(Originally published at 9:12 p.m. PDT July 5, 2020)
The Soledad Fire spread quickly near Highway 14 and Agua Dulce Canyon Road east of Santa Clarita, California after it was reported at 3:28 p.m. PDT July 5. Helicopters and about half a dozen or so air tankers assisted firefighters until dark, after which night flying helicopters will likely continue to drop water. Some of the air tankers were reloading with retardant at Mojave Air and Space Port 40 miles to the northwest.
Evacuations are under way and Highway 14 is closed in both directions.
The 400 firefighters on the incident are under unified command with Los Angeles County and the U.S. Forest Service.
At 8:20 p.m. Sunday fire officials estimated the size at 1,100 acres. During the first few hours strong winds of 20-30 mph were pushing the fire, but later decreased in speed.
The Soledad Fire has been burning south of Highway 14 but threatens to cross the highway.
Rain fell shortly after the July 3 fireworks show at Mount Rushmore. The official Remote Area Weather Station at the Memorial recorded 0.17 inch between 10 p.m. and 12 p.m MDT. In less than an hour the relative humidity went from 44% to 86%. The rain was followed 24 hours later with another 0.03 inch at 11 p.m. MDT July 4.
“We had crews monitoring on the mountain last night and they are still working today,” a spokesperson for the Incident Management Team mobilized for the event, Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, said Saturday afternoon July 4. “There have been no reports of fires as of yet. We are continuing to monitor and will have more information soon. As you’re likely aware, there was a pretty significant rain event following the fireworks event.”
If any fires were started by burning embers from the explosions they likely would have grown very slowly in the sparse fuels remaining two months after the Memorial was treated with a prescribed fire. The rain falling within minutes after the program ended accompanied by very high humidity would have made it difficult for a new fire to grow or avoid extinction.
Putting even more carcinogens in the water. Studies from 2011 to 2015 by the USGS found 270 times more perchlorate in the water at Mount Rushmore than in the surrounding area and determined that it likely came from fireworks. The Centers for Disease Control says high levels of perchlorate can affect the thyroid gland, which in turn can alter the function of many organs in the body. The fetus and young children can be especially susceptible.
The trash can never be completely picked up. Left on the sculpture and in the forest are unexploded shells, wadding, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper; stuff that can never be totally removed in the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.
With a large fireworks show slated to be carried out this evening over the Mount Rushmore sculpture and the surrounding pine forest, I solicited a fire expert, a Fire Behavior Analyst, to develop a forecast to predict the danger presented by the burning embers that fall to the ground.
One of the primary reasons the fireworks at Mount Rushmore have not been displayed since 2009 is that during the 11 years they were used, between 20 and 27 fires were ignited. In 2000 one of the fires that started that night burned into the next day, grew to several acres, and required a 20-person crew and a helicopter to bring it under control. There were two injuries; one person had to take time off from work to recover.
During the early years of the events as the National Park Service Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore, I helped develop a Go/No-Go checklist of criteria that had to be acceptable to allow the shows to occur. It included items such as obtaining a Spot Weather Forecast from the National Weather Service, wind speed, qualifications of firefighting personnel, and the Probability of Ignition (PI or PIG). The PIG is the chance that a burning ember or firebrand will cause an ignition when it lands on receptive fuels. The beautiful fiery streaks you see after every explosion of fireworks contain hot embers, some of which after landing on the ground can start a fire.
I still have in my files a letter the NPS Midwest Regional Office sent to the staff at Mount Rushmore after the 17 fires in 2000. It directed that in the future the maximum allowable PI be reduced from 30 percent to “less than 10 percent.”
The NPS will not release this year’s Go/No-Go checklist or confirm if the PIG will be a evaluated, citing “security and safety concerns.”
Mike Beasely, a former wildland firefighter with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, is a trained and qualified Fire Behavior analyst. He is able to predict the spread of fires and is skilled in the science that influences how a fire burns.
Mike studied the weather conditions in the Mount Rushmore area and the weather recorded at a fire weather station at Mount Rushmore. Using algorithms and computer models, he predicts that if the fireworks begin at 9:15 to 9:30 as scheduled tonight, at that time the PIG will be 50 percent. In other words, about half the still burning embers created by the fireworks that hit the ground could ignite vegetation. Mike said that after 9:30 the PIG will drop throughout the night and would likely be 10 percent by 4 a.m. MDT on July 4.
One of the important factors to consider is the first ever broadcast prescribed fire that the NPS conducted at Mount Rushmore on April 29. The project reduced the amount of burnable vegetation on the forest floor, which decreased the amount of “receptive fuels” that could ignite if contacted by a burning ember. But depending on how deep the organic layer was before the prescribed fire, its moisture content, the residence time of the fire, needle cast in the last two months from the pine trees, and the fire’s intensity, it could be possible for fires to be ignited from the falling embers from the fireworks. If the burning embers fall in the footprint of the prescribed fire and ignite the remaining fuel, the resulting fire would likely burn slowly and at low intensity. In 2000 fires were ignited 1,200 to 1,300 feet north of the fireworks launch site.
Another caveat addressed by Mike: if prior to the fireworks a wetting rain occurs on Friday afternoon or evening, the one-hour time-lag fuel moisture resets to 30 percent and the fuel drying algorithm starts over, effectively making the PIG zero percent.
Uses weather record from Mt. Rushmore Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) #392603
Uses day time fuel moisture reference tables (Appendix B), rather than night time tables (Appendix A), per NWCG guidance, despite fireworks being slated for 9:15-9:30 MDT
Rain Caveat: If at any point prior to the fireworks, a wetting rain occurs, the 1-hr. TLFM resets to 30% and the fuel drying algorithm starts over, effectively making your PIG 0% (see Appendix D)
The Black Hills and specifically the area around Mt. Rushmore are experiencing an above average fire danger as shown in the following ERC charts for the northern and southern Black Hills.While, well below historic maxima, this is consistent with the Moderate Fire Danger rating for the peak of the burning period forecasted for July 3rd.Wildfire Today has reported on the Moderate Drought level for the region as assessed by the Drought Monitor.
The only two inputs for PIG are air temperature and 1-hr. time lag fuel moisture (TLFM).Both are highly variable with the daily diurnal cycle.The Mt. Rushmore RAWS data input daily has yielded the following fuel moistures predicted for mid-afternoon tomorrow immediately before the firework display.While not inputs for the PIG they are given as a general reference.
10-hr TLFM: 8%
100-hr TLFM: 9%
1000-hr TLFM: 12%
Recent Precipitation:The Mt. RushmoreRAWS received nearly eight tenths of an inch between June 28th and July 1st. That rain aided in the control of a nearby fire in Custer State Park, but there has been no subsequent precipitation.
There was precipitation around the Black Hills over the 24-hour period that ended at 10 a.m. MDT July 3, but it missed Mt. Rushmore.The NWS estimate below shows, over the past 24 hours scattered sites near Mt. Rushmore may have received as much as another half to three-quarter inches, but the gap shows over the Monument.
Below are the estimated temperature and relative humidity during the fireworks.Since we don’t have a site-specific weather forecast, we will use the more generalized NWS fire weather forecast and look at persistence over the past two dry evenings, understanding that the region is moving into a hotter, drier period.
From Bill: June 30 marked the seventh year since 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Words can’t express how meaningful that event was — and still is — to the firefighting community. Our hearts go out to the friends and family members of the 19 firefighters.
With a different perspective on the impacts, we have an article published on Devon Herrera’s blog Coffee With a Question. Much of it is in the words of Taylor Caldwell, the sister of one of the Hotshots, Robert Caldwell.
When I got a message from Taylor informing me she was ready to tell her story but needed help telling it, I was excited, then honored, then extremely intimidated, not only because I’d known and loved her brother since elementary school, but because the Yarnell fire that took 19 hotshots will forever be etched into Prescott’s history, and in our hearts.
“I just think it’s time,” she said. “The seven-year anniversary is coming up and I want to honor him.”
That’s right… seven years. I cannot believe it’s been seven years since the tragedy that would ultimately pull our community back together.
I told Taylor we would schedule a time to interview her, but she wanted to do things a little more unconventionally… I always admired her trailblazing spirit.
“So, I’ll probably talk your ear off for hours if we’re on the phone; do you think I can just record myself and send it to you?” she asked.
I’m all about collaborating in new ways, so of course, I didn’t think twice about it; this is Taylor’s story, after all, and I’m just privileged to be a vessel to share it with you.
So, without further ado…
“We called Robert, Buggy or Bug Man; he was born right outside of Pennsylvania on August 7th, 1989 – we were exactly 2.5 years apart and because of this, we always got a kick out of wishing each other a happy half birthday. My brother had the most infectious smile and laugh, which I can still hear to this day,” I watched her smile as she thought of it.
She explained how they would consider themselves best friends before siblings; that they did everything together.
“Robert helped our dad build a cabin out in Colorado when we were super young; he was always so good at putting things together… so active and wild, always living outside the lines. At a certain point, my dad took him bird hunting, then fly fishing just to try and keep him away from trouble. The attempt at sports was short lived… he was absolutely terrible… seriously, my dad tried to get him into everything, but he had about zero coordination.”
Our laughs hummed at the same time before I shared a story about Robert doing flips off the fence at our elementary school; he was always down for a dare. Oh, and yes, if you’re confused about how I’m chiming in now, we’ve incorporated an actual interview into this piece, to make sure we deliver the desired message.
Back to scheduled programming –
“You know something funny?” Taylor offered, “Robert had three dogs throughout his life, and he named each of them Hunter.”
“Easier to remember that way, I suppose. I’m sure more people wish it was that smooth when they transitioned relationships,” she raised her eyebrows as if to say, ‘you’re tellin’ me’ then repositioned her phone on the dining table.
“Something I don’t think a lot of people would know about my brother was his love of books. He was always, always reading. I actually have the book he was reading before he died… let me go grab it,” she got up and walked to her kitchen, coming back to show me a copy of ‘Scar Tissue’ by Anthony Kiedis – the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She told me he was a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, too; so much so that a lady in Maryland sent over an original copy of one of his books after he passed. It was called Farewell To Arms.”
“Maryland?” I asked…
“Yeah, my dad had a boat in Salisbury, Maryland and Robert would go live on it during the off season; he’d drive around town in my dad’s Porsche. I’m actually pretty surprised he didn’t total it, like this truck he and his friends flipped when they were 14. But again, as crazy as he was, and as much trouble as he caused, he cared so much about people. Oh, and he loved a theme party… any chance to dress up, he was in. It’s why we have our annual Bob-A-Palooza now… celebrating him just as he would want it.”
I smiled, recalling the time he helped me get ready at his house… I actually don’t even think we were going to a theme party, but he wanted me to dress up with him, so I did, and he even helped with my hair.
“As you could’ve guessed, Robert absolutely hated school. He had a mechanical mind so he wanted to be more hands on; he could fix just about anything which came in handy when the check engine light went off. So, I wasn’t surprised when he said he wanted to be a hotshot; he explained to me that he wanted to help people. He always wanted to help people… he had so much empathy. I remember when I came out as gay, Robert was my biggest advocate. He cried because he knew what a burden it must’ve been on me; he showered me with every bit of love, making sure I knew how much he supported me,” she fondly remembered while briefly looking down.
“Robert would always send me crazy pictures while he was out with his crew; pictures that didn’t even seem real, like the slurry bombers. He’d send me videos of him with the boys; they’d always play pranks and I could tell how deeply each of them loved each other. I also remember the picture he sent me of his burnt boots; it was the fire right before Yarnell. ‘T, look… I got so close, my boots melted,’ he wrote, and he truly wasn’t scared; he was more annoyed with the inconvenience of having to get new boots,” we both laughed again.
There is a chance that the wildfire danger on July 3 could cause the fireworks planned over Mount Rushmore National Memorial to be cancelled or postponed. But the National Park Service has refused to disclose how they will make their decision.
President Trump and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem have been advocating for fireworks over the sculpture since 2018. Fireworks were shot at the Memorial 11 times between 1998 and 2009, but were cancelled due to wildfire danger in 2002, 2010, and 2011 and have not been used since.
The President has said, referring to the fireworks,”what can burn? It’s stone.” The sculpture of course is stone, but it is on steep, rugged terrain surrounded by very flammable ponderosa pine trees adjacent to the Black Hills National Forest.
I was the Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore and six other National Park Service (NPS) sites from 1998 to 2003 during the first 4 of the 11 years when fireworks were used 1998 through 2009. My job during the events was to organize for and suppress the wildfires using the scores of firefighters we deployed on site.
My records show that in one two-year period, 2000 to 2001, 17 fires were started — 10 in 2000 and 7 in 2001. I don’t have fire occurrence records for the other nine years of fireworks were used.
In 2000 one of the fires burned through the night, grew to several acres, and required a 20-person crew and a helicopter to bring it under control the following day. There were two injuries; one person had to take time off from work to recover.
Several of the fires were more than 1,000 feet away from the launch site, far beyond the stone referenced by the President.
During the early years of the events I helped develop a Go/No-Go checklist of criteria that had to be acceptable to allow the show to occur. It included items such as obtaining a Spot Weather Forecast from the National Weather Service, wind speed, qualifications of firefighting personnel, and the Probability of Ignition (PI). The PI is the chance that a burning ember or firebrand will cause an ignition when it lands on receptive fuels. The beautiful fiery streaks you see after every explosion of fireworks contain hot embers, some of which after landing on the ground can start a fire.
I still have in my files a letter the NPS Midwest Regional Office sent to the staff at Mount Rushmore after the 17 fires in 2000 and the one that burned into the next day. It directed that in the future the maximum allowable PI be “less than 10 percent.”
I asked the NPS for a copy of the current Go/No-Go checklist and specifically the requirement this year for the PI. My questions were redirected to Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, the Information Officer on the Incident Management Team that has been assigned to Mount Rushmore to help manage the event. She replied:
The Go/No Go checklist is not publicly available at this time due to security and safety concerns.
Fire condition criteria, such as: the fire preparedness level; burning index; fuels and moisture conditions; wind and weather conditions are part of the assessment. Detailed information about specific trigger points will not be released due to security and safety concerns.
Some current and former NPS employees have concerns about the fireworks.
“I am appalled that fireworks are scheduled for Mt Rushmore, especially considering the high danger of wildfire,” said Valerie Naylor, a retired NPS Superintendent who lives near the memorial. “We determined a decade ago that the wildfire risk, fireworks debris, environmental contamination, and damage to the sculpture were unacceptable. The memorial’s own planning documents reflect that. Now there is the added risk and complexity of operating in a dangerous pandemic. Conducting an event like this is unnecessary and irresponsible and puts park staff and the public at high risk.”
Refusing to disclose the criteria that will determine if it is safe to explode fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest could lead a person to conclude that the National Park Service officials in South Dakota and Washington think they have something to hide. Is it actually a major security issue, or do they just want to conceal facts that could be politically embarrassing? The probability of ignition is not a political issue, it is science. A PI higher than 10 percent could put the public and the natural resources at risk.
The National Park Service needs to put on their big boy pants and be transparent about the fireworks.
The South Dakota Governor’s office should not be overlooked either. In the days leading up to the fireworks a wildfire broke out on state land six miles from Mount Rushmore. For years South Dakota state Incident Commanders and local public information personnel have been the primary distributors of information about developing fires being fought by state personnel. But they were gagged in this case, and the Governor’s office was the only official information source available, presumably because Governor Noem feared the occurrence of a fire near Mount Rushmore could affect the public perception of the wisdom of exploding fireworks over a forest 10 days later into the wildfire season. Even former Governor Bill Janklow, who was very, very hands on when fires were burning, did not attempt to control information about ongoing fires.
Today the Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center issued their National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for July through October.
In July and August above normal wildfire potential is predicted to grow west and north across northern California, the Great Basin and the Central Rockies then expand into the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies.
The data from NIFC shown here represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.
An excerpt from the NIFC narrative report for the next several months;
More of NIFC’s monthly graphical outlooks;
NOAA’s three-month temperature and precipitation forecasts;
Keetch-Byram Drought Index.
“Precipitation was below average in June across most of the country except across the Pacific Northwest where amounts were generally 150% of average or greater. Areas of concern emerged across California, the Great Basin, and Arizona where less than 5% of monthly precipitation was received. Temperatures were generally a few degrees above normal along the Pacific Coast and a few degrees below normal across the Interior West. In the East, temperatures were generally near normal in June.
“July is the entry point into the core of the Western Fire Season. As the season sequentially expands west and north across California, the Great Basin and the Central Rockies into the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, it will encounter areas of intensifying and expanding drought. This will lead to Above Normal significant large fire potential across large portions of the Great Basin and Northern California that will expand further north into the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies in August and September.
“The elevated potential in southwestern areas will begin to diminish with the arrival of the monsoon in early July. Activity will linger into mid-September in northern areas until the seasonal transition begins and begins to bring the season to a close. In Alaska, significant large fire activity will become less frequent in late July as returning moisture events gradually reduce the fire potential.”