Wildfire news, August 31, 2008

More about the fatal Boise fire

The local newspaper is providing more analysis of Tuesday’s fire in Boise that destroyed 10 houses, damaged many more and killed Mary Ellen Ryder.

As soon as the first houses caught on fire, the still-burning grasses were nearly irrelevant. From then on, the trees, shrubs and wooden roofs within the subdivisions became the fuels for the fire, and the wind direction and ability of the local firefighters to respond determined which houses would survive. 

The Oregon Trail Fire showed that in a dense urban-wildland interface, it may not be enough that a few individual homeowners do all the right fire-safe things. If one neighbor doesn’t, every home could be in danger.

A collaborative program called “firewise” and state and city codes have evolved in the years since a wildfire burned through Oakland, Calif., neighborhoods in 1991. The guidelines recommend residents remove fuel, such as dead grass, and other entry points, including cedar-shake roofs, that bring wildland fires into urban landscapes.

But the rules are voluntary, and if a few people decide not to participate, an entire subdivision can be threatened.

The above is from the Idaho Statesman

This is consistent with the Wildfire Today story from July 23:

Researchers determined that of the 199 homes destroyed in last October’s Grass Valley fire near Lake Arrowhead, California, only 6 of them were directly hit by the fire. The other 193 homes ignited and burned due to surface fire contacting the home, firebrands accumulating on the home, or an adjacent burning structure. The report, by Jack Coen and Richard Stratton, concludes:

In general, the home destruction resulted from residential fire characteristics. The ignition vulnerable homes burning in close proximity to one another continued the fire spread through the residential area without the wildfire as a factor. This implies that similar fire destruction might occur without a wildfire. A house fire at an upwind location at the same time and under the same conditions as the wildfire could have resulted in significant fire spread within the community. 

The complete report can be found HERE. Links to other reports by Jack Cohen on similar subjects are HERE.

BLM provides satellite phones to ranchers

In southwest Idaho there are large gaps in cell phone coverage, making it impossible to quickly report new lightning fires. The Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security are supplying satellite phones to some ranchers in very remote areas. Here is an excerpt from an AP article:

A year ago, however, wildfires blazed across 3,000 square miles of Idaho — an area three times the size of Rhode Island. 

It took three weeks to contain one of those wildfires, a lightning-caused complex of blazes that covered nearly 1,000 square miles, killing wildlife and livestock, blackening grazing ground and charring habitat for seasons to come for sensitive species such as sage grouse. It was the largest single fire ever fought by the BLM in Idaho. As the embers were barely cool, BLM managers and ranchers began discussions last fall about improving communication before the next conflagration.

For an initial agency investment of $10,000, the seven Iridium satellite phones seemed a reasonable bargain, said Janet Peterson, the BLM’s safety manager in Boise — especially considering that 1,000-square-mile complex alone cost more than $13 million to fight and will likely set taxpayers back $34 million more to restore the blackened landscape.

“The ranchers are a pretty key partner,” she said. “They know the country.”

Should one of Idaho’s cowboys spot a fire and place a call, firefighting planes could be scrambled out of the Boise Airport about 50 miles northeast of Silver City. The ranchers have been told to use the phones in medical emergencies, too. The state’s disaster agency, the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, is chipping in for the service costs.

“If you see a fire and have no connectivity, you can’t tell anybody,” said Col. Bill Shawver, the agency’s director. “To have a satellite phone with you, you can make that immediate call and get firefighters mobilized.”

The phones were distributed to ranchers based on where they run their cattle and the existing grid of cell phone service. Cowboys call in once a month, to make sure the phones are working.

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