Southern California fuels and fire behavior advisory

One of the Predictive Services offices issued a Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisory for southern California. In this new one, most of Northern California has been temporarily removed due to the unseasonably cool and wet weather pattern. With the forecast for the weather pattern to make a dramatic change mid-week with strong high pressure developing over California for rapid drying/warming into the weekend, they anticipate Northern CA will once again warrant an advisory in the next 1-2 weeks.


Predictive Services

“Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisory
Southern California
June 25, 2013

Subject: Low live and dead fuel moistures, along with persistent drought have created the potential for active to extreme fire behavior in Southern California.

Discussion: All of California is experiencing drought conditions. Effects of lower than normal live and dead fuel moistures and observed fire behavior for 2013 are the focus of this advisory. Note that most of Northern CA was included in the previous advisory but has been temporarily removed due to forecasted widespread wetting rain. It is anticipated that area will warrant an advisory in the next couple weeks.

Difference From Normal Conditions: Drought conditions ranging from abnormally dry to severe exist and are expected to persist or intensify. The entire area is deficient in rainfall and snow pack, resulting in fuels that are 4-8 weeks ahead of normal drying/curing rates.

Concerns to Firefighters:

  • Energy Release Component (ERC) values at numerous weather stations are well above normal and many are at record maximums. Expect increased fire intensity and spread rates in these areas. Early season extreme fire behavior has been observed especially in brush fuel types. Anticipate increased spread rates, spotting, and active night time burning.
  • The combination of persistent drought and record-low rainfall and snowpack amounts has led to very low live and dead fuel moistures. Low 1000-hour fuel moistures have been evidenced by complete consumption of dead fuels on recent fires. Live fuel moistures for Chamise have already reached critical levels of 60% or less in many areas. Expect fires to ignite easier and spread faster. Anticipate higher resistance to control in all fuel types.
  • Active fire behavior can extend well into the night and early morning hours even with moderate RH recovery. Already this year, Southern California has experienced large fire activity and multiple team deployments. It is important to be mindful of and manage fatigue for all resources. Everyone, every day, returns home safely.

Mitigation Measures:

  • Local and inbound fire personnel need to be aware that fire behavior is exceeding normal expectations for this time of the year. Local briefings need to be thorough and highlight specific fire environment conditions. These include but are not limited to local weather forecasts, Pocket Cards, ERC’s, live and dead fuel moistures, and special fuel conditions such as mortality, Sudden Oak Death and frost killed brush, etc.
  • Suppression actions need to be based on good anchor points, escape routes, and safety zones. Remember LCES. Experienced lookouts are essential under these conditions.
  • Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire. Augment initial attack resources as incident activity dictates.
  • Review the most current Southern California 7-day Significant Fire Potential along with Daily, Monthly and Seasonal Outlooks at:

Area of Concern: The area of concern is the Southern California geographic area with the exception of 4 PSA’s: Central Valley, Central Mojave, Eastern Desert, and Lower Deserts. A map showing the areas of concern described in this advisory can be found at: National Fuel Advisories

Issued: June 25, 2013 (Note this advisory will be in effect for 14 days and will be reviewed/updated at that time.)”

Another Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisory — this time, Arizona and New Mexico

Fuels and fire behavior advisoriesOne of the Predictive Services offices has issued another Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisory. The last one, issued June 10, was for California. This new one, dated June 16, is for portions of Arizona and New Mexico.

The advisory does not mention the “Southwest Monsoon,” an event that typically starts in early July and generally begins to draw the curtain on the fire season in Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, southern Utah and southwestern Colorado.

Below is the full text of the advisory.


“Fuels and Fire Behavior AdvisoryPredictive Services

Arizona and New Mexico

June 16, 2013

Subject: Persistent multi-year drought across much of New Mexico and Arizona has dropped fuel moistures to critically low levels in the large dead and live foliar fuels. These critically low fuel moistures increase available fuel loading which contributes to and supports active crown fire in timber fuels when critical fire weather is present.

Discussion: The multi-year drought has reduced the fine fuel loading across most of the region so the focus for this advisory will be the timber fuels within the region.

Difference from normal conditions: Drought creates more available fuel in timber fuel types which will increase fire intensities, crown fire potential and difficulty of control for fire suppression resources. Short duration rain events provide only short term fuel moisture improvement in timber litter fuels (1, 10, and 100 hour dead fuels). Fuels rebound quickly to previous dryness levels. Short duration rain events provide no fuel moisture recovery in large dead and live foliar fuels.

Concerns to Firefighters and the Public:

  • Surface fire will quickly transition to crown fire and only requires low to moderate surface fire intensity to transition.
  • Active/running crown fire has produced long range spotting up to one mile under the influence of an unstable atmosphere.
  • Active fire behavior can extend well into night and early morning hours even with moderate RH recovery.
  • Thunderstorm activity will create a mosaic pattern of surface fuel moistures. Surface fire intensity and fire behavior may change abruptly when fires cross these boundaries of moist and dry surface fuels.

Mitigation Measures:

  • Local briefings need to be thorough and highlight specific fire environment conditions. These include but are not limited to local weather forecasts, Pocket Cards, ERC’s, live and dead fuel moistures, and special fuel conditions such as drought and insect mortality
  • Lookouts, both on the ground and in the air, can help identify the initiation and location of crown fire. They can also provide the location of resultant spot fires from active crown fire.
  • Firefighters should acknowledge that fire growth and fire behavior they encounter this year may exceed anything they have experienced before due to the drought factor. Normal strategies and tactics may need to be adjusted to account for the drought factor.

Area of Concern: Please reference the map posted on the National Fuel Advisory Page.

The timber fuels within this area of concern are the target for this fire behavior advisory.”


(End of text)


Thanks go out to Ken

As fast as a freight train with a broken throttle

The American Red Cross of Los Angeles — I guess their heart is in the right place. They produced a video that tries to impress upon viewers the speed at which a vegetation fire spreads. They convinced an Inspector with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to say “…a wildfire can come at you like a freight train with a broken throttle.” Then they pump propane through a pipe with holes in it and ignite the escaping gas, while Red Cross volunteers try to outrun the flames coming out of the pipe. I’m not sure that this has anything in common with a vegetation fire, but what the hell.

Be warned, at 1:40 the sound volume triples.

More research minimizes the effect beetles have on fire behavior

More researchers have recently come to the same conclusions others have about the effect that bark beetles have on wildland fire behavior. Some people see beetle-killed trees and intuitively think that fire behavior will be greatly increased in those areas. There is not complete agreement on this, but at least two recent studies have concluded that beetle killed trees do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire, at least in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce (Picea engelmannii)-fir (Abies spp.). We said the same thing as early as two years ago.

The latest research paper is titled “Do Bark Beetle Outbreaks Increase Wildfire Risks in the Central U.S. Rocky Mountains? Implications from Recent Research”. The authors were Scott H. Black, Dominik Kulakowski, Barry R. Noon, and Dominick A. DellaSala, from the Xerces Society, Clark University, Colorado State University, and Geos Institute, respectively.

Their taxpayer-funded research is available to taxpayers if we pay an additional fee to the Natural Areas Journal. (UPDATE January 24, 2013. We contacted one of the authors, Dr. Barry R. Noon, and he graciously sent us a copy of the paper.)

But their abstract can be read on the internet for free. Here is an excerpt:

…We review the literature on the efficacy of silvicutural practices to control outbreaks and on fire risk following bark beetle outbreaks in several forest types. While research is ongoing and important questions remain unresolved, to date most available evidence indicates that bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire in lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests under most conditions. Instead, active crown fires in these forest types are primarily contingent on dry conditions rather than variations in stand structure, such as those brought about by outbreaks.

Their conclusions are similar to those in another paper titled Effects of bark beetle-caused tree mortality on wildfire, and was written by Jeffrey A. Hicke, Morris C. Johnson, Jane L. Hayes, and Haiganoush K. Preisler. We wrote about it in June of 2012. They said that the potential for active crown fire would increase somewhat between one and four years after mortality, then it would decrease substantially.

Here, in part, is what we wrote last June about that study:


…The author’s confidence in the conclusions reached about torching potential and active crown fire potential for the first ten years was low, but it is probable that active crown potential would increase for the first four years after mortality and then decrease dramatically. Torching potential would probably increase.

Surface fire properties, defined as reaction intensity, rate of spread, and flame length, would likely increase, but the confidence in the prediction for the first four years was low.

The authors pointed out that changes in fire behavior following a pine beetle outbreak…

…may only occur under some environmental conditions. For example, effects may be manifested during intermediate wind speeds (Simard et al., 2011) or in moister conditions, such as earlier in the fire season (Steele and Copple, 2009). Past controversy on this topic can be partly recon­ciled by this consideration of more specificity about study ques­tion, time since outbreak, and fuels or fire characteristic when describing results.

Our view of the research

It would be helpful if all of these parameters and studies could distill the conclusions into one index helpful to land managers and firefighters, which I will call Resistance To Control (RTC). Simultaneous increases in surface fire, torching, and crowning would result in more RTC. But it becomes more complicated to characterize when, for instance, crown fire potential decreases to near zero, while surface fire intensity and torching increase. Long distance spotting is a firefighter’s biggest headache and makes fires almost impossible to control, at least at the head. Crown fires are the major culprit for long distance spotting, but surface fires and individual or multiple tree torching can also create spot fires. And all of this varies, of course, with the weather. Strong winds can make ANY fire very resistant to control as long as the fuels are continuous.

If a person leaps to the possibly incorrect conclusion that all of the fire behavior parameters shown in the chart above are accurate, including the sections with low confidence, then RTC would increase somewhat one to four years after a beetle outbreak, and then would probably decrease since the crown fire potential would dramatically decline. Surface fires, including those with some torching, can be more easily controlled using tactics, sometimes with aerial support, such as direct hand line construction, hose lays, indirect line construction with burnouts, and backfiring from out ahead of the fire. When crowning is the primary method of fire spread, you usually have to wait for either the weather or the fuels to change. Air tankers and helicopters dropping fire retardant or water can be more effective when the fire is confined to the surface, as long as firefighters are on the ground to take advantage of the temporary slowing of the rate of spread, and if the wind is not too strong.

With apologies to the authors of this very good research paper, I took the liberty of adding a Resistance To Control variable to their chart:Bark Beetles effect on fire behavior, multiple studies with resistance to control

And of course the authors of the paper included the familiar phrase, “more research is needed”, which is a mandatory section in every research paper.

The authors, who are employed by taxpayers, arranged to have the government pay a fee to have their paper published by the for-profit Elsevier corporation which is headquartered in the Netherlands. But thankfully, this time the USFS also published it on their U.S. Government web site where taxpayers can access it at no additional charge.

If you believe taxpayer-funded research should always be available to taxpayers freely over the internet, go to the White House web site and sign the petition. (Update Jan. 23, 2013: you can still read the petition at the site, but it is closed to new signers. About 60,000 people signed it.)

Better video of the Australian fire tornado

Loyal readers of Wildfire Today will remember back to September 18 when we posted a video of a fire tornado shot by Chris Tangey of Alice Springs Film and Television while he was scouting locations near Curtin Springs station in Australia. Mr. Tangey contacted us to let us know that the Channel 7 video was removed from YouTube due to copyright issues, but a better version of the video, provided by Mr. Tangey, is now available at Vimeo.

We are embedding it below. If you want the very impressive video to fill your screen, hover your mouse pointer over the video then click on the arrows at the bottom-right between “HD” and “vimeo”.

Outback fire tornadoes-Australia from chris tangey on Vimeo.

Below is a description of the video:


“THERE’S something mean and magical about Australia’s Outback. An Alice Springs filmmaker captured both when a whirlwind of fire erupted before his eyes.

Chris Tangey of Alice Springs Film and Television was scouting locations near Curtin Springs station, about 80km from Ularu, last week when confronted by a fiery phenomenon. He had just finished his tour of the station when workers encountered difficulties with a grader. So he went to help them.

A small fire was burning in nearby bushland, so Mr Tangey decided to start filming. He caught the sight of his life. A twister touched down on the spot fire, fanning it into a furious tower of flame.

“It sounded like a jet fighter going by, yet there wasn’t a breath of wind where we were,” he told the Northern Territory News.

“You would have paid $1000 a head if you knew it was about to happen.”

The column of fire danced about the landscape for about 40 minutes, he said, as he and the station workers stood transfixed. There was talk of making a quick getaway, Mr Tangey said. But everyone was too hypnotised to feel scared – and he continued furiously filming.

“The bizarre thing was that it rarely moved,” he said.

“These things just stood there because there was no wind to move them … but it was flickering incredibly fast.”

Darwin weather forecaster David Matthews said small twisters were common in isolated areas. But the fiery vortex was highly unusual.

“The flames would have assisted by trying to suck in air and that could have helped generate those circular winds,” Mr Matthews said.”

Fuels and firefighting discussion for the northern plains

During fire season the Fire Meteorologist for the state of South Dakota, Darren Clabo, distributes on a regular basis a paper describing the predicted weather and the current condition of the fuels. In the edition published on Tuesday a section about fuels written by Jim Strain, the Chief of Operations for the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division, caught my eye. He references the 28-mile-long Wellnitz fire that burned 77,159 acres in Nebraska and South Dakota.

…Do not underestimate the spread potentials of Fuel Model 1 and Fuel Model 2 fuels during the evening and night hours. When wind, slope and fuels are in alignment, with no natural barriers, these fires will burn just like in the middle of the day. The Rosebud complex in eastern MT last month went from 7000 acres to 100,000 acres in one night! When the Wellnitz fire crossed the state line on late Friday afternoon, the forward progress of the fire was finally stopped in the south portion of the road ditch on US Highway 18, at 2230 hours that evening.

The head of the Wellnitz fire spread quickly through green crop fields such as standing sunflowers. The head of the Wellnitz fire was finally corralled by tactic used by Pine Ridge BIA. Pine Ridge BIA units scraped a line with a grader on the south side of the Hwy 18 Right of way, and as the fire moved through the shorter grass (FM1) to the scraped line, it meet a pretty significant barrier of 10 feet of bare mineral soil, and 33 feet of pavement. This allowed fire units to patrol larger sections of line and hold the fire. Pine Ridge BIA and the Tribe did an outstanding job of pulling the trigger real fast for evacuation once the fire crossed the state line, and good thing they did. Fire was up to many housing units just as fire trucks arrived that evening.

So for any fire in our zone, if you think evacuation needs to take place, just do it, because it probably needs to happen!