Wildfire briefing, March 30, 2014

Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas

Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas, March 29, 2014. Photo by Eric Ward.

Prescribed fire smoke in the Flint Hills

In light of the discussion on Wildfire Today about prescribed fire as a tourist attraction in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Eric Ward sent us the above photo that he took Saturday afternoon in smoky Manhattan, Kansas. He explained that many of the ranchers in the area conduct extensive burning projects this time of the year in order to enhance weight gains of cattle if they plan to stock pastures in May. On days when the relative humidity and wind speed are within an acceptable range, the evidence of the burning is very visible in the atmosphere, especially if weather for the previous week or so has been bouncing between snow and red flag weather conditions, as it has this year.

Colorado report recommends contracting for air tankers and helicopters

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsA long-awaited report about aerial firefighting by state agencies in Colorado was released Friday by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC). Some of the more significant recommendations include:

  • Increase the number of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) on exclusive use contracts from two to four.
  • Contract for the exclusive use of four Type 3 or larger rotor-wing aircraft. (Type 3 helicopters can carry 100 to 300 gallons.)
  • Contract for the exclusive use of two Type 2 or larger air tankers. (Type 2 air tankers can carry 1,800 to 3,000 gallons). The contingency, if the State is unable to contract for two air tankers, is to contract for two helitankers, or a combination of one fixed-wing air tanker and one helitanker.

More details are at Fire Aviation.

Arizona seeks to immunize the state from liability from wildfires

A bill that was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee, House Bill 2343, would exempt the state and state employees from prosecution for harm resulting from the action, or inaction by state employees on state lands. Hundreds of millions of dollars in claims have been filed by the families of the 19 firefighters killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire and by property owners whose homes burned. The fire was managed by the state of Arizona in June, 2013.

Firefighters assisting with Oso landslide

Personnel that usually can be found at wildfires are helping to manage the response to the tragic landslide at Oso, Washington. We have reports that some of the resources assisting include Washington Incident Management Team #4 (a Type 2 team), miscellaneous overhead, and some Washington Department of Natural Resources chain saw teams. The IMTeam was dispatched on March 27.

New topic from “Safety Matters”

The “Safety Matters” group has released their “Topic #5″, and they are seeking input from wildland firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…2014 marks the 20th Anniversary of South Canyon and the 38th Anniversary of Battlement Creek. Both fires fit the model of firefighters dying in a brush fuel type, on a slope, during hot and dry conditions.

The loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots indicates that a significant accident occurs every 18 to 20 years. Is there a reoccurring cycle, and if so why? Could it be related to a cyclic turnover of firefighter culture, training and attitude? What are the thoughts of Safety Matters readers?

Bushfire season ends in New South Wales

The bushfire season has reached its official end in New South Wales.

Tribute to author Norman Maclean

The Daily Beast has reprinted an excellent essay that Pete Dexter wrote for Esquire in 1981 about Norman Maclean. It explores a side of of the author that is not revealed in his book about firefighters, Young Men and Fire. Mr. Dexter spent quite a bit of time with Mr. Maclean, who at that time was writing the final chapter. Mr. Maclean also wrote A River Runs Through It, which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. The Esperanza Fire, a book written by his son John N. Maclean, is working its way towards becoming a movie.

U.S. National Guard assists with fire in Puerto Rico

From the AP:

Puerto Rico has enlisted the U.S. National Guard to help extinguish a fire that has ravaged a forest in the island’s central region. Firefighting Chief Angel Crespo says that about 40 percent of the Modelo Forest in the town of Adjuntas has been destroyed. Authorities say they believe the fire was intentionally set and that it has consumed up to 290 acres (117 hectares). A U.S. National Guard helicopter helped dump water over the area on Friday.

Fantastic photo


President’s proposed fire budget calls for modest increases

Dollar Sign

The President of the United States has released the administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 which begins October 1, 2014. President Obama is requesting a 4.8 percent increase in the wildland fire budget for the U.S. Forest Service and a 7.1 percent increase in the fire budgets of the four agencies in the Department of the Interior with wildland fire programs.

Of course there are two disclaimers. It is only a proposal from the Administration. And, Congress, which has not passed a budget in four of the last five years, must vote to pass it or come up with one of their own. Getting Congress to agree on what day of the week it is would probably be difficult.

The Department of the Interior’s fire budget is 8 percent of the size of the USFS fire budget. Fewer details were released about the DOI budget but they requested a 4.3 percent increase in funding for hazardous fuel management and a 7.1 percent bump in wildland fire management.

More information about the USFS proposal is below.

FY 2015 proposed USFS fire budget FY 2015 Proposed USFS budget resources summary

The USFS included the information below

The FY15 President’s Budget , which include legacy airtankers, next generation large airtankers, and an agency owned C-130H aircraft. The Forest Service will exercise options under the exclusive use contracts for additional airtankers, if necessary. The agency will also phase out the legacy airtankers as the next generation large airtankers become available, thereby maintaining between 18 to 28 contracted and agency-owned next generation large airtankers as identified in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) transferred seven C-130H aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Forest Service. The aircraft will initially be transferred to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting and installation of a retardant delivery system. One C-130H airtanker may be available for airtanker missions in late 2014.

The NDAA provided $130,000,000 to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting all seven aircraft and $5,000,000 each for the installation of the retardant delivery system. The Forest Service will pay for operation and maintenance of the C-130Hs within our requested budget by implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability. Programmatic efficiencies include implementation of the optimized dispatching analysis, streamlining of our information technology (IT) investments through the Wildland Fire IT initiative and a decrease in programmatic administrative costs, such as managing aviation assets under national contracts, streamlined hiring processes, centralizing training opportunities, and shared fire leadership positions between administrative units.

Some interesting passages above include the fact that this proposal “will fund 25 airtankers under exclusive use contracts”, which would be a huge increase from the 9 under contract in 2014. If they receive funding for 25, but actually produce a much smaller number, we will have some questions.

And, one of the seven C-130H aircraft the USFS got from the Coast Guard may be fully retrofitted as an air tanker and could be available before the end of 2014. Gannet newspapers wrote that two of them will not need to have their wing boxes replaced, a 10-month process that costs $6.7 million each. Of course all seven of them need to have retardant tank systems installed.

Another interesting part was “…implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability.”

The administration intends to maintain the same number of USFS firefighters as for the two previous years, 10,000. We went through the budgets as far back as FY 2002 and accumulated the following statistics about the number of firefighters in the agency. Obviously the number for 2015 is proposed.

Number of USFS firefighters, 2002 - 2015

Next we have the average size of fires. As they grow larger, the number of USFS firefighters has remained the same or decreased.

Average fire size, United States, excluding Alaska
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ken.


Wildfire briefing, February 25, 2014

Sign at the Myrtle fire

Fire Prevention sign at the Myrtle Fire in South Dakota, July 23, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Insurance companies cancel policies

Some homeowners in the Scripps Ranch area near San Diego have received notices that their policies are being cancelled. The residents live near the areas that burned catastrophically in 2003 or 2007, fires that destroyed thousands of homes and took 16 lives. According to an article at 10news, one of the homeowners said, “They canceled us and also several people on our street, saying they couldn’t renew our policy because we were too close to the brush line.”

Which area near Colorado Springs will be next?

Some residents in the Colorado Springs area are a little concerned about the vulnerability of their homes after the fire disasters of 2012 and 2013. Last year the Black Forest Fire just north of Colorado Springs destroyed approximately 480 structures, and in 2012 the Waldo Canyon Fire on the other side of the city wiped out 347 homes. There is concern now that the Broadmoor area could be susceptible to fires that start in the Cheyenne Mountain area. Fox21 news has more details.

Two Senators on the same page as President Obama about fire funding

Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have praised President Obama for proposing that wildfires be funded in a manner similar to other natural disasters. Monday the President met with most of the nation’s governors and told them that wildfire funding in the administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 would be similar to provisions in 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. If enacted, it would mean the federal land management agencies would no longer have to rob dollars from routine ongoing non-fire activities to pay unusually high fire suppression expenses.

Tom Zimmerman lectured at the University of Montana

Tom Zimmerman, a former Area Commander and Type 1 Incident Commander, lectured at the University of Montana on February 20. He was the first speaker in the Mike & Mabelle Hardy Fire Management Lecture Series which was established through an estate gift from Mike Hardy, a 1939 alumnus of the School of Forestry. Now the President of the International Association of Wildland Fire, Dr. Zimmerman, had a key role when he worked for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service in promoting, training for, and establishing procedures for managing wildfires that are not fully suppressed. In fact, he has the dubious honor of being instrumental in coining some of the terms for these fires, including “fire use fire” and “fire for resource benefits”. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Missoulian about his lecture.

“…Fire has a natural role in the environment and we need to embrace that and accept that,” Zimmerman said. But we also need to keep preventing human-caused, unwanted fires. And we have to understand that the firefighting tools we have aren’t designed to protect the thousands of private homes that now stand at risk of wildland fires.

“You’ve got to keep working with your communities to explain what’s going on,” Zimmerman said. “You’ve got to keep laying out the facts. But there’s a threshold to understanding, and I don’t know if you can keep that buy-in for very long when people are breathing smoke all summer. We talk about restoring fire as a natural process, and then you have one that burns five times as much as the plan calls for. You can’t say, well we won’t burn anything for the next five years.”


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.”


House introduces fire funding solution bill

The Nature Conservancy and other organizations are supporting a bill that has been introduced in Congress that should mitigate the funding problems caused when the costs of suppressing wildfires exceed the budgets of the federal land management agencies. Below is a statement issued by the groups:

A broad coalition of conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups praised Representatives Simpson (R-ID) and Schrader (D-OR) for introducing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (H.R. 3992) that would create an emergency funding process for fire response. This funding structure is similar to existing federal funding mechanisms for response to other natural disasters, and would prevent “borrowing” from other USDA Forest Service (USFS) and Department of the Interior (DOI) programs. Since 2000 these agencies have run out of money to fight emergency fires eight times.

This bill ensures funding for both wildfire first responders and for land managers who care for public forests and streams. It is the House companion of the Senate bill, S. 1875, which was introduced at the end of 2013 by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Crapo (R-ID) and continues to gain bipartisan co-sponsorship.

When the USFS and DOI wildfire suppression expenses exceed 70% of the 10-year average, this Bill provides funding from “off budget” sources in a structure similar to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pays for other natural disaster responses. This would significantly minimize the need to transfer funds from non-suppression accounts when suppression funds are depleted. For years, the practice of transferring high suppression costs has negatively impacted agencies’ ability to implement forest management activities.

This additional funding would provide outside the normal discretionary appropriations process, and could potentially make these “savings” available for forest treatments that help to reduce fire risk and costs, such as Hazardous Fuels removal.

As this was written, the bill has been introduced in the House and referred to two subcommittees, Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, and Conservation, Energy, and Forestry.

The progress of the bill can be tracked at OpenCongress.org.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Matt


Colorado’s wildfire problem

Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012

Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012, the day hundreds of homes burned in Colorado Springs. Credit: Keystoneridin

Colorado has become a focal point for wildfire. Last year the Black Forest Fire destroyed 486 homes and killed two people near Colorado Springs. The year before on the opposite side of the city, the Waldo Canyon fire burned 347 homes and also killed two people. Since 2000, 1,769 homes have been destroyed by wildfires in the state and 8 residents and 12 firefighters have died.

Yet, in spite of their recent history, Colorado has a primitive and disorganized system for preventing, mitigating, responding to and suppressing wildfires. Some politicians, including state senators Steve King and Ellen Roberts, have been active in attempting to fix some of the problems by speaking out and introducing legislation. Senator King has gone over the top at least once in a rant about how “absentee landowners” are managing federal lands, but he has also recently proposed legislation that would provide funds for firefighting helicopters and an air tanker.

Senator Roberts, who was a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park for four years after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in environmental policy, has also introduced legislation related to wildland fire. One bill would create an information and resource center, while the other concerns the payment of death benefits for seasonal wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty.

None of these proposals, which may or may not become reality, will fix Colorado’s primitive approach to wildfire — their inability to attack new fires with prompt, overwhelming force has to be addressed — but at least some leaders in the state are beginning to take small, positive steps.

On January 4 Senator Roberts published the following on her website:


“Colorado’s Future is Burning as We Fiddle

Legislative session 2014 is less than two weeks away and it’ll be an interesting time in the Colorado Senate. The recalls and resignation of 3 Democratic senators since we adjourned in May mean a nearly 10% turnover in a nonelection year. Election season 2014 looms on the horizon, too, so we’ll have quite the mix of personalities, issues and politics this session.

Yet, no matter the upheavals and distractions, we must focus on the threat, no, make that the promise, of continued catastrophic wildfires and the concentrated effort needed to improve forest health, statewide. This may be assisted partly by legislation, but much more needs to be done outside that avenue.

What I know I won’t be supporting is the governor’s recent suggestion, as reported in the Durango Herald, that we rely on farmers and ranchers as our first line of defense in fighting wildfires. This may have been an off-the-cuff idea expressed by the governor, but, when I read it, I wondered whether to laugh or cry.

Fighting catastrophic wildfires is not like extinguishing a ringed campfire. We need professional wildfire fighters, assisted by local structure firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders. Facing a wildfire bearing down on them, farmers and ranchers are rightly preoccupied with moving livestock and protecting family and other precious assets. The suggestion that relying on the country cousins to save burning metropolitan suburbs, like Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, should also be distressing to residents of the Front Range.

We may not be able to fund a state-owned air fleet right away, but we must have a reliable emergency radio communications system and a steady, reliable supply of single engine air tankers, larger capacity planes and nimble, speedy helicopter operations. We can at least forcefully advance a western states’ regional air fleet that moves with the shifting fire dangers hitting states at different times of the fire season. We need to see that local, state and federal firefighters have ample ground resources, too.

We can expand and help fund education on home mitigation efforts and the need to do prescribed burns, not dictated by air regulations to occur only in windy times to disperse the smoke, but when they can be completed safely. We must do a better job of protecting our state’s watersheds and soils from the devastation caused by wildfires and this’ll require getting into our forests to responsibly thin out the gnarled and diseased trees. There’s no better exhibit of the terrible condition of Colorado’s forests than driving over Wolf Creek Pass, immediately east of my district.

Catastrophic wildfires destroy more than homes, possessions, and happy memories. Colorado has lost lives in these fires each year recently and neighboring Arizona suffered the immeasurable loss of 19 wildfire fighters last summer.

The federal government owns 68% of Colorado’s forests. The local federal foresters aren’t to blame for out of touch Washington, D.C., policies that have led to the forest devastation and the loss of the timber industry previously here. Yet, it’s impossible to address Colorado’s problems without demanding better stewardship from the federal landowner. This is where the governor should seek responsible, meaningful assistance and I’ll be right there to help him.

It is infuriating and ironic that the U.S. Forest Service is considering closing public restrooms, that is, pit toilets, along the highways of Southwestern Colorado as the agency “no longer has the resources to properly maintain” the toilets. If the agency can’t pay for maintaining a few pit toilets, can we really expect them to do better with maintaining our forests? The cost of fighting fires has decimated the most basic budget items, and yet, the federal government appears content to repeat the same insanity of reacting to catastrophe instead of getting ahead of it with restorative forest health practices.

There is a better way, but, apparently, the state of Colorado, and its governor, must lead the way as the feds cannot, or, will not. If what Governor Hickenlooper wants to focus on this legislative session is jobs for our state, trust me, job opportunities abound and public safety will improve, if we take this challenge seriously and with dedicated focus.

Colorado’s present, and future, demands it from us.”