Photos of lookout tree on Ochoco National Forest in Oregon

Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp

Steve Stenkamp sent us photos of another lookout tree in Oregon. This one is on the Ochoco National Forest between Bend and John Day. Previously he documented one on the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.

Years ago, in order to detect new ignitions of wildfires, land management agencies occasionally took advantage of tall trees on hilltops, building platforms near the top with ladders or other climbing aids below.

Mr. Stenkamp used his Phantom 3 Pro drone to get these photos.

Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp.

“The unique feature is the ‘resting platform’ about 30 feet up,” Mr. Stenkamp said. “The ground cabin was moved to the Ochoco Guard Station when the lookout went out of service.”

Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp
Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Resting platform on the Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp
Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Black Mountain Lookout Tree, USFS archives.

Thanksgiving power shutoffs due to fire danger could affect 76,000 in Southern California

Red Flag Warnings November 26, 2020

Southern California Edison has notified some of their customers that strong Santa Ana winds on Thursday and Friday could result in a preemptive power shutoff on Thanksgiving in order to reduce the chance of wildfires being ignited by power line failures caused by the winds.

The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings from Ventura County south to San Diego County as well as the Lower Colorado River Valley.

The Red Flag Warning goes into effect at 2 p.m. Thursday about the time many Southern Californians will be thinking about sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. It will end at 6 p.m. Friday.

The forecasters expect 40 to 55 mph northeast winds in the lower elevations with isolated gusts to 65 mph in the mountains, with 12 to 25 percent relative humidity Thursday dropping to 8 to 15 percent Friday. The wind will decrease during the weekend but it will remain breezy and dry.

Red Flag Warnings November 26, 2020
Red Flag Warnings November 26, 2020.

The Angeles National Forest will have extra firefighters on duty through this wind event.

Joint Fire Science Program produces map of firefighter burnovers

Map of firefighter burnovers
Screenshot of a map of firefighter burnovers. The size of the circle is proportional to the number of personnel involved. JFSP, November, 2020.

The Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) has produced a story map highlighting some of the organization’s success stories, in particular their research in entrapment avoidance, safety zones, and escape routes.

The screenshot above is from an interesting interactive map in the presentation showing the locations where wildland firefighters were burned over by fires. The size of the circle is proportional to the number of personnel involved in each incident, but not every burnover resulted in fatalities. A click on the circle brings up a few details about the incident.

The JFSP was established by Congress in 1998 and is jointly funded by the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service. The Joint Fire Science Plan written then, (linked to on their website) says the organization “will address issues critical to the success of the fuels management and fire use program.”

In FY 2017, 16 of the 22  JFSP approved and funded research projects were various ways of studying vegetation. Back then we wrote:

It would be refreshing to see more funds put toward projects that would enhance the science, safety, and effectiveness of firefighting.

Since then the emphasis has shifted a little — in a good way. In FY 2020 their research grants were for projects on one of two topics:

  1. Effectiveness of fuel breaks and fuel break systems.
  2. Reducing damages and losses to valued resources from wildfire.

And in FY 2021: (they expect total funding to be $1.5 to $3.5 million):

  1. Sources and distribution of human-caused ignitions and their relation to wildfire impacts.
  2. Reducing damages and losses to valued resources from wildfire.

Wildfire Today continues to advocate for the the JFSP to place a major emphasis on developing science that can be directly used by wildland fire personnel to enhance their safety, firefighting efficiency, and reduce the undesirable and sometimes catastrophic effects of uncontrolled wildfires on citizens, infrastructure, and property. If the JFSP Plan needs to be revised to accomplish this, then let’s get it done.

Deferred maintenance projects for federal fire agencies receive funding

12 projects are for fire management facilities

Yellowstone National Park Visitor Center
Yellowstone National Park Visitor Center. NPS photo.

Federal funding is expected to become available to begin addressing the historically underfunded, multi-billion-dollar deferred maintenance backlog at our national parks and public lands. The Great American Outdoors Act signed in August transfers revenues to our public lands from oil and gas royalty money derived from drilling on federal property. This money is deposited into two funds: the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The potential for $9.5 billion to be deposited into the Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund over the next five years will help cover about half of the current deferred maintenance backlog. The money will be distributed to public land management agencies proportionally to the amount of backlog faced by each agency (70 percent for the National Park Service, 15 percent for the U.S. Forest Service, 5 percent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5 percent for the Bureau of Land Management, and 5 percent for the Bureau of Indian Education).

The Department of the Interior has released a list of the projects that will be funded in the fiscal year that began October, 2020. Many of the projects involve replacing, rehabilitating, or repairing buildings, water systems, sewer systems, and campgrounds for the NPS, BLM, FWS, and BIE.

We found on the list a number of projects related to wildland fire. They are all for the BLM or the National Interagency Fire Center.

  • BLM, California Telecommunication Network; repair critical telecommunications structures and equipment to provide reliable fire and law enforcement communications and protect the safety of the public and staff.
  • BLM, Grand Junction Air Center, Colorado; repair leaking containment pond integral to regional wildland fire aviation operations.
  • National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho;
    • Replace two aging uninterruptable power system (UPS) units that serve a mission critical data center; repair failing subgrade, and heating systems.
    • 405-Hangar; replacement of the outdated fire detection notification system and repair the HVAC system.
    • Repair an aging storm water collection system that is inadequate to manage storm water in accordance with clean water act requirements.
  • BLM, North Central District, Montana; Grub Dam rehabilitation to provide a consistent source of water for habitat and wildland fire.
  • BLM, Winnemucca District, Nevada; replace dilapidated Orovada Crew Quarters at a fire station in McDermitt, NV with a new Fire Station Quarters in Orovada, NV.
  • BLM, Nevada Telecommunications Network, Nevada; repair radio infrastructure across Nevada to provide a communication system that is safe and reliable to support BLM’s fire suppression, law enforcement, and emergency responses.
  • BLM, Burns District, Oregon; the Warm Springs-Stinkingwater project will repair 18 miles of damaged road to provide safe access public wildlife viewing and hunting, wildland firefighting operations, and cattle grazing allotments.
  • BLM, Burns District, Oregon. Replace an aging and deteriorating radio tower to protect public safety and ensure reliable radio service for interagency fire, law enforcement, and employee communications.
  • BLM, Prineville District, Oregon; the Prineville District Sunflower Creek culvert replacement will resolve outstanding safety issues and improve wildland fire response on South Fork John Day Road.
  • BLM, Burns District, Oregon; the Burns Junction Fire Station Repair and Renovation project will renovate the bathrooms, sleeping quarters, kitchen, and laundry facilities of the Fire Station.

The Department of the Interior also released their projects to receive the Land and Water Conservation Fund money this fiscal year. The Act guarantees the Fund will receive $900 million annually.

The Forest Service has a list of deferred maintenance projects for FY 2021 and 2022 that are under consideration, subject to final budget appropriations.

Data for structures destroyed by wildfires in each state

structures burned Almeda Drive Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
Devastation from the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

The traditional way — and the easiest way — to compare wildfire seasons is the number of acres burned. That figure is fairly straightforward and reliable, at least for data within the last 35 years; before 1984 the data is questionable.

But blackened acres does not tell the whole story about the effects of fires on humans. A 50,000-acre fire in a northwestern California wilderness area has fewer direct impacts on the population than, for instance, the 3,200-acre Almeda Fire that destroyed 2,357 residences in Southern Oregon a few months ago.

Top most destructive wildfires in the United States
Top most destructive wildfires in the United States. Headwaters Economics.

Headwaters Economics has built a user friendly interactive data base of the number of structures, by state, destroyed by wildfires from 2005 to 2020. It presumably includes all structures, including back yard sheds, other outbuildings, commercial buildings, and residences.

Here are three screenshots, examples for the entire U.S., Colorado, and Montana.

Top most destructive wildfires Montana
Top most destructive wildfires in Montana. Headwaters Economics.
Top most destructive wildfires Colorado
Top most destructive wildfires in Colorado. Headwaters Economics.

The best way to prevent homes from being destroyed in a wildfire is not clear cutting or prescribed burning a forest, it is the homeowner reducing flammable material in the Home Ignition Zone. This includes spacing the crowns of trees at least 18 feet apart that are within 30 feet of the home, 12 feet apart at 30 to 60 feet, and 6 feet apart at 60 to 100 feet. The envelope of the structure itself must be fire resistant, including the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home. When implemented, Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, regulates these features.

firewise wildfire risk home tree spacing
Firewise vegetation clearance recommendations. NFPA.

For more information: Six things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities.

And, Community destruction during extreme wildfires is a home ignition problem. Here is an excerpt from the article written by Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier:

Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable; however, by reducing home ignition potential within the Home Ignition Zone we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Unfortunately, protecting communities from wildfire by reducing home ignition potential runs counter to established orthodoxy.

TBT: Wally Bennett: "We’ve got a lot less of the toys we need to do the job"

For Throwback Thursday we are revisiting an article published February 28, 2008 about an issue that is still before us today.

At a three-day conference organized by FireSafe Montana, Wally Bennett, a Type 1 Incident Commander, told the group that climate change and fewer air tankers and hand crews are making the job of wildland firefighters more difficult.

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

“Coming summers will bring more and bigger wildfires to the Northern Rockies. But it also will bring fewer firefighters, less equipment for them to use, and more and more homes to protect in flammable landscapes.

That’s the message spelled out Tuesday by climate and firefighting experts at a conference at the Bozeman Holiday Inn.

“We’ve got a lot less of the toys we need to do the job we’re doing out there,” said Wally Bennett, a veteran commander of a Type I incident command team, the type of force that tackles large and complex blazes.

Bennett was one of the speakers at the three-day conference organized by FireSafe Montana, a fledgling nonprofit group that is trying to motivate landowners, county governments, developers and other entities to do more to protect private land before wildfire reaches it.

Several years ago, Bennett said, firefighting teams had 32 large retardant planes available to them. Last year, they had 16.

The number of 20-person hand teams has declined from roughly 750 to about 450 over the same time period, he said, and that number is likely to fall further.

“There’s not enough to go around,” he said.

That’s partly because a rookie firefighter can earn about the same pay flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Meanwhile, a warming climate is bringing earlier snowmelt along with hotter, drier summers, said Faith Anne Heisch, a climate researcher who works with Steve Running, the University of Montana professor who was part of the Nobel-prize winning International Panel on Climate Change.”