Betty White, honorary Forest Ranger

Betty White, yes, THAT Betty White, the actress, is featured in a new fire prevention video fulfilling one of her duties as an honorary Forest Ranger. She worked with the California fire prevention agencies to create One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire.

Ms. White was designated an honorary Forest Ranger in 2010. She said in interviews that she wanted to be a forest ranger as a little girl, but that women were not allowed to do that then.

Betty White honorary Forest Ranger
Betty White (center, obviously) and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (left), November 9, 2010

El Cariso Hotshots disbanded

The El Cariso Interagency Hotshots have been disbanded. El Cariso was one of the first two hotshot crews created about 60 years ago after World War II. For many decades they have been working out of the Trabuco District on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California.

El Cariso's logo
El Cariso’s logo, a Ruptured Duck

The El Cariso Interagency Hotshots have been disbanded.

It pains me as an alumni to write that. My first job as a firefighter was on the crew. El Cariso was one of the first two hotshot crews created about 60 years ago after World War II. For many decades they have been working out of the Trabuco District on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California.

The crew ended the 2012 fire season as a fully certified Type 1 Hotshot crew. But they began the 2013 season as a Type 2 crew due to vacancies at critical positions. Throughout the year their organization deteriorated, suffering more vacancies, as well as a lack of consistent supervision and crew leadership according to a high-ranking U.S. Forest Service official we talked with.

The crew lost both of their captains, their superintendent was detailed to the Forest Supervisor’s office, and as the latter part of the fire season approached they were not even qualified as a Type 2 Initial Attack crew. Due to these issues and concerns for firefighter safety, the National Forest shut down the crew when they returned from working on the Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park. The remaining permanent personnel were transferred to engine stations, but the temporary crew members were laid off.

The Forest expects this situation to be temporary, and next year will begin rebuilding the organization. With the long list of interagency requirements for hotshot crews, it will not be an easy task. We wish them luck in reconstituting the El Cariso Hotshots.

The crew has endured other disastrous situations in the past. In 1966 12 people on the crew died as a result of burn injuries on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in southern California. And in 1959 three members of the crew and four others were entrapped and killed on the Decker Fire just a few miles from their base west of Elsinore, California..

1970 El Cariso Hot Shots
1970 El Cariso Hot Shots. Superintendent Ron Campbell is in the center of the front row (without a hard hat); Assistant Superintendent Al Kuehl is on the left end of the front row; Bill Gabbert is fourth from the right in the front row.

Saving the sequoia groves from the Rim Fire — by using fire as a tool

NPS crew at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
NPS crew at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. InciWeb photo.

The Los Angeles Times has an excellent article written by Diana Marcum which tells the story of how firefighters on the Rim Fire worked to prevent the giant sequoia and old growth sugar pine groves in Yosemite National Park from being consumed by the fire. Everyone would agree that these trees are worth saving. Sequoias grow to an average height of 160 to 280 feet and 20 to 26 feet in diameter. The oldest known sequoia based on ring count is 3,500 years old.

About two weeks after the fire started it was still burning through drought-afflicted vegetation in a manner that mostly confounded and frustrated the 5,000 firefighters trying desperately to stop the spread. It was moving toward the groves that had survived many fires over hundreds or thousands of years, but this fire was not like the relatively cool, slow moving lightning-caused fires that the trees had evolved to to live with. It threatened to wipe them out.

With the Rim Fire only one or two days away from the national treasure trees, firefighters decided their only hope of saving them was to treat the groves with fire, a controlled fire under their own conditions, before the main fire got there. This relatively cool fire would remove most of the fuel on the ground and hopefully prevent the very intense main fire from roaring through the groves, possibly killing the 3,000-year old trees. It was their only hope.

But the test fire worried them when 50-foot flames leaped into the sky.

Below are some excerpts from the must-read article:

****

“…Inside Yosemite, officials had tried to restore the natural cycle of fire. For 40 years, lightning-sparked flames in wilderness areas had been left to burn, and specialists lighted controlled burns near tourist areas. But that might not offer enough protection.

“Hypothetically those old fire scars would slow the fire the further it moved into the park,” said Gus Smith, Yosemite’s fire ecologist. “But the Rim fire was like a flood, and it was coming. This was not the fire you wanted to test out a hypothesis.”

[…]

The sequoias evolved to face wildfire. But officials feared that this fire could kill even trees that had been shrugging off flames since before Rome burned.

[Ben] Jacobs and Taro Pusina, Yosemite’s deputy fire chief, drew up a plan. They would set three coordinated backfires and try to stop the wildfire with a “catcher’s mitt” of charred earth.

But first they would wind the fires through two of the very groves they were trying to protect. The Tuolumne and Merced groves were at the top of a ridge, in the direct line of the Rim fire, in an area that had not burned for 100 years. If the hotter Rim fire reached them, it could climb to the tops of 200-foot trees.

A lot could go wrong. If the backfires were too hot, they could cook the groves. If they did not burn enough ground in time, the Rim fire would roar through unblocked. Those two groves and the Merced Grove to the south would burn, the lookout tower and helicopter base would burn, and the firefighters would have to run.

“We knew it was a longshot,” Pusina said. “But no amount of bulldozers or planes or crews had stopped this fire. We were out of options.”

[…]

The next day, with the first grove still burning, a handful of firefighters drove into the Tuolumne grove, a mile to the east.

A fire crew from Arizona had prepared the area — raking debris away from trees, sawing snags and logs. Many of them had never seen a giant sequoia, which is native only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The species dates back to the Ice Age.

“They were in awe of the trees. They kept looking up as they worked,” recalled Gary Oye, division chief of wilderness stewardship…”

Rim Fire: soil severity and vegetation severity

A U.S. Forest Service wildland fire ecologist that the Associated Press quoted as describing the area burned in the 250,000-acre Rim Fire in and near Yosemite National Park as “nuked” stirred up some controversy with his quoted remarks. It is difficult to use a subjective one-word description to sum up the varied fire effects on a huge fire that burned for weeks under an assortment of weather, vegetation, and topography conditions.

Most of the early assessments of burn severity on a large fire are derived from multiple sensors on satellites that are orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth. Using data from individual sensors, or combining information from multiple sensors, scientists can compare recent data with historical records to produce maps highlighting their area of interest. Two of the most common burn severity maps you will see are vegetation and soil severity.

The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team assigned to the Rim Fire has publicized their version, soil burn severity maps which specifically focus on severity to soils and watersheds. The primary objective of the BAER team is to identify imminent post-wildfire threats to human life, safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources and to take immediate actions to implement emergency stabilization measures before the first major storms. Their map of September 13 shows approximately 56% of the fire is either unburned or received a low-severity burn, 37% sustained a burn of a moderate severity, and approximately 7% burned at high severity.

The September 17, 2013 Rapid Assessment of Vegetation Condition after Wildfire (RAVG) map produced by the USFS’ Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) analyzed vegetation severity produced by a change detection process using two Landsat Thematic Mapper images captured before and after the fire. They came up with very different numbers: 35% unchanged or low-severity, 27% moderate severity, and 38% high severity.

The maps from the two organizations are below. Larger versions can be seen HERE and HERE. Also included in the gallery are photos showing two areas burned in the fire, and a photo taken two hours after the fire started.

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Infrared mapping, the New York Times on Lassen’s Reading Fire, and more Yarnell Hill articles

Reading Fire
Reading Fire. Photo by Lassen National Park.

Several online articles came to our attention today that you may be interested in.

New York Times

The Times has an excellent article about last year’s Reading Fire in Lassen National Park in northern California. It was a fire use fire that started on July 23, 2012, escaped the maximum management area, and burned outside the park, blackening a total of 28,000 acres. The author, Paul Tullis, oddly, but in a very interesting way, also writes about fire behavior research being conducted at the Missoula Fire Lab. Checking out the article is worth it, if only for the great photos taken by photographer Richard Barnes.

More articles about the Yarnell Hill Fire

The monthly magazines are now coming out with their articles about the fire on which 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. They pale in comparison to the good one that was in Outside Magazine, but if you are obsessed with that multiple fatality incident, like many of us are, you’ll want to see the articles in Popular Mechanics and Men’s Journal.

The USFS infrared mapping program

USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, their Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z, parked at NIFC in Boise.

Earthzine has an article that does a good job of summarizing the U.S. Forest Service program that operates two fixed wing aircraft that map ongoing wildfires. Here is an excerpt:

…The two IR aircraft are a twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air B-200 and a small jet, the Cessna Citation Bravo II. Both aircraft take off at between 7-9 p.m. and continuing mapping runs until 4 a.m.

Mapping flights follow a grid plotted out in advance, at an altitude of 10,000- 14,000 feet. From that height, each pass scans a swath 6.5 miles wide. For accuracy, passes overlap each other by 25-30 percent. Flying at 300 miles per hour, a map produced by the Super King is accurate by plus or minus 1 foot. The faster moving jet is only slightly less precise – providing maps accurate to plus or minus 10 feet.

The imagery is sent in real-time to interpreters on the ground while the aircraft are still making runs over a fire. Some 48 interpreters are scattered across the country and will have completed maps on the screens of firefighter command centers before the aircraft make their last landings of the night.