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.

Roundup of wildfire activity in the eastern United States

While most areas in the western United States, with the exception of parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, wait for their fuels and weather to dry out, many firefighters in the east have been busy lately. The Intelligence section at the National Interagency Fire Center is too busy this time of the year to issue a daily Situation Report, so we assembled information about a number of fires east of the Mississippi River.

Tennessee
A prescribed fire conducted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) that got out of control in Blount County on Wednesday has burned 400 to 500 acres as of Thursday morning. TWRA officials said the wind picked up unexpectedly while they were treating a unit in the Foothills Wildlife Management area.

A fire in the Cherokee National Forest has burned 150 acres six miles north of Unicoi. Additional aircraft, dozers, engines, and firefighters have been ordered. (The tweet below is about this fire.)

North Carolina
Mike Martin’s brush pile he was burning behind his house Wednesday near Etowah escaped as winds blew flames onto his porch. He went to grab two five-gallon buckets of water, but by the time he returned it was too late. He tried to go into the house to retrieve his car keys, but the fire was too hot. Both the Ford SUV and the house were destroyed even though the fire department responded quickly from their station two miles away.

A fire in the Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Woods Preserve blackened about 250 acres on the Outer Banks. It started on March 22 and spread for three days.

New Jersey
A wind-driven brush fire burned 86 acres in Port Republic Wednesday afternoon. With help from two water-dropping helicopters, about 30 firefighters stopped the spread.

Wildfire Briefing, February 5, 2016

The above image is from Headwaters Economics

Land use planning to reduce wildfire risk

Headquarters Economics released a report about how five cities have used innovative land use planning techniques as a way to adapt to the growing threat from wildfires. The authors met with city planners, elected officials, and firefighters in Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; San Diego, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico—all communities with a recent history of wildfire and a reputation for being problem solvers.

wildfire planning map
Headwaters Economics

Prescribed fire escapes in Florida

In St. Johns County, Florida on Tuesday a prescribed fire intended to treat 140 acres off County Road 208 escaped control when an unexpected 20-25 mph wind gust scattered burning embers. About 270 acres later the Florida Forest Service was able to contain the blaze.

Spokesperson Julie Maddux said statewide in 2015 the Florida Forest Service burned more than 236,000 acres during prescribed fires and none of them got out of control.

U.S. Forest Service releases findings on the effects of drought for forests and rangelands

The U.S. Forest Service this week released a new report, Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis, that provides a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. This report will help the Forest Service better manage forests and grasslands impacted by climate change.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This report confirms what we are seeing, that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns. Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on our 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year.”

Utah seeks jail time for drone operators that interfere with wildfire operations

Last year there were numerous instances across the West of drones flying into the airspace above active fires and interfering with the operations of firefighting aircraft.

From the AP:

..A new proposal in the Utah Legislature aims to address the growing problem by creating a possible penalty of jail time for people who fly drones within 3 miles of a wildfire.

A House committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon but the hearing was postponed.

Republican Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City, the proposal’s sponsor, said he asked to postpone the meeting so he could get more input from interested parties. He said he may add exemptions for certain entities, such as public utility companies that need to use drones to see if the fire will impact gas lines.

Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry said he hopes lawmakers back the bill…

“I really hope it doesn’t take a major mishap and somebody to lose their life for the public to take it seriously,” Curry said.

Washington state treats less land with prescribed fire than their neighbors

Washington prescribed fire acres

From the Seattle Times:

Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands.

After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.

“I’ve had it. I think it is time to delve into the policy,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represents a large swath of North Central Washington scorched in last year’s record-setting fires that burned more than 1 million acres.

Parlette is sponsoring a pair of “fight fire with fire” bills that would require more controlled burns on state lands and loosen smoke regulations to make it easier for federal and private land managers to conduct burns.

Experts say expanding the use of controlled burns is vital to restoring forests to health, leaving them less vulnerable to massive blazes when the summer fire season hits.

But some U.S. Forest Service officials and other critics say the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, has discouraged controlled burns in recent years because of fears over smoke drifting into communities.

USFWS prescribed fire burns structures

USFWS prescribed fire escape
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prescribed fire on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, October 16, 2015. FWS photo by Eric Haberstick.

A wildfire resulting from an escaped prescribed fire on October 16 burned about 600 acres on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, 3 miles south of Walden, Colorado. Three structures were destroyed — a barn, pump house, and mobile home used as a storage building. Firefighters from several federal agencies and Jackson County Fire Department contained the fire at 6 p.m. October 17.

9NEWS reported that two heavy air tankers, a single-engine air tanker, and heavy helicopter all made retardant drops on the fire.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials are convening an interagency review team with expertise in wildfire suppression, prescribed fire planning, and data analysis to investigate the escape.

Firefighters ignited the prescribed fire Friday morning, planned at 370 acres, to remove decadent vegetation, reduce wildfire risk, and improve wildlife habitat. That afternoon, although conditions fit within the required burn parameters according to the FWS, the project escaped containment lines. Firefighters reported witnessing a firewhirl.

The video below was shot by Erik Haberstick for the FWS.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jared.

Senator advocates additional consultation prior to prescribed fires

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015
Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after the prescribed fire crossed Highway 385 and escaped. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)

Senator John Thune of South Dakota had a video edited that stars him as he makes statements and asks questions during a committee hearing about forestry issues. The hearing occurred July 16 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The panelist in the video is Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for  Natural Resources and Environment.

Mr. Thune was pushing Senate Bill 1100 that he is sponsoring (without any co-sponsors) titled Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015. You can see the entire hearing HERE (it starts at 17:00). Mr. Thune’s edited version is below.

In the video, he said, referring to two recent escaped prescribed fires on federal land in South Dakota, [The agencies]….”had no business in a couple of these circumstances starting fires given the weather conditions that were existing at the time, and people at the local level would know that. So all we’re asking for is consultation at the front end before this happens and work with folks and get their sign-off and then on the back end when something like this happens a response that is timely, expedited and effective.”

The Senator got fired up after two recent large escaped prescribed fires in South Dakota. In 2013 the Pasture 3B prescribed fire escaped in the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota. It was planned at 210 acres, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

More recently, on April 13, 2015 the Cold Brook prescribed fire, which was planned as a 1,000-acre project in Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota, spotted across U.S. Highway 385 and burned 5,420 acres of park land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park. A few days later Mr. Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire.

The legislation the Senator is pushing is not lengthy, but has some interesting requirements, such as, a prescribed fire can’t be executed on federal land if the grassland fire danger index indicates a high, very high, or extreme danger of grassland fire, or if the Chief of the Forest Service has declared very high or extreme fire danger. However, the project could still be carried out “if the head of the Federal agency obtains prior approval from the applicable State government and local fire officials”.

And there’s this: “A head of a Federal agency that authorizes a prescribed burn shall be liable for any damage to private property caused by the prescribed burn, notwithstanding chapter 171 of title 28, United States Code (commonly known as the “Federal Tort Claims Act”) or any State law.” The proposed bill also says damages must be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.

These provisions raise a few questions. The grassland fire danger index is exclusively designed to predict the potential for non-agricultural grasslands to carry fire. This could be a useful indicator for prescribed fires in grasses, but not necessarily for projects in other fuel types and elevations.

And I am not aware of the Chief of the Forest Service making a proclamation establishing a daily fire danger rating.

I am no attorney, but it appears that the legislation, if it becomes law, would make the head of agencies personally liable for damages resulting from escaped prescribed fires. If so, and if they would not be automatically reimbursed, it could be difficult to entice anyone to accept those positions.

$50 million in claims over escaped prescribed fire reportedly denied

Pautre Fire origin
USFS photo from the report on the escaped prescribed fire, the Pautre Fire, in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Department of Agriculture, in a letter signed by Department Secretary Tom Vilsack, is denying $50 million in claims filed by sixteen ranchers and landowners over a prescribed fire that escaped and burned 10,679 acres in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The “Pasture 3B” prescribed fire was planned to be 210 acres on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

In explaining the denial, Secretary Vilsack said the Forest Service relied on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, that ultimately proved inaccurate.

In February, 2014 the US Forest Service released a report about the fire, called a “Facilitated Learning Analysis. The issues listed by the document included:

  • Improved weather forecasts are needed.
  • Consider additional research on methods to predict effects of drought on fire behavior in grass fuel models.
  • The nearest remote automated weather station (RAWS) is more than 90 miles away.
  • The project was conducted at the critical edge of the prescription.
  • Consider gaming out worst case scenario “what ifs” during the planning process, and discuss with participants during the on-site briefing.
  • There were problems with radio communications [note from Bill: I don’t remember EVER seeing a report like this that did not cite radio communications as being an issue].