THURSDAY WEBINAR: Don’t miss this

Voices from the global fire community

 

 

 

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 22 at 3:00 PM MST

aim camera here to registerReflections from 20 years
Examining the Social Dynamics
of Fire Management

Sarah McCaffrey, PhD

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah McCaffrey retired in 2022 after 20 years as a fire social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service; her research focused on understanding the social dynamics of fire management. This included research projects examining the role of risk perception and risk attitudes, social acceptability of prescribed fire, homeowner mitigation decisions, evacuation decision making, risk communication, and agency-community interactions during fires. Since retirement she has been involved with research and practitioner efforts to improve future fire outcomes, including as an adviser to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Wildfire Resilience Initiative and as board member for Fire Adapted Colorado.

REGISTER HEREMcCaffrey received her PhD in 2002 from the University of California at Berkeley, where her dissertation examined homeowner views and actions in relation to defensible space and fuels management at Incline Village, Nevada.


The International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), the Pau Costa Foundation (PCF), and the Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) organize the Partner Webinar Series, a monthly series that brings together diverse voices from the global wildland fire community. To suggest a topic or speaker for this series, please contact us.

1959 Decker Fire memories

We got a note today from Anna Dailey about the 1959 Decker Fire, which Bill Gabbert wrote about back in 2013. Three of the six firefighters killed on the Decker were El Cariso Hotshots — Bill Gabbert’s old crew.

Boyd Edwards, El Cariso Hotshots
Boyd “Mike” Edwards, El Cariso Hotshots

“I just read the report on the Decker Fire of 1959. My 2nd cousin Boyd M. Edwards was killed on that fire. Although Boyd, or Mike as the family called him, was killed about 2½ years before I was born, I grew up knowing how his death devastated our family. Not much was shared with me regarding his death, all I knew was that he died the summer after high school graduation fighting a fire. Now I know many of the details and I was in tears reading it. RIP to everyone who lost their lives that day and the days that followed.”

Anna attached a picture of Boyd, who was buried in Huntington Beach, California. She said she never knew until reading Gabbert’s report this week that her cousin lasted 8 days in the hospital before he succumbed to his injuries.

(NOTE in Gabbert’s 2013 news post that there used to be a report about the Decker Fire on wildfirelessons.net and it’s no longer there. The 1959 report is HERE.)

Bill Gabbert wrote in 2016:
The official report did a pretty good job of explaining the important facts of August 8, 1959. But more than half a century later, a former firefighter who served on the El Cariso Hotshots from 1963 through 1966 conducted extensive research on what happened that day in 1959 and assembled many details that were not included in the U.S. Forest Service report. Julian Lee, Professor of Biology, Emeritus at the University of Miami (now living in New Mexico), made available to us his 27-page description of the Decker Fire. It is very well written and comprehensive, laying out the details of what occurred during and after the fire, as well as providing some analysis.”

Map from Julian Lee’s report on the fatal Decker Fire:

Map from Julian Lee’s report on the fatal Decker Fire.

ALSO:
https://wildfiretoday.com/2013/08/08/firefighters-on-falls-fire-observe-anniversary-of-decker-fire/

The Decker fire, 51 years ago today

https://wildfiretoday.com/2011/10/08/wildland-firefighter-memorial-dedicated-in-california/

Decker fire, 50 years ago today

El Dorado Fire couple finally sentenced

The couple who ignited the huge 2020 El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County, California by exploding a pyrotechnic device during a “gender-reveal party” was sentenced Friday after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

Charlie Morton, Big Bear Hotshots
Charlie Morton, Big Bear Hotshots

The couple accidentally started the 22,000-acre fire on a scorching hot day in a park in southern California with a device that was supposed to blow either blue or pink smoke. The fire killed USFS firefighter Charlie Morton, a squad boss with the Big Bear Hotshots, injured two other firefighters and 13 civilians, destroyed five homes, and forced hundreds of people to evacuate ahead of the fire.

The San Bernardino County district attorney’s office said Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. was sentenced to a year in county jail and two years of felony probation, plus community service — after he pleaded guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter (in Morton’s death) plus two felony counts of recklessly causing fire to an inhabited structure.

USA Today reported that besides jail time, Jimenez will owe 200 hours of community service and will also serve two years of felony probation.

“Resolving the case was never going to be a win,” San Bernardino County district attorney Jason Anderson said. “The Defendants’ reckless conduct had tremendous impact on land, properties, emergency response resources, and the displacement of entire communities — and resulted in the tragic death of Forest Service Wildland Firefighter Charles Morton.”

Angelina Jimenez pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing a fire to another’s property; she was sentenced to a year’s probation and community service. The Jimenezes were ordered to pay victim  restitution of $1,789,972.

Charlie Morton hired on with the San Bernardino National Forest in 2007 and worked on both the Front Country and Mountaintop Ranger Districts, for the Mill Creek Interagency Hotshots, Engine 31, Engine 19, and the Big Bear Interagency Hotshots. “Charlie is survived by his wife and daughter, his parents, two brothers, cousins, and friends,” wrote his family at that time. “He’s loved and will be missed. May he rest easy in heaven.”

A note from the Chief’s Office at the time said, “The loss of an employee in the line of duty is one of the hardest things we face in our Forest Service family. Our hearts go out to Charlie’s coworkers, friends and loved ones. Charlie was a well-respected firefighter and leader who was always there for his squad and his crew at the toughest times.”

RIP Charlie and all his brothers.

The couple who ignited the huge 2020 El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County, California by exploding a pyrotechnic device during a “gender-reveal party” was sentenced Friday after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

Charlie Morton, Big Bear Hotshots
The couple accidentally started the 22,000-acre fire on a scorching hot day in a park in southern California with a device that was supposed to blow either blue or pink smoke. The fire killed USFS firefighter Charlie Morton, a squad boss with the Big Bear Hotshots,

Less than 70 percent of Kansas wildfires are reported. Here’s why:

Kansas’ recognition as a top fire state has long been overdue.

The state experiences at least 5,000 wildfires annually, which ranks it among the top five states for number of wildfire incidents in the country among the likes of Texas, Oregon, and Montana. Kansas is also a top prescribed burning state in acreage, with well over one million acres burned yearly, according to the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils.

Despite this, Kansas is far from the first state many think of when wildfires are mentioned. A large reason for this, according to Kansas Forest Service Interim Fire Management Officer Eric Ward, is that wildfires have been chronically underreported throughout the state.

“The lack of reporting has been identified for years as a problem,” Ward said. “The problem is that, unlike many states, wildfires are nearly 100 percent a local responsibility.”

Kansas fire

The Kansas Governor’s Wildfire Task Force final report of 2023 estimated  that around 30 percent of the state’s wildfires go unreported annually. Ward attributed the underreporting to two aspects of the state: the lack of federally-owned land and the state’s designation as a “Home Rule” state.

In the nation, Kansas has the third-least amount of federally owned land compared with  privately owned land, according to a 2020 Congressional Research Service report. Only 253,919 acres of Kansas’ total 52,510,720 acreage, or 0.5 percent, is federally owned. The only other states with such a low federal land ownership are Connecticut and Iowa, both at 0.3 percent.

Additionally, Kansas has been a Home Rule state since 1961 by constitutional amendment, meaning that local jurisdictions, to an extent, have greater autonomy — and state interference in local affairs is limited. Kansas is also a “Dillon’s Rule” state, meaning that local governments only have powers that are explicitly assigned to them.

Kansas fire

Because of this combination, the duty of reporting usually falls to local jurisdictions, some of which fail to file the proper paperwork.

“[Kansas Forest Service] supports local fire departments as requested on major incidents, but as a home rule state, the local jurisdiction is still in charge, and responsible for reporting,” Ward said.

“With the vast majority of departments being small volunteer departments, some simply ignore the state law that requires reporting. And no one at any level of government wants to prosecute a local volunteer fire chief for not doing paperwork. So, many simply never get reported.”

Research suggests Kansas and other wildfire-prone states are projected to have 30 more days per year of extreme wildfire risk in the near future. To meet the current and future wildfire challenges, the state appointed a new State Fire Marshal last November and released a new wildfire risk tool last October. However, until wildfires are accurately reported in the state, Kansas won’t be getting the recognition of a top wildfire state that it deserves.

Kansas’ recognition as a top fire state has long been overdue.

The state experiences at least 5,000 wildfires annually, which ranks it among the top five states for number of wildfire incidents in the country among the likes of Texas, Oregon, and Montana. Kansas is also a top prescribed burning state in acreage, with well over one million acres burned yearly, according to the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils.

Colorado hit by increasingly dire wildfire-driven insurance exit

Insurance isn’t the sexiest topic to either write or read about, but an extreme weather-driven downtrend of insurance agency availability is tightening the noose on an already suffocating national housing market.

The U.S. had its highest number — 28 — of annual billion-dollar weather disasters in 2023,  including the Lahaina wildfire, California flooding, and Tropical Cyclone Idalia in Florida, according to a NOAA report. Homeowner insurance agencies’ response to the continually rising costs has either been to drastically increase their insurance rates or to back out from certain areas entirely.

The dire situation first made national headlines last year when numerous agencies, including State Farm, Allstate and Farmers, either paused or placed heavy restrictions on policyholders in wildfire-prone areas in California. Seven of the state’s top 12 insurance agencies have put the restrictions into effect as of November, ABC News reported.

Colorado appears to be the next state to face extremely tight, or nonexistent, homeowner insurance policies caused by increasing wildfire threats. The Durango Herald recently reported the average homeowner insurance premium in the state increased 51.7 percent between January 2019 and October 2022. Meanwhile, some new homeowners in the state are having trouble getting policies at all.

“A State Farm insurance agent in Durango wrote a couple a quote for homeowners insurance. But six days before closing, the State Farm office called to inform the Bowmans that it could not write them a policy,” said the Herald’s story on a couple who recently moved to Durango. “Geico, Travelers, other State Farm agents – all of them turned him down.”

Local insurance businesses in Durango reportedly have “plummeted” by 20 to 30 percent since insurers changed their policies sometime last September. Agents in Colorado expect the insurance issues to keep piling up in the years to come. A Climate Change in Colorado Assessment report for 2024 found climate change and increased atmospheric warming will lessen streamflows and make the state drier, leading to more and worse wildfires.

“Studies have uniformly indicated substantially worsened wildfire risk for Colorado by the mid-21st century compared with the late 20th-century, as additional warming further increases fuel dryness and enhances fire ignition and spread,” the report from the Colorado Climate Center said.

Climate change info -- by Colorado State University
Climate change info — by Colorado State University

Yet another utility lawsuit over 2020 fires

A group of four law firms in Oregon and California has sued the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), Lane Electric, and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) for their roles in the  Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene, Oregon — part of the Labor Day fire siege of 2020.

September 2020 Oregon fires

In the approximately 200-page lawsuit, attorneys claim the three utility companies neglected to prepare electrical operations and equipment before the fire burned across 173,400 acres and destroyed more than 700 structures. The Holiday Farm Fire burned on the Willamette National Forest, BLM lands, and private property within Oregon Department of Forestry protection units. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 238 victims who lost homes and property in the fire; the suit asks for $232 million.

As of September 10, 2020, the Holiday Farm Fire — named for a local tourist attraction called the Holiday Farm that included a wedding venue, RV resort, and year-round holiday Christmas gift shop — had burned over 144,600 acres about 14 miles up the McKenzie River from Eugene. Fire behavior and weather conditions were treacherous and kept firefighters from entering many areas, but they did protect some homes by burning out around them.

Jennifer Singh of KEZI in Eugene reported that the case was originally filed with Lane County Circuit Court against Lane Electric and EWEB — for neglecting to safeguard space around their powerlines from unstable trees and other hazards, but new records have revealed evidence that BPA also played a role in the disaster.

The lawsuit should come as no surprise to anyone — except maybe BPA — because local residents and fire officials were discussing the likelihood that the Holiday Farm Fire was ignited by powerlines while it was still in the initial attack phase.

Holiday Farm Fire
Holiday Farm Fire — Oregon Daily Emerald photo

“It wasn’t until the end of last year that we discovered new evidence that pointed to Bonneville Power Administration sparking a second fire,” said Alex Robertson, one of the four attorneys for the plaintiffs. He said that second fire merged with the Holiday Farm Fire. BPA provided power to EWEB and Lane Electric, and failed to power down its lines in a public safety shutoff. On Labor Day a danger tree fell onto a BPA line on Highway 126 and ignited another fire about 4 miles away.

This is the evidence that caused the law firms to bring BPA on as a co-defendant for the suit filed as a federal case — BPA is a federal agency, so unlike previous cases in county circuit court, this suit will be heard in federal court. The earlier case filed against Lane Electric and EWEB was dismissed to combine with the suit against the BPA.

[MORE DETAILS HERE]

Robertson said that on the same day the new lawsuit was filed, January 16, another suit was filed by 60 insurance companies seeking reimbursement of claims already paid to homeowners.

The Forest Service and Inciweb have wiped most of the records of the fire from their websites, but a BAER summary [PDF] of the Holiday Farm Fire is still available online.