Todd Pechota receives FMO of the year award

The U.S. Forest Service announced that Todd Pechota, Forest Fire Management Officer (FMO) on the Black Hills National Forest, is the recipient of the 2015 National Forest FMO of the Year award. He received the honor during a recent ceremony at the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office in Colorado.

The Black Hills National forest is in the Black Hills of western South Dakota and northeast Wyoming.

Todd Pechota
Todd Pechota, in a screen grab from a video as he was interviewed about the Whaley prescribed fire north of Hill City, SD, January 13, 2016.

The award recognizes the most outstanding fire manager in the U.S. Forest Service each year.  It has a long and prestigious history of honoring fire managers who have exhibited exceptional leadership in Forest Fire Management leadership as a Forest Fire Management Officer.

“Todd is an exceptional leader in wildland fire,” said Craig Bobzien, Black Hills National Forest Supervisor.  “This award is a testament to the work he has accomplished. It underscores the relationships he has developed locally and across the nation, and the special care that he has shown for all those that have worked with him.”

In addition to his position as FMO on the Black Hills National Forest, Pechota serves as the Incident Commander for the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team and is past Chairman of the Great Plains Regional Dispatch Board of Directors.

Wildland fire management in Wyoming

The University of Wyoming has issued a publication about the patterns, influences, and effects of wildland fire in the state.

The University of Wyoming paper covers basic facts about fire, weather, intensity, severity, prescribed burning, as well as fire effects and interactions with soils, plants, livestock, wildlife, and bark beetle outbreaks. The document is 16 pages long with an additional 8 pages of references and a glossary. It was written by Derek Scasta, Assistant Professor and Extension Rangeland Specialist.

A couple of items attracted my attention. One is the graphic at the top of this article, the mean fire return interval for Wyoming. If you’re familiar with the geography of an area, data like this can absorb your interest for a while. The map appears to be a section taken out of the whole country map.

Another topic covered in the publication is the relationship between precipitation and acres burned.

Wyoming precipitation acres burned

The chart above from the paper uses the total Wyoming statewide annual precipitation compared with the total number of acres burned in wildfires each year. We have been thinking that the weather in the summer has a greater effect on acres burned than weather throughout the year. Those weather factors include temperature, relative humidity, wind, and precipitation, and a few others used by the National Fire Danger Rating System. It’s beyond our capacity to analyze all of those, unless we use an index that takes multiple parameters into account, such as the Burning Index or the Energy Release Component.

Wyoming precipitation acres burned, WildfireToday

But what we did (immediately above) was to take one weather parameter from the summer and plotted it on a chart similar to the UofW chart– average monthly precipitation each year for June, July, and August. The weather data came from NOAA, and the acres burned was extracted from the University of Wyoming chart.

Included among the disclaimers is that average precipitation across the state does not apply to every square mile. Thunderstorms in the summer could be hammering one area, while a major fire is burning somewhere else. And, using only precipitation does not take into account temperature, relative humidity, and wind, which are all very important.

If anyone is interested in analyzing the Wyoming fire occurrence data using another weather factor or NFDRS Index (from the summer months), below are the numbers I used. Or, if you’d like to look at another state or geographic area, that would be fine. It’s important to analyze the acres burned and the weather observations for a large area in order get a sample of sufficient size to make it statistically significant. For example, use 15 to 20 years of information from a large national forest with multiple weather stations to reduce the data-skewing impact of a gully-washer thunderstorm at one location.

wyoming acres burned precipitation

Very strong winds predicted for Black Hills

Wind gusts up to 60 in the forecast

Weather forecast-Black Hills
Weather forecast for the Pactola Lake area of the central Black Hills in South Dakota, created at 1:30 p.m. MST, February 6, 2016. Click to enlarge.

The National Weather Forecast has issued a High Wind Warning for the Black Hills in Wyoming and South Dakota for this weekend. From 11 p.m. CST Saturday until 8 p.m. CST on Sunday forecasters expect northwest winds of 25 to 35 mph with gusts up to 60.

wind forecast 2-7-2016 black hills
Updated graphic forecast added at 8:20 a.m. MST, February 7, 2016.

In the Central Black Hills area near Pactola Lake, elevation 4,797, the temperature on Sunday will max out at about 33 degrees with a minimum humidity of 39 percent. The winds there on Sunday will be northwest from 28 to 38 mph with gusts from 40 to 53 mph.

At Rapid City, 3,600 feet, it will be warmer on Sunday — 37 degrees — with an RH of 37 percent and wind gusts up to 64 mph.

We can’t find a fire weather forecast, but have heard nothing about a Red Flag Warning.

Pyrocumulus over a pile burn

Sundance pile burn pyrocumulus Dave Porter

Dave Porter of the Black Hills National Forest captured this image of a pyrocumulus cloud January 6 over a pile burning project southeast of Sundance, Wyoming.

A pyrocumulus over a pile burn is rare.

From Wikipedia:

A pyrocumulus cloud is produced by the intense heating of the air from the surface. The intense heat induces convection, which causes the air mass to rise to a point of stability, usually in the presence of moisture. Phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and occasionally industrial activities can induce formation of this cloud.

An article posted earlier today about the bushfire in Western Australia had a photo showing a pyrocumulus cloud over the fire.

Photo of Alder Fire used frequently in articles about wildfire

Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park
Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park, August 19, 2015. NPS photo. (click to enlarge)

We happened to run across this photo of the Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park when following up on a lead about how climate change may have influenced weather in 2014. After a few minutes of research we discovered that it was taken August 19, 2013 by fire personnel at Yellowstone National Park when they were monitoring the Alder Fire. It was burning at the same time two other fires were active in the park, the Alum and Druid Fires.

As we reported then, the Alder Fire was on a peninsula at the south end of Yellowstone Lake and eventually burned 4,240 acres. A lightning fire that was discovered on August 14, it was hemmed in by water on three sides and by a recently burned area to the south.

There are two reasons we are running the picture now — our Google research found that it has been used at least 228 times to illustrate various articles in the last two years; and, the picture is fascinating. The way the smoke is laying down on the lower-right side is very interesting, and a little mesmerizing, staying mostly below the tops of the trees. That smoke is apparently being sucked in to the area where the the intensity is greater and convection is developing, carrying the smoke vertically.

Below is another photo of the Alder Fire that we used in our 2013 article about the fires.

Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park
Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park, August 16, 2015. NPS photo.

Station Fire burns homes and at least 7,000 acres near Casper, Wyoming

Cole Creek Fire
Station Fire near Evansville, WY, Oct. 11, 2015. Photo by MyWyomingAdventure

The Station Fire has burned approximately 16 homes and 9,000 acres just east of Casper, Wyoming in the community of Evansville. It started in a landfill on the north edge of town Saturday afternoon during a strong wind event, laid down overnight, but took off again Sunday afternoon. At 3:15 p.m. Monday, Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapster said the fire had been mapped at 7,000 Monday morning, but strong winds later in the day caused it to continue spreading and he estimated it had grown to about 9,000 acres.

Mr. Crapster said 536 homes are under evacuation orders affecting 1,350 residents. Two large air tankers assisted the ground-based firefighters. The MD-87 and BAe-146 were reloading at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) 219 miles southeast of the fire.

He confirmed the name of the fire is Station, in spite of media reports calling it the Cole Creek Fire.

Map Cole Creek Fire
Map showing heat detected by a satellite over the Station Fire up through 11:36 a.m., October 12, 2015. The dots represent heat, but most of the vegetation is grass which can burn and then cool off before the next satellite overflight.

Two helicopters are working the fire, a Type 1 and a Type 3, in addition to 50 to 60 engines, Mr. Crapster said.

While returning from a motorcycle trip to the national parks in northwest Wyoming Saturday evening, we happened to stop overnight in Evansville at a hotel 1.8 miles southeast of the burning landfill. As the sun was setting we watched the fire which was burning vigorously in the landfill and had spread a bit beyond it. Sunday morning as we left at 8 a.m. we did not notice any smoke there at all.

But the wind in the area Saturday night and Sunday morning was very, very strong, steady at 30 mph at least, with much stronger gusts. I was worried about the wind Saturday night blowing over my 600-pound bike in the hotel parking lot. When I checked in, the desk clerk noticed my attire, asked if I was on a motorcycle, and said that because of the wind I could park it near the front door … which I did. Thankfully it was still upright Sunday morning. As I departed the area on Interstate 25 heading east and then south there was an electronic sign over the Interstate warning of winds gusting to 55 mph, and said light trailers should not attempt travel. It was a battle on the motorcycle trying to stay in only one lane as I was rudely pushed around by the very, very strong wind.

The RAWS weather station at Fales Rock west of Casper recorded a wind gust Sunday morning of 61 mph with sustained winds above 30 mph between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. By afternoon the relative humidity dropped to 10 percent.

At 3:10 p.m. on Monday the Fales Rock station showed 69 degrees, RH of 13 percent, and a southwest wind of 16 mph gusting to 27.

The weather forecast for the fire area calls for southwest winds decreasing Monday night to 17 mph with gusts to 24, an overnight RH of 42 percent and a low temperature of 44 degrees. Tuesday should bring 73 degrees, winds out of the southwest at 13 gusting around 20, and an RH of 14 percent.

UPDATE  December 22, 2015: The Star Tribune has more information about how the fire started and how the initial attempts by landfill personnel to suppress the fire were not successful. The correct name of the fire is Station, not Cole Creek.

A fire that destroyed 14 homes in rural Evansville began after smoldering debris from a grinder at the Casper landfill ignited a woodchip pile at the facility, a state report concluded.

High winds the following day spread the embers to the surrounding prairie, sparking the Cole Creek Fire, which burned over 10,000 acres and temporarily displaced more than 1,000 people in October.

Landfill workers tried twice to extinguish the smoldering debris from the grinder, first with water extinguishers and later by stomping on them, according to the report, which was produced by the Wyoming Department of Fire Prevention and Electrical Safety.

The debris was pushed back into the woodchip pile after the second attempt by employees who believed the debris was no longer burning. However, the debris was still smoldering and ignited wood in the brush pile. Firefighters responded and kept watch overnight but lost control of the fire the following afternoon.

The report, which the Star-Tribune obtained Monday using a public records request, concludes the fire was an accident. The document does not address whether any workers at the landfill acted negligently….