Wildfire news, April 8, 2009

APA Report for Engine Rollover


An Accident Prevention Analysis Report is available on the Lessons Learned site for the engine rollover that occurred on the Los Padres National Forest in southern California, October 3, 2008.

Minnesota activates National Guard for fires

Governor Tim Pawlenty ordered the Minnesota National Guard to assist in suppressing vegetation fires in the state.  Under the emergency executive order, the Guard will supply both people and equipment to the Department of Natural Resources.  Oddly, the order which was signed on April 7:

…shall be effective retroactively to April 6, 2009, and will remain in effect until the conclusion of the emergency.

The order refers to:

…a wild grassfire was burning in and around the Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge, west of Forest Lake. The Governor’s Emergency Executive Order provides personnel and equipment assistance for air wild grassfire suppression from the Minnesota National Guard.

The order was apparently written hurriedly.  The fire referred to is the one for which the volunteer firefighter, John Berkin, was charged with arson.  It burned 1,500 acres…more information is below.

West Virginia: Tourist train starts 150-acre fire

The West Virginia Division of Foresty has confirmed that a tourist train run by the Durbin & Greenbrier Railroad Company is responsible for starting a fire that burned 150 acres near Elkins last month.

Shon Butler of the Division of Forestry said they are meeting with the Randolph County prosecutor to determine whether charges should be filed.  Maybe in this case a railroad that starts a fire will not get a free pass.  Congratulations to the DOF for pursuing this case.

Report about firefighter killed in chain saw training

The report about the Florida firefighter that was killed during chainsaw training is now online.  We updated our earlier post HERE to include more details.

How the Minnesota firefighter-arsonist was caught

Yesterday Wildfire Today covered the arrest of John Berkin, the firefighter in Minnesota who is suspected of setting a 1,500 acre vegetation fire near Minneapolis.  The facts are emerging about how he was identified.  From KARE11.com:

KARE spoke with two witnesses — a father and daughter — who helped lead authorities to Berken. They asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety.

They say they were driving to Forest Lake for groceries around 1 p.m. Monday when the father looked in his rearview mirror and saw something shoot out of the car behind him.

“I saw this stream of grey smoke, an explosion of fireworks,” he says. “I mean, red, white, blue, green. They just shot all over the place and it was instant flames.”

The daughter immediately called 911. They got behind the suspect’s car to get a look at his license plate, which had a red “Firefighter” emblem.

“I was really stunned,” the daughter says. “I’m like, I think this guy’s a firefighter.”

They followed the speeding suspect for about three miles but eventually lost him. Still, their description helped investigators identify Berken. He was arrested at the scene a few hours later while fighting the fire.

“I’m told he was taken into custody at one of the homes that had been evacuated,” says Lt. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office

Berken received an award for helping save someone’s life a few years ago. But authorities say his past also includes convictions for check forgery and theft. Sommer says Berken was convicted in 1991 of broadcasting false aircraft distress signals.

“The suspect has a pretty significant criminal history for someone who’s a firefighter,” Sommer says.

UPDATE April 8 @ 12:05 p.m. MT

From TwinCities.com:

During a search of (Berken’s) Columbus home, investigators found a large grocery bag full of fireworks in his garage, according to the complaint. In the master bedroom, investigators also found two letters from the Forest Lake Fire Department reprimanding him for not meeting attendance standards.

A canine from Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms trained to detect explosive materials and residue “hit” on Berken’s vehicle and his fire gloves, the complaint said.

Berken has a checkered past that includes legal troubles dating back to 1991. He was convicted that year of calling a local airport, threatening to blow it up. He was sentenced in federal court to a year in prison for making false radio transmissions.

SDG&E preemptive power shutoff plan raises concerns

The plan of San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) to turn off the power to large sections of San Diego county during periods of high fire danger was presented to a gathering of more than 300 people on April 7 in Alpine, California.  Wildfire Today has covered this issue several times before, most recently on April 5 when we posted a map of the areas that could be affected.

A number of people who expressed their opinions at the meeting last night agreed with Wildfire Today’s stance that the plan is simply a way for the power company to avoid liability and also to save money by not making upgrades to their existing powerlines.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

David Geier, the utility’s vice president of electric transmission, told the more than 300 people in attendance that SDG&E looks at the plan “as a final defense. . . . The whole goal of the program is to reduce catastrophic fires.”

But many people said losing power would create its own dangers. Children could be stranded at backcountry schools; firefighters and property owners might not have water because pumps couldn’t operate; communications systems would be worthless; and people with health problems who rely on electric-powered equipment could be at risk.

Janis Shackelford of Lakeside said the proposal would duplicate conditions that killed 13 people on Muth Valley Road during the first hours of the human-caused 2003 Cedar fire.

The fire had cut power “and the Muth Valley people couldn’t see where they were going in the dark and the smoke,” she said. “SDG&E is proposing to create its own natural disaster.”

The state Public Utilities Commission will make a decision this summer about SDG&E’s plan.

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