill at the May 19 hearing from Cal Fire for the costs of battling the blaze, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jim Garrett said.


North Carolina wildland fire


An 800-acre fire in the Pisgah National Forest north of Marion in western North Carolina is 50% contained. A backfire or burnout planned could increase the size to 2,000 acres. Resources from Idaho, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are assisting on the fire.

NY: Minnewaska state park fire update

The fire activity on the 3,000 acre fire in Minnewaska state park 40 miles northwest of New York City has decreased significantly over the last two days. Cooler temperatures, higher humidities, and fog have worked in favor of the firefighters.

They have the use of four water-dropping helicopters–two from the NY National Guard and two from the state police, each carrying 100-500 gallons. Personnel and equipment from 30 fire agencies have been assigned to the fire which is 75-80% contained.
The map shows heat sources as detected by satellites within the last 24 hours. This shows much less heat than the map 24 hours earlier.

UPDATE: April 22
The fire acreage has increased to 3,500, primarily due to a 400-acre burnout the firefighters conducted. But other than the burnout, the fire is not increasing in size. They are putting in dozer lines, sometimes up to 100 feet wide on the west side. Today firefighters are calling the fire 100% contained.

NY: Minnewaska state park

Two days ago a 30-acre fire about 40 miles northwest of New York City was reported to be under control, but today it spread to over 3,000 acres. Most of the fire is in Minnewaska state park. This is the largest fire in the state park in the last 50 years. Approximately 250 firefighters from 27 local and volunteer departments are working on the fire.

More information from the Daily Freeman:

The 20,000-acre park and part of U.S. Route 44/state Route 55 have remained closed, and over 245 personnel from various state and local agencies were on the scene Saturday, trying to beat back the blaze.

The forest fire is almost entirely contained within the boundaries of the park, but residents of the small Kerhonkson Heights community, which has about 40 homes, were told to prepare for evacuation if necessary, according to Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Yancey Roy. Although no evacuation order has been issued, firefighters are taking precautions to protect residents.

“We have virtually a fire truck in every driveway,” Roy said.

The fire began Thursday afternoon, and was reportedly contained at about 30 acres that night. But the flames continued to spread, reaching 200 acres Friday afternoon, 1,000 acres Friday night, and 2,300 acres by Saturday morning, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.


The map shows heat sources as detected by thermal satellites.


Cancer cluster among firefighters

The Firegeezer blog, which always has excellent information about the broad topic of firefighting, had a recent post about a cancer cluster in Queensland, Australia. In part:

” […] Firefighters assigned to the station have a 62% higher rate of brain cancer than the rest of the state.”

Coincidentally, two days ago there was a news story containing preliminary research findings that linked brain cancer with polluted air, and specifically diesel exhaust. Firefighters have a hard time avoiding both.
firefighter smoke
Here is an excerpt from the story about the research:


Dr. Julia Ljubimova found something disturbing when she probed the brains of rats exposed to air pollution: The dirty air appeared to trigger changes indicating the earliest stage of brain tumors.

Ljubimova, an oncologist and researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, stressed that she is not ready to say air pollution is a cause of brain cancer.

“I don’t want to scare anyone, because this is preliminary data,” she said. “But we found something very important.”

Her work suggests that fine particles like those found in diesel soot can switch on firefighter smoke structure firethe tumor genes that many people inherit, jump-starting the disease process that results in brain tumors.

Hundreds of studies have linked air pollution to early deaths, heart attacks, reduced lung function, lung cancer and various other health problems. Ljubimova is among a handful of scientists who are focused on finding out what air pollution does to people’s brains.
Photos by Bill Gabbert