Update on Fern Lake fire west of Estes Park

Fern Lake Fire, October 9, 2012, 2012. Photo by VIP Hahn
Fern Lake Fire, October 9, 2012, 2012. Photo by VIP Hahn

(Originally published at 2:32 p.m. MT, October 10, 2012)

The Fern Lake fire seven miles west of the town of Estes Park in northern Colorado is still reported to be 300 acres. Burning in high elevations between 8,000 and 10,000 feet it was subject to below freezing temperatures and high relative humidities Tuesday night. It may dry out Wednesday afternoon and aided by winds at 13-20 mph with gusts up to 30 and a relative humidity in the teens the fire activity may pick up.

It is located west of Morain Park in Rocky Mountain National Park and is burning in steep, rugged terrain. About 40 hikers and campers were evacuated from the area yesterday. No structures are currently threatened.

A Single Engine Air Tanker and a heavy helicopter are available to assist the 65 personnel and the seven fire engines at the scene.

The National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team from Boise is en route to assume command of the fire.

We posted maps of the fire on Tuesday.

Wildfire morning briefing, September 29, 2012

Men who started Wallow fire may owe more than $3 million

The two cousins who started the 2011 Wallow Fire may be on the hook to pay over $3 million. Caleb and David Malboeuf are on probation following last month’s sentencing for leaving a campfire unattended. During restitution hearings this week attorneys for both sides agreed that $3 million is appropriate, but they are still haggling over an additional $500,000, with the defendants’ attorney saying documentation is incomplete for those funds.

The Wallow Fire, which burned from eastern Arizona into New Mexico, became the largest fire in the history of Arizona. It burned over half a million acres and destroyed 32 homes and 4 commercial structures. At least $79 million was spent to suppress the fire.

Turn over federal lands to the states?

There is a growing chorus among certain political groups and at least one state to give away millions of acres of federal land. For example, the Governor of Utah signed a bill that demands that the federal government hand over almost 30 million acres to the state. Other states are looking to follow Utah’s lead, and a candidate for President, Mitt Romney, is on board. Timothy Egan has a thoughtful article in the New York Times about this expanding threat.

If the national parks, forests, and BLM lands are given away or sold, the 16,000 wildland firefighters that now work for the Department of Interior and the US Forest Service, if they still have jobs, may find themselves working for a state, or a private company such as British Petroleum, Weyerhaeuser, or Union Pacific Coal Company.

Waldo Canyon fire slowed air travel into Colorado Springs

While the Waldo Canyon Fire was burning in and near Colorado Springs, three of the four airlines serving the city reported a decline in passenger numbers. The fire started June 23, killed two people, and destroyed about 346 homes.

Fire activity in the Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains

Usually by early to mid-September the fire season in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Northwest is seriously winding down, but firefighters in those areas are still busy. It is very unusual this late in the year, but air tankers are still stationed at Billings, Montana.

Below is a map showing heat detected today by satellites on wildfires in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming and Oregon. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Map of wildfires detected by satellites, September 29, 2012

Interesting headlines

I like this headline in Utah’s Park Record:

Fire prescribed for 570 acres near Wyoming border

Here is another one, this time from the Ramona Sentinel in California:

Cal Fire crushes grass fire near airport



Thanks go out to Chris and Dick

$100,000 reward offered for information about Waldo Canyon Fire

An anonymous donor has offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who can provide information leading to an arrest of the person who started the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The fire started June 23, killed two people and destroyed about 346 homes.

Investigators have not released information about how the fire started, except to say it was not ignited by lightning, which means it was human-caused.

In a presentation about economic warfare within the United States, William Scott introduced the hypothesis that the Waldo Canyon Fire may have been started by al Qaeda terrorists. You can see his talk HERE; he begins speaking about this fire at about 3:30.

Map of Waldo Canyon fire, east side June 29, 2012

The map above is an example of how the the Waldo Canyon fire spread into the Flying W Ranch area of Colorado Springs on Tuesday, June 26.


Texas Forest Service adds university to their name

Texas AMFSThe Texas Forest Service is part of a university — Texas A&M University. Many emergency responders think it is an odd structure for an emergency services organization. While the state of Colorado recognized the problems with having their state Forest Service under Colorado State University following the escaped Lower North Fork prescribed fire in which three residents were killed at their homes, Texans have doubled down on keeping their Forest Service under the control of a university.

The Texas Forest Service has changed their name to “Texas A&M Forest Service”. The change was proposed earlier this year by Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp as “a way to better align marketing and branding efforts”, according to the university’s web site. The university’s announcement did not say how much it would cost to change the name and their logos.

The governor of Colorado went a different direction after the Lower North Fork Fire, and decided to have all state emergency services agencies under one umbrella, the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Governor Hickenlooper said “We want to have it in one place, with an agency that is used to dealing with situations where minutes matter”. His objective was to streamline the decision making as well as the dispatching and managing of firefighters.


Thanks go out to Dick

Residents with claims against state for escaped Rx fire won’t be compensated anytime soon

Residents of Jefferson County southwest of Denver learned tonight that they won’t be receiving compensation from the state for their claims of damage by the Lower North Fork Fire back in March. The fire, a prescribed fire by Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) personnel, got away from them and blazed over a couple of ridges, killed three people, burned a couple dozen homes, and caused $11 million in damage.

ABC7 News reported that residents’ claims will be postponed until an insurance company lawsuit is settled. Back in April, an insurance company and a utility company filed “notice of claims” against the state. But Deputy Attorney General David Blake says compensation, if any, is a long ways off — because of the pending lawsuit by the insurance companies, the state claims board can’t yet address residents’ claims for compensation.

“Realistically, we’re talking about many months, if not over years,” Sen. Ellen Roberts told the Denver Post.

The prescribed fire was ignited on March 22 by the CSFS on property belonging to the Denver Water Department. They completed the burn on the same day; firefighters mopped up the next day and patrolled the area for two more days. But on the next day, a cold front passed through with gusts over 50 mph. The fire re-ignited and took off, crowning and heading northeast onto private lands. Local firefighters immediately responded to the wildfire, but were unable to contain it. It was contained about 10 days later on April 2 by Rich Harvey’s Type 1 team … in 22-degree weather and snow.

Lower North Fork FireLegislators passed new laws after the fire, creating a five-member legislative commission to investigate what happened when the fire took off, along with companion legislation that allows residents to file claims with the state for compensation. The Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission members visited the fire area, led by Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin. His department was one of three VFDs that responded to the fire.

McLaughlin explained how the fire went wrong. Firefighters had specified a trigger point, and decided that if the fire crossed that point, residents two miles away would be evacuated. They were supposed to have a good two hours to get out, but the fire ripped up the ridge in just 12 minutes. McLaughlin said 6-foot flames turned into 40-foot flames and then to 100-foot flames as the fire roared over the hill.

The state enacted an indefinite ban on prescribed fires after the 4,100-acre Lower North Fork Fire was contained.

State Rep. Claire Levy, a member of the investigative commission, said people will want the commission to find blame. “I think we need to work on preparing people who do choose to live in high wildfire areas to deal with that,” she said, “and recognize the risk to loss of life and property is very high and that is something they are knowingly taking on and the state cannot protect them.”

South Canyon Fire, 18 years ago today

I still remember that day exactly 18 years ago. I was on the phone with Steve Creech, the Fire Coordinator for the state of Indiana and he told me that 14 wildland firefighters had been killed on a fire in Colorado. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t WANT to believe him.

This was 1994 and we had entered the modern era of wildfire management. Lessons had been learned, I thought. Reports about fatalities and near-misses were being widely distributed to firefighters so they could avoid making the same, too often, fatal mistakes. Communications, radios, training, weather forecasts, personal protective equipment, fire shelters, and fireline protocols had advanced far beyond the point, I told myself, that double-digit fatality incidents could occur.

While all of those factors had changed, fire had not. It still burned as hot as the Loop fire that killed 10 members of the El Cariso Hotshots in 1966 and the Rattlesnake Fire on which 15 firefighters died in 1953 — and many others — too many others. Training and defensive measures are of little help if a firefighter is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Today I am thinking about those 14 firefighters who lost their lives on Storm King Mountain in the South Canyon Fire.

South Canyon fire victims
Photo credit: Post Independent

On the afternoon of July 6, 1994 near Glenwood Springs, Colorado the South Canyon fire spotted across the drainage and beneath firefighters, moving onto steep slopes and into dense, highly flammable Gambel oak. Within seconds, a wall of flame raced up the hill toward the firefighters on the west flank fireline. Failing to outrun the flames, 12 firefighters perished. Two helitack crew members on top of the ridge also died when they tried to outrun the fire to the northwest. The remaining 35 firefighters survived by escaping out the east drainage or by seeking a safety area and deploying their fire shelters.

You can get a copy of the investigation report HERE (large 4 Mb file).