GAO asked to investigate USFS management of the Station fire

Station fire sign burning
Station fire. Photo: Inciweb

In addition to an internal investigation by the Inspector General’s office, now the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been asked to investigate the U. S. Forest Service’s management of last summer’s Station fire that burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles and claimed the lives of two Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters.

The two California U.S. senators and several local House members signed a letter asking the GAO to “ensure that all actions in the response to the fire were taken swiftly, properly and competently”.

In spite of the U.S. Forest Service’s November report on the Angeles National Forest fire that found nothing to criticize about how the fire was managed in the first 46 hours, and that policies and procedures were followed, many knowledgeable former wildland firefighters have accused the USFS of under-staffing the fire during it’s early stages, and attacking the fire on the first night and the morning of the second day with strategy and tactics that were less than aggressive.

The GAO was asked to look into that issue as well as another revolving around recordings of telephone conversations made during the fire in the dispatch center. While it is common for dispatch centers to record radio conversations, the GAO will look into the legality of recording phone conversations without the consent of both parties. The Los Angeles Times requested the recordings last year and again this year, but Forest Service officials said they did not exist.

The Times on Wednesday obtained a copy of an internal USFS memorandum in which Forest Service Deputy Chief James Hubbard ordered all dispatch centers to stop recording calls until the matter is resolved.

You have to wonder if this mess the Forest Service is now wallowing in would have been any different, if instead of hiding their heads in the sand, their November report on the fire had been an honest and open appraisal of the management of the fire. It could have been an opportunity for learning lessons, but now it has gone nuclear, sweeping the Forest Service up into a mushroom cloud of distrust, criticism, and multiple investigations, possibly even leading to criminal charges against firefighters or fire administrators. The agency that I used to work for, or at least the Angeles National Forest, has become an embarrassment.

Cow causes fire

We have another case of animal arson — this time a cow is the culprit. No, it was not Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. And we’re not referring to the 293-acre “Cow fire” near Ukiah, California, it was the 35-acre “Green fire” near Big Sur, California. Both fires were recently contained, but investigators have concluded that a bull on the El Sur Ranch rubbed his horns and back on a power pole until it fell. The lines arced, starting the fire.

Mann Gulch fire, 61 years ago

On August 5, 1949, a wildfire overran 16 smokejumpers and firefighters in Mann Gulch on the Helena National Forest in Montana. Only three survived. The tragedy dealt a major blow to the U.S. Forest Service, which had not experienced a fatality during a decade of smokejumping. A best selling book by Norman Maclean called  “Young Men and Fire” describes the worst disaster ever to happen to a smokejumper crew.

Mann Gulch fire victims

Montana puts out 9 underground coal fires

excavating coal fire
MT DEQ

As Wildfire Today reported in March of 2009, the state of Montana began at that time writing Environmental Assessments so that they could begin suppressing some underground coal fires. Usually putting out one of these fires involves moving a great deal of dirt, much like surface coal mining, so there can be a lot of paperwork involved. One of the fires in Musselshell County had been smoldering since 1984 and last year started a wildfire that burned 1,700 acres.

MT DEQ

They have made a lot of progress since March of 2009. Here is an excerpt from a news release from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality:

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has extinguished nine underground coal fires in Eastern Montana since last fall with one more to go in the next two months.

The DEQ’s Abandoned Mine Program conducted the coal mine and coal seam mitigation project in Custer, Yellowstone and Musselshell Counties. Three fires were in the Shepherd area north of Billings; another six were in the Miles City area. The remaining fire is also near Miles City.

“Some of these underground fires may be out of sight but they’re not out of mind,” said DEQ Director Richard Opper. “The smoldering coal seams threaten wildlife, destroy ranchland and risk starting wild land fires. They also emit polluting noxious gases and carbon-dioxide. So it was important to douse these coal fires and eliminate the safety and environmental risks they pose.”

To mitigate the fires, crews excavate the burning coal seam, spread the hot material into a “quench” pit and mix it with soil and water to cool. The area is then reclaimed by backfilling the seam and revegetating the disturbed area.

Federal abandoned mine reclamation grant money paid for the project at a cost of about $805,000.

Coal seam fires are started primarily by lightening strikes. In addition, while coal fires can trigger wild land fires, grass fires can also ignite coal seams.

Here is a 23-second video showing a large quantity of water being applied to one of the Montana coal fires.

A process for analyzing the potential of a wildfire

One of the most important pieces of information that should be included in a Report on Conditions during the initial attack of a wildfire is the POTENTIAL. What is the fire expected to do in the next hour or the next several hours?

This carries through for the duration of the fire. Dispatchers, agency administrators, incident commanders, Geographic Areas, and Multi-Agency Coordination Groups need this information so that they can prioritize incidents and move resources around as needed. It could also be useful for Incident Information Officers and the media, making it possible for them to identify and devote more attention to fires that are potentially disastrous, rather than fires that are of little consequence, even if they are large. The public and law enforcement could be better informed, enhancing the effectiveness of evacuations should it become necessary.

But to our knowledge, there is no quick and objective metric, or a way to quantify and describe the relative potential of multiple fires.

The genesis of this concept came from an article written by Miles Muzio, a meteorologist who writes the Weatherwhys Blog. Here is an excerpt of what he wrote on the topic yesterday:

Continue reading “A process for analyzing the potential of a wildfire”