Unusual smoke column behavior

Oil fire smoke column
Photo: Department of Energy

Talking Points Memo has a slide show of stunning pictures of the last hours of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig as it burned and sank into the Gulf of Mexico.  While all nine of the pictures are fascinating, the one above captured my interest. It appears that something unusual is occurring with the smoke column, in that a narrow rotating column seems to be descending from the main smoke column, and the smoke from this object is accumulating above the ocean surface quite a distance from the fire.

Could this be a partial collapsing of the convection column, a phenomenon that occasionally occurs in the column over a wildland fire? You Fire Behavior Analysts, what do you think?

Wildfire Awareness Week

This week four five states are observing Wildfire Awareness Week: California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.  We did some research and were able to find 12 states that in recent years have observed a week to emphasize wildfire prevention. Unfortunately the dates for the week are scattered from the second week in April through late June. If there were agreement for all states to observe it at the same time each year, there could be national fire prevention campaigns to raise public awareness. Synergy.

In a step towards this goal, this year the states of California, Nevada, and Oregon jointly proclaimed May 1-8 (or 2-8) as “Multi-State Wildfire Awareness Week”. We suggest that other states make it their policy to declare the first full week in May as “Wildfire Awareness Week”. Or perhaps it could be a month or so earlier to accommodate the spring fire seasons of some areas. The National Association of State Foresters should coordinate this fire prevention opportunity.

  • Alaska: May 3-9, 2010
  • Arizona: (In Flagstaff [only?] it was April 24-May 1, 2010; In 2008 both NM and AZ had a joint WAW March 29-April 4, 2008)
  • California: first week in May, May 2-8, 2010
  • Colorado: (In 2008 it was June 22-28)
  • Florida: second week in April, April 11-17, 2010
  • Idaho: first full week in June
  • Maine: third week in April
  • Michigan: April 18-24, 2010
  • Montana: (In 2008 it was May 12-16)
  • New Mexico: March 28-April 3, 2010
  • Nevada: May 1-8, 2010
  • Oregon: (first full week of May) May 2-8, 2010
  • Pennsylvania: March 14-20, 2010
  • Texas: (in 2006 it was April 1-8)
  • Washington: May 2-8, 2010

If you are aware of any other states that observe Wildfire Awareness Week, let us know in a response or comment. We’ll add the additional dates as they come in.

Station fire fatality report released

Camp 16 from belowThe Los Angeles County Fire Department has released the Factual Report about the August 29, 2009 burnover of Camp 16 on the Station fire near Los Angeles. During that burnover, two firefighters were killed, Fire Captain Ted Hall, Superintendent 16, and Fire Fighter Specialist Arnie Quinones, Foreman Crew 16-3. Hall and Quinones were implementing a planned burnout below Camp 16 when their vehicle left the road. It was found 800 feet below the road with the two deceased firefighters inside.

Camp 16 from above

Camp 16 accident scene

The images are from the report; click on them to see larger versions.  Below are the causal and contributing factors from the report.

Causal and Contributing Factors

Causal Factors

Causal Factors are any behavior, omission, or deficiency that if corrected, eliminated, or avoided, probably would have prevented the incident.

1. The decision to protect Camp 16 and shelter in place and allow the firing operation was made at the Battalion Chief’s management level without contact with the Station IMT.

2. The lack of contact with the Station Incident prevented Camp 16 leadership from knowing about predicted fire behavior and available resources.

3. The firing operation on the Mt Gleason road was not successful due to the extreme fire behavior which exceeded the prediction of the plan.

Contributing Factors

Contributing Factors are any behavior, omission, or deficiency that sets the stage for an accident, or increases the severity of injuries.

1. The organizational culture allows firefighters to accept a notably higher risk to protect structures on wildland fires. A sense of ownership may have also influenced the decision to defend the facility.

2. The south winds aloft and prevailing up-canyon winds aligned with the topography of the North Fork of the Mill Creek drainage resulting in rapid fire progression toward Camp 16 and the firing team on the mid-slope road.

3. The fire burned in rugged terrain and the burnover occurred in the upper end of a steep drainage with fuel loads at seasonal low fuel moisture levels.

4. Resources assigned to Camp 16 were utilizing two different frequencies for tactical discussions and reports. Effective communication controls were not in effect prior to the incident.

5. There was no lookout dedicated to the firing operation.

6. The Station Fire IMT was either unaware of the threat to Camp 16 or understaffed to provide any assistance.

7. The ninety-year period of no fires in the vicinity of Camp 16 provided no historic baseline for reference.

IAFC skilled at obtaining USFS and FEMA grants

(Scroll down to the bottom to see two updates to this article.)


Forest Service funding for the IAFC

We have been hearing rumors that the International Association of Fire Chiefs has recently received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U. S. Forest Service for the IAFC’s wildland fire program. We checked with the USFS office in Washington and spokesperson Phil Sammon told us that in Fiscal Year 2009 the IAFC received a grant for $450,000 that was funded by the USFS, the US Fire Administration, and the Department of Interior. The grant was to be used for the IAFC’s Wildland Fire Policy Committee, and for the IAFC to enhance and modify the “Ready, Set, Go” program for national use.

That $450,000 is in addition to $600,000 that the USFS granted to the IAFC in FY 2008 for “partnership on wildland fire initiatives”.  This brings the total of taxpayer funds given to the IAFC by the US Forest Service (and the USFA/DOI) in the last two years to $1,050,000.

Some people don’t even know that the IAFC has a wildland fire section. Their primary interest is in structure fire, but they do host an annual wildland fire conference, frequently located in Reno, Nevada.

IAFC grants, 2002-2010: $13 million

But that $1.05 million from the USFS/USFA/DOI pales in comparison to the additional $11.03 million the IAFC has received from the Dept. of Homeland Security/FEMA Fire Prevention and Safety grant system. Harriet Parker, the Grants Manager for the IAFC, told us that of the $11.03, $6.12 million was identified for the Near-Miss reporting system which is supported by four other organizations in addition to the IAFC. It is surprising that the self-reporting system is so expensive to maintain. The additional $4.91 million was identified by FEMA for programs such as HazMat, national mutual aid system, sleep deprivation study, labor/management fittness, and other unspecified projects funded by FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant program. The IAFC also received  $1.07 million from the Department of Transportation in 2007 for a “pipeline safety” program.

The grant funding data for 2000 through mid-2008 came from the FedSpending.org web site. Other data came from the FEMA grant site and personal conversations with the USFS press office staff in Washington. We summarized the data into a spread sheet in order to keep track of it.

These grant figures are only from federal sources, and do not include grant funding the IAFC has received from organizations outside the federal government. And the data from FedSpending.org web site is only current through mid-2008.

Sensitive information?

Mr. Sammon of the USFS told us that there have been “a number of Freedom of Information Act requests” for information about USFS funding for the IAFC. He did not speculate as to the reason, but it seems strange that it would take a FoIA request for the USFS to provide the information.

IAFC’s relationship with FEMA

Interestingly, the IAFC has extremely close ties to the FEMA grant system. In fact, they have received grants for developing the criteria for some of the FEMA grants. Here is a quote from the IAFC web site:

For the last several years, the IAFC has received grant awards from the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate the development of criteria for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, which is also known as the FIRE Act. The AFG program awards grants directly to fire departments in order to meet their basic needs in areas such as vehicles, training, equipment and fire prevention.

The criteria are developed each year by a panel of representatives from national fire service organizations. The IAFC hosts the meeting and submits a report of the participants’ recommendations to the federal program office.

Recently the development of criteria for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant program was included in this review process. SAFER is a grant program that provides funding to fire departments to recruit volunteers and hire career firefighters.

We were unable to find specific documentation about the grant amounts for developing the evaluation criteria for the FEMA grants. A spokesman for FEMA, “Ed”, denied that the IAFC had any relationship with FEMA related to the evaluation of the grants, which of course is contradicted by information on the IAFC web site, and our own personal knowledge.

Conflict of interest?

Since the IAFC has developed the criteria for the SAFER and AFG grants, but not the FP&S grants, the question must still be raised, should the organization that develops the award criteria for two out of the four FEMA fire grants be eligible for any FEMA fire grants? The IAFC’s success rate of receiving various types of grants from FEMA every year since 2002 is pretty remarkable. There are some non-profit organizations that have applied for FP&S grants and have not received a penny. Is the IAFC taking more than their fair share of taxpayer money? Should a large portion of the IAFC budget every year be supplied by the government?

Grant award success of the IAWF

The International Association of Wildland Fire has not been as lucky as the IAFC in receiving FEMA grants. The IAWF has applied for four Fire Prevention and Safety Grants, but none have been approved so far. The last one they applied for is for the grant year that is currently active. The official notice of the IAFC award appeared today on the FEMA grant site, so there is still a chance that the fourth try by the IAWF could be successful.

Why is the USFS funding IAFC?

The relatively recent interest since 2008 by the USFS in providing funds for the IAFC is puzzling. There has been speculation in the wildland community that since the IAFC’s wildland section was not self-sufficient, that is, not paying for itself, that it was going to be shut down. But the infusion of $1.05 million will probably postpone their demise for a year or two. We will also keep an eye on the organizational structure of the IAFC in case some former federal employees end up working at their offices in Fairfax, VA, just down the road from Washington, D.C.

UPDATE at 11:15, May 3, 2010

After Paula, in a comment below, pointed out his name, we found that Greg Cade, currently the IAFC’s “Assistant Director, Near Miss Programs and Mutual Aid Programs” is the former U.S. Fire Administrator. The Near Miss program is funded by the Dept. of Homeland Security and FEMA. The U.S. Fire Administration is also within the DHS. The IAFC strongly supported Mr. Cade’s nomination for U.S. Fire Administrator in 2007. His political appointment ended when the George W. Bush administration ended, on January 20, 2009.

The U.S. Fire Administration, along with the USFS and the DOI, supplied the $450,000 that was given to the IAFC in FY 2009, which was October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009.

UPDATE on September 3, 2010

For the past several months we have been hearing that the IAFC is extremely upset about the fact that the information in this article has been revealed. They are blindly throwing around accusations that various organizations leaked this data.

Just to set the record straight, we heard from one person that the IAFC had recently received one federal grant for several hundred thousand dollars for a wildland fire related issue. That’s all. And it turned out that the amount of the grant was far larger than we were told. All of the rest of the information came from the publicly available web sites listed above, plus spokespersons for the USFS and the IAFC. Every source, other than the original limited, vague, and partially correct original bit of information, is detailed and linked to in the article above. We did not file a Freedom of Information Act request with the U. S. Forest Service, nor did we see any of the results from the multiple FOIA’s that were filed with the USFS.

The fact that the IAFC is so hyper-sensitive about the information in our article becoming public, raises the question of — why are they so sensitive? To borrow a line from the Queen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

If the IAFC has a totally clear conscience, the best advice would be transparency, rather than angrily accusing innocent bystanders of providing the information that is publicly available on the Internet.

The U.S. Forest Service could use the same advice. Why did they refuse to provide some of the information until Freedom of Information Act requests were filed?

30 suspicious fires in Downeast Maine

From WCSH6.com:

PEMBROKE, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — The Maine Forest Service says so far in 2010 close to 30 suspicious wildfires have broken out in Downeast Maine and all of them appear to have been started intentionally.

Four fires broke out in parts of Pembroke and Perry earlier this week. Others have appeared in the towns of Robbinston and Charlotte. On Monday afternoon, one fire broke out off the Ox Cove Road and set fire to six acres of land.

Officials say while a number of the fires have popped up in the vicinity of homes, area firefighters have been able to contain and extinguish them quickly. Forest ranger Courtney Hammond says the location of many of these fires is a sign enough that humans are involved.

Halifax government being sued for wildfire tactics

Halifax fire
The fire near Halifax, April 30, 2009. CBC photo.

In Canada, the Halifax Regional Municipality and the Halifax regional fire department are being sued because of decisions that were made on an April 30, 2009 wildfire. Insurance companies that paid out millions of dollars to the owners of eight luxury homes that were destroyed and the ten that were damaged have filed 18 lawsuits against the government agencies. Wildfire Today covered the fire HERE.

CBC News has more details about the litigation; here is an excerpt:

The insurance companies, that filed the suits on behalf of the homeowners, allege the city was negligent in how it fought the massive blaze. The fire started in a campfire pit on the west bank of McIntosh Run, north of Roaches Pond in Spryfield.

It quickly spread through the woods to Purcells Cove Road destroying eight luxury homes.

The first fire was spotted on the evening of April 29. By 8 p.m., the fire was under control, though not out. The water-bombing from above stopped and crews from the Department of Natural Resources and the Halifax fire service left for the night.

The following morning a crew was back at the scene monitoring hotspots. At 11 a.m., they decided it was safe to leave to take a lunch break. They returned to their station on nearby Herring Cove Road and planned to return to the scene later that afternoon.

But, by the time they returned, it was too late because the winds fanned a new fire that quickly spread causing havoc for several hours.

The insurance companies hired their own investigator and in the lawsuit they allege the fire department should never have left those hotspots unattended.

They also claim that once the fire spread, firefighters did not establish an effective command, that there were delays in calling in more firefighters. They also claim that firefighters went to the wrong spots and they took too long to call in helicopters from the province, all allowing the fire to destroy and damage their clients’ homes.

Halifax fire spokesman Dave Meldrum said Wednesday that the department “vehemently” denies the allegations contained in the lawsuits, and continues to “vigourously defend” the actions of the firefighters on that day.

“We’re concerned with all the allegations. We think that they’re wrong, and they’re incorrect, and we will defend them in court,” Meldrum said. “That day was a tragic circumstance. Our firefighters put themselves on the line, they worked long hours, they trained hard hours, to protect life and to protect property.”

Last month, CBC News obtained internal documents from the Halifax regional fire service that found the wildfire might have been prevented if fire crews hadn’t been delayed in returning to the scene.

An email, obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request, says that staffing protocols may have delayed firefighters in the critical minutes before the fire flared out of control on April 30, 2009.

“I understand that the crew had to arrange for a cover and that may have delayed their return to the scene of the original fire,” Fire Chief Bill Mosher said in the email written on May 19, 2009 — two weeks after the fire.

“A cover” means the Herring Cove firefighters had to ask firefighters from other areas to come mind their station while they were away. This delay meant the crew didn’t get back to the woods before the fire flared again.