Fire briefing, April 26, 2013

California firefighter entrapped and injured

A Lieutenant with Tulare County in California suffered minor burns to his hands when his patrol unit became stuck in a ditch as a vegetation fire approached. Working by himself, he attempted to knock down the fire using the pump and hose on the truck but was unsuccessful. He was transported to a hospital complaining of difficulty breathing in addition to the burn injuries.

Texas legislature considers bills to promote prescribed fire

The Texas legislature is considering two bills that would make it easier in some cases for landowners to use prescribed fire as a tool. SB 702 would establish standards for prescribed burners, as well as education and insurance for those conducting the prescribed fires. A second bill, SB 764, would limit prescribed burning liability on government-owned agricultural lands, making it easier for government agencies to use prescribed fire, even under a burn ban. Both bills passed unanimously in Senate committees.

Colorado’s risk assessment tool for residents

The Colorado State Forest Service has an online tool available for residents which allows them to explore wildfire risk levels within a 1/2-mile radius of a home, or any other point of interest on the map.

Steam engine starts fires in England

steam engine
North Yorkshire Moors Railway photo

A steam-powered train started three vegetation fires in North Yorkshire County on Sunday in the United Kingdom. The fires burned about 19 acres in a remote area that was difficult for firefighters to access. Some of them hitched a ride on a train from Goathland that was packed with tourists. On Tuesday the train started another fire in Beck Hole. Weather has prevented the North Yorkshire Moors Railway from conducting their usual prescribed fires along the railway.

MAFFS annual training

MAFFS 2 training
A C-130 Hercules from the 302nd Airlift Wing drops a load of water April 22, 2013 near Fairplay, Colo during training. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico) Click to enlarge.

Two of the four military units that provide military C-130 aircraft configured to serve as air tankers are conducting their annual training, certification, and recertification. Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs had their’s April 19-23 and Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne has chosen the week of May 5. The military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) can help fill a need for a surge capacity when all of the privately owned contract air tankers are committed.

Accountability of firefighters

I listened to some of the radio traffic while firefighters were attacking the Madison Fire in Monrovia, east of Los Angeles on Friday. Several times I heard Division Supervisors and the Operations Section Chief make routine inquiries about the exact location of various firefighting resources. It did not appear that they were asking for tactical reasons, but simply wanted to update their records about exactly where every resource was on the fire. It occurred to me that this was Accountability, keeping detailed track of everyone so that in case of a sudden change in fire behavior they could move them around, or if there was a disaster, at least they would  know who needed rescuing, who was missing, or where to look if they had to search for people later.

In my experience, detailed tracking of resources to this extent, minute by minute, is not something that most wildland fire agencies have practiced. Municipal fire departments have emphasized this in the last decade or three. And, yes, on any fire, an Incident Action Plan should be developed indicating the general location of resources, either in someone’s head on a small incident, scribbled on a note pad, or as a formal 10 to 30+ page document on a multi-day fire. Of course, a Division Supervisor should always know the location of the three to seven units for which they are responsible. But as Moltke the Elder is supposed to have said, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. So updating the exact locations of resources is important.

I got to thinking what may have precipitated what appears to be a change in this procedure, at least for the wildland resources operating on the Madison fire in southern California on Friday. Maybe it was because most of the firefighters were from the Monrovia and Los Angeles County fire departments, used to working in a municipal environment. I was reminded of the Esperanza Fire, where a five-person U.S. Forest Service engine crew working in an isolated location was overrun by fire and killed.

Following the huge explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas on Wednesday, in which 12 firefighters and EMS personnel were killed, for the first several days the spokespersons for the incident were saying they did not know exactly how many emergency services personnel were killed or missing. Maybe they just did not choose to release the information, or, perhaps they did not know how many were actively engaged in the suppression of the fire when the facility exploded.

What do you think about enhanced, detailed accountability on wildland fires? Is what I heard on the Madison fire a result of firefighters operating in an urban environment, or has there been an increased emphasis recently among wildland fire agencies?

California: Madison fire threatens structures

Monrovia fire
Madison Fire in Monrovia at 5:47 p.m. PT, screen grab from ABC7, April 20, 2013

UPDATE at 7:09 p.m. PT, April 20, 2013:

The City of Monrovia says the fire has burned 170 acres and is 10 percent contained. Evacuation orders are still in place for all of the affected areas. For more information, visit the city’s web site.

A map of the fire area can be found HERE.

As we write this a bear has been sighted on the east side of the fire. A few hours ago there was another sighting of a bear.

This will be our last update unless there is a significant change in the size of the fire.

Madison Fire
Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s mobile office. LASD photo by Eric Fox.


UPDATE at 5:20 p.m. PT, April 20, 2013:

The ABC TV station in Los Angeles is streaming live video of the fire. But there is no guarantee that it will last more than a few minutes.


UPDATE at 4:54 p.m. PT, April 20, 2013:

The radio traffic has decreased significantly, which usually means the fire is moving more slowly or firefighters are starting to get a handle on it.

The City of Monrovia has announced that the fire has burned 150 acres and mandatory evacuations are still in place. Resources on the fire include 65 fire engines and 6 hand crews. There have been no reports of any structures being damaged.

Madison Fire at 11:57 a.m., April 20, 2013. Photo by David J Smith
Madison Fire at 11:57 a.m., April 20, 2013. Photo by David J Smith

Continue reading “California: Madison fire threatens structures”

CAL FIRE chief pleads not guilty to vehicular manslaughter

A Chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. On August 2, 2012, Timothy J. McClelland, the Chief of the San Bernardino unit, rear-ended a vehicle driven by Gregory Francis Kirwin, 48, of Banning. Mr. Kirwin died at the scene.

The California Highway Patrol report said Chief McClelland was using a cell phone when the pickup truck he was driving rear-ended the Ford Focus driven by Mr. Kirwin.


Thanks go out to Ken

Southern California fire destroys two homes

A wind-driven wildfire in rural Ventura County, California burned 170 acres and at least two homes Monday evening 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It began as a mobile home fire and quickly spread uphill into the vegetation requiring the evacuation of about 84 homes, affecting some 200 people. Just after midnight Tuesday morning the residents were allowed back into their homes after 400 firefighters from Ventura County, L.A. County, Santa Barbara, Santa Paula and Fillmore slowed the spread of the fire which. By 6 a.m. Tuesday it was 80 percent contained.

KTLA has a video report.

Wildfire briefing, March 27, 2013

25,000 acres burned in Mexican wildfires

According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, about 25,000 acres burned last week in the Huasteca Potosina region in the north-central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. Two people were identified as suspects for starting a fire near the town of Lagunillas. One person died in one of the fires, which have been fought by 600 firefighters.

USFS says naturally occurring asbestos was not a problem on the Chips Fire

The U.S. Forest Service conducted extensive tests of naturally occurring asbestos on the Chips Fire that burned over 75,000 acres on the Plumas/Lassen National Forest last August. The results indicated that firefighters were not exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos particles and confirmed that there is no need to wear high-efficiency particulate air respirators in the area. During suppression activities a Safety Officer, worried that dust might contain asbestos, had raised the issue of firefighter safety in areas where fireline was being constructed by crews and dozers.

Victims of Colorado’s Lower North Fork Fire have filed 95 claims against the government

At least 95 claims have been filed against government agencies in Colorado following the Lower North Fork Fire, a state-run prescribed fire that escaped March 26, 2012, killed three local residents at their homes and burned 27 structures. An article in the Denver Post quotes a local resident who said two previous prescribed fires in the area also escaped or reignited before the state ignited the Lower North Fork project.

Volunteer firefighter charged with arson

Nathaniel Ridgway Schmidt, a former volunteer firefighter with the Timber Cove Fire Protection District in Sonoma County, California, has been charged with setting five fires in Sonoma and San Mateo Counties.

One of the cases occurred on a prescribed fire when Mr. Schmidt was tasked with patrolling a section of fireline. Here is an excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle:

…A half-hour later, Schmidt yelled that the fire was out of control, but investigators determined he had set a new quarter-acre blaze, [District Attorney Steve] Wagstaffe said. He said authorities believe Schmidt, who has no prior criminal record, set the fires “for excitement.”

The San Mateo County fire happened eight days after the first two of four fires allegedly set by Schmidt in Sonoma County. Prosecutors there charged Schmidt with four felony counts of arson and five misdemeanor counts of falsely reporting emergencies, including a car going over a cliff.


Thanks go out to Dick, Chuck, and Kelly.