Wildfire news, April 8, 2009

APA Report for Engine Rollover

An Accident Prevention Analysis Report is available on the Lessons Learned site for the engine rollover that occurred on the Los Padres National Forest in southern California, October 3, 2008.

Minnesota activates National Guard for fires

Governor Tim Pawlenty ordered the Minnesota National Guard to assist in suppressing vegetation fires in the state.  Under the emergency executive order, the Guard will supply both people and equipment to the Department of Natural Resources.  Oddly, the order which was signed on April 7:

…shall be effective retroactively to April 6, 2009, and will remain in effect until the conclusion of the emergency.

The order refers to:

…a wild grassfire was burning in and around the Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge, west of Forest Lake. The Governor’s Emergency Executive Order provides personnel and equipment assistance for air wild grassfire suppression from the Minnesota National Guard.

The order was apparently written hurriedly.  The fire referred to is the one for which the volunteer firefighter, John Berkin, was charged with arson.  It burned 1,500 acres…more information is below.

West Virginia: Tourist train starts 150-acre fire

The West Virginia Division of Foresty has confirmed that a tourist train run by the Durbin & Greenbrier Railroad Company is responsible for starting a fire that burned 150 acres near Elkins last month.

Shon Butler of the Division of Forestry said they are meeting with the Randolph County prosecutor to determine whether charges should be filed.  Maybe in this case a railroad that starts a fire will not get a free pass.  Congratulations to the DOF for pursuing this case.

Report about firefighter killed in chain saw training

The report about the Florida firefighter that was killed during chainsaw training is now online.  We updated our earlier post HERE to include more details.

How the Minnesota firefighter-arsonist was caught

Yesterday Wildfire Today covered the arrest of John Berkin, the firefighter in Minnesota who is suspected of setting a 1,500 acre vegetation fire near Minneapolis.  The facts are emerging about how he was identified.  From KARE11.com:

KARE spoke with two witnesses — a father and daughter — who helped lead authorities to Berken. They asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety.

They say they were driving to Forest Lake for groceries around 1 p.m. Monday when the father looked in his rearview mirror and saw something shoot out of the car behind him.

“I saw this stream of grey smoke, an explosion of fireworks,” he says. “I mean, red, white, blue, green. They just shot all over the place and it was instant flames.”

The daughter immediately called 911. They got behind the suspect’s car to get a look at his license plate, which had a red “Firefighter” emblem.

“I was really stunned,” the daughter says. “I’m like, I think this guy’s a firefighter.”

They followed the speeding suspect for about three miles but eventually lost him. Still, their description helped investigators identify Berken. He was arrested at the scene a few hours later while fighting the fire.

“I’m told he was taken into custody at one of the homes that had been evacuated,” says Lt. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office

Berken received an award for helping save someone’s life a few years ago. But authorities say his past also includes convictions for check forgery and theft. Sommer says Berken was convicted in 1991 of broadcasting false aircraft distress signals.

“The suspect has a pretty significant criminal history for someone who’s a firefighter,” Sommer says.

UPDATE April 8 @ 12:05 p.m. MT

From TwinCities.com:

During a search of (Berken’s) Columbus home, investigators found a large grocery bag full of fireworks in his garage, according to the complaint. In the master bedroom, investigators also found two letters from the Forest Lake Fire Department reprimanding him for not meeting attendance standards.

A canine from Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms trained to detect explosive materials and residue “hit” on Berken’s vehicle and his fire gloves, the complaint said.

Berken has a checkered past that includes legal troubles dating back to 1991. He was convicted that year of calling a local airport, threatening to blow it up. He was sentenced in federal court to a year in prison for making false radio transmissions.

SDG&E preemptive power shutoff plan raises concerns

The plan of San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) to turn off the power to large sections of San Diego county during periods of high fire danger was presented to a gathering of more than 300 people on April 7 in Alpine, California.  Wildfire Today has covered this issue several times before, most recently on April 5 when we posted a map of the areas that could be affected.

A number of people who expressed their opinions at the meeting last night agreed with Wildfire Today’s stance that the plan is simply a way for the power company to avoid liability and also to save money by not making upgrades to their existing powerlines.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

David Geier, the utility’s vice president of electric transmission, told the more than 300 people in attendance that SDG&E looks at the plan “as a final defense. . . . The whole goal of the program is to reduce catastrophic fires.”

But many people said losing power would create its own dangers. Children could be stranded at backcountry schools; firefighters and property owners might not have water because pumps couldn’t operate; communications systems would be worthless; and people with health problems who rely on electric-powered equipment could be at risk.

Janis Shackelford of Lakeside said the proposal would duplicate conditions that killed 13 people on Muth Valley Road during the first hours of the human-caused 2003 Cedar fire.

The fire had cut power “and the Muth Valley people couldn’t see where they were going in the dark and the smoke,” she said. “SDG&E is proposing to create its own natural disaster.”

The state Public Utilities Commission will make a decision this summer about SDG&E’s plan.

Power company continues move toward fire prevention related power cut off

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has been lobbying the Public Utilities Commission for permission to cut off power to much of San Diego County during periods of strong winds.  They look at this as a less expensive alternative to making their powerlines more resistant to causing fires.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune by Onell R. Soto.

====================

After months of listening to telephone companies, water districts and disability-rights advocates criticize a plan to cut off power to parts of San Diego County during fire weather, state regulators are set to hear from the public.

The California Public Utilities Commission will consider opinions from residents this week on whether to approve a controversial proposal that San Diego Gas & Electric says will reduce the risk of fire when the weather is dry and windy.

“Everybody’s worried about it,” said Lisa Darroch, a Jamul mother who is worried about children being in school without power or communication on hot days. “What’s going to happen to our kids?”

Darroch plans to testify at a hearing in Alpine on Tuesday night. A second hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Valley Center

The brown areas are under consideration for power shut offs during strong winds. Map: San Diego Union-Tribune

The plan could affect nearly 150,000 people, including residents of Fallbrook, Escondido, Poway, Lakeside, Ramona and Alpine.

Power would be cut when the National Weather Service declares a red-flag warning; humidity is below 21 percent; moisture in dead plants is 10 percent or less and in living plants 75 percent or less; and sustained winds are above 34 mph or are gusting above 54 mph, with sustained winds above 29 mph.

The shut-offs, lasting up to 72 hours, are needed to prevent power lines from arcing in high winds and sparking massive wildfires of the sort that swept through the county in 2003 and 2007, Donovan said.

Opponents have raised a variety of concerns in recent filings with the PUC.

School officials said they would have to cancel classes if they don’t have electricity. Disability advocates said people who rely on power for medical equipment would have health problems.

Water districts warned they would be unable to pump water for firefighters, and recalled how Ramona residents were not allowed back home for a week after the 2007 fires because a crucial pumping station lacked power.

AT&T said cell phone and land-line service would be lost after a few hours – even outside the affected area – as backup batteries run out of juice. And cable companies said people would lose a link to the outside world, television and the Internet.

All of them said they would face increased costs as a result of SDG&E’s proposals, whether from spending millions of dollars for diesel-powered generators or, in the case of schools, losing state funds because students miss class.

“I have never seen quite as broad a coalition uniformly opposed to an SDG&E proposal,” said Michael Shames, executive director of UCAN, the nonprofit Utility Consumers’ Action Network.

Shames said he’s against the plan because it might increase fire risk rather than reduce it. People are more likely to use candles, cook with fire and mess up while using a generator if they don’t have power, he said.

SDG&E encounters resistance to pre-emptive power shutoff plan

San Diego Gas and Electric is seeking approval from the Public Utilities Commission to turn off the power to large sections of San Diego County during periods of high fire danger.

From 10news:

A plan to shut off power to prevent power lines from sparking a wildfire has SDG&E at odds with some water districts around the county.  It may force the water districts to buy generators to keep the water running.

“The power demand of the station is the equivalent of a small city,” said Gary Arant.

The Bettsworth station is the Valley Center Municipal Water District’s main pumping station.  It takes around 5 megawatts to power the facility.

“I can’t have my water system without power for 12, 18, 24 , 36 hours,” said Arant, the district’s general manager.

He is referring to SDG&E’s emergency power shut off plan.  The plan calls for power lines to be shut off during high wind and dry conditions to avoid sparking a fire.

“Our concern is, with the SDG&E plan, we’re going to need about 8 to 12 of these units just maintain the critical service,” Arant said.

If the power is shut off, Arant says he would need auxiliary generators at a cost of $2.8 million to keep water running for customers and firefighters.  But, Arant said negotiations with SDG&E have come to a halt.

“To have them unilaterally pull the information and pull the offers off the table was very disappointing,” Arant said.

He said the utility company had been willing to work with them on offsetting the costs of the generators among other agreements, but now they will have to go before the Public Utility Commission for arbitration.

“We’re assuming they’re going to seek permission through the PUC and they’re going to try to not compensate us for the extra cost,” said Arant.

Calif. power company continues push for preemptive power outage

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is continuing to push for permission from the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to shut off power to large areas of San Diego County during periods of high fire danger. To bolster thier case, the company said that during the last five and a half years, their equipment has caused 167 fires, including the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rico Canyon fires in 2007 that burned over 200,000 acres. Wildfire Today covered this controversial preemptive power outage plan on October 4, 2008.

The areas that could be affected are shown in brown, outlined with a dotted line. Map: San Diego Union-Tribune

The plan would affect up to 150,000 people at a time, shutting off their water, cable, internet, and phone service.

An excerpt from the San Diego Union:

“You could lose your home. If that’s the alternative, a little inconvenience for half a day or a day, that’s not an issue to us,” said Rancho Bernardo resident Jeff Smith.

But others, like his neighbor who also lost her home in the wildfires, disagree.

“I don’t see how that is going to prevent anything they need to make sure that their transformers are really secure and all their equipment is working. I don’t think a power outage is going to prevent a wildfire,” said Lisa Winston.

The Public Utilities Commission will hold two hearings in April to hear public comments about the shut-off plan. The first will be April 7th at the Alpine Community Center and the second will be held April 8th at Harrah’s Rincon Resort and Casino.

A final decision on the safety plan is expected to be made in August before the start of fire season.

As we reported on January 29, 2009:

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), whose powerlines have been identified by CalFire investigators as causing the devastating Witch and Rice fires that burned large areas of eastern San Diego County in 2007, have said they intend to sue 14 of their customers whose homes burned in the fires. More than 1,100 homes and 197,000 acres burned, but SDG&E claims that the homeowners “failed to maintain property in respect to brush clearance”. The power company’s strategy is a counter suit to offset the suits of their customers who lost their homes.

If SDG&E spent as much energy maintaining their equipment as they do lobbying the PUC and suing their customers, they could eliminate much of the potential to start fires.

Power company sues their customers after burning down their houses

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), whose powerlines have been identified by CalFire investigators as causing the devastating Witch and Rice fires that burned large areas of eastern San Diego County in 2007, have said they intend to sue 14 of their customers whose homes burned in the fires. More than 1,100 homes and 197,000 acres burned, but SDG&E claims that the homeowners “failed to maintain property in respect to brush clearance”. The power company’s strategy is a countersuit to offset the suits of their customers who lost their homes.

Some of the homeowners are understandably stunned by this development.

This is like, for instance, if someone had a vicious dog who escaped through an improperly maintained fence, then attacked you and caused serious injury. Could the dog owner sue you for not carrying a weapon so you could have fought off the dog just before it attacked you?

As Wildfire Today reported on January 25, there are a gazillion lawsuits related to these fires. which so far are keeping over 150 lawyers gainfully employed and involve $1 billion.

Attorneyatlaw.com has more details.

HERE is a link to a map of the Witch fire.

UPDATE: January 30 @ 2:03 MT

As we have written in the past, we are strong advocates of the Prepare, Stay, and Defend program, for less flammable building materials, for property owners to maintain a fire safe environment around their structures, and for firefighters not being forced into unsafe situations fighting fire at unprepared homes. But if it turns out to be the case, as it appears now, that the fire was caused by negligence of the power company, it is unconscionable for them to sue their customers whose homes would not have burned down if the power company had not started the fire.

Wildfire news, October 15, 2008

California: Power company criticized for fire danger related power shut-off plan

San Diego Gas and Electric announced earlier that they planned to shut off power to large areas of San Diego County during periods of strong winds and high fire danger. It turns out that not everyone is crazy about the concept. From CBS8:

SDG&E is under fire for its proposal to shut off power during high winds in wildfire-prone areas.

At a meeting Tuesday night in front of the State Public Utility Commission, San Diegans voiced their concerns about the idea.

Also present at the meeting, county officials asked the commission for a full investigation into the matter.

“To convince the commission to do the right thing and hold SDG&E’s feet to the fire to do what they should’ve done years ago, changing the poles from wood to steel, more spacing between the lines and better tree-trimming vegetation management,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

A SDG&E representative at the meeting said the company is committed to doing whatever is possible to make its system safer.

HERE is a link to a video news report on the subject.

Night flying helicopters in San Diego County

Some politicians in the San Diego area continue to be obsessed with night flying firefighting helicopters. Some of them still think that a few water drops when the 2003 Cedar fire began as the sun was setting could have prevented it from growing to 270,000 acres. The fact is, the strong Santa Ana winds at the time would have made any helicopter drops ineffective.

Here is an excerpt from a story in the North County Times:

Five years after local officials were infuriated by a decision to ground aircraft at sunset rather than attack California’s largest wildfire in its infancy, the region is moving —- albeit slowly —- to battle blazes from the air after dark.

State fire officials said helicopters did not fly at night during this week’s San Diego County wildfires, largely because pilots were able to knock down flames with water and fire retardant during the day.

But the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, has opened the door to making drops at night over the backcountry areas it is responsible for protecting, including 1 million acres in San Diego County.

And the state agency gave the city of San Diego the green light in September to fly its two twin-engine firefighting helicopters over those areas, in the event another inferno like those of 2003 and 2007 breaks out.

“CalFire has agreed to allow night flying in state responsibility areas if they determine that the equipment is safe,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents much of the backcountry, including Ramona. “This is a historic change in policy.”

While it is disappointing the state did not give a green light to the county because it does not consider its helicopters to be safe, Jacob said a future aircraft purchase, possibly with money from a November ballot measure, could put the county in the night firefighting business.

For now, said sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust, county helicopters will focus on flames during daylight hours.

“During the day, we can do any mission that is asked of us,” Brust said. “But once the sun goes down, they (CalFire officials) are not comfortable flying in those helicopters.”

The county sheriff helicopters are both single-engine Bell 205 models.

Division Chief Tom Humann, aviation safety officer for CalFire in Sacramento, said the state agency doesn’t consider single-engine helicopters safe because, if the engine goes out, the pilot has no choice but to bring the aircraft down.

In daylight, a pilot has a 180-degree range of view to rely on for spotting an emergency landing spot, he said. But at night, even with night-vision goggles, a pilot’s range is 40 degrees.

“It’s kind of like looking through a couple of toilet paper rolls,” Humann said.

And a pilot is much more likely to crash at night in a single-engine aircraft, he said.

Washington, D.C wildland fire presentation

The folks at the Department of Interior in D.C. apparently think that the residents of their fair city need wildland “fire-proofing tips for homeowners”.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of the Interior will host a multi-media presentation on wildland fire prevention and containment, featuring fire-proofing tips for homeowners and first-hand experiences of Interior firefighters, on Saturday, October 18, 2008, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. in the Yates Auditorium of the Main Interior Building. The public is invited to attend this free family event, entitled “Smokejumpers, Groundpounders and Shots – Tales from Wildland Fire” at 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.