Two reports released on the same day about the escaped prescribed fire near Carson City, NV

Above: Map of the Little Valley Fire at 9:23 p.m. PDT October 14, 2016.

On February 15 two reports were released about the prescribed fire that escaped, burned 2,291 acres, and destroyed 23 homes northwest of Carson City, Nevada on October 14, 2016. The first report about what became the Little Valley Fire included the results of a months-long independent investigation by the Reno Gazette-Journal (RGJ). The other, released a few hours later, was the product of the official investigation requested by the Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF), the agency responsible for conducting the prescribed fire.

Hours before the fire escaped, all eleven firefighters that had been mopping up the prescribed fire left the project and returned to their stations between 1:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on October 13, 2016. During that day there were a number of smokes that received the attention of the firefighters. During the last two hours before the seven-person helitack crew departed they noticed the wind increasing — trees were blowing down and branches were falling.

The RGJ reported on the reason the firefighters were ordered to leave the burn site.

Gene Phillips, NDF forest health specialist and burn boss for the Little Valley Burn, made the decision to pull crews from the burn site after discussing the high wind forecasts for the evening with a burn boss trainee, according to the review.

The decision not to staff the site on the evening of Oct. 13 was made, according to NDF, “based on the limited amount of heat near the control lines, success of the current mop-up effort, and the risk to firefighters working in timber during high winds.”

escaped fire map
From the NIMO report.

At 5:38 p.m. the Little Valley weather station recorded sustained winds out of the west at 15 mph with a maximum gust of 39 mph. By 12:38 a.m. on October 14, about the time the fire escaped, the wind was at 19 mph with gusts up to 87 mph. The relative humidity was 32 percent.

A Red Flag Warning for gusty winds and low humidity was in effect from the morning of October 11 through 5 p.m. on October 14. Strong winds persisted until mid-day on October 17.

The NIMO team concluded that the fire escaped when embers from a burning stump hole were blown 34 feet and crossed the fireline at a corner, or “dog leg” in the fire perimeter.

According to the RGJ there was confusion in initially responding to the fire after it escaped at around 12:38 a.m. on October 14:

Response to the fire was delayed, affecting how fast it could be contained: A call at 1:23 a.m. about smoke at the burn site was later dismissed as “unfounded,” causing a TMFPD [Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District] fire engine to return to the station three minutes after it left. After a second call about smoke at the burn site, it took TMFPD more than an hour to get to the site after crews were dispatched, according to 911 transcripts.

The NDF’s report was written by the U.S. Forest Service’s Phoenix National Incident Management Organization (NIMO), a team that usually manages fires and other incidents that are often of longer duration than a typical wildfire. The team was supplemented with a Fire Behavior Analyst, a GIS/Fire Behavior Analyst, a Public Information Officer, a Fire Investigator, and others for a total of 10 personnel that were listed in the report.

Report released on escaped prescribed fire in northern Minnesota

The fire burned 1,008 acres on the Superior National Forest.

Above: Photo of the Foss Lake Fire, from the report.

A report has been released for a prescribed fire that escaped on May 19, 2016 and burned an unexpected 1,008 acres 10 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. The U.S. Forest Service had intended to burn 78 acres, but extremely dry conditions and winds pushed a spot fire beyond the capabilities of the Hotshot crew and the engine initially assigned to the project. The fire danger index for the Energy Release Component at the time was setting 20-year maximums.

Foss Lake Fire map
The perimeter of the planned prescribed fire is outlined in black, in the gray shaded area. The escaped area is in red.

You can read the entire report here, but below are highlights:

  • Some of the firefighting resources listed as contingency forces in the burn plan were national resources not committed to the prescribed fire and were assigned to other fires when needed on the escape.
  • According to a spot weather forecast the conditions that morning were at the hot end of the prescription and in the afternoon may go out of prescription. There was a discussion about possibly having to pause ignition for a period of time in the afternoon.
  • The test fire began at 11:40 a.m. Soon thereafter the primary ignition began.
  • Within 40 minutes of starting the test fire spot fires began to occur near the fireline, but they were suppressed. At 12:50 p.m. a larger spot fire, 1/4 to 1/2 acre, was discovered 100 yards north of the main burn by firefighters patrolling in a canoe. The firing boss ordered the igniters to slow down.
  • When the larger spot fire occurred, firefighters installed a hose lay from a river to the site but were not able to start a pump to supply the water. A replacement pump that had been working in another area that day was brought in but it also refused to run.
  • At 12:53 p.m. a water-scooping Beaver air tanker that could carry up to 130 gallons of water was requested by the Zone Fire Management Officer (ZFMO) who was at the site, and 11 minutes later he asked for a Type 3 helicopter.
  • At 1:41 p.m. personnel on the fire declined offers or suggestions for “heavy aircraft” and also a Type 1 helicopter that had become available.
  • Between 1:59 p.m. and 2:26 p.m. personnel on the fire requested the Type 1 helicopter, air attack, two 20-person crews, a CL-415 scooping air tanker, and two large air tankers.
  • At 2:07 p.m. the Burn Boss declared the escaped fire to be a wildfire and began shutting down the original prescribed fire.
  • At approximately 1700 a Type 2 Incident Management Team was ordered for the escaped wildfire, which was then several hundred acres in size.
  • At 10:09 p.m. all personnel on the prescribed and escaped fires were released and returned to Ely.

Our original report on the escaped prescribed fire last May.

Little Valley Fire burns structures northwest of Carson City, NV

In the hours before the fire was reported, wind gusting at 87 mph was recorded at a nearby weather station.

(UPDATED at 11:35 p.m. PDT October 14, 2016)

At 9:30 p.m. Washoe County updated the number of structures burned — 22 homes and 17 outbuildings. The fire has blackened 3,455 acres.

Map Little Valley Fire
Map of the Little Valley Fire at 9:23 p.m. PDT October 14, 2016.

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(UPDATED at 3:24 p.m. PDT October 14, 2016)

Washoe County reported at 2:45 p.m. Friday about the Little Valley Fire:

Everyone who lives on the east side of Washoe Lake or the east side of I-580 can return home.

Evacuations for residents of the Galena, Montreaux, Joy Lake Rorad, and St. James neighborhoods can return home but need to be prepared to evacuate throughout the weekend if need be.

The west side of Washoe Lake from Bowers exit to the bottom of Franktown Rd. remains evacuated. Several local hotels are offering discounted room rates for those displaced by Friday’s fires.

A weather station near the fire recorded 0.10 of rain after 11 a.m. today. The relative humidity has increased to 83 percent but the wind is still strong, 14 mph gusting to 34 mph. Radar showed light rain in the area at 3:24 p.m. on Friday.

@TMFPD is the Twitter account for the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District.

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(Originally published at 1:16 p.m. PDT October 14, 2016)

Dozens of structures have burned in the Little Valley Fire 6 miles northwest of Carson City, Nevada and 17 miles south of Reno. It was reported at 2 a.m. PDT on Friday, Oct, 16, 2016. At 12:15 p.m. Washoe County reported that firefighters are estimating 2,000 acres, 18 homes, seven outbuildings, and seven barns have burned in the fire west of Washoe Lake.

Authorities have not released a cause for the fire but the Reno Gazette-Journal raised the possibility that it might have been associated with a prescribed fire:

As part of the investigation on the cause of the fire, the forestry division will look into any potential links from a prescribed burn that was held prior to the fire, said Jenny Ramella, Nevada Forestry Division spokeswoman. Ramella stressed that the cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

We don’t yet have a good map showing the exact location of the wildfire, but the Nevada Division of Forestry covered on their Facebook page the progress of the “Little Valley Burn”, a prescribed fire, that was ignited between October 4 and 7. On October 12 the NDF reported they had completed 208 acres. The location appears to have been west of where the wildfire is burning now.

Continue reading “Little Valley Fire burns structures northwest of Carson City, NV”

Minam prescribed fire in northeast Oregon escapes control

Above: Minam Fire, Friday September 30, 2016. USFS photo.

A prescribed fire on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest escaped the day after it was conducted in northeast Oregon. The 2,000-acre project was ignited with a helicopter on Thursday, September 29 as a continuation of previous prescribed burning activities in the Minam drainage within the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area about 21 miles northeast of La Grande, Oregon.

Late in the afternoon of the next day, Friday, during a helicopter flight to check the status of the project, fire managers found a spot fire east of the burn area across Trout Creek. Due to the time of day, it was determined that firefighters could not safely access the spot fire until the following day.

Map Minam Fire
Map of the Minam Fire, October 3, 2016, showing heat detected by satellites over the previous several days.

Early Saturday, October 1, a powerful thunderstorm moved through the area bringing stronger than expected winds and very little moisture. As planned, firefighters hiked into the spot fire on Saturday and found that the winds had spread the spot fire to the east, upslope onto Cougar Ridge, and ultimately outside the planned prescribed fire area.

The Minam Fire was declared an escape Saturday afternoon, October 1st, when fire managers determined that they would not be able to contain the portion of the fire that had spread outside of the planned perimeter within the next 24 hours, which is a criteria for declaring an escaped prescribed fire.

Cooler weather kept the spread of the fire minimal into Sunday as additional crews and aircraft arrived on scene to support the suppression efforts.

As of Sunday, October 2, the escaped fire had burned 750 acres.

Senator wants to require more steps before beginning a prescribed fire

Senator John Thune has been critical of federal firefighters previously.

A U.S. Senator has proposed an amendment to introduced legislation that would require additional procedures before federal agencies could conduct a prescribed fire. Senator John Thune from South Dakota wants to require consultation with local and state fire officials before the project begins. One of his reasons is that he contends local and state officials know more than the federal professional prescribed fire managers.

“Local officials are going to know a little bit more about what the conditions are in the area”, Senator Thune said in a newsletter distributed by his office on September 15.

This requirement has been offered as an amendment to a Republican backed bill introduced by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas June 22, 2016, titled S.3085 – Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016. Senator Thune contends that the amendment was adopted by unanimous consent during a Senate Agriculture Committee markup, but no official action after the introduction is showing up at bill-tracking websites. After three months the bill has no cosponsors, and GovTrack.us predicts a 2 percent chance of it being enacted.

The primary purpose of the bill is to eliminate some environment restrictions for planned “forest management activities”. The list of these activities is long and vague enough to cover a very wide range of land treatments, including timber harvesting.

Senator Thune advocated his consultation procedure before when he introduced a stand-alone bill in 2015. It had one cosponsor and never advanced beyond being introduced. Apparently the powerful Senator did not work hard to promote his idea, or perhaps he only wanted some publicity. 

Senator Thune has generated publicity before in matters regarding prescribed fire. In 2015 he distributed to the media a strongly-worded very critical letter he sent to the Secretary of the Interior after the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota escaped, burning an additional 5,420 acres of prairie. It never spread beyond the park boundaries.

Four days after the escape and months before the official report came out, the Senator was apparently very satisfied that he knew exactly the cause, writing to the Secretary, “The Cold Brook Fire could easily have been prevented”, and “the intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.”

Ready. Fire. Aim.

Cold Brook Fire
Highway 385, which can be seen in the distance, was supposed to be the boundary of the Cold Brook prescribed fire. Only the land on the far side of the highway was intended to burn. Photo taken a few days after the fire by Bill Gabbert.
Wind Cave prescribed fire
Photo taken of the area where the Cold Brook prescribed fire crossed US Highway 385, taken 39 days after the fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The escaped fire was in grass and ground fuels beneath scattered trees that had been treated with prescribed fire before, and there was no significant crowning. It was basically over after one afternoon, but that didn’t stop Senator Thune from prognosticating about the lung condition of calves outside the park.

Minnesota: Prescribed fire escapes west of Ely

(UPDATED at 7:35 p.m. CDT May 22, 2016)

Foss Lake Fire mapOn Saturday the U.S. Forest Service reported that better mapping showed that the Foss Lake Fire, that escaped from a prescribed fire in northeast Minnesota, had not burned 1,000 acres as previously reported, but only 440 acres. On Sunday morning their update said it was 1,008 acres, and included this information:

There was little growth on the fire yesterday. Accurate mapping data from handheld and aircraft GPS units resulted in the large increase in acreage.

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(UPDATED at 10:08 CDT May 21, 2016)

Foss Lake Fire map
The Foss Lake Fire ran for two miles with a wind out of the south until it hit Crab Lake.

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(UPDATED at 11 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service has provided more details about the escaped prescribed fire 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. Better mapping shows that it has burned approximately 440 acres rather than 1,000 from the earlier estimate.

From the Superior National Forest at about 10 p.m. CDT on Friday:

The fire is burning north within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Crews made good progress today, directly attacking the fire on its north, east, and west sides. Aircraft dropped fire retardant along the east side of the fire and water on the west side.

Background: The Foss Lake Fire began on May 19 as a prescribed fire to reduce surface and ladder fuels, to enhance wildlife habitat, and to encourage jack pine regeneration. Shortly after ignition, an unpredicted change in weather conditions brought higher winds, warmer temperatures, and lower relative humidity. A spot fire north of the control line escaped containment and the wind-driven fire spread to the north. Aircraft that were on standby responded quickly and, with the work of ground crews, were able to slow the fire’s eastward spread with water and retardant drops, protecting the west and north sides of Burntside Lake. The fire spread north to Crab Lake in the BWCAW. There was no fire growth to the south.

Message: There is no threat to the towns of Ely, Winton, Tower, or Soudan. No structures are threatened. Good fuel-reduction work completed over the last two years on Burntside Lake increases firefighters’ ability to manage the eastern edge.

Resources: 80 personnel and 8 aircraft. MNICS Type II Team under Incident Commander Brian Pisarek arrived today and will take command of the fire Saturday morning. The Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade and the Morse/Fall Lake Fire Department both have fire boats on Burntside Lake are conducting structure-protection assessments.

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(UPDATED at 1 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service estimates the Foss Lake Fire 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota has burned approximately 1,000 acres. Until the Type 2 incident management team that has been ordered arrives, the Type 3 Incident Commander is Timo Rova.

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(Originally published at 9:56 a.m. CDT May 20, 2016.)

Map Foss Lake Fire
Map showing heat (the brown dots) detected by a satellite on the Foss Lake Fire at 2:43 p.m. CDT May 19, 2016.

A prescribed fire on the Superior National Forest escaped control Thursday 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. The intent was to burn 78 acres north of Tamarack and Foss Lakes north of the 404 Road. By late afternoon the fire had been assigned a name, Foss Lake, and was creating a large convection column of smoke topped by a pyrocumulus cloud, an indication of fire intensity.

Thursday night the Forest Service was not able to provide a size estimate due to the smoke restricting visibility.

The fire was fought yesterday by firefighters on the ground assisted by eight aircraft.

Thursday before it escaped there were 10 hand crews prepositioned in Minnesota that were not assigned to fires. Presumably many of those are now working on the Foss Lake Fire.

Yesterday’s afternoon weather conditions near the fire were 74 degrees, 6 mph wind gusting to 19 mph, and 16 percent relative humidity. The forecast for Friday: 74 degrees, south wind at 6 mph, 51 percent cloud cover, and 22 percent relative humidity. There is no rain expected until Monday.

We will update this article as the situation develops.