National MAC Group encourages use of Area Command Teams

Some members of the teams may lose currency due to a lack of assignments

Total wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018The use of Area Command Teams has been declining in recent years in spite of the trend of more acres burned nationwide and increasing average size.

In two of the last three years, 2016 and 2018, there were no assignments for Area Command Teams. In 2017 there were a total of five: Joe Stutler-2, Tim Sexton-1, and Rowdy Muir-2.  The number of ACTs was reduced from four to three in 2015.

The National Multiagency Coordinating Group (NMAC) which manages the ACTs, is concerned that if the teams do not receive assignments some individuals on the teams may lose currency in 2020.

Below is an excerpt from a letter sent by the NMAC on May 17, 2019 to Federal and State Agency Administrators:

NMAC is requesting your support with maintaining currency of the three federally sponsored Area Command Teams (ACT). These teams are a valuable part of our large fire management organization and have been underutilized during some of our most complex incident management situations.

Currently, within federal agencies (excluding Coast Guard), there are only three fully qualified Area Commanders (ACDRs) in the system. While the Area Command course, S-620 has been delivered this year, the lack of assignments may cause loss of currency of the ACTs in 2020.

ACTs provide strategic leadership to large theaters of operation while significantly reducing the workload for agency administrators and fire management staff. Common roles of ACTs typically include facilitating Incident Management Team (IMT) transitions, in-briefings, and closeouts. Additionally, ACTs coordinate with agency administrators, fire staffs, geographic areas, and MAC groups on complexity analysis, implementation of objectives and strategies, setting priorities for the allocation of critical resources, and facilitating the effective use of resources within the area.

We are concerned perceptions exist that ACTs can be barriers to direct communications between agencies and IMTs. As agency administrator, through your delegation of authority communicating your expectations to ACDRs, you have the opportunity to determine the role in which ACTs can best serve your needs. ACTs are committed to ensuring enhanced communications between agency administrators, fire managers, and IMTs.

NMAC request the support of agency administrators to exercise current ACTs in 2019 if and when appropriate.

It is surprising how many large complex incidents do not get a chance to benefit from the help that an ACT can provide. Even in 2016 when there were many large fires burning in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina at the same time, no ACTs were mobilized. You might wonder if any of the fires, including the one that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, would have turned out differently if there had been a group of highly skilled personnel looking at the big picture, helping to obtain resources, analyzing the weather forecast, and utilizing short and long range fire behavior predictions.

An ACT may be used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.

National ACTs are comprised of the following:

  • Area Commander (ACDR);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Planning (AAPC);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Logistics (AALC);
  • Area Command Aviation Coordinator (ACAC); and
  • Two trainees.

They usually have an additional 2 to 15 specialists, including Fire Information, Situation Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and sometimes others such as Safety, Long Term Planning, or assistants in Planning, Logistics, or Aviation.

Average Wildland Fire Size, United States, 1985-2018
Average Wildland Fire Size, United States, 1985-2018.

Researchers document the effect of pre-fire mitigation on structure losses during 2017 Thomas Fire

Two decades of work in Montecito, California had a positive effect during the fire

Montecito, CA five-mile border with Los Padres National Forest
The northern edge of Montecito, CA shares a five-mile border with the Los Padres National Forest. Looking north. Google Earth/Wildfire Today. Click to enlarge.

In December, 2017 the Thomas Fire burned over 281,000 acres and 1,000 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in Southern California. But in Montecito, with a wildland-urban interface stretching for five miles along the Los Padres National Forest boundary, only seven primary residences were destroyed. Considered a success story, this result is due to many factors, including the fact that homeowners and firefighters had days to prepare for the fire entering the city, which meant that firefighters did not have to make a choice between helping residents to evacuate or protecting homes. This is in stark contrast to last November’s Camp Fire that raced into Paradise, California within a couple of hours after being ignited by a PG&E power line. In that case firefighters did not have the luxury of suppressing the fire as it burned homes; they had to concentrate on helping residents evacuate and saving lives.

But another important factor that helped to reduce the number of homes destroyed in Montecito in 2017 was the pre-fire mitigation work that had been ongoing in the community for two decades.

After the fire the Montecito Fire Protection District sought to document and understand the confluence of social, ecological, and biophysical factors associated with implementing fire adaptation activities and how they affected the outcome of the Thomas Fire in their community.

The findings in this study should be considered by all communities in a fire-prone environment. Cities that resist mitigation efforts such as constructing fuel breaks, enacting FireWise building codes, spacing homes more than 10 to 20 feet apart, planning for evacuations, and being proactive in protecting their residents long before smoke is in the air, are doomed to a very unpleasant and rude awakening one day. It is not IF a fire will impact their community, it is WHEN.

Below are excerpts from the Montecito study, conducted by Crystal A. Kolden and Carol Henson. The entire report is open source.


Montecito wildfire vulnerability to fire embers
The Montecito Community Wildfire Protection Plan used fire modeling to geospatially characterize ember exposure and defensibility across the community with respect to structures, in order to prioritize key areas for future vulnerability reduction activities. (From the report)

…Here, we document both the social and the biophysical vulnerability reduction strategies taken by the community of Montecito, California in Santa Barbara County, USA, prior to the 2017 Thomas Fire, and how those strategies translated into outcomes. Montecito is one of the many communities in the United States that has been repeatedly exposed to wildfires over the last several decades, with multiple disastrous events . As such, the Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD) embarked on an effort to reduce wildfire vulnerability in the community two decades ago. That effort was subsequently tested in the December 2017 Thomas Fire, which consumed over 1000 homes and became the largest wildfire in contemporary California history for several months until it was surpassed in 2018. Most of the homes were consumed at the outset of the Thomas Fire on days when strong downslope winds (i.e., Santa Ana and Sundowner winds) prevailed, and extreme fire behavior including long runs and long-range spotting, occurred, overwhelming fire suppression efforts. By contrast, Montecito experienced relatively little infrastructure damage from the Thomas Fire, despite similar conditions, including extreme fire behavior and the presence of Sundowner winds on the day the fire beset the community (16 December 2018).

Montecito Fire Protection District fuel treatment network
Montecito Fire Protection District fuel treatment network, homeowner defensible space, and locations of residences (both primary homes and guest houses) destroyed by the Thomas Fire in Montecito.

Over the 20-year period between 1999 and 2018, the MFPD expended approximately $1.76 million (mill) USD ($2 mill USD adjusted for inflation to 2018) on wildfire vulnerability reduction activities (Figure 2). We include 2018 here as these are fiscal year totals, where the fiscal year ends June 30 of the year listed, so the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) expenditures were primarily expended in autumn 2017, prior to the December ignition of the Thomas Fire (this also contributes to reduced FY2018 expenditures relative to prior years). When adjusted for inflation, it is clear that funding was inter-annually variable, but generally increasing over time (Figure 2).

Most of the activities undertaken by MFPD addressed more than one component of the vulnerability triangle (i.e., exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity).

  • Any action that specifically identified geospatial patterns of exposure to wildfire (e.g., defensible space surveys), or was designed to reduce direct exposure to wildfire (e.g., defensible space improvements, roadside fuel reduction) addressed exposure vulnerability.
  • Any action that specifically identified populations in the community that are more sensitive to the negative ramifications of wildfire and determined population-specific actions designed to mitigate those ramifications addressed sensitivity vulnerability.
  • Any action that increased the ability of the community to respond to wildfire and reduce the negative ramifications developed adaptive capacity.

An action such as hiring a Wildland Fire Specialist, whose primary position is to build relationships with community members and facilitate programs to reduce vulnerability, addressed all three components of vulnerability.

Evacuation and ingress/egress issues were key elements of two other activities undertaken by MFPD prior to 2017.

First, MFPD improved ingress/egress and evacuation and fire suppression effectiveness by delineating pre-attack zones across the community in their wildland fire initial attack plan. MFPD utilized these pre-attack zones (which are essentially sub-units of the community that were delineated prior to firefighters attacking a future, hypothetical wildfire) in their community education efforts, planning process, and printed high-resolution paper maps of each zone that were pre-packed in a portable file box for distribution to non-MFPD fire suppression resources in the event of a wildfire. Nine of the interviewees noted the utility of these maps in facilitating greater life safety for firefighters and increased suppression effectiveness, because the maps were able to help resources not familiar with the area to navigate the community safely and quickly and find the pre-designated water sources and equipment staging areas in Montecito, which were also marked on the map.

Second, while MFPD implemented several new fire codes focused specifically on structures (e.g., banning cedar shakes for roofing and siding, requiring boxed eaves), a new requirement for wider driveways focused on reducing exposure through improved evacuation, and increasing adaptive capacity by facilitating firefighter safety during fire suppression activities and post-fire clean up. In Montecito, as in many WUI communities, many of the homes are located at the end of long (>100 m), narrow, winding driveways that terminate at garages. Increasing driveway width and turnaround space supports larger fire apparatus and other large equipment allowed firefighters access these areas, and safely use a tactic referred to as “fire following.” Fire following is frequently used during extreme conditions, wherein firefighters (1) prepare homes to resist an oncoming wildfire, (2) retreat from the home or neighborhood when extreme fire behavior and direct flames from the fire front threaten their life safety, and then (3) “follow” behind the flaming front and re-engage with the home or in the neighborhood. During this re-engagement, they focus on extinguishing portions of the structure that are on fire, extinguishing spot fires on the property, remove flaming debris from structures (e.g., flaming palm fronds on the roof or deck), and wetting down vegetation if there are additional threats for re-ignition (e.g., additional spot fires). Fire following depends on firefighters being able to safely navigate to a home and turn around so that they can evacuate rapidly if needed; driveway design is paramount to this dependency.

The effectiveness of fire suppression efforts was directly supported by the pre-fire vulnerability reduction efforts undertaken by MFPD. Interviewees noted that they were able to use fire following tactics because homes were fire-resistant, giving firefighters time to engage and remove flammable debris before a structure became fully involved with fire. Firefighters also described being able to engage because most homes had sufficient defensible space to make it safe for them to do so, without fear of entrapment. This was of particular concern due to entrapment of firefighters that occurred on the nearby Jesusita Fire in 2009, which was associated with lack of defensible space and evacuation routes.

Interviewees also noted that suppression effectiveness was amplified by the reduction of roadside fuels, which allowed them to conduct backfiring operations along some parts of the road system and hold the fire along other segments. Interviewees described the difference between other portions of the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County, where heavy roadside vegetation created a “tunnel effect” that inhibited large fire apparatus passage (leading to over a dozen homes destroyed in one nearby canyon), and Montecito, where roadside clearance eliminated vegetation tunnels and facilitated two large city fire apparatus being able to pass each other on narrow roads. Videos taken by some interviewees further demonstrated how such clearance improved firefighter safety given the low visibility created by heavy smoke. Several firefighter fatalities in the US have been attributed to exiting the roadway due to lack of visibility in smoky conditions.

Both defensible space and roadside fuel treatments were supplemented by the community fuel treatments implemented by MFPD, which served to “link” together with the fuel reductions undertaken by residents and along roadways. All but one interviewee described this network of fuels reduction as being vital to effective suppression efforts and structure protection, specifically because it allowed firefighters to engage the fire safely. Of the seven primary residences destroyed in Montecito, two were located below a ‘gap’ in the fuel treatment network, and the loss of the remaining dwellings was primarily attributed to the presence of fuels immediately adjacent to the structure, and inaccessibility for firefighters to support the fire following tactic. These losses were attributed to fire exposure that was not mitigated.

Resilience of Yellowstone’s forests tested by unprecedented fire

In 2016 some areas in Yellowstone National Park that burned in the 1988 fires unexpectedly burned again, and with surprising intensity

Maple Fire burns at Yellowstone National Park
The Maple Fire burns at Yellowstone National Park in 2016. The fire affected forests recovering from the park’s historic 1988 fires. PHOTO: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE / JENNIFER JERRETT

By Kelly April Tyrrell, University of Wisconsin

In August 2016, areas of Yellowstone National Park that burned in 1988 burned again. Shortly after, in October 2016, ecologist Monica Turner and her team of graduate students visited the park to begin to assess the landscape.

“We saw these areas where everything was combusted and we hadn’t seen that previously,” says Turner, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has closely studied Yellowstone’s response to fire since 1988. “That was surprising.”

In a study published this week [May 20, 2019] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turner and her team describe what happens when Yellowstone —  adapted to recurring fires every 100 to 300 years — instead burns twice in fewer than 30 years. Yellowstone as we know it faces an uncertain future, the researchers say, and one of the big questions they hope to answer is whether the forests can recover.

yellowstone fires reburn
The pile of rocks with the nail in the middle signifies a long-term study plot Monica Turner and her research group established at Yellowstone National Park in 1990 following the park’s historic 1988 fires. This same plot burned again in 2016. Historically, fires burn in Yellowstone only every 100 to 300 years. PHOTO BY: MONICA TURNER

With Rapid Response Research funding from the National Science Foundation, Turner and her team returned to Yellowstone in the summer of 2017 to study the areas that re-burned. These include the Maple Fire, which burned 28-year-old lodgepole pines that regenerated following the 1988 North Fork Fire, and the Berry Fire, which contained 28-year-old lodgepole pines that had regenerated after the 1988 Huck Fire and 16-year-old trees that regenerated following the 2000 Glade Fire.

In each area, they compared to areas that burned in 1988 or 2000 but did not burn again in 2016.

Continue reading “Resilience of Yellowstone’s forests tested by unprecedented fire”

The town of High Level, Alberta is being evacuated

The entire community is under an evacuation order due to the approaching Chuckegg Creek Fire.

evacuation plan map High Level, Alberta
Map for the evacuation plan for the town of High Level, Alberta. Evacuations will be carried out by zones, within town limits.

The town is in the northern portion of Alberta and had a population of 3,159 in 2016.

(To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Chuckegg Fire, including the most recent, click here.)

An area north of the town of High Level is under a voluntary evacuation notice.

Map Chuckegg Creek HWF042 wildfire
Map of the Chuckegg Creek HWF042 wildfire southwest of High Level, Alberta at 3:12 p.m. CDT May 20, 2019. Click to enlarge.

Some of the homes in High Level are very close together which will make it difficult for firefighters to defend the structures if the fire enters the community pushed by a strong wind.

Homes in community threatened by wildfire in Alberta are dangerously close together

In some areas the homes in High Level, Alberta are closer than the homes were in Paradise, California before the Camp Fire of November, 2018.

housing density High Level, Alberta Chuckegg Creek Fire
Satellite photo showing housing density in High Level, Alberta, which is threatened by the Chuckegg Creek fire. Note the graphic scale at bottom-left. The spacing between some of the homes is about 10 feet. Photo from Google Earth dated Sept. 19, 2019. Click to enlarge.

The entire town of High Level, Alberta is being evacuated today, May 20, 2019. If the Chuckegg Creek Fire burns close to or into the town while pushed by a strong wind, it could be a repeat of the nightmare scenario we saw last November in Paradise, California when the Camp Fire spread from house to house.

Map of the Chuckegg Creek HWF042 wildfire
Map of the Chuckegg Creek HWF042 wildfire southwest of High Level, Alberta at 5:18 a.m. CDT May 20, 2019.

Monday at 3:12 p.m. MDT the Chuckegg Fire was about four miles southwest of High Level. Moderate or strong winds are expected to push the head of the fire toward the northwest  this week, but spread on the flanks will most likely cause it to move closer to the town at the same time. By the weekend the forecast calls for winds out of the west that would seriously increase the threat to the town unless the 64 firefighters assigned on the 170,000-acre fire can perform heroic measures to stop the fire in that area.

(To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Chuckegg Fire, including the most recent, click here.)

In some neighborhoods in Paradise last Fall the homes were about 18 to 20 feet apart according to the measurements we took using Google Earth. In High Level, that separation distance is about half that — in some areas the homes are about 10 feet apart.

When one structure is ignited by a burning ember that may have traveled a quarter of a mile or more from a fire (or a burning home) the radiant heat alone can ignite the homes on both sides. Then you can have a self-powered conflagration spreading house to house through a city. When the structures are that close together, the homeowners have not reduced the fuel in the Home Ignition Zone, and the home itself is not built to FireWise standards, a massive disaster can be the result. A strong wind exacerbates the problem. In Paradise the wind kept much of the heat and the embers close to the ground, preheating fuels ahead. The canopies of some of the trees survived, but virtually nothing near the ground remained unburned.

Iron 44 tragedy — former VP of Carson helicopters disputes restitution ordered

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 helicopter crash

Carson helicoptersThe former Vice President of Carson Helicopters is disputing a court order to pay $51 million in restitution related to his role in falsifying documents prior to the crash of a helicopter on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 but he now claims he was not aware of the requirement to pay restitution.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune:

[Metheny] says he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty had he known he’d have to pay a restitution of more than $51 million, according to documents filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Medford.

Metheny claims that his defense lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t have to pay any damages because by June 2013, Carson’s contract “was canceled and never re-bid” and “the resultant cost and subsequent loss would equal zero dollars,” according to an affidavit Metheny typed from Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc and filed in court May 7.

Metheny claims he was “repeatedly promised” ahead of his sentencing that the loss amount would be “zero dollars.”

Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire in 2008. Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

More information about the fraud and the sentencing hearing of Metheny and Phillips.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.