Elephant Butte Fire near Evergreen, Colorado prompts evacuations

Residents of 1,000 homes ordered to evacuate

Elephant Butte Fire map
Map showing the location of the Elephant Butte Fire about two miles northwest of Evergreen, Colorado.

The Elephant Butte Fire, reported Monday afternoon west of Evergreen, Colorado has prompted the evacuation of about 1,000 homes, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff Department. The evacuation orders are expected to remain in effect through Monday night.

The fire is burning on steep terrain two miles northwest of Evergreen Lake. It is being suppressed by firefighters from several departments, three large air tankers, three helicopters, single engine air tankers, and the Tatanka and Pike Hotshot crews. Firefighters had to withdraw from the fire around 7 p.m. due to lighting, but planned to reengage.

At about 8 p.m. MDT the state’s multi-mission aircraft mapped the Elephant Butte Fire at 48 acres.

At 6:30 p.m. there were no reports of injuries or burned structures.

Elephant Butte Fire July 13, 2020
Elephant Butte Fire July 13, 2020. JEFFCO Sheriff photo.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean and LM. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

A fire with an interesting name

And, Contain vs. Control

Ojo de los Casos Fire
Ojo de los Casos Fire. Undated Inciweb photo.

It is unusual for a large fire to have more than two words in the fire’s name, not counting the word “fire”. And it is not common for a fire name to be a multi-word phrase. Fire agency employees whose jobs entail completing forms or maintaining records get grumpy when they have to write or type over and over, a long fire name or one that may lead to misspelling.

A fire 17 miles southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico on the Cibola National Forest is named “Ojo de los Caso Fire”. Since it was reported on July 8 the blaze has burned 180 acres of timber, brush, and grass.

The names for many fires are derived from a nearby landmark. I asked the Fire Information Officer Andrea Chavez how the fire was named and what it means in English:

Depending on the map you look at, there are various colloquial names for a spring in Cañon de Chilili near the origin of this fire, including “ojo la casa” and “ojo los caso”. Therefore, firefighters initially on scene dubbed the fire Ojo de los Casos

Ojo de los Casos colloquially translates to Spring of the Cause. However, it is possible this name was derived from an older nomenclature, Ojo de Casa (House Spring), which has been found on older maps of the area.

On Wildfire Today we rarely regurgitate containment percentages that are put out by Incident Commanders, because the numbers are unreliable. I have seen too many large fires that had miles of cold fireline that officially had zero or 10 percent containment. Too often this number appears to be grabbed out of the air with no effort to be accurate. Other times it can be a conscious effort to deceive. An incident commander may think that by publicizing a low containment number, it can be easier to hang on to resources, or to rank higher in priority among fires that are competing for scarce resources. They may also think it makes it easier to justify maintaining evacuations. Other incident commanders actually base the containment on the portion of the perimeter where the spread has been stopped by a fireline.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has a very extensive glossary of wildland fire terms. Their definition of “contain” is:

The status of a wildfire suppression action signifying that a control line has been completed around the fire, and any associated spot fires, which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread.

The incident management team on the Ojo de los Casos Fire posted on InciWeb July 11 that the fire was 10 percent contained. They also described on InciWeb what containment means to them:

Percent containment is based off the actual amount of containment line that is safe enough to leave unattended without worries of heat, embers or hot spots flaring up and having potential to cross that line allowing additional growth of the fire.

I asked Ms Chavez where they got their definition. She said:

Our incident commander and operations personnel elaborated on [the NWCG] definition to provide more detail based on their many years of experience and training.

Later that day an update appeared on the fire’s InciWeb page that was devoted to the concept of containment. It reads in part,

Complete “containment” is the ultimate goal for the fire management team in command of fire suppression activities.

My Opinion

The ultimate goal of firefighters is to put out a fire, or “declare it out”. The step before that is control. And before that, containment.

NWCG Glossary:

Controlled — The completion of control line around a fire, any spot fires therefrom, and any interior islands to be saved; burned out any unburned area adjacent to the fire side of the control lines; and cool down all hotspots that are immediate threats to the control line, until the lines can reasonably be expected to hold under the foreseeable conditions.

The Incident Commander and the operations personnel on the Ojo de los Casos Fire are conflating Contain and Control.

In my mind, Contain is to have a good, solid fire line without a great deal of residual heat near the line. It would still require patrol and mopup but the spread has been stopped at that location. That leaves open the unlikely chance that the fire can cross that section of line if something unexpected happens.

Control is the next step — mopup is complete near the fire line, burning out is complete, snags have been dealt with. At 100 percent control the Incident Commander and the Operations Section Chief are staking their reputation on their assessments that the fire will not spread beyond the established firelines.

When a fire is “Out”, there is no combustion occurring.

Ojo de los Casos Fire
Ojo de los Casos Fire. Undated Inciweb photo.

Pay for California state firefighters cut by 7.5%

CAL FIRE dozer and transport
Dozer and transport for the Nevada Yuba Placer Unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. CAL FIRE photo, March, 2019.

Budget problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in pay cuts for many employees of the state of California.

In May, 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom said he would seek a 10 percent pay cut for state workers, but the changes in salary had to be negotiated with numerous labor unions.  The reductions could be accomplished by modifying various types of special pay, overtime, vacation time, or health insurance. By the July 1 deadline all but one of the smaller unions had agreed to the changes.

The deal worked out by the firefighters union, CAL FIRE Local 2881, was an overall 7.5% cut while receiving two flexible days off each month. That includes a 4.4% reduction in their retirement health care, resulting in a 3.1% cut in take-home pay. The changes take effect this month.

More information is at the Sacramento Bee.

Red Flag warnings in four states, July 10, 2020

High temperatures, low RH, and strong winds

Red Flag Warnings July 10, 2020
Red Flag Warnings July 10, 2020. NWS

The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings for July 10 in areas of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado.

Darren Clabo, the South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist, tells us what to expect in his state:

“A Red Flag Warning is in effect for southwestern SD today from 1200 to 2100 hrs. See https://www.weather.gov/unr/ for details.

“A dryline will move pass through southwestern SD at noon today. Following it, temperatures will rise to near 100, RH will drop below 10%, and westerly winds will gust up to 40 mph creating very critical fire weather conditions. Later this evening, a cold front will then move through which will switch the winds to the north but the winds will remain strong through 2200 hrs. No precipitation is expected over southwestern SD with the cold front passage. There will be a ~10 hour window of extremely critical fire weather conditions. Stay aware of your surroundings when on initial attack. This primarily affects Fall River, Custer, and Oglala Lakota Counties.

“Elsewhere across the state, severe weather is likely with large to very large hail, strong winds, and a few tornadoes possible.”

(Red Flag Warnings can be modified throughout the day as NWS offices around the country update and revise their weather forecasts.)

CAL FIRE to hire more than 1,000 additional firefighters

More seasonal and permanent firefighters

(Revised at 11:15 a.m. PDT July 10, 2020)

Inmate crew carrier vehicles
Approximately 19 inmate crew carrier vehicles at the Eagle fire in San Diego County, which burned between Warner Springs and Borrego Springs, California. CAL FIRE photo, July 25, 2011.

With the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of inmate firefighters, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is scrambling to find enough personnel to handle the all important job of cutting fireline and mopping up wildfires.

COVID spreading through inmate crew camps and prisons has cut the number of inmate crews available from 192 to 94. Thursday California Governor Gavin Newsom said 12 inmate camps had to be quarantined last month due to the virus. Compounding the firefighter shortage was the early release of thousands of state inmates to create more space in the facilities during the pandemic, and before that, the state’s initiative to reduce the incarceration of those jailed for lower-level offenses.

The Governor announced the state intends to hire an additional 858 seasonal and 172 permanent firefighters. The agency has also changed the mission of six California Conservation Camp (CCC) crews to exclusively perform fire related tasks, two in the south and four in the north.

Lynnette Round, a CAL FIRE Education and Information Officer, said the $72 million needed to hire the firefighters will come from the already allocated Emergency fund.

CAL FIRE expects to begin hiring the firefighters immediately using current eligibility lists. They anticipate that a recruitment process will occur to increase the number of candidates beyond the current lists.

The increase in the number of employed state firefighters is part of  the agency’s effort to keep 95 percent of all fires to 10 acres or less.

(This article was edited July 10 to show that 172 permanent firefighters are being hired, in addition to the 858 seasonals.)