Drones briefly halt air operations over Pioneer fire

Helicopter Pioneer Fire

(Updated 4:35 p.m. MDT, July 31, 2016)

Drones shut down air operations over the Pioneer fire for 45 minutes on Sunday, while the fire continued to spread due to erratic weather conditions.

In a post on InciWeb, the incident management team said the drone incursion came at a critical time for firefighters.

Aviation operations once again stopped for 45 minutes during a critical period of fire suppression due to an unmanned aircraft incursion. IF YOU FLY WE CAN’T. PLEASE DO NOT FLY DRONES IN OR NEAR THE FIRE AREA.

Such a delay seems to have become common place on many fires, and last week incident management teams in California and Montana reported halting air operations due to drones in the area.

A spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center has urged people not to flying drones into wildfire areas, and has said that people caught flying drones in wildfire zones could face criminal charges.

Meanwhile, the Pioneer fire has burned 27,271 acres and is 27 percent contained.

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Crews on the 18,933-acre Pioneer fire north of Idaho City are facing a weekend of windy weather, which will likely fan the flames of a fire that has been burning since July 18.

Here’s the outlook for Sunday’s weather:

A passing cold front this evening may produce thunderstorms with gusty, erratic winds and increased fire behavior.Smoke will likely again be visible from great distances.

Crews are also grappling with poor access, steep terrain, dry forests and old mining sites, according to posts on InciWeb.

On Friday, heavy smoke from the fire drifted east and triggered warnings for unhealthy levels of smoke pollution. Smoke from the Pioneer fire was also drifting into Northern Colorado.

Saturday’s outlook in Idaho, however, predicted normal air quality, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

Comet Fire burns hundreds of acres north of Salmon, Idaho

Above: Comet Fire, July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The heli-rappellers at the Salmon, Idaho airport saw the lightning strike on July 26 that caused the Comet fire 12 miles north of the town. So far it has burned 356 acres above the Salmon River near Highway 93.

map Comet Fire
Map showing the location of the Comet Fire 12 miles north of Salmon, Idaho, July 28 , 2016.

The fire is being fought by four helicopters, seven engines, one Type 2 initial attack 22 person crew, one Hotshot crew, four heli-rappellers, and four smokejumpers.

Comet Fire
The Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho. Photo by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.
Comet Fire K-Max
A K-MAX helicopter drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert. Click to enlarge.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell talks about recovery at the Soda Fire

Secretary Jewell discusses the rehab of the Soda Fire and the illegal occupation of a National Wildlife Refuge.

In an interview with Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell talked about the rehabilitation of the Soda Fire that burned 279,000 acres in Oregon and Idaho southwest of Boise last August. She addressed some of the criticism about the rehab strategy and also talked about the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and its effect on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees.

Map Soda Fire
Map of the Soda Fire (red line) at 9 p.m. MT, August 14, 2015. The brown and red dots represent heat detected by a satellite as late as 10:05 p.m. MT, August 14, 2015. The fire was actively spreading near the location of the red dots at that time — the red dots were the most current. (click to enlarge)

1942 typewritten account of the 1910 Big Burn Fires uncovered

Britt Rosso of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center discovered a 23-page typewritten account of some of the stories from the 1910 Big Burn fires that blackened huge areas of Idaho and Montana — the fires that changed the course of fire management in the United States.

Mr. Rosso describes his find:

As I was digging through some boxes at work, I came across a hard copy of this report on the 1910 fires. It was written in 1942 by Elers Koch, who was the Forest Supervisor on the Lolo NF in 1910. He created this 1910 fire summary so history would not be forgotten. It’s now posted on our LLC web site.

There are some amazing stories in here, and there are also reports from seven different fire crews on how they dealt with the “Great Fire”. There is a crew story in here about “burning off a large area…thinking that they would have absolute protection”. Maybe Wag Dodge wasn’t the first FF to ever use an escape fire.

Take your time and read it slowly.

Since documents at the Lessons Learned Center are known to be moved around and become difficult to find, we stashed a copy here for our readers.

One of the stories features the 30-person Moose Creek Crew led by Deputy Supervisor Ed Thenon, who wrote the account. (It is not clear what Forest Mr. Thenon was from.) They were working on a fire in Idaho in the upper Selway River area near Moose Creek. The sleeping crew, which was in an unburned area not near the fire edge, was aroused at 10 p.m. by debris falling in their area. Soon what one of the men thought was a “falling star” landed nearby and started a spot fire. When they could see the fire approaching they moved their camp and their food, or “grub”, to a small six-foot wide sand bar, or strip, in a creek that had water six to eight inches deep. Mr. Thenon told the men to lie in the creek and put wet blankets over their heads. Wet blankets were also put on their horses.

Below is a brief excerpt from his account. Click on it to see a larger version:

1910 Fires excerpt

Even though two men ran off and took refuge in another area, all 30 of them survived. However “the ‘lullaby boy’ was taken to an asylum”.

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

Incident Commander reportedly removed from team after incidents with landowners

Tepee Springs Fire
Tepee Springs Fire, posted on InciWeb August 28, 2015. Credit: Air Attack.
According to an article in the Idaho Statesman, the leader of the incident management team that was managing the Tepee Springs Fire has been removed from his position about six weeks after reports were filed on a website where firefighters can anonymously provide information about safety issues. Two reports were filed on the SAFENET website (on September 2 and 4, 2015) saying fire crews were ordered by the Incident Commander (IC) to construct fireline in an area agreed to in a meeting between the IC and the landowners who at times wore sidearms when they met with firefighters.

On several occasions  while talking to firefighters, the landowners had been very insistent that certain more aggressive tactics should be implemented. Our first article on this issue provoked a lengthy response from a person believed to be one of the landowners, or at least a person very familiar with the details who sympathized with them.

Rocky Barker, a writer for the Idaho Statesman, reported today that IC Chris Ourada, the fire management officer on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeast Idaho, was taken off the Great Basin Type 1 Incident Management team that was assigned to the Tepee Springs Fire east of Riggins, Idaho from August 28 until September 12, 2015.

The latest roster for Great Basin Team 2 updated on October 7, 2015 lists Paul Broyles, who retired in 2008, as the IC. When we viewed the roster on September 27 Chris Ourada was the IC and Mr. Broyles was the Deputy IC. That earlier roster, dated February 2, 2015, has been deleted but can still be viewed on the Way Back Machine. Interestingly, the file name for the current roster is “Ourada_Master.pdf”.

It is very unusual for an Incident Commander to be replaced late in the fire season — on October 7 in this case. More commonly, major changes to a team are made in the winter.

The two SAFENET reports state that hotshot crews had not been constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire near the private land due to numerous conditions that made that particular tactic unsafe, including cliffs in the area, the location made it impossible to extract resources if an injury occurred, no safety zones were available if fire behavior increased again, and the presence of a nearby under-slung mid-slope fireline.

Two hotshot crews refused to take on the risk of the direct fireline assignment. After explaining their rationale to the IC and the safety issues involved, the firefighters were reportedly told by the IC:

I’m the Incident Commander and you will do what you’re [expletive] told.

The official public response to the two SAFENET reports, issued October 5, 2015, said a “…team chartered by the Great Basin Coordinating Group [conducted] a review … and identified specific improvements and corrective actions, which are currently being implemented”.

Jennifer Jones, a national spokesperson about fire issues for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, would not comment on the reported removal of an incident commander, except to refer us to a statement from the Regional Fire Director for the Intermountain Region, Sue Stewart:

Safety is always the top priority for the U.S. Forest Service.  Professional firefighters review all reports in SAFENET and ensure that appropriate actions are taken to correct any behaviors, systems or communication issues that could put fire fighters at risk. The Tepee Springs incident was thoroughly reviewed and appropriate actions were taken.

E. Wade Muehlhof, a spokesperson for the Intermountain Region which includes the area where the fire occurred, told us:

The decisions or recommendation made by the review panel are treated like personnel issues and are private.

In 1999 due to many mistakes, errors in judgement, and shear laziness by incident management team members on the Sadler Fire near Elko, Nevada that resulted in several firefighters being overrun by the fire, not only was the IC removed, but the entire team was disbanded. In addition, five members of the Command and General Staff had the fire qualification for their position on the team suspended until they could be recertified. The positions involved included the Incident Commander, the Planning Section Chief, the Safety Officer, and two Operations Section Chiefs.

More information on Wildfire Today:
Our original article about the issues with the landowners and the incident commander.
A further look into the landowner/firefighter disagreement in Idaho

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