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].

Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire

Cold Brook Fire
Highway 385, which can be seen in the distance, was supposed to be the boundary of the prescribed fire. Only the land on the far side of the highway was planned to burn.

Wind Cave prescribed fire

These photos were taken by Bill Gabbert in the area burned when the April 13 Cold Brook prescribed fire escaped in Wind Cave National Park. In each pair of pictures, the first was taken on April 19, 6 days after the fire, and the next was taken on May 22, 39 days after the fire.

Cold Brook Fire
Looking east from the planned burn area to Highway 385 which did not serve as an adequate fire line under the conditions that day.

Wind Cave prescribed fire

Cold Brook Fire

Wind Cave prescribed fire

Cold Brook Fire
The north end of the fire, east of Highway 385.

Wind Cave prescribed fire

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota
Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire

Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire

With copious rain over the last five weeks since the Cold Brook prescribed fire escaped control in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota on April 13, the additional 5,000 acres outside the planned burn unit is in serious green-up. Most of the “bonus acres” had been treated at least once with previous prescribed fires, so there was not a heavy build up of fuel within the timbered areas. The escape, even though it was pushed by a strong wind, did not have high mortality in the Ponderosa pines. Most of the areas we saw near U.S. Highway 385 look like a typical prescribed fire in the park, however there were a few patches of pine that were taken out.

All of the photos below were taken by Bill Gabbert on May 22, 2015, 39 days after the fire. Click on the photos to see larger versions.

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire
The bison are enjoying the nutrient-rich fresh green grass in the burned area. The one in the foreground is wallowing in dirt.
Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire
The lower branches on these Ponderosa pines had been burned off in a prescribed fire about 15 years ago, so they were virtually unscathed this time.

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire
One objective of most of the prescribed fires in the Park is to remove some of the pine reproduction that is encroaching into the prairie. The brown seedlings here indicate some success in that regard.

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

Related articles:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota
Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire