Man indicted for starting the Rim Fire

Today a Federal Grand Jury indicted 32-year-old Keith Matthew Emerald for starting the Rim Fire that eventually burned 257,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. He was charged with two felonies, “Timber set afire” and “False statement to a government agency”, plus two misdemeanors, “Fire left unattended and unextinguished” and “Violating a fire restriction order”.

The fire became the third largest in California recorded history.

According to court documents, Mr. Emerald was rescued by a CAL FIRE helicopter from the extremely remote Clavey River Canyon area of the Stanislaus National Forest near the origin of the Rim Fire about an hour after the fire was reported. He was carrying bow hunting equipment with him and advised authorities that he had been on a solo hunting trip.

The CAL FIRE crew turned Mr. Emerald over to a U.S. Forest Service Fire Prevention Technician, who was not a law enforcement officer. He was later given a ride out of the forest by a government employee, but no one asked him for any identification. Investigators believe they were able to overcome that oversight. Later they applied for a search warrant for Mr. Emerald’s house and his vehicle, expecting to possibly find evidence in his computer, cell phone, backpack he was carrying that day, or elsewhere on the premises. The documents we reviewed did not reveal the results of the search.

During the extensive investigation and multiple interviews with Mr. Emerald, he told investigators several different versions of how the fire started, including:

  • Illegal pot growers;
  • He inadvertently started a rock slide, causing rocks to collide, creating sparks, which started the fire;
  • He said he started a campfire and burned some trash in it. The burning trash blew into vegetation, starting the fire which escaped.

Mr. Emerald later recanted the campfire story.

Investigators ruled out all possible fire causes other than “incendiary/intentional fire start by human”, the court documents revealed.

Mr. Emerald is expected to appear soon in the federal court in Fresno. If convicted of setting timber afire or of making false statements to a government agency, he faces a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. Leaving a fire unattended and violating a fire restriction order each carry a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Forest Service criticized for early management of the Rim Fire

The U.S. Forest Service is being criticized for their early suppression attempts of the Rim Fire, as well as their lack of transparency about how it was fought and the cause of the fire. Starting on the Stanislaus National Forest but eventually spreading into Yosemite National Park, it became the third largest fire in California’s history, burning 257,000 acres, 11 homes, and 3 commercial structures. As of October 25, 2013, at least $127 million had been spent on the suppression and rehabilitation efforts.

Rumors swarmed about what started the fire, blaming a variety of causes including marijuana growers, the law enforcement officers pursuing them, or even an object falling to the ground that was related to a military operation. The USFS was very tight-lipped about the investigation and finally said a hunter’s campfire was the cause, but provided little additional information.

According to an article in the Union Democrat, the initial attack as well as the firefighting response during the first 48 hours was less than overwhelming. Below is an excerpt from their article:

…Jim Dunn, [a CAL FIRE S-2T air tanker pilot] who retired in November after a 24-year firefighting career , said he was making drops on the fire near Natural Bridges on Aug. 17 when he responded that afternoon to what later became the Rim Fire.

He told The Union Democrat that both air tankers stationed at the Columbia Air Attack Base responded when the fire was first reported. The Forest Service already had planes in the air and initially dispatched the other Columbia air tanker pilot, but grounded him shortly after Dunn began making drops. He said the Forest Service put him on hold as well, after only a couple hours of dropping retardant.

The fire was only about 40 acres after the first day, but grew to about 250 by the morning of Aug. 18.

“The next morning we started early and nobody was on the ground,” Dunn said. “After about an hour or two, we got retardant around most the (fire) line while it was still in the canyon.”

“On the third day, they (the Forest Service) called us and we made two or three drops — but then they put us on hold,” he said. “The next thing I heard on the air was that it had crossed the Tuolumne (river) and was running toward Pine Mountain Lake.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Johnny.

Wildfire briefing, December 9, 2013

Hunter to be charged for starting Rim Fire

A hunter is expected to be charged for acts that resulted in starting the Rim Fire, which this summer burned 402 square miles of forest in and near Yosemite National Park in California. Sfgate.com reported that Michael Knowles of the U.S. Attorney’s office has indicated that charges will be filed, but the identity of the person has not been revealed. Fire officials said earlier that a hunter’s illegal campfire was the origin of the blaze.

Reporter remembers writing the story about the South Canyon Fire

A reporter has written an interesting article about what it was like to first hear the news and write the story of the 14 firefighters that were killed on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1994.

Billie Stanton was working in the news room with Jim Kirksey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, when the call came in from reporter Robert (Bob) Kowalski near the fire scene.

…As the fastest typist, I was taking down the victims’ ages and names as Bob carefully recited the spellings. Kirksey was fashioning the story.

But the names kept coming and coming. “Is that it?” I would ask. “No, I have more,” Bob would say.

I’m uncertain now on whose name I began to cry. One of those four beautiful young women from Prineville, Ore., I think — Tammy Bickett or Kathi Beck, Terri Hagen or Bonnie Holtby.

I’d never covered a wildfire; I didn’t even know women were fighting them. But the image of 14 young firefighters trapped by flames was seared into my consciousness.

$225 burial allowances for Mann Gulch Fire victims

I’m not sure if this fact was in Young Men and Fire or not, but the Billings Gazette, in writing about the passing of attorney Louise Replogle Rankin Galt who died last month at age 90, reported that she was involved in a court case related to the Mann Gulch Fire. Obviously litigation following fatal fires is not a recent phenomenon.

Replogle unsuccessfully sued the federal government seeking more than the $225 burial allowances for the families of each of the 13 firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers, killed in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, her niece, Candace Johnson Kruger, of Columbia Falls, recalled.

 

Thanks go out to Wendy

Wildfire briefing, November 4, 2013

After the Rim Fire, water now worries land managers

The 257,000-acre Rim Fire is now 100 percent contained, at a cost of $127 million, but the effects of rain on barren slopes is the newest worry for land mangers. Over 90 percent of the fire burned in the Tuolumne River watershed in and near Yosemite National Park in California. The loss of vegetation and exposure of the soil could lead to erosion and increased water runoff that may lead to flooding, increased sediment, and debris flows.

The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team has been working in the Rim Fire area for weeks and continues to assess the needs and implement emergency stabilization measures. Projects the team is working on include:

  • Improving road drainage and storm-proofing roads at risk of failure from increased flooding.
  • Stabilizing and repairing trails.
  • Monitoring for and treating invasive weeds.
  • Mulching and chipping to protect fragile soils.

Two dry years in a row have worried land managers but now the thought of a heavy rain has them concerned.

Acid frogs are not greatly affected by fires

Often we hear of people who suffer mental anguish over the plight of animals being affected by wildfire — they assume that Bambi and others die by the thousands. But most creatures have adapted to fire over tens of thousands of years.

Recent research in Australia concluded that acid frog “populations did not suffer adversely from moderate intensity fires as suitable refuges, including standing water, were available. All species were present shortly after fire with subsequent successful reproduction occurring once wetlands were sufficiently inundated.”

You can obtain a copy of the taxpayer-funded research by paying the International Journal of Wildland Fire, published by CSIRO, $25. The researchers work for Griffith University, which apparently does not believe in the concept of Open Access to taxpayer-funded research.

New Hampshire may ban fire balloons

New Hampshire may become the 26th state to ban fire balloons, which are sometimes called sky lanterns or Chinese lanterns.

These incendiary devices use burning material such as rubbing alcohol or a candle to heat the air in a bag made of tissue paper or very thin plastic. The heat makes the device lighter than air causing it to rise into the sky, staying aloft for 10 minutes to 2 hours. They can be very pretty to watch especially when they are released dozens or hundreds at a time such as at a wedding or some other celebration. The  problem is they are uncontrollable and sometimes start wildfires or structure fires.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals adopted a resolution this year urging states to ban the sale and use of the devices. Below is an excerpt from their position on the issue:

…Therefore, be it resolved that the National Association of State Fire Marshals strongly encourages states to ban the sale and use of sky lanterns through whichever means is most expedient for them. Banning the use of sky lanterns is important to help control homemade devices as well as those purchased from various sources.

New Hampshire state Senator Nancy Stiles has introduced a bill to prohibit them in her state. Below is an excerpt from USA Today:

Stiles, a Republican, filed her bill at the request of Rye Fire Chief Skip Sullivan. Sullivan said people have lit the lanterns at the beach thinking they would float out to sea only to have them blow inland. One landed in a selectman’s yard but burned out and did no damage, he said.

Sullivan said fire officials want a law “primarily for the fact that when you light these and send them off, it is an open fire you’re sending off.”

He added, “When these things come down, are these people going to clean up the mess they leave behind?”

 

Saving the sequoia groves from the Rim Fire — by using fire as a tool

NPS crew at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
NPS crew at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. InciWeb photo.

The Los Angeles Times has an excellent article written by Diana Marcum which tells the story of how firefighters on the Rim Fire worked to prevent the giant sequoia and old growth sugar pine groves in Yosemite National Park from being consumed by the fire. Everyone would agree that these trees are worth saving. Sequoias grow to an average height of 160 to 280 feet and 20 to 26 feet in diameter. The oldest known sequoia based on ring count is 3,500 years old.

About two weeks after the fire started it was still burning through drought-afflicted vegetation in a manner that mostly confounded and frustrated the 5,000 firefighters trying desperately to stop the spread. It was moving toward the groves that had survived many fires over hundreds or thousands of years, but this fire was not like the relatively cool, slow moving lightning-caused fires that the trees had evolved to to live with. It threatened to wipe them out.

With the Rim Fire only one or two days away from the national treasure trees, firefighters decided their only hope of saving them was to treat the groves with fire, a controlled fire under their own conditions, before the main fire got there. This relatively cool fire would remove most of the fuel on the ground and hopefully prevent the very intense main fire from roaring through the groves, possibly killing the 3,000-year old trees. It was their only hope.

But the test fire worried them when 50-foot flames leaped into the sky.

Below are some excerpts from the must-read article:

****

“…Inside Yosemite, officials had tried to restore the natural cycle of fire. For 40 years, lightning-sparked flames in wilderness areas had been left to burn, and specialists lighted controlled burns near tourist areas. But that might not offer enough protection.

“Hypothetically those old fire scars would slow the fire the further it moved into the park,” said Gus Smith, Yosemite’s fire ecologist. “But the Rim fire was like a flood, and it was coming. This was not the fire you wanted to test out a hypothesis.”

[…]

The sequoias evolved to face wildfire. But officials feared that this fire could kill even trees that had been shrugging off flames since before Rome burned.

[Ben] Jacobs and Taro Pusina, Yosemite’s deputy fire chief, drew up a plan. They would set three coordinated backfires and try to stop the wildfire with a “catcher’s mitt” of charred earth.

But first they would wind the fires through two of the very groves they were trying to protect. The Tuolumne and Merced groves were at the top of a ridge, in the direct line of the Rim fire, in an area that had not burned for 100 years. If the hotter Rim fire reached them, it could climb to the tops of 200-foot trees.

A lot could go wrong. If the backfires were too hot, they could cook the groves. If they did not burn enough ground in time, the Rim fire would roar through unblocked. Those two groves and the Merced Grove to the south would burn, the lookout tower and helicopter base would burn, and the firefighters would have to run.

“We knew it was a longshot,” Pusina said. “But no amount of bulldozers or planes or crews had stopped this fire. We were out of options.”

[…]

The next day, with the first grove still burning, a handful of firefighters drove into the Tuolumne grove, a mile to the east.

A fire crew from Arizona had prepared the area — raking debris away from trees, sawing snags and logs. Many of them had never seen a giant sequoia, which is native only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The species dates back to the Ice Age.

“They were in awe of the trees. They kept looking up as they worked,” recalled Gary Oye, division chief of wilderness stewardship…”

Rim Fire: soil severity and vegetation severity

A U.S. Forest Service wildland fire ecologist that the Associated Press quoted as describing the area burned in the 250,000-acre Rim Fire in and near Yosemite National Park as “nuked” stirred up some controversy with his quoted remarks. It is difficult to use a subjective one-word description to sum up the varied fire effects on a huge fire that burned for weeks under an assortment of weather, vegetation, and topography conditions.

Most of the early assessments of burn severity on a large fire are derived from multiple sensors on satellites that are orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth. Using data from individual sensors, or combining information from multiple sensors, scientists can compare recent data with historical records to produce maps highlighting their area of interest. Two of the most common burn severity maps you will see are vegetation and soil severity.

The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team assigned to the Rim Fire has publicized their version, soil burn severity maps which specifically focus on severity to soils and watersheds. The primary objective of the BAER team is to identify imminent post-wildfire threats to human life, safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources and to take immediate actions to implement emergency stabilization measures before the first major storms. Their map of September 13 shows approximately 56% of the fire is either unburned or received a low-severity burn, 37% sustained a burn of a moderate severity, and approximately 7% burned at high severity.

The September 17, 2013 Rapid Assessment of Vegetation Condition after Wildfire (RAVG) map produced by the USFS’ Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) analyzed vegetation severity produced by a change detection process using two Landsat Thematic Mapper images captured before and after the fire. They came up with very different numbers: 35% unchanged or low-severity, 27% moderate severity, and 38% high severity.

The maps from the two organizations are below. Larger versions can be seen HERE and HERE. Also included in the gallery are photos showing two areas burned in the fire, and a photo taken two hours after the fire started.

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