Three families in Montana whose property burned when a prescribed fire escaped on the Helena National Forest are suing the federal government, seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial. The Davis prescribed fire northwest of Helena, Montana escaped on August 26, 2010 and burned over 2,000 acres of private and U.S. Forest Service land. Approximately 450 acres belonging to multiple landowners burned. The three landowners in the suit own a total of 296 acres and claim “total destruction” of their property.
“The Davis Fire took place under extreme weather conditions consisting of gusty winds and very warm temperatures. In fact, the prescribed fire was set during a fire weather warning,” John Heenan, the attorney for the families, wrote in the lawsuit. “The Forest Service failed to follow its own guidelines for proper prescribed fire implementation in starting the Davis Fire.
“Had the Forest Service notified plaintiffs, they would have been able to take measures to protect their properties and/or ensured that the Forest Service took measures to do so.”
Wildfire Today reported on May 2 that a magazine published by members of al Qaeda has called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires. The article gave detailed instructions on how to build an “ember bomb” in order to set wildfires in the United States and Australia, and specifically suggested Montana as a choice location. The magazine article led the national news programs for a couple of days. Here are some of the reactions that have surfaced in response.
…But [Dr. Bergin] said Australian authorities had recently adopted more sophisticated approaches to firefighting, including surveillance and land clearing measures.
The article provides specific examples and statistics of devastating bushfires in NSW and Queensland. It does not mention the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.
The article talks up the devastation caused by fires and provides details about the best times of the year to start a fire in different parts of Australia.
The article says of past fires in Australia: ”These fires ruined the dry before the green, exhausted lives and properties, wiped out a lot of farms and houses, destroyed thousands of trees that are used in manufacturing and created an atmosphere of terror and panic.”
An al-Qaida threat to burn Western Montana’s forests hasn’t had the intended effect on Darby Marshal Larry Rose.
When the terrorist organization’s English-language magazine recently advised its readers to use forest fires to destabilize the United States, it used the fires of 2000 as an example — and said Western Montana was the ideal location for such an attack.
Specifically it recalled how in August 2000, “wildfires extended on the sides of a valley, south of Darby town. Six separated fires started and then met to form a massive fire that burnt down tens of houses.”
The magazine suggested using “ember bombs” to ignite forests, providing instructions for building trigger mechanisms and advice about the best weather conditions to promote big burns.
“My comment is the forests are pretty much all burnt up,” Rose said on Friday. “What more would they burn here?”
The fires of 2000 burned nearly 400,000 acres of the Bitterroot Valley, including much of the hillsides around Darby. Most were started by lightning during an extremely dry summer.
The idea that jihadist infiltrators might build upon their 9/11 World Trade Center destruction by torching trees hadn’t sparked much coffee-counter conversation, Rose said. It also hadn’t produced any alerts from the Department of Homeland Security for heightened vigilance.
The U.S. Forest Service:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the U.S Forest Service, works closely with its partners within the intelligence community, including both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice on any terrorist threats, including threats of this nature,” said Forest Service spokesman Brandan Schulze. “We are asking Forest Service employees, law enforcement and the general public to continue to be vigilant for any signs of wildfires, and to report unusual circumstances or situations that seem out of the ordinary for outdoor recreation on all public lands.
A magazine published by members of al Qaeda has called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires. According to ABC News, a recent issue of Inspire magazine has surfaced on jihadi forums with one article titled “It Is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb”, which gives detailed instructions on how to build an “ember bomb” in a forest in the United States, and suggested Montana as a choice location due to the rapid population growth in forested areas.
In America, there are more houses built in the [countryside] than in the cities. It is difficult to choose a better place [than] in the valleys of Montana.
A previous issue of the magazine contained information on how to construct remote-controlled explosives, and helpfully listed the needed parts along with instructions and photos.
ABC News has been calling around today to find a wildfire expert who can be interviewed on camera for a piece they expect to be on Wednesday’s Good Morning America. One person they called was Dick Mangan, a past President of the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), but ABC was not able to work out the logistics of quickly getting a camera crew to his house in Montana. The last we heard they found someone in the Sacramento area who works for CAL FIRE.
It’s odd, or maybe that is why ABC contacted Dick, because he wrote an article for the March/April 2005 issue of Wildfire, a magazine published by the IAWF, titled *Terrorists in the Woods, about the potential for terrorists to set vegetation fires in wildland areas. In the article he mentioned that police and structural fire departments receive funding for the possibility of terror-related incidents, but the land management agencies receive little or nothing to plan for or prevent threats such as these.
(*UPDATE December 23, 2017: The link to the article in the March/April 2005 issue of Wildfire Magazine no longer works, but we found a copy of it and added the entire piece below.)
From the President’s Desk
President, International Association of Wildland Fire
Terrorists in the Woods
Ever since September 11, 2001 the focus of much of the world has been fixated on the issue of Terrorism! The tragic deaths of thousands of Americans in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC, coupled with hundreds of deaths in Spain and Bali at the hands of terrorists has led to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, and the expenditure of billions of dollars (that’s billions with a capital “B”) to improve security and reduce the risks from terrorists and their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
The massive increases in the US budget for protection from terrorism has been mostly sent to Police and Structural Fire Departments. But, wait: what about the threat of terrorist-caused wildland fires in our forests, community watersheds and wildland-urban interface? Who’s worried about that threat, what are they doing about it, and how much is being spent to fund the efforts to prevent it?
The history of fire being used as a tool of warfare is well documented: Native Americans used fire against their enemies, both other tribes and against the expanding European whites; the Aboriginal people of Australia also used fire to discourage the incursion of the British settlers onto their island.
In World War II, the Japanese launched “fire balloons” against the western US, and while largely unsuccessful, did start a few fires, and killed 6 citizens in Oregon. The Palestinians in the latter half of the 20th century used fire to try and destroy the carefully planted pine plantations in Israel.
Now, in the beginning years of the 21st century, more and more folks are moving into the wildland-urban interface. Even under the best of conditions, when a single ignition occurs under critical fire conditions, hundreds and thousands of citizens are threatened with entrapment, injury or death from rapidly spreading fires. Imagine if a small band of determined terrorists, with only some basic fire weather and fire behavior training like we teach in S-190, decided to set multiple ignitions in some our most vulnerable areas, like heavily populated valley bottoms with limited egress/access and a heavy, dry fuel loading at the peak of the burning period?
There are many such areas around the world, in the foothills of Andalusia in Spain; outside of Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; and in numerous areas of the US from Florida to the Pine Barrens of New York, to the foothills surrounding Los Angeles. Even my own home town of Missoula, Montana has areas that fit all the above criteria, and is surely at risk under the wrong combination of weather conditions and a committed terrorist with fire on his mind. And any of us who have traveled to areas like Red Bird, Kentucky in the fall season when the “woods-burners” are out in force have an appreciation of “domestic terrorism” at work, often successfully!
The real question that lingers for fire managers at risk from terrorists is what are you planning to do to prevent terrorist-ignited wildfires that are intended to destroy resources, kill innocent civilians, and disrupt normal life? And, are you prepared to deal with multiple terrorist-ignited wildfires under the worst possible conditions? And for our legislators in the countries that are being targeted by terrorists, what are YOU going to do to insure that the wildland fire agencies in your areas are trained, equipped and financed to address these threats?
The clock is ticking, and its probably a matter of “when” rather than “if” such events, so where do we go from here??
On April 20 Wildfire Today covered the jury verdict following a trial that awarded $730,000 to the owners of a Montana ranch, part of which burned in the Ryan Gulch wildfire in 2000 during a period that saw numerous fires burning across the state. The heart of Fred and Joan Weaver’s case was their contention that firefighters 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. The jury decided that of the monetary award, $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 was for the rehabilitation of pasture land, and $350,000 was to compensate them for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire.
In the 18 hours since we posted the article, seven comments have been left by our readers, including two from the Weaver’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades. Mr. Rhoades is not your typical barrister. He worked as a wildland firefighter for eight seasons between 1987 and 1994, serving on the Helena Hotshot crew and later as a smokejumper at West Yellowstone and Missoula. He told Wildfire Today that he was in the first planeload of jumpers on the South Canyon fire in Colorado in 1994, the fatal fire on which 14 wildland firefighters were entrapped and killed.
The Ryan Gulch fire was managed by a Type 1 Interagency Incident Management Team from the southeast, the “Red Team”, with Mike Melton as Incident Commander working under a delegation of authority from the state of Montana.
The list of witnesses for the State of Montana included:
George Custer, the Type 1 Operations Section Chief on the fire, who recently retired as the Incident Commander of a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team. (As this is written on April 21, 2012, Mr. Custer is still listed on the NIMO web site as the IC of the Atlanta NIMO team.
Three firefighters who work for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation — two initial attack firefighters, Mark Nenke and Todd Klemann, and Jonathan Hansen, who according to Mr. Rhoades “was in charge of the Red Team for the State”.
Stephen Weaver (no relation to the Plaintiffs), the Planning Operations Section Chief for the Red Team on the fire. Mr. Weaver has been working for the U.S. Forest Service for 38 years.
Ron Smith, who was a Division Supervisor for the Red Team, presently working as a USFS District Ranger in Mississippi.
Shelly Crook, retired from the USFS, served as the State’s expert witness as a Fire Behavior Analyst
Chuck Stanich, retired from the USFS, was the State’s Type 1 Incident Commander expert. He is a former Fire Management Officer for the Lolo National Forest and Type 1 Incident Commander.
Red Team members who worked on the fire but did not testify included the Incident Commander Mike Melton, retired from the USFS; Tony Wilder, the Night Operations Section Chief; and Keith Wooster, the Fire Behavior Analysist, now retired from the USFS.
The Plaintiffs called one expert witness, Dick Mangan, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service Technology & Development Center in Missoula, Montana in 2000 with more than 30 years of wildfire experience. He is a past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire and currently works as a consultant in wildland fire, instructs fire courses, and raises black angus cattle in Montana.
Mr. Rhoades told us that local firefighting resources from the area staffed some divisions on the fire, and they employed direct tactics, not burning out or backfiring, and never used a drip torch or a fusee for igniting vegetation. He said they offered their local expertise to the Red Team but it was refused. Instead, the Red Team “planned and used all kinds of firing operations from day one”.
According to Mr. Rhoades, the firing operations were approved by the Incident Commander and were planned by the Day and Night Operations Section Chiefs, and the Planning Operations Section Chief, who consulted the fire behavior forecasts prepared by the Fire Behavior Analyst. However, no records could be found in the incident files that any backfires were ever lit or that there were any written planning or oversight documents related to backfires. While 272 pages of Unit Logs were found in the incident records, none of them were completed by Division Supervisors. George Custer, one of the Operations Section Chiefs on the fire, testified that Unit Logs were not necessary for Division Supervisors, but the 1998 Fireline Handbook uses the word “must” when talking about Division Supervisors completing Unit Logs. Members of the Red Team said the Fireline Handbook was “not authoritative”.
Mr. Rhoades got Chuck Stanich, a witness from the State, to admit under cross-examination that from studying the documentation, it was clear that no backfires were ever lit. Mr. Stanich and Mr. Mangan both held the opinion that if backfires were ever lit, they were done without adequate planning, documentation, and oversight. But locals, as well as George Custer, the Operations Section Chief who planned the backfires, testified that backfires were used on the fire. Apparently, the jury was convinced that backfires were used on the fire, but since there were no written records of planning or approval of them in the incident files, then they must have been conducted without adequate planning and oversight.
The jury also heard testimony about two near misses on the fire which were not documented or investigated. One involved two volunteer firefighters, and the other involved a Division Supervisor and two dozer operators. Regarding the second incident, Mr. Rhoades wrote in a comment on Wildfire Today April 20:
I stood on the spot, on the ridgetop, with one of those who nearly died. We could see right down to the Clark Fork from where they were about to be burned over. They would have all three died if a Type 1 helicopter had not been already operating within a mile of the blow-up. It dropped load after 2000-gallon load from the river right on top on them or they’d be dead, as they hurried their dozers down 40 and 50% slopes. Not to mention the 9,000 extra acres of land that burned.
These incidents may have helped to create in the minds of the locals serving on the jury that the Incident Management Team from the southeastern United States, where fires burn differently than in the west, was out of their element in Montana.
It may also be difficult to convince a jury pulled in off the street that setting fire to more vegetation can be a successful strategy of wildfire suppression, especially if local volunteer firefighters say they did not use that technique. There could also be an us-versus-them attitude, with rural Montana residents failing to see the benefit of the Federal Government’s fancy-dancy team from the other side of the country coming into their area and doing their own thing without adequately respecting ranchers and the expertise of local firefighters.
What can firefighters and Incident Management Teams learn from this?
First, do all the damn paperwork that’s required, especially Unit Logs. It’s not the most fun part of the job, but grow up. You can’t ignore this. Some teams attach a blank Unit Log form to every Incident Action Plan.
Document all major decisions, especially those that could be controversial.
*Conduct outreach with locals, have town meetings, personally interface with landowners that are directly affected by the fire, use web sites and social media, including but not limited to InciWeb and Twitter, updating them many times a day. Provide updated maps once or twice a day.
Talk with local firefighters. Become informed about local weather and fuel conditions, as well as local firefighting tactics that have been successful in the past.
Ensure that the final incident paperwork package is complete.
Follow-up on near misses. Document and investigate as necessary and required.
If the Fireline Handbook, Red Book, or other manual says something must be done, don’t interpret that as a tip, hint, or suggestion.
*Over the last few years, especially in 2011 in the Southwest, I observed that some Type 1 IMTeams really suck at stakeholder outreach and keeping the public informed. During the fatal Lower North Fork fire near Denver in March the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office did a wonderful job before the Type 1 IMTeam assumed command of the fire. They updated their web site numerous times a day, briefed the media on a regular schedule, held briefings for local residents after the media briefings, and used Twitter, providing a great deal of information to their community of very concerned citizens. They did not use InciWeb, but plenty of information was available on their own web site. Organized IMTeams could learn a lot about public information from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office.
UPDATE April 23, 2012:
The Ryan Gulch fire was 30 miles west of Missoula and 8 miles east of Drummond, Montana. The trial was held in Philipsburg, MT (map), a town with a population of 930 in 2009.
A Montana rancher who said firefighters’ backfires ruined his ranch won a suit against the state of Montana on Wednesday. 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.
Here are some excerpts from an article in the Missoulian:
…“I hope it will make the state think twice about these operations,” attorney Quentin Rhoades said after the Granite County jury delivered its verdict on Wednesday. Rhoades represented Fred and Joan Weaver and their daughter, Vickie Weaver.
Although the state was the defendant, much of the fire crew came from Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast under a federal interagency management team. Rhoades said the evidence indicated the crew appeared unaccustomed to working in windy mountainous terrain.
Witnesses at the scene reported firefighters setting “backfires,” where one blaze is used to divert or control another. They are different from “burnouts,” where firefighters ignite the green foliage between their defensive fire line and the flame front to deprive a forest fire of fuel.
“The state said we saved structures, the power line, the highway and the railroad with backfires,” Rhoades said. “Our argument was it would have been a lot easier to save that stuff if you hadn’t gone around lighting fires everywhere. They said they had plans to light fires eight or nine days in row, but that was the documentation that was missing. The jurors found that particularly troubling.”
“I believe this outcome is unprecedented in Montana history,” Rhoades said. “I don’t think there’s been a verdict against the state for negligent forest firefighting. There haven’t been many verdicts on that anywhere.”
This could be worrisome for wildland firefighters, if they have to be thinking that a jury of people off the street may second-guess their tactics in a trial 12 years down the road. It makes a person wonder to what extent these jurors were educated during the trial about wildland fire behavior, the advantages and disadvantages of employing different tactics, and the reality of fighting fire during a major fire bust when firefighting resources are spread very thin, as they were in 2000 when this fire was burning.
The way the Missoulian article is written seems to imply that the difference between a backfire and burn out is significant. It may or may not have made a difference in the trial, but the definition of a backfire in the article does not agree with that listed in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology.
“Backfire: A fire set along the inner edge of a fireline to consume the fuel in the path of a wildfire or change the direction of force of the fire’s convection column.”
“Burning out: Setting fire inside a control line to consume fuel located between the edge of the fire and the control line.”
Vote on the most significant wildland fire stories of 2010
As we documented earlier this month, the 2010 wildland fire season, when measured by the acres burned in the 49 states outside Alaska, was the slowest since 2004. But in spite of that, there has been significant news about wildland fire. In fact, we posted over 670 articles this year.
Continuing that tradition, below we have listed the top stories of 2010. The line of duty fatalities are not listed unless there was an unusual spin-off story associated with the fatality. Below the list, there is a poll where YOU can let us know which stories you feel are the most significant of 2010.
Top wildfire stories of 2010
Jan. 8: The National Park Service released the report on the August, 2009 Big Meadow escaped prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park. The fire blackened 7,425 acres before being controlled by 1,300 firefighters at a cost over $15 million. It became the eighth largest fire in California in 2009.
Aug. 26: In spite of weather forecasts that would have alarmed most fire managers, the Helena National Forest in Montana ignited the Davis prescribed fire during a near record heat wave. The fire escaped and burned 2,800 acres. The report was released in November. The Forest Supervisor said the report did not point out “something clearly that we did wrong, done incorrectly or that we’re going to make big changes on”.
Sep. 6: The Fourmile Canyon fire burned 6,200 acres and 169 homes a few miles west of Boulder, Colorado. The fire was devastating to local fire districts within the burned perimeter in several ways, including the facts that a firefighter’s burn pile escaped and started the fire, the homes of 12 firefighters burned, and one fire station and an engine inside it burned.
Sep. 21: The Commander of the Utah Army National Guard assumed responsibility and apologized for the Machine Gun fire that burned 4,346 acres and three homes near Herriman, Utah. The fire started during target practice with a machine gun at a National Guard base.
Oct. 13: The US Forest Service’s response to the 2009 Station fire is criticized, and Congress holds hearing in Pasadena, CA about the management of the fire, which burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles.
Dec. 7: NTSB holds a meeting about the helicopter crash on the Iron Complex fire in northern California in which nine firefighters and crew members died. Much of the blame was attributed to falsified helicopter performance documents supplied by Carson Helicopters when they applied for a contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Carson and the surviving co-pilot dispute that conclusion.
Honorable mention stories (not exactly top stories, but interesting; they are not part of the poll).
May 11:NWCG outlaws the use of some terms, including “appropriate management response” and “wildland fire use”.
Jun. 20: It was not a wildland fire, but every firefighter can relate to some of the problems encountered when a kinked fire hose and improper procedures delayed the rescue of IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro from her burning race car which crashed at Texas Motor Speedway.
Feel free to leave a comment (or “response”) explaining your choices, or to discuss other news items that did not make the list.