$50 million in claims over escaped prescribed fire reportedly denied

Pautre Fire origin

USFS photo from the report on the escaped prescribed fire, the Pautre Fire, in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Department of Agriculture, in a letter signed by Department Secretary Tom Vilsack, is denying $50 million in claims filed by sixteen ranchers and landowners over a prescribed fire that escaped and burned 10,679 acres in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The “Pasture 3B” prescribed fire was planned to be 210 acres on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

In explaining the denial, Secretary Vilsack said the Forest Service relied on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, that ultimately proved inaccurate.

In February, 2014 the US Forest Service released a report about the fire, called a “Facilitated Learning Analysis. The issues listed by the document included:

  • Improved weather forecasts are needed.
  • Consider additional research on methods to predict effects of drought on fire behavior in grass fuel models.
  • The nearest remote automated weather station (RAWS) is more than 90 miles away.
  • The project was conducted at the critical edge of the prescription.
  • Consider gaming out worst case scenario “what ifs” during the planning process, and discuss with participants during the on-site briefing.
  • There were problems with radio communications [note from Bill: I don’t remember EVER seeing a report like this that did not cite radio communications as being an issue].

California: Report released on Bernardo Fire

Bernardo Fire

Bernardo Fire. Screen grab from live video from NBC7 at about 4 p.m. PDT, May 13, 2014.

The Bernardo Fire that started May 13, 2014 was one of the first in a series of 12 large wildfires that occurred in San Diego County during a 10-day period in mid-May. No homes were destroyed, in spite of the fact that it burned through and adjacent to dense housing developments. This was a testament to the community planning and preparedness that is evident in many areas in California.

A 72-page report has been released on the 1,548-acre fire which identified lessons learned and recommendations for change. Examples include:

  • Outfit five Type 1 engines for immediate deployment during high risk wildland fire days. The engines would have all radios, pagers, MDC, EMS equipment (short narcotics) on board. Storage could possibly be within the Repair Facility.
  • Purchase and make available additional radios and batteries to meet the needs of large-scale incidents.
  • Direct Division/Group Supervisors to identify supply Drop Points and Staging Areas within their geographic divisions and/or functional groups.
  • Increase the number of City fire/rescue medium-lift helicopters to three (3) to insure SDFD’s ability to provide aerial fire suppression and rescue.
  • Request funding to hire additional brush management inspectors. A total of 22 positions are required to conduct annual inspections of the 42,505 private parcels in the wildland/urban interface within the City of San Diego. The Department currently has 6 positions dedicated to these inspections.
  • Train additional Department personnel to fill all IMT, DOC, and EOC positions to a minimum three-deep roster. Consideration should be given to using non-uniformed staff for incident support positions to free uniformed staff for key skills or fire line assignments.
  • Ensure that only one ICP is being utilized. One of the benefits may be that angled drafting tables, large-scale maps, and overlays would be made available by one of the other agencies in UC. Purchase and make available the drafting tables, large scale maps, printers and plotters and install in the CIMU vehicles.
  • Consider including redlines and foam pro systems in future fire engine specifications.
  • Consider assigning water tenders to each strike team and task force.
  • Issue each individual SDPD officer their own vegetation fire PPE so that they are equipped with the necessary safety equipment upon arrival at a vegetation fire.
  • Adoption of Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) as a geospatial communications and collaborations tool should be discussed at a regional level.
  • Provide display processing equipment at the ICP to include hardware and tools necessary to provide a large format, bright, clear picture for collaboration should be determined and purchased. Provide command vehicles both paper backup large format topographical or satellite maps and a digital map display solution. Ideally, a “Google Earth-like” solution on a large format touch screen monitor should be run. NICS provides the basis for this type of map display collaboration and markup. Properly paired with the correct hardware either in command vehicles or support vehicles will allow incident managers better awareness.
  • Consider extending capability to track additional support vehicles (and staff) utilizing existing GPS technology tracking hardware/services.

Investigation report released for Black Forest Fire

Origin of the Black Forest Fire

Origin of the Black Forest Fire

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has released a summary report on the investigation of the Black Forest Fire which started June 11, 2013 near Colorado Springs, Colorado. The fire killed two people and burned 489 houses and 14,280 acres, resulting in $420 million in insured losses.

The investigators eliminated natural causes, such as lightning. That left human-related ignitions.

Below are excerpts from the report:

…Given the known devastation of the fire at that point, an Investigation Team was formed consisting of recognized experts in the area of Wildland fire investigation from agencies including the USDA Forest Service, the Aurora Fire Department, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATFE), the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and others. This team was assisted by surveyors from the El Paso County Public Services Department.

The only clearly established fact was that no natural causes existed and thus the fire was human caused. A potential cause associated with the metal particles can not be ruled out, or positively identified. A potential cause associated with an intentional ignition is not supported by the evidence or circumstances, but can not be completely ruled out. The origin of the fire is in an area that is not readily accessible from a roadway, allowing an easy escape, as is typical in intentionally set Wildland fires. There was no evidence of any other miscellaneous cause such as blasting, fireworks, welding, target shooting, etc.

Upon the completion of the investigation, the entire case was reviewed by the Sheriff’s Office Investigations Division and the District Attorney’s Office to determine if any additional leads remained. It was the determination of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office that there was not sufficient evidence to warrant criminal prosecution at this time. None of the investigation or forensic examination supported any one possibility to the extent needed to pursue criminal charges. Additionally, no additional recommended follow-up work could be identified at this time.

Three other reports have previously been released about the Black Forest Fire:

  1. Report on how the fire was managed on the first day, issued by the Black Forest Fire District Board on February 19, 2014. The complete report can no longer be found on the District’s web site.
  2. A 2,000 page, 345 megabyte report, released March 14, 2014, commissioned by the Black Forest Fire District which evaluated how the fire was managed, including the performance of Fire Chief Bob Harvey during the first hours of the fire. Sheriff Terry Maketa had been extremely critical of the Chief in numerous interviews with the media. The complete report can no longer be found on the District’s web site.
  3. After Action Report, by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, May 15, 2014. We preserved this report on the Wildfire Today web site.



Report released on engine burnover in Idaho

Richfield fire, engine burnoverAn investigation report has been released for an engine that was destroyed by a wildland fire near Richfield, Idaho on July 16, 2014.

During the initial attack phase on the Bureau of Land Management Fire, a Type 4 engine from the Richfield, Idaho Rural Fire Department responded. The two people on the engine attempted to make a frontal attack on the head of the fire.

The engine got stuck, or high-centered, on a rock and could not be moved. The two people on the engine, a city employee and a “part-time” volunteer, in an attempt to protect the truck from the approaching fire used two small booster hoses, one-half inch in diameter with a flow rate of 10 gallons per minute. They had to abandon the engine as the fire got closer, and it was destroyed. There were no injuries to the personnel.

Below is an excerpt from the report. “ENG3″ is the apparatus that was destroyed by the fire:


“…ENG3 proceeded south on the two track toward the head of the fire with FF2 riding on the top of the engine. The engine left the two track road and drove off-road toward a lava blister trying to access the active fire perimeter. Near the base of thelava blister, ENG3 struck a rock cluster high centering the rear axle of the vehicle and rendering ENG3 immobile. FF1 utilized four-wheel drive in an attempt to dislodge the vehicle, but sandy conditions caused ENG3’s side tires to sink. The rear axle of the apparatus pivoted on the rear differential, listing the vehicle to its right side. The driver’s rear tire was raised off the ground by 8-12 inches.

WT1 operator, FMO, and AFMO hiked west from the highway over the lava blister and observed ENG3 high centered on a rock in unburned fuel north of the active fire perimeter. The AFMO notified the IC at approximately 1215 of the immobilized engine. ENG3 crew deployed booster hose off both sides of the truck. FF2 worked from the right hose reel in front of the truck and south about 50 feet up the lava blister into sparser fuels. FF1 stayed near the front of the truck wetting a heavier pocket of unburned grass and brush.

ENG1 left the west flank and drove to the location of ENG3 to help remove ENG3 from the rock. ENG1 determined that an attempt to dislodge ENG3 would be unsuccessful. ENG1 then drove southwest and established an anchor point at the lava blister, approximately 200 yards from ENG3. ENG1 resumed mobile attack working back towards the disabled engine.

Between 1220 and 1225, wind direction changed from west to south. Fire behavior increasedand the fire made a rapid run toward the disabled engine. The FMO and AFMO made verbal contact with the two individuals on ENG3. The FMO and FF1 retreated to a safety zone in the black on top of the lava blister approximately 25 yards east of the disabled engine. The AFMO urged FF2, still by ENG3, to immediately retreat toward him into the safety zone. FF2 delayed until he felt excessive heat from the fire, closed the nozzle, and retreated to the safety zone.

At 1227, ENG3 was engulfed by the fire and completely destroyed…”

Richfield fire, engine burnover


Wednesday morning one-liners

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014.

*The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published a report on a BIA engine that rolled over near Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014. Two people were injured, one seriously. The LLC says more than 50 fire vehicles have rolled over in the last 10 years.

*A Colorado artist has created a work consisting of rectilinear pillars suspended from the ceiling, each measuring nine feet tall, meant to convey the idea of a wildfire.

*A man spotted running from the 50-acre Foothill Fire in Ventura, California was arrested on suspicion of setting the blaze.

*Fire officials in Washington state suspect an arsonist is responsible for igniting 23 fires in less than two weeks. Most of them have been vegetation fires.

*A firefighting vehicle in Australia has been outfitted with drop-down steel wheels so that it can follow a steam-powered train, putting out wildfires started by the steam engine.

*In other news from Australia, a Senator gave a speech, titled, Thank you For Smoking, praising nicotine fiends for their $8 billion a year contribution to the economy. He said he did the math: Last year smokers cost the health care system $320 million and another $150 million in bushfire control.

*Researchers have found that “recent (2001–2010) beetle outbreak severity was unrelated to most field measures of subsequent fire severity, which was instead driven primarily by extreme burning conditions (weather) and topography.” Unfortunately, to read the article, researched and published by government employees, it will cost you $10 for two days of access. If the researchers, Brian J. Harvey, Daniel C. Donato, and Monica G. Turner, are going to hide the results of their taxpayer-funded research behind a pay wall, what’s the point in hiring researchers? Support Open Access.

*Firefighters are on alert in the Philippines for wildfires that may start from an eruption of the Mayon volcano.

*Firefighters are on lessened alert in the Black Hills after the area received two to five inches of rain over the last few days.

*California has burned through its wildfire-fighting budget — $209 million — just as it faces what is historically the worst of the fire season.


USFS to use new serious accident review system

(Updated on August 9, 2014 to include a link to details about the new USFS policy, and on August 11 to correct information about the distribution of the version of the report prepared for “organizational leadership”.)

The U.S. Forest Service has created a new review process for serious incidents involving a fatality or three or more hospitalizations, called the Coordinated Response Protocol (CRP). According to the agency:

The CRP is a process now being used to ensure we learn everything possible from serious incidents so we can prevent recurrence while reducing the painful effects on those closest to the incident or accident by coordinating the investigations and reviews that are required when fatalities have occurred. The CRP uses pre-trained and designated response teams. This provides a basis for coordination and communication before any team is dispatched to an incident. This new process minimizes traumatic impacts on witnesses, coworkers and others close to the tragedy while improving our ability to gather information and learn. The CRP replaces the Serious Accident Investigation with a new process called the Learning Review. The Learning Review is designed to create learning products for multiple audiences.

A new Interagency Serious Accident Investigation Guide was used for the first report on the Yarnell Hill Fire on which 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed. The process prohibited causes, conclusions, and observations from being included in the public report; they were reserved for a second version of the report that would be for internal agency use only.

That process was a total failure and set a new low bar for learning opportunities following serious accidents. The USFS prohibited their employees that had specific knowledge about the fire from being interviewed.

The new protocol just introduced by the USFS also specifies that two reports be produced; one for the public and another for organizational leadership.

Ivan Pupulidy called us to say that he was the author of the new protocol. Presently he is the Acting Program Manager for Human Factors Risk Management Research Development and Application for the USFS’ Rocky Mountain Research Station. In September he will be the Director of the USFS’ new Office of Learning. Mr. Pupulidy said the agency no longer subscribes to the one-year old Interagency guide and explained that under the new system both versions of the reports will be published on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website. When asked if the causes, conclusions, and observations would be included in the reports, he said they “will not include traditional nonsense”.

Mr. Pupulidy said the information will be broken up into two reports, rather than just having one, because a single document became “lengthy and troublesome”.

Our view:

Some firefighters would argue that causes, conclusions, and observations are not “nonsense”, but are some of the more important and useful features of an accident report, and that banning them reduces the opportunities for learning and preventing similar accidents. Having subject matter experts review an accident and provide information about how and why it happened can be crucial information for those in the early stages of their career.

Any effective accident review must collect all of the information, and without censoring or overtly protecting agency officials, distribute findings that can reduce the chance of a future similar accident. As we found out, anything short of that is a waste of time and money. More than 50 people worked on the Yarnell Hill report, and could not pull it off. It sounds simple, but to get a politically sensitive agency to carry it out, apparently is very, very difficult.

In addition, innocent bystanders and witnesses with information about the accident must be protected from civil lawsuits and criminal charges.


The USFS’ description of the new policy: Coordinated Response Protocol Paper