Confusion about responsibility for suppression of wildfires?

In an article that is very timely, with another disastrous fire burning homes in Bastrop County Texas this week, Donald F. Kettl published an article in Governing exploring what he calls “confusion” about who is responsible for fighting some of the largest and most damaging wildfires. Below is an excerpt:

…Local residents increasingly expect a response that is federal and instant.

Nowhere was this more the case than during the 2011 Texas wildfires, which burned more than 3 million acres and devastated Bastrop County, near Austin. Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who represents the area, hammered the U.S. Forest Service for failing to pre-position a giant DC-10 aerial tanker that the state could use whenever a wildfire should happen to erupt. When the Bastrop fire started, the Forest Service’s contractor fleet was busy in California, fighting an outbreak of wildfires there. The Forest Service shifted a DC-10 to Texas, but residents were infuriated as the plane sat idle for two days on a runway while Bastrop burned.

Why was the plane idle? The DC-10’s crew had to adhere to mandatory rest requirements. Furthermore, ground crews had to build a facility to supply flame retardant for the plane. But all that missed a larger issue, according to Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation. At an oversight hearing that McCaul held in Austin after the disaster, Harbour pointed out that the Forest Service was only responsible for fighting the fires on its lands, which accounted for just 0.1 percent of all the land involved in the 2011 Texas fires. The agency had deployed its teams to help on nonfederal lands “because our friends in the Texas Forest Service asked us to help.” And they needed that help because Gov. Rick Perry had cut funding for the state’s own forest service.

But truthfully, the feds would have been in Texas no matter what. After all, firefighting has become an interagency, intergovernmental affair.

And there’s no doubt these interagency partnerships have vastly improved firefighting, but they have also blurred responsibilities, raised expectations for the federal government’s help and shifted local costs to the federal budget, even when the problems are caused by nature and the prime responsibility for attacking them rests in state and local hands. The strategy that so greatly improved the management of fires has, paradoxically, deeply confused who’s really responsible for dealing with and paying for a huge problem that is only growing.

Fire in Bastrop County, Texas burns nine homes

(UPDATE at 9:05 p.m. CT, October 16, 2015)

Bastrop County has updated the number of structures that burned in the Hidden Pines Fire north of Smithville, Texas. They are reporting that 48 homes burned along with 70 outbuildings. In addition, 69 vehicles and 16 RVs burned.


(UPDATED at 1:13 a.m. CT, October 16, 2015)

SEAT drop, Hidden Pines Fire

A Single Engine Air Tanker drops on the Hidden Pines Fire. Undated InciWeb photo.

Recent mapping of the Hidden Pines Fire north of Smithville, Texas shows that it grew about 200 acres over the last 24 hours to 4,582, according to the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management. Today they are saying “approximately 40 structures” burned, but did not specify how many of those were residences. On Thursday local fire officials reported that nine homes had burned. The Southern Area Coordination Center’s Morning Report on Friday, October 16 said nine residences have burned.

The Statesman, based in Austin, Texas, reported that a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker will be available for the fire Friday, but it will have to reload with fire retardant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, about 770 miles away. The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons of retardant, compared to the single engine air tankers that have been working the fire with less than 1,000 gallons.

Texas politicians complained vigorously in 2011 during another fire siege in Bastrop County when they could not immediately obtain the services of a DC-10 that was on contract to the U.S. Forest Service. The aircraft flew to Texas, but had to sit for two days while the flight crew took mandatory days off and a portable fire retardant plant was assembled. Now four years later the state still does not have retardant facilities at an airport that can reload the huge airplane.

In Texas the local county judges are responsible for suppression of wildland fires. (This reminds of the systems in Colorado and Wyoming where the local county sheriffs have that responsibility, rather than fire personnel.) Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape told reporters that it is possible, but not yet confirmed, that the Hidden Pines Fire started when a rancher was pulling a shredder through grass and an overheated bearing on the device ignited grass clippings.


(Originally published at 11:51 CT, October 15, 2015; updated at 5:47 p.m. CT, October 15, 2015)

After an 11:30 a.m. mapping flight, fire officials report that the Hidden Pines Fire north of Smithville, Texas has burned 4,383 acres. According to the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office approximately 400 homes are affected by the evacuations.

Creations by Cynthia has numerous aerial photos of the fire.


Map Hidden Pines Fire

Map showing heat detected by a satellite on the Hidden Pines Fire up through 3:08 p.m. October 14, 2015. The red dots represent the most recent heat detections.

A wildfire in Bastrop County, Texas has burned nine homes and about 4,200 acres. The Hidden Valley Fire started on October 13 north of Smithville, and 29 miles southeast of Austin. Several areas are under evacuation orders.

Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in Bastrop County and the state has mobilized Blackhawk and Chinook National Guard helicopters. The Southern Area’s Blue incident management team is being mobilized for the fire. Below is a recording sent Thursday morning which informs team members of the assignment.

The Governor requested a fire management assistance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was approved immediately. The FEMA grant will pay for up to 75 percent of the costs for fighting the fire.

As you can see in the satellite photo above the fire is burning near some letters, “LUECKE”, that can be seen from space. The landowners name was was left after a clear cutting operation which opened the area for grazing. It is common to leave some areas untouched to benefit wildlife after clear cutting, but using surveyors to lay out those places in the form of huge letters is, of course, unusual. Astronauts on the International Space Station use “LUECKE”, which is 2.5 miles long, to evaluate the resolution of their cameras.

The weather forecast for Thursday and Friday calls for temperatures in the low 90s, minimum humidities in the low 20s, and 3 to 8 mph winds.

A RAWS weather station is located 11 miles northeast of the fire.

Authorities in Texas concerned about exploding targets

An article in the Tyler Morning Telegraph explains how law enforcement authorities in Texas are concerned about the spreading use of exploding targets in the state. It also reports that an eight-year old boy was killed in Oklahoma by shrapnel from an exploding target.

Below is an excerpt:

Reports of mysterious, loud booming explosions in rural areas across East Texas have sheriff deputies and fire departments searching their jurisdictions for the cause.

Although there typically is no lingering smoke, fire or other signs to point authorities to locate the source, Smith County Sheriff’s Lt. Gary Middleton and other law enforcement officials believe many of the explosive sounds are the result of people using shooting targets designed to explode when hit.

“A lot of these calls are due to people shooting (various brands of explosive targets) which are perfectly legal across much of the nation at this time,” Middleton said.

The targets are sold as kits containing two chemical components — such as ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder — that separately are not explosive, but when mixed together are primed for eruption. The target kits are available to the public in most gun stores and large sporting goods retailers.

Manufacturers of the product say the products are safe when used as intended, but law enforcement officials warn improper use could result in serious injury. In several instances across the nation, the shrapnel from blasts resulted in serious injuries and death.

Earlier this year, an 8-year-old boy in Oklahoma was killed when an outdoor stove stuffed with the material was shot and exploded, sending shrapnel into the child. The child’s adult relative has been charged with manslaughter in the death…

Prescribed fire at Lake Meredith

Lake Meredith prescribed fire

Firefighters at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area north of Amarillo, Texas (map) completed the 500-acre Mullinaw Crossing unit of a 4,500-acre prescribed fire project on February 21. So far 1,700 acres have been burned. The objectives are to decrease the amount of fuel that could burn in the event of a wildfire, thus minimizing the risk to surrounding communities, and to work toward the restoration of the mixed grass prairie that was native to the area before European settlement.

They had some help from their neighbors, including Chickasaw National Recreational Area, the Bureau of Land Management, and fire departments from Hutchinson County, Fritch, and Crutch.

Lake Meredith prescribed fire

Lake Meredith prescribed fire

Lake Meredith prescribed fire

Lake Meredith prescribed fire

Lake Meredith prescribed fire

All photos are provided by the National Park Service, including the one below that shows the area without a pesky fire in the foreground.

Lake Meredith


Grass fire tactics and safety

In a comment regarding the earlier article about the fires in Logan County, Oklahoma, Dick suggested some videos that shed light on the subject of fighting fire in grass —  “Attack from the Black” and “Oh, it’s just a Grass Fire”. We found those videos.

The first one, below, is “Attack from the Black”, which covers the tactics and safety of suppressing grass fires. Produced by the Texas Forest Service, it is actually a series of six videos, with each one being one to seven minutes long. It was uploaded to YouTube in 2011. If you play the one below, it will automatically keep transitioning to the next until you have watched all six.

The next video is “Oh, it’s just a Grass Fire”, uploaded by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center in 2011. Here is how it is described:

Because grass fires often burn in short, light fuels, some firefighters may tend to encounter them with their “guard down”—without taking adequate safety precautions. Using lessons learned from actual grass fire incidents, this video illustrates why such a mindset can have disastrous outcomes. Don’t believe it? Hear a severely burned firefighter explain what he now wants you to always remember.

Wildfire briefing, June 13, 2014

(Originally published at 9:19 a.m. CT, June 13, 2014)

House teetering on cliff to be prescribed burned

House above lake

NBCDFW photo.

A house at the top of a cliff over Lake Whitney in Texas will be burned intentionally Friday morning. The cliff below part of the house has fallen away, leaving the house precariously teetering. The house will be burned, which is considered a better option than allowing it to fall into the lake where the debris would have to be removed.

A crew is prepping the house by breaking out windows and adding bales of hay soaked in diesel fuel to the interior.

The prescribed fire is being covered live by a television station in Texas.

(UPDATE at 10:15 a.m. CT, June 13, 2014)

Ignition has begun. Firefighters are on scene applying water between the burning home and a nearby house, perhaps to minimize damage to a couple of trees.

House above lake burning

(UPDATE at 11:36 a.m. CT, June 13, 2014)

It’s pretty much over:

House above lake burning House above lake burning

The photos are from NBCDFW.

Funeral services for Nevada firefighter

The funeral services for Donovan Artie Garcia Jr. will be held today, Friday, June 13. Mr. Garcia, the Assistant Chief of the Hungry Valley, Nevada fire department, died of a heart attack while participating in wildland fire training June 5. Services will be in Reno at 11 a.m. at the Hungry Valley Gymnasium, 9070 Eagle Canyon Drive.

MD-87 air tanker makes first drops

Erickson Aero Tanker’s two MD-87 air tankers, T-101 and T-105, made numerous drops on the Two Bulls Fire near Bend, Oregon shortly after they became certified and reported for duty. has an article in which they quote pilot Brent Conner:

“I mean, I always wanted to be flying propeller planes, so this is new for me, and for most of us in this business,” he said.

“We can hold it in check, as we did with this fire, for about two days with retardant,” he said. “That gave them enough time to get the other flank taken care of.”

While it’s a job he’s done countless times before, it was Conner’s first weekend in real wildfire action with the Aero Tanker.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, actually,” he said. “We hadn’t been on a fire yet, the fire’s only 15 miles away. We barely had time to get the airplane cleaned up and we were already putting the flaps down, slowing down and getting ready to go.”

More information about the MD-87s is at Fire Aviation.

Reward for information about Two Bulls Fire

And speaking of the Two Bulls Fire at Bend, Oregon, the reward for information leading to a conviction of the person or persons responsible for setting the 6,908-acre fire has increased to $31,500. Anyone with information that could help identify suspects in the fire is asked to contact the Crime Stoppers Tip Line at 1-877-876-8477 (TIPS).

Hot pink may be the new color of fire retardant

The Missoula Technology Development Center is testing new colors for the fire retardant that is dropped by air tankers and helicopters. Below are excerpts from KPAX:

Over the last three years, some pilots have been complaining that the bright orange retardant is hard to see. “Particularly in late season when we’ve got grasses and trees that start turning color,” said Zylstra. With that concern, researchers at the US Forest Service’s Technology and Development Center in Missoula began looking into a solution, potentially a hot pink colored slurry. “So we run a product through a variety of different tests in our lab before it’s used out in the field,” said Zylstra.


The first batch of the hot pink slurry will be tested at four air tanker bases in California in regions predicted to have busy firefighting season.

Helitack crews train in Idaho has an article about U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management helitack crews training for the upcoming wildfire season.

Austin, Texas to get wildfire detection system

The Austin City Council voted to purchase a system of sensors mounted on towers that can detect smoke. The approval will allow the installation of two towers which will be tested for a year. At the end of the year they may decide to expand the system. In 2013, West Lake Hills, a community near Austin, also approved the acquisition of a similar system. It can detect smoke within 6 miles by rotating their sensors, completing a 360-degree rotation every 8 to 12 minutes, during which it takes images, analyzes, and then transmits those images for secondary analysis. If possible fire events are detected, the system alerts fire authorities.

Hotshots assist with prescribed fire on military base

The Laguna Hot Shots, based at Descanso, California, helped conduct a prescribed fire at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Thursday north of San Diego. Below is an excerpt from an article at 10News:

As a formation of Marine FA/18’s passed overhead to land at MCAS Miramar, members of the Laguna Hotshot crew were setting fire to the east side of the base.

The prescribed burn, as it’s called, is part of an annual brush management system put in place after the 2003 wildfire.

“After it burned more than 17,000 acres, the Cedar Fire really opened our eyes to a strong brush management program at the air station,” said Miramar Fire Operations Chief Paul Thompkins.

Construction begins on firefighter memorial in Prescott

Construction has started on a memorial in a cemetery in Prescott, Arizona for the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.

Below is an excerpt from

Construction is starting on a cemetery memorial for 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill wildfire, nearly a year after the fire started near Prescott. Each firefighter will have a plot and a bronze grave marker at the state-owned Pioneers’ Home Cemetery in Prescott. The plots are surrounded by a two-foot wall where mourners can sit.

Officials say 10 of the Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters are already buried there. They say there’s room for family members to be buried alongside them.

The state designated a new section of the cemetery for the hotshots and charged $100 per grave site, instead of the usual $900.