Changes at the state fire chief positions in Colorado and Montana

There will be transitions at the top of the state wildfire organizations in Colorado and Montana.

In Colorado, Paul Cooke, the Director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, is retiring. He became the Director in 2012 after the Colorado legislature and Governor Hickenlooper made major changes in the organization and structure of state-level fire and life safety programs. Chief Cooke will remain in the position until his successor is appointed and onboard.

In Montana the Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC) recently selected Mike DeGrosky as the new Fire and Aviation Bureau Chief following the retirement of Ted Mead in December. The Fire and Aviation Management Bureau provides resources, leadership and coordination to Montana’s wildland fire services to protect lives, property, and natural resources; working with local, tribal, state, and federal partners to ensure wildfire protection on all state and private land in Montana.

“Our effort to involve a number of DNRC staff members as well as external partners was met with support and enthusiastic participation across the state, and I found it both rewarding and inspiring to see so many people engaged in the process. We offered Mike DeGrosky the position and he accepted enthusiastically. The DNRC welcomes Mike and is excited to have him join our team,” said Bob Harrington, Forestry Division Administrator.

Mike comes back to DNRC with over 38 years of wildland fire and incident management experience as well as extensive experience in facilitation, consulting, and conflict resolution experience in wildland fire and natural resource organizations.

From 1982-1995 Mike worked for the DNRC in various positions including Rural Fire Forester, Fire Management Specialist, Unit Fire Supervisor and Fire Program Manager. Other services and roles in his career include Volunteer Fire Department Captain, Training Officer, and consultant to fire and emergency management organizations.

DeGrosky is a graduate of the University of Montana, College of Forestry and Conservation, holds a Master’s degree in organizational leadership from Fort Hays State University, and a PhD in Business Administration with an emphasis in organizational leadership from Northcentral University.

“I am looking forward to working with each of you. I will put a high priority on getting out and meeting local officials, fire service organizations and agency partners. I am pleased to be back with the Department and look forward to our work together,” DeGrosky said.

He began working part-time in late January and will assume the duties as Chief full time on February 8, 2016.

Colorado Wildland Fire Management Section Chief selected

Vaughn Jones
Vaughn Jones. CO DFPC photo.

Vaughn Jones as been selected as the Section Chief of the Wildland Fire Management Section of Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Paul Cooke, Director the agency announced today. Mr. Vaughn has held the position on an acting basis for the past seven months.

“I am pleased I had four qualified finalists from which to make a selection and I am certain that Vaughn was the best choice for the job” said Director Cooke.

Until his appointment as acting Section Chief on May 15, 2015, Mr. Vaughn served as the Branch Chief of Operations, a position he held since transferring to DFPC. Before that he was the Northeast Area Fire Management Officer with the Colorado State Forest Service for 8 years and an Assistant District Forester with the CSFS Golden District for 6 years.

Prior to working for the State, he held forestry, range, and wildfire positions with the U.S. Forest Service on the White River National Forest and Pawnee National Grassland. Mr. Vaughn holds a B.S Degree in Natural Resource Management and a Master’s Degree in Ecology, both from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. His experience includes serving as a member of the Rocky Mountain Area Type 1 and Type 2 Incident Management Teams.

Fort Collins brewery partners to thin and prescribed burn forest

Anheuser-Busch and the 15 craft breweries in For Collins, Colorado depend on clean water to produce their beer.

In 2012 the High Park Fire west of the city burned 87,000 acres and 259 homes. One resident was killed, $38 million was spent on suppression, and the insured losses totaled $113 million. But much of the damage occurred just after the fire was contained when summer thunderstorms washed ash and debris into the Cache la Poudre River, turning it black. Fort Collins and Greeley obtain much of their drinking water from the river and temporarily turned off their water intakes. Flooding in 2013 following 15 inches of rain in Rist Canyon created more problems.

Anheuser-Busch is contributing $110,000 to help The Nature Conservancy protect the watershed in the Cache la Poudre River watershed. The funds will enable the organization to improve forest conditions on a demonstration area, allowing for treatment testing and informing future, larger-scale restoration projects to reduce catastrophic fires and improve water security for the people of these communities. The plans include thinning and prescribed fire.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Mother Nature Network:

…The Nature Conservancy’s prescription instructs those who wield the chainsaws on which trees to leave untouched and which trees to cut down. For example, old trees, trees with flat tops, and those that have visual nesting cavities or favorable conditions for nesting are left alone. Old species are left untouched, too. Trees are left in small clusters to give safe haven to squirrels who might become prey if they came down on the ground to get to their next tree.

The trees that are the most undesirable are Douglas firs. The prescription calls for removing 90 percent of them that are less than 10 inches in diameter. Why do Douglas firs get the chainsaw? The same thing that makes the species great-looking Christmas trees also makes them “ladder fuels” in the forest. They carry fire from the grass into the treetops via their low branches. Once the fire gets up into a tree, it then gets into other trees, even those that are adapted to fire with a lack of low branches and thicker bark. Before humans started suppressing forest fires, Douglas firs would be taken out in natural low-intensity fires and the more fire-intolerant trees would often remain. But now, it’s not unusual for all trees to burn in a forest that has become overly dense…

A county in Colorado where 833 homes burned in a two year period, considers addressing wildfire risk

El Paso County, ColoradoEl Paso County, Colorado is home to the state’s most destructive fires. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs and killed two people. Almost exactly a year later, the Black Forest Fire ignited east of the city and burned more than 15,000 acres, 486 homes and killed two people.

Ryan Maye Handy wrote an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette that looks at some of the proposals being considered, and in some cases rejected, that could enhance the area’s ability to live with the inevitable fires still to come. Below is an excerpt.

…While El Paso County has taken some steps to address wildfire risk, land use experts say officials could do much more.

Unlike the city of Colorado Springs, which heavily regulates building in wildfire zones, the county has no universal fire code standard. Instead, it has a patchwork of fire codes and land use regulations that vary between more than 26 fire districts. New subdivisions in wildfire zones must meet special wildfire criteria, but individual homes do not have to be built with fire resistant material or have mitigated properties. County master plans for development, while offering guidelines, are years and in some cases decades out of date and make no mention of wildfire.

Ultimately, economic and logistical concerns have kept the El Paso County commissioners from issuing broad regulations for building in wildfire zones, and the result is that many homeowners and areas remain vulnerable to fire.

[…]

While refraining from adopting county-wide fire codes might spare El Paso County residents economic hardship, the decision doesn’t take into account the economic consequences of managing a wildfire, experts say. Wildfires cost money to fight, typically taxpayer money, and the U.S. Forest Service spends a third of its budget defending homes in wildfire zones….

NIST releases report on Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people

waldo canyon fireThe National Institute of Standards and Technology has released a lengthy report on the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado in June, 2012. (It can be downloaded here, but is a large file.)

The 216-page document covers firefighting tactics, how structures ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but does not address to any significant extent the management, planning, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which were some of the largest issues.

The report was put together by five people, Alexander Maranghides, Derek McNamara, Robert Vihnanek, Joseph Restaino, and Carrie Leland.

At least three official reports have been written about the Waldo Canyon Fire, two from the city of Colorado Springs (here and here) and a third from the county sheriff’s office. However one of the most revealing was the result of an independent investigation by a newspaper, the Colorado Springs Independentwhich revealed facts that were left out of the government-issued documents, including numerous examples of mismanagement by the city before and during the event.

The fire was first reported the evening of June 22, 2012 on the Pike National Forest. Due at least in part to the anemic response from the U.S. Forest Service, the fire was not located until after noon the following day. No aircraft were requested until firefighters were at the fire, more than 16 hours after the initial report.

The day the fire started there were eight large fires burning in Colorado and 16 uncontained large fires in the country. Four days later on June 26 when the Waldo Canyon Fire moved into Colorado Springs burning 344 homes and killing two people, there were 29 uncontained large fires burning in the United States.

However there were only nine large air tankers in the United States on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contracts, down from the 44 we had 10 years before.

The 7-page Executive Summary of this newest report lists 4 primary findings, 37 technical findings, and 13 primary recommendations.

Primary findings:

  1. Defensive actions were effective in suppressing burning structures and containing the Waldo Canyon fire.
  2. Pre-fire planning is essential to enabling safe, effective, and rapid deployment of firefighting resources in WUI fires. Effective pre-fire planning requires a better understanding of exposure and vulnerabilities. This is necessary because of the very rapid development of WUI fires.
  3. Current concepts of defensible space do not account for hazards of burning primary structures, hazards presented by embers and the hazards outside of the home ignition zone.
  4. During and/or shortly after an incident, with limited damage assessment resources available, the collection of structure damage data will enable the identification of structure ignition vulnerabilities.

Three of the technical recommendations:

  • Fire departments should develop, plan, train and practice standard operating procedures for responding to WUI fires in their specific communities. These procedures should result from scientifically mapping a community’s high- and low-risk areas of exposure to both the fire and embers generated during WUI events (as will be possible using the WUI Hazard Scale).
  • A “response time threshold” for WUI fires should be established for each community. Fire departments have optimal “time-to-response” standards for reaching urban fires. Similar thresholds can, and should be, set for WUI fires.
  • High-density structure-to-structure spacing in a community should be identified and considered in WUI fire response plans. In the Waldo Canyon fire, the majority of homes destroyed were ignited by fire and embers coming from other nearby residences already on fire. Based on this observation, the researchers concluded that structure spatial arrangements in a community must be a major consideration when planning for WUI fires.

Primary recommendations:

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White House announces efforts to mitigate effects of climate change on wildfires in urban interface

On Monday the White House announced several initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change on fires in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Vice President Biden appeared briefly at a meeting in the Executive Office Building with 20 fire chiefs and emergency managers from the western United States.

“I can’t prove any one fire is a consequence of climate change. But you don’t have to be a climatologist, you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to understand that things have changed, they’ve changed rapidly,” the Vice President told the group. “The bottom line is your job is getting a hell of a lot more dangerous.”

At least 37 wildland fire chiefs and professional fire associations have signed on to a commitment, according to the White House, “to ensure that firefighters have the information, training and resources required to face the current and growing threats that climate impacts are having at the WUI, and to ensure community resilience by encouraging wildland fire prevention and mitigation practices by property owners, communities, and local governments across the country”.

The administration also announced the release of a study of the Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 344 homes in Colorado Springs in 2012, titled, A Case Study of a Community Affected by the Waldo Fire – Event Timeline and Defensive Actions (it can be downloaded here, but is a large file). The report covers firefighting tactics, how structures were ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but oddly does not address to any significant extent the management, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which was one of the largest issues. (We looked at this report in more detail in another article on Wildfire Today.)

Still another wildland fire related initiative announced Monday was the release of a report commissioned by the National Science and Technology Council, titled Wildland Fire Science and Technology Task Force Final Report. The task force was comprised of 28 representatives of federal agencies with any interest or responsibility, however fleeting, for land management or wildland fire.

The group’s primary recommendation was that a standing Federal Fire Science Coordination Council be established to:

  • ensure regular exchange among the leaders of those Federal organizations that either produce or use fire science;
  • strengthen coordination and collaboration among the organizations that produce wildland-fire science and technology;
  • establish mechanisms to systematically assess user needs and priorities for science, research, and technology support; and
  • define national-level needs for Federal fire science in support of the fire-management community