Firefighters prepositioned in southern California for Santa Ana winds

WindFirefighting resources have been prepositioned in southern California for the last two days in order to be ready for any wildfires that break out during the predicted strong Santa Ana winds. There has been “light initial attack” fire activity over the last couple of days, according to the Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center, but no large fires so far. Maybe this can be credited not only to the not-quite-as-strong-as-expected winds, but to aggressive initial attack by the fire agencies. One fire near Fontana burned a few hundred acres before firefighters put it out. Photos of that fire by tjvphoto can be found HERE.

The Red Flag Warning is still in effect through Saturday evening. While the winds have been fairly strong, the predicted northeast winds of 20 to 30 mph gusting at 50 to 60 mph have not quite materialized in most areas. The effect of the Santa Ana condition has been quite variable in southern California, but the Chilao weather station on the Angeles National Forest has been recording some of the highest wind speeds. Since 12:53 a.m. on Saturday it has seen sustained winds in the 30s with gusts above 40 mph; the strongest gust was 49 mph.

Red Flag Warnings, 8:26 a.m. PT, October 27, 2012
Red Flag Warnings, 8:26 a.m. PT, October 27, 2012. These warning areas can change throughout the day as various NWS offices update their forecasts.

The forecast is for northeast winds of 25 to 30 mph gusting up to 30 on Saturday, but the relative humidities will be very low, in some areas going down to 5 percent during the afternoon. The winds will decrease in the late afternoon when the pressure gradient relaxes as the surface high over the Great Basin shifts.

Congressmen hold hearing about Lassen National Park’s Reading Fire

Reading Fire Lassen National Park
Reading Fire, August 7, 2012. Credit: Lassen NPS

Two Congressmen held an informal hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday to hear concerns about the Reading Fire that started in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. The fire was not aggressively suppressed, and later escaped the park and burned 11,071 acres of US Forest Service land and 75 acres of privately owned land outside the boundaries.

Reading Fire, final perimeter
Final perimeter (in red) of the Reading Fire. The green line is the boundary of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

It started from lightning on July 23 and after about two weeks was only 95 acres while being managed for multiple objectives as a “fire for resource benefits”. Fire managers established a 700-acre box in which they intended to contain the fire by taking suppression action as needed to keep it from crossing the lines drawn on a map.

Reading Fire acres through August 12
Size of the Reading Fire through August 12

They were unsuccessful, and on August 6 it moved out of the park, ultimately burning 28,079 acres by the time it was contained on August 21. By August 23 the National Park Service had spent $15,875,495 observing, managing, and later suppressing the fire.

Some of the local residents said at the hearing that with the decline of the timber industry they now rely heavily on tourism. According to their testimony the fire had a negative impact on some of the local businesses during a critical time of the year for their revenue.

The list of government officials that testified at the hearing included:

  • U.S. representatives Wally Herger, R-Chico, and Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay
  • Bill Kaage, the park service’s chief of the Branch of Wildland Fire
  • Andy McMurry, CAL FIRE’s statewide deputy director
  • Joseph Millar, director of Fire and Aviation Management for the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region
  • Rick Kyle, Shasta County Fire Warden
  • Steve Fitch, retired Forest Supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest

According to the Associated Press, Rep. Herger said:

The officials responsible for allowing the fire to burn during “a terrible fire season” should be removed and changes made to the national policy that uses managed wildfires as a tool to clear out forests and improve wildlife habitat.

Mr. Millar said in the hearing that the US Forest Service required all of their fires be aggressively suppressed last summer due to the severity of the fire season. However, the real reason may have been that the agency ran out of enough money to manage limited suppression fires for weeks or months.

CAL FIRE’s Andy McMurry testified that if the fire had started on state-protected lands they would have attempted to put it out immediately.

Retired Forest Supervisor Steve Fitch had earlier blasted the National Park Service for not aggressively suppressing the fire, saying:

I can’t believe they went ahead with letting a fire burn for the ecosystem’s benefit in a season that, for the entire nation, is record dry.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight, a person could assume that if the NPS had suppressed the fire when it was 1/4 acre, or two weeks later when it was 95 acres, it would not have spread outside the park and cost the taxpayers $25 million dollars, and would not have impacted the revenue the local businesses depend on in the summer.

The National Park Service has a mixed record when it comes to accepting accountability for serious mistakes. The Superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial absolutely refused to do so in 2009 when protesters easily cruised through inadequate security measures to hang a huge banner over the sculpture. Superintendent Gerard Baker said:

Is it too bad it happened? Yes. Do I think it was my responsibility? Absolutely not. We did everything proper.

A few months later on the other hand, the acting Superintendent of Yosemite National Park Dave Uberuaga took full responsibility for the planned 90-acre prescribed fire that escaped and became the 7,425-acre Big Meadow fire:

I take full responsibility…I have apologized to the communities. I regret that we had to evacuate them. And I regret the situation we find ourselves in. Still, prescribed fire is a necessary tool in the park.

According to the Record-Searchlight, Lassen National Volcanic Park superintendent Darlene Koontz said in August that her agency apologizes for the “impacts” caused by the Reading fire.

NPS spokesperson Roberta D’Amico told Wildfire Today that the National Park Service has commissioned an interagency investigation which should be complete by mid-November. We will be anxious to see if the report concludes that the agency “did everything proper” in managing the Reading fire.

 

Thanks go out to Kelly

Wildfire morning briefing, October 20, 2012

Smoke from the Witch Creek fire
Smoke from the Witch Creek fire as seen from San Diego harbor, October 23, 2007. Photo by Kat Miner

Witch Creek fire, five years later

Five years after the Witch Creek fire burned 197,990 acres and 1,040 homes in San Diego County, most of the structures have been rebuilt and lessons have been learned about how to better manage similar incidents, before, during and after they occur.

Followup on fire in Bucyrus, North Dakota

An analysis after the fire has determined that four residences and 20 outbuildings were destroyed when a wildfire raged through the small town of Bucyrus, North Dakota October 17. It blackened 6,000 acres along a 10-mile long path. NBC News has some photos that were taken after the fire.

Fire in Nebraska jumps Interstate 80

A 10,000-acre fire destroyed three residences and jumped over Interstate 80 near Paxton, Nebraska on Friday.

Photos of effects of winds in South Dakota

The very strong winds that affected wildfires in South Dakota this week also left some other impacts. The Rapid City Journal has some excellent photos, including one that shows four tractor-trailer trucks that got blown over along a 1/4-mile stretch of Interstate 90.

John N. Maclean’s OP-ED

John N. Maclean had an opinion piece published on the New York Time’s web site October 18 in which he wrote about penalties that have been assessed against arsonists and others who have started wildfires. He also provided some thoughts about how to prevent fires through legislation, and wrote about fires started by shooters, exploding targets, and all-terrain vehicles. Mr. Maclean is the author of several books about wildland fires, including Fire on the Mountain, The Thirtymile Fire, and the forthcoming book The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, about a 2006 wildfire in California.

Waldo Fire volunteer faces sex assault charge

A man who was volunteering for the Red Cross during the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs earlier this year is facing charges of sexually assaulting another volunteer. The victim told police she believes 71-year old Allen Crabtree drugged her and then sexually assaulted her on July 7.

Thanks go out to Kelly and Dietra

Supercomputer model of Esperanza fire

The video below is a simulation of the spread of the Esperanza fire which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in 2006 near Cabazon, California. Raymond Lee Oyler was sentenced to death after he was convicted of five counts of murder and 37 counts of arson for starting this fire and many others.

The simulation was produced by Janice L. Coen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Philip J. Riggan of the Pacific Southwest Research Station.

The description of the video which is on YouTube:

===================================================

It takes a supercomputer to run a mathematical simulation, or model, of the complex processes observed in wildfires. It often takes yet more computing power to visualize the data coming out of the computer model. This fire-behavior simulation reproduces the October 2006 Esperanza Fire near Cabazon, California. Using data from the NCAR fire-weather model, simulations like this one are helping scientists explain the physical processes and behavior within large wildfires.

An arsonist ignited the blaze on the upwind edge of Cabazon Peak during a Santa Ana wind event. Driven by gusty Santa Ana winds, dry chaparral fuels, and steep terrain, the fire rapidly spread up into the San Jacinto Wilderness.

The simulation reproduces several features observed during the fire: the rapid spread to the west-southwest, runs of flame up canyons that lay perpendicular to the wind direction, splitting of the fire into two heads, and feathering of the fire line at the leading edge.

—–Coupled Weather-Fire Simulation of the Esperanza Wildfire—–

Science: Janice Coen (NCAR) and Phillip Riggin (Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service)

Visualization: Janice Coen and Alan Norton, NCAR, using VAPOR (Visualization and Analysis Platform for Ocean, Atmosphere, and Solar Researchers) http://www.vapor.ucar.edu

More information:http://www.mmm.ucar.edu/people/coen/files/newpage_m.html

****

UPDATE November 12, 2013:

Esperanza Fire Factual Report, and the USDA Office of Inspector General’s Report on the fire.

Firefighters hammer new fire north of Santa Barbara

Lookout Fire
Lookout Fire, 11:21 a.m. PT, October 17, 2012, Credit KEYT

(Originally published at 11:50 a.m. PT, October 17, 2012; updated at 6:00 p.m. PT, October 17, 2012)

UPDATE: The fire is 45 percent contained and evacuations have been lifted. The estimated size is holding at 20 to 25 acres. No structures have been damaged. One firefighter suffered a minor leg injury.

===============

Firefighters are aggressively attacking a new vegetation fire, the Lookout fire, in the Los Padres National Forest six miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California. Approximately 40 structures have been evacuated and another 100 are threatened. The fire is in the 2500 block of Highway 154.

Tanker 41 drops on Lookout fire
Tanker 41 drops on Lookout fire, 12:06 p.m. PT, October 17, 2012. A screen grab, credit KEYT

(A better photo of Tanker 41 dropping is at SFGATE.com.)

Early in the fire, which was reported around 8 a.m. PT, at least five and according to some reports as many as eight air tankers were ordered.

KEYT is live-streaming video of the fire.

Lookout Fire
Lookout Fire, S2T drop, 11:23 a.m. PT, October 17, 2012. Credit KEYT

Captain David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said at 11:00 a.m. PT the fire had burned about 15 acres. It is burning on a steep slope in very heavy brush below homes. At 11:50 a.m. the size was estimated at 20 to 30 acres by a firefighter interviewed by KEYT. The spread of the fire has slowed, but there is still a lot of open line left in thick vegetation.

This is an example of how firefighters in some areas of California use overwhelming force to aggressively attack new fires. After having burned for  about 3.5 hours, if they can keep it at 20-25 acres, it will be another success story.

Map of Lookout fire
Map of Lookout fire

The resources that were dispatched to the fire during the early stages included:

  • 3 Dozers
  • 4 Hand Crews
  • 5 Air Tankers
  • 7 Engines
  • 3 Helicopters
  • 3 Water Tenders

Thanks go out to Kelly

Exploding targets, an increasing wildfire problem

Star Exploding Targets, flames
A screen grab from a video endorsed by Cabela’s demonstrating a Star Exploding Target. We added the arrow and the “Flames” text to point out that flames are visible following the explosion.

Originally published October 11, 2012, updated February 6, 2013

Targets that are designed to explode when shot with a rifle have become more popular in recent years, emerging as an increasing threat to our wildlands. The problem is, they sometimes start fires in spite of claims by the manufacturers saying they are safe.

The military has been using them for at least 20 years when training marksmen to hit targets hundreds of yards away, since it can be difficult to see if a target was hit at that distance. When struck with the bullet from a rifle, the explosion and smoke are easily seen and indicate that the shooter hit the target

They are sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, since they are completely inert until two powders are mixed at the site by the target shooter. After they are combined, the compound is illegal to transport. The manufacturers claim that the only way they can be detonated is by striking them with a high-velocity bullet fired from a high-powered center-fire rifle. At least one company has recently started offering targets that will explode when hit with a much less powerful .22 caliber rim-fire rifle.

While the manufacturers claim they can’t start a fire, the screen grab (above) from a video shows flames in the grass just after a target advertised by Cabela’s and manufactured by Star Exploding Targets, explodes. The video is below, however we expect that eventually Cabela’s and Star will remove it from YouTube. The flames are visible three seconds into the video at the bottom left.

In a quick search, we found numerous reports of wildfires having been caused by exploding targets in a 5-month period. The dates below indicate when the information was published.

  • June 17, 2012, Colorado. The Springer Fire in Park County on the Pike National Forest burned 1,045 acres. It was caused by exploding targets.
  • June 13, 2012, Idaho. Four wildfires were caused by shooters using exploding targets up to that date in 2012.
  • June 15, 2012, Washington. A small fire near the mouth of the Grande Ronde River was apparently started by someone shooting at exploding targets.
  • June 16, 2012, Utah. The 300-acre Little Cove fire was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • June 29, 2012, Utah. A fire investigator said eight wildfires in the previous three weeks were caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • July 2, 2012, Nevada. A five-acre fire in Elko was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • August 19, 2012, Oregon. Five shooters were cited for starting a 35-acre fire using Tannerite exploding targets.
  • September 6, 2012, Washington. The Goat Fire burned 7,378 acres 3 miles southwest of Pateros, WA. It was started by exploding targets. Forest Service officials previously said two smaller fires — a 120-acre blaze in Mud Creek Entiat and one on Deadman Hill near Cashmere — may also have been ignited by exploding targets.
  • October 7, 2012, Pennsylvania. Two state Game Commission workers suffered injuries including burns, temporary blindness and hearing damage when an illegal exploding target blew up while the men attempted to put out a fire at a gun range in Pike County.
  • October 11, 2012, California. A 364-acre fire was started by shooters using exploding targets. A news report (see video below) shows two pounds of the explosive being used to blow up a car.
  • October 19, 2012, Utah. Two men have been charged with starting the Dump fire near Saratoga Springs, Utah that burned more than 5,500 acres and cost $2.1 million to put out. About 2,500 people were forced to evacuate. Investigators say the men were shooting June 21 when they hit an explosive target that started the fire in vegetation.
  • October 23, 2012, Nebraska. Three men have been charged with starting a fire by using exploding targets in Nebraska, and starting the Spotted Tail fire that burned 83 acres south of Chadron October 23.

This is a total of 24 fires that were either confirmed or suspected to be caused by exploding targets since the first of June, 2012. And these are just the ones that we were able to find using Google.

In most areas in the western United States exploding targets are illegal to use if there is a law or temporary ban on open fires.

One of the primary manufacturers of the targets is Tannerite. The company has a patent on the devices and has said the fires are caused by other companies infringing on their patent and adding an additional incendiary component in order to produce a more spectacular explosion.

At an online forum for firearms enthusiasts, The Firing Line, some of the posters decry the lack of wisdom of target shooters who start fires with exploding targets. A person using the moniker “g.willikers” wrote:

It seems that we gun owners have two enemies. Those who would deprive us of our gun rights. And those who throw those rights away.

Others on the forum suggested some alternative targets that can produce an impressive display when hit with a bullet, such as:

  • A milk jug filled with water
  • Potatoes
  • Pop can filled with water
  • Fresh cow pie

UPDATE October 12, 2012:

Ken told us about this news report that appeared on television in southern California October 11, 2012, explaining and demonstrating the hazards of these explosive targets. They use two pounds of the explosive to blow up a car, and Chief John Hawkins of CAL FIRE provides his point of view on the problem.