Wildfire briefing, December 4, 2014

Fires in U.S. and Australia determined to be caused by power lines

Map of Pfeiffer Fire

Map of Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California, looking northwest, showing the fire perimeter at 10:34 p.m. PST, December 18, 2013. (Click to enlarge)

Two fires, in Western Australia and California, have recently been determined to be caused by electrical power lines.

The Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California started on December 16, 2013 and burned 34 homes and 917 acres in the coastal community 23 miles south of Monterey. The U.S. Forest Service reported on Wednesday:

The cause of the fire was determined to be high resistance heating of the Pfeiffer Ridge Mutual Water Company electrical control wires immediately adjacent to a steel water pipe line. The high resistance heating of the electrical control wires created a competent ignition source for this fire. The first fuel ignited was accumulated dried leaves and redwood needles.

The other fire was in Western Australia. Below is an excerpt from an article in Western Australia Today:

A rotted power pole infested with termites has been blamed for the Parkerville bushfire which destroyed more than 40 homes this year. But EnergySafety director Ken Bowron said the organisation would not take action against Western Power or the landowner.

The EnergySafety report into the cause of the fire on January 12 was released on Thursday and found the bushfire originated from a private pole at 180 Granite Road, Parkerville.

“There was no evidence to suggest the work performed by Western Power to replace the surface aerial seven months before the incident, or the work to replace the adjacent pole two day before the bushfires, causes the PA pole to fail,” Mr Bowron said.

“Based on the available evidence and legal advice, EnergySafety will not be taking any legal action against any party. The clear finding of the report is that the pole failed because it was rotten and had been infested by termites.

Hearing in Prescott on Granite Mountain Hotshots’ retroactive retirement benefits

From the Daily Courier in Prescott, Arizona:

Now nearly a year and a half after 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire, the matter of retroactive retirement benefits continues to play out at Prescott City Hall.

With its earlier decision granting retirement benefits to the family of fallen Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft still under appeal, the local fire retirement board will take on two new retirement cases today.

During a 9 a.m. Thursday hearing at Prescott City Hall, the Prescott Board of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board will turn to the retirement claims by the families of Sean Misner and William Warneke, and whether the scope of the actual hearings on the claims should be limited…

Tree ring researcher at the University of Arizona honored

Thomas Swetnam

Thomas W. Swetnam with tree-ring specimens in the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. (Photo courtesy of Michaela Kane/Arizona Daily Wildcat)

Thomas W. Swetnam, Regents’ Professor of dendrochronology and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society.

As part of the Section on Geology and Geography, Swetnam was elected as an AAAS Fellow for his investigations of tree rings as a record of past changes in climate, allowing scientists to predict future forest-fire frequencies in the Southwest.

Mr. Swetnam specializes in analyzing climate changes through history and prehistory, dangerous insect outbreaks and forest fires. In recent years, enormous blazes, some 10 times greater than those that firefighters have been accustomed to seeing in California and Arizona, have forced scholars to attempt to understand this phenomenon. The conclusions from Swetnam’s studies of these so-called megafires and their alarming size, duration and frequency have made the scientific community, governments throughout the world and media to pay close attention. Swetnam has appeared on programs such as PBS’ “NewsHour” and CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

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Additional photos emerge of Yarnell Hill Fire

Yarnell Hill Fire

Yarnell Hill Fire at 8:16 p.m. June 29, 2013, as seen from Yarnell, Arizona. The photographer wishes to remain anonymous.

We received some photos today of the Yarnell Hill Fire that we had not previously seen. Most of them are snapshots of smoke coming up from behind a ridge or distant air tankers in the sky, but one of them captured our interest, the image above. It does not generate much new information, but it appears to show that when it was taken, at 8:16 p.m. on June 29, 2013 (according to the time stamp on the file), 27 hours after the fire started, it was still not a large fire. This photo is consistent with the photo below taken at 7:30 p.m. on June 29, 2013 which has been public since last year.

Yarnell Hill Fire at 7:30 p.m. MST, June 29, 2013, approximately 21 hours before the 19 fatalities. Photo by ATGS Rory Collins, Oregon Department of Forestry.

Yarnell Hill Fire at 7:30 p.m. MST, June 29, 2013, approximately 21 hours before the 19 fatalities. Photo by ATGS Rory Collins, Oregon Department of Forestry.

According to information released by the Arizona State Forestry Division on July 16, 2013, on the second day of the fire at 5:30 p.m. on June 29 there were 13 firefighters working on the fire and it had burned six acres. By the afternoon of day three of the fire, June 30, it had grown to be much, much larger than it had been the evening before. At 4:47 p.m. that day the incident commander and the Arizona Dispatch Center received notice from Air Attack that firefighters had deployed fire shelters. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of them, died in the fire when a predicted wind shift changed the direction of the spread of the fire and entrapped the firefighters. The intensity of the fire exceeded the protection capabilities of the shelters.

On September 28, 2013 when the ASFD released their Serious Accident Investigation report on the fatalities, we wrote this about the lack of aggressive suppression action on the fire:

The ordering and use of ground and aerial firefighting resources was less than aggressive on June 29, the day before the tragedy when the fire was still small. The only air tankers used that day were two single engine air tankers, and for only part of the day, dropping a total of 7,626 gallons. After being released, they were requested again by Air Attack, but dispatch only allowed one to respond to the fire, wanting to keep one in reserve in case there were other fires.

General Norman Schwarzkopf’s philosophy when confronting the enemy was to use “overwhelming force”. This strategy also is effective when confronting a wildfire. Overwhelming force for a short amount of time can prevent megafires burning for weeks, consuming many acres, dollars, and sometimes homes and lives.

The bottom line: Being timid or TOO cost-conscious during initial attack or the first burning period of a fire can be far more expensive in dollars and in the worst case, lives.

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NY Times and NBC report on Yarnell Hill Fire videos

Major media outlets are reporting on the release of the 21 videos (that we wrote about on November 8) filmed at the the Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30, 2013, the day 19 firefighters were killed on the fire. The New York Times posted one of the videos, along with an article written by Fernanda Santos.

NBC news produced their own video (above) that contained clips from several of the firefighter-filmed videos, and added subtitles in an attempt to better understand some of the overheard conversations among the firefighters.

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Yarnell Hill Fire videos released

The Arizona State Forestry Division (ASFC) has posted on YouTube 21 videos recorded during the Yarnell Hill Fire The state received them on November 7, 2014 through a Freedom of Information Act request to the US Forest Service. The ASFD explained that “the videos are presented exactly as they have been received. The redactions were done before these videos came into the possession of Arizona State Forestry.”

On June 30, 2013 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots became entrapped by fire and died on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.

In portions of some of the videos, you can hear and at times understand radio conversations and firefighters near the cameras.

Below are links to the videos in the order that they were listed on the ASFD website. We embedded seven of them below the links with the corresponding video number. Like the ASFD said, the USFS provided absolutely no information about the videos, but they appear to be roughly in chronological order — this is not yet confirmed, however.

0630131532
0630131533
0630131534
M2U00261
M2U00262
M2U00263
M2U00264
M2U00265 We posted a version of this video on YouTube on December 13, 2013,  but this one is higher quality and is about twice as long as the earlier edition. You can hear the radio traffic from the Granite Mountain Hotshots saying they are deploying their fire shelters.

M2U00266R — Firefighters discussing the radio traffic they heard earlier about the Granite Mountain Hotshots deploying fire shelters.

M2U00267 — Firefighters in an urban-interface area with scattered active fire. At 1:21 you can see what appears to be a propane tank venting, with the escaping gas burning.

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Yarnell Hill Fire survivor pushes for creation of a “healing center”

Biden, Brendan McDonough, Janice Brewer

Brendan McDonough, Yarnell Hill Fire survivor, speaks in Prescott, Arizona at the July 9, 2013 memorial service for the 19 firefighters that died on the fire. Vice President Joe Biden and Arizona Governor Janice Brewer are on the left and right, respectively. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Brendan McDonough watched from a distance as the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots became entrapped and died June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Now, according to an article in the USA Today, he still struggles with stress-related problems. No longer a firefighter but working for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, he wants to “create a non-profit organization to fulfill a dream of building a “healing center” in Prescott where first-responders, including troubled wildfire crews and their families, can seek treatment.”

The article’s main focus is a topic that rarely gets discussed in the world of wildland fire — the day to day psychological strains that firefighters face which are similar to those experienced by warfighters. The military has a highly developed program for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the land management agencies, with a primary focus of growing trees, cleaning campgrounds, and managing visitors and non-native plants, have done little, effectively, to deal with a shocking suicide rate, for example.

The excellent article gives several examples of how stress is negatively affecting some of our firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…Wildland Firefighter Foundation Executive Director Vicki Minor — Burk Minor’s mother — estimates that as many as one in four such firefighters struggle with emotional trauma.

She says her organization counted six firefighter suicides during 2013. If accurate, it suggests a rough suicide rate of 17 per 100,000, far higher than the national average and similar to the pace of these deaths in the military.

“Our government, our fire officials, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, they’re really good at taking care of the land and they know how to fight fire,” Vicki Minor says. “They don’t know how to take care of their people.”

Federal workers get free visits to a contracted private counselor, but many firefighters complain these providers are not schooled in PTSD treatment, Vicki Minor says. “I’ve had several of these men say that they had to pay for a therapist out of their own pocket,” she says.

The Forest Service recently published pocket-sized pamphlets with tips on traumatic stress and resilience. But the guides offer nothing about where to seek help if necessary, except to cite websites from the Department of Veterans Affairs and private suicide support groups.

Forest Service Fire Management Director Harbour says the deaths of the 19 Prescott firefighters were a wake-up call on the emotional stress firefighters may incur. “How do we deal with what we carry after we go through a traumatic incident?” he asks.

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

The land management agencies should consider developing an experimental program with the Department of Veterans Affairs that would take advantage of their existing PTSD treatment facilities, such as the one at the VA Hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, the “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Residential Rehabilitation Program”. Send a few firefighters with PTSD symptoms to a facility such as this and then evaluate the possible benefits.

Yarnell Hill Fire Honor Escort

On July 7, 2013, 19 hearses carried the remains of the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kelly.

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Remembering the Granite Mountain Hotshots

Granite Mountain Hotshots

Today marks a year since all but one of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, June 30, 2013. A great deal of controversy still surrounds the incident, and the first two lawsuits were filed last week. But today I hope we can put those things aside and simply honor those 19 firefighters.

The media likes to call hotshot crews “elite”, and it is true — they are the best of the best. They are highly trained, extraordinarily physically fit professional firefighters, and excel as working as a team. That made it all the more shocking that they were suddenly taken from us.

Today let us grieve, again, for the loss. Our loss, their friends’ loss, and most of all the loss that their families will feel every day for the rest of their lives. Let us thank those 19 for their service, and pause for a few moments to honor their memory.

Granite Mountain Hotshots

Nineteen white hearses brought the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona, July 7, 2013, An Honor Guard escort accompanied each Hotshot. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thousands of mourners said goodbye to the Granite Mountain Hotshots

Thousands of mourners said goodbye to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, June 9, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

19 Granite Mountain Hotshots

 

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