Florida: Follow-up on escaped Rx fire, smoke, fog, and crashes

The wreckage of the January 9, 2008 crash on Interstate 4 in Florida. The Ledger.

Last year Wildfire Today covered the January 9 escaped prescribed fire near Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa. An unexpected drop in the relative humidity, according to Division of Forestry investigators, caused the 50-acre project to get out of control and burn an additional 200 acres and one of their dozers. The smoke mixed with fog and reduced visibility on Interstate 4, causing a 70-vehicle accident that claimed the lives of 5 people.

Friday the eleventh of 12 reports about the accident, covering 24 of the 70 vehicles, was released. Here are some excerpts from The Ledger:

No charges will be filed in the biggest crash that claimed the most lives in last year’s massive Interstate 4 pileup, prosecutors said Friday.

Smoke, fog and human error led to the 24-vehicle crash that left four people dead, according to a report released on Friday by the Florida Highway Patrol.

Visibility was very poor, investigators wrote, but the fact that a number of drivers were able to stop, pull over and avoid a collision shows that some crashes during the morning of Jan. 9, 2008, could have been avoided.

The report released Friday dealt with one of a series of crashes that happened that morning, when, in all, 70 cars collided on I-4 in dense fog and smoke.

Over and over, drivers told FHP they drove into a wall of smoke and fog, the report shows. But investigators attributed most crashes to drivers not slowing down enough.

“As bad as the conditions were at the scene, it was possible to avoid crashing into other vehicles,” the report said. “Those vehicles that were able to stop were then involved in this crash due to the careless driving of others.”

The report concluded the smoke came from a nearby wildfire that had started when a controlled burn set north of I-4 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission got out of control as weather conditions changed unexpectedly.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said a month after the crash that the smoke from the fire played no part in the near-zero visibility. And at the time, some officials said fog alone was to blame or that smoke from burning vehicles in the first crashes contributed to problems for later drivers.

But the FHP report backs up what was said by drivers involved in the crashes, including a Polk County sheriff’s deputy, who insisted they were nearly blinded by a combination of smoke and fog.

There has been one lawsuit over the pileup filed in Polk County against the wildlife commission. There have been five other lawsuits among drivers and companies that owned vehicles in the crashes.

[…]

INVESTIGATING THE FIRE

After the accidents, the state has investigated whether there were mistakes involving the controlled burn that grew into the wildfire and contributed to the wrecks.

But state officials maintain everything went by the book and that the book doesn’t need changing. Unpredictable weather changes are to blame, they say.

Division of Forestry spokesman Gerry LaCavera said conditions were fine to start the burn in the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area off I-4. The forestry division was responsible for issuing wildlife commission workers the permit for the controlled burn.

State investigators say the problem started when humidity dropped unexpectedly, and flames began to jump the controlled burn’s lines.

LaCavera said there haven’t been any changes at the Division of Forestry since the crashes last year.

“We haven’t seen a new need for them,” LaCavera said.

He said people within the Division of Forestry check forecasts each morning before issuing burn permits.

“It is based on the best information,” LaCavera said.

On Friday, Gary Morse, a spokesman with Fish and Wildlife, declined comment, citing legal action some of the drivers have taken against Fish and Wildlife.

Forests accused of being "gross polluters"

An editorial in the Redding Searchlight complains that wood stoves and industry are not the only sources of air pollution and that the government should do a lot more to prevent the massive amount of smoke from large fires.

Our view: The government shouldn’t ignore pollution from the public forests.

We think we have this straight.

If residents’ fireplaces and woodstoves fill the air with schmutz, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lays down the law, requiring no-burn days and other tough rules to keep the region in compliance with federal air-quality standards.

But if a wildfire does the same thing – indeed, even if it pushes pollution measurements off the charts for weeks – it’s something that “just happens.”

Funny, to the kids at soccer practice or the gardeners weeding their tomato patch, the smoke does the same harm.

Yet the EPA doesn’t take wildfire smoke seriously as a health threat, granting exemptions to counties that endure a summertime brown cloud blowing from neighboring forests on the theory that we can’t really control the blazes.

Nonsense.

While last summer’s wave of lightning-sparked fires was one for the record books, the flames were remarkable only for their scope. In California, summer fires are as predictable as sunny 100-degree days. And while we can’t – and, biologists say, shouldn’t – stop all of them, we do know how to reduce the risk that those fires will blow out of control.

In the meantime, though, north state counties will seek waivers from the EPA so the fires won’t mar our otherwise fine air-quality record. Shasta and surrounding counties meet strict new rules for fine dust, a relatively rare feat in California.

As a bureaucratic imperative, that makes sense. Residents shouldn’t be forced to cure a problem that’s not of their making.

But maybe we’d be better off if we treated the forests as the gross polluters they’ve become. If federal management is part of the problem, the federal government should take responsibility for its share – just as Knauf Insulation or the drivers of diesel trucks must.

Wildfire smoke on the scale we’ve seen recently isn’t something that “just happens.” It’s the product of a paralyzing thicket of federal laws, along with the long-term failure to invest in the fuel management that the government’s own plans call for.

If the federal government were to commit the cash to seriously reduce wildfire risks in Northern California’s public forests, we’d all breathe easier each summer in more ways than one.

Smoke from burn piles closes Ca. Highway 44

On Wednesday, smoke from burn piles mixed with fog to reduce the visibility to the point that Highway 44 between Redding, CA and Reno, NV had to be closed between 4:00 and 11:30 a.m. The 18 piles, each about 1/2 acre in size, were created by workers clearing a firebreak near Bogard, according to a spokesman from the Lassen National Forest. On a typical day, about 1,600 vehicles travel that section of Highway 44 near the Shasta County line.

Florida: Smoke from fire causes accidents, one fatality

Smoke from a 5-acre brush fire reduced the visibility on a road near Palatka, Florida to 20-30 feet, causing a multi-car accident and one fatality, 88-year old Ellis Barnes.

Barnes apparently missed a driveway in the smoke and drove his truck into a ditch. The trailer he was pulling blocked the southbound lane of County Road 315, about three miles north of State Road 100.

A small two-door hatchback, driven by 51-year-old Ellen Wilder of Keystone Heights, collided with the trailer.

While Barnes was on the phone with E911, a small pickup stopped just short of the hatchback.

A 1-ton dual-rear wheeled truck then struck the small pick-up, pushing it into the hatchback, which in turn hit the trailer again.

The force of the crash caused the small pickup to spin counter-clockwise and pin Barnes between it and his own truck.

New study on how smoke from wildland fire affects the public

Photo by Bill Gabbert

It was just on November 21 that Wildfire Today covered a new study about the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters. Now another new study on the emissions from wildland fires provides more data on the particulates produced by the fires and how they affect the public. Some of the findings include:

The health threat to city dwellers posed by Southern California wildfires like those of November 2008 may have been underestimated by officials.

Detailed particulate analysis of the smoke produced by previous California wild fires indicates that the composition posed more serious potential threats to health than is generally realized, according to a new paper analyzing particulate matter (PM) from wildfires in Southern California.

The paper, entitled “Physicochemical and Toxicological Profile of Particulate Matter (PM) in Los Angeles during the October 2007 Southern California Wildfires,” will appear in Environmental Science and Technology. It confirms earlier studies by air polllution specialist Constantinos Sioutas of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who is also co-director of the Southern California Particle Center.

For the study Sioutas and colleagues from USC, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and RIVM (the National Institute of Health and the Environment of the Netherlands) analyzed the particular matter gathered during the fall 2007 blazes.

“Fire emissions produce a significantly larger aerosol in size than typically seen in urban environments during periods affected by traffic sources, which emit mostly ultrafine particles,” Sioutas said.

“Staying indoors may not provide protection from smoke particles in the absence of air conditioning or the ability to recirculate filtered indoor air. This is because the fire particles can penetrate indoor structures more readily than particles from vehicular emissions.”

According to Sioutas, the fires produce a dangerous mix. “The chemical composition of particles during the fire episodes is different than that during ‘normal’ days impacted by traffic sources.

The ability of the particulates to penetrate structures, even if windows are closed, and their potential ability to be absorbed by human tissues are a matter of concern. “More aggressive measures to avoid smoke seem to deserve study, including distribution of masks and evacuation to air conditioned environments, and closure of non-smoke secured schools,” said Sioutas, who holds the school’s Fred Champion Professorship of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

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The study’s recommendation about the “distribution of masks” is questionable, in light of other data reported by Wildfire Today. If they are referring to the cheap, disposable dust masks, the information we have seen (below) indicates that they cannot remove the small particulates in wildland fire smoke.

Click on the image above to see a larger version.

New study: wildland firefighters and smoke

There have been a number of reports about the effects of smoke on firefighters. Now there is a new one by the Institut de recherché Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST).

Here is an excerpt from the report’s abstract:

The substances of greatest concern are carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein, and respirable and inhalable particles. A second group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations, includes benzene, carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides, PAH, ammonia, and furfural. A third group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations again, includes acetaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, methane, methanol, styrene, acetonitrile, propionaldehyde, toluene, methyl bromide, methylethylketone, acetone, methyl chloride, xylenes, phenol, tetrahydrofuran, methyl iodide, and mercury. Data suggests that if wildland firefighters are exposed to 25 ppm of carbon monoxide (below the permissible exposure value), they may be overexposed to formaldehyde, acrolein, PAH (benzo[a]pyrene), and respirable particles.

The U.S. National Fire Protection Association has recently announced that it is proceeding with the development of a new wildland firefighting respiratory protection Standard, but it will be some time still before respirators certified for wildland firefighting will become available.

If administrative controls are unsuccessful in reducing exposures to acceptable levels, wildland firefighters should be provided with air purifying respirators for formaldehyde, respirable particulate matter, organic vapours and acids, acrolein, and PAH. However, wildland firefighters should be cautioned that at high work levels the effectiveness and duration of air purifying cartridges is unknown. There is also a concern that firefighters using air purifying respirators may unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of contaminants not removed by their respirator than they would otherwise. Until a respirator is developed for wildland firefighting that effectively removes carbon monoxide, air purifying respirators should be used in conjunction with a carbon monoxide alarm.

Like “a mosquito through an open door”.

Firefighters, especially new ones, frequently ask if bandannas over the face will protect them from smoke. The answer is hell no.

“Respirable smoke particles, gases, and vapours would pass through a bandanna as readily as a mosquito thorugh an open door.”

Click on the image above to see a larger version.

In fact, even respirators, as inconvenient as they are, will not do the job according to the report.

None of the filtering respirators remove carbon monoxide (CO). All of the currently available respirators have serious shortcomings for use in a wildland fire situation. Even if they were effective, some wildland firefighters are understandably reluctant to accept negative pressure air purifying face masks for use at high work levels for long periods of time.

A full face mask is generally more comfortable than a half-face mask and it provides full eye protection. Full eye protection is necessary the case of contaminants exceeding the threshold limit value where the threshold limit value is based on irritant effects.

Since the contaminants having warning properties such as odour or irritant effects are removed by air purifying respirators, there is a legitimate concern that firefighters wearing such respirators might unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of toxic contaminants not removed by the respirator than they would otherwise. This could easily result in over exposure to carbon monoxide and lead to serious, perhaps deadly, consequences. To avoid this, a carbon monoxide monitor with alarm should be used in conjunction with air purifying respirators used when fighting wildland fires.

So, forget about the bandanna, and throw away that $84 piece of crap Hot Shield mask that is advertised to have the “ benefit of blocking & reducing the inhalation of smoke & ash particulate”. These smoke particulates are so small, that if one were released near the ceiling in a room with calm air, it would take eight hours to fall to the floor.

The sad truth is, in 2008 there is no practical way to protect wildland firefighters from the byproducts of combustion. Maybe the new 8-pound SCBA being developed will lead to something that could benefit wildland firefighters. Using this new technology, perhaps a 15-pound unit would give you an hour’s worth of air? This might help for initial attack, but for the hot shot crew on the line for 16 hours, sorry, you’re out of luck.