The Bureau of Indian Affairs released today what appears to be a professionally-produced 13-minute video about reducing the wildfire risk around structures and the use of prescribed fire, emphasizing its “prehistorical” use.
The person who led the 54-person team that investigated the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots talked to a reporter for the Florida Current about the results of their investigation and how they track firefighters in his agency.
Florida State Forester Jim Karels’ team wrote in their report:
The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable. Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.
The report also said:
… [it] does not identify causes in the traditional sense of pointing out errors, mistakes, and violations…
Many of us criticized the report for whitewashing the tragedy and failing firefighters who deserve to increase their knowledge of how to avoid similar disasters in the future. A lessons learned opportunity was missed.
It will be interesting to see if the report about the fire that is being written by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health provides better information about what happened, why, and how to avoid similar deaths.
Below is an excerpt from the article in the Florida Current:
Karels, though, said a second section of the report asks questions about the decision-making process that will help develop lessons to be learned. He said the fact that all 19 firefighters died together while making decisions on their own and separately made the investigation different from other investigations.
“It would be real easy to say, ‘This is exactly what happened and these are why decisions were made and this is something to blame,’” Karels said. “But all 19 are gone. So we reconstructed an event based on the best knowledge we had.”
He said lessons learned from the fire include the need for more prescribed burning and mitigation nationwide to reduce the potential for deadly wildfires.
In the interview Mr. Karels also talked about tracking the location of firefighters, since no one on the Yarnell Hill Fire knew where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were at the time of the fatal entrapment or previously that they were hiking through unburned vegetation near the fire which changed direction and burned over their location due to a passing thunderstorm.
Florida had to figure out the lessons from its own wildfire deaths in 2011 when two firefighters in Hamilton County were killed while battling a blaze.
He said [the] “Blue Ribbon Fire” led to recommendations on improving communication, asset tracking and providing enough helicopters to battle fires.
[Agriculture Commissioner Adam] Putnam is requesting $5 million for new vehicles in fiscal year 2014-15 in addition to $4 million received last year for upgrading technology and equipment…
The Hamilton County fire and the Arizona fire both led to recommendations to improve the tracking of firefighters and equipment during a rapidly expanding fire, Karels said.
After the 2011 fire, Florida began installing a tracking system on computers in supervisory vehicles that map firefighters and machinery with the locations of the fire and terrain, Karels said.
Where do we go from here?
We have written previously about how the inability of fire supervisors to always be situationally aware of the location of firefighters has contributed to at least 24 deaths in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza fire.
On the 2006 Esperanza Fire in southern California, Branch II and the Captain of Engine 57 had an understanding that the Engine crew would not remain at the Octagon house, where they eventually died (see page 9 of the USDA OIG report). The crew was supposed to go to an area identified as a safety zone and not try to defend the house, according to information provided by Branch II. For some reason the crew decided to defend the house, setting up hose lays and a portable pump. The fire entrapped them at that location, killing all five members of the crew.
If Branch II, an Operations Section Chief, or a Safety Officer had access to real time information about the location of their resources on the fire, it is likely that the engine crew would have been directed to go to the safety zone as instructed earlier by Branch II.
The person that was supervising the 19 firefighters that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire was the Operations Section Chief. In the report on page 22, he tells the crew, Granite Mountain Hotshots, to “hunker and be safe”, which usually means find a nearby safe spot and stay there. On page 27 Operations tells the airborne Air Supervision Module about the crew, “They’re in a good place. They’re safe…”
The Blue Ridge Hotshots thought Granite Mountain was walking north to a ranch house safety zone north of their location. OPS thought the crew was safely in the black. He did not know the 19 firefighters were walking in the unburned area toward a ranch south of their location. If Ops or a Safety Officer with access to the location of all fire resources had known the crew’s location as they first began their fatal trek, it is likely the entrapment could have been prevented.
The Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety, as I envision it, would enable radios carried by firefighters and in their vehicles to transmit their location in real time which would then show up on a remote display (on anything from a cell phone or a 7″ tablet, up to a laptop computer) that would be monitored by a Safety Officer, Branch Director, Ops Chief, Branch Director, or Division Supervisor. The display would also show the real time location of the fire. Knowing either of these in real time would enhance the safety of firefighters. Knowing both is the Holy Grail.
Cell phone-based location systems will not work on many fires due to incomplete coverage. What might work is a geosynchronous satellite that is always overhead and could receive data from almost everywhere except in the deepest, steep canyons or heaviest tree canopy. The same satellite could host the proposed system that would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less, mapping fires and detecting new fires as small as 10 feet in diameter.
If Congress and the American people were presented with this proposal, even though it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, they just might vote to save firefighters’ lives.
Luddites who oppose technology and want everything to remain the same will never be in favor of this concept. I understand that, and recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion
Some people assume the federal government can do nothing right and use that as an excuse to create fear and rationalize their views. Concerning the national parks and national forests in his state that are owned by the citizens of the United States, a state senator in Colorado, Steve King, has said “absentee landowners” are managing the federal lands.
Senator King and others who may know little or nothing about wildland fire behavior see trees affected by insects (see the tag “beetles”) and assume the forest is now subject to unprecedented explosive forest fires. There is not complete agreement on this, but at least two recent studies have concluded that beetle killed trees do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire, at least in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce (Picea engelmannii)-fir (Abies spp.). We said the same thing as early as three years ago. Our view is that the resistance to control of a forest fire would increase somewhat one to four years after a beetle outbreak, during the red needle stage, and then would decrease since the crown fire potential would dramatically decline.
Senator King’s opinion about absentee landowners is over the top, but he uses that argument to justify his state’s acquisition of an air tanker and helicopter fleet to better attack wildfires in Colorado. While his goal may be laudable, his tactics are not. And keep in mind, aircraft do not put out fires. Under ideal weather, fuel, and topography conditions, they can slow down a fire providing firefighters on the ground an opportunity to suppress it. If those conditions do not exist, such as during strong winds, aircraft are virtually useless as a fire suppression tool.
Below is an excerpt from an article written by the senator, and following that, a portion of a newspaper’s editorial in response.
…Absentee owners are allowing brush and beetle-kill trees to collect to the point of criminal negligence, putting all property owners at risk of being victims of a catastrophic wildfire.
The absentee owner here is the federal government: 36.6 percent of Colorado land is under the control and “ownership” of the federal government. A very high percentage of dead federal beetle-kill trees that have blown down now are surrounding Colorado’s precious life sustaining water sheds.
If any other Colorado land owner allowed their property to de-evolve to the state of federal lands in the WUI and around our water sheds, the state of Colorado would declare the land blighted and exercise eminent domain to take that land under state control. We are in a critical race against time to remediate the land before it is too late for our water, air and land to be saved from the specter of a catastrophic wildfire…
Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel responded to Senator King’s remarks. Below is an excerpt:
…State Sen. Steve King’s latest offering – “Don’t count on federal landowners to aid in fighting wildfires in Colorado” – epitomizes the incoherence of Republicans’ pandering policy prescriptions.
The federal government manages 23 millions acres of wilderness, National Forest, and BLM lands in Colorado – where fires are often naturally occurring regenerative events.
Coloradans have chosen to build homes adjacent to those lands – ignoring the inherent risks of doing so, which are apparently increasing as a result of global climate change.
King conveniently places the onus of fire suppression responsibility on the public side of the “wildland-urban interface”—rather than on “urbanites”—and falsely insinuates that the federal government is “absent” when wildfires originate on federally-managed lands.
Moreover, King curiously does not advocate a commensurate exercise of “eminent domain” against absentee private landowners who neglect their property, counties that refuse to enact sensible zoning ordinances, and/or individuals who fail to demonstrate “personal responsibility” by acquiring adequate and actuarially-priced fire insurance.
Instead, King calls on Colorado’s “government” to insure those “free riders” by imposing increased tax burdens on more prudent citizens who opt not to assume the risk of closely locating near the viewsheds afforded by Colorado’s scenic landscapes, while begging the question of how many firefighting aircraft are needed and who would pay for them…
Published November 29, 2013
One year ago today
The US Air Force released the full report on the July 1, 2012 crash of MAFFS #7, a military C-130 operating as an air tanker on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota.
Five years ago today
Smoke from a 5-acre brush fire reduced the visibility on a road near Palatka, Florida to 20-30 feet, causing a multi-car accident and one fatality.
In the United States today is the day we celebrate Thanksgiving. At Wildfire Today one of the many things we are thankful for is YOU — our loyal readers — many of whom contribute to the conversation with meaningful, intelligent, thoughtful comments that add to the overall discourse. Thank you for reading.. .and writing at Wildfire Today.
What are you thankful for?
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was at Fresno State University in California Tuesday primarily to discuss the pending Farm Bill, but he took the opportunity to talk about fire management within the U.S. Forest Service. Below is an excerpt from Valley Public Radio:
…But he also used his address to call for a new approach when it comes to battling forest fires, such as the Rim Fire, which burned over 400 square miles in and around Yosemite earlier this year.
“The problem has been that over a long period of time we haven’t invested in resiliency and the restoration of our forest,” Vilsack says.
He said years of poor forest management, plus climate change and disease have left millions of acres with dangerously high levels of fuel.
According to Vilsack the Forest Service spends around $2 billion a year fighting fires. This year, the number of fires totaled 40,000. He told the audience that he’s asked President Obama to look at new ways to fund efforts to stop so-called mega-fires.
“We’re working on a new way to adequately fund fire suppression so we don’t have to take money from the restoration side of the budget which will allow us to accelerate in making these forests more resilient and removing that hazardous fuel so the risk of fire is reduced and the intensity of fire is also reduced,” Vilsack says.
He said the farm bill contains provisions for stewardship contractors to use wood cleared from overgrown forests, but he also said more can be done to turn forest waste into renewable sources of energy.