Firefighters make preparations for the eclipse

eclipse oregon wildfire path

Above: The path of eclipse totality in Oregon and Idaho on August 21, showing the locations of large wildfires that were active August 18, 2017.

(Revised at 9:08 a.m. MDT August 19, 2017)

Most of the wildland firefighters that will be deployed on wildfires Monday August 21 will have never seen a solar eclipse, or especially a total eclipse that will be seen in parts of Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and other states. We began to wonder what fire organizations will do when in the middle of the day they are plunged into nighttime conditions.

It will be dark for up to 2.5 minutes in the path of totality (POT) but outside that track and immediately before and after the total eclipse within the track there will be plenty of light. So the actual physical effect for ground-based firefighters will be minimal.

However, as Traci Weaver, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region told us, the event will likely be a once in a lifetime event for most of the firefighters and will be extremely distracting, at least. Firefighters will be asked to take a break during the totality and cautioned against being near snags or slopes that could have rolling rocks.

solar eclipse in France in 1999
Total solar eclipse in France in 1999. Luc Viatour

The USFS Pacific Northwest Region, known as Region 6, includes Oregon, and the 60-mile wide path of totally will pass all the way across the state. It will include or almost include at least four large active fires, Nena Springs (46,000 acres), Whitewater (6,791), Whychus (2030), and Milli (4,565).

Region 6 did not just start thinking about the eclipse this week. They have been planning for a year on how to handle it safely. Five Central Oregon counties held a tabletop exercise that involved not only firefighters but law enforcement, hospitals, the Department of Transportation, and other agencies.

The Whitewater Fire, Ms. Weaver said, has established an Eclipse Branch. Remote spike camps on fires will have enough supplies to be self-sufficient for at least four days.

The normal tourist season combined with a busy firefighting environment and eclipse watchers flocking in from distant locations could mean ground and air traffic and logistics on fires will be affected.

A briefing paper distributed by R-6 included this analysis:

There is a high confidence level that general aviation (GA) and drone aircraft will have an impact on the airspace during this event (flying and chasing the eclipse). Airspace coordination and awareness will be critical not only during the eclipse but days leading up to and after the event as GA aircraft transition to and from the event. The few minutes of darkness can certainly be a risk. Our focus (risk acceptance) should also be on the risk of operating in congested airspace and airports throughout the PNW [Pacific Northwest] during this event.

One challenge of moving aircraft in and out of the POT  will be logistical support. Fuel, support, and chase vehicles will have difficulty navigating the congested highway systems. State highways and interstates in the POT will have extensive delays and possible fuel shortages along those routes. (I-5, I-84, Hwys 19, 20, 22, 26, 97, and 395)..

The concern about congested traffic is well founded. Check out the photo below taken Thursday August 17 by an Oregon State Police aircraft, four days before the eclipse, of eastbound vehicles backed up on Highway 26 “for 15 miles all the way into Prineville”.

eclipse traffic oregon
Traffic backed up for 15 miles into Prineville, Oregon August 17, 2017. Oregon State Police photo.,

The Department of the Interior and the USFS distributed a bulletin August 15 about aviation during the event. Here is an excerpt:

Daylight conditions will exist right up to totality and return immediately after totality. Depending on your proximity to the 67 mile width of the POT, twilight conditions both before and after the eclipse will occur and as a result, require operators within (or close to) the POT [Path of Totality] to operate as if they were in normal civil twilight and night time.

Aircraft operating or staged within the affected geographic areas that are not permitted to operate at night should be on the ground or depart and be able to operate in daylight conditions no later than 15 minutes prior to darkness. Aircraft should remain parked or outside the affected area(s) until 15 minutes after darkness. This should adequately account for any anomalous effects that weather and sky conditions may have on brightness. Pilots of transitioning aircraft that are permitted to operate at night in accordance with agency policyare to exercise caution and utilize their best judgement with respect to visibility and airspace congestion within the POT.

Reid Armstrong, Regional Fire Communications Specialist for the USFS Rocky Mountain Region which includes two states in the POT, Wyoming and Nebraska, said their ground-based firefighting units are preparing by augmenting and prepositioning engines and prevention teams in areas where they anticipate increased visitation, particularly near Cheyenne. Firefighters who will be out patrolling are planning ahead to make sure they have full tanks of gas, extra supplies, food, and backup plans for communication.

The Rocky Mountain Region has worked with the FAA and their aviation personnel to minimize the effects of the eclipse on firefighting operations. Aircraft operating or staged within the path of totality will be prepared for increased drone activity before, during and after the eclipse.

California has a number of large fires not far from the Oregon border but well outside the path of totality. Dennis Brown, CAL FIRE’s Chief of Flight Operations, said at worst it will be like flying in twilight so he does not expect any significant effect on aerial firefighting in the state since pilots often fly in twilight conditions.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.