Report concludes that USFS should revise fire protection agreement with CAL FIRE

An audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General concluded that the U.S. Forest Service has assumed a disproportionate share of the fire suppression burden specified in interagency agreements with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

The USFS enters into fire protection agreements with other land management agencies when, after evaluating geography and the location of fire suppression resources, it appears to make economic sense that Agency A protect portions of Agency B’s lands in some areas, and vice versa. But there are inherent differences, on a broad scale, between the National Forests in California and lands CAL FIRE is charged to protect. The private property has more people and structures on or close it, therefore more wildland-urban interface (WUI). When fires approach or burn private property and homes in a WUI, it historically has generated a much more aggressive and expensive response than fires in a typical USFS forested area. While the acres exchanged in these agreements may on the surface appear to be more or less equal, the responsibility to protect them from wildfires can be very different — and more costly.

State lands in California near National Forests generally have more grass, brush, and WUI areas than Forest land in the same general area. The table below, from the IG report, shows the difference in costs for putting out fires in the three different types of fuel.

Fire Suppression costs per acre

The Inspector General found that in California, the USFS has assumed responsibility for protecting almost 2.8 million acres of private land, exchanging the protection of land that is inexpensive for land that is more difficult, and therefore more expensive, for example WUI areas near forests. State officials, according to the report, took responsibility for
land that was comparatively inexpensive to protect, such as grassland.

The Inspector General recommends that the USFS reassess its fire protection responsibilities with CAL FIRE.

In addition to the inequalities regarding areas that are protected, the Inspector General uncovered other issues:

OIG also found that local cooperators used indirect cost rates for firefighting activities that may have been excessive and unreasonable. FS did not safeguard its assets by establishing policies and procedures to review indirect cost rates charged by local cooperators. As a result, we questioned over $4.5 million in administrative costs paid to nine cooperators in California. In addition, FS overpaid $6.5 million to Colorado State University for unallowable administrative costs during a 4-year period. Although FS identified this issue and ceased future overpayments, it has not recovered the overpayments.

On a side note, the illustrations on the cover of the USDA Inspector General’s report, emphasizing radishes, chickens, and carrots, shows how land management and the suppression of wildfires seems to be an afterthought within the Department even when issuing a report about firefighting. IG report coverThis is in spite of the fact that the USFS spends about $1.2 billion annually on fire suppression, which consumed 52 percent of its budget in fiscal year 2015. The five major federal land management agencies in the USDA and Department of the Interior employ over 13,000 wildland firefighters, a group of employees that should be difficult to overlook, but often is.

This prompts us once again to think about how things might be different if all of the federal land management agencies, or perhaps only their fire departments, were in a stand-alone agency, emphasizing at number one, fire protection, rather than radishes.

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

Sky lantern ignites fire in California four-plex; Oregon may strengthen their ban

Sky Lantern poster

Investigators determined a fire that burned a portion of a four-plex structure in Santa Rosa, California was started by a sky lantern, sometimes called a Chinese lantern.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Press Democrat:

…Investigators suspect [the] fire started when a floating paper lantern landed on the shake roof of a four-plex on Butte Drive off Hardies Lane. Firefighters limited the fire to a small section of the room, Lowenthal said.

“We found the remnants of a sky lantern on the roof,” Lowenthal said.

He said they suspect this is the second fire caused by a sky lantern in the neighborhood south of Piner Road in recent weeks…

Meanwhile legislators in Oregon have introduced a bill that would strengthen the laws regulating sky lanterns. Presently they are banned over state protected lands during fire season.

Below is an excerpt from the Statesman Journal:

…Just last week, a sky lantern released to celebrate a wedding in New Zealand set a home on fire.

Oregon Rep. David Gomberg, D-Lincoln City, is co-sponsoring a bill to ban the lanterns. He calls them “flying Sterno cans.”

“They are very pretty. And they’re pretty dangerous,” he said.

They’re also cheap: Walmart offers a set of 10 for $15.99.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is the other sponsor.

“Given the stressed condition of our forests, whether it’s disease or drought or mismanagement, conflagration has become a clear and present danger,” Johnson said. “I believe one of the highest responsibilities of the legislature is not to let Oregon burn down on our watch.”

Counting Oregon, sky lanterns are banned in 29 states.

If you’re still not convinced that sky lanterns should be banned, here is an article about the problems they cause in Taiwan. It includes a photo of a dead owl tangled in a sky lantern.

Another look at the fatal Decker Fire of 1959

Decker Fire report map diagram
An illustration from the 1959 official report on the Decker Fire.

The Decker Fire of 1959, where six firefighters were killed near the U.S. Forest Service El Cariso fire station west of Lake Elsinore, California, is unique among fatal fires for several reasons: three members of the El Cariso Hotshots died, they were only a couple of miles from their home base, a U.S. Forest Service District Ranger was killed, and one of the primary factors that caused the extreme fire behavior was a locally well-known and predictable diurnal wind shift caused by the dry lake bed of Lake Elsinore that turned the flames against the firefighters, trapping and overrunning them on the Ortega Highway. In addition, this tragedy was followed seven years later by another, when the El Cariso Hotshots were overrun by flames on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in 1966, killing 12 more.

The official report did a pretty good job of explaining the important facts of August 8, 1959. But more than half a century later, a former firefighter who served on the El Cariso Hotshots from 1963 through 1966 conducted extensive research on what happened that day in 1959 and assembled many details that were not included in the U.S. Forest Service report. Julian Lee, Professor of Biology, Emeritus at The University of Miami (now living in New Mexico), made available to us his 27-page description of the Decker Fire. It is very well written and comprehensive, laying out the details of what occurred during and after the fire, as well as providing some analysis.

Mr. Lee’s sources included interviews and correspondence with individuals who were on the fire, CAL FIRE (CDF) documents, newspaper accounts, many USFS documents, training records, documents from ambulance companies, and verbatim transcripts of testimony given by surviving USFS personnel recorded a few days after the incident.

We thank Mr. Lee for his efforts to produce this valuable report, and for his permission to link to it and to post the excerpt below.

There were three burnovers on the fire, but since there were no radios most of the firefighters did not know about them right away unless they were directly involved.

Here is an account of the first, from Mr. Lee’s account:

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“GUTHRIE BURN-OVER

“… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway like it wasn’t there.”

While Ferguson was moving his crew out of harm’s way, Will Donaldson, a CDF Tank Truck Driver assigned to San Jacinto Station 26 miles to the northeast, was en route to the fire and listening to radio traffic. An early indication that something exceptional was unfolding on the steep slopes above Elsinore came when he heard a report of “… fire storms, and that something was happening on that fire.”

One of the things happening involved John D. Guthrie, a 25 year old CDF Tanker Foreman and his five man crew. They were one of two units dispatched to the Decker Fire from Old Temecula Station, about 18 miles southeast of the fire. Arriving at around 6:40 p.m., they headed up the Ortega Highway toward the fire, with Guthrie behind the wheel of an International tanker with a 500 gallon capacity. They pulled off at a turn-out at the hair-pin turn (Fig. 2).

Decker Fire Map
Map from Julian Lee’s report on the fatal Decker Fire. (Click to enlarge)

Guthrie got out and started down the steep bank to get a better look at the fire burning below. Almost immediately he came scrambling back to the truck, yelling for the men on the back of the truck to get into the cab and to move the truck farther up the road to the protection of the high bank at a nearby road cut. There wasn’t room for Guthrie in the cab; he remained outside, intending to use the tanker’s hose to wet himself down for protection. But suddenly, before they could move the truck, the fire burst upon them.

As the wall of flames engulfed the truck and its occupants, it burned through Guthrie’s hose line, rendering it useless and forcing him to dive under his truck for protection. As CDF tanker foreman Ferguson watched “… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway (near the hair-pin turn) like it wasn’t there.” He didn’t realize that Guthrie and his crew had been engulfed by the flames as the fire roared across the highway. This, the first of three burn-over events suffered by personnel fighting the Decker Fire, occurred at about 6:40 p.m.

Two of Guthrie’s crewmen, Art Shannon age 28, and Larry Mollers age 19, received serious burns to their arms and hands. Three others, Eugene Golden, Montie Campbell, and Jim Miller received lesser injuries, but Guthrie was burned over 85 percent of his body. He and his injured men were loaded into a CDF pick-up truck and driven to Lakeland Village at the base of the mountain.

There Guthrie was transferred to a 1953 Pontiac ambulance belonging to the Sunnymead Volunteer Fire Department. The ambulance driver headed for Hemet Hospital, but within a few miles the engine threw a piston rod. Coasting to a stop, the driver rushed into a nearby bar, explained their situation and asked to use the telephone. Upon hearing of their plight, a patron pushed the keys to his car across the bar and said, “Take my station wagon and put him in.” Guthrie was treated at Hemet Hospital, stabilized, and then transferred to a hospital in Redlands. He was the first firefighter to be critically burned on the Decker Fire.”

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Thanks and a tip of the hat go out Rich.

Mississippi men still meet to relive their firefighting days in California

Tupelo hotshots
From the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has a well written article about a group of nine men from Mississippi that in the early 1960s traveled west to work on the El Cariso Hotshots in southern California. Many of them still live in the area around Tupelo, Mississippi and occasionally meet to share war stories.

I like how the article ends:

…They were young and immortal once, and traveled west to put that immortality to the test. They were brave and maybe a little crazy, but don’t call them stupid.

“If you went out there for the third year, you got to be a smokejumper. They dropped you in a parachute to fight fires,” Floyd said. “We were all smart enough not to go back the third year.”

I grew up in Mississippi and unknowingly followed in their footsteps a decade or so later, applying for the El Cariso job through the Forestry School’s Summer Student Employment Program at Mississippi State University. My application didn’t have the endorsement of a politician (like one of these gentlemen), but I had a previous season of experience working on a Timber Stand Improvement Crew on the Mendocino National Forest running a chain saw all day every day. I spent three seasons on El Cariso before moving on to the newly formed Laguna Hotshots — then engines, prevention, engines again, and Fire Management Officer.

Family records video as they drive through Solimar Fire near Ventura, California

A family from the Netherlands was visiting in California when they discovered that the 101 Freeway they were on took them through the Solimar Fire burning on both sides of the highway just northwest of Ventura, California.

The fire caused havoc among motorists when some of them made U-turns on the blocked divided highway, fleeing from the fire through opposing traffic, much to the surprise of the unaware oncoming drivers.

Below is an excerpt from an article at NBC news that has more details about the tourists who filmed the above video:

…Maaike Maks, who is visiting California from the Netherlands for the holidays with her family, was driving through Ventura from Los Angeles on Christmas night when they spotted the blaze.

“We already saw the fire 30 minutes before we actually passed it, but we didn’t realize it was this big and frightening,” she told NBC News after posting a video of the massive dancing flames on Twitter.

“There was nobody stopping us as we got closer and closer. So we thought it was totally safe for us to drive past it,” Maks said. “Then all of the sudden all these sparks and a burning bush hit our car and we couldn’t see anything of what was around us because of all the smoke … We were very lucky.

More information on Wildfire Today about the Solimar Fire.

Solimar Fire causes evacuations near Ventura, California

(UPDATE at 8 p.m. PST, December 26, 2015)

Solimar Fire Map,
Solimar Fire Map, provided by the Ventura County Fire Department at noon, December 26, 2015 (click to enlarge)

The Solimar Fire northwest of Ventura, California as of 5:40 p.m. PST had not grown appreciably since early Saturday morning, and was mapped at 1,236 acres. Approximately 403 firefighters were on scene at that time as well as one helicopter.

The 101 Freeway, which had been closed in both directions is now open and evacuations have been lifted.

The weather has changed from strong gusty winds Friday night to a Saturday night forecast of 7 mph north winds, 37 degrees, with 30 percent humidity.

Photo of Solina Fire courtesy of Ventura County Fire Department.

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(Originally published at 11:05 a.m. PST, December 26, 2015)

Solimar Fire Ventura County air unitA vegetation fire has burned about 1,200 acres in southern California northwest of the city of Ventura. The Solimar Fire started at about 11 p.m. PST Christmas day and spread quickly, pushed by 50 mph winds.

The fire, burning on both sides of the 101 freeway near the Pacific coast, caused havoc among motorists when some of them made U-turns on the blocked divided highway, fleeing from the fire through opposing traffic, much to the surprise of the unaware oncoming drivers.

The 101 is closed and mandatory evacuations are still in place as this is written at 10:56 a.m. on Saturday.

The good news is that, again, the Pacific Ocean proved its value as a very adequate fuel break.

The video below was a 2 a.m. briefing by the Ventura County Fire Department.