Congress averts firefighter pay cliff and national shutdown

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both passed a bill late Saturday, September 30 to keep federal agencies fully funded, effectively averting a government shutdown. A provision in the bill also temporarily keeps wildland firefighter pay at its current rate.

The passed bill, H.R. 5860, makes specific mention of averting the looming mass exodus of wildland firefighters that would have resulted from the expiration of a 2021 pay increase.

“Amounts made available by section 101 for Department of the Interior — Department-Wide Programs — Wildland Fire Management and Department of Agriculture — Forest Service — Wildland Fire Management shall be available for the federal wildland firefighter base salary increase provided under section 40803(d)(4)(B) of Public Law 117–58 and may be apportioned up to the rate for operations necessary to continue to fund such base salary increase,” the bill’s text reads.

Wildland firefighters aren’t out of the woods yet. While the bill is set to be signed by President Biden before the October 1 deadline, it funds the government for only 45 days as legislators continue debating what to do with federal finances. The pay cliff’s new deadline is November 17.

Fake contractors using wildfires to take advantage of devastated people

Picking up the pieces is often the main focus of those whose homes or businesses have been destroyed by wildfires. In that singular focus, it’s understandable why someone who claims they can help pick those pieces up for cents on the dollar would be welcomed with open arms by those who have lost it all.

But that kindness, according to multiple state agencies, is sometimes too good to be true.

The Gray Fire in Washington killed one person and destroyed 185 structures. Victims in the devastated community of Medical Lake are falling prey to an ongoing scam, according to the state’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I). The scam involves “contractors” showing up uninvited and offering to help people rebuild. The fake contractors offer to do work and ask for a deposit, only to disappear and raise their prices once the funds are handed over.

The scam has recently happened frequently enough in the Washington community of Medical Lake that L&I issued a warning telling residents affected by wildfires not to accept these solicited offers.

“Disasters like our state’s recent wildfires often bring out scam artists itching to make a buck from homeowners desperate to quickly rebuild or repair their homes,” the warning read. “That’s why [L&I] is urging people recovering from the devastating fires to be sure to hire contractors registered with the department.”

The department outlined numerous ways people looking to rebuild can avoid becoming victims of the scammers. The department recommended obtaining a written contract, getting three written bids, and never paying in full before a job is completed. L&I also said it has an entire database where interested people can look up and verify a contractor’s registration status.

“L&I requires construction contractors to be registered and have liability insurance, a business license, and a bond to provide some financial protection if something goes wrong with the project,” the department said. “It’s easy to verify contractor registration at ProtectMyHome.net or by calling L&I at (80)647-0982 and choosing 2.”

A similar warning was shared by California’s Insurance Commissioner in 2018, warning wildfire victims to not fall for schemes involving price gouging, debris removal, or fraudulent charitable solicitations.

“Because property loss from a disaster can be so traumatic, victims of disaster can become easy targets for fraud,” the commissioner’s website said. “It is important to keep a sharp lookout for people who try to play on the emotions of those stricken by disaster.”

Disaster assistance: Resources are also available through the Spokane County Disaster Assistance Center at the Spokane Falls Community College, Building 9, 3305 W. Whistalks Way, Spokane, WA  99224 – (509)998-2750. Additional resources for property clean-up can be found at Spokane Regional Health and Spokane Air: bit.ly/44o05BX.

Cal Fire ready for its highest-risk time of the year

As many fire crews across North America are ending their official wildfire seasons, Cal Fire is now gearing up for its most at-risk time of the year.

Seven of California’s top 20 most destructive wildfires (“most destructive” meaning fires that resulted in the most structures destroyed or lives lost), over the years have occurred in the month of October. The top three on the list after the November 2018 Camp Fire, all burned in October, including the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm (with the Tunnel Fire), and the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Plus of course the October 2006 Esperanza Fire.

On the morning of October 20, 1991, towering clouds of black smoke blocked out the sun as “diablo winds” whipped flames hot enough to melt gold throughout the hills above Oakland and Berkeley.
On the morning of October 20, 1991, fearsome Diablo winds whipped flames hot enough to melt gold across the hills above Oakland and Berkeley.

Cooling temperatures and incoming moisture often provide relief to much of the country during early autumn, but conditions in especially dry parts of California can blow up wildfire risk in the state thanks to a combination of summer’s dry vegetation and fall’s fierce winds.

“It is a common misconception that the most dangerous time for fires in California is during July and August,” according to the Western Fire Chiefs Association website. “While there may be fewer fires in September and October, the fires that do occur are far more destructive and burn through many more acres.”

October 2006, en route to the Esperanza, photo by Laguna IHC.
October 2006, en route to the Esperanza Fire, photo by Laguna IHC.

This explosive wildfire situation is caused mainly by a combination of dry vegetation from hot summer weather and the intense dry winds that blow over California fires in the fall.

Known as the Santa Ana winds in southern California and the Diablo winds in northern California, they’re characterized by downslope gusts blowing from the mountains toward the coast. Despite their different names, the winds are caused by similar autumn weather patterns, differing mostly by their locations — the Santa Anas in the south blow down from the Santa Ana Mountains, while the Diablos  in northern California blow from the Diablo Range. 

Oakland Hills 1991
1991 Oakland Hills firestorm. View of the fires above the Claremont Hotel on October 20, 1991. Oakland local wiki pages.

And while these autumn winds now build in the state, some areas are still benefiting from the record-breaking wet winter across the Southwest at the beginning of 2023. Crews in the Santa Cruz area reportedly had to start their season late since the ground was too wet to conduct planned prescribed burns.

“Because it was so moist, my burn crews were not available until early July,” Sarah Collamer, forester and Cal Fire burn boss, told KSBW. “We usually burn in June, but it was too wet.”

As we head into October, we’ll see who wins in the perennial battle between seasonal dry winds and the unseasonal wet ground.

FSI: When a fire scene becomes a crime scene

A $15,000 reward is being offered for any information on whoever started numerous wildfires still burning around Louisiana. Officials hope the reward, offered by the Louisiana Forestry Association, will help bring those who started the Hwy 113 Fire, the Lions Camp Road Fire, and the state’s largest wildfire on record, the Tiger Island Fire, to justice.

But how do officials even determine whether wildfires were intentionally or accidentally started? It’s not what TV would have you believe.

The biggest offender of incorrect investigation portrayals, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (and its numerous offshoots), has long frustrated detectives, forensic scientists, and other law enforcement personnel, but the frustration doesn’t stop at police shows. CAL FIRE, the agency portrayed on the popular show Fire Country, voiced its frustrations with the show’s inaccuracies from the moment the trailer dropped.

Fire Country largely skirts the actual evidence that helps  investigators determine the cause of fires. Because of that, fire investigators are often reduced to an antagonizer role in the show. The reality of fire investigation is much more important and in-depth than Fire Country makes it out to be, especially at a time when arsonists are setting some of the world’s most devastating wildland fires.

Tiger Island Fire 8-27-23

Tiger Island Fire on Saturday, Aug 27th. Extreme fire behavior was present over the weekend as the Southern Area Red Team took command of the incident.
Tiger Island Fire 08-27-2023 — Extreme fire behavior persisted over the weekend as the Southern Area Red Team took command of the incident. Inciweb photo.

Greece’s Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias announced that there have been 79 arrests of “arsonist scum” in connection to the hundreds of wildfires burning around the nation. A man in Canada is facing charges in connection to numerous forest fires that forced evacuations. Albania officials arrested two men caught on camera starting the area’s worst wildfire of the season. And the arsonist who lit the fatal Esperanza Fire in southern California in 2006 was sent to Death Row at San Quentin after a jury in 2009 found him guilty on 42 of 45 counts including 5 counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires.


But how does a fire scene turn into a crime scene? It all rests on investigators to determine the origin and the cause of the fire, according to an NWCG handbook.

“Accurate wildland fire origin and cause determination is an essential first step in a successful fire investigation,” the handbook reads. “Proper investigative procedures that occur during initial attack can more accurately pinpoint fire causes and preserve valuable evidence that might be destroyed by suppression activities. If a fire is human-caused, the protective measures described in the guide can preserve evidence that may lead to effective and fair administrative, civil, or criminal actions.”

Separating some of the wildland fire arson myths perpetuated in media like Fire Country is also a focus of the handbook. While fictional arsonists are depicted as highly sophisticated and using elaborate electronic devices to set numerous large fires in rapid succession, real-life arsonists are usually unskilled offenders who use matches or other simple devices to set small fires that may escalate in frequency and severity.

(Two classic wildfire arsonist stories — and investigations — are detailed in books by John Maclean:  The Esperanza Fire and River of Fire.)

Patterns often accompany arson fires, usually involving multiple fires geographically near to each other within a close timeframe. Most wildland arson fires are set at a location that can be accessed by motor vehicle and are not in rugged terrain. Arson can also be indicated by a lack of evidence, like when numerous fires with undetermined causes exceed normal fire history.

Despite the in-depth guide provided by NWCG, humans often can’t determine the cause of a fire on their own. Fortunately, arson dogs can often pick up where humans are lacking; State Farm actually has had an arson dog training program for about 30 years, and many states keep a trained accelerant-detection arson dog on staff.

Investigators of the Tiger Island Fire used one of the state’s five arson dogs to help determine the wildfire’s cause. The dogs are trained to detect 15 different types of ignitable liquids and identify whether they were used at the origin of fires.

You can learn more about arson dogs, specifically Pablo from the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal, [HERE].

 

Yukon First Nations Wildfire closes a record-breaking fire season

A collaboration between 13 indigenous governments and the Yukon government officially closed another fire season on Friday, which was one for Canada’s record books.

Canada saw more than double the carbon emissions from wildfires between January 1 and July 31 than the previous record year, according to the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme. The emissions represented 25 percent of the global total for 2023 to date.

Animation of GFASv1.2 active fire locations and fire radiative power over Canada from 1 May to 31 July 2023, showing how the locations of wildfires has moved during the 2023 season. Credit: CAMS/ECMWF.
Click to view animation of GFASv1.2 active fire locations and fire radiative power over Canada from 1 May to 31 July 2023, showing how the locations of wildfires moved during the 2023 season. Credit: CAMS/ECMWF.

The Yukon First Nations Wildfire partnership helped fight 218 of the fires that started in the territory and burned more than 223,942 hectares. The partnership is made up of 13 First Nations and nine stakeholders that incorporate traditional knowledge in both its IA and SA programs. The collaboration officially closed its IA crew’s season on September 15.

“Today is the final day of our Initial Attack crew’s season! Congratulations on a summer full of hard work and dedication,” the partnership posted on its Facebook page. “It’s been a record-breaking year for wildfires across the country, and your impact has been felt from coast to coast.”

Yukon First Nations Wildfire was founded by wildland firefighters and Indigenous business leaders in 2018 after Da Daghay Development Corporation, a First Nations development corporation, started talks for unified wildland firefighting from among all of the territory’s First Nations in 2015. The partnership has since trained 250 firefighters and deployed nine IA teams in First Nation communities.

Yellowknife firefighters

The 2023 season was the first in a recently renewed three-year agreement for managing wildfire in the territory between the First Nations and Yukon’s government, one that outlines hiring procedures for IA firefighters across the territory.

“Several models for wildfire response are in place across the Yukon depending on the preference of First Nations governments for direct hiring of wildland firefighters or delegating administration to others,” according to a June news release from Yukon’s government. “While some First Nations hire crew members directly through development corporations, others delegate contracts to Yukon First Nations Wildfire. These contracted employees are trained and integrated on a yearly basis into the territorial Wildland Fire Management organization.”

The Yukon First Nations Wildfire partnership specifically includes the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, the White River First Nation, the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, the Liard First Nation, the Kluane First Nation, the Champagne Aishihik First Nation, the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation, and the Ross River Dena Council. Four others — the Selkirk First Nation, the Vuntut First Nation, the Teslin Tlingit First Nation and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, are administered by Development Corporation or First Nations directly.

 

Smokey Bear says he’s now inside of us all in new ad

“Don’t want to start a wildfire, right?” are the last words in the USFS’s latest advertisement featuring Smokey Bear. Well, sort of.

While Smokey Bear does make an appearance, it’s not as a tangible being. Instead, Smokey seems to have become an omnipresent entity that can take over the bodies of humans in order to tell others how to not start wildfires.

screenshot from Smokey's new campfire ad
screenshot from Smokey’s new campfire ad

The “Smokey Is Within” ad campaign shows the spirit of Smokey taking over two women:  one attending a camp outing telling her friends how to properly douse a campfire, and another hiking on the side of a road who instructs a driver on how to not drag his trailer’s chains.

NEW Smokey ad -- he's in you.
NEW Smokey ad — he’s in you.

Numerous boreal forests across the U.S. are still reckoning with Smokey’s legacy of fire suppression. Forest managers, including the USFS itself, have confirmed that a century of fire suppression is the root cause of the increased fuel loads and more intense wildfires we see today.

However, the vast majority of wildfires are still caused by humans — often in exactly the ways demonstrated in the advertisements. Smokey’s pivot toward personal responsibility, rather than bashing a living history of prescribed fires, might be a step in the right direction for the problematic bear.

You can watch the two new ads [HERE] and [HERE].