Wildfire news, November 18, 2008

Update on southern California fires

Most of the 50,000 evacuees have been able to return to their homes in the areas burned by the three huge fires. Thanks to diminishing winds, and extraordinary efforts by firefighters, the spread of the fires has been slowed and containment percentages are increasing. However record high temperatures and single-digit humidities are kept the fires alive over the last couple of days. But conditions will moderate today thanks to a weak on-shore breeze.

As far as we know there have been no deaths or major injuries in any of the fires, but six firefighters were injured on the Freeway fire and 5 were injured on the Sayre fire.



Kazaam, a Los Angeles search dog, rests after examining the destruction at the Oakridge mobile home community.

Residents of the Oak Ridge mobile home park, where almost 500 homes burned, were bused into the park yesterday to get their first looks at the devastation. The buses made brief stops so residents whose homes were still intact could collect medication or other essential items before returning to an evacuation center at Sylmar High School. The residents were not allowed to sift through the ruins of the burned homes because the cadaver-sniffing dogs were still searching the area to make sure no one had died in the fire. The fire destroyed 484 of their homes in the park but firefighters were able to save 120.

Though only about 360 of the park’s estimated 1,700 residents have so far come forward, authorities say they had no reason to believe anyone died. Search crews have scoured the wreckage with cadaver dogs in the last two days but found no bodies.

The Sayre fire has burned 11,207 acres and is 64% contained. It is still active on the northeast perimeter south of Placerita Canyon. The fire is creeping down slope with upslope runs in some of the canyons.


This fire, 75% contained now, destroyed approximately 155 residences. It has burned 28,889 acres.


This fire which burned 210 homes, many of them mansions that once had sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, was fully contained Monday night.

LA Mayor “Greatful” for Obama’s wildfire support

President-elect Barack Obama called Los Angeles Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa and Governor Schwarzenegger to express his support for the wildfire situation in southern California.

On Obama’s old campaign web site he is asking people to help. It says in part:

“… Throughout the campaign, we saw time and again that when ordinary people act together, they can make a huge difference. To help those in need, visit CaliforniaVolunteers.org

Arsonists and others who started fires

There is a surprising amount of news on the legal front today about people who started wildland fires.

1. Boy arrested for starting Gap fire

From the Daily Sound:

A 16-year-old boy was arrested on arson-related charges connected to last July’s Gap Fire, Santa Barbara County Fire officials said.

The blaze broke out on July 1 near the Lizard’s Mouth area of the Los Padres National Forest. Twenty-eight days and $20 million later, the fire was contained. The fire forced the evacuation of thousands of residents living near the foothills above Goleta.

Though the Gap Fire didn’t burn any homes, officials fear the brunt of the fire’s wrath could be felt this winter via widespread flooding. The lack of vegetation in the foothills and thick sediment in the creeks, combined with heavy winter rains, could cause severe damage to property, officials fear.

The boy is being held in a juvenile detention center in Santa Maria. Officials said more details will be released as they become available.

2. Homeless man sentenced for starting Day and Ellis fires

From the LA Times:

A mentally ill homeless man was sentenced Monday to 45 months in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $100 million in restitution for starting two wildfires in 2006 and 2002 that burned more than 162,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest.

A self-described nature lover, Steven Emory Butcher, 50, was convicted in February of igniting the monthlong Day fire in 2006 that injured 18 people, destroyed 11 structures and cost more than $100 million to suppress, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. He had been burning debris on Labor Day in Piru Canyon, where he had set up a campsite.

The jury also convicted Butcher of starting the 70-acre Ellis fire four years earlier, about two miles southeast of where the Day Fire began.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said “the likelihood of [Butcher] being able to meet that restitution payment is extremely slim. But we’ll do everything we can to recover whatever we can from him.”

Mrozek said his office “wanted to send a message to people that if you’re engaged in this type of activity, you may be held liable.”

Butcher was found guilty of two felony counts of starting fires and three misdemeanor counts of allowing a fire to escape his control, violating restrictions by building a fire on federal forest land and smoking in a federal forest.

“If I would have been on the jury, I would have found myself guilty too,” Butcher told U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank.

3. Two plead guilty to arson in Eastern Idaho

From KPVI.com

Two Idaho Falls residents have pled guilty to arson in setting a wildfire that occurred on public lands in Eastern Idaho in 2003.

On November 5, 2008, Brad Sims, 33, pled guilty in federal court to one felony count for setting a wildfire. On November 12, 2008, Jonathan Barrow, 28, pled guilty to one misdemeanor count of setting a fire. The lesser charge for Barrow resulted from his early cooperation.

Sentencing for both individuals is scheduled for February 9, 2009, at the federal courthouse in Pocatello.

The 2,766 acre wildfire, which was started on July 19, 2003, burned a five-mile section of utility poles. It was started at mile marker 282 on U.S. Highway 20 between Idaho Falls and Arco. The federal government will seek restitution for damages to utilities and public lands. The amount will be determined by the judge at sentencing.

“STARFIRE”: New tool to analyze fire risks and benefits

We can add another tool to the long list of programs that fire managers can use to help make decisions. Here are some excerpts from a news release from Colorado State University.

The system, known as Starfire, or Strategic Treatment Assessment Response Spectrum and Fire, is the first of its kind to generate fuel treatment priorities across an entire planning unit or national park; address appropriate management response – assessing when and where to encourage or suppress fires; and the first to address strategic smoke management where communities and local air quality can be adversely affected.

“Federal agencies now have access to a powerful tool that is easy to use in the heat of battle or in long-term fire planning to address environmental compliance. By integrating fire effects, fuels and smoke programs, federal fire agencies can now assess action options more quickly and effectively. ”

Once all of the data is compiled and properly assessed, Rideout and Wei develop a series of maps that support collaborative decision-making and inter-agency cooperation.

“Starfire is primarily designed to provide strategic-level fire risk and benefits information used in long-term fire management and planning. However, after a lightening strike causes a fire, managers can also use it to do a quick prediction of the potential consequences of the specific fire,” said Wei, assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship.

First developed and tested at the Tehipite wildfire in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California this summer, Starfire contributed to a “landmark cooperative decision,” according to Jeff Manley, National Park Service official and CSU College of Natural Resources alumnus. Starfire is set for wider deployment to assess Yellowstone as the next national park and with additional funding from the Bureau of Land Management to use the system in other Western states.

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