Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region postpones all prescribed fires

Safely fighting a wildfire during the pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to be extremely difficult

risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk of conducting prescribed fires based on COVID-19 pandemic conditions. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

(UPDATED at 3:56 p.m. MDT March 23, 2020)

Wildfire Today confirmed on March 23 that the U.S. Forest Service has postponed all new ignitions on prescribed fires.


(Originally published at 9:43 a.m. MDT March 21, 2020)

The U.S. Forest Rocky Mountain Region, Region 2, has postponed all planned prescribed fires due to the conditions that exist during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien made the decision after an assessment was conducted that evaluated risks to employees and the public, as well as the ability to mitigate the risks. She consulted with Fire and Aviation Management staff, a leadership group of line officers, and members of the region’s Type 1 Incident Management Team.

U.S. Forest Service Regions map
U.S. Forest Service Regions

The Forest Service has also postponed all prescribed fires in California (Region 5) and the Southern Region (Region 8). Other Forest Service regions are considering or may have implemented similar prescribed fire postponements.

The Rocky Mountain Region’s assessment for the current situation identified risk factors and the ability to mitigate those risks (as shown in the illustration at the top of the article). They included:

Risk to Public of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic

  • Extra holding resources may be brought in from areas where known COVID-19 community spread has occurred or is ongoing, bringing possible unknown infections into an area with little or no known infections.  No community spread occurring.
  • No real way to mitigate public interaction with the need to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
  • Need for contingency resources from the local area may put additional stress on an already stressed system.
  • Increasing smoke with pandemic respiratory illness globally.

Risk to Employees of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic

  • Resources will likely be required to travel and rely on restaurants, extra gas stops, public facilities, and stays in hotels.
  • No real way to mitigate interaction from the public at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, etc. This may increase odds of community spread.
  • Needed extra planning for medical facilities in the event we have community spread through our organization.
  • Briefings and face to face meetings are generally part of standard practice and required.

Ability to Mitigate risk of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic

  • No known vaccine.
  • Unclear on actual risk factors.
  • Community spread known within the Region.
  • Unhygienic conditions.
  • No ability to separate from public and each other.

The factors above led to the decision to pause or postpone all prescribed fires in the Region.

A second risk assessment considered the conditions needed to allow prescribed fires to again be conducted. (as shown in the illustration below) It included:

Risk to the public of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved

  • Extra holding resources may be brought in from areas where known COVID-19 exists but little or no community spread has occurred or is ongoing. Thus, unlikely to bring possible unknown infections into an area with little or no known infections.  No community spread occurring.
  • There is little need to mitigate public interaction with the needs to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
  • Scheduling or utilizing contingency resources from the local area will likely not put additional stress on the system.
  • Smoke Impacts on the public in communities will likely not increase acute illness or exasperate ongoing illnesses caused by the COVID-19.  By ensuring this we will likely be back within acceptable levels and normal operating circumstances.

Risk to Employees of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved

  • Resources will likely be required to travel and rely on restaurants, extra gas stops, public facilities, and stay in hotels with little community spread. Restaurants are functioning more under “normal” staffing.
  • Little need to mitigate public interaction with the needs to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
  • No known need for extra planning for medical facilities in the event we have community spread through our organization.
  • Briefings and face to face meetings are generally part of standard practice and required.  Often these briefing are greater than 50 individuals with little known community spread. This risk will be negligible.

Ability to Mitigate risk of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved

  • Known vaccine.
  • Actual risk factors known, and facts are clear regarding spread, and treatment.
  • Community spread limited or halted within the Region.
  • No large scale needs to separate from public and each other.
risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk that would allow prescribed fires to be restored after COVID-19 conditions have improved. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

Below is a statement issued March 20, 2020 by the Rocky Mountain Regional Office:


“The Forest Service remains focused on the safety and well-being of our employees and the public we serve across the U.S. and abroad. Our mission-critical work, such as suppressing wildfires, law enforcement, and other public service responsibilities, will continue within appropriate risk management strategies, current guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, and local health and safety guidelines. At this time, the Forest Service continues to remain open and operational, and we are committed to the continuity of our mission. In areas of community spread where telework has been maximized, we are working to exercise our technology capabilities where possible to ensure connection and service to the public. At this time, we encourage visitors to contact their local forest, grassland or ranger district for the latest office hours and availability.

“The decision to postpone [prescribed fire] ignitions will:

  • “Prevent any effects from smoke that might further endanger at-risk members of our communities, and
  • “Reduce exposure for Forest Service employees, cooperators and other resources assigned to the prescribed fire who would not be able to follow current guidance on unnecessary travel and social distancing.”

Our opinion

After going through the analysis above it becomes obvious that during the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting a wildfire is at least as risky as conducting a prescribed fire. It is actually more so since on a prescribed fire you have months to carefully plan and attempt to mitigate the risks in advance where possible, and you are managing a carefully controlled fire. When wildfire breaks out there are many unknowns during the emergency — where, when, the weather, fuel conditions, which firefighting resources will be there and where they will come from. Lives and property could be at risk which may lead firefighters to make decisions they could later regret.

Safely fighting a wildfire during a pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to incredibly difficult. I am not sure if it can be done safely even if everyone involved has been tested for the virus and squadrons of air tankers and helicopters are used to the max in numbers not previously seen.

air tanker Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019 DC-10
A DC-10 air tanker, T-911, drops on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

There will be two choices — fight the fire and put firefighters and possibly the public at risk of being infected by the virus as large numbers of firefighters assemble, or, attack it primarily from the air very, very aggressively, perhaps limited to point protection (high-value areas) — and otherwise let it burn.

An additional issue is how to protect the public during an evacuation. What would an evacuation center with hundreds of refugees look like while attempting to maintain a six-foot separation distance and isolating high-risk individuals and anyone that has been exposed to the virus? Testing everyone at an evacuation center for the virus would be helpful if the results could be obtained quickly.

Earlier this week we wrote more about fighting wildfire during a pandemic. And, in 2009 we covered the H1N1 or “Swine Flu” pandemic.

Midewin Hotshots assignment Missouri
The Midewin Hotshots on an assignment in Missouri, posted March 15, 2020.

Prescribed fire planned in footprint of the 2000 Jasper Fire

The wildfire burned 83,000 acres 15 miles west of Custer, South Dakota

Anti-Horse Project prescribed fire Black Hills National Forest
Photo taken Oct. 2016 on the Anti-Horse Project; Black Hills National Forest photo.

The Black Hills National Forest plans to ignite the 2,700-acre Anti-Horse prescribed fire Wednesday March 11, if the weather is suitable.

“This is scheduled to be a two day burn, however we may burn into Friday March 13th if conditions warrant,” said Josh Morgan, Fuels Assistant Fire Manager Officer, Hell Canyon Ranger District.

The Anti-Horse Project area is located approximately 15 air miles west of Custer, South Dakota and 17 miles east of Newcastle, WY in the Surveyor Hill Road/Jasper Fire area, across from the U.S. Forest Service Tepee Work Center.

The objective of the burn is to reduce long term fire hazards and improve health and vigor of forested stands in portions of the Jasper fire area. In 2000 the 83,000-acre Jasper Fire created extensive areas of dead and dying stands. The dead trees have fallen to the ground, creating high concentrations of fuel on the ground that create a hazard to firefighters, the public, and forest resources.

2000 Jasper fire
The Jasper fire, about 2 hours after it started on August 25, 2000. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2013 a decision was signed which allows 16,500 acres of fire hazard reduction in the Jasper Fire and the nearby Roger’s Shack Fire. Over the course of about 10 years, prescribed burning is being used to reduce the fire hazard in these areas. In addition, the decision includes about 650 acres of thinning to improve the health and vigor of islands of forest stands within these areas. “Over the next several years we will work on this project to make the area more resilient for the future,” said District Ranger Lynn Kolund when he signed the decision in April, 2013.

Report released for escaped prescribed fire northwest of Fort Collins, CO

The project was on private land, the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch

Elk Fire Map
Map showing the location of the escaped prescribed fire in northern Colorado, which was named Elk after the escape.

A five-page report described as an executive summary has been released for a prescribed fire that escaped on private land last fall in Colorado. As required by state law, the review was completed by a team of subject matter experts led by the Compliance and Professional Standards Office of the state’s Department of Public Safety.

The Nature Conservancy planned and executed the Elkhorn Creek Unit #4 prescribed fire that took place on the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, private property located in Larimer County, Colorado 25 miles northwest of Fort Collins. It was part of a forest restoration effort aimed to reduce the impact of high severity wildfire on Elkhorn Creek, an important tributary of the Poudre River.

On day two of the project a spot fire occurred an hour after cloud cover moved out of the area. It was suppressed, but later two more ignited.

Below are excerpts from the report:


Located in dry, dead grass on a steep slope aligned with strong westerly winds, these two spots quickly grew together and began spreading rapidly away from the unit towards the Glacier View community to the east. Leadership personnel, quickly determining that on-site resources would not be able to contain the fire, immediately ordered ground and aerial resources and then declared the wildfire at 3:59 PM. In total, the fire burned 682 acres, with 118 acres outside of the planned boundaries of the project and 82 acres off the Scout Ranch property. One outbuilding was destroyed by the fire.

[…]

Recommendations for All Prescribed Fire Practitioners

1.  A strong understanding of fire weather is critical to mitigating risk and responding to changing conditions. Review fire weather concepts presented in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Intermediate Wildland Fire Weather Behavior (S-290) course and fire weather data acquisition and analysis concepts presented in the NWCG Intermediate National Fire Danger Rating System (S-491) course before each fire season utilizing an Incident Meteorologist (IMET), a Long Term Fire Analyst (LTAN), Fire Behavior Analyst (FBAN), or other knowledgeable individual, and incorporate these concepts into development of prescribed fire plans.

  • Review and remain diligent regarding the differences between 20-ft sustained 10 minute average winds, gusts, eye level, and midflame wind speeds.
  • Ensure on-site wind measurements are consistent with the type of wind parameters used in the prescribed fire plan, or ensure that accurate conversion techniques are accurately and consistently applied.

2. Apply “lessons re-learned” from the factors and best practices identified as being common between this prescribed fire and previous prescribed fires that were later declared wildfires.

Recommendations for The Nature Conservancy

3. Evaluate and refine the collaborative burning approach, including considerations for additional cooperative or partnership agreements to increase the experience level below that of overhead or trainee positions on high consequence prescribed fires.

4. Consider the full adoption of the DFPC Colorado Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Policy Guide as well as the Prescribed Fire Complexity Rating System Guide (NWCG PMS-424-1).

  • Adoption of these guides would increase consistency and support cooperation between The Nature Conservancy and DFPC and other Colorado partners.

Recommendations for the Division of Fire Prevention and Control

5. Evaluate all DFPC statutory and policy frameworks and craft solutions to align with all three co-equal goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

  • Changes to DFPC’s organizational focus and statutory authority may be necessary to reduce wildfire risk to communities and create resilient landscapes. In the face of an increasingly complex wildland fire environment, the ability to implement proactive measures must be part of a holistic strategy to reduce risk.

 

Do not try this at home

pile burning back pump torch
Pile burning back in the day on the Challis National Forest. Photo by Rick Freimuth.

Rick Freimuth sent us this photo, and said, “This is late season pile burning on the Lost River RD of the, then, Challis NF. I had totally forgotten our sketchy setup of Indian pumps rigged for burning. I’m sure the fuel mix was heavy on the gas side, not to mention the even sketchier igniting wand out front. Where’s our Nomex? Things have definitely changed for the better.”

For those not familiar with the device on the person’s back, it is designed to hold five gallons of water which is used to suppress or mop up a fire.

He did not say if they ever got the back pumps mixed up and used the wrong one on a fire.

Thanks Rick!

Have drone will travel

Lakeview Hotshots are assisting with prescribed fires in the Southeast

Lakeview IHC drone Operation
Lakeview Hotshots assisting with a burn operation in Alaska in 2019. Photo by Lakeview Hotshots..

On February 6, 2020 the Lakeview Interagency Hotshots posted on Instagram saying that they are “ready for RX [prescribed fire] support in the Southeast.” Currently they have prescribed fire modules deployed in the southeast, usually with eight to 10 firefighters each.

The post included the hashtag #ignis2 which refers to the second generation aerial ignition module Drone Amplified is manufacturing which enables drones to conduct aerial ignition on prescribed fires or wildfires. The crew included in their post the next two photos showing a drone aerial ignition system and a drone, both disassembled and packed into cases.

This year the Lakeview Hotshots have four qualified drone pilots. In 2018 their four pilots together completed over 100 missions.

Lakeview IHC drone Operation
An aerial ignition system made by Drone Amplified posted Feb. 6, 2020 by @lakeview_hotshots on Instagram.
Lakeview IHC drone Operation
A Matrice 600 drone made by DJI, posted Feb. 6, 2020 by @lakeview_hotshots on Instagram.

Before the Lakeview IHC acquired Hotshot status in 2018 they were the Lakeview Crew 7 formed by the Bureau of Land Management. The crew was initially created in 2000 and reorganized in 2011 to help military veterans transition to productive civilian careers. Today it is comprised almost entirely of U.S. military veterans. The crew has been funded under the BLM Veterans Crew Program since 2012.

Lakeview IHC
Lakeview Hotshots photo, Alaska in 2019. Lakeview Hotshots photo.

Learn more about BLM career opportunities for veterans:
https://www.blm.gov/careers/veterans

WTREX provides prescribed fire training for women

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges are supported by TNC, USFS, and DOI

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange
Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange event in Florida, March, 2019. WTREX photo.

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX) holds 12-day training sessions to help women advance their formal qualifications in wildland fire management. The goal is to enhance their understanding of fire ecology, fire effects, communications, outreach, prescribed fire policy, and planning. At least three sessions have occurred, in Florida and California.

When the U.S. fire management system was conceived in the early 1900s, women’s roles in the workforce were much different than they are now. Even today, women constitute a relatively small proportion of the workforce, filling roughly 10 percent of wildland fire positions and only 7 in 100 leadership roles. In recent years, there has been an increased effort to recruit women into fire, yet social and cultural challenges remain. New recruits often find the dominant fire management system to be dismissive of female perspectives and strengths, even as its increasing complexity requires fresh approaches and insights.

More information about all types of Prescribed Fire Training Exchange events can be found at The Nature Conservancy and at the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) Facebook page.

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange
Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange event in Florida, March, 2019. WTREX photo.

WTREX is supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resilience and Fire Adapted Communities Together, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, and agencies of the Department of the Interior.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paula. Typos or errors, report them HERE.