Prescribed fire near D.C.

Above: NPS photo by Nathan King

On April 6 firefighters conducted the first prescribed fire in Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts west of the District of Columbia. According to the National Park Service it was also the first prescribed fire in Fairfax County, Virginia. (UPDATE April 11, 2018: Katie said in a comment that Fairfax County Park Authority has  been conducting prescribed burns in Fairfax County for many years.)

Fire was introduced to the native meadow in order to help the indigenous vegetation flourish while helping to control non-native plants.

Wolf Trap National prescribed fire
NPS photo by Nathan King

The agencies assisting included Prince William Forest Park, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields National Military Park, and Fairfax County.

Wolf Trap National prescribed fire
NPS photo by Nathan King

The park is about 8 air miles west of the District of Columbia. It was created by legislation passed in 1966 “… for the performing arts and related educational programs, and for recreation use in connection therewith…”

Prescribed fire at Holiday Lake

One of the objectives of the project is to restore the habitat of the Tricolored Blackbird.

Above: Prescribed fire at Holiday Lake. Photo: Jeff Zimmerman

(Originally published at 7:39 p.m. MT March 1, 2018)

Jeff Zimmerman sent us these prescribed fire photos and the article below. Thanks Jeff.


By Jeff Zimmerman

The Los Angeles County Fire Department conducted a prescribed fire at Holiday Lake Thursday near Neenach in Southern California. The area is critical habitat for the endangered Tricolored Blackbirds that nest early in the spring at the lake. Since it last burned four years ago the bulrush and cattails have choked out the nesting areas for the birds.

Tricolored Blackbird
Tricolored Blackbird. Photo credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Thursday approximately 100 firefighters from the County Fire Department burned about 15 acres of land operated by the West Valley County Water District to restore the habitat.

I have been following the nesting habits of the birds with Don Groeschel of the Audubon Society. We have noticed a decline in the number of birds nesting in the area and asked for the area to be burned some time ago. Finally, taking advantage of the dry winter, the area was burned today under very controlled conditions.

The lake (map) is now dry and hopefully rain will finish putting out all hot spots overnight. Neenach has very strong winds so it is crucial to not allow the fire to escape control lines, while trying to generate enough heat to get rid of the dead fuel. With low winds and relative humidity at 30 percent this morning the lake was baptized with fire. New reeds will grow rapidly in the nitrogen rich soil now to make better habitat for the birds. Nesting season is quickly upon us so it is crucial to get this burn completed in a very narrow window of time.

Prescribed fire Holiday Lake
Prescribed fire at Holiday Lake. Photo: Jeff Zimmerman

The lake was dry during the migration period of Canada Geese this fall. Hopefully the water master will allow the lake to fill again to restore the habitat.

Of course this dry winter is very concerning, bringing the possibility of an early fire season.

Prescribed fire Holiday Lake
Prescribed fire at Holiday Lake. Photo: Jeff Zimmerman

Jeff Zimmerman photographs fires and writes about them, usually from Southern California.

Fire Management Officer talks about prescribed fire

In this video, the Fire Management Officer for the National Park Service’s Northern Great Plains Area, Eric Allen, talks about the benefits of prescribed fire. The seven NPS parks and monuments within that group are in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Repercussions of a government prescribed fire that escapes and burns private property

In 2010 a prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest escaped and burned approximately 450 acres of private property.

Davis Fire, Aug. 26, 2010
Davis 5 Fire, Aug. 26, 2010. Photo: markholyoak

On August 26 and 27, 2010 the Davis 5 prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest in Montana escaped control 28 miles northwest of Helena. It happened on a windy day during Fire Weather Watch conditions when the temperature in Helena set a record for the highest ever recorded on that date .

(Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Davis 5 prescribed fire”)

The project that was expected to treat 100 acres eventually burned about 1,600 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and approximately 450 acres of private property.

Today the Helena Independent Record and the Missoulian published an article written by Tim Kuglin that retells the story of the Davis 5 Fire. Mr. Kuglin concentrated on the effects on the private landowners and their battles, largely unsuccessful, to obtain reparations from the federal government.

The post-fire report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, as is the custom with federal land management reports about fires that have bad outcomes, did not outline many significant issues or bad decisions that led to the escape.

Davis fire
Firemen line the Stemple Pass Road August 26, 2010, on the Davis Fire. Dylan Brown photo.

Most of Kent Taylor’s 146 acres burned in the fire. After being rebuffed by the USFS he went to court to seek payment for damages. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell decided on March 22, 2015 that the U.S. is immune from the suit, writing in his decision:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service was negligent either in conducting the Davis 5 Unit prescribed burn or in fighting the escaped fire once it occurred or that the Forest Service violated any mandatory policy or prescription. In addition, and more significantly, strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies to bar Plaintiff’s tort claims.

The court decision, the official USFS report, and the recent newspaper article did not seriously consider two issues that we mentioned in 2010:

1. The first was the failure to take notice of the spot weather forecast that was issued at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday on the day of the burn, just before the firefighters ignited the test burn. That forecast predicted stronger winds than in the forecast that was issued the previous day which was for “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”. Here is what Wednesday morning’s forecast predicted for the day of ignition (the all-caps are from the weather forecast):

WIND (20 FT)……..SOUTHWEST WINDS 10 TO 15 MPH WITH AFTERNOON GUSTS 20 TO 25 MPH.
RIDGE TOP WIND……WEST AT 15 TO 20 MPH.

The report says:

The prescribed fire personnel stated they did not note any differences between the two forecasts.

That forecast also stated that on the following day, Thursday, the winds in the afternoon would be 30 to 35 mph.  The maximum wind speed allowed in the prescription for the project was 15 mph, which, from my experience, is quite high for a prescribed fire.

2. The second issue is the fact that they knew on Tuesday, the day before the burn began on Wednesday, that near record heat and a Fire Weather Watch with gusty southwest winds was forecast for Thursday. This Watch was upgraded to a Red Flag Warning on Wednesday afternoon after ignition had begun. Even in a best case scenario, if there had been no spot fires or other control problems on Wednesday, the 30 to 35 mph winds predicted for the day after ignition should have alerted experienced fire management personnel that the winds across the 100-acre prescribed fire could have caused embers to be blown across the lines, resulting in the fire escaping. Control would have been difficult in 30 to 35 mph winds.

South Monroe prescribed fire

These photos were taken yesterday at the South Monroe Mountain Aspen Prescribed Fire on the Fishlake National Forest in central Utah.

Here is the official Forest Service description of the project:

“The purpose of this prescribed fire project is to restore aspen ecosystems on Monroe Mountain by reintroducing fire to the aspen ecosystems through prescribed burning to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations thus reducing the risk to life, property and natural resources, while promoting aspen regeneration. Prescribed fire treatments will be implemented utilizing aerial and/or hand ignition techniques targeting spruce/mixed conifer and seral aspen with mosaic burn patterns and mixed burn severities as an objective. Prescribed fire will occur when 60 percent of the area will be expected to burn leaving 40 percent of the area unburned. The prescribed fire plan also includes burning of slash piled activity fuels.”

The photos were provided by Utah Fire Information.

South Monroe prescribed fire
South Monroe prescribed fire, Fish Lake National Forest, Utah, November 12, 2017. Photo provided by @UtahWildfire.

Time-lapse of prescribed fire in southwest Colorado

The video shows a time-lapse of a prescribed fire in Lone Mesa State Park in the Groundhog Reservoir area. (map)