Some Montana firefighters no longer obligated to save homes from wildfires

Structure fire in Hot Springs, SD.

Structure fire in Hot Springs, SD. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The County Commissioners of Lewis and Clark County in Montana recently approved a resolution making it clear that county-level firefighters are not under an obligation to protect a home from a wildfire in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Below is an excerpt from an article in the Missoulian:

“…A lot of crews think they have to protect homes, and we’re trying to make it clear they’re just sticks and bricks,” said Sonny Stiger, who helped write the resolution. “This lets our firefighters know they’re not obligated to put their lives on the line to save homes.”

Stiger, a retired fire and fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service and a board member with FireSafe Montana, said building defensible space around homes in the urban interface is the sole responsibility of property owners who choose to live there.

Stiger said the new resolution makes it clear that homeowners should not expect firefighters to put their lives at risk to defend property.

“We can save a lot of homes going back in after the fire front passes, or in the case of the Yarnell Hill fire, not going in at all,” Stiger said, referring to the Arizona blaze that killed 19 firefighters in June. “It’s time we stepped up at the county level to deal with this, and to let (firefighters) know they’re not obligated to protect homes…”

The resolution says in part:

Homes in the Wildland/Urban Interface will not dictate fire suppression tactics, strategies, or the location of fire lines.

The article claims this is a “first-of-its-kind resolution”, which may be the case. There is no doubt that some homeowners who moved into the WUI and refuse to cut or thin the trees and brush growing within 100 feet of their houses will be furious at this concept. Some of them take no responsibility as a property owner to make their homes fire-safe, but expect firefighters, many of them volunteers, to risk their lives to save their structures.

Placing the primary responsibility to protect a home from wildfire on the property owner, where it belongs, is very appropriate. County, city, and state regulations recognizing this do not exist in many areas..

On the Yarnell Hill Fire there was at least one person in a supervisory role who asked the Granite Mountain Hotshots to move from their safe, previously burned area, over to the the town of Yarnell in order to protect the structures, many of which were described later as not defendable due to brush and trees very close to the buildings. Some of the homeowners had done little or nothing to make their homes fire-safe. As the crew hiked through unburned brush toward the town, they were overrun by the fire and killed.

In the structural firefighting world you will sometimes hear opinions about risk-taking while fighting fire, including:

  • Risk a lot to save a lot.
  • Risk a little to save a little.
  • Risk nothing to save nothing.

“Risk a lot” usually refers to rescuing occupants or preventing their death. “Save nothing” may apply to an abandoned building.

In wildland fire, vegetation could be in the “nothing” category. Sure, wildland fuels may have ecological, watershed, aesthetic value, or monetary value in the case of timber or pasture, but most vegetation has adapted or evolved to burn on a regular basis and will usually grow back. Houses grow back too, but firefighters don’t. Firefighters should never risk much to save acres OR houses.

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Montana Supreme Court upholds burnout lawsuit

GavelTuesday the Montana Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision in a lawsuit filed by a rancher whose land burned in the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000. In 2012 a jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the fire. The Weavers claimed firefighters’ burouts caused them to lose valuable timber and grass in their pastures. The fire burned 17,000 acres near the Clark Fork River along Interstate 90.

The heart of the Weavers’ case was their contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring or burning out, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of their ranch.

The State of Montana argued that a legal principle known as the “public duty doctrine” prohibited the recovery of damages for government efforts to contain and suppress a wildland fire. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the State had not raised the issue in time and declined to consider the argument. The Court determined that the State had not given adequate notice to the landowners that it would be relying on that legal theory. Because the issue was not raised until three weeks before trial, the District Court was within its discretion in ruling that the plaintiffs did not have adequate time to respond.

The Court also rejected the State’s arguments that the plaintiffs had failed to present adequate expert testimony at trial and that the trial court should have moved the trial to a different county.

In 2012 we wrote an analysis of the case: “Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana”.

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Wildfire briefing, September 1, 2013

Rim Fire becomes fourth largest in California history

Yosemite Valley's Half Dome obscured by smoke

Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome, normally seen in this view, was obscured by smoke at 8:36 a.m. September 1, 2013

Our main article about the Rim Fire is updated daily but here are a few recent facts about the fire. On Saturday it continued to grow, adding another 3,000 acres to become at 222,77 acres the fourth largest fire in California history. Winds that shifted to come out of the west over the last two days have blown smoke into downtown Yosemite National Park, into the heavily visited Yosemite Valley. Compare these two photos of the valley; the one above was taken Sunday morning by a web cam, and the photo below we took on a day when the air was much cleaner. The fire is still eight to ten miles away from Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Valley January, 1997

Yosemite Valley January, 1997, a few days after a flood caused major damage to National Park Service facilities in the valley. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The 5,115 personnel assigned to the fire are fighting it by constructing direct fireline along the fire’s edge, and by indirect methods including burning out the fuel ahead of the fire. The smoke has limited the use of air tankers and helicopters for the last two days.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the fire may have been caused by activities at an illegal marijuana farm.

“We don’t know the exact cause,” Todd McNeal, fire chief in Twain Harte, a town that has been in the path of the flames, said on Friday. But he told a community meeting that it was “highly suspect that there might have been some sort of illicit grove, a marijuana-grow-type thing.”

“We know it’s human caused. There was no lightning in the area,” he said.

LA Times article about the Rim Fire

Julie Cart, who with Bettina Boxall wrote a series of Pulitzer Prize winning articles in 2008 about wildfires for the Los Angeles Times, has a new article about the Rim Fire. She mentions how firefighting policy differs between the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, but greatly over-simplifies to the point of distortion the concept of “fire use” fires which are not aggressively and immediately suppressed.

Reuters: how budgets affect fires

Reuters has an article about how federal budgets may be contributing to the occurrence of larger fires by reducing the number of fuel treatment projects and prescribed fires. They have a quote from Jonathan B. Jarvis, the Director of the National Park Service:

Part of the problem, experts and many fire officials say, is that funding has been low for the controlled burns and forest-thinning work that makes it harder for a wildfire to spread.

“We’ve got to invest up front in terms of controlling and managing these fires,” said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service from his smoke-filled post in Yosemite National Park. “Just waiting for the big fire and then throwing everything you’ve got at it makes no sense.”

In recent years, Jarvis said, the trend has been to shift money from fire prevention to firefighting.

Montana Supreme Court will decide case about firefighting strategy

The Montana Supreme Court will make a decision by November that could have an effect on how firefighters select a strategy for suppressing a fire. A Montana rancher who said firefighters’ backfires ruined his ranch won a suit against the state of Montana in 2012 which is being appealed to the Supreme Court. A jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000 – $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 for rehabilitation of pasture land, and the balance was for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire. About 900 acres of the Weaver’s land burned during the fire.

The heart of the Weavers’ case was their contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of their ranch.

We wrote an analysis of the 2012 court decision last year.

Recent articles at Fire Aviation

Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshot crew nearly paid for itself

When the Granite Mountain Hotshots worked on federal fires the terms were established by their contract or agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. The Prescott Fire Department paid the personnel on the crew around $12 an hour according to The Daily Courier, but the department was reimbursed by the federal government at the rate of $39.50 an hour. Below is an excerpt from the article:

In fiscal year 2012, the city estimated that the crew brought in $1,375,191, and had $1,437,444 in operating expenses – for a difference of $62,253.

On June 30 of this year 19 members of the crew were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Arizona. A controversy is brewing in Prescott and the state of Arizona about the differences in compensation for the survivors of the seasonal and permanent firefighters on the crew.

It is not unusual for firefighting resources that are contracted to the federal government through local fire departments to be compensated at rates far higher than those at which federal firefighters are paid.

 

Thanks go out to Dick

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Fire Camp – Rosebud Complex – 2012

“People from all walks of life show up in one spot, they build a team, they build a city, they fight the fires, put it out, save the day, feel great about their public service, and they all disappear again.” Incident Commander Stan Benes.

Today we have an article written by W. Scott Olsen. It tells the story of his visit to the Rosebud Complex fire camp in August of last year, a fire that burned 171,000 acres south of Rosebud, Montana. We have previously mentioned other wildfire-related articles written by Mr. Olsen, who is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, but this is the first time we have published one in its entirety. He describes it as an insider’s look at the morning briefing at the Rosebud Fire Camp last year.

Chalky Fire

Chalky Fire, part of the Rosebud Complex, 2012. Photo by Mia Victoria Zuehlsdorff.

Fire Camp ~Rosebud Complex ~ 2012

I am tremendously early.

Southeastern Montana is on fire and I am heading toward the Rosebud Complex fire camp. I have directions, hastily written on a yellow legal pad, fluttering in the open window gusts of my Jeep, but in truth I have no idea how far I need to go. All I know is that the morning briefing happens first. No set time. Just first.

Yesterday, on the phone with the public information liaison, I was told I needed boots if I was going into the black, into the burned and burning. At least eight inches tall. Lug soles. They had the fire resistant green pants and yellow shirts for me there, as well as a hardhat and gloves. But I needed my own boots, and a backpack to carry water. No problem, I said. The Jeep headed west.

I found a hotel room in Miles City but didn’t sleep very well. Two hours from here to the fire? I had no clue. State highways, rural routes, back roads and gravel are difficult to time.

I left at 4:00 a.m.

I am tremendously early, the world still dark, so I pull over at a historical marker. The Grave of the Unknown Man. “In 1886,” the marker reads, “ranchers buried near here what many believe to be the remains of Private Nathan Short…Short was believed to be carrying a message from General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.”

On a hill behind me, a lone horse stands in silhouette at a fence line, watching me. Behind him, the daybreak is an indigo highlight on the horizon.

Perhaps I was driving fast.

&&&

Imagine the way it must begin. Lightning and then fire. Thick full smoke in the air. The local fire engine crew arrives. They are probably volunteers. They spray the water their engine holds and dig whatever fire break they can. But the wind comes up and the fire grows fast. Grass fire can race over three acres in a minute and there is no way the one crew can get ahead of it. Embers and firebrands are lifted by the wind and start new brush when they fall. The local crew calls for help. There are more engines, more crews. And behind them comes the supply trucks, the water and food, the equipment—shovels and Pulaskis and radios—and the need to keep it all working, to keep it all organized, to keep it all sane. Way out in the open country there is suddenly a small, temporary, town. It wasn’t here yesterday. It might not be here tomorrow.
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Montana: Lolo Creek Complex southwest of Missoula

(UPDATE at 10 p.m. MDT, August 22, 2013)

Map of Lolo Complex at 2 a.m. MDT, August 22, 2013

Map of Lolo Complex. The red line was the fire perimeter at 2 a.m. MDT, August 22, 2013. The pink line was the perimeter about 24 before that. (click to enlarge)

As you can see in the map above, the Lolo Creek Complex did not spread much in the 24 hours before it was mapped at 2 a.m. on Thursday, and firefighters reported very little additional movement of the fire during the day. A heat detecting satellite found very little heat on the fire Thursday afternoon, and some of that may have been from a burnout operation conducted by firefighters to check the eastward movement of the fire.

The weather forecast for the fire area includes strong southwest winds on Friday, at 17 mph gusting to 29 mph. The relative humidity will not be extremely low, bottoming out at 28 percent. There will be a 30 to 50 percent chance of thundershowers Friday and Saturday. The nearest weather station we could find was the one at the Fire Lab in Missoula about 11 miles to the northwest, which recorded 11 percent RH at 4:28 p.m. Thursday.

Lolo Creek Complex above Fort Fizzle, August 22, 2013.

Lolo Creek Complex above Fort Fizzle, August 22, 2013.

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(UPDATE at 9 a.m. MDT, August 21, 2013)

Lolo Creek Complex

Lolo Creek Complex as seen from the Missoula Airport at 6:09 p.m. MDT, August 20, 2013

The Lolo Creek Complex has been very active over the last 24 hours, continuing to spread to the north and east. It added about 3,600 acres, bringing the total to 8,600 acres. Late into Tuesday night the fire was still spreading on the north and southeast sides, but not as rapidly as it was moving across the landscape Tuesday afternoon.

Map of Lolo Creek Complex at 2 am MDT, August 21, 2013

Map of Lolo Creek Complex at 2 a.m. MDT, August 21, 2013. The red line is the perimeter at 2 a.m. Wednesday. The pink line is the perimeter 24 hours before. (click to enlarge)

As you can see on the map of the Lolo Creek Complex above, the fire spread 2.5 miles to the east during the 24-hour period ending at 2 a.m. Wednesday, making it as far as Chicksman Gulch. It is now within 2 miles of the outskirts of Lolo, and 6 miles from the south edge of Missoula.

Greg Poncin’s Type 1 Incident Management Team assumed command of the fire at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

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(UPDATE at 8:55 a.m. MDT, August 20, 2013)

Map of Lolo Complex at 11 p.m. MDT, August 19, 2013

Map of Lolo Complex at 11 p.m. MDT, August 19, 2013 (click to enlarge)

The Schoolhouse and Westfork 2 fires, which were on opposite sides of Highway 12 eight miles southwest of the outskirts of Missoula, have burned together and are now called the Lolo Creek Complex. As of 11 p.m. Monday night the fire was still  five miles west of Lolo.

The Incident Management Team released this information about the fire Tuesday morning:

“The Lolo Creek Complex, consisting of two fires, formerly the Schoolhouse Fire and the West Fork II Fire, is estimated at 5,000 acres. Extreme fire danger and Red Flag conditions hampered initial attack efforts and the fire experienced rapid growth yesterday, driven by winds of 40-50 mph. Firefighters continue to focus on structure protection and will work today to establish a safe anchor point and begin to contain the fire. Firefighters conducted a burnout last night along the Elk Meadows Road to remove unburned fuel along this possible fuel break. The fire is being managed jointly by the Lolo National Forest and the Montana DNRC.

A National, Type 1 Incident Management Team is en route to the fire, and will be briefed on the situation today. Predicted weather over the next several days will continue to challenge firefighters; heavy smoke will impact air operations, and the potential for fire growth is very high.

There are confirmed structure losses, including homes. Additional information should be available later today. There are voluntary evacuations for residents along Bear Creek Road and down to Sleeman Road. There is an evacuation shelter at Christ the King Church, 1400 Gerald Street, in Missoula. Missoula County Disaster & Emergency Services has established a hotline for affected residents with information on shelters, care for large animals, and other information. The number is 258-4636.

No injuries have been reported.”

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(Originally published at 8:39 p.m. MDT, August 19, 2013)

Lolo Complex Missoula

Lolo Creek Complex as seen from Missoula at 8:13 p.m. MDT, August 19, 2013

The Lolo Creek Complex was formed today after the West Fork 2 fire blew up on the south side of Highway 12, west of Lolo, Montana. The fire is just a few miles from the Schoolhouse Fire on the north side of the Highway. Now the two fires are being managed as a complex. They are on both sides of Highway 12, eight miles southwest of the outskirts of Missoula and five miles west of Lolo. The fires have burned about 3,500 acres.

Map of Lolo Creek Complex at 2:57 p.m. MDT, August 19, 2013

Map of Lolo Creek Complex showing heat detected by a satellite at 2:57 p.m. MDT, August 19, 2013. The location of each square can be as much as a mile in error. (click to enlarge)

Highway 12 is closed at the junction of Highway 93 but residents are being allowed into the area. Fire managers and local law enforcement are also coordinating pre-evacuation notices as needed for impacted areas near Bear Creek Road and other areas west of the town of Lolo.

Fry’s Type 2 Incident Management Team that has been managing the Nimrod fire will take over the complex.

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Montana: West Mullan Fire

(UPDATE at 8:40 a.m. MDT, July 20, 2013)

Map of West Mullan Fire,

3-D Map of West Mullan Fire, looking northeast, at 11 p.m. MDT, July 29, 2013 (click to enlarge)

The West Mullan fire was active on the east and west sides Friday. See below for more details.

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(UPDATE at 8:55 p.m. MDT, July 19, 2013)

The Incident Management Team announced this afternoon that effective immediately, the mandatory evacuation order and road closure in and around Superior, MT are being changed. West Mullan Road is open to the public east of Sunflower Lane. West of Sunflower Lane it is open to residents only. Flat Creek Road within the city limits is open. East Mullan Road is open to everyone. Flat Creek Road outside the city limit remains closed and under mandatory evacuation. Pardee Creek, Keystone Creek, and LaVista Roads remain closed and under mandatory evacuation. Big Eddy Fishing Access is closed.

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(UPDATE at 10:41 a.m. MDT, July 19, 2013)

Staging area at West Mullan Fire

Staging area at West Mullan Fire, July 15, 2013. InciWeb photo

The latest size estimate of the West Mullan Fire is 4,550 acres with 23 percent containment. They provided this update Thursday night:

Firefighters were able to make significant progress today limiting further expansion of the fire. Crews cleaned-up the fire’s edge on the southeast flank and expanded the line on the western perimeter. The fire was allowed to burn down toward Flat Creek Road and Superior where preparations were in place to stop further spread. Engines and hoses were present around buildings to provide structure protection.

Dozer and hand line was constructed on the western edge coming upslope from the Dry Creek area. Crews worked along Keystone Road in preparation for advance of the fire downslope from the ridge. Progress on the northern edge was limited because of firefighter safety concerns.

A road block is in place on the bridge in Superior crossing the Clark Fork River restricting access to the north. Pardee Road, East Pardee Road, West Mullan Road, Flat Creek Road, East Mullan Road to Big Eddy Fishing Access site, LaVista Road, and Keystone Road are under mandatory evacuation. An emergency center has been established at the Superior Elementary School by the Red Cross.

On Friday firefighters will continue to protect structures, and will remove hazardous trees and vegetation along Keystone Creek Road to prepare for a possible burnout operation. Crews will also be working along the ridge between Keystone and Pardee Creeks constructing fireline. Dozers and hand crews will work along the northwest section of the fire constructing line. Crews will finish preparing line for any required burnout operations in Wood Gulch.

A larger version of the map below can be found on InciWeb.

Map of West Mullan Fire, July 18, 2013

Map of West Mullan Fire, July 18, 2013

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(UPDATE at 3:32 p.m. MDT, July 18, 2013)

The video below has some interesting imagery shot on the West Mullan Fire on July 16.
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