Wildfire briefing, February 22, 2014

President Obama to meet with western governors about wildfire funding

On Monday President Obama will meet with the governors of some western states to discuss a change he is proposing in next year’s budget about how wildfires are funded. A busy and expensive wildfire season means the federal land management agencies have to rob dollars from routine ongoing non-fire activities to pay unusually high fire suppression expenses. And these busy and expensive fire seasons seem to be occurring with more regularity in recent years. The budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 would be similar to a bill introduced in the House, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (H.R. 3992), which would create an emergency funding process for fire response. The funding mechanism would be structured along the same lines as procedures for paying for other natural disasters like floods and hurricanes.

Wildfires challenged early pioneers

The Santa Fe New Mexican has an interesting article by Marc Simmons about how early settlers had to occasionally deal with prairie fires as they traveled by horseback and wagon train across New Mexico and west Texas. Below is an excerpt:

…On another trip [in the 1830s, Josiah] Gregg’s caravan was chased by an approaching prairie fire, and it escaped just in time by reaching a bare stretch of country, devoid of grass. “These conflagrations,” he wrote, “are enough to inspire terror and daunt the stoutest heart.”

Capt. Randolph B. Marcy, leading a military expedition across the Southwest in the 1850s, had an experience similar to Gregg’s. One of his soldiers carelessly caught the grass on fire, threatening the supply wagons. He declared that only the most strenuous efforts by his 200 men in setting counter fires around the train saved the expedition from disaster.

Great danger, he said, came from troops throwing a lighted match or ashes from a pipe into the grass while marching. Matches were just then coming into general use, so that was a new problem.

When a prairie fire struck, various steps could be taken in the emergency. Marcy mentioned one, setting a counter or back fire. The hope was when the two fires met, the progress of both would be checked and they would die out.

However, we question something the author identified as one of the causes of fires that threatened travelers:

…But the sun could be blamed on occasion, when its refracted light on a piece of broken glass or bit of metal cast off by a wagon train set the grass ablaze.

It is very unusual for glass, broken or otherwise, to start a fire. But if a bottle contains water, in very rare circumstances it can act like a lens and concentrate sunlight, similar to a magnifying glass. We have never heard of an ordinary piece of metal causing a fire.

Utah’s “firefighting cows”

In recent years ranchers and state lawmakers in Utah have argued with the federal government over water rights on federal land that is used by cattle ranchers. In order to bolster their case, some of the ranchers point out that the animals reduce vegetation — and the threat from fires.

Below is an excerpt from the Deseret News:

Utah is a “livestock state” that recognizes the benefits that cattle confer on pubic lands, including keeping vegetative overgrowth at bay and thus reducing wildfire threats, said Sterling Brown of the Utah Farm Bureau.

“Cattle are one way to properly manage public lands,” he said. “We have deemed much of our livestock as firefighting cows because they have helped reduce fires out there.”


Archive photo, southern California firefighters 40 years ago

Southern California firefighters 1970

Names of Southern California firefighters

Diana Campbell Ellison, former wife of Ron Campbell, was kind enough to send us this photo of firefighters that was most likely taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s, probably in southern California. Since most of them are not wearing uniforms, the photo was undoubtedly taken at a meeting or training session. Quite a few people in the photo went on to very distinguished careers in wildland fire. Click HERE to see a higher resolution version of the photo.


A classic film: “Watershed Wildfire”

movie "Watershed Wildfire"

A radio seen in the movie “Watershed Wildfire”

When I first started as a firefighter on the El Cariso Hot Shots in 1970 we were shown a lot of training films. One of them was about the 1955 Refugio Canyon Fire, titled “Watershed Wildfire”. It describes how firefighters fought the fire near Santa Barbara, California, which was 77,000 or 85,000 acres depending on the report, and how an early version of a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team worked quickly after the fire was out to stabilize slopes and reduce the chances of flooding and damage to reservoirs.

Even in 1970 it had the air of an old, classic film with a dramatic custom-written musical sound track, antique trucks, and firefighters with no personal protective equipment. A packset “HandiTalky” radio weighing several pounds with a remote telephone-like handset was shown as the narrator said, “The firefighters’ arsenal was equipped with the latest weapons”. Later he says “It takes trained men to fight fire”, a statement that perhaps needed to be said in 1955. Marines are seen using military flame throwers to ignite a backfire or burnout and later biplanes reseed the barren slopes.

The Santa Barbara Independent has an interesting article about the fire.

Now you can have the pleasure of viewing this classic film. The sound is pretty bad at first, but it improves 90 seconds in.

If the video will not play on your device click HERE to see it on YouTube.


Thanks go out to Jim


Forest discovered that will never burn

An ancient cypress forest has been discovered at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico 60 feet under water about 10 miles off the coast of Alabama. An examination of samples from the trees using radiocarbon dating estimated that they are over 50,000 years old. The wood is remarkably well preserved and has the distinct aroma of cypress when it is sawn, researchers said.

The fact that the trees are under water is due to changing sea levels caused by ice ages coming and going and the land mass in southern Alabama rising and subsiding over the last 50,000 to 80,000 years.

Scientists think massive waves during Hurricane Katrina rearranged the sand and silt on the ocean floor, uncovering the forest after it had been hidden for eons.

More information is at al.com.


Loop fire survivor talks

Loop Fire 1966

Loop Fire, November 1, 1966

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published the video below featuring Gerald Smith, a survivor of the 1966 Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in southern California visiting the site of the tragedy. The video is very powerful. Mr. Smith reads a letter from one of the other victims that was written while he was in the hospital shortly before he passed away. Mr. Smith also talks about his 20-year struggle after the burnover, dealing with the lingering effects and the eventual positive outcome.


On November 1, 1966, the El Cariso Hotshots were trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest.

Ten members of the crew perished on the Loop Fire that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following days. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Lessons learned from the Loop Fire resulted in the checklist for downhill line construction, improved firefighting equipment, better fire behavior training, and the implementation of new firefighter safety protocols.

The El Cariso Hot Shots experienced another tragedy in 1959 when three members of the crew were entrapped and killed on the Decker Fire near Elsinore, California.


Historic IAP cover, Gateway Fire

A decade or two ago the unwritten rules about what could or could not be on the cover of an *Incident Action Plan (IAP) were somewhat more loose than they are today. Here is an example of a hand-drawn, customized cover for the IAP for the Gateway Fire, July 20, 1989.

Gateway Fire IAP CoverIn case you’re having a hard time reading the text, click on the image to see a larger version, but here is what it says:

  • Smokey: “It’s worth it, though…We’ve been promised a week of R&R in GATEWAY!
  • From the “OPS” helicopter: “Sorry, no drops … Got’a have a meeting! OPS OUT!”
  • Caption at lower-right: “KIDS … Smokey & Woodsy are trained professional fire fighters — do not attempt this manuver [sic] at home!”

I’m thinking the Gateway Fire may have been near the very small town of Gateway, Colorado (map).

Sometimes on a large multi-day or multi-week fire a firefighter with some drawing skills and a little time on their hands would deliver to the Planning Section, unexpectedly, a very nice candidate for an IAP cover. At times they lampooned or parodied the characteristics of that particular fire. But a good Planning Section Chief or Incident Commander would draw a line at submissions that were in poor taste or that were too unprofessional.

*Incident Action Plan, definition from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s glossary: “Contains objectives reflecting the overall incident strategy and specific tactical actions and supporting information for the next operational period. The plan may be oral or written. When written, the plan may have a number of attachments, including: incident objectives, organization assignment list, division assignment, incident radio communication plan, medical plan, traffic plan, safety plan, and incident map. Formerly called shift plan.”