Six alarm vegetation fire causes evacuations south of San Francisco

Pacifica fire
An early morning vegetation fire forced the evacuation of 80 homes and condos in the Pacifica area south of San Francisco Monday morning. It was reported at about 3:35 a.m. near Fassler Avenue at Highway 1 and was contained around 8 a.m., after which the evacuation was lifted. Pushed by a 15 mph wind, the fire burned about five acres in a heavily wooded area.

Pacifica fire

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The role of vapor pressure deficit in wildland fire

“Fire science is not rocket science—it’s way more complicated.”
Research ecologist Matt Dickinson of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station.

A paper has been written recently that sheds light on the role of vapor pressure deficit (VPD) in wildland fire behavior and forest mortality in the Southwest. Most firefighters have not spent much time studying VPD. Typically they are taught that temperature, relative humidity, and wind are important weather variables to monitor, and sometimes dew point comes into the discussion. But this research indicates that VPD is a very important factor that influences fire behavior.

Below are some excerpts from the paper titled “Climatology, variability and trends in United States. Vapor pressure deficit, an important fire-related meteorological quantity”, by Richard Seager, Allison Hooks, A. Park Williams, and Benjamin Cook.

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Unlike the commonly used relative humidity, vapor pressure deficit (V P D), is an absolute measure of the difference between the water vapor content of the air and its saturation value and an accurate metric of the ability of the atmosphere to extract moisture from the land surface.

[…]

To our knowledge this is the first comprehensive study of vapor pressure deficit (VPD) which was recommended by Anderson (1936) as a more useful measure of the moisture state of the atmosphere than relative humidity (RH). Unlike RH, for which the same value  can be associated with very different moisture conditions depending on the air temperature, VPD is an absolute measure of the moisture deficit of the atmosphere. Hence, VPD, is  more closely related to the water stress on vegetation. Indeed, prior work has shown the relationship between VPD variability and burned forest area in the southwest U.S (Williams et al. 2014b).

[…]

A case study of conditions in advance of the June 2002 Rodeo-Chediski and Hayman fires in Arizona and Colorado, respectively, shows very high VPD that was caused by precipitation drops, an increase in Bowen ratio and anomalous subsidence in the preceding months. This reveals the complexity of meteorological processes that can increase drying of the land surface and vegetation and set the stage for serious fires.

[…]

Since 1961 VPD has increased notably across the western U.S. with the strongest increases in the southwest. These trends have been primarily driven by warming that increases the saturation vapor pressure but have also been contributed to by a decrease in actual vapor pressure. Actual vapor pressure has increased elsewhere in the U.S. such that VPD has declined in the northern Plains and midwest.

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On PBS: “The Big Burn” — the fires of 1910

The PBS television network is scheduled to air a program on February 3 about the fires of 1910 that changed wildland fire management for the next 100 years. The program is part of the American Experience series, and this episode is named “The Fire That Changed Everything — The Big Burn”. It is based on Timothy Egan’s best-selling book, “The Big Burn”.

When we first reported on this program there was much confusion about when it would air, with most of  the erroneous information coming from the PBS website. So, we can’t be certain it will air as advertised. However, this time it is showing up in my DirecTV program guide at 7 p.m. MST on February 3 — which is a good sign.

Set your DVRs.

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The number of employees in federal land management agencies is declining

Number of employees land management agencies

The number of employees in the five major federal land management agencies has decreased by 6 to 33 percent over the last 11 years. According to data compiled by the Best Places to Work website, the decline in the size of the work force at the agencies is stunning — especially at the Bureau of Indian Affairs which has seen their workforce slashed by 33.5 percent. Frequently we hear from critics that government is growing, but it certainly isn’t at the outfits that employ the most wildland firefighters.

The actual number of firefighters in these five agencies is difficult to ascertain, but we have figures that were submitted in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2011 and 2013. In the two hearings, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the number of firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior was 16,000 in 2011 and 13,000 in 2013. That is a 19 percent reduction in a two year period.

An example of this is at Everglades National Park, which is currently experiencing a “workforce realignment”. That’s National Park Service-speak for a major budget reduction. They are still figuring out the details, but it appears that their fire management staff will be “realigned” from about 35 to around 25 employees.

While the number of acres burned in the United States homeland is increasing, the number of wildland firefighters available to suppress them is doing the opposite. Firefighters are being laid off while we spend trillions of dollars on ill advised adventures on the other side of the world.

Acres burned, number of firefighters

We have more wildland fire statistics in an earlier article.

Job satisfaction at the land management agencies

The Best Places to Work website also has other interesting data. Every year the U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducts a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asking employees dozens of questions about their perceptions of what it is like to work at their agency. Below are some examples of the questions from the 2014 survey:

Examples of questions FEVS survey

A Best Places to Work index score is calculated based on responses to three questions in the OPM survey:

  • I recommend my organization as a good place to work.
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?

The 2014 survey index score for all of the major federal land management agencies declined except for the Forest Service, which showed a significant increase.

Best-places to work

To see the details of the survey results, visit these pages on the Best Places to Work website:

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paula.

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15 instructors at CAL FIRE’s Ione academy fired or disciplined

Orville Fleming

Orville Fleming

The investigation into the murder of the girlfriend of a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection instructor who worked at the state’s fire academy has resulted in a series of dominoes falling. Two firefighters have been fired, the resignation of a third was accepted, and 13 others will be disciplined. Of the 16 firefighters, 15 were instructors at the academy and the other worked in the field.

Battalion Chief Orville Fleming was found and arrested in October after a 16-day manhunt. An instructor at the agency’s training academy at Ione, California, the 55-year old BC had been charged in the May 1 stabbing death of 26-year old Sarah Jane Douglas, his live-in girlfriend.

Mr. Fleming’s wife had said he and other firefighters had engaged in sex with prostitutes at the academy and said she had seen a tape of such activities. However investigators were not able to find any evidence of the tape.

After the murder Mr. Fleming ditched his CAL FIRE truck and disappeared but was found 16 days later when he left his hideout near his home and boarded a bus to obtain food.

More details are at the Sacramento Bee.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.

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