Wildfire smoke Sunday, and a forecast for Monday

Above: The map shows the distribution of smoke from wildfires at 3:54 p.m. MDT September 10, 2017.

(Originally published at 5:45 p.m. MDT September 10, 2017)

The map above shows the distribution of wildfire smoke Sunday afternoon. Below are two different forecasts for Monday.

smoke map September 11, 2017 wildfire
This a forecast for the distribution of smoke from wildfires at 5 p.m. MDT September 11, 2017. NOAA.
smoke map September 11, 2017 wildfire
This a forecast for the distribution of smoke from wildfires at 1 p.m. MDT September 11, 2017. (Good luck figuring out the nine shades of red in the legend.) BlueSky.

Clouds and high humidity affect Eagle Creek fire in Columbia River Gorge

Mapping flights the last two days were cancelled due to low clouds.

helicopter eagle creek fire columbia river
A helicopter carries water from the Columbia River to the Eagle Creek Fire September 8, 2017. Inciweb photo.

The growth of the Eagle Creek wildfire burning along the Columbia River in northern Oregon 11 miles northeast of Gresham has slowed during the last two days due to cooler and more humid weather. On Friday the relative humidity at Cascade Locks never got below 64 percent. A couple of weather stations just south of the fire recorded small amounts of rain early Saturday morning.

The forecast for calls for a 17 to 30 percent chance of showers through Saturday night, but warmer and drier conditions will prevail Sunday through Tuesday.

Strong winds out of the west at 15 gusting to 25 mph are expected Saturday, but the humidity will remain above 90 percent.

The information below is from the Incident Management Team at about 11 a.m. PDT September 9:

Winds shifted Friday, blowing predominantly upriver out of the west and increasing fire activity to the east. Two new Level 1 (Ready) Evacuation Notices were issued by the Hood River Sheriff’s Department for portions of Hood River County on Friday afternoon.

Firefighters performed a strategic burnout near Cascade Locks to protected endangered residential and commercial structures. They continued to work along Interstate 84 and Hwy 30 using heavy equipment to strengthen firelines and protect structures, avoiding sensitive areas like fish hatcheries. Helicopters were dipping water out of the Columbia River to assist firefighters working south of the Interstate. Helicopters also provided assistance to crews working to contain the Archer Fire in Washington. Overnight, Oregon State Fire Marshall (OSFM) structure protection crews continued to mop up along I-84 and in Corbett while burnout operations were held on the east end. Due to increased moisture in the air and no substantial wind, the fire perimeter remained mostly unchanged overnight.

Weather conditions are expected to be favorable for firefighting activities today with lower temperatures, higher humidity and lighter winds. Activities today will emphasize protecting structures along Interstate 84 and Hwy 30.

OSFM crews will continue to support burnout operations. They will be completing patrols to extinguish hot spots to the east and maintain containment lines in Cascade Locks. All aircraft are available for use today. Firefighters will be scouting on the eastern side of the fire in Hood River County for natural barriers like roads and trails to create a line of defense for homes the in that area. Preparations are underway for a strategic burnout to protect the community of Corbett on the fire’s western edge, however that burnout may be delayed due to the moist conditions expected today. All firefighting efforts are aimed at restoring normal activities along the Columbia River and the Interstate 84/Hwy 30 corridor.

While today’s weather is giving firefighters a bit of breathing room, conditions in upcoming days will revert to drier, windier conditions. As always firefighter and public safety are the primary objective while fighting the Eagle Creek Fire.

Resources Assigned: 4 Type 1 (Hotshot) crews, 11 Type 2 crews and 5 Type 2 Initial Attack Crews; 104 Engines; 12 helicopters; 987 Personnel

Uintah Fire in Utah: 18 structures damaged or destroyed

The fire burned 619 acres.

Teams of fire, structural, and law enforcement personnel have completed an evaluation of the structures that were affected by the Uintah Fire that started September 9 southeast of Ogden, Utah near the community of Uintah.

Their findings:

  • 3 Homes destroyed
  • 2 Homes damaged
  • 1 Mixed commercial property damaged
  • 8 Other structures damaged (sheds, outbuildings etc.)
  • 4 Other structures destroyed (sheds, outbuildings etc.)

Total: 18 destroyed or damaged structures

Strong down canyon winds pushed the fire rapidly to the west, burning into a residential area and along the Interstate 84 corridor.

Many homes, however, were saved, as you can see in the videos below:

On Friday the Weber Fire district reported that there were some remaining hot spots, it was 85 percent contained, and still assigned to the fire were 10 engines and a total of 50 personnel.

Pending federal appropriations bill includes increase for suppression, decrease for volunteer assistance

Opinion: How SHOULD the federal fire agencies be funded?

Above: The Washington, DC headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MDT September 8, 2017)

The wildland fire appropriations bill that is being considered in the House of Representatives does not have any earth-shaking changes but it includes slight increases for fire suppression and fuels management, while State and Volunteer Fire Assistance would be cut.

H.R. 3354 would determine the amount of funding for about a dozen agencies, most of them within the Department of the Interior — including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service,  National Park Service, and Forest Service.

Andy's Hump Fire, Idaho
Andy’s Hump Fire, Idaho. Inciweb.

It is being debated in committees and will undoubtedly change before it is approved in the House and Senate and signed by the President, but here are a few of the highlights related to wildland fire. The numbers are the appropriations for the Forest Service only.

  • The bill will again use the rolling 10-year average of fire suppression expenses as part of the computation for the new budget. Since the average went up, the bill includes a $15 million increase in suppression.
  • Hazardous fuel management increases by $3 million (less than 1 percent) to $393 million.
  • Within the Forest Service, hazardous fuel management funds will be moved from the Suppression account to the National Forest System Appropriation, as requested by the agency.
  • State Fire Assistance went down by $2 million to $76 million.
  • Volunteer Fire Assistance decreased by $1 million to $14 million.

The legislation will get rid of the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME). It was created in 2008 intended to provide dedicated funding for suppressing fires and hazardous fuel reduction treatments. The way it was managed by Congress over the years made it irrelevant and will now be collapsed into the Suppression account.

dollar signThere is still no fix for the “fire borrowing” issue that results in funds being taken from non-fire accounts when suppression expenses are exhausted. These accounts are usually reimbursed by Congress, but it can happen months later, which can cause chaos in programs unrelated to fire.

Our Opinion

Obviously the fire borrowing train wreck has to be fixed. This ridiculous situation should be a no-brainer.

Fires are getting larger, causing major disruptions in the lives of many taxpayers. Basing the funds for suppression on the 10-year average cost too often does not work.

The 10-year average of the acres burned in the U.S. to this date (September 8) is 5,515,998, while 8,036,858 acres have burned to date this year (National Interagency Fire Center, September 8, 2017). That is a 48 percent increase over the average.

Air Quality Index fire smoke
Air Quality Index at 9 a.m. PDT September 8, 2017 for areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Smoke in this case is the main culprit.

Smoke from wildfires is affecting the health of millions. Often this summer the air quality in large areas of the Northwest has been classified according to air quality monitoring stations as Unsafe for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, or Hazardous. A friend who has respiratory issues in South Dakota, hundreds of miles from any large fires, has been seriously affected by wildfire smoke this summer. Some families are having to take their children with asthma to hospitals when the smoke invades their community.

meeting Eagle Creek Fire
Community meeting at Hood River, Oregon for residents affected by the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, September 7, 2017. Inciweb.

More successful fire suppression would reduce the smoke impacts on millions of people.

General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.
General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. November 1988. Wikipedia.

Not all fires are aggressively fought by the federal agencies. We can debate whether that is the best way to manage forests, but even if there is no change in that policy, more can be done to keep new fires from becoming large — and we can more aggressively suppress all unwanted fires. Successful battlefield Generals, including Norman Schwarzkopf, understand the concept.

A Wikipedia article about the General describes planning in 1991 for Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq:

U.S. commanders from the beginning wanted a quick conflict characterized by decisive, overwhelming force, as opposed to the gradual escalation of U.S. involvement as had been seen in Vietnam. Schwarzkopf in particular was very adamant that many of the policies governing military operations in Vietnam, especially slow escalation of air power and troop force, not recur. His plan for direct and overwhelming force was initially criticized in Washington as uncreative.

The fighting was basically over in less than 100 hours.

The same concepts relating to air power and troop force can be applied to fighting another enemy — unwanted wildfires. A timid initial attack on a new fire can allow it to spread to the point where no suppression attempts will be successful until there are major changes in the weather, fuels, or topography.

Dr. Gabbert prescription new fires magafires prevent

Some of us remember when aggressive initial attack was the norm in the federal agencies rather than the exception. In the short run it costs more to dispatch an overwhelming force to a new fire than using a timid approach with few resources arriving in the first 10 to 30 minutes, but it can prevent later expenses of tens of millions of dollars — and also prevent hundreds of firefighters from being tied up on one fire for weeks or months, as well as the loss of private property, evacuations, smoke, and timber being destroyed.

The cost and disruption caused by evacuations from fires is rarely openly discussed, but the act of packing belongings and transporting a family to another location for multiple days can be an extreme hardship, not only because of the inconvenience, but also the cost for the evacuees, and the businesses whose customers temporarily live somewhere else or avoid the area. It would not surprise me if an aggressive attorney recruited evacuees who want to sue to recover their costs, claiming the fire could have or should have been suppressed before it grew large.

Funding the federal fire agencies and managing them so that they CAN and WILL as a matter of policy attack new fires aggressively, becomes increasingly important as firefighters are battling multiple megafires each year.

They need to have the technology that will enable them to fight their enemy more efficiently and safely. Drones can provide real time information about the behavior and location of fires. The small aircraft can also serve as radio repeaters for voice communication and location trackers for firefighting resources. These safety-related concepts can help to provide the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters.

Aerial firefighting resources, including helicopters and air tankers, are most effective when used during the first hour of a new fire. In order to have them reliably available for initial attack the U.S. Forest Service should contract for or operate 40 large or very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts. And instead of reducing the number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts from 34 to 28 as was done this year, there should be at least 45.

(Update at 10:22 p.m MDT September 8, 2017:  The USA Today has an article about the USFS budget, including quotes from the Secretary of Agriculture and … the article above.)

Satellite detects heat from wildfires, September 7

(Originally published at 6:36 p.m. MDT September 7, 2017.)

Large wildfires Washington Oregon northern California
Large wildfires currently active in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. The red, yellow, and orange dots represent heat detected by a satellite in the 24 hour period ending at 10 a.m. MDT September 6.

These maps show heat that was detected by a satellite on wildfires in the northwestern United States during the 24-hour period ending at 6 p.m. Thursday September 7, 2017. We did not include heat from the 6 days previous to the last 24 hours.

If there was heat found, it means the fires are still active, however some of it could be from proactive burning by firefighters to secure the area between firelines and the edge of the fires.

map wildfires idaho montana
Large wildfires currently active in Montana and Idaho. The red, yellow, and orange dots represent heat detected by a satellite in the 24 hour period ending at 6 p.m. MDT September 7.

Wildfire smoke maps, September 7, 2017

Above: The map shows the distribution of wildfire smoke during the afternoon of September 7, 2017.

(Originally published at 6:04 p.m. MDT September 7, 2017.)

The map below is the experimental forecast for noon MDT on Friday September 8, 2017. Both products are from NOAA.

smoke map wildfire
The map is an experimental product — a forecast for smoke at noon MDT on Friday September 8, 2017.