Wildfire news, March 10, 2009

Train starts fires in North Carolina

A USFS contract helicopter works the fire near Old Fort, NC on Tuesday. Photo: Richelle Bailey

Fire officials say it is likely that a train was the cause of multiple fires that began near Old Fort, North Carolina Tuesday afternoon.  Four or five fires together burned hundreds of acres by late in the afternoon.

Dozens of firefighters from the state of N.C., the U. S. Forest Service, and volunteer firefighters from several fire departments were working on the fires.   Two helicopters from the USFS made numerous water drops.

Three groups of hikers had to be located and removed from the area.

Bill that addresses fire funding introduced again

A bill to fix the way wildland fires are funded was introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate today. Called the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act (H.R. 1404), the bill would create a reserve account that the Forest Service and Department of Interior could tap if they exhaust their firefighting budgets. Without this safety net, the agencies have had to take money from other non-fire programs in order to suppress wildfires.

A similar bill died in the last congress, being passed unanimously by the House but stalled in the Senate. The 2008 version of the bill was endorsed by at least 40 conservation and forestry organizations, including the National Association of State Foresters.

More information is HERE.

Esperanza fire penalty phase begins

Raymond Oyler appeared “mentally disoriented”, attorney Thomas Eckhardt told Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan during a hearing on Monday. “He doesn’t know where he is… he keeps staring at the clock”.

The jury was not present for Monday’s hearing, which was to go over motions, arguments, and witness lists for the penalty hearing which begins today, Tuesday, and is expected to last two weeks. Jurors can recommend the death sentence or life in prison without parole.

Oyler was convicted on March 6 of 42 of the 45 arson and murder counts against him.

The judge said on Monday that he would allow several autopsy photos of the five U.S. Forest Service firefighters who were killed in the fire. Morgan barred the jury from seeing the images during the trial, saying the photos were “the worst photographs I have seen in my career”.

UPDATE, at 2:00 p.m. PT, Tuesday, March 10. From the Press-Enterprise:

Oyler trial halted over medical issue apparently involving Oyler

Testimony in the penalty phase of the Raymond Lee Oyler trial halted abruptly over a medical issue that apparently involves Oyler.

The action took place after a morning of emotional and graphic testimony, including pictures, about the deaths of the five-member crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57. Testimony included extinguishing two still-burning bodies, including one with canteens, by the firefighters who discovered them.

Firefighter family members rushed from the courtroom and several jurors were visibly crying.

Court reconvened at 10:40 a.m. after a 20-minute break, and Oyler attorney Thomas K. Eckhardt immediately asked Riverside County Superior Court judge W. Charles Morgan for a chambers conference.

Attorneys emerged 10 minutes later. Morgan called the 8-woman, 4-man jury back into court and dismissed them for the day.

He then instructed his clerk to contact three doctors from an authorized list, seeing if they could set up an examination within 24 to 48 hours. Morgan disclosed nothing about Oyler or the need for the doctors. Attorneys on both sides declined comment.

Morgan then told Oyler case attorneys to return to court at 2:30 today.

Oyler did not stand with his council when jurors entered and departed the room in the late morning session. At one point, he appeared to be muttering to himself.

He was dressed in a light brown shirt and no jacket. During the trial, he had been dressed in the full suit.

UPDATE @ 4:33 PT,  Tuesday, March 10

This afternoon the judge ordered an overnight psychological evaluation of Oyler. The doctor’s evaluation is due Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.  Jurors will be called back in at 1:30 p.m.

Oklahoma fire training turns into the real thing

Tracy Allen, a McAlester Army Ammunition Plant firefighter, after suppressing a fire in a double-wide trailer. McAlester News photo

Wildfire Today reported yesterday on the wildland fire training in Oklahoma that drew 400 firefighters from 90 departments. During Sunday’s classes, some of the firefighters interrupted their classes to respond to a fire in a double-wide mobile home a mile outside the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, the site of the training.

Here is the way it was reported in the McAlester News-Capital by Mark Hughes, Public Affairs for the Ammunition Plant:

First in the front door of the blazing double-wide were Tracy Allen and Tommy Howard, both seven-year veterans of the ammunition plant’s fire department, handling a one-inch hose.

“We found the structure completely engulfed in smoke with the roof and both sides of the double-wide already on fire,” Howard said.

Not knowing whether the residents were accounted for, Howard broke out a window which was used to to ventilate the smoke filled house, clearing his field of vision so he could look for possible victims.

Unbeknownst to the fire fighters the residents, Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Kifer, were not inside. Earlier that afternoon they were riding their four-wheelers when the fire began.

As his wife was calling 911, Kifer tried to go back in to save personal items but was overcome by smoke. However, their six Chihuahua’s and a Blue Heeler were rescued.

“It’s like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from,” he said, describing the impact of the fire while he stood in a neighbor’s yard watching as ammunition plant firefighters, along with community volunteer firefighters, frantically worked to save the home. In the end, it was a total loss.

Mexican firefighters receive wildland training in Minnnesota

A group of 11 firefighters from the city of Cuernavaca, located 45 minutes southwest of Mexico City, traveled to Bemidji, Minnesota to receive training taught by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The topics covered include fire behavior, weather, tools used in wildland firefighting, pump operation and radio communications.

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