Background information about the Davis escaped prescribed fire in Montana

Davis fire
Davis fire, August 28, 2010. USFS photo.

More information is coming to light about the events that led up to the ignition and later escape of the planned 100-acre Davis prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest that so far has burned 2,181 acres and required the evacuation of about two dozen homes. About 1,000 acres of private land has also burned.

Montana State University’s Fire Services Training School distributes an electronic newsletter five days a week, covering news items about all aspects of fire, including wildfire. It is also available on their web site a number of days after the emailed version is broadcast. The newsletter, widely distributed and praised, is called The Latest and is free to Montana residents; non-residents are charged a fee. It’s probably safe to assume that there are hundreds of people, if not thousands, on their daily distribution list.

Today’s edition of The Latest included copies of emails written by Amber Kamps, the District Ranger for the Lincoln Ranger District where the escape occurred, as well as one by a local fire chief. Portions of those emails are in the time line below.

Here is the sequence of events related to the Davis prescribed fire, beginning the day before ignition.

Tuesday, August 24

The National Weather Service issues a Fire Weather Watch for Thursday, effective from noon to midnight.

District Ranger Amber Kamps meets with her staff. They discuss the objectives for the prescribed fire and whether the weather would be appropriate.

An employee of the Forest Service calls a local fire chief to inform him about the Davis prescribed fire planned for the next day. The fire chief then sent an email to his colleagues to let them know about the prescribed fire:

..[the prescribed fire will start tomorrow] with black lining tomorrow and the burn starting thereafter. The burn should take about 3 days.

I told [the Forest Service employee] about the Fire Weather Watch issued for Thursday at noon to midnight for all our local zones. He said they were still evaluating the parameters and would only start the operation once everything was in place. Just thought you would all like to know where the smoke was coming from.

Wednesday, August 25

The USFS ignites the 100-acre prescribed fire. There was at least one spot fire, and it burned an additional 20 acres outside the project boundary.

In the afternoon or evening the National Weather Service upgrades the Fire Weather Watch to a Red Flag Warning effective for the afternoon of the next day, Thursday.

Thursday, August 26

District Ranger Amber Kamps sends an email about the project, thanking those who helped, and going into some detail about the prescribed fire. We don’t have a time stamp for the email, but it obviously was sent before the fire escaped around noon or 1 p.m. Here are some excerpts:

Subject: Davis Prescribed Fire

Thank you to all the fire folks on both Forests for lending a hand in helping us apply prescribed fire yesterday. It was a good day – we met objectives both for the resource and in safety.

I thought I’d address a few questions that did come up yesterday internally and externally.

Acres: achieved about 100 – 120 acres of fire within the 530 acre unit, 200 acres of the parks/grass were burned this past spring = approximately 300 acres of total treatment

Today’s goal: holding and applying lots of water to cool it down, we have hose lay around the majority of the burn and have plenty of resources such as a 20 person crew, engines, tenders, and a helicopter

Yesterday a large column of smoke was created and very visible from Helena. The smoke was very black as well, which we suspect is due to the mountain pine beetle killed lodgepole combined with the subalpine fir. We also had a spot fire that eventually tied into the unit. The spot or “slopover” also achieved objectives and nicely has tied together two open parks.

Yesterday a Red Flag Warning was issued in the afternoon. Many questions arose as to why we’d be burning under these conditions. However, people need to know we had done careful planning with the National Weather Service and spot weather forecasts. Conditions on the burn were 70 degree temperatures, humidities over 20%, and winds less than 10 mph – right in prescription. We know today is critical for holding given the passage of a cold front predicted for this afternoon. As you know, it is not “normal” to be burning in August and we wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for this strange summer opening up a burning window earlier than it usually does.

Even though we know yesterday was a success in achieving objectives, we also learned a lot and were challenged given the conditions as a result of the mountain pine beetle caused mortality. We have more of these types of burns planned and more upcoming with expectations established under the Southwestern Crown. We will keep learning, adapting, and applying as we move forward.

As people are reading her email, multiple spot fire are occurring or being discovered — more than the firefighters can handle. At 1 p.m. it is declared an escaped prescribed fire. From Helenair.com:

Greg Archie, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, is the incident commander for what’s now being called the Davis fire. He was helping the Forest Service with the prescribed burn Wednesday, and said that when they returned on Thursday morning, he brought “65 people to deal with that 20 acres.” They also had nine engines, three water tenders and a helicopter as they started the day.

“We were making pretty good headway collecting all the spots, controlling the 20-acre slop-over, when a spot came up that we hadn’t had any people on and were not aware of,” Archie said. “Once it got going and started to branch out in the subalpine fir, it’s pretty alarming in the way it can spread.”

The prescribed burn turned into a wildfire by 1 p.m. in the upper portion of Gould Creek, growing from 20 to 100 acres in an hour. Archie said they couldn’t safely put people on it, so they called for an air tanker and retardant, as well as other resources. By 8 p.m. the Davis fire was estimated to cover 2,800 acres [later mapped at about 2,100 acres].

Confusion about the weather forecasts

During the formal investigation of the events surrounding the escape of the Davis prescribed fire, there will be a lot of scrutiny of the weather, the weather forecasts, and the requests for spot weather forecasts which are written specifically for the area of the fire. From our analysis of the spot weather forecasts available on the National Weather Service web sites, it appears that while two spots were requested on both Tuesday and Wednesday, August 24 and 25, it appears that the forecasts they received on Tuesday did not specifically, or at least clearly, provide detailed forecast information for Wednesday, the day the prescribed fire began.

But, the forecast the fire managers requested at 10:16 a.m on Wednesday did have a detailed forecast for Wednesday, Wednesday night, and Thursday.

Weather forecasts requested on Tuesday:

The District Ranger said they obtained a spot weather forecast from the National Weather Service on Tuesday. While the list of spot forecasts for Tuesday August 24 does not show any for the Davis fire, apparently two were issued, and show up on the lists for August 25 and August 26. It appears that the NWS lists them on the days when ignition was planned, rather than the date the forecasts were requested or issued…unless you want to be a conspiracy theorist and think they were written after the fact and back-dated.

The two spot forecasts requested on August 24 were issued 35 minutes apart, according to the data at the top of each of the forecasts. The predicted weather for the two is significantly different, possibly because the first request included weather observations, while the second did not. Knowing what the actual conditions are at the site can make it possible to provide a more accurate forecast. Unfortunately, the names of the NWS meteorologists who developed the forecasts are not identified on either of them.

The first forecast was requested at 1:59 p.m. and was “based on an ignition time of 10:00 MDT on August 26”, Thursday. It said a fire weather watch was in effect for Thursday afternoon, for very warm temperatures and gusty southwest winds along with the passage of a cold front. But while it had a detailed forecast for Thursday August 26, there was no forecast for Wednesday, the day the USFS ignited the prescribed fire.

The forecast requested at 2:34 also mentioned the fire weather watch for Thursday. The forecast was “based on an ignition time of 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 25”.  It had a “discussion” that mentioned “light terrain driven winds on steeper slopes”, and it had detailed forecasts for “today” and “tonight”, but does not clearly have a forecast for Wednesday. Since the forecast was written on Tuesday, August 24, a person would assume that a forecast for “today” and “tonight” referred to Tuesday.

Weather forecasts requested on Wednesday:

The Forest Service said they obtained a spot weather forecast on Wednesday. The NWS site lists two spot weather forecasts that were requested on Wednesday, one at 10:16 a.m and another at 7:51 p.m.  The list of spot forecasts on the NWS site for Aug. 25 lists three, but one of them was supposedly requested August 24 and was the forecast for August 24, but it proposed an ignition date of August 25.

The 10:16 a.m. forecast predicted a minimum relative humidity of 18-23% on Wednesday with wind gusts at 20 to 25 mph by the afternoon. For Thursday, the forecast included wind gusts to 40 mph by late afternoon with an RH of 10-15% .

The red flag warning was first mentioned in the 7:51 p.m. spot weather forecast, which also said the winds late in the afternoon on Thursday would gust up to 30 mph, and the minimum humidity would be 9-14%.

Weather forecast requested on Thursday:

One spot weather forecast was requested on Thursday, at 5:56 p.m. after the fire was declared a wildfire at 1:00 p.m. The forecast said the red flag warning would be in effect until midnight, for very low humidity, winds gusting up to 45 mph in exposed locations, and possible isolated thunderstorms with variable and erratic winds near the fire area.

Map and update of Davis escaped prescribed fire near Helena

UPDATE @ 9:15 p.m. MT, Aug. 27

The U. S. Forest Service has lifted the evacuation orders for some areas. More information is at InciWeb. They are now saying the fire has burned 2,050 2,800 acres as of approximately 6 p.m. today and it is 20% 5% contained. Jess Secrest’s Type 2 Incident Management Team will assume command of the fire at 9 p.m. tonight.

The weather forecast for the fire area brings some good news, including a 50-60% chance of rain Saturday night and Sunday morning. On Saturday the temperature will be 55 to 70, depending on the elevation, and winds should be light and variable, becoming 5-10 out of the northeast on the ridge tops in the afternoon.

Ellen Bacca, the meteorologist for the Helena NBC station, posted some photos related to the fire. I believe they were taken from Helena.

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UPDATE @ 11:00 a.m. MT, Aug. 27

The weather forecast is more favorable for firefighters on the Davis fire today than the weather conditions were on Wednesday and Thursday. The temperatures will be much cooler, maxing out at 53-58 at the fire, however it will still be breezy with west winds of 15-25 gusting up to 35 in the morning . The RAWS weather station at Lincoln, 11 miles northwest of the fire, received 0.04″ of rain at 2 a.m. today, Friday.

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map of davis fire August 27 2010
The map of the Davis fire shows heat detected by satellites during the early morning on Aug. 27. Click to see a larger version of the map.

The updated map of the Davis fire, an escaped prescribed fire between Lincoln and Helena, Montana, shows that the fire has spread to the east near the eastern boundary of the Helena National Forest.

Davis fire map 3-D 8-27-2010
A 3-D map showing heat detected on the Davis fire by satellites early on Aug. 27. We are looking West. Stemple Pass Road is on the right side of the map and the USFS boundary is the yellow line. The Red areas indicate the most recent heat. Click to see a larger version of the map.

The latest official update from the U.S. Forest Service late Thursday night said the fire had burned 2,000 acres and that “Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton has ordered evacuations of homes located at the top of Stemple Pass over to Highway 279 (Lincoln Road)”. There are some media reports that the fire has burned 2,800 acres.

Helenair.com has an article describing a public meeting on Thursday at which the USFS District Ranger for the area, Amber Kamps, talked about what they were thinking when they decided to conduct the prescribed fire on Wednesday. On Thursday the high temperature of 97 set a new record in Helena. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Continue reading “Map and update of Davis escaped prescribed fire near Helena”

Escaped prescribed fire near Helena, MT

Davis fire near Lincoln Montana
The map shows heat detected by satellites at 3:35 p.m. today from the Davis fire — in red southeast of Lincoln. Click to see a larger map.

UPDATE at 10:00 p.m. August 26:

KXLH is reporting that the fire has now burned about 2,800 acres and is threatening almost two dozen homes. Also:

On Thursday evening, fire officials held a town hall meeting to explain the situation. Forest Service Ranger Amber Kamps told the residents that when Forest Service officials began the prescribed burn on Wednesday, the weather was good. She said, “I can not tell you how sorry I am that we have to meet under these conditions. That you are having to go through this. I can’t make it up to you. I can just tell you I am sorry and we will do the best we can from this point forward,” Kamps says.

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Davis fire near Helena and Lincoln
Davis fire, Aug. 26, 2010. Photo: markholyoak

Yesterday the Helena National Forest in Montana initiated a prescribed fire in the Virginia Creek area 11 miles southeast of Lincoln and 28 miles northwest of Helena. The fire weather forecast for today for western Montana included red flag warnings in three areas with the possibility of dry thunderstorms. Today the high temperature of 97 in Helena set a record that was two degrees higher than the highest ever recorded for this date. That, combined with strong winds and low humidities today contributed to “active burning and some spotting outside the planned fire area”, according to a news release from the U.S. Forest Service.

At 1 p.m. today the Davis fire was officially declared escaped and was designated a wildland fire. Helenair.com reported that the fire was spotting a half mile to a mile ahead. The Associated Press reported that the fire was pushed by 30 to 35 mph winds.

As of 5 p.m. today it had burned about 1,000 acres, structures were threatened, and the Sheriff had ordered evacuations of homes located at the top of Stemple Pass Pass over to Highway 279 (Lincoln Road).

Yesterday at the RAWS station in Lincoln the maximum temperature was 86 degrees, the minimum relative humidity was 13%, and the winds gusted up to 15 mph. Today at the same weather station the high was 91, the RH was 14%, and the maximum wind gust was 25 with an average wind speed of 5-10 in the afternoon.

The USFS said the prescribed fire was within prescription when they ignited it on Wednesday.

The video below is from KXLH.

UPDATE on August 27, 2010