Is a little pre-fire mitigation around structures better than none?

According to experience from Colorado’s Fourmile Canyon Fire, sometimes the answer is “No”.

When Dave Lasky was leading the effort in the Four Mile Fire Protection District not far from Boulder, Colorado conducting pre-fire mitigation near structures, he and others assumed that doing SOMETHING, cutting trees and building slash piles, would be better than doing nothing. They realized it would not be the total solution in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), but when the Fourmile Canyon Fire started on September 2, 2010 the Fire Protection District found out how wrong they were.

Fourmile fire_map_MODIS_0418_9-8-2010
Map of the Fourmile fire near Boulder, showing heat detected by the MODIS satellite at 4:18 a.m. Sept. 8, 2010. Map by Wildfire Today and NASA.

After the ashes cooled, Dr. Jack Cohen, a U.S. Forest Service fire researcher who has investigated the effects on structures at numerous WUI fires, found what he has seen many times before (more details here). Most of the damaged homes, 83 percent in this case, ignited from airborne fire embers or surface fire spreading to contact the structure; not from high intensity crown fire or direct flame impingement.

The fuel reduction along travel corridors may have helped residents to evacuate, but the unburned slash piles, Mr. Lasky said, could have been a problem:

 In several areas, our crew’s piles were associated with complete stand mortality. We created ladders into the canopy. At best, these unburned piles represented a sad waste of money, and at worst, it is possible that if we hadn’t treated them, these stands might not have carried fire.

Below are excerpts from an article written by Mr. Lasky about what he learned. It first appeared at the website for Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.


“Doing something is not better than doing nothing.
When the mitigation crew approached residents in the past, they often said, “I didn’t move up here to see my neighbors. I don’t want to cut trees.” In an effort to build momentum, we often performed work that we knew was not reflective of the best science, cutting fewer trees than we should have. This practice was in regard to both defensible space as well as shaded fuel-break projects. The hope was that as communities adjusted to the cosmetic changes, we’d be able to reenter and accomplish more.

“I still hear many colleagues say “let’s just get something done.” I believe this is wrong. We need to do it right or not do it at all. Half measures are proven to fail and engaging in them has great reputational costs. In the current climate of high-profile, catastrophic fires, I am not interested in fear mongering. But I am interested in applying our limited resources to only those communities that are fully committed.

“It’s not just about cutting trees in the wildland-urban interface.
Fuels crews are run by firefighters. Perhaps they should be run by architects. In retrospect, we spent far too much money on fuels reduction and not enough on assisting residents with the installation of fire-resistant building materials and landscaping. Few of the homes lost were directly impacted by crown fire; rather, embers undoubtedly ignited the fine fuels around them, which eventually led to the loss of entire structures. In many instances, residents would have been better served by our crew putting a decorative stone perimeter around the structure. Many residents are capable of cleaning gutters, but less can move tons of gravel. We had chainsaws, and we knew how to use them. We should have picked up our shovels instead.”

University exhibit recognizes contributions of Paul Gleason

The exhibit will be at Colorado State University through January 31, 2018

Paul Gleason
Paul Gleason. From Wildland Fire Leadership.

Colorado State University is hosting an exhibit featuring a wildland firefighter who made significant contributions to our culture of safety and leadership. Even though he retired in 2001 and succumbed to cancer two years later his name and legacy live on through the annual Paul Gleason Lead by Example Award and “LCES”. After his experience on the 1990 Dude Fire  he developed the easy to remember concept of “Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones (LCES)” which he distilled from the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders. He as also the first person I knew to use the phrase “student of fire”.

The “Student of Fire” exhibit will be at the Colorado State University’s Morgan Library, room 202, through January 31, 2018, at 1201 Central Avenue Mall, Fort Collins, Colorado. (map)

The article below about Paul and the exhibit was written by Linda Meyer for the University.


Exhibit recognizes contributions of Paul Gleason, wildfire safety pioneer

Morgan Library Archives and Special Collections is featuring an exhibit showcasing the contributions of Paul Gleason to the field of wildland fire science through Jan. 31.

Gleason contributed significant training materials to the field, especially on the topic of firefighter safety. After retiring from a career as a wildland firefighter, leader, and strategist he became a faculty member at Colorado State University in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, where a scholarship has been established in his name.

Karen Miranda Gleason donated her late husband’s papers, photographs and documents detailing events such as the Crosier Mountain prescribed fire west of Fort Collins, to Morgan Library. The collection also features Gleason’s 1991 paper, “Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zones,” commonly referred to as “LCES” or “the LCES concept,” which has become the foundation of current wildland firefighter safety.

Pioneer in wildfire safety
Born in 1946 in Chicago, Illinois, to a homemaker from Seattle and a Baptist minister from Tacoma, Washington, Gleason grew up in Southern California. Becoming an accomplished rock climber in his teens, he continued to enjoy climbing throughout his life. Correspondence between Gleason and his father often refers to his love of the outdoors and mountaineering.

Gleason’s career as a firefighter began in 1964 in the Angeles National Forest as an 18-year-old member of the Dalton Hotshot Crew. He served with that crew through 1970, interrupted only by a one-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army. From 1971 to 1973, he attended Colorado State University and earned a degree in mathematics.

In 1974, Gleason returned to work as a firefighter, serving as the assistant foreman for a Regional Reinforcement Crew on the Okanogan National Forest. In 1977, he became the assistant superintendent of the ZigZag Hotshot Crew at Mount Hood National Forest, moving into the position of superintendent two years later.

Paul Gleason exhibitGleason began work as a district fire management officer for the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest in 1992, eventually becoming the forest fire ecologist. In 1999, he moved to the position of deputy fire management officer for the Rocky Mountain Region of the National Park Service. Mandatory retirement  in 2001 sent Gleason into academia at age 55. He served as an adjunct professor for the Wildland Fire Science program at Colorado State University for two years before losing his battle with cancer in 2003.

Gleason received numerous awards and recognitions throughout his career. He was heavily involved in three significant fires: the Loop Fire in 1966, the Dude Fire in 1990, and the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000.

Engine rollover on Hauser Road

There were two minor injuries among the three-person crew

Above: photo from the report.

(Originally published at 4:40 p.m. November 27, 2017)

An engine carrying three wildland firefighters slid off a muddy road September 12, 2017 and rolled over two-and-a-half times when they were returning from a smoke check. Considering the violent accident, the injuries were minor — a laceration on one person and a broken rib on another.

The report released by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center does not specify where the the rollover occurred, except that the crew was returning to Montrose, Colorado, an investigator came from Grand Junction, and it also mentioned a couple of landmarks, if true, that are known only to locals, such as Hauser Road.

The truck was a U.S. Forest Service Ford F-550 configured as a Type 6 engine which sustained major damage. The roof partially collapsed, crushing some of the side windows:

…the crew barely had enough room to crawl out the opening with metal scraping against their backs and stomachs.

The damage to the truck and the injuries to the firefighters might have been worse if the truck had not had the “Rear Cab Protection Rack (headache rack)”, a structure behind the cab. But apparently it did not have a full cab roll bar. (UPDATE November 30, 2017: the report lists the headache rack under “What went well”, but does not elaborate. These structures are designed to hold lights and to prevent cargo from sliding forward through the rear window, but should not be expected to provide serious protection during a rollover. We added the next photo that was included in the report, which offered no caption or explanation. It is unknown if it shows the engine involved in the rollover.)

Headache Rack
Headache rack, intended to provide a location to install lights, and to prevent cargo from sliding forward through the rear window.
fire engine accident rollover colorado
Photo from the report.

Below is an excerpt from the report; it begins as the truck was sliding on the muddy road:

Engine 36’s passenger-side front wheel slid toward the edge. Everyone braced for the expected bump into the lip of the road. However nothing was there to slow the engine’s slide to the right and the front wheel went off the road, followed by the rest of Engine 36.

The engine violently rolled two-and-a-half times down the embankment, gaining speed with each rotation. “When will this end!” the Engine Captain thought to himself as glass shattered, metal crumpled and screeched, and the world spun end over end.

Engine 36 came to rest on its roof, braced against large trunks of oak brush. Everything in the cab came to a stop. A muffled and intermittently eerie buzzing came from the horn. Water hissed. As the crew steadied themselves, calling out to check the status of each other, a loud “pop” from the roof was heard.

As they felt the vehicle’s cab start to give a little bit, the decision was made to exit as quickly as possible. The curtain airbags were still partially inflated. Captain 36 had to deflate them with his personal knife. Exiting out the passenger side window, the crew barely had enough room to crawl out the opening with metal scraping against their backs and stomachs.

There has been an epidemic of wildland fire engine rollovers. This is the 48th article on Wildfire Today tagged “rollover”.

We still stand behind what we wrote in a 2015 article about the many firefighter fatalities from rollovers:

The wildland fire agencies should fund research conducted by engineers to determine how to prevent the passenger compartments in their fire engines from collapsing in accidents.

Colorado is a developing a system for relaying data to wildland firefighters

Above: screenshot from the video below.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control is working on a system that could assist wildland firefighters on the ground by reporting their location as well as displaying current maps and real time aerial video of the fire.

Time-lapse of prescribed fire in southwest Colorado

The video shows a time-lapse of a prescribed fire in Lone Mesa State Park in the Groundhog Reservoir area. (map)

MD-87 drops on the Tenderfoot 2 Fire

(Originally published September 25, 2017 on FireAviation.com)

Jeff Wilson sent us the excellent photo above taken September 19 of an MD-87 dropping on the Tenderfoot 2 Fire east of Dillon, Colorado. Thanks Jeff!

The fire was reported above Dillon Reservoir at 5 p.m. MDT September 18 and burned 21 acres on a steep slope before firefighters contained it, aided by two large air tankers and two helicopters dropping water and retardant September 18 and 19.

Resources working on the fire included Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue crews, one U.S. Forest Service engine crew, a 20-person hand crew from Rifle, and a 22-person initial-attack hand crew from the Upper Colorado River Fire Management Unit.

The fire was caused by sparks from a blown insulator cap on a power line that subsequently ignited nearby grasses.

MD-87 air tanker drops Tenderfoot 2 Fire
An MD-87 air tanker drops on the Tenderfoot 2 Fire September 18, 2017. Inciweb photo.

Jeff Wilson runs a professional photography studio out of Dillon, Colorado.