USFS report says steep slopes and fuel conditions inhibited initial attack of Station Fire

After a review of the first 46 hours of the management of the Station fire, a five-person panel concluded that appropriate decisions were made on the fire, which eventually burned 160,000 acres on the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles.

The area of initial attack and the early perimeter of the Station Fire, Sept. 26, 2009. Google Earth image from USFS report.

The panel was comprised of two representatives of the U. S. Forest Service, one from L.A. County Fire Department, one from CalFire, and a person from private industry that specializes in decision making.

A quick review of the 66-page report which was released on November 13 found no criticism of the U.S. Forest Service or L.A. County Fire Department.
One issue that appeared in the media was that the number of ground and air resources assigned to the fire on the second day was not adequate, and this contributed to the fire becoming the largest in the recorded history of LA County.

But the report says:

Additional resources during the evening of August 26 [the day the fire started] and morning of August 27 would not have improved the effectiveness of operations during that operational period and would have resulted in needless exposure of firefighters to the hazards of wildland fire.

It goes on to say that the extremely steep terrain and the dense, dry vegetation made it difficult or at times impossible to safely take direct suppression action on some portions of the fire.

On the evening of August 26, spot fires occurred below the Angeles Crest Highway, near the point of fire origin, and were not accessible by firefighters due to excessively steep terrain, limited visibility, and decadent, thick brush. Aircraft use, without subsequent engagement of ground forces, would have been ineffective.

According to the report, the review panel found that:

  • The Angeles National Forest had in place at the time of the incident an up-to-date staffing and action guide for initial attack.
  • The actions taken by the Angeles National Forest and the Forest Supervisor with respect to overall incident objectives—controlling the fire at the smallest acreage practicable consistent with firefighter safety considerations, were consistent with the forest’s land management plans.
  • The origin of the Station Fire was in extremely rugged terrain with limited opportunities for safe suppression activities by ground-based suppression resources.
  • The dry, dense brush in the area of the fire was at high risk for potentially extreme fire activity and at a level that posed unacceptable risk to firefighters.
  • Firefighters made cooperative efforts to engage the fire at critical points during the daylight phase of initial attack. Control of the incident was prevented because of a spot fire that occurred in an inaccessible location with limited visibility and thick, tall brush.
  • The ordering and assignment of firefighting resources to initial attack was appropriate and consistent with accepted fire management practices. Additional ground tactical resources would not have improved the effectiveness of operations because they could not be safely deployed.
  • Incident management decisions made during the review period were consistent with generally accepted incident management practices. Decisions made by initial attack incident commanders reflected sound judgment of the operational situation and were prudent with respect to firefighter effectiveness, safety, and suppression resource deployment.
  • The review panel found no evidence or indication that initial attack incident commanders felt unduly constrained to inappropriately reduce direct suppression costs.

In conclusion the report says:

  • Incident managers during the initial attack phase of the Station Fire acted in a manner consistent with best professional practices as accepted by wildland firefighting agencies, and
  • Deployed suppression resources under conditions where firefighters would be safe and effective.
  • In light of the extremely challenging topography encountered during initial attack and the highly volatile fire and vegetation conditions, incident commanders were reasonable and prudent in not exposing firefighters to actions that would have been ineffective and compromised their safety.

While we support firefighters taking no action unless it can be done safely, it is unusual for an investigative report on a complex incident like the Station fire to have no criticism. You could say no self-criticism, since three of the five members of the panel represented the USFS and LA County fire department, both responsible for the management of the fire or heavily involved as a cooperator, and both were the targets of criticism from the media and some members of the public.

UPDATE at 9:23 p.m. November 13, 2009:

The LA Times has an article on this report for which they interviewed John Tripp, a member of the 5-person panel that wrote the report, who also is the chief deputy of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The Times asked him about the decision that was made by the fire managers to not aggressively attack the fire early in the morning on Day 2 with helicopters. Chief Tripp was quoted as saying that he agreed with the conclusions stated in the report that the fire managers “followed the policies and procedures appropriately”, but he stopped short of endorsing the decision about the helicopters on the second day.

From the Times’ article:

“It’s their fire and they’re running it,” he said. “Why wasn’t that helicopter there? That’s the question.”

He said it “was not my role” in the review to second-guess such decisions.
Hmmm. It makes you wonder what WAS the role of the 5-person investigation panel?

Nimo Team to be used in pine beetle epidemic

Pine beetle damage. USFS photo

The seven-person National Incident Management Teams were created primarily to manage complex wildland fires, but Steve Gage’s NIMO team out of Boise has been activated to assist in the management of the pine beetle problem in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.

According to the U. S. Forest Service, the team….

…will coordinate activities among the three heaviest impacted bark beetle Forests (Medicine Bow–Routt, Arapahoe and Roosevelt, and White River National Forests). This team will provide support and personnel to the effort, and in many cases engage Forest Service employees from across the Rocky Mountain Region to assist in mitigation activities.

The NIMO team will immediately begin assessing the current situation, reviewing existing plans, and collecting data to prepare a strategic action plan for work priorities.

Steve Gage
Steve Gage

Some of the objectives of the NIMO Team will be to manage the removal of hazard trees along roads, power lines and in campgrounds; develop safety protocols for those working in beetle infested area; and develop fire preparedness and management plans to address the increased wildfire threat posed by dead and falling trees.

While the management of complex wildland fires was the main reason for creating the NIMO program, the year-round teams are also available for All Hazard incidents, fuel management projects, and training. Presently there are four NIMO teams, operating out of Atlanta, Portland, Boise, and Phoenix.

New subscription address for Wildfire Today

Due to the new configuration of our web site, the web address for subscribing to Wildfire Today has changed. Here is the new address to copy and paste into your news reader:

Or, a simpler way is to do it through Feedburner, which allows you to choose which news reader you want to use.

If you are not familiar with subscriptions, here is some basic information that we wrote several months ago.

Did you know that you can subscribe to Wildfire Today and many other sites? If you subscribe, you can then read the new posts from multiple sites all in one place.

One of the easiest ways to do it is to set up a Google Reader account, or you can use Microsoft Outlook.  You can click on the orange RSS (Really Simple Syndication) subscription icons you will see on many sites to subscribe, and then all of the new posts from the sites to which you subscribe will be assembled for you in one place, in Google Reader or Microsoft Outlook.

Just copy and paste this address into a news reader to subscribe to Wildfire Today:

(The address was updated November 8, 2009)

There may be some compromises, though. Photos and videos may not always show up on the subscription page. And you may not see every post in its entirety. But at least you will know if there is new content on your favorite sites, and there are links you can click to go to the sites and read the original posts.

If you have an iGoogle account your subscriptions can also be displayed there along with your other personalized content.

Reviews of “The Big Burn”

At least four reviews of Timothy Egan’s book about the Big Blowup fires of 1910, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America appeared today or yesterday on various web sites. It seems like a strange coincidence for a book that came out a couple of weeks ago. Or maybe its because many book reviews appear in the Sunday editions of newspapers.

The International Association of Wildland Fire has scheduled a conference in Spokane, Washington October 25-29, 2010 that will in part commemorate the fires of the Big Blowup of 1910.

The author is going to appear in Seattle on Monday, October 19 at the Elliott Bay Book Company to discuss the book.

The Seattle Times has a review of the book HERE, Oregon Live has one HERE, and The Maui News review is HERE. The excerpt below is from a review by Time-News


On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 20, 1910, the Idaho Panhandle exploded.


A cold wind out of the Palouse ignited a number of small fires burning in Idaho’s bone-dry Coeur d’Alene National Forest. Drawing energy from the flames themselves, the winds picked up speed until they reached 80 mph by the time they hit the town of Wallace.

In two days, 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana burned. That’s an area twice the size of the Great Salt Lake.

Eighty-seven people died, mostly the hard way: Pinned to the ground by fallen trees, they were still conscious while their hair burned and their skin curled up and blackened.

But it was an event that changed the course of American history – and Idaho’s, according to New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, whose book about the Great Fire of 1910, “Big Burn,” was published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27). [$16.20 at]

Simply put, it saved the Forest Service, which nearly shriveled and died after President Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909, and institutionalized professional management by government of public lands, Egan argues.

Idaho – 61 percent federally owned – looks as it does today because of the consequences of the Big Blowup.

“When the Rockefellers and the Weyerhaesers had pushed through these woods, it appeared that a new order was at hand,” Egan writes. “But it had not lasted.”


Egan is a 54-year-old Seattle writer who has long covered the West for the Times. He’s best known for his 2005 book about the Dust Bowl, “The Worst Hard Time.”

But the tone of “Big Burn” is different. This is a story of heroes.

Two of them, especially. Gifford Pinchot, the son of a timber baron who devoted his life to saving trees, was a close friend of Roosevelt’s and the first chief of the Forest Service. Mostly through dogged persistence, he willed America into protecting vast tracks of its outback and kept government-managed conservation alive when the odds were against it.

Ed Pulaski was a former miner who hired on with the Forest Service as an assistant ranger in Wallace. During the Big Blowup he saved dozens of lives – at one point by pointing his revolver at panicked firefighters to keep them from running into the flames – while being maimed himself. After the fire, he spent he own meager resources caring for the injured.

Most of the handful of rangers working the Coeur d’Alene and Lolo national forests in 1910 were proteges of Pinchot and graduates of the Yale University School of Forestry, but not Pulaski. He mastered the forest by working in it and learning from it.

When the fire blew up, the Forest Service recruited every able-bodied man it could find, eventually 10,000 of them, even though it didn’t have the money to pay them. They – and the all-black 25th Infantry Regiment – saved lives, homes and, in some cases, entire communities.


UPDATE March 29, 2010:

A map of the 1910 fires can be found HERE.

Bushfire arsonists

At the royal commission hearing that is reviewing information about the February 7 Black Saturday fires in Australia, a forensic behavioral scientist told the panel that some wildfire arsonists are indifferent towards causing death and may see starting a fire as a chance to empower themselves.

Here is an excerpt from an article in The Australian:

Professor Ogloff, who is head of Victoria’s state forensic psychiatric service and director of Monash University’s centre for forensic behavioural science, said bushfire arsonists could also become excited by total fire ban days and see them as opportunities to light fires with little chance of being caught.

He said he had dealt with arsonists or “fire setters” for whom days of high fire danger “enacts some of the thinking around setting fires”.

“What better time than when there are already fires all around and difficult to control then for them to go and set a fire which would have relatively little chance of them being caught,” Professor Ogloff said.

“At the time of these fires, and certainly in the days leading up to it, there is an increased interest, and in fact we have seen in some cases increased behaviour in the fire setting. So it is a problem.”

A number of Black Saturday bushfires under investigation by the royal commission are suspected of being deliberately lit, including the Murrindindi fire that killed 40 people and destroyed more than 500 homes.

Professor Ogloff said that at peak times, up to 80 per cent of fires in Australia were either deliberately lit or suspicious.

He said there was no single profile of bushfire arsonists, but they were more likely to be “social outcasts”, physically unattractive, lacking confidence and of low intelligence who may have a mental disorder and prior criminal convictions.

Bushfires were lit for a range of reasons, including arsonists attempting to increase their self-esteem or feel “in control of an otherwise dismal existence”. Lighting bushfires could be a “particularly empowering experience”, causing arsonists to become serial offenders to regain that feeling. Professor Ogloff said potential arsonists could be attracted to working as volunteer firefighters and go on to light fires, in some cases because they wanted to be seen as heroes. A study in NSW showed that 11 of 50 convicted arsonists were found to have been fire service volunteers.

He said criminal background checks and psychological screening would reduce the risk of arsonists becoming firefighters.

The hearing into the Black Saturday disaster, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes, resumes on Monday.



Lessons learned from an air tanker pilot during 40-year career

This excellent video is described like this:

Lessons Learned from Air Tanker Pilot Bill Waldman

For 40 eventful years, chief pilot Bill Waldman supported wildland fire suppression activities by making more than 13,000 retardant drops on fires in practically every state in this country, including Alaska, Canada, and Mexico. In this interview, Captain Waldman shares valuable insights gained from his extensive career—and provides priceless advice to pilots just beginning theirs’.

We appreciate Mr. Waldman sharing some of the things he has learned. Many of them can be translated to fire suppression on the ground as well as in the air.