Report released on escaped prescribed fire at Devils Tower


Devils Tower escaped prescribed fire

Map, showing the approximate location of the planned prescribed fire at Devils Tower (300 acres in white) and the 56 acres (in red) that escaped beyond the planned perimeter. Image from Google Earth. Perimeters by Wildfire Today. (click to enlarge)

Yesterday after Wildfire Today made inquiries about reports that may have been completed regarding the escaped prescribed fire on May 8, 2013 at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the National Park Service released the official review of the incident.

The NPS ignited the 300-acre unit on May 7, 2013. Several spot fires occurred outside the planned perimeter that were contained the first day. But during mopup at 12:50 p.m. on May 8 fire became established again at one of the spot fire locations on the southwest side of the project. At that time the cooperating U.S. Forest Service resources present the day before had been released. Some of the remaining firefighters were concentrating on the previous day’s spot fires at another location, but most of the firefighters were attending an After Action Review of a non-injury tipover of a Utility Task Vehicle (UTV) that occurred the day before. The 56 acres burning outside the burn unit were mostly stopped at the Monument boundary, but a few acres crossed over onto private land leased by Wyoming state Senator Ogden Driskill, but no structures were damaged.

Devils Tower Rx fire, May 8, 2013

Devils Tower Rx fire, May 7, 2013. NPS photo.

In the interest of full disclosure, Devils Tower was one of the seven National Parks for which I was the Area Fire Management Officer, from 1998 until 2003.

The review pointed out several times that one of the primary issues related to the escape was that in computing the fine dead fuel moisture, it was assumed that the fire would be shaded by the smoke column. However, some of the area was not shaded, and for two hours each day on May 7 and 8, at those locations the fine dead fuel moisture dropped below the 4 to 10 percent allowed in the prescription, down to 3 percent.

Other than how the weather affected the fuel moisture, the review barely mentioned the weather conditions and the forecast. Two spot weather forecasts were issued before the escape — one at 7:57 a.m. MDT on May 7 and another at 9:29 a.m. on May 8, the day of the escape. For May 8, both forecasts predicted fairly strong northeast winds, of 7 to 15 mph and 8 to 14 mph.

The Remote Automatic Weather Station at Devils Tower is very close to the location of the prescribed fire, in a low-lying area partially sheltered by trees from winds from all directions (see map above). Northwest, north, and northeast winds are additionally partially blocked by higher ground and the Devils Tower itself. Below are the weather observations from the weather station between 17:23 on May 7 through 17:23 on May 8. They show mild sustained wind speeds, with gusts around mid-day to late afternoon on May 8 of 13 to 22 mph. If the weather station was in a more exposed location the recorded speeds would have been higher.

Devils Tower weather, May 7 and 8, 2013

Devils Tower weather, May 7 and 8, 2013

The NPS committed four people to the facilitated learning analysis of the non-injury slow tip over of the UTV, and three to the review of the escaped prescribed fire.

UTV  at Devils Tower

Photo from the FLA for the UTV tip over, that presumably shows a UTV in the approximate location of the accident. NPS photo.

We initially covered the prescribed in 2013 fire HERE and HERE.


Weather cited as primary issue in escaped prescribed fire near Hettinger, ND

Pautre Fire originA report issued by the U.S. Forest Service for a prescribed fire that escaped on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota last year cited weather as being one of the primary factors in losing control of the fire.

The Pasture 3B prescribed fire 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.

On April 3, 2013 we wrote about the wildfire:

An article in The Rapid City Journal has more information about the impacts of the fire on the ranchers. Privately owned grazing, hay stacks, and miles of fencing were damaged or destroyed during the ranchers’ calving season. Here is an excerpt:

“Laurie Casper, 36, said the fire destroyed 95 percent of her family’s farmland, which is more than 1,000 acres.

‘We lost all of our calving pasture, we lost our summer grazing, we lost our fall grazing, we lost 100 percent of our alfalfa— which we cut for hay bales in order to feed the cattle this oncoming winter— all that’s completely gone,’ she said. ‘And there’s just just miles and miles of fences that are completely gone.’ “

The prescription in the project’s burn plan for the maximum wind speed at eye level was 15 mph and the maximum wind speed at the 20-foot level was 20 mph. One of the spot weather forecasts for the morning of the prescribed fire predicted the passage of the cold front, with winds shifting from the south at 5 to 11 mph in the morning, to northwest at 25 mph with gusts to 30 mph in the afternoon. The actual weather that day was very similar to the forecast.

About a month later, another prescribed fire not too far away, at Devils Tower National Memorial in western Wyoming, also escaped, due partially to strong winds. That report still has not been posted on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website. We were told today that was due to a glitch, and it will appear there very soon, possibly as early as today, February 4. (UPDATE, February 5, 2014: the National Park Service arranged to have the Devils Tower report posted late in the day on February 4. We wrote about it here.)

Pautre Fire. US Forest Service photo.

Pautre Fire. US Forest Service photo.

The report said firefighters concluded they would not do much different next time (page 12):

Firefighters did an excellent job of planning, organizing and executing this prescribed fire and adhering to the prescribed fire plan. Following the control of the escaped fire some firefighters had difficulty thinking of anything they would do differently next time. While it is true that we work in a dangerous environment with unexpected changes in weather, we strive to be a learning culture and continuously improve our ability to make decisions that evaluate risk and get work done on the ground.

Some of the issues listed by the Facilitated Learning Analysis team 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].

The commendations section included this:

The personnel involved in all levels of the Pasture 3B prescribed fire were motivated, worked well as a team, were adequately trained, and appropriately briefed. They had a keen awareness that this was the first burn of the year, and took numerous precautions to ensure successful completion of the prescribed fire.

We did not see any mention in the report of damaged fences, hay, or pastures.

Some ranchers in western North Dakota donated hay to the South Dakota ranchers who lost theirs in the escaped prescribed fire.


Florida to install sensors to detect degraded visibility on highway subject to smoke and fog

January 9, 2008 crash on Interstate 4 in Florida

The wreckage of the January 9, 2008 crash on Interstate 4 in Florida. The Ledger.

In 2008 and 2012 two massive car pile-ups on Florida Interstate highways were caused by poor visibility due to combinations of wildfire smoke and fog. A total of 16 motorists were killed in the crashes. At the location where 11 people died on I-75 in 2012 the Florida Department of Transportation will be installing sensors and warning systems to detect dangerous conditions and notify drivers of the deteriorating conditions.

Standard and infrared cameras, visibility sensors, dynamic messaging signs and vehicle detection devices will be set up south of Gainesville where I-75 crosses Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The infrared camera and 18 visibility sensors will monitor will measure fog, while other devices will detect moving traffic.

The equipment will be installed in a low-lying area where cold air settles, sometimes causing fog. If a vegetation fire is nearby, as was the case in both pile-ups, the mixture of fog and smoke can cause very poor visibility.

The crash in 2008 on Interstate 4 was caused by fog that combined with the smoke from an escaped prescribed fire.


Prescribed fire escapes on Fort Ord near Monterey

Fort Ord prescribed fire

Fort Ord prescribed fire at 11:11 a.m. October 15, 2013 nine hours before it escaped. Photo by Andrew Po.

A prescribed fire on Fort Ord near Monterey, California escaped Tuesday. The objective of the fire was to remove vegetation to make it easier to clear the area of unexploded ordnance. The plan was to burn 341 acres but it blacked an additional 100 acres. The fire was ignited in the morning and at 6 p.m. the Army said it was contained. Between 9 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. a large smoke plume was seen in the area.

This is the third escaped prescribed fire on Fort Ord in the last 16 years. In 1997, a planned 100-acre burn turned into a 700-acre wildfire. In 2003, a scheduled 490-acre burn jumped containment lines and burned 1,470 acres.


UPDATE October 19, 2013: Rock, who was at the prescribed fire (see his comment below) sent us this photo taken at about 10 a.m., hours before the fire escaped.

Fort Ord prescribed fire 10 a.m. October 15, 2013

Fort Ord prescribed fire 10 a.m. October 15, 2013. Photo by Rock.


Thanks go out to Rock


Wisconsin DNR prescribed fire escapes

Escaped prescribed fire Wisconsin

Escaped prescribed fire north of Grantsburg, WI. Photo by Wisconsin DNR.

A prescribed fire conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources escaped control on Tuesday north of Grantsburg in the northwest part of the state. The project, planned at 500 acres, burned an additional 600 acres before it was contained Tuesday afternoon with the help of two air tankers and a helicopter.

A spokesperson for the DNR said no structures were damaged. The fire burned grass, marsh and some upland forest, including jack pine.

Escaped prescribed fire Wisconsin

Escaped prescribed fire north of Grantsburg, WI. Photo by Wisconsin DNR.


Prescribed fire escapes in California State Park

San Felipe Fire

San Felipe Fire as seen from Mt. Laguna at 9:50 a.m. PT, May 5, 2013 (click to enlarge)

(UPDATE at 7:18 a.m. PT, May 26, 2013)

CAL FIRE is reporting the fire has burned 2,650 acres and is 90 percent contained. Resources assigned include 612 personnel, 50 engines, 23 hand crews, 6 dozers and 11 water tenders.


(UPDATE at 12:19 p.m. PT, May 25, 2012)

After overnight GPS mapping, the fire is now listed at 1,800 acres and 70 percent containment.


(UPDATE at 5:30 p.m. PT, May 24, 2013)

The incident commander of the San Felipe fire northeast of Julian, California is calling it 1,850 acres and 70 percent contained.


(UPDATE at 3:27 p.m. PT, May 24, 2013)

The images from the Mt. Laguna camera show that the San Felipe Fire is not putting up as much smoke as it was earlier today. CAL FIRE, in a 2:30 p.m. update, reports that it has grown to 1,800 acres and is still 60 percent contained.


(Originally published at 10:25 a.m. PT, May 24, 2013)

A prescribed fire in Anza Borrego Desert State Park 4 miles northeast of Julian, California got away from firefighters around noon on Thursday. A change in the wind direction is being blamed for the escape, now named  the San Felipe Fire, that as of Thursday evening had burned 1,500 acres and was 60 percent contained.

The Ramona Sentinel reported that CAL FIRE conducted the prescribed fire.

Map of San Felipe Fire Anza Borrego

Map showing the approximate location of San Felipe Fire, heat detected by a satellite at 10:35 p.m. PT, May 23, 2013 (click to enlarge)

As of 6:15 p.m. on Thursday the resources assigned to the San Felipe Fire included 644 personnel, 65 engines, 24 hand crews, 5 air tankers, 7 helicopters, 5 dozers, and 13 water tenders.

An animation of still photos taken from Mt. Laguna Thursday afternoon is available HERE. A window may pop up outside of your browser. It will take a while to load, and it may not work in the Chrome browser.

The latest still image is available HERE.

The fire is in the same general location as the Vallecito Lightning Complex of fires that burned more than 15,000 acres in August.