TBT: new wildfire terminology

For Throwback Thursday, here’s what we wrote on April 1, 2009:

On the Daily Show last night there was much lampooning of the Obama Administration’s “rebranding” of the “War on Terror” into the new term they want to use:  “Overseas Contingency Operation”.  Really. Seriously.

And taking that several steps further, John Oliver said other rebranding plans for the Administration will include:

  • Flooding in North Dakota will become: Semi-Voluntary Property Baptism
  • Obesity Epidemic will become: Enhanced Biological Jollification

And my favorite:

  • Forest Fires will become: Extreme Wildlife Oxification and Talking Bear Employment Opportunities

Oliver then did a (poor) impression in his English accent of Smokey saying:  “Only You, Kids, Can Prevent Extreme Wildlife Oxification”.

Jon Stewart:  “Obviously you didn’t have Smokey Bear in England.”

Oliver: “No, Jon, we just let our forests burn.”

Nearly a record breaking year for acres burned in the U.S.

Wildfires consumed 9.7 million acres in the United States in 2017

It will probably not come as a surprise to many, but the number of acres burned in the United States in 2017 came close to breaking a record. The numbers are preliminary and could change over the next few weeks as the data is finalized but the acres burned in the 50 states, 9,781,062, was the second highest since reliable records have been kept. That is 49 percent higher than the average over the last 10 years. Even as the trend line for the acres burned has increased dramatically since 1990 the total number of fires has generally been slowly decreasing. In 2017, 66,131 fires were reported, which was 4 percent lower than the 10-year average.

number of wildfires United States 1990-2017

But to look at the big picture, at Wildfire Today we like to analyze the national trends without the stats from Alaska, and there are two reasons why. Fires in that huge state are managed far differently from the other 49 states. Most of them are not fully suppressed since they are less likely to endanger people or private property than in the lower 49 states. The second reason is that the fire occurrence is extremely variable, with the acres burned since 1990 ranging, for example, from 43,965 acres in 1995 to 6,645,978 in 2004. Including the Alaska numbers would skew the data for the other 49 states making it more difficult to spot trends.

In case you are wondering why our charts only go back as far as 1990, we are not convinced that the information before that is reliable. In the data provided by the National Interagency Fire Center there was a very sudden, long lasting major shift in the numbers beginning in the early 1980s.

The sloping horizontal lines in the charts represent the statistical linear trend.

average size acres wildfires United States 1990-2017

A statistic that is quite interesting is the average size. The linear trend line starts at about 22 acres in 1990 and reaches close to 100 acres by 2017. In fact, the average size in 2017 was 139 acres. There could be a number of reasons for this huge increase:

  • Weather that is warmer and drier making fires more difficult to suppress.
  • One hundred years of fire suppression has led to forests that are more dense and fires that burn with greater intensity.
  • A less aggressive strategy is being used on large fires more often for safety reasons.
  • More fires are allowed to burn naturally without full suppression for environmental concerns.
  • There may have been a change in the initial attack of new fires, responding with less equipment and personnel.

Another factor to consider is that there was a gradual 30 to 70 percent reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 2002 until 2014 when the fleet began to be partially restored.

Images from mud flows and flooding in Southern California

We spent a few minutes on Twitter Tuesday evening looking for information about the impacts of the very heavy rain northwest of Los Angeles over the last 24 hours. The freshly barren burned hills above some of these areas contributed to the extraordinary amount of water and debris transported into the communities.

Probability of a wildfire, by date and location

Above: Map showing the probability of a wildfire of at least 100 acres on January 12 between 1992 and 2015.

(Originally published at 10:40 a.m. MST January 9, 2018)

If you are searching for something to do on a cold winter day the National Weather Service has just what you need —  an interactive map system showing the probability of a wildfire of various sizes by date of the year. You can choose what size fire you’re interested in, 100, 300, 1,000, or 5,000 acres and allow the map to animate the entire year, or manually step through in three-day intervals. The data is based on wildfire occurrence between 1992 and 2015.

It is interesting seeing how activity builds and declines in specific areas like southeast Oklahoma, northern Minnesota, and the confluence of Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

Thanks go out to Nick Nauslar of the NWS Storm Prediction Center for updating the maps.

Here are some examples:

wildfire occurrence 1992-2015 map
wildfire occurrence 1992-2015 mapwildfire occurrence 1992-2015 map

Report released on Thomas Fire Fatality

Above: A map from the report showing the entrapment location. The red line was the firefighter’s path of travel. It leads from the black circle, which was the site of the first spot fires, to a drainage.

(Originally published at 6:25 p.m. MST January 8, 2018)

CAL FIRE has released a “Green Sheet” preliminary report for the line of duty death of CAL FIRE Fire Apparatus Engineer Cory Iverson of the CAL FIRE San Diego/San Diego County Fire Authority. Engineer Iverson was overrun by fire and killed December 14, 2017 while battling the Thomas Fire in Ventura County north of Fillmore, California.

While working with a hose lay along a dozer line he was attempting to suppress a  spot fire across the fireline. As one spot fire became multiple spot fires he attempted to escape but was not successful.

The entire 2.6MB report is here. The portion of the document that describes the entrapment is below. Fire Apparatus Engineer Iverson is “FAE1” in the report.

…FAE1 responded on the assigned tactical frequency, that he saw the spot fire. He engaged the spot fire that was on the edge of the dozer line with his hand tool.

Immediately after the report of the spot fire, a second spot fire was reported approximately 20 feet into the green.

At some point, before leaving the dozer line, FAE1 dropped a 100 foot length of hose from his hose pack on the dozer line. This action left 200 feet of hose still in his hose pack.

As FAE1 reached the second spot and began to take action, it erupted. At the same time, additional spot fires erupted along the dozer line west of the original spot fire. FF1 sprayed in the direction of the spot fires. The spot fires rapidly increased in size and the hose stream was ineffective. FAE1’s escape route back to dozer line was cut off. FAE1 began traveling southwest, paralleling the dozer line. Due to fire intensity, FAE1 turned and headed down slope to the south. FAE1 made a request, on the assigned tactical frequency, for immediate air support. This was the last confirmed radio transmission by FAE1. STL1 contacted HLCO for immediate air support. HLCO responded, he had additional copters coming in and they too would begin to work the area.

At approximately 9:25 AM, FC1 reported to FAE1 on the assigned tactical frequency, additional spots were below him and he told FAE1 to “Get out of there.”

The fire intensity increased in the green along the dozer line. FF1 and FF4 retreated along the dozer line, while FF2 and FF3 retreated along the dozer line and then up into the black, towards the mid-slope road. All four FF’s dropped their hose packs on the dozer line while retreating.

At approximately 9:27 AM, FC1 declared, on the assigned tactical frequency, “Mayday, we’ve got a firefighter down.” FC1 then clarified, “We have a firefighter trapped.” STL1 confirmed with DIVS X he copied the “Mayday” of a firefighter trapped. DIVS X acknowledged the traffic with STL1 and requested, through Thomas Communications, an ALS ambulance to the address of the staging area below the avocado orchard.

At 9:28 AM, the response from Ventura County Fire Station 27 was started.

Copter 1, and two CWN copters, continued working the area below the dozer line attempting to provide an escape route for FAE1. These copters saw FAE1 retreating down through the green.

At that time, two spots erupted down slope and south of FAE1, in his path, causing him to turn southwest and start down slope toward the eventual entrapment site.

FC1 saw FAE1 fall and lost sight of him. Copter 1 also saw FAE1 fall, but get back up and continue down slope toward the eventual entrapment site.

It was described by those who saw FAE1 moving through the vegetation that the height was chest to head high; and in some cases, all that could be seen was the top of his helmet.

Prior to the fire, the vegetation height and thickness masked the view of the deep gulch in the drainage, which was the location of the eventual entrapment site.

STL1 contacted HLCO, re-confirmed a firefighter was trapped, and was told by HLCO, six helicopters were enroute.

The additional CWN copters arrived and each copter began working the area where FAE1 was last seen. Those copters dropped retardant at first, and then switched to water due to a faster turnaround time.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Evacuations ordered below wildfires in Santa Barbara County

Very heavy rain could produce flash floods, mudslides, and life-threatening debris flows

(UPDATED at 12:22 PST January 9, 2018)


(UPDATED at 1:24 p.m. PST January 8, 2018)

Some of the same residents who were forced to evacuate during this year’s wildfires in Southern California are being ordered to evacuate again as a very dangerous storm bears down on the area. Weather forecasters predict the Coast and valleys can expect 2 to 4″ with foothills and mountains seeing 4-7″ (locally up to 9″). Ojai, which is surrounded by the footprint of the Thomas Fire, is expected to receive 5.98″.

southern california storm total rain map

The fear is that flash floods, mudslides, and debris flows could be life threatening.

Santa Barbara County Emergency Management issued evacuation notices for areas below the Thomas, Whittier, Sherpa and Rey Fire burn areas beginning at 12 p.m. Monday, January 8. Residents can visit www.countyofsb.org and refer to the interactive map to determine if their property is affected by the notices, or call 211 or 800-400-1572 for more information.

Weather forecast for Santa Barbara
Weather forecast for Santa Barbara through Wednesday. NWS.

The very powerful storm moving into the area is resulting in not only predictions for heavy precipitation, but also strong winds. Various types of weather related warnings have been posted by the National Weather Service for the following counties: Ventura, Orange, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Monterey, and Kern. The Monday night forecast for Santa Barbara calls for 25 mph winds gusting to 38 mph out of the southwest and southeast.

warning debris flow wildfires