Wildfire news, August 14, 2008

The wildland fire use debate

There has been a lot of discussion in the media in the last few weeks about total suppression of fires vs. “wildland fire use”, which is less than full suppression. On July 9 the U.S. Forest Service’s Regional Forester in California decided that there would be no more fire use fires on national forests in the state this year. Since the deaths of 9 firefighters in a remote area of a fire in northern California, some people are wondering if all fires need a major commitment of firefighters. Here is an excerpt of an article on the subject from the Mail Tribune in Oregon.

Concerns about smoke buildup in Northern California led to the decision that sent wildland firefighters into the Trinity Alps Wilderness, where seven Southern Oregon men died in a helicopter crash Aug. 5. 

Firefighters went into the wilderness after a regional forester decided to suppress all fires that were burning, including those in remote areas where lives and property were not at risk. Fire managers also were worried that the Buckhorn fire could close the highway linking Redding to the coast, said Mike Odle, a spokesman for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

“Smoke was a huge issue,” Odle said, noting that air quality in the region was poor or unhealthy during 24 of July’s 31 days. Some of that smoke drifted north across the Siskiyou Mountains and settled around Medford and across the Rogue Valley, prompting air pollution alerts here, too.

The deaths have drawn attention to U.S. Forest Service policies for fighting fires in backcountry areas where human lives and property are not an issue. Forest managers say they have an elaborate set of policies and plans for managing fires as they emerge. Critics say they are too quick to go into all-out suppression mode, putting lives at risk and creating excessive resource damage.

Fire Use fire in Arkansas–out

The Hawk’s Overlook fire use fire southeast of Mena, Arkansas, started by lightning a week ago, was put out by 10 inches of rain over the last few days. It burned 52 acres, including 12 acres of private land.

The Father of Fire Behavior

Richard Rothermel performed much of the pioneering research into wildland fire behavior. The AP has an interesting article about him and how he did some of his research during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park.

“I remember talking to some of the guys I was with and saying we really need a way of understanding these crown fire behaviors so we can get some kind of handle on what they’re going to do,” said Rothermel, now retired and living in Missoula. 

The model he developed was an attempt to forecast a fire’s mood swings at the landscape level — offering clues, for example, about when a fire will explode up a mountain valley or how long it will take to reach a residential subdivision.

Residential fire insurance

Some insurance companies have stopped insuring homes in high fire risk areas. Others are requiring 1,000′ clearance from brush. From the Wall Street Journal:

Daniel Sparks, a 29-year-old investment manager, bought a home last July in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood of San Diego, where thousands of houses burned down in October 2003. He had to scramble to find coverage, saying his old insurer, Mercury Insurance Group of Mercury General Corp., refused to issue a new policy. 

“I tried to use the same insurance provider, and he would not cover my new house,” Mr. Sparks says. “They said [his property] had to be 1,000 feet away from brush.” Since his lot abuts a Marine air base, he can’t clear it because it’s government property, he says. (A spokesman for Mercury said its clearance requirement for the area isn’t new.) Mr. Sparks finally found insurance from another company.

Analysis of the Seige of ’88

Jim Wallmann posted a detailed analysis on MyFireCommunity of the weather that led to the lightning bust in northern California. This LINK leads to a page where you can download the PowerPoint presentation. You don’t need a password.

New publications about High Reliability Organizations

The Lessons Learned Center has three new publications about HRO:

  • Fire Management Today – Managing the Unexpected – Spring 2008
  • High Reliability Organizing Implementation at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks – HRO Case Study
  • Tracking and Responding to Small Errors in High Risk Environments – HRO Story

Thanks to Chuck and FireNet for tips.

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