Fire updates 07/28

Nebraska gets an airtanker

Thanks to the Nebraska legislature’s passage this year of the Wildfire Control Act, a single-engine airtanker (SEAT) and three airtanker bases are now available in the northwest part of the state. The contracted SEAT came on duty July 15 and SEAT bases will be managed by the Nebraska Forest Service (NFS) at Valentine, Chadron, and Alliance.

“Mega-fires” in Nebraska?

Below is an excerpt from a press release from the Nebraska Forest Service about the above airtanker, along with a warning about possible “mega-fires” in Nebraska:

The Legislature passed the Wildfire Control Act to beef up the state’s approach to wildfires in the wake of massive summer blazes last year that threatened property and strained local budgets. The effort to place more firefighting resources in remote corners of the state comes as forestry officials warn the state is likely to face more massive wildfires in the future.

Dr. Scott Josiah, state forester, has said he expects Nebraska to have larger and more intense “mega-fires,” citing heat, drought and climate change, as well as the spread of the highly flammable eastern redcedar tree.

The SEAT is a step in the right direction, but we doubt that one 800-gallon aircraft can prevent or suppress a “mega-fire.”

I don’t know whether there is a generally accepted definition of the term “mega-fire,” but at Wildfire Today we have used it to describe fires that burn more than 100,000 acres.

A study on how fire affects bats and other critters

Nick Goforth is working on an MS degree in natural resources management at Texas Tech University. His project examines bat activity at wildfire sites and prescribed fire sites in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. You can see an update on his projects at the Verble Fire Ecology Lab website.

A call for more technology for wildland firefighters

Civic Duty, a non-profit charity co-founded by Dr. Michael Omidi and his brother Julian Omidi, recommends using new technology to improve firefighter safety following the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Below is an excerpt from a press release distributed by the organization:

“Fighting wildfires is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world,” says retired CAL FIRE Captain Norman Howell. “Fire creates its own weather. It’s unpredictable, almost like a wild animal, and can turn 180 degrees on you in seconds.”

We may never fully understand all of the circumstances that led to the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. “I can’t second-guess their decisions,” observes Howell. “But I do know that more new technology can be developed to improve firefighter safety.”


… Howell believes that firefighter safety can be significantly improved with upgrades to protective gear and providing crews with GPS communications equipment that can relay real-time heat patterns and fire behavior data to men on the ground.

A recent New York Times article supports Howell’s thirty-plus years of life-and-death experience fighting wildfires. Weather satellites high overhead can monitor wildfire activity, and capture images of thunderstorms as they form, giving hints of the gusty winds that often accompany them. Remote-controlled unmanned aircraft, flying over a blaze for hours at a time, can take infrared photographs that show its shifting edges.

Those images could be beamed to portable devices carried by firefighters. “That information could all be available on mobile devices in real time so folks could reference that periodically as they’re out in the field fighting the fire,” said Tim Sexton, who manages the Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management Research, Development and Application program. This summer, in a pilot program, the Forest Service is testing out Android tablets. Last year the agency tested iPads and smartphones.

Colorado nursery donates plants to victims of wildfires

A nursery in Pueblo is donating thousands of perennial plants to victims of the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires that destroyed over 800 homes in and near Pueblo within the last year. Southwest Farms teamed up with volunteers at a Colorado Springs church on Saturday and handed out 6,000 plants and a mix of native grasses.

Northern Plains fires tax local resources

The Wellnitz Fire in Nebraska burned to about 60,000 acres with just 20 percent containment today, according to Jerry Kearns with the Rushville Volunteer Fire Department.  The Sheridan County Journal Star reported that 34 members of the Army Nebraska National Guard’s Chadron-based 1057th light/medium truck company showed up on the fire this morning. The fire is burning east of the 87,000-acre Region 23 Complex, comprised of the the Douthit and West Ash fires.

Region23 Complex
Darrell Hartmann photo

The Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Team A has been ordered for the Wellnitz (Metcalf) Fire in Sheridan County.

KCSR News reported that an area of about 46,000 acres in the Pine Ridge area of northern Sheridan County is now involved, and a report on said that crews from over 20 area volunteer fire departments are fighting the fire. About 50 households in the sparsely inhabited area were warned to evacuate – 20 of those were mandatory evacuation orders.

UPDATE 22:41 PDT: The inciweb site has the Region 23 Complex tonight at 47 percent containment at 87,555 acres. The two fires in that complex are the Douthit Fire northwest of Crawford and the West Ash fire southeast of Crawford and south of Chadron. The IMT reported that one of the DC-10 airtankers made three drops for a total of 36,000 gallons of retardant.

Idaho fire invades western Montana

Mustang Fire August 29, 2012
Mustang Fire August 29, 2012, NASA

Fire managers have set up a new camp in the West Fork of the Bitterroot to engage the Montana portion of the enormous Mustang Fire that started in Idaho and burned across the state line.

A roll-over vehicle accident occurred in the Sage Creek area this afternoon; one person was transported and admitted to a local hospital.

The complex is just 16 percent contained tonight at well over 205,000 acres [map]. A couple hundred firefighters will be assigned to the new fire camp.

Mustang Fire along the Salmon River
Mustang Fire along the Salmon River – USFS photo

Brian Harris, a fire information officer on the Mustang Complex, said the fire’s burned to within a couple of miles of the Hughes Creek area of the West Fork of the Bitterroot.

“This fire is so large and so massive and the weather has been so uncooperative that firefighters have only been able to put speed bumps in front of the fire in an attempt to slow it down,” Harris said.

He said crews are installing sprinklers and removing fuels in some areas. USFS Darby District Ranger Chuck Oliver said there’s some concern about the proximity of the fire to the Lost Trail Ski Area – not far from a contentious area of late with locals because of the ski cabin built and run by locals who have recently been unjustly stiffed by the USFS.

Late Thursday afternoon, the fire was about 12 air miles away from the ski area.

“We don’t want to give people any indication that the fire is imminent,” Oliver said. “We are just beginning to talk about the what-ifs so we can start preparing contingency plans should the fire move this way.”

The fire took off and made a 30,000-acre run on Tuesday. Air quality conditions in the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys had deteriorated by Thursday afternoon, according to the Billings Gazette, from smoke pouring in from Idaho.

Fires won’t ruin hunting, but they can rearrange your trip

Fires are burning hundreds of thousands of acres of prime hunting ground in central Idaho. But Mike Demick with Idaho Fish and Game says hunters don’t need to worry about a ruined season. “It may affect where they want to go or where they went in the past, but overall the fires are a small percentage,” Demick told KBOI News. “There’s still millions and millions of acres out there where people can hunt.”

He explained that wildfires benefit the habitat for wildlife, producing more open country with grass and forage for big game species.

Just don’t get trapped.

The Alpine Lake Fire northwest of Lander, Wyoming, roared down a mountain toward five fishermen camped at a favorite spot. Twenty-two miles into the rugged Wind River Range on August 13, San Diego angler Larry Landeros, his father-in-law, his brother-in-law, and two friends watched as the forest around them went up in flames.

The Casper Star Tribune reported that Landeros, an officer with the California Highway Patrol, has been fishing Alpine Lake for 25 years. The group made a 10-hour horseback trip into the area. They saw a small smoke column off in the distance but weren’t too concerned about it; their outfitter rode back out and reported the fire the next day.

The next day, though, a helicopter landed at the lake and firefighters came out of the forest and told the fishermen that the fire had surged and jumped over part of the lake and river. The fire was under a hundred yards from the lake. They pulled their tents and carried their stuff onto a green, grassy peninsula that stretched out from shore into the lake; the fire torched up in the middle of the night, but the fishermen were safe on their little peninsula.
Alpine Lake Fire
Their outfitter, meanwhile, learned from the USFS that the way in was blocked by fire and he couldn’t go back in after the fishermen. A helicopter took them out the next day, flying them out in three separate trips.

Heads up out there, people.

The Parish Cabin Fire in eastern Oregon trapped a Portland couple who were bowhunting in the wilderness; they managed to make it to safety without a helicopter evacuation.

Spearfish homeowners’ association receives Firewise award

Firewise communities are designated to ensure protection against wildfires, and they’re more important than ever in drought years with huge fuel loads and diminished firefighting resources.

“It’s kind of scary right now with all the wildfires because it’s just so dry,” said Mary Hayenga with the Mountain Plains 2 subdivision homeowner’s association. “Our goal is to make sure everyone has taken the necessary steps to protect their property from wildfire.” Hayenga heads up Firewise efforts in her neighborhood in Spearfish, South Dakota, and the Black Hills Pioneer reports that residents recently received a Firewise award for 10 years of participation in the program.
“If we can save one home,” she said,, “it’s worth the effort, because all we keep hearing is that it’s not a matter of if …  it’s a matter of when.”

The Firewise Communities Program encourages local solutions for wildfire safety by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters, and others in reducing the risk wildfires in their area. The program through the National Fire Protection Association is co-sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters.

Hayenga said that after the Maitland Road and Jasper wildfires 12 years ago, the subdivision’s residents formed a wildfire committee to encourage homeowners to reduce fuel loading on their properties. They also made efforts reduce dead wood by fighting the pine beetle, which before this year’s flight had infested more than 144,000 acres of national forest lands. In 2002, the committee formed a Firewise plan and conducted tours of area homes to assess the situation. Hayenga said homeowners have been enthusiastic about reducing fuels on their property or have hired loggers to handle the task.

Montana fires ripping under red flag conditions

Firefighters struggled yesterday in fighting Montana wildfires that have burned homes and caused injuries. One new fire was reported south of Ashland, and two others erupted in Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman. One of the Gallatin Canyon fires was contained by late afternoon. The 19 Mile Fire is about 2 percent contained at 4,000 acres; it’s southeast of Butte, south of I-90 and north of Highway 2. Firefighters are working on structure protection in the Whiskey Gulch area.

19 Mile Fire
The 19 Mile fire torched this and other residences on Thursday. Photo by Steve DiGiovanna, Madison County Disaster & Emergency Services.

According to an AP report, a new wildfire in Paradise Valley near Yellowstone National Park took off Wednesday and resulted in minor injuries to firefighters and members of the public. The Pine Creek Fire caught residents unaware; they were forced to flee the village of Pine Creek, south of Livingston, without packing any bags. Park County Commissioner Marty Malone said about 200 people live in the area and that some tried to fight the fire themselves, including a man who turned a hose on the flames until the power to an electric water pump was cut off by the fire and the water stopped running.

The fire’s now at 12,000 acres with zero containment; a red flag warning is in effect through Saturday. There are approximately 150 personnel assigned, including two hotshot crews, nine engines, two water tenders, two dozers, and four helicopters. Additional resources will be arriving throughout the day.

Pine Creek Fire Map
Pine Creek Fire Map 08/30/2012 @ 9 a.m.

Some residents have been allowed back to their homes. East River Road is closed from the north junction at highway 89 down to just south of Barney Creek. Pine Creek Road is also closed. Areas that are still closed to all residents are those that live on Deep Creek Road, Deep Creek Bench Road, and Deep Creek Road South Fork. The area from Pool Creek down south to Barney Creek is closed to all residents, and also along Pine Creek Road.

High temperatures and erratic winds have pushed the fires through drought-dry fuels. With nine large fires burning in Montana, officials said there was increasing competition for adequate equipment and personnel. “We are making do with what we can get,” said U.S. Forest Service information officer Karen Tuscano.