Former California firefighter charged with setting 7 fires

Zane Wallace Peterson
Zane Wallace Peterson

CAL FIRE law enforcement officers arrested former firefighter Zane Wallace Peterson, 29, of Happy Valley, California Tuesday morning on suspicion of intentionally setting seven fires in Shasta County, including the September 9th, 2013 Clover Fire. Peterson was booked into the Shasta County Jail and charged with over 200 arson-related counts, including 60 for arson to occupied structures.

  • Arson of a Structure or Vegetation (Penal Code 451(c)) 140 Counts
  • Arson that causes great bodily injury (Penal Code 451(a)) 1 Count
  • Arson to Occupied Structures (Penal Code 451(b)) 60 Counts.
  • Arson with Aggravating Factors (Penal Code 451.1(a)(4)) 2 Counts
  • Arson using Incendiary Device (Penal Code 453) 5 Counts

He was also charged with homicide for the death of one person on the Clover Fire. On September 10, 2013 the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office located a deceased person, identified as Brian Stanley Henry, 56, inside the Clover Fire perimeter on Coal Pit Road in the community of Igo, California while conducting a welfare check.

Mr. Peterson will be arraigned Wednesday afternoon in Shasta County.

The U.S. Forest Service confirmed that Mr. Peterson was a former employee on the Mendocino National Forest. He worked as a firefighter (Forestry Technician) and fire engine operator from May 15, 2005 until October 22, 2012.

The Clover Fire burned 8,073 acres and threatened over 500 residences. It destroyed 60 occupied residences and 130 outbuildings. Over 1500 firefighters from across the state responded at the height of the incident. The cost to contain and control the fire was over $7.3 million.

Fire at Big Sur burns homes, forces evacuations

(UPDATED at 11:35 a.m. PST, December 19, 2013)

Map of Pfeiffer Fire
Map of Pfeiffer Fire, looking northwest, showing the fire perimeter at 10:34 p.m. PST, December 18, 2013. (Click to enlarge)

An update from the Pfeiffer Fire Incident Management Team (IMT) at about 11 a.m. today revised the size to 917 acres and the containment to 79 percent. The evacuations of the Pfeiffer Ridge Road area remain in effect and the number of destroyed homes is still at 22. More information from the IMT:

Crews made good progress overnight in mopping up and strengthening lines in all areas of the fire. Structure protection continued as well. The expected strong winds which accompanied the cold front moved over the fire at approximately 10:00 pm. The stronger winds created a risk to firefighters from falling trees so crews were pulled off the lines to safety points and the fire was in a monitoring status for the remainder of the shift. Scattered rain occurred over the fire area.

QR code for Pfeiffer Fire maps
QR code for Pfeiffer Fire maps

Maps of the fire can be found at the IMT’s Dropbox account. In an interesting twist, California Interagency Incident Management Team 7 did not place any maps on InciWeb, but instead posted an image of a QR code which when scanned with a barcode app on a smart phone will take you to Dropbox. If you viewed Inciweb with a computer or a smart phone, you would not have access to the maps, since neither the smart phone or a computer can scan an image on its own screen. You would have to view the QR code on one device and scan it with a second device. QR codes of map locations on the internet can be useful when printed on an Incident Action Plan handed out to firefighters, but an image of one on an internet site is difficult or impossible to use.

Community meeting at Pfeiffer Fire
Community meeting at Pfeiffer Fire, December 18, 2013. Photo by Manuel Madrigal.

 

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(UPDATED at 10:00 a.m. PST, December 18, 2013)

According to the Forest Service, the Pfeiffer Fire on the California coast at Big Sur is now being called 50 percent contained after burning 850 acres and destroying 22 structures, including 14 homes along Pfeiffer Ridge Road. Firefighters were able to save 24 other structures directly threatened by fire. The Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade reports that although her home was lost in the early hours of the fire, their Fire Chief Martha Karstens remains dedicated to the Big Sur community by staying on-duty managing fire brigade resources and responding to emergency incidents.

They are expecting complete containment at 6 p.m. on Friday, December 20.

Evacuations of the Pfeiffer Ridge Road area remain in effect.

Air tankers have been grounded for portions of the last two days due to smoke causing visibility problems. However nine helicopters have been dropping water on the fire. Other resources assigned to the fire include:

  • 20 crews
  • 46 engines
  • 2 dozers
  • 4 water tenders, and
  • 879 personnel

 

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(UPDATED at 5:50 p.m. PST, December 17, 2013)

The Los Padres National Forest reports that the fire is 20 percent contained and has blackened 769 acres — 22 structures have burned. Full containment is expected Friday evening.

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(UPDATED at 3:12 p.m. PST, December 17, 2013)

A community meeting for the residents of Big Sur will be held this afternoon December 17 at 4:00 pm at the Big Sur Station, Highway 1, Big Sur, CA.

An update from the U.S. Forest Service puts the fire at 500 acres and 5 percent contained. However, heavy smoke and rough terrain make mapping the fire difficult. The fire behavior has been described as running, with spot fires igniting up to 1/4 mile ahead.

The 495 people assigned to the fire include 18 hand crews, 44 engines, 2 dozers, and 3 water tenders.

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(UPDATED at 10:20 a.m. PST, December 17, 2013)

Pfeiffer Fire at night from space
Pfeiffer Fire at night from space, very early in the morning on Monday and Tuesday. Bay Area National Weather Service. Click to enlarge.

The cause of the Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California that started between Pfeiffer Ridge and Sycamore Canyon has not been determined. The Associated Press is quoting a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson as saying Tuesday morning it has burned about 550 acres and is 5 percent contained.

The Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade reported Monday afternoon that 15 to 20 homes had burned but that due to heavy smoke in the area it was difficult to determine the exact numbers. The fire is west of Highway 1, which is still open.

Map of Pfeiffer Fire
Map of Pfeiffer Fire, showing the APPROXIMATE location Monday night, December 17, 2013.

The map of the Pfeiffer Fire above depicts the approximate location of the fire based on data from a satellite which can detect heat.

The U.S. Forest Service is still responsible for suppression of the fire and has assigned 625 firefighters who were working under the direction of Curt Schwarm’s Incident Management Team. But at 6 a.m. Tuesday a Type 2 IMT will assume command, with Incident Commander Mark Nunez.

The weather forecast is more favorable for firefighters today, calling for much higher humidities of 30 to 35 percent, mostly sunny skies, and moderate winds. The wind should be 3 to 7 mph, but the direction could be quite variable, again providing a challenge for fire personnel.

At 9:04 a.m. today a nearby weather station recorded 66 degrees, 24 percent relative humidity, and a south-southeast wind of 2 mph gusting to 7 mph.

Continue reading “Fire at Big Sur burns homes, forces evacuations”

CAL FIRE summarizes 2013 wildfire season

After one of the driest winters on record, California’s 2013 fire season was extremely active. The lack of winter rains resulted in dry conditions across the state leading to a number of unseasonably large wildfires early in the year and a continued trend of above normal fire activity. This YouTube video summarizes the activity across the state this year.

Wildfire briefing, December 9, 2013

Hunter to be charged for starting Rim Fire

A hunter is expected to be charged for acts that resulted in starting the Rim Fire, which this summer burned 402 square miles of forest in and near Yosemite National Park in California. Sfgate.com reported that Michael Knowles of the U.S. Attorney’s office has indicated that charges will be filed, but the identity of the person has not been revealed. Fire officials said earlier that a hunter’s illegal campfire was the origin of the blaze.

Reporter remembers writing the story about the South Canyon Fire

A reporter has written an interesting article about what it was like to first hear the news and write the story of the 14 firefighters that were killed on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1994.

Billie Stanton was working in the news room with Jim Kirksey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, when the call came in from reporter Robert (Bob) Kowalski near the fire scene.

…As the fastest typist, I was taking down the victims’ ages and names as Bob carefully recited the spellings. Kirksey was fashioning the story.

But the names kept coming and coming. “Is that it?” I would ask. “No, I have more,” Bob would say.

I’m uncertain now on whose name I began to cry. One of those four beautiful young women from Prineville, Ore., I think — Tammy Bickett or Kathi Beck, Terri Hagen or Bonnie Holtby.

I’d never covered a wildfire; I didn’t even know women were fighting them. But the image of 14 young firefighters trapped by flames was seared into my consciousness.

$225 burial allowances for Mann Gulch Fire victims

I’m not sure if this fact was in Young Men and Fire or not, but the Billings Gazette, in writing about the passing of attorney Louise Replogle Rankin Galt who died last month at age 90, reported that she was involved in a court case related to the Mann Gulch Fire. Obviously litigation following fatal fires is not a recent phenomenon.

Replogle unsuccessfully sued the federal government seeking more than the $225 burial allowances for the families of each of the 13 firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers, killed in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, her niece, Candace Johnson Kruger, of Columbia Falls, recalled.

 

Thanks go out to Wendy

Looking back at California’s Blue Ribbon Report following the fires of 2003

California fires October, 2003
Southern California fires, October 2003. Moving northwest to southeast along the coast, the first cluster of red dots is a combination of the Piru, Verdale, and the Simi Incident Fires; The next cluster-to the east of Los Angeles-is the Grand Prix (west) and Old (east) Fires; To their south is the Roblar 2 Fire; Next is the Paradise Fire; Then the massive Cedar Fire, whose thick smoke is completely overshadowing the coastal city of San Diego; Finally, at the California-Mexico border is the Otay Fire. (A fire in Baja California is also visible.) NASA photo.

It has been a decade since numerous large fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres in southern California in late October, 2003.

Some of the larger ones included Piru, Grand Prix, Old, Paradise, Padua, Simi, Roblar 2, Verdale, Mountain, and Otay. And the Cedar Fire east of San Diego is still ranked as the largest fire in the recorded history of California. The first night it killed 14 people. The fire burned 273,246 acres, and destroyed 2,232 homes in eastern San Diego County. While trying to defend a house near Santa Ysabel, fire Captain Steven Rucker, 38, from the Novato Fire Department was overrun by the fire and killed.

After that fire season the Blue Ribbon Fire Commission’s subsequent 232-page report made more than 40 recommendations. The Sacramento Bee summarized the status of some that were more notable:

  • Allocating “sufficient funds” to state and local fire agencies to address California’s fire prevention and suppression needs. Status: Budget cuts reduced funding. A new fire-prevention fee generated an estimated $85 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
  • Replacing and diversifying Cal Fire’s “aging helicopter fleet.” Status: Cal Fire is finishing up design specifications for a helicopter with night-flighting and other firefighting capabilities.
  • Creating a “multi-layered” public education campaign for people living in fire-prone areas. Status: There is no stand-alone state campaign. A mix of local and nonprofit groups is publicizing the risk.
  • Adopting new building codes for vents, roofing and other features for homes. Status: Codes were passed by Legislature in 2004 and required of new construction in 2008.
  • Expanding vegetation clearance around homes. Status: In 2004, the Legislature increased defensible space from 30 feet to 100 feet.
  • Acquire 150 additional fire engines to address California’s fire suppression needs. Status: The state purchased 19 fire engines in 2008. Twenty-five more engines will be delivered in 2014.

More information:

 

Thanks go out to Ken

One of the first times a fire shelter was used

A former member of the El Cariso Hotshots, a southern California crew based on the Cleveland National Forest, sent us a copy of a newspaper article from August 9, 1964 that described a “new three-pound bodyguard” carried by U.S. Forest Service firefighters. It was one of the early versions of the tent-like aluminum fire shelters which are now standard issue for most wildland firefighters in the United States.

But what was news to me was an entrapment of 36 members of El Cariso on June 22 of that year when they deployed the shelters on a fire near San Bernardino County’s Cajon Pass. The article said they set an escape fire, then deployed the shelters in the freshly blackened area. No one was burned, except for one crewmember who was in a different location and did not use his fire shelter. He suffered serious burns which could have been worse, Lynn Biddison the Forest Fire Control Officer said, if he had not been wearing another new piece of equipment, a cotton shirt treated to be fire resistant.

The Hotshots were told at the time that it was the first time fire shelters had been deployed in a life-saving situation.

El Cariso Hotshots entrapment, 1964

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe when 12 members of El Cariso were entrapped and killed on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest two years later on November 1, 1966, they were not carrying their fire shelters because a decision had been made that it was not necessary because the fire was relatively quiet.

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(UPDATE November 13, 2013)

Concerning the use of fire shelters on the Loop Fire, below is a passage from the report on that fatal fire:

Loop Fire, shelters

Thanks go out to Rogers