Wildfire briefing, September 12, 2014

Three homes damaged in Washington wildfire

A fire near White Salmon, Washington in the Columbia River Gorge damaged three residences Thursday afternoon. The spread of the Copper Fire was stopped at 10 acres and it was almost contained by 9 p.m. Thursday.

Bears are a problem on the fire in Yosemite

Firefighters on the Meadow Fire in Yosemite National Park in California are having to deal with bears as well as the fire. The critters are described as a “major issue” for the safety of fire crews that are staying overnight in spike camps in remote areas near the fire. Measures are being taken to not attract bears to the food and other supplies. Trash is being backhauled daily.

The Meadow Fire started on July 19 and was monitored but not suppressed until it grew substantially on September 7. It is now 4,906 acres and the incident management team is saying it is 50 percent controlled.

Slow wildfire season saves Montana money

The wildfire season that has been much slower than normal in Montana has led to the lowest spending on firefighting in a decade. The number of acres burned in the state this year has been 12 percent of the five-year average. The $1.7 spent so far leaves about $44 million in the fire suppression fund that will be available to use next year.

New system to determine fire danger during Santa Ana winds

The U.S. Forest Service has worked with San Diego Gas & Electric and UCLA to develop a new system to calculate localized fire danger during the strong Santa Ana wind events that typically blow across southern California during the last months of the year. In addition to considering the typical inputs such as temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, and vegetation moisture, the “Fire Prep” program will also analyze the history of each target area over the previous 30 years. The USFS plans to send alerts designed to help fire agencies, other emergency responders and the public take appropriate action based on the threat level.

The system will be unveiled on September 17.

Nine naturally occurring eternal flames

An article at mnn.com lists and has photos of nine sites around the world that have naturally occurring fires burning almost non-stop – many of them for centuries. Most of the fires are fueled by natural gas or methane. There are dozens or hundreds of underground coal fires burning that are not listed, but those are typically difficult or impossible to see or photograph.

Lava flow less than half a mile from subdivision

The lava flowing from the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is now less than half a mile from the Kaohe Homestead subdivision boundary.

Target practice banned in some areas of California during drought

Excerpts from the Ramona Home Journal:

Cal Fire recently announced restrictions on recreational shooting of guns on public lands due to the extreme risk of wildfire that can result from discharging weapons during the current dry conditions.

Shooting is restricted by County Code when the California Department of Forestry proclaims a “high fire hazard,” which it did on June 20, 2014, making it unlawful for any person to discharge a firearm within State Responsibility Areas until the proclamation is lifted.

According to Cal Fire, there has been an increase in fires caused by recreational shooting across San Diego County, including the General Fire in 2013, and the Border Fire last month. Fire suppression costs for shooting-related incidents in San Diego County cost taxpayers more than two million dollars a year. The announcement from the agency also cited the Health and Safety Code, which states that persons who are responsible for starting a fire will be liable for the costs resulting from that fire.


Wildfire briefing, September 10, 2014

Time-lapse video of Meadow Fire

time-lapse video of the Meadow Fire

Screen grab from the NPS time-lapse video of the Meadow Fire.

The National Park Service has posted a very cool time-lapse video of the early hours of the expansion of the Meadow Fire when it grew from 19 acres to over 700. More information about the Meadow Fire.

“Send the elevator back down”

Mentoring young firefighters who have the potential to become future leaders is one of the more important responsibilities of seasoned wildland firefighters. Of course the same principle applies in other fields as well. The award winning actor Kevin Spacey has been doing this for years through his Kevin Spacey Foundation and by leading workshops to cultivate emerging artists in the performing arts.

In an interview with NBCNews he was asked what motivated him to get involved in mentoring young artists. He said:

Jack Lemmon – who was my mentor – passed along his philosophy of “sending the elevator back down” and so I am continuing to do exactly that through the work of my Foundation.

Happy Camp Fire Complex achieves Megafire status

The huge fire on the Klamath National Forest continues to work its way across the landscape of northwest California. The Incident Management Team reports it has now burned 105,194 acres, crossing what we call the unofficial threshold of 100,000 acres to obtain the Megafire label. The Team is calling it 30 percent contained.

No residences had been damaged or destroyed on the fire until Monday, when two burned in the Scott River Road area. One of those belonged to 75-year old Nancy Hood who has been continuously staffing a fire lookout for 56 years on the Klamath National Forest. A fund has been established to help Ms. Wood in her time of need. We posted more information about the effort earlier today.

Smokejumpers warn about link between climate change and wildfires

A group of seven Montana smokejumpers have written an opinion piece that was published in the Missoulian.

Below are some excerpts:

…Scientists say that climate change has implications for wildfire danger. We believe them. Since the 1980s, Montana’s wildfire season increased by two months while average global temperatures have steadily trended upward. Climate researcher Steve Running has summarized the data this way: “Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.” – Science, Vol. 13:927 (2006).

Drought caused by warming temperatures exacerbated the recent pine beetle infestation, which is 10 times larger than any previously recorded. Millions of dead trees provide more fuel for fires and create more risk for those on the front lines.


We know that many Montanans share our concerns about rising fire danger. While aggressive intervention in wildfires will always be needed, we also need prevention strategies – and that means dealing with climate change. Preventing climate change isn’t possible, but limiting climate change is.

Montana has abundant clean energy resources such as wind and solar power that can provide significant statewide economic benefits. We need prevention strategies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to decrease carbon pollution from the largest point sources – coal-fired power plants. We can create good-paying jobs in clean energy. We can protect our climate and our wildlands, and we can save lives, property and jobs in doing so.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Mike.


Montana Fire Chief dies one month after vehicle accident

Dave Anderson, a volunteer Fire Chief in Fort Shaw, Montana died Monday, a month after he was injured in a traffic accident. Cascade County Deputy Coroner Jason Boyd said the Chief died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash, along with cardiac complications. The Montana Highway Patrol said he was driving a water tender on U.S. Highway 89 on July 22 when his vehicle collided with a brush truck that was making a U-turn because the driver had missed a turnoff.

On June 19 another Montana firefighter and a family of five was killed when the fire engine driven by Three Forks Fire Chief Todd Rummel experienced a mechanical problem that locked up one of the wheels, causing the truck to veer into the path of the oncoming pickup. Investigators determined that Chief Rummel died of smoke inhalation while unconscious. Matthew Boegli, Crystal Ross and their three young children died of blunt-force trauma on impact. The Chief was driving back to Three Forks at 55 mph while returning from Helena where the truck had been undergoing repairs to its water system.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families.


Montana: Lost Horse Fire burns through boulder fields

Map of Lost Horse Fire

Google Earth 3-D map of Lost Horse Fire 1:30 a.m. MDT, July 28, 2014.

The Lost Horse Fire 10 miles southwest of Hamilton, Montana is an interesting study in wildland fire behavior and fire suppression tactics. The 40-acre fire is burning in boulder and rock scree fields where the primary method of spreading is through spotting — burning embers traveling hundreds of feet or more and starting new fires in receptive fuels. Some of the patches of vegetation appear to be an acre or more, but most of them are small. The fire is burning on very steep terrain. That fact and the large bounders make it very difficult for firefighters to even walk around in the fire area.

On Saturday three helicopters dropped 72,900 gallons of water on the fire. A large air tanker dropped more than 4,000 gallons of fire retardant on the ridge to try and keep the fire from moving further north.

If you are used to building a fireline to suppress fires, this one already has “firelines” pretty much everywhere — the boulder and rock scree fields that comprise more of the area than the vegetation does.

There is no place for a helicopter to land in the boulders. Rappellers have said they could rappel into the area but there is not much they could do once they are on the ground. So far the only attack has been from helicopters and an air tanker.

Looking at the video below and images from Google Earth, there is more continuous vegetation on the ridge and on the north side, but trying to build fireline where trees grow out of crevices between large rocks would be difficult.

This might be the classic case of needing to back off and find a place from which a burnout could occur, or just try to cool it off from the air to reduce torching and spotting — apparently what they are doing now. If they do nothing but monitor it, it might run out of fuel in a while, or it could be a real pain in the ass for the next four to eight weeks of fire season.

Lost Horse Fire

Screen grab from video of Lost Horse Fire.

Lost Horse Fire

Lost Horse Fire. Undated USFS photo.

You can keep up with the fire on InciWeb and Facebook.


Updated: missing firefighter in Montana found

(UPDATED at 8 p.m. MDT, July 28, 2014)

The missing firefighter that got separated from his crew overnight in Montana has been identified as 30-year old Justin Wall, in his fourth summer fighting fire with the Bitterroot National Forest.

When he was found at 3 p.m. today he did not have any obvious injuries, but was described as “disoriented” and very hungry by the searchers who discovered him. As this is written Monday evening Mr. Wall is still in the hospital in Hamilton, Montana undergoing a CT Scan and other tests, according to U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Tod McKay.

The search involved multiple aircraft and more than 50 searchers on the ground. Ravalli County Search and Rescue was assisted by the Bitterroot National Forest, Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and Granite County Search and Rescue.

“We are so thankful and relieved that Justin was found today and is in stable condition,” said Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King. “I would like to thank Ravalli County Search and Rescue and all the volunteers and organizations who assisted with this search. It was because of their quick response, teamwork, and professionalism that this search ended positively.


(UPDATED at 3:19 p.m. MDT, July 28, 2014)

The firefighter that had been missing since Sunday, July 27, has been found walking on Skalkaho Rye Road three miles from where he was last seen. Initial information from U.S. Forest Service sources reported that the firefighter was not injured and did not need medical assistance, but later information said he was transported to Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, Montana.

While the crew was hiking 1.5 miles in to the fire on Sunday, he was lagging behind and told the supervisor that he was having trouble with his boot and would catch up with them later. The rest of the crew continued to the fire, but when he did not show up they began searching for him.


(Originally published at 11:23 a.m. MDT, July 28, 2014. This article will be updated as more information is available.)

A wildland firefighter working on a fire on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana is missing. Tod McKay, the Public Affairs Officer for the Bitterroot National Forest, said the firefighter was a member of an eight-person hand crew working out of Darby, Montana mopping up the one-acre Weasel Fire Sunday afternoon July 27 when reported missing. The other firefighters began a search and notified Ravalli County Search and Rescue, which is continuing the effort today.

The Weasel Fire is about 10 miles east of Hamilton and 40 miles south of Missoula near the border of the Bitterroot and Beaverhead/Deerlodge National Forests. The fire had been contained on Saturday and was being checked and mopped up by the Darby crew on Sunday.

In August of last year another U.S. Forest Service firefighter was reported as missing while fighting a fire in New Mexico. Seven days later the body of Engine Captain Token Adams was found, the victim of a fatal all terrain vehicle crash. That fatality prompted additional discussion about systems that could track the location of firefighters.

We hope there will be a better outcome for this latest missing firefighter.


Photos from the Fire Lab

Test fire in lab

A test fire in the Fire Lab

These photos were taken as part of the Large Fire Conference during a tour of the Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Most of the pictures were taken in sections of the lab where researchers work with actual live fire.

Soil heating test fire

Live fire to test the amount of soil heating

Soil test fire

Live fire to test the amount of soil heating

Fire test in wind tunnel

Fire test in wind tunnel

Below is an 11-second video showing a fire whirl the scientists created in the lab.

As bonus, since you made it this far into the article, are a couple of photos that were taken at the University of Montana during the Large Fire Conference in Missoula.

tethered balloon

A tethered balloon which could be flown hundreds of feet above the ground to host radio repeaters, cell phone repeaters, a camera, or a wireless router for internet service.

Tanker 41

A BAe-146, Tanker 41, flyover May 21 at the University of Montana during the Large Fire Conference at Missoula. Photo by Bill Gabbert.