Firefighters travel from Saipan to fight the Happy Camp Fire

Happy Camp Complex

While Rae Brooks was assigned to the Happy Camp Complex of fires in northwest California she wrote this story about a crew from Saipan that was working on the fire. The photos were taken by Kari Greer.


Saipan firefighters usually battle scrubby mango and banana tree fires that last a day or two and burn less than five acres. For a month this summer, 15 firefighters from the tiny Pacific island broke in new boots while working on major wildfires in northern California.

The cold, dry night air, the 16-hour work days and the new boots took their toll, but the Saipan crew still raved about their month-long assignment.

“We all have busted-up feet, we’re sick, but we loved it anyway,” said crew member Derek Gersonde. “It’s a great learning experience.”

The Saipan crew flew to California in mid-August as part of a U.S. Forest Service program that brings wildland firefighters to the U.S. mainland to help out when fires are active and resources stretched. In a matter of days, the crew switched abruptly from their sea-level home of sandy beaches and coral reefs to the rugged mountains of northern California.

After being issued wildland fire-fighting gear — and buying wildland boots, which aren’t stocked in Saipan stores — they started building line at the French Fire on the Sierra National Forest.

Crew boss trainee Alle Recor found the crew tended at first to operate on “island time” and lacked the sense of readiness of the wildland world. On Saipan, fires are close by and easy to reach. But, with a little coaching, that soon changed, said Recor. She found the crew motivated, and eager to have fun and get the job done.

Happy Camp Complex

Thirteen of the 15 crew members, who range in age from 22 to 48, work primarily as structural firefighters and are qualified medics for the Saipan Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire. Although wildland firefighting was a new world, the crew understood fire behavior from their structural background, Recor said. Two others were part of a 2008 Saipan crew that fought wildland fires in California

The crew’s fitness and ability to learn new skills quickly impressed crew boss Tyler Van Ormer, who normally works as a battalion chief with the National Forests of Mississippi.

“The guys catch on so quickly that sometimes I forget how green they are,” said Van Ormer. “You only have to show them once and it’s like they’re old hands at it.”

When Van Ormer got word of his assignment, he had to search Google to confirm the island was actually part of the United States. Saipan is the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, three-quarters of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines.
Instructors from the western United States travel to Saipan each April to provide basic wildland fire-fighting training. Selection to the wildland crew is competitive for course graduates. While wildfires do occur on Saipan, which is smaller than Rhode Island, they are usually caught quickly.

“It’s such a small island that a fire usually runs into a structure and slows down,” said Gersonde. “We don’t have these huge vast mountain ranges that just blow up. You come here and see how fast a fire can run.”

After the French Fire, the crew spent two weeks at the Happy Camp Complex on the Klamath National Forest.

To help hone their practical firefighting skills, five of the Saipan crew embedded with the Sierra Hotshots and some of the hotshots worked with the Saipan crew. The hotshots emphasized safety and proper technique. After a break, the crew returned to Happy Camp for a second stint. They flew home Sept. 17.

Crew boss Van Ormer lauded the Saipan crew’s work ethic.

“They’re disciplined, they’re nice, they’re polite,” said Van Ormer. “If they don’t know something, they ask. I’ve never heard a complaint. They’re the easiest guys I’ve ever worked with.”

The organizational structure behind fighting a big fire boggled the Saipan crew. When they returned to the Happy Camp Complex, 75 crews, 14 helicopters, 108 engines, 20 dozers and 50 water-tenders were working on the fire, which now sprawls over more than 200 square miles.

The entire island of Saipan is only 1,400 square miles.

After exposure to large-scale fires, some crew members find themselves contemplating a new career path in wildland firefighting on the U.S. mainland.

“A lot of us have it on our minds,” said Gersonde.

Happy Camp Complex

Photos by Kari Greer of the Happy Camp Complex

Happy Camp Complex, Klamath NF, CA, 2014

These photos of the Happy Camp Complex of fires were taken by Kari Greer for the U.S. Forest Service August 24 through 26. As you can see, she is one of the best fire photographers around. More of her work is available at Smugmug. Ms. Greer is under contract to the National Interagency Fire Center and carries a Red Card so that she can get right in the midst of the action. She left the Happy Camp Complex a few days ago, but just received a new order to return. At the 20-year commemoration of the South Canyon Fire in July, she found herself on the OTHER end of a camera lens.

The fire has burned about 77,000 acres in northwest California and is listed at 19 percent containment. It is being fought by 91 hand crews, 13 helicopters, 93 engines, 21 dozers, 44 water tenders, 29 mules, and 8 horses.Happy Camp Complex, Klamath NF, CA, 2014 Happy Camp Complex, Klamath NF, CA, 2014 Happy Camp Complex, Klamath NF, CA, 2014 Happy Camp Complex, Klamath NF, CA, 2014

California: Happy Camp Complex of fires

(UPDATED at 11:08 a.m. MDT, August 30, 2014)

Pyrocumulus cloud over the Happy Camp Complex of fires, August 28, 2014
Pyrocumulus cloud over the Happy Camp Complex of fires, August 28, 2014. Photo by Kari Greer.

The growth of the Happy Camp Complex Fire on Friday was similar to the day before. Continued spread to the northeast added another 13,000 acres and brought the 57,722-acre fire to the banks of the Klamath River at the community of Seiad Valley. Exhibiting intense fire behavior it traveled north approximately three quarters of a mile up the Grider Creek drainage below a pyrocumulus cloud that formed above the large column of smoke.

The mandatory evacuations from Friday remain in effect. Communities that are threatened by the fire include Happy Camp, Elk Creek, Seiad Valley, Hamburg, Kelsey Creek and Scott Bar. Structure protection groups are placed in strategic locations to assist in protecting homes and property should the fire move into these areas.

Click on the maps of the Happy Camp Complex below to see slightly larger versions.

Map Happy Camp Cmplx
Map of the Happy Camp Complex of fires at 12:05 a.m. MDT, 8-30-2014.
3-D Map Happy Camp Cmplx
3-D Map of the Happy Camp Complex of fires at 12:05 a.m. MDT, 8-30-2014.


(Originally published at 10:06 a.m. MDT, August 29, 2014)

An MD-87 drops on the Happy Camp Complex
An MD-87 drops on the Happy Camp Complex. InciWeb photo.

The Happy Camp Complex of fires grew by 12,000 acres on Thursday, requiring additional mandatory evacuations in the Seiad Valley area, including:

  • Scott Valley Road from Bridge Flat to the intersection of Hwy. 96.
  • All areas south of Hwy. 96 between Scott River Road and Grider Creek.
  • All areas south of Hwy. 96 from Seiad Valley down river to Kade Summit.

Other areas are under an evacuation advisory.

On Thursday the two largest and most active fires in the Complex, the Faulkstein and Frying Pan Fires, spread rapidly on the east side aided by long-range spotting. The fires grew together when an inversion broke, followed by a west wind that pushed the fire to the northeast. Burning embers were carried a mile and a half in front of the fire.

As you can see on the maps below, the fire is 38 miles southwest of Medford, Oregon and less than two miles from Seiad Valley, California on Highway 96.
Continue reading “California: Happy Camp Complex of fires”

Photos from the South Canyon 20th year commemoration

South Canyon Fire

These photos were taken by Bill Gabbert July 6, 2014 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado at the South Canyon Fire 20th Anniversary Commemoration.

South Canyon Fire

Boise Pipe and Drum
Boise Pipes and Drums
Honor Guards and Color Guards
Honor Guards and Color Guards on the stage.
Honor Guard and Color Guard
Honor Guards and Color Guards were at the commemoration.
The Prineville Hotshots
The Prineville Hotshots.
streamers smoke jumpers
A smokejumper aircraft dropped streamers, presumably 14 of them, near the end of the commemoration.
Kari Greer
Kari Greer, a well-known photographer of wildland fires, with her fireline tools.

Report on Little Bear Fire analyzes perceptions

Little Bear Fire
Little Bear Fire, burning operation on 532 Road, June 13, 2012, Photo by Kari Greer/USFS

There can be a variety of narrative reports written about a wildfire, including 24-hour and 72-hour, After Action Review, Individual Fire Review, Fire and Aviation Safety Team Review, and Lessons Learned Review. But a type that was new to us has been released about the 2012 Little Bear Fire in New Mexico. It is titled “Little Bear Fire Summary Report” which is a vague title for a report that analyzed perceptions — how the fire was viewed by fire managers and local residents.

It could be categorized more as research than a conventional report on a fire. A team of seven social scientists from North Carolina State University, the U.S. Forest Service, University of Colorado, and Ohio State University conducted interviews of stakeholders, with a focus on perceptions of the event itself — communication, evacuation, and wildfire preparedness. They talked with community members, local organizations, and federal agency personnel.

The Little Bear Fire started on June 4, 2012 northwest of Ruidoso, New Mexico and was contained at four acres with a fireline around it during the first five days. On the afternoon of the fifth day a wind event blew embers from a torching tree outside the fireline causing the fire to eventually burn 242 houses and 44,330 acres.

The management of the fire has been a magnet for criticism from politicians, residents, and others. But this new report does not explore in detail the tactics, strategy, or suppression decisions that were made — it concentrates on how the fire was perceived.

“Gordie”, a Wildfire Today reader, in commenting on how the U.S. Forest Service expends time and energy on designating “Honorary Forest Rangers” such as Arnold Schwarzenner and Betty White, wrote in part:

…A public official in Washington state once said (paraphrased): “What we are perceived to do may be more important in our customer’s eyes than our actual accomplishments.”  A horrible truth, but for the great unknowing masses, looking good is more important [to] taxpayers than actual functionality.

Applying Gordie’s analogy, the USFS ordered research to determine if they are “looking good”.

We will get to the report’s findings, but first there was one fact about the management of the fire that was new to us. On June 9, the day after the four-acre fire blew up, the New Mexico Governor ordered a second Type 1 Incident Management Team. This decision was made without consulting the existing Type 1 team, which learned of the order hours after it had taken command of the fire. When this was discovered, the second team was assigned to stage at Albuquerque, rather than continue to the fire.

Below is the Summary section of the report:
Continue reading “Report on Little Bear Fire analyzes perceptions”

Sheriff’s office releases report about Waldo Canyon Fire

Vandenberg Hotshots on the Waldo Canyon Fire. Photo by Kari Greer
Vandenberg Hotshots on the Waldo Canyon Fire. Photo by Kari Greer

In Colorado the local sheriff is responsible for the suppression of wildfires in unincorporated areas, regardless of the amount of training and experience the elected official may have in the management of wildfires. Yesterday the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office released a 27-page report about the Waldo Canyon Fire that blackened over 18,000 acres, burned 347 homes, and killed two people when it spread into Colorado Springs June 26, 2012. We can add this report to the two already issued by the city of Colorado Springs, and hopefully, a report to be released some day by the U.S. Forest Service which initially had jurisdiction for the fire that started in the Pike National Forest just west of the city.

Even though the most serious impacts of the fire were in Colorado Springs, the city refused to delegate authority for the Incident Management Team to manage the fire within their city limits, and pretty much operated on their own as hundreds of homes in the Mountain Shadows area burned and two people were killed. The County Sheriff’s report referred to this in an indirect way, as seen below:

“In preparation for the arrival of the Type 1 Team, Delegations of Authority were received from all affected jurisdictions except one agency. ****Note**** Delegations of Authority in this context refer to documents that permit state and national resources to provide assistance in local jurisdictions. These documents do not diminish or relinquish the responsibility of local authority.”

Here are some key developments during the first five days of the fire:

Friday, June 22, 2012. The first smoke report was at 7:50 p.m. The U.S. Forest Service and several agencies responded, but did not locate the smoke. All of the firefighters were released at 9:48 p.m. by the USFS who had assumed command of the incident.

Saturday, June 23, 2012. The next morning at 6:58 a.m. the USFS was back on scene. At 7:30 a.m. there was another report of smoke in the area. At noon after several other reports of smoke, the fire was located. About 20 minutes later more firefighting resources were ordered including a single engine air tanker. This is the first indication of any aviation resources, helicopters or air tankers, being requested for the fire. Shortly after that the Colorado Springs Fire Department ordered the voluntary evacuation of several areas. That afternoon a Type 3 Incident Management Team assumed command of the fire and a Type 1 IMTeam was ordered. Mandatory evacuations for some areas began at 3:12 p.m.
Continue reading “Sheriff’s office releases report about Waldo Canyon Fire”