Changes at the state fire chief positions in Colorado and Montana

There will be transitions at the top of the state wildfire organizations in Colorado and Montana.

In Colorado, Paul Cooke, the Director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, is retiring. He became the Director in 2012 after the Colorado legislature and Governor Hickenlooper made major changes in the organization and structure of state-level fire and life safety programs. Chief Cooke will remain in the position until his successor is appointed and onboard.

In Montana the Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC) recently selected Mike DeGrosky as the new Fire and Aviation Bureau Chief following the retirement of Ted Mead in December. The Fire and Aviation Management Bureau provides resources, leadership and coordination to Montana’s wildland fire services to protect lives, property, and natural resources; working with local, tribal, state, and federal partners to ensure wildfire protection on all state and private land in Montana.

“Our effort to involve a number of DNRC staff members as well as external partners was met with support and enthusiastic participation across the state, and I found it both rewarding and inspiring to see so many people engaged in the process. We offered Mike DeGrosky the position and he accepted enthusiastically. The DNRC welcomes Mike and is excited to have him join our team,” said Bob Harrington, Forestry Division Administrator.

Mike comes back to DNRC with over 38 years of wildland fire and incident management experience as well as extensive experience in facilitation, consulting, and conflict resolution experience in wildland fire and natural resource organizations.

From 1982-1995 Mike worked for the DNRC in various positions including Rural Fire Forester, Fire Management Specialist, Unit Fire Supervisor and Fire Program Manager. Other services and roles in his career include Volunteer Fire Department Captain, Training Officer, and consultant to fire and emergency management organizations.

DeGrosky is a graduate of the University of Montana, College of Forestry and Conservation, holds a Master’s degree in organizational leadership from Fort Hays State University, and a PhD in Business Administration with an emphasis in organizational leadership from Northcentral University.

“I am looking forward to working with each of you. I will put a high priority on getting out and meeting local officials, fire service organizations and agency partners. I am pleased to be back with the Department and look forward to our work together,” DeGrosky said.

He began working part-time in late January and will assume the duties as Chief full time on February 8, 2016.

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.

Comparing how the federal government and Montana pay for wildfires

dollar signThe state of Montana and the federal government could not be more different in the way they pay for wildfires.

Montana sets the funds aside in advance while the federal government robs Peter to pay Paul most years, sacrificing fuel management programs to pay for the fires that get bigger in part because those programs were gutted.

Below is an excerpt from an October 19 article in the Billings Gazette about Montana’s program.

After decades of seeing the state pay its firefighting bills after the smoke cleared, state Sen. Pat Connell, a Republican from Hamilton, is pretty happy.

In the 2015 fire season, the state spent $10.5 million. But the Legislature’s fiscal division reported this week that the state’s wildfire suppression fund is at $86.5 million, with just a few bills left to pay.

This year’s balance started at $38.7 million, rolled over from last year, but was boosted by the $13.4 million left over in the governor’s emergency fund. Plus, $21.5 million of leftover appropriations and a one-time infusion of $15 million of excess corporate license taxes.

Connell, who struggled to get those funds together, is happy because there’s no need for a supplemental appropriation in 2017, or a special legislative session, nor did the Department of Natural Resources, which handles state firefighting on 5.2 million acres, have to shut down the water division to pay for firefighting…

On October 18 the Los Angeles Times expounded on the chaos within the federal government about funding wildfires:

When it comes to wildfires, some federal officials are tired of playing catch-up and leaving private property at heightened risk of a blaze.

“We’re really in a negative spiral right now,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said before she boarded a helicopter last week to tour of parts of San Diego County burned by the massive Cedar fire in 2003.

The problem isn’t the result of equipment, training or firefighting strategies, Jewell said. Instead, the problem is rooted in how the government pays to both prevent and fight wildfires, she said.

Jewell said that a change to the complex federal budget could cut the risk of homes going up in flames when a backcountry fire spreads.

When there are major wildfires, the department has to shift some of the money it planned to spend building firebreaks, teaching homeowners how to safeguard their property and other preventive measures to fighting fires.

This accounting maneuver helps the feds and their local partners in emergency situations. But it saps the prevention and rehabilitation budget to prepare for the next big wildfire, she said, adding there’s a greater risk of more and bigger blazes in the future.

“We do not have the capacity in the federal budget to treat those as the emergencies that they really are, as the disasters they really are,” she said as the region heads into the height of the wildfire season.

“When you have a tornado, and you have a flood, and you have a hurricane, or an earthquake, those are natural disasters, and we go to the disaster fund to take care of that so year in year out, landscapes can be protected from those events. We do not have that capacity with fire. It means we are not doing the work to reduce the risk of fighting fires long term…”

Rep. Scott Peters (San Diego), who joined Jewell on the tour, is trying to change the way fires are funded. He and others hope to get legislation passed that would set aside funds in advance based on the 10-year average spent on fire suppression. He expects that it would receive bipartisan support from about 300 members.

However, at the rate the size and costs of fires are increasing, the 10-year average could be an obsolete metric.

Similar legislation has been talked about in Washington for years but Congress has not been motivated to address the issue.

Maybe they should get some advice from Montana.

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

Sampling of photos from recent fires

hose mad river fire
Fire hose was transported back to the incident base on the Mad River Complex in northern California after being deployed on the fireline. Before it is used again it will be tested, cleaned, and rolled.

These photos are samples of those being uploaded by incident management teams to InciWeb over the last few weeks. If no date or photographer’s credit is listed, it means they were not provided on InciWeb.

tanker drop Buck Horn Fire
Air tanker drop on the Buck Horn Fire in Montana, August 13.
Grizzly Bear Complex, Oregon
Snow on the Grizzly Bear Complex, Oregon, September 5. Credit: WIIMT #4.
Omak Fire
Incident Command Post at the Omak Fire in Washington.

Continue reading “Sampling of photos from recent fires”

Precipitation last 7 days

Precipitation last 7 days. September 5, 2015.
Observed precipitation last 7 days. September 5, 2015. NOAA.

The above map shows precipitation during the seven days preceding September 5, 2015. Some areas in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon received over an inch.

The map below is the observed precipitation today, September 5, 2015. This rainfall over the last week, and in some cases snow, probably will not put out the large fires, but will certainly slow them down.

Observed precipitation on September 5, 2015
Observed precipitation on September 5, 2015. NOAA.

Wildfire Briefing, September 4, 2015

Snow slows fire in Idaho

Elevenmile Fire snow
NWS photo by Ryan Walbrun, the Incident Meteorologist at the Elevenmile Fire.

The National Weather Service in Pocatello, Idaho reports that Friday morning snow fell at the Elevenmile Fire between Bonanza and Challis.

Due to a forecast that included rain and snow, firefighters were removed from high elevation spike camps on the fire Thursday.

The lightning-caused fire discovered on August 24 has burned over 10,300 acres.

Cyclist who started fire by burning his toilet paper may be on the hook for large dollars

The bicyclist who accidentally started a fire near Boise on July 22 by burning his soiled toilet paper may have to pay a fine as well as a portion of the suppression costs. The Idaho Statesman reported that BLM spokesperson Carrie Bilbao said the costs are likely to be between $50,000 and $75,000 which includes the use of four air tankers and three helicopters. The fire was stopped before it approached homes after burning 73 acres.

Scooping air tankers drop 182,000 gallons on a fire in Montana

Below are excerpts from an article at KPAX about firefighting aircraft working out of Helena, Montana this summer:


“In an average year we have 15 to 20 aircraft that come through in a season,” says Helena National Forest public affairs officer Kathy Bushnell. “So far this year, we’ve had 20-plus different aircraft come through.”

Thanks to its location, aircraft staged here can reach many parts of central Montana quickly. The Aviation Center serves multiple aircraft.

“Helicopters, we have air tankers, single-engine air tankers, heavy air tankers that’ll come in depending on what is ordered for the fires,” Bushnell said.

This week, firefighters are also getting an assist from visitors from Canada, CL-415 water bombers.

“We requested some additional aircraft to come out to help us with the fires here in Montana, Idaho, and Washington,” said Bushnell.

The bomber scoops water from lakes into huge tanks – 1,600 gallons in 12 seconds.

The water bombers arrived in town Monday. On Tuesday, they were hard at work on the Bray Fire burning north of Holter Lake.

“They worked about six flight hours,” according to Bushnell. “They were able to do 112 loads which equates to about 182,000 gallons of water that was used on the fire.”

Health warning in California due to wildfire smoke

The Rough Fire east of Fresno, California has prompted the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to issue a health warning to people headed to the mountains and foothills of Tulare and Fresno counties this weekend.

The district says children and the elderly are especially vulnerable.