Drone crash starts fire in Oregon

Above: The burned drone. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

(Originally published at 5:10 p.m. PDT July 11, 2018)

A small drone started a vegetation fire when it crashed near Springfield, Oregon this week. On July 10 Cameron Austin-Connolly was flying his drone over a field when a large unleashed dog left its owner, ran and jumped on him. The impact knocked the controller out of his hands and the drone immediately went out of control and crashed. As you can see in the video (that Mr. Austin-Connolly gave us permission to use) within about three seconds the still operating camera recorded flames.

You can also see two dogs running at Mr. Austin-Connolly.

He wrote on his Facebook page:

My drone crashes and when I go to look for it I saw smoke and flames so I called 911. Springfield FD quickly showed up and put out the flames. They even returned my drone and gopro. The Fire Marshall said that was their first drone fire.

In case you’re wondering about the reaction of the dogs’ owner, Mr. Austin-Connolly said he just kept walking and didn’t say anything.

Mr. Austin-Connolly told us, “it is a hand built first person view drone, or FPV done. Some people also call them racing drones since they are fast.”

He said it was using a lithium polymer, or “lipo”, battery.

Most small consumer-sized drones use lithium ion batteries, while racing drones generally operate with lithium polymer batteries.

The battery that was in the drone. The label says: “Infinity, 1300 MAH, race spec”. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

In March we wrote about the crash of a drone that started a 335-acre fire on the Coconino National Forest in Northern Arizona. Few details about that drone were available, except that it was about 16″ x 16″.  The comments by our readers developed a great deal of information about rechargeable batteries and the possibility of them catching fire. We also learned about several other drone crashes that started fires.

In May we published an article about the fact that electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries present a complex and hazardous situation for firefighters responding to a vehicle accident.

The fact is, there are many examples of both lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries catching fire. There is no doubt that when a lithium ion battery is subject to an impact, a short circuit can occur in one or more of the cells, creating heat which may ignite the chemicals inside the battery. This can spread to the adjoining cells and lead to the condition known as “thermal runaway” in which the fire escalates. If as in a vehicle, there are thousands of batteries, it can be extremely difficult to extinguish the blaze. And worse, it can reignite days or weeks later.

When compact fluorescent light bulbs were introduced they saved energy but were slow to get fully bright and many people thought the color of the light was unpleasant. I knew then that it was immature lighting technology. There were going to be better options. Now LED bulbs save even more energy, come in various light temperatures (colors), and illuminate at near full brightness immediately. For now, they are expensive, but will still pay for themselves in three to five years.

Lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries are the compact fluorescent bulbs of battery technology. They are too heavy, don’t hold enough power, and they too often catch fire. No one wants to be on an airplane when flames erupt from an e-cigarette, cell phone, wireless headphones, or laptop computer, all of which can ignite even if they are turned off.

So until that next major step in battery technology occurs, what do we do about drones? Is the risk so low that we should not be concerned? When land managers enact fire restrictions during periods of high wildfire danger, do we also prohibit the use of drones? Should drones ever be allowed over vegetation in a fire-prone environment during wildfire season? And what about the hundreds of drones owned and operated by the Department of the Interior that flew 5,000 missions last year? Not all are battery operated, but some are.

We thank Mr. Austin-Connolly for providing the information, photos, and the video. When we asked, he said, “If my experience can be helpful I’m all for it.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

President Trump pardons Oregon ranchers convicted of arson

Dwight and Steven Hammond will be freed from prison

Dwight and Steven Hammond
Dwight and Steven Hammond (Photos: U.S. Department of Justice)

President Trump has issued full pardons to two Oregon ranchers who were convicted of arson on federal lands. Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven Hammond, 49 were convicted in 2012 and sentenced to five years in prison.

On September 30, 2001 the two Hammonds distributed boxes of matches to everyone in their hunting party with instructions to“light up the whole country on fire”. Initially they ignited fires on their property but the fires spread onto 139 acres of federal land.

Steven Hammond was also convicted of setting a series of fires on August 22, 2006. Those ignitions, during Red Flag Warning conditions, compromised the safety of firefighters who were working on another fire nearby. Some of them were forced to retreat from the area for their own safety. They were given advice and led to safety via radio by an orbiting Air Attack.

The Hammond case inspired the 40-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Robert LaVoy Finicum, one of the occupiers died, but brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the accused leaders of the occupation, were not convicted.

Below are excerpts from a statement issued by the White House today, July 10:

The Hammonds are multi-generation cattle ranchers in Oregon imprisoned in connection with a fire that leaked onto a small portion of neighboring public grazing land.  The evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges.

The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West.  Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.

On January 5, 2016 we compiled a time line of the Hammond’s run-ins with law enforcement that involved land management. We developed the data from court documents, information provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Gerri Badden, and other sources provided by some of our loyal readers. The entire time line including the fires in 2006 is here.

A reporter, JJ MacNab, has detailed lists of the charges against the Hammonds (including a few that we did not include in our 2016 time line) and identifies which ones they were convicted of. They were charged with setting five fires: Hardie-Hammond, Fir Creek, Lower Bridge Creek, Krumbo Butte, and Granddad. In order to get a plea deal, the prosecutors dropped three of them, including one that burned 46,523 acres of BLM managed land and 12,334 acres of private land.

Below is an excerpt from our time line, published in 2016, about the Hammond fires of September 30, 2001:


2001, September 30 — Hardie-Hammond Fire.

According to testimony from a commercial hunting guide, his two clients, and Dusty Hammond the grandson to Dwight Hammond and nephew to Steven Hammond, their family and friends were hunting when shots were fired from the group into a herd of deer on BLM land. The guide said four bucks were crippled, but the Hammond hunting party did not track or collect any deer.

Later, Steven, with Dwight at his side, handed out boxes of matches to everyone in the party including 13-year old Dusty. Their instructions were to “light up the whole country on fire”. They went off in different directions and began igniting fires, but Dusty was by himself, following a path pointed out by Steven. He was at first unsuccessful in getting the vegetation to ignite, but after Steven showed him how to use several of the “strike anywhere” matches together, he was creating eight to ten-foot flames which at one point surrounded and entrapped him causing him to fear for his life —  “I thought I was going to get burned up”, he said. The fires were lit along the line between their property and public land, and spread onto public land.

Gerri Badden, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said the motive for setting the fires was to cover up the illegal slaughter of the deer which was witnessed by the hunting guide, the guide’s two hunters, and was affirmed by Dusty.

Two hours after igniting the fires Steven called the BLM to report that they were going to burn invasive species.

The hunting guide saw that the fire was moving toward their camp and was concerned about his safety and that of his two clients from Utah. The three of them evacuated from the area without even taking the time to break down and remove their equipment at the camp. As they drove away they were able to see the flames of the fire in the area they had left. Testimony in the trial indicated that the Hammonds were aware of the location of the guide and his clients before lighting the fires since they flew their airplane over the area earlier that morning.

Later in the day Dwight and Steven took to the sky again in their airplane to examine the burnt area, telling Dusty they were going to check to see if the fire got rid of the juniper, which is an invasive species that robs water from grasses grazed by cattle.

Dusty said that when the Hammond hunting party returned to the house after setting the fires, “Dwight told me to keep my mouth shut, that nobody needed to know about the fire”. Eight years later 21-year old Dusty told investigators why he waited so long to speak up about the arson, saying that if Steven heard he provided information he would come to Dusty’s front door and kill him.

The writers of the sentencing report said the setting of the fires created a “conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury” to individuals including Dusty Hammond. The fires burned 139 acres of federal land.


As our regular readers know, we do not allow discussions in the comment section about politics. However, for this one article only, we are going to try something, and allow it, since the action that occurred today directly affects wildland firefighters. If it devolves into bitter, nasty, hate-filled diatribes, we’ll shut it down. It’s OK to disagree, but let’s not be disagreeable.

Klamathon Fire burns into Oregon

Firefighter suffers severe burns when his engine is burned over

(Originally published at 6:18 a.m. PDT July 8, 2018) 

After burning 31 homes and killing one civilian in Hornbrook California, the Klamathon Fire has spread almost a mile across the state line into Oregon. Jefferson Public Radio is reporting that 10 people are missing in Siskiyou County, but the agencies have not provided any details.

Firefighter Brandon Feller suffered severe burns when his engine was burned over. He is being treated at the UC Davis burn center and they expect a full recovery. A GoFundMe account has been created for Mr. Feller.

Map Klamathon Fire
Map of the Klamathon Fire, July u7, 2018.

Evacuation orders have been issued for the communities of Hornbrook, Hilt, Colestin and Irongate Reservoir. Some locations in Oregon’s Jackson County have also been evacuated.

A wedding had to start early and was cut short when evacuation orders were issued.

Most of the fire is burning on private land but portions of the Klamath National Forest are also affected.

CAL FIRE reported Saturday that the fire has burned 22,000 acres, but our very unofficial analysis of a Saturday night mapping flight found that it has spread to an estimated 32,000 acres.

Saturday evening the 747 Supertanker made its first retardant drop of the year on the Klamathon Fire after being activated on a Call When Needed contract with CAL FIRE. From the flight tracking, it appeared that it dropped on the far north end of the fire in Oregon, and then returned to Sacramento McClellan Airport.

New fires in Northern Oregon keep firefighters busy

(Originally published at 8:52 a.m. PDT June 22, 2018)

At least three new wildfires grew quickly Thursday in Northern Oregon after hundreds of lightning strikes pounded the area Wednesday. The largest blaze is the Boxcar Fire just south of Maupin which is burning on both sides of Highway 197. Officials estimate Friday morning that it has burned 7,000 acres, but satellite imagery from 3:06 a.m. PDT on Friday, indicates, very, very unofficially, it has exceeded that by  several thousand acres. A Type 2 Incident Management Team has been ordered.

map fires northern Oregon
The red dots indicate heat detected by a satellite at 3:06 a.m. PDT June 22, 2018.

The Graham Fire is threatening structures 12 miles southeast of Madras, Oregon south of the Metolius River arm of Lake Billy Chinook.  Numerous residences in the Three Rivers Subdivision are under evacuation orders. The fire has burned approximately 2,000 acres. According to an announcement by the Oregon State Police the Graham Fire as been declared a conflagration by the governor of Oregon. This clears the way for the State Fire Marshal to mobilize firefighters and equipment to assist local resources battling the fire.

A third fire has grown to a significant size nine miles south of the Boxcar Fire, just west of the intersection of Highways 197 and 97. When we obtain more information about the fire we will update this post.

Teen who started Eagle Creek Fire ordered to pay $36.6 million in restitution

Above: 3-D map of the Eagle Creek Fire looking southeast, showing the perimeter at 7:30 p.m. PDT September 5, 2017.

A judge has ordered the teen who started the Eagle Creek Fire last summer to pay restitution totaling $36.6 million.

After a complaint from the teen’s attorney that the judgement was “absurd” District Judge John Olson said during the hearing on Monday that it was “clearly proportionate to the offense”.

Eagle Creek Fire
Firefighters protect the Multnomah Lodge at the Eagle Creek Fire, September 5, 2017. Inciweb.

The fire burned 48,831 acres in the Columbia River Gorge in September, 2017. Most of the fire was on the Oregon side of the river but a burning ember started a spot fire on the Washington side which was quickly extinguished.  The fire required the extended closure of Interstate 84, forced hundreds to evacuate, and poured smoke into Portland.

The judge acknowledged that the teen will have trouble coming up with $36.6 million and allowed him to establish a payment plan. If he completes probation and does not have any additional offenses, after 10 years the court may  grant a full or partial halt of the restitution.

1,500-acre fire at Malheur NWR

Above:  The Voltage Fire, undated photo, credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Firefighters are making progress on a wildfire that started April 27 in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, but it sounds like there will be extensive mopup since it is burning in heavy tule marsh vegetation. Firefighters are using roads, canals, open water, and nonburnable vegetation for control opportunities.

Voltage Fire
Voltage Fire. Photo credit: Peter Pearsall, Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Here is the latest information about the Voltage Fire issued Thursday by the Refuge:

The fire started April 27 from a lightning strike, and burned approximately 1,500 acres. Firefighters are continuing to suppress the wildfire in organic soils, and will be conducting interior burn out operations today to remove the immediate threat to control lines. Photo credit: Peter Pearsall, Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Voltage Fire Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Photo by Kay Steele