Review of the 2015 wildfire season in the Northwest

Photo above: Firefighters observe the Cougar Creek Fire southeast of Mt. Adams in southern Washington in 2015. From InciWeb.

The U.S. Forest Service has produced an exhaustive summary and review of the 2015 wildfire season in what they call their Pacific Northwest Region — what the interagency community calls the Northwest Geographic Area — Oregon and Washington.

The report is huge, 281 pages. In addition to general information about the fire activity, it includes sections about weather, air quality, technology, and summaries of 28 fires with 14 of those being covered in greater detail than the others.

The main 281-page report can be be found here (it’s a LARGE file). There is another version they call an “Interactive Story Journal” which provides summary information from the main report as well as interactive web maps, videos, and numerous photos as well as “time-enabled fire progression maps” for selected fires.

Below are some excerpts from the report:


Most Severe Fire Season in Modern History

The 2015 fire season in the Pacific Northwest was the most severe in modern history from a variety of standpoints. Oregon and Washington experienced more than 3,800 wildfires (almost 2,300 in Oregon and more than 1,500 in Washington) that burned more than 1,600,000 acres (more than 630,000 acres in Oregon and more than 1,000,000 acres in Washington)—including 1,325 fires representing 507,000 acres on U.S. Forest Service lands (information as of September 30, 2015).

Initial Attack was successful in rapidly containing all but about 119 of these fires. This response represents an almost 97 percent Initial Attack success rate. Approximately 50 of these fire escapes occurred during a ten-day period in mid-August when numerous Large Fires (a wildfire of 100 acres or more in timber or 300 acres or more in grass/sage) were already burning in the Pacific Northwest. During this time, the Northern Rockies and Northern California were also experiencing unusually high numbers of wildfires. This situation limited the ability to rapidly obtain Initial Attack reinforcements as well as almost all types of firefighting resources needed for Large Fires.

Chelan complex Washington 2015
Firefighters conduct a firing operation to protect homes on the Chelan Complex in Washington, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.

Tragedy Strikes

Tragedy struck on August 19 when three U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed while attacking a fire on private land near Twisp, Washington.

During this severe fire season, approximately 675 structures were lost. While well over 16,000 structures were threatened, most were saved from loss by aggressive suppression actions.

2015 Fire Season Milestones

  • In August, to help support Washington State’s fires, the Emergency Support Function 4 (ESF4) was activated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • The Emergency Conflagration Act—that authorizes the Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal to mobilize structural firefighters and equipment to assist local resources battling fires—was invoked by the Governor of Oregon on July 30 in response to the Stouts Creek Fire, on August 13 for the Cornet Fire and Windy Ridge Fires, on August 14 for the Canyon Creek Fire, and on August 20 for the Grizzly Bear Complex.
  • The Washington State Fire Service Mobilization Plan is implemented to provide personnel, equipment, and other logistical resources from around the state when a wildland fire or other emergency exceeds the capacity of local jurisdictions. In mid-August, the Chief of the Washington State Patrol authorized such a state-declared mobilization on the Carpenter Road Fire, the Kettle Complex, and the Okanogan Complex.
  • The Pacific Northwest Region had the highest priority in the nation for firefighting resources during these dates: July 25 and 26, August 14-31, and September 8-13.
  • The Pacific Northwest Region was under a Preparedness Level 5 (the highest, most severe level) from August 13 through September 4.
  • The greatest number of uncontained fires occurred on August 18: 25 Large Fires totaling 822,512 acres in the Pacific Northwest Region (105 Large Fires totaling 2.2 million acres nationally).


The first six months of 2015 were the warmest first six months of any year over much of Oregon and Washington since record keeping began in 1895.

These record-warm temperatures observed during the winter and spring, coupled with below-average precipitation, led to an exceptionally poor snowpack throughout the winter and spring.

From June 1 through September 15, a total of 51,019 lightning strikes were recorded over Oregon and Washington. The average for fire seasons from 2000-2014 through September 15 is 78,775 strikes. While the number of the 2015 strikes was below this average, the background of drought in 2015 enhanced the ability for lightning strikes to ignite multiple fires in short periods of time.

Continue reading “Review of the 2015 wildfire season in the Northwest”

Report concludes that USFS should revise fire protection agreement with CAL FIRE

An audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General concluded that the U.S. Forest Service has assumed a disproportionate share of the fire suppression burden specified in interagency agreements with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

The USFS enters into fire protection agreements with other land management agencies when, after evaluating geography and the location of fire suppression resources, it appears to make economic sense that Agency A protect portions of Agency B’s lands in some areas, and vice versa. But there are inherent differences, on a broad scale, between the National Forests in California and lands CAL FIRE is charged to protect. The private property has more people and structures on or close it, therefore more wildland-urban interface (WUI). When fires approach or burn private property and homes in a WUI, it historically has generated a much more aggressive and expensive response than fires in a typical USFS forested area. While the acres exchanged in these agreements may on the surface appear to be more or less equal, the responsibility to protect them from wildfires can be very different — and more costly.

State lands in California near National Forests generally have more grass, brush, and WUI areas than Forest land in the same general area. The table below, from the IG report, shows the difference in costs for putting out fires in the three different types of fuel.

Fire Suppression costs per acre

The Inspector General found that in California, the USFS has assumed responsibility for protecting almost 2.8 million acres of private land, exchanging the protection of land that is inexpensive for land that is more difficult, and therefore more expensive, for example WUI areas near forests. State officials, according to the report, took responsibility for
land that was comparatively inexpensive to protect, such as grassland.

The Inspector General recommends that the USFS reassess its fire protection responsibilities with CAL FIRE.

In addition to the inequalities regarding areas that are protected, the Inspector General uncovered other issues:

OIG also found that local cooperators used indirect cost rates for firefighting activities that may have been excessive and unreasonable. FS did not safeguard its assets by establishing policies and procedures to review indirect cost rates charged by local cooperators. As a result, we questioned over $4.5 million in administrative costs paid to nine cooperators in California. In addition, FS overpaid $6.5 million to Colorado State University for unallowable administrative costs during a 4-year period. Although FS identified this issue and ceased future overpayments, it has not recovered the overpayments.

On a side note, the illustrations on the cover of the USDA Inspector General’s report, emphasizing radishes, chickens, and carrots, shows how land management and the suppression of wildfires seems to be an afterthought within the Department even when issuing a report about firefighting. IG report coverThis is in spite of the fact that the USFS spends about $1.2 billion annually on fire suppression, which consumed 52 percent of its budget in fiscal year 2015. The five major federal land management agencies in the USDA and Department of the Interior employ over 13,000 wildland firefighters, a group of employees that should be difficult to overlook, but often is.

This prompts us once again to think about how things might be different if all of the federal land management agencies, or perhaps only their fire departments, were in a stand-alone agency, emphasizing at number one, fire protection, rather than radishes.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Drip torch carried on firefighter’s back leaks fuel and ignites, causing serious burns

Last summer a firefighter received severe burns to his back, both legs, and left arm after a drip torch attached to the pack on his back leaked fuel which ignited. The accident occurred September 9, 2015 on the Perdida Fire managed by the Bureau of Land Management northwest of Taos, New Mexico. The firefighter was one of seven igniters assigned to the fire which had a total of nine personnel.

The individual who was injured had been igniting with a drip torch while he carried an extra one attached to the pack on his back. The torch leaked fuel which caught fire.

From the recently released report about the incident:

…Igniter #1 saw that the victim’s line gear and back of his legs were on fire so he tried to put the fire out with dirt and by patting at the flame with his gloved hand. Igniter #1 told the victim to get on the ground and they both fell together. The victim got back up and ran while trying to get his glove off and then his pack, successfully. The victim then stumbled but regained his footing briefly before falling back to the ground. At this point, Igniters #1 and #3 converged and patted out the fire on the victim’s pants…<

The photos below are from the report.

damaged Nomex shirt

damaged Nomex pants

One of the issues pointed out in the report is a significant delay in requesting a medevac. About 40 minutes elapsed before medevac was requested, and that was for a ground ambulance even though the victim apparently had second and third degree burns. That request was quickly upgraded to transport by helicopter. The report concluded that according to the burn injury protocol a medevac should have been initiated upon the determination of second and third degree burns and the remoteness of the incident.

The medevac pilot was unable to communicate with the personnel on the ground because he could not program the frequency into the helicopter’s radio.

The lat/long was called in to dispatch from the incident scene 23 minutes after the helicopter was requested (about an hour after the accident occurred), and four minutes before it landed at the extrication point.

The report recommended that firefighters should avoid carrying extra drip torches on their packs during ignition operations.

We did not see anything in the report about how fire resistant clothing that has not been washed for an extended period of time may, or may not, cause the clothing to lose some of its resistance to fire. But it did say “PPE [personal protection equipment] should be kept clean and inspected often for damage and fuel contamination”.

drip torch back gear
File photo of igniters carrying drip torches attached to packs on their back. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Another look at the fatal Decker Fire of 1959

Decker Fire report map diagram
An illustration from the 1959 official report on the Decker Fire.

The Decker Fire of 1959, where six firefighters were killed near the U.S. Forest Service El Cariso fire station west of Lake Elsinore, California, is unique among fatal fires for several reasons: three members of the El Cariso Hotshots died, they were only a couple of miles from their home base, a U.S. Forest Service District Ranger was killed, and one of the primary factors that caused the extreme fire behavior was a locally well-known and predictable diurnal wind shift caused by the dry lake bed of Lake Elsinore that turned the flames against the firefighters, trapping and overrunning them on the Ortega Highway. In addition, this tragedy was followed seven years later by another, when the El Cariso Hotshots were overrun by flames on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in 1966, killing 12 more.

The official report did a pretty good job of explaining the important facts of August 8, 1959. But more than half a century later, a former firefighter who served on the El Cariso Hotshots from 1963 through 1966 conducted extensive research on what happened that day in 1959 and assembled many details that were not included in the U.S. Forest Service report. Julian Lee, Professor of Biology, Emeritus at The University of Miami (now living in New Mexico), made available to us his 27-page description of the Decker Fire. It is very well written and comprehensive, laying out the details of what occurred during and after the fire, as well as providing some analysis.

Mr. Lee’s sources included interviews and correspondence with individuals who were on the fire, CAL FIRE (CDF) documents, newspaper accounts, many USFS documents, training records, documents from ambulance companies, and verbatim transcripts of testimony given by surviving USFS personnel recorded a few days after the incident.

We thank Mr. Lee for his efforts to produce this valuable report, and for his permission to link to it and to post the excerpt below.

There were three burnovers on the fire, but since there were no radios most of the firefighters did not know about them right away unless they were directly involved.

Here is an account of the first, from Mr. Lee’s account:



“… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway like it wasn’t there.”

While Ferguson was moving his crew out of harm’s way, Will Donaldson, a CDF Tank Truck Driver assigned to San Jacinto Station 26 miles to the northeast, was en route to the fire and listening to radio traffic. An early indication that something exceptional was unfolding on the steep slopes above Elsinore came when he heard a report of “… fire storms, and that something was happening on that fire.”

One of the things happening involved John D. Guthrie, a 25 year old CDF Tanker Foreman and his five man crew. They were one of two units dispatched to the Decker Fire from Old Temecula Station, about 18 miles southeast of the fire. Arriving at around 6:40 p.m., they headed up the Ortega Highway toward the fire, with Guthrie behind the wheel of an International tanker with a 500 gallon capacity. They pulled off at a turn-out at the hair-pin turn (Fig. 2).

Decker Fire Map
Map from Julian Lee’s report on the fatal Decker Fire. (Click to enlarge)

Guthrie got out and started down the steep bank to get a better look at the fire burning below. Almost immediately he came scrambling back to the truck, yelling for the men on the back of the truck to get into the cab and to move the truck farther up the road to the protection of the high bank at a nearby road cut. There wasn’t room for Guthrie in the cab; he remained outside, intending to use the tanker’s hose to wet himself down for protection. But suddenly, before they could move the truck, the fire burst upon them.

As the wall of flames engulfed the truck and its occupants, it burned through Guthrie’s hose line, rendering it useless and forcing him to dive under his truck for protection. As CDF tanker foreman Ferguson watched “… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway (near the hair-pin turn) like it wasn’t there.” He didn’t realize that Guthrie and his crew had been engulfed by the flames as the fire roared across the highway. This, the first of three burn-over events suffered by personnel fighting the Decker Fire, occurred at about 6:40 p.m.

Two of Guthrie’s crewmen, Art Shannon age 28, and Larry Mollers age 19, received serious burns to their arms and hands. Three others, Eugene Golden, Montie Campbell, and Jim Miller received lesser injuries, but Guthrie was burned over 85 percent of his body. He and his injured men were loaded into a CDF pick-up truck and driven to Lakeland Village at the base of the mountain.

There Guthrie was transferred to a 1953 Pontiac ambulance belonging to the Sunnymead Volunteer Fire Department. The ambulance driver headed for Hemet Hospital, but within a few miles the engine threw a piston rod. Coasting to a stop, the driver rushed into a nearby bar, explained their situation and asked to use the telephone. Upon hearing of their plight, a patron pushed the keys to his car across the bar and said, “Take my station wagon and put him in.” Guthrie was treated at Hemet Hospital, stabilized, and then transferred to a hospital in Redlands. He was the first firefighter to be critically burned on the Decker Fire.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out Rich.

Twisp River Fire: report released as injured firefighter leaves hospital

Twisp River Fire map

On November 18, the day a preliminary report was released for the Twisp River Fire, the firefighter who was severely burned on the incident west of Twisp, Washington left the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Daniel Lyon Jr., 25, one of four people in Engine 642 assigned to the fire on August 19, left the vehicle after it crashed while the crew was trying to drive to a safety zone through a very active part of the fire. He made his way through flames to a road where he was found by another firefighter. The two of them ran down the road until they found an Emergency Medical Technician Paramedic who provided initial treatment before Mr. Lyon was transported by ground ambulance and then a helicopter to the burn unit in Seattle.

The other three firefighters in Engine 642 died in the vehicle, according to the corner’s report, from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. They were Richard Wheeler, 31; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Tom Zbyszewski, 20. All four were employees of the U.S. Forest Service working on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest out of Twisp, Washington.

After spending three months in the hospital and undergoing 11 surgeries, including several skin grafts, Mr. Lyon still has a long road to recovery ahead of him. He suffered third degree burns over nearly 70 percent of his body. The tips of his fingers had to be amputated because his hands were so badly burned, said Dr. Nicole Gibran, director of the burn center, at a news conference on Wednesday. 

In addition to the four firefighters in Engine 642, a three-person dozer crew was entrapped when a wind shift caused the fire to spread in their direction. The extreme fire behavior that resulted, forced all fire personnel on the right flank of the fire to seek safety zones — if they could.

As the fire overtook them, the dozer crew initially parked the dozer near a garage and took refuge between the structure and the tractor. When one of them exited the dozer, he left his shelter, thinking he would not need it. Intense heat drove the three of them inside the garage. After the building began burning, they went outside and huddled under two fire shelters on a dirt road. 

Dozer Crew two fire shelters

Below is an excerpt from the preliminary report, from the section about the engine crew’s accident:

…The right side “point of contact” saw Engine 642 driving up to him, so he whistled and swung his hand over his head, indicating they needed to turn around and get out. The “point of contact” yelled, “RTO! [Reverse tool order!],” meaning that all crews needed to follow their escape route back down the road to the safety zone. Engine 642 turned around in the road and was the first engine to head toward the escape route. One of the other 3 engines turned around at the “Y,” and another engine drove up to house 4 to turn around. The fourth engine remained at house 3.

As Engine 642 drove down toward the safety zone, the road was completely obscured by smoke. The engine jolted and dropped down as if a tire had popped. They kept driving downhill, but they had zero visibility, and the engine went off the road. The engine came to a stop, and the surviving firefighter [Mr. Lyon] got out and was immediately engulfed in flames. He went through the flames and made his way to the road…

The document released on November 18 is called an “Interagency Learning Review Status Report”, one of many stages of the Learning Review process that was adopted by the USFS in 2013. It only includes facts, some of them, that have been developed so far in the investigation. It contains no conclusions or recommendations, and does not place blame. It does, however, present some very general “questions to initiate dialogue” related to protecting structures, the use of Type 3 Incident Commanders on a developing fire, communications (as usual in EVERY report), and the use of fire weather forecasts. The narrative in the report is “abridged”, with the full narrative expected to be part of the final report. Eventually a Safety Action Plan with recommendations will released and made available to the public, according to the preliminary report.

The preliminary report released on November 18 can be downloaded here.

The images above are from the report.

NIST releases report on Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people

waldo canyon fireThe National Institute of Standards and Technology has released a lengthy report on the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado in June, 2012. (It can be downloaded here, but is a large file.)

The 216-page document covers firefighting tactics, how structures ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but does not address to any significant extent the management, planning, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which were some of the largest issues.

The report was put together by five people, Alexander Maranghides, Derek McNamara, Robert Vihnanek, Joseph Restaino, and Carrie Leland.

At least three official reports have been written about the Waldo Canyon Fire, two from the city of Colorado Springs (here and here) and a third from the county sheriff’s office. However one of the most revealing was the result of an independent investigation by a newspaper, the Colorado Springs Independentwhich revealed facts that were left out of the government-issued documents, including numerous examples of mismanagement by the city before and during the event.

The fire was first reported the evening of June 22, 2012 on the Pike National Forest. Due at least in part to the anemic response from the U.S. Forest Service, the fire was not located until after noon the following day. No aircraft were requested until firefighters were at the fire, more than 16 hours after the initial report.

The day the fire started there were eight large fires burning in Colorado and 16 uncontained large fires in the country. Four days later on June 26 when the Waldo Canyon Fire moved into Colorado Springs burning 344 homes and killing two people, there were 29 uncontained large fires burning in the United States.

However there were only nine large air tankers in the United States on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contracts, down from the 44 we had 10 years before.

The 7-page Executive Summary of this newest report lists 4 primary findings, 37 technical findings, and 13 primary recommendations.

Primary findings:

  1. Defensive actions were effective in suppressing burning structures and containing the Waldo Canyon fire.
  2. Pre-fire planning is essential to enabling safe, effective, and rapid deployment of firefighting resources in WUI fires. Effective pre-fire planning requires a better understanding of exposure and vulnerabilities. This is necessary because of the very rapid development of WUI fires.
  3. Current concepts of defensible space do not account for hazards of burning primary structures, hazards presented by embers and the hazards outside of the home ignition zone.
  4. During and/or shortly after an incident, with limited damage assessment resources available, the collection of structure damage data will enable the identification of structure ignition vulnerabilities.

Three of the technical recommendations:

  • Fire departments should develop, plan, train and practice standard operating procedures for responding to WUI fires in their specific communities. These procedures should result from scientifically mapping a community’s high- and low-risk areas of exposure to both the fire and embers generated during WUI events (as will be possible using the WUI Hazard Scale).
  • A “response time threshold” for WUI fires should be established for each community. Fire departments have optimal “time-to-response” standards for reaching urban fires. Similar thresholds can, and should be, set for WUI fires.
  • High-density structure-to-structure spacing in a community should be identified and considered in WUI fire response plans. In the Waldo Canyon fire, the majority of homes destroyed were ignited by fire and embers coming from other nearby residences already on fire. Based on this observation, the researchers concluded that structure spatial arrangements in a community must be a major consideration when planning for WUI fires.

Primary recommendations:

Continue reading “NIST releases report on Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people”