A dozen large wildfires within 70 miles of Missoula

Above: Wildfires in Western Montana, July 25, 2017.

(Originally published at 10:30 a.m. MDT July 25, 2017)

Residents of Missoula, Montana are used to the impacts wildfire season brings to the area. Occasionally the area is inundated with smoke for days or weeks at a time.  Today at least a dozen large wildfires are burning within 70 miles of Missoula. Most of them are south or east of the city so the northwest wind predicted today will blow much of the smoke from the fires away from town.

missoula smoke
Photo from a camera at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, showing some smoky haze in the air at 8:45 a.m. PDT July 25, 2017.

The national Incident Management Situation Report groups fires by Geographic Area and lists those Areas by priority, and within each Area the fires are listed by priority. The Northern Rockies Geographic Area, identified as the highest priority today, is comprised of Northern Idaho, all of Montana, most of North Dakota, and relatively small portions of Wyoming and South Dakota.

fires Northern Rockies Geographic Area
The 12 highest priority fires in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area, July 25, 2017. “Ctn” means it is a full suppression fire. “Comp” is less than full suppression.

Today’s report lists 21 large fires in the Northern Rockies with 18 of them being in Montana. The first 10 priorities are in Montana and 8 of them are in the western part of the state.

The two that are in the eastern part are the top two priorities in the Area:

Lodgepole Complex of Fires: 250,000 acres, 16 homes have been destroyed. Firefighters are making good progress. Over the last 48 hours the only large growth has been on the northern end near Lake Fort Peck. More information.

Buffalo Fire: This is a new fire reported July 24. At last report it had burned 2,000 acres and is near the Wyoming/Montana state line. An Incident Management Team from Alaska that was staged in the state has been assigned.

Fires in Eastern Montana
Fires in Eastern Montana, July 25, 2017.
Lodgepole Complex of fires
The north portion of the Lodgepole Complex of fires. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:52 a.m. PDT July 25, 2017. The red line was the fire perimeter at 9 p.m. MDT July 23, 2017.

Below is some information about a couple of fires closer to Missoula:

Lolo Peak Fire; 1,090 acres 17 miles southwest of Missoula and 10 miles southwest of Lolo. It was active Monday and Monday night on the north, west, and south sides, spotting across a drainage and advancing to Lantern Ridge.

Sapphire Complex comprised of Sliderock, Little Hogback, and Goat Creek fires: 20 to 31 miles southeast of Missoula. All three fires were active Monday, primarily on the east and southeast sides. Combined they have burned 4,539 acres.

An executive order signed by the Governor of Montana Sunday will enable the state to mobilize National Guard helicopters (Blackhawks and CH47), some firefighters, and kitchens. It also makes it possible for local governments to access the Governor’s emergency fund if they have enacted their own 2 mil levy.

Report released for burn injuries on Tokewanna Fire

On July 29 a member of the Great Basin Smokejumpers was injured while scouting fireline on the Tokewanna Fire near Mountain View in southwest Wyoming. The firefighter sustained burn injuries to the hands, calves, knees, elbows, cheeks, nose and ears. He was transported by air ambulance to the Salt Lake Burn Center where he was admitted.

The fire started at about 1500 on July 28. The overhead structure worked through the night and began transitioning to replacement personnel after smokejumpers arrived at approximately 1252 on July 29. The person that was later burned became the new Division Supervisor (DIVS) on Division W at 1300. Official transition to the new Incident Commander occurred at 1505.

map burn injury report
Illustration from the report.

Below is an excerpt from the Factual Report that was completed September 15, 2016:

“Between 15:30 and 15:45 the DIVS was scouting fireline and reached the highest point of where the fire had progressed on the ridge. At this location a flare up occurred downhill from the DIVS on the other side of a large stringer of lodgepole pine which had been heavily treated with retardant (Reference Materials photos 2-5). The DIVS stated, “I heard something I didn’t like and determined I needed to leave.” He retreated to his predetermined safety zone, which was the black and opted to continue downhill rapidly. While retreating he experienced an extreme pulse of radiant heat coming from the right accompanied by smoke and blowing ash. Because of the pulse of radiant heat, he used his helmet to shield the right side of his face. In recounting this he expressed “I wish I had my gloves on, but prior to the event I was away from the fire edge using a GPS and taking notes in my notepad.” The radiant heat caused burns to the DIVS’s hands, calves, knees, elbows, cheeks, nose and ears.”

Also from the report:

Summary

Three key findings were brought out during this investigation:

  • Timely recognition and reporting of burn injuries is critical
  • The absence of PPE can contribute to the severity of injuries
  • Firefighters were unable to contact the air ambulance utilizing pre-established radio frequencies

Lessons Learned from the Interviewees:

When asked if there were any lessons learned or best practices the interviewees would take away from the incident the following was captured:

  • Recognize your own limitations and don’t expect to have all of the answers or information on a rapidly emerging fire.
  • Time of day and incident complexity were not optimal for transferring command, but in this case it was a better option than continuing to utilize fatigued resources.
  • Sometimes you just need to safely engage to ensure you are not transferring risk to someone else later.
  • Make the time to tie-in with your overhead to assure face-to-face interactions occur during transition.
  • Participation with district resources in pre-season scenario based training alleviated tension while coordinating a real life medical incident at the dispatch center.
  • Frequency sharing with local EMS will help facilitate efficient medevac procedures.
  • Continue to encourage EMS certifications among line firefighters and/or identify ways to improve access to Advanced Life Support on emerging incidents.”

Fire studies at Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks

Above: A bison in Yellowstone National Park, May 25, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two recent and ongoing studies at the two big “Y” parks are yielding results about fire behavior and the effects of naturally occurring fire. The excerpts below are both from Phys.org.

The first is about allowing wildfires to burn at Yosemite National Park, rather than suppressing them:

An unprecedented 40-year experiment in a 40,000-acre valley of Yosemite National Park strongly supports the idea that managing fire, rather than suppressing it, makes wilderness areas more resilient to fire, with the added benefit of increased water availability and resistance to drought.

After a three-year, on-the-ground assessment of the park’s Illilouette Creek basin, University of California, Berkeley researchers concluded that a strategy dating to 1973 of managing wildfires with minimal suppression and almost no preemptive, so-called prescribed burns has created a landscape more resistant to catastrophic fire, with more diverse vegetation and forest structure and increased water storage, mostly in the form of meadows in areas cleared by fires.

“When fire is not suppressed, you get all these benefits: increased stream flow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks,” said Gabrielle Boisramé, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study…

The next article covers a study into the fire behavior of this summer’s fires that spread through the footprints of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park.

…”Largely up until this point, fire has not necessarily carried well through the ’88 fire scars,” Yellowstone fire ecologist Becky Smith said. “I mean, it definitely has before, but it usually takes very specific conditions, like high winds or a very specific fuel bed. But this year, we’re definitely seeing it burn much more readily in the ’88 fire scars.”

The park has called in a special federal team that studies fire behavior to find out why.

“We’re trying to use it as a good learning opportunity to try and really narrow our focus on how and when the ’88 fire scars will burn,” Smith said. The 1988 wildfires burned 36 percent of the park.

It’s the first time Yellowstone has used the special team’s services, she said.

The 13-member team is studying two fires burning in the 1988 fire scar. It has deployed special heat-resistant equipment with sensors, cameras and other instruments to measure things like temperature and wind where the fires are burning…

Rainfall in western states slows wildfire season in many areas

Rainfall last 2 weeks washington oregon
Rainfall last 2 weeks, Washington and Oregon

Rainfall over the last two weeks has slowed or in some cases, ended the wildfire season in some areas.

On October 19 we ran the numbers for the accumulated precipitation for the last 14 days in the western states. These maps show amounts that exceeded 0.05 inches at some of the Interagency Remote Automatic Weather Stations (RAWS).

Washington, Oregon, and northern California have received a good soaking and I would imagine that local fire officials may be declaring an end to the fire season. Of course this is not unusual for these areas this time of the year, and some locations had already seen their season end. But what IS unusual, is the high amount of moisture that occurred in just two weeks.

You can click on the images to see larger versions.

Rainfall last 2 weeks, northern California
Rainfall last 2 weeks, northern California
Rainfall last 2 weeks central California
Rainfall last 2 weeks, central California

Continue to see maps for the other western states.
Continue reading “Rainfall in western states slows wildfire season in many areas”

Wildfire news, September 14, 2016

Highlights of recent news about wildland fire.

California has fewer inmates available for fighting wildfires

With fewer inmates available for fighting fires, the state of California is turning to civilian crews within their Conservation Corps.

From KCRA:

…But the number of available inmates is declining because counties now oversee most lower-level felons under a law aimed at easing prison overcrowding. In addition, there are fewer incentives for inmates to risk their lives since a federal court broadened an early release program for firefighters to include other inmates.

The state is about 600 inmates short of the 4,300 prisoners who could be available for fire lines. So this year, the California Conservation Corps reopened a camp to train three crews of young civilians to do the same backbreaking work as the inmates. Corps Director Bruce Saito expects to create at least four more fire crews with roughly 15 members each by next summer and a half-dozen new crews during each of the next two years.

The corps has more than 1,400 members, but fewer than 200 currently work alongside local, state and federal firefighters battling blazes in rural areas.

The members include both men and women and range in age from 18 to 25. They enlist for one year and earn the state’s minimum wage of $10 an hour. Military veterans can enroll until they turn 30…

Oregon sues 3 people responsible for starting the Ferguson Fire

Oregon hopes to recover $892,082 from three individuals who they say are responsible for starting the Ferguson Fire that burned 200 acres and destroyed two structures in Klamath County in July 2014.

The suit alleges that Joe Askins started a campfire, then took a nap. When he awoke, the campfire had escaped. Askins also said “I’ll take all the blame for the fire,” according to the lawsuit.

More evidence that beetle-killed forests do not increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

An article at News Deeply summarizes several research studies which mostly concluded that beetle-killed forests do not burn more severely than forests that have not been attacked by the insects. This is in spite of statements to the contrary by the Secretary of Agriculture, a spokesperson for CAL FIRE, and media stories about trees that are now part of a “tinder box”.

Air tanker 132 starts contract in Australia

air tanker 132 australia
Air Tanker 132 is reintroduced to the media in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Sgt. Brett Sherriff, Royal Australian Air Force.

Fire Aviation reports that Coulson’s Air Tanker 132 started its contract with New South Wales on September 6, helping to provide air support for wildland firefighters in Australia. This is the second year in a row that the L-382G, a variant of the C-130 platform, has worked down under during their summer bushfire season.

Cheyenne is concerned about the effects of the Snake Fire on their water system

“The location of the fire is close proximity to our major watershed collection area for the Hog Park Reservoir” said Dena Egenhoff, the Board of Public Utilities’ (BOPU) Water Conservation Manager. “We are unable to know the impact of the Snake Fire at this time, but the location suggests there may be some adverse impacts to the City of Cheyenne’s water collection system.” As of September 11, 2016, the Hog Park Reservoir is 91.8% full

For Cheyenne, BOPU collects water in the Little Snake River drainage from snow melt and streams and transports it under a mountain by a tunnel to the eastside of the Continental Divide. That water is then stored in Hog Park Reservoir. From there, the collected water from Hog Park Reservoir is traded for water in Rob Roy Reservoir which can more easily be transported without pumping to Cheyenne. “In this way, the amount of water can be exchanged between the two different Mountain Ranges with all water rights being satisfied,” said Dena Egenhoff.

The Snake fire is in south-central Wyoming just north of the Colorado border. It is 115 air miles miles west of Cheyenne, and 20 miles west of the 38,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire that has been burning in Colorado and Wyoming since July 19, 2016.