Recording of webinar on the effectiveness of suppression resources in large fire management

UPDATE, October 22, 2014: The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center uploaded a better, higher-resolution version of the video. We replaced their original version we had earlier embedded, with the improved one you see above.  


This video is a recording of an October 8, 2014 webinar on the effectiveness of firefighting resources in suppressing large fires. I hesitated to embed it here because about a third of the dozens of the graphics are illegible. They only use a portion of the available screen and the resolution is very low. Expanding the video to full-screen does not help. However, the content is interesting.

Here is how the webinar topic was described:

Dave Calkin presents on webinar on October 8, 2014. Wildfire management currently represents over 50 percent of the US Forest Service’s total budget. Suppression of large fires represents the single largest category of fire management and typically exceeds $1 billion annually. In both 2012 and 2013 large fire suppression exceeded the Agency’s budget allocations by over $400 million. Despite the scale of this investment relatively little is understood about how suppression actions influence large wildfire spread and those conditions that ultimately lead to containment. There is considerable uncertainty in managing large wildfires including the quality of weather forecasts, complex environmental conditions, variation in the type and quality of suppression resources, and whether or not requested suppression resources will be assigned.

In this presentation we review several recent studies that attempt to understand how suppression actions influence fire progression as well as review variation among Incident Management Teams in the amount of resources that they use to manage large wildland fires in the US. Despite these recent efforts, there remains limited understanding of suppression effectiveness. These results suggest that modeling large fire containment as a production process of fireline construction similar to traditional initial attack models is inappropriate. Improved understanding of large fire management effectiveness and efficiency will require spatially tracking individual resource assignments, activities, and tactics within the broader suite of fire management objectives and strategies.

One of the key facts the researchers needed in their study was how resources assigned affected the containment of the fire.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group defines “contaiment”:

The status of a wildfire suppression action signifying that a control line has been completed around the fire, and any associated spot fires, which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread.

It is well known that many incident management teams do not accurately report the daily containment percentage, usually pulling a number out of their rear end that is much lower than the actual amount of fireline that is constructed. They don’t have the courage to report the facts so they lie, fearful that if there is competition for resources a lower containment percentage will enable them to obtain and sometimes hoard firefighters, crews, engines, and aircraft — regardless, in some cases, of greater needs elsewhere. On a fire we visited in 2013 managed by a Type 1 incident management team we found that even though it had been contained for a couple of days, and there was very little mopup that still needed to be done, the Incident Commander reported a very low containment percentage in order to make it easier to justify an evacuation order to the public.

The researchers realized this, so they ignored the official percentages reported on the daily Incident Status Summary report, the ICS-209. They analyzed fires for which perimeter maps were available for each day. When a section of the fire perimeter stopped moving permanently, for the purposes of their study they considered that area “contained”.

They found that on 50 fires they looked at, when the entire perimeter stopped moving the average containment reported was 64 percent. Of course, there may be good reasons for not declaring a section of line held or contained. It may not move in that area, but it could still require fireline to be constructed. Reasons for a fire to stop moving other than proactive suppression, include changes in weather, fuels, and topography.

So it is not possible, using ICS-209s or mapping data after the fact, to accurately determine the actual containment of a fire. However, the method used by these researchers may provide a figure closer to reality than the data reported by many incident management teams.

Geographic Area Coordinating Centers and Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups that have to allocate scarce resources may be tempted to use the method described in this webinar to truth-check the information reported by incident management teams.


Second generation of Simtable being developed

In May we recorded the video above and told you about the Simtable which projects 3-D wildfire simulations onto a sand table which can be molded to resemble the topography in a specific area.  Fire modeling algorithms simulate the spread of fire through the vegetation and across the topography while also taking weather and fuel conditions into account. You can simulate a fire at your choice of location, or you can view the spread of historic fires. The system can also be used to simulate and train for evacuations, floods, and hazardous material incidents — at a starting price of $25,000.

A researcher at San Diego State University is developing the next generation of the Simtable which he hopes to put into the hands of wildland firefighters out on the ground.

10News reports:

“Any firefighter with a smartphone or tablet could download it and have the mapping system,” said [Justin Freiler of SDSU's Visualization Center].

They are not there yet, as a mobile app is still in development, but the hope is to make the system available to firefighters in the near future.


International researchers study fire in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens

In 2014, with assistance from the New Jersey State Forestry Services, U.S. Forest Service and international researchers from the United Kingdom and Russia teamed up to collect data on a prescribed fire in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The fire’s embers, or commonly known as fire brands, were one important aspect of the study.


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.


Scientists set up equipment in front of a spreading fire

(Note from Bill: A Fire Behavior Assessment Team (FBAT) has been studying the King Fire east of Placerville, California. Rae Brooks, an Information Officer at the fire, sent us this article describing what a FBAT does.)


These scientists set up equipment in front of a fire to collect fire behavior data

by Rae Brooks

FORESTHILL, Calif. — Fire scientists call them “plots.” Dotted ahead of the leading edge of the King Fire, they were deliberately placed in the anticipated path of the flaming front. Each plot contained a video camera, wind-speed gauge and other monitoring devices.

If the flames came, a data logger buried a foot underground would collect information that would allow the scientists to better understand the science of wildfire, gauge the effectiveness of fuel treatments, and contribute to firefighter safety.

So while thousands of firefighters were building line, clearing brush from roads and bulldozing contingency lines to suppress the King Fire, the scientists patiently waited for flames to sweep over their plots, if control efforts failed.

“We want our plots to burn,” said Carol Ewell, co-lead of the FBAT, or Fire Behavior Assessment Team, at the King Fire. “Firefighters put the fire out. It’s a difficult balance.”

fire behavior plot

A plot BEFORE the fire passed through. Photo by FBAT team at the King Fire.

fire behavior plot

The same plot AFTER the fire passed through. Photo by FBAT team at the King Fire.

Mark Courson, a division-qualified firefighter and an operations section trainee, served as operations lead for the FBAT at the King Fire. His job was to keep the team safe and advise on site selection.

“Usually I’m thinking of putting the fire out,” said Courson. “Now I’m bucking the system, thinking where suppression might not hold it.”

The team, a U.S. Forest Service module, draws members from around the country to work 14-day assignments on wildfires. Since 2006, the FBAT has recorded data at 16 wildfires, including last year’s Rim Fire, the third largest in California history. Generally, emerging fires with potential for growth suit the FBAT better.

At the King Fire, just three of 10 sites selected burned over. The team averages 50 percent, but sometimes gets lucky and finds all its plots burned.

“It’s a big gamble,” said Ewell. “Our success rate is quite variable, and I’m not sure that’s a hurdle that we can fix.”

The King Fire was particularly difficult to read after it made a speedy 15-mile run northward beginning late in the afternoon of Sept. 17, Ewell said. Rain has since quelled the fire, which is now 89 percent contained.

Despite the inherent difficulties, free-burning wildfires provide conditions that cannot be replicated in laboratory, experimental or prescribed fires. For instance, no prescribed fire would ever be set during California’s current historic drought. The team has recorded active crown-fire runs, fire whirls, spot-fire ignitions, and merger of spot fires with the main flame front.

The team’s prime mission at the KIng Fire is to study the effectiveness of fuel treatments. Team members set up plots in treated and nearby untreated areas to provide comparisons.

Because they are working ahead of the flaming front, they follow standard firefighting safety protocols, carefully considering whether they can get safely into and out of selected sites. “Unburned fuel between you and the fire,” is one of the 18 Firefighting Watch Out Situations, and, by necessity, their equipment must be placed in unburned fuel ahead of the fire.

“There is risk involved,” said team member Matt Dickinson, an ecologist at the Delaware, Ohio, location of the Forest Services’s Northern Research Station. “One way we mitigate is to set up plots early in the day before the peak burning period. We pull out quite often when we’re not feeling comfortable.”

It takes about an hour for nine FBAT members to install their gear and inventory the vegetation at each site. If firefighters are trying to build line and the team is trying to set up a plot, the firefighters, of course, have priority, said Ewell. “In comparison, we’re just a geek squad,” she said, although most FBAT members are experienced firefighters.

Some of the team's equipment. Photo by Mike McMillan.

Some of the team’s equipment. Photo by Mike McMillan.

At each plot, the team sets up temperature sensors, heat flux sensors, anemometers to measure wind speed, and video cameras encased in heat-resistant steel boxes. The cameras start when trigger wires are burned over. Each camera captures about 80 minutes of footage.

The flames often melt the anemometer’s plastic cups, so wind speeds might only be collected before flames arrive. At each site, team members also bury a data logger in a military surplus ammunition box. Other members collect information about the vegetation, down to counting sticks on the ground.

At the King Fire, the team also recorded fuel moisture data to help fire behavior analysts working on the fire.

In the future, Ewell would like to equip the team with more heat-flux sensors, Go-Pro video cameras with new triggers, and anemometers that can better withstand heat. The team relies on grant money and project funding from the Forest Service to continue its work.

When sites burn over, team members return, when it is safe, to collect their equipment and the data. They also record how the vegetation has fared. Plots that don’t burn are permanently marked with rebar, so they can provide fuels information for other uses.

The team spends evenings entering data and crunching numbers, and tries to complete a summary report before demobilizing from a fire.

Seeing a wildfire burn during severe drought has been an eye-opener, said Dickinson. Most of his experience has been with prescribed fires. He found the tremendous consumption of fuels and the severe damage to trees hard to witness.

William Borovicka, who normally works at the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest in McArthur, Ohio, was a first-time FBAT member at the King Fire. Back home, he studies how oak and hickory forests, if left undisturbed, convert to beech and maple woods. His work in Ohio, he feels, plays into management techniques to stabilize the oaks and hickories.

Using FBAT findings to gain a deeper understanding of fire behavior might similarly help forest managers someday with decision-making, Borovicka said.

“Maybe more prescribed fires, or different harvesting techniques,” he said. “Whatever it takes to prevent this kind of blow-up.”


Revised guidance for safety zones is released

Safety Zone Calculation

Safety Zone Calculation, released July, 2014. Bret Butler.

In his continuing efforts to improve the recommended standards for wildland firefighters’ safety zones, researcher Bret Butler has released a revised version based on additional research. Dr. Butler developed the guidelines that had been used for years which were based on the height of the flames, but in May, 2014 released a new recommendation that was based on height of the vegetation, wind speed, slope, fire intensity, and a constant number. This new July, 2014 version replaces the one that was released in May.

A safety zone is an area where wildland firefighters may be forced to take refuge from an approaching wildfire. There, a firefighter should be able to survive without being injured from exposure to the radiant and convective heat from the fire, and would not have to deploy and enter a fire shelter.

The latest version of the guidelines released a few days ago is based on height of the vegetation, wind speed, slope, and the same constant number (8). It removes a factor that could be a little subjective or difficult to quantify accurately in the field, fire intensity.

The new system, like the one unveiled in May, calculates the Safe Separation Distance (SSD) between the fire and the firefighters. To determine the SSD, using the table above multiply the constant number (8) times the number from the table (Slope-Wind Factor) times the height of the vegetation.

Example for 15 mph wind, 24% slope, 6-foot vegetation:

The Safe Separation Distance is   8 x 3 x 6 = 144 feet

Dr. Butlers’ Additional Considerations:

  1. For a 20-person crew, add 10 feet of radius and for a vehicle add another 5 feet of radius.
  2. The area in red requires large natural openings or construction by mechanized equipment.
  3. The proposed rule is to be used for flat ground rather than the existing flame height rule.
  4. Also consider additional lookouts on the ground and in the air to monitor fire activity with early egress to escape routes and safety zones.
  5. At 30% or greater slopes, hot gases tend to stay close to the ground.

Dr. Butler’s disclaimer: This proposed safety zone rule should be considered preliminary because it is based on limited data and analysis and subject to increase or decrease based on additional data. It is presented for release this fire season with the intent of increasing firefighter safety and reducing risk of injury. It is likely that an updated rule will be released in the next year.

For more information see the article in the International Journal of Wildland Fire titled: Wildland Firefighter Safety Zones: A Review of Past Science and Summary of Future Needs

We will let you know if another revised version of the guidelines is released in two months.

(NOTE: if you want a copy of the table above, click on it to open it in a window of its own, then click on Print in your internet browser.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ryan.