Wildfire briefing, December 4, 2014

Fires in U.S. and Australia determined to be caused by power lines

Map of Pfeiffer Fire

Map of Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California, looking northwest, showing the fire perimeter at 10:34 p.m. PST, December 18, 2013. (Click to enlarge)

Two fires, in Western Australia and California, have recently been determined to be caused by electrical power lines.

The Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California started on December 16, 2013 and burned 34 homes and 917 acres in the coastal community 23 miles south of Monterey. The U.S. Forest Service reported on Wednesday:

The cause of the fire was determined to be high resistance heating of the Pfeiffer Ridge Mutual Water Company electrical control wires immediately adjacent to a steel water pipe line. The high resistance heating of the electrical control wires created a competent ignition source for this fire. The first fuel ignited was accumulated dried leaves and redwood needles.

The other fire was in Western Australia. Below is an excerpt from an article in Western Australia Today:

A rotted power pole infested with termites has been blamed for the Parkerville bushfire which destroyed more than 40 homes this year. But EnergySafety director Ken Bowron said the organisation would not take action against Western Power or the landowner.

The EnergySafety report into the cause of the fire on January 12 was released on Thursday and found the bushfire originated from a private pole at 180 Granite Road, Parkerville.

“There was no evidence to suggest the work performed by Western Power to replace the surface aerial seven months before the incident, or the work to replace the adjacent pole two day before the bushfires, causes the PA pole to fail,” Mr Bowron said.

“Based on the available evidence and legal advice, EnergySafety will not be taking any legal action against any party. The clear finding of the report is that the pole failed because it was rotten and had been infested by termites.

Hearing in Prescott on Granite Mountain Hotshots’ retroactive retirement benefits

From the Daily Courier in Prescott, Arizona:

Now nearly a year and a half after 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire, the matter of retroactive retirement benefits continues to play out at Prescott City Hall.

With its earlier decision granting retirement benefits to the family of fallen Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft still under appeal, the local fire retirement board will take on two new retirement cases today.

During a 9 a.m. Thursday hearing at Prescott City Hall, the Prescott Board of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board will turn to the retirement claims by the families of Sean Misner and William Warneke, and whether the scope of the actual hearings on the claims should be limited…

Tree ring researcher at the University of Arizona honored

Thomas Swetnam

Thomas W. Swetnam with tree-ring specimens in the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. (Photo courtesy of Michaela Kane/Arizona Daily Wildcat)

Thomas W. Swetnam, Regents’ Professor of dendrochronology and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society.

As part of the Section on Geology and Geography, Swetnam was elected as an AAAS Fellow for his investigations of tree rings as a record of past changes in climate, allowing scientists to predict future forest-fire frequencies in the Southwest.

Mr. Swetnam specializes in analyzing climate changes through history and prehistory, dangerous insect outbreaks and forest fires. In recent years, enormous blazes, some 10 times greater than those that firefighters have been accustomed to seeing in California and Arizona, have forced scholars to attempt to understand this phenomenon. The conclusions from Swetnam’s studies of these so-called megafires and their alarming size, duration and frequency have made the scientific community, governments throughout the world and media to pay close attention. Swetnam has appeared on programs such as PBS’ “NewsHour” and CBS’ “60 Minutes.”


Animated fire history for Yosemite National Park

Kate Wilkin describes this video that illustrates the fire history in Yosemite National Park in Southern California:

Once fire is restored as an ecosystem process, fires often fit together like a jig saw puzzle or overlap slightly. Where fires overlap, they sometimes moderate how many trees are killed by the fire. However, if a fire kills most trees, then following fires continue to kill many trees. These findings are from the Wildland Fire Use program, such as in
Yosemite National Park’s upper mixed conifer forests in the Illilouette Creek Basin—a nearly 50 year experiment allowing 150+ lightning strike fires to burn in Yosemite’s wilderness. Here, the fire frequency and effects are approaching historical forest conditions. These results, which reduce fire hazards for people and nature, could be seen in similar forests elsewhere in California if fire became a principle tool of forest management.

Video by Kate Wilkin and Shannon Fairchild from the Stephens Wildland Fire Science Lab at the University of California at at Berkeley. The map is projected in UTM 11N NAD 83. Fire history polygons from Yosemite National park.

Ms. Wilkin is a graduate student at Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She elaborates on her work HERE.

In 2015 Yosemite National Park celebrates their 150th year.


Researchers recommend amount of fire clearance around structures

Researchers have concluded that the most effective fire clearance or defensible space around structures, to reduce the chances of them burning in a wildfire, is between 16 and 58 feet.

Below is an excerpt from the abstract of a paper written by Alexandra D. Syphard, Teresa J. Brennan, and Jon E. Keeley, submitted to a journal September 16, 2014.

We analysed the role of defensible space by mapping and measuring a suite of variables on modern pre-fire aerial photography for 1000 destroyed and 1000 surviving structures for all fires where homes burned from 2001 to 2010 in San Diego County, CA, USA. Structures were more likely to survive a fire with defensible space immediately adjacent to them. The most effective treatment distance varied between 5 and 20 m (16–58 ft) from the structure, but distances larger than 30 m (100 ft) did not provide additional protection, even for structures located on steep slopes.

Two of the three authors are public employees, so the taxpayers already paid for this research. However, if you want a copy of The role of defensible space for residential structure protection during wildfires, it will cost you $25.

More about Open Access to research that is paid for by taxpayers.



Study: Risk factors for injury among federal wildland firefighters

A student working on her PhD at the University of Iowa wrote her dissertation in 2010 after studying the records of injuries to wildland firefighters. Carla Lea Britton titled her paper “Risk factors for injury among federal wildland firefighters“. We will not attempt to summarize the entire document, but below are some quotes that we thought were interesting in the Conclusions section:


P. 67: The wildland fire community should expand its focus beyond the investigation of fatalities and embrace new methodologies to evaluate and mitigate the impact of non-fatal occupational injuries in wildland fire.

P. 70: Comprehensive surveillance: The resources currently available to estimate and evaluate the burden of injury in firefighters are found in a diversity of situations and are not, in many cases, suitable for linking. Fire managers should work toward developing a new comprehensive occupational injury surveillance system to capture fire-related injuries, illness and fatalities across the spectrum of wild- and prescribed fires, training activities and types of employment.

P. 70-71: Partnerships: Guidance on the safety and health of wildland firefighters is provided by the NWCG’s Safety and Health Working Team (SHWT). The SHWT’s mission is to improve health and safety through workforce development, leadership and the development of standards using data collection and analysis to validate and prioritize safety issues. While the mission is commendable, the SHWT lacks both the resources and expertise to fully realize its goal. The SHWT is comprised of representatives from the NWCG member agencies. Most of the committee members are the national-level fire safety managers for the agencies they represent. While all have extensive backgrounds in fire suppression, few, if any, have any formal training in occupational health and safety. The SHWT should actively pursue partnerships with either the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or with university-based researchers to provide additional expertise, particularly in the area of injury epidemiology and prevention, topics on which there have been little research emphasis in the past.

P. 71-72: This project has shown that, even with sub-optimal data collected for other purposes, systematic evaluation of existing data can provide useful hints for prevention and point to areas where further inquiry is likely to be fertile. To move forward, the wildland fire community needs to commit to using existing data to the best advantage possible and to developing new surveillance methods to provide comprehensive information about all wildland firefighter injuries and their circumstances.


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


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.