California: dozer rolls over in Mendocino County

Dozer rolloverThe California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has released a preliminary accident report, a “Green Sheet”, for an accident on the Pond fire in the northern part of the state, June 14, 2012 in Mendocino County. The dozer was privately owned and there were no injuries to the operator.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

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SEQUENCE OF EVENTS

The fire occurred in an area of steep slopes, heavy fuels in a Wildland Urban Interface/Intermix setting. The fire was spotting in areas due to winds, steep slopes and receptive fuel beds.

As the dozer operator took action along the road, he observed the fire had extended below the road at a bend. The operator attempted to flank the fire and tie a dozer line in between the two road segments. The operator stated the visibility was very poor due to heavy smoke lying down in the area. The operator stated as he began to climb uphill to tie the line in, the slopes became very steep. Due to the steepness of the slope, the operator made three unsuccessful attempts to connect the line to the upper portion of the road.

On his third attempt to connect the line, the operator encountered a log in his path. As the operator attempted to move the log, his dozer slid perpendicular to the slope, reducing the dozer maneuverability. The operator then stated he attempted to make his way off the slope. As he moved down the slope, he encountered a soft spot of soil which caused him to slide a short distance downhill (approximately 10 feet). The operator stated the slide caused his downhill tracks to settle on a loose root wad mass. The operator said as he began to move the dozer the root wad mass acted like a fulcrum and flipped the dozer onto its side/top. The operator said he shut the dozer off and waited to ensure the dozer was done moving. Once he was confident it wasn’t moving any further, he released his seat belt and exited the dozer without any further incident.

INJURIES/DAMAGES

The equipment operator self extricated himself from the dozer and did not complain of any injuries.

The dozer has a bent grab handle on the right side of the cab. No other cosmetic damage was noted. The extent of the mechanical damage has yet to be determined.

Wildfire morning briefing, May 9, 2012

It is dry in much of the southwestern and eastern United States

Average precipitation, January through April, 2012:

map percent of average precipitation

Drought conditions as of May 1, 2012:

Map drought conditions

Escaped prescribed fires complicate future projects in Australia

Last year we first wrote about the prescribed fire in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park that escaped on November 23, 2011 and pushed by strong winds, destroyed 40 structures and burned over 8,400 acres in western Australia. Residents who had refused to evacuate later had to take refuge from the fire at the ocean on a beach. They were rescued by jet ski and ferried to a search and rescue boat offshore. The report on the incident was very critical of the government’s prescribed fire program, saying some employees of the Department of Environment and Conservation were overworked and performing above their skill levels.

A recent article in The Independent examines further the prescribed fire program in Australia in light of the recent failures. Here is an excerpt:

…A lobby group called the Bush Fire Front, which was set up by a group of retired foresters in western Australia, is also predicting dire consequences unless the burning programme is “greatly expanded”. The Front’s chairman, Roger Underwood, deplores a backlash against DEC’s staff, who have stopped wearing uniforms after being hissed at and abused in the Margaret River shops.

“DEC has been looking after their fire safety for years, doing all the dirty work,” says Mr Underwood. “They make one mistake and are crucified for it.”

However, as locals point out, it was not just one mistake. On the day of the fire, another controlled burn escaped near Nannup, east of Margaret River, incinerating 125,000 acres of national park and state forest, and damaging a farm part-owned by Stewart and Alison Scott. Mr Scott was about to start the afternoon’s milking when he saw flames sweeping towards his property. He dashed over to warn his family, but the smoke was so thick that one of his farmhands – who had leapt on a quad bike – collided with a car. The man suffered head injuries and spent months in Royal Perth Hospital.

California wildfire burns structures

A wildfire near Acton, California in southern California yesterday burned 126 acres and several structures. Inspector Quvondo Johnson of Los Angeles County Fire Department said an aggressive air attack, which included five helicopters and fixed wing air tankers, helped the crews on the ground contain the fire.

CAL FIRE sent S-2 air tankers from Porterville and Hemet, 120 miles and 90 miles from the fire, respectively. There were no federal air tankers at the air tanker base at Landcaster, 18 miles from the fire. The DC-10 very large air tankers are based at Victorville, 60 miles east of Acton.

Is fire suppression causing water shortages?

An opinion piece in the LA Times claims the 100-year old policy of wildfire suppression in the United States has caused water shortages. The theory is that over-stocked forests that have become that way due to successful suppression of fires, have locked up moisture in the trees and reduced runoff. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Today, the hottest and thirstiest parts of the United States are best described as over-forested. Vigorous federal protection has stocked semiarid regions of public land with several billion trees too many. And day after day these excess trees deplete a natural resource that has become far more precious than toilet paper or 2-by-4’s: water.

I will have to go on record as being skeptical of this trees-causing-water-shortage theory.

2011 summary of incident reviews

The Wildfire Lessons Learned Center has released a report summarizing the information gleaned from the seventy-eight 2011 incident review reports—from various agencies—submitted to and gathered by the LLC.

New Mexico establishes fire notification system

The state of New Mexico has established a system by which residents can be notified about wildfires. Emails will contain information including when the fire started, the cause, and a description of threatened homes and communities. For now, the system will send people who sign up for the service information about all fires within the state. Later it will be refined so that notifications can be filtered to more specific locations, such as counties. Anyone can sign up HERE.

 

Thanks go out to Johnny and Dick.

GAO formally releases report on Station fire

Yesterday Wildfire Today reported that the Associated Press had obtained a draft copy of the report the Government Accountability Office prepared on the controversies surrounding the Station Fire that killed two firefighters and burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles in 2009.

Now the GAO has formally released the 80-page report (5.5 MB) along with a one page summary of their findings (80 KB).

The fire seemed more or less controlable until mid-morning on the second day when it exhibited extreme fire behavior and was off to the races.

One of the issues the GAO focused on was the fact that air tankers were requested by the Incident Commander at the end of the first day to be over the fire at 7:00 a.m. the next morning. The request was handled oddly and was delayed, and conflicting information was provided to the GAO from dispatch personnel who processed the order.

There seemed, although it was not explicitly identified, that there was a preference to order U.S. Forest Service air tankers, and a hesitancy to use state aircraft. This may have been due to the USFS memo that was issued a few weeks before the Station fire requiring fire managers to consider using USFS resources rather than state and local fire equipment and personnel in order to save money. The report concluded that USFS air tankers could not have arrived at the fire before approximately 9:00 a.m. on the second day due to the crews having worked on fires into the evening the previous day, and crew rest requirements came into play.

CalFire air tankers were not ordered for the second day and they may have been available, however since there were only three air tankers unassigned that day in California the state may or may not have released them for the Station fire, preferring to hold on to them for initial attack.

The Air Tactical Group Supervisor requested a Very Large Air Tanker three times on the second day and all three requests were denied by the Incident Commander and “an Angeles National Forest fire management official”. The IC and the ANF official disagreed with the ATGS about the potential effectiveness of a VLAT. Or, (but the report does not say this) they were concerned with monetary constraints.

Some other issues addressed in the GAO report include:

  • The non-use of LA County’s night flying helicopters, and the general lack of night flying capability within the USFS;
  • The timing of ordering an incident management team;
  • Whether the USFS mobilized its own assets rather than local ones in certain instances, even though its assets were located farther away and would take longer to arrive.
  • Whether more action could have been taken to protect homes in Big Tujunga Canyon, an area where dozens of homes were destroyed.
  • Adequacy and appropriateness of firefighting strategies and tactics.
  • Sufficiency and capability of aviation assets within the USFS agencywide.

The GAO report does not provide much in the way of specific judgments or recommendations. Some of the information they sought was not available in written form, and the agency personnel they interviewed sometimes provided conflicting testimony.

These were two “executive recommendations” made by the GAO:

  1. to clarify the Forest Service’s intent and to reduce uncertainty about how its assets are to be used relative to those of other agencies, issue guidance describing when it expects its own firefighting assets to be used instead of contract or state and local agency assets, and,
  2. document the steps it plans to take, and the associated time frames, to implement the lessons it identified in its review of the Station Fire.

The official Lessons Learned document issued by the USFS can be found HERE.

20 years later, potential for another Oakland Hills fire?

It was 20 years ago today that a rapidly moving fire in the Oakland Hills east of San Francisco ravaged a community. Here is the way we describe it in our Infamous Fires Around the World document:

The “Tunnel Fire”, commonly referred to as the Oakland Hills fire or East Bay Hills fire, occurred on Sunday October 20, 1991. The fire killed 25 people (23 civilians, 1 police officer, and 1 firefighter), injured 150, and destroyed 2,449 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. Eleven of the fire victims died in traffic jams on Charing Cross Road while evacuating. Eight others died on narrow streets in the same area. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.

1991 Oakland Hills fire progression mapThe fire started when an ember from a grass fire the previous day blew beyond the fire hoses that were still on the fire perimeter and started a new fire. Houses, like the vegetation, have grown back and some of the residents that lived through the 1991 fire are worried when they look around and see that some of their new neighbors are not doing as much as they could to prevent another disaster.

Here is an excerpt from an interesting article in the Mercury News:

As autumn returned and the mercury hovered in the 90s in the Oakland hills, Milt Brown started to feel anxious.

Twenty years ago, on a scorching, wind-whipped day, he lost two houses in one of the nation’s deadliest and most destructive urban wildfires, an inferno that jumped two freeways, destroyed more than 3,800 homes and killed 25 people, including the Browns’ former baby sitter.

Although he tries not to dwell on the horrible memories — or the chance of another devastating blaze — Brown and other survivors of the Oakland hills fire worry that the painful lessons of that day are being forgotten. Or worse, they are being ignored by the many newer residents who didn’t experience firsthand the hell of Oct. 20, 1991. Even the subtlest signs of danger make him nervous.

“I’m looking at the two houses below me and the branches are touching the house,” Brown said from his perch on Buckingham Boulevard — less than a minute’s walk from where the fire erupted on a hot Sunday morning. “I’m in a box canyon. If someone throws a match in there it will set the whole block off.”

But it isn’t just those who lived through the Oakland hills fire who are anxious about what they fear is a growing complacency that has built up alongside the stately homes in these steep, once-woodsy enclaves. Fire officials say that time has not only given rise to dense stands of fast-growing and fire-susceptible eucalyptus on public lands, it has also given vegetation on private property throughout the hills 20 years to mature. It often takes a second notice before residents take heed and clear a defensible space around their homes to protect it from fire.

 
Thanks go out to Dick

Wildland firefighter memorial dedicated in California

Dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial
Dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial. Photo: Southwest Riverside News Network

After two decades of planning and overcoming funding shortfalls, the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial was dedicated on Saturday west of Elsinore, California off the Ortega Highway about two miles from the location of the 1959 Decker fire which killed six firefighters. It is a few hundred yards east of the U. S. Forest Service El Cariso engine station, which is across the highway from the former location of the El Cariso Hot Shot camp. I worked at both places in the 1970s.

More than 300 firefighters and family members paid tribute at the memorial which will display about 200 plaques in remembrance of the 400 people who died fighting wildland fires in California.

Here is an excerpt from an article at SWNN.com:

After more than 50 years, Carlo Guthrie still cries over her husband’s death—and on Saturday, her tears were bittersweet. Carlo, the wife of fallen California Division of Forestry fire truck driver John Guthrie, was among the more than 300 who gathered for the dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial off the Ortega Highway.

“The tears will never stop. I bet you everything when there’s a wildland fire, there’s widows out there watching that fire, I always am,” she said. “And now there’s a place where John and all California firefighters who gave the ultimate sacrifice can be honored.”

The memorial site sits off the Ortega in the hills above Lake Elsinore, and near the grounds where crews battled the deadly 1959 Decker blaze, which claimed the life of John and five other firefighters.

It serves as a spot where families, comrades and survivors can reflect. The memorial consists of a red brick Maltese cross, guarded by a rock wall with fire plaques embossed with the names of fatal fires, the county, year and the number of fire personnel lost in the blaze. The ground in front of the monument is covered in red bricks engraved with the names of fallen firefighters.

Photos and more details about the dedication ceremony.

Web site for the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial