Real time fire information

The EurekAlert has a summary of a recent report by the U.S. Forest Service. Here is an excerpt:
The effectiveness of the media to inform the public during evacuations and wildland fire effects on recreation are some topics addressed in a U.S. Forest Service report published this month that is a compilation of 17 studies on the social science aspects of fires.

More than 20 scientists present their work in the 260-page report, entitled “Fire Social Science Research From the Pacific Southwest Research Station: Studies Supported by National Fire Plan Funds.”

The report’s communications research showed the emergence of citizen news producers when public information officers and media representatives do not fill homeowner needs for detailed, real-time information on fire location, size and movement.

“During the initial stages of a fire, people want real-time information specific to a location, such as a subdivision,” said Deborah Chavez, a Forest Service social scientist who helped conduct research in the report.

According to one study, cell phones, digital cameras, text messaging, blogs, personal websites and e-mail vastly improved homeowners’ ability to communicate with their neighbors, during evacuations in 2003 near San Bernardino, Calif.

Residents complained public information officers were preoccupied reporting on which agencies were managing fires, firefighting resources being used and suppression costs. They also said media coverage was often sensationalized, inaccurate and directed to regional audiences and not those affected by local evacuations.

One problem that needs to be solved is how to provide near-real-time information to residents whose safety is impacted by a wildland fire. In the 2003 Cedar fire near San Diego 15 civilians were killed–many of them while trying to evacuate from the Wildcat Canyon Road area with little or no warning. Many civilians were also killed while trying to evacuate from the Tunnel fire in Oakland in 1991. At least twice this year alone people have been burned to death in their homes when a wildland fire burned through their neighborhood.

Making real time information about the fire’s location available, interpreting that data to decide what areas should evacuate and which areas are safe, then providing this data to the public in near-real-time is not a small task. But it could be argued that this should be the most important objective of fire managers, above and beyond the boiler-plate written into every Incident Action Plan of “provide for the safety of the public and firefighters”.

Picture this.

A large fire is directly impacting an urban interface. Unmanned aerial vehicles or other aircraft are 10,000-50,000 feet over the fire 24 hours a day transmitting real time infrared and conventional visual imagery to the Incident Command Post (ICP). Technicians and infrared interpreters are evaluating the data, again in real time, and creating a map showing the fire’s perimeter. Fire Behavior Analysts provide fire spread predictions. An Operations Section Chief at the ICP evaluates all of this information and communicates with the Situation Unit Leader, Division Supervisors, Field Observers, and the Ops Section Chief in the field. Working with the Incident Commander he or she makes decisions about what areas should be evacuated and informs law enforcement to implement the evacuations.

Law enforcement activates reverse 911 to robo-call all of the landline phones in the affected area and sends officers into the field to notify residents to evacuate, but they can’t contact everyone.

The Situation Unit uploads to the Internet a map showing the current location of the fire and which areas are under an evacuation order. This map is available to the world and is updated every 15 minutes if needed. The map could be based on Google Maps, be zoom-able, show evacuation routes, shelters, and have interactive features, rather than the typical static .pdf or .jpg file that incidents usually produce.

The Information Officer’s staff maintains a public blog, updated many times each day, containing the information that the public needs to know. More emphasis is placed on keeping the citizens safe, than providing the number of engines and helicopers assigned to the fire.

All of this technology exists now. It would not take a Manhattan Project to make it happen.

UPDATE September 23: A county in Montana has taken a step in the right direction. Read about it HERE.

Wildfire news, September 9, 2008

California: Tehipite fire on web cam

The Tehipite fire in Kings Canyon National Park and the Sierra National Forest has been burning since July 14.  It can now be observed almost live on a web cam.  Here is an example from Tuesday afternoon.

From InciWeb:

The Tehipite Fire has grown to 4,337 acres as of Monday afternoon. Of that acreage, 2,353 acres are within Kings Canyon National Park and 1,984 acres are within the Sierra National Forest. The park and the forest are working together to manage the fire.
In the last several days, the fire has shown increased activity and growth including within the Scepter and Crown Creek drainages on the Sierra National Forest and northwest of Tehipite Valley and north to Kettle Dome in Kings Canyon National Park.

Hayman fire trial: burned letter did not start the fire

 

Terry Barton, 2002 file photo
From TheDenverChannel:

DENVER — The lead U.S. Forest Service investigator into the cause of Colorado’s largest wildfire testified Tuesday that she doesn’t believe a burning letter sparked the fire.
Agent Kimberly Jones was testifying in a Denver federal civil case where five insurance companies and several property owners are suing the federal government for more than $7 million because a USFS employee was convicted of starting the 2002 Hayman wildfire.
When Jones testified that she didn’t believe there ever was a letter burned by Terry Barton, the judge interrupted the questioning to ask Jones if she had testified to that previously. She told the judge she was never asked that question on the stand before.
Jones was then asked if that meant that in her opinion that Barton lied when she stipulated that everything in her plea bargain was fact and Jones replied, “Yes.”
The plaintiffs are arguing that Barton burned a letter in a campfire ring to make the case that Forest Service is responsible for the 138,000-acre fire that ultimately destroyed 133 homes and outbuildings over three weeks in June 2002.
Plaintiffs are arguing there is a letter to make the case and so the Forest Service is responsible.
Barton was a Forest Service worker who was charged with enforcing the fire ban when she said she burned a two-page letter in a fire ring near Lake George, Colo., and it spread in the dry tinder, sparking the wildfire. The next day, the fire ran 17 miles due to extremely dry conditions.
She did not admit starting the fire until after her arrest. She was convicted and spent nearly six years in a federal prison.
HERE is a link to other articles on Wildfire Today about Terry Barton.
Prescribed fires help control cedar invasion in Nebraska

Left unchecked, cedar trees will invade land in the prairie states and decrease its grazing potential.  The state’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helps landowners manage this problem.  Here is an excerpt from an article in the North Platte Bulletin:
…..The trees are sheared off at the base, and then stacked in large piles. To help keep the trees from becoming a problem again, NRCS designs a grazing management plan and recommends landowners conduct a prescribed burn every three to five years after the initial tree cutting has occurred. A prescribed maintenance burn will be required periodically thereafter to maintain the grassland ecosystem.
According to Nichols, fire is one of the most effective methods in controlling cedar trees. But since fire has been removed from the landscape out of fear of causing property damage, the cedar problem has exploded. NRCS, as well as other private organizations like Quail Forever and the Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance, is working with landowners to help increase the use of prescribed burns.
“A prescribed burn is a highly controlled fire. It isn’t anything like a wildfire. It’s only conducted under very specific conditions after a lot of planning. Once a landowner experiences a prescribed burn and understands how controlled it is, the practice becomes much less intimidating,” Nichols said.
Historically, prairies evolved with disturbances like grazing from bison and antelope, and from wildfires. These disturbances worked together to help keep the prairie system healthy. The hoof action of the grazing animals trampled dead organic matter into the soil. Their grazing helped stimulate new plant growth, and fire helped control excessive woody vegetation.

USFS cancels potential contract for 747 air tanker

Wildfire Today has learned that the U.S. Forest Service has cancelled their soliciation which could have led to a contract for a 747 air tanker. However, CalFire is pursuing a call when needed contract along those lines and they may have something in place by October.

If this happens as expected it will be another feather in CalFire’s cap, placing another tool in their aviation toolbox alongside the DC-10 and thier fleet of S-2’s. Earlier this year the U.S. Forest Service signed a call when needed contract for the huge Martin Mars, which has been used quiet a bit in northern California this summer in the Seige of ’08.
Capacities of large air tankers
Martin Mars: 7,200 gallons (water, retardant, gel, or wildland foam)
DC-10: 12,000 gallons (water or retardant)
747: 20,000 gallons (water or retardant)

 

Cancer risk for firefighters

We are not aware of any specific study that has been completed on the occurrence of cancer among wildland firefighters, but there is enough data out there about structural firefighters that make this a major concern.  Wildfire Today has covered this before, but the Spokane Spokesman-Review has a new disturbing article about a local cancer cluster.  Here is an excerpt.

Doug Bacon missed the funeral of a fellow Spokane firefighter because the 59-year-old was in treatment for throat cancer – the same illness that had just killed his friend and co-worker.
A third Spokane firefighter who joined the department with Bacon in the 1970s also has been diagnosed with throat cancer.
“It’s to the point we’re trying to figure out which fire we were all on together,” said Bacon, who survived his cancer and returned to the job in mid-2006. “I’ve got attitude. I fought it.”
Firefighters are at least twice as likely to get cancer as the average person because of exposure to toxins emitted in fires, such as benzene, asbestos and cyanide, studies say. More firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the past two years than in the previous 10 years, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and recent studies.
When Bacon was diagnosed with cancer in January 2006, he said he just looked at the doctor and said: “You’re kidding me.” He was unaware at the time that firefighters were more susceptible to the disease. Now, he’s constantly warning young firefighters of the dangers and telling them to keep their masks on – even after the fire’s out.
During July, Spokane area firefighters fought blazes nearly every day, including the massive Valley View wildfire, and two three-alarm fires – The Ugly Duck and Joel building.
Despite wearing protective gear, some walked away from those blazes hacking and coughing. Authorities say asbestos – a cancer-causing agent often found in old building materials – was found in the Joel building.
Research is still being done to determine what level of exposure leads to cancer in firefighters, officials say. Meanwhile, the illness has become a primary concern for the profession.
“Finally we are taking our blinders off when it comes to cancer,” said Michael Dubron, founder and president of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Dubron is a cancer survivor and Los Angles firefighter. “With our organization, we are trying to be proactive, such as reducing unnecessary exposure. No longer is it cool to run around with soot-covered uniforms and equipment.”
The soot contains many of the same toxins firefighters are exposed to during a blaze, officials say.
Something Wildfire Today wrote on May 28 is worth repeating:
In Canada, the British Columbia government recognizes as an occupational hazard for firefighters the following diseases:
  • testicular cancer
  • lung cancer in non-smokers
  • brain cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • ureter cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • leukemia
This means that full-time, volunteer, part-time, and paid on-call firefighters suffering from the diseases will qualify for worker’s compensation and benefits, without having to prove individually that the diseases are linked to their jobs.
There is not a lot that wildland firefighters can do to avoid breathing the byproducts of combustion.  There is no such thing as a breathing apparatus containing clean air that can be carried for a 16-hour shift.
The various filter masks that are sometimes bought by wildland firefighters do nothing except filter out some of the larger particles, sticks, and rocks.  The microscopic smoke particulates are so small, that if one were near the ceiling in a room with still air, it would take about eight hours to fall to the floor.  And the masks do nothing to remove the various toxic gasses and other contaminates.
We need to establish a system to track the long term health and cancer occurence within the wildland firefighter community.

Wildfire news, September 8, 2008

Thursday is seven years after 9/11

President Bush issues a proclamation each year designating 9/11 as Patriot Day. Seven years ago nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks, including 411 emergency responders. The New York City fire department lost 341 firefighters and 2 paramedics.
Some fire departments and other organizations will conduct commemorations of those losses Thursday at the exact time the Trade Center towers collapsed. The south tower fell at 9:58 a.m. ET and the north tower at 10:28 a.m. ET.
Idaho: South Barker fire
This Fire Use fire near Featherville, Idaho has been burning since August 7. If you were going to walk the perimeter, you would need to prepare for a 71-mile hike. The Idaho Statesman has a long article about the fire; here is a brief excerpt.
There is more than 34,000 acres of land inside the boundary of the fire. But wildlife biologist David Skinner estimates that only about half of that, possibly even less, has actually burned.
The fire is burning a “mosaic” pattern, he said – low-intensity fires often leave lots of land untouched, and the more fires are allowed to burn through forests, the
more likely the fires are to remain low-intensity.
A walk through the burned portion of the fire reveals blackened hillsides with healthy, green trees. In some places, burned land abuts lush drainages. This kind of fire doesn’t often produce the heat necessary to kill large trees. Thick bark on Ponderosa pine trees makes them more resilient to fire.
In his meetings with area residents, Wehrli repeatedly assures people that the fire isn’t turning their recreation areas into a “moonscape.”
“Firefighting is changing and you’re going to see a lot more of these kinds of fires, an
d less suppression,” Norman said. “And that’s not a bad thing.”
“Fire is a reset button”
From the Calgary Herald:
The Alberta government is setting ablaze 12 times as much land in southern Alberta as it did just four years ago, in a bid to fight mountain pine beetles and eliminate the fuel for wildfires that threaten communities.
“Fire is a re-set button,” said Rick Arthur, a government wildfire prevention officer. “If we don’t do something, then we’re putting the ecosystem at risk.”
And speaking of pine beetles…
A saw mill in Colorado has converted to a pellet plant, now running 24/7 processing beetle-killed trees into fuel for heating homes and schools, according to cbs4denver.com:
KREMMLING, Colo. (CBS4) ? As many as a dozen semi-trucks loaded with logs roll into the Confluence Energy pellet plant in Kremmling on a daily basis. Piles of logs are stacked all around a white, metal building where the dead trees are processed.
About 30,000 tons are waiting to be turned into pellets; the plant puts out about 200 tons a day. The entire business is aimed at recycling Colorado’s dying forests.
About 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines in Colorado are dead or dying from pine beetles, which infect the trees with a fatal fungus after they burrow into to them to lay eggs.
“The reason it [the plant] started is there was no one really doing anything about it, there was a lot of happy talk talk that this needs to be done and that needs to be done but it didn’t seem like anyone was jumping into the deep end of the pool,” said business owner Mark Mathis. “We can offset a tremendous amount of natural gas and fossil fuel by utilizing wood pellets. Basically this plant alone can heat 40,000 homes.”
Insurance companies sue USFS over Hayman fire
Five insurance companies have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over the 2002 Hayman fire southwest of Denver. From the Rocky Mountain News:
Five insurance companies that paid claims stemming from the 2002 Hayman Fire
say the federal government should repay them because its crews – including the woman who started the blaze – didn’t put out the fire quickly enough.
In a case scheduled to go to trial today in federal court in Denver, t
he companies will try to recoup the approximately $7 million paid to area property owners.
Terry Barton, file photo
Among the witnesses who could take the stand later this week is Terry Barton, the U.S. Forest Service employee convicted of sparking the 137,000-acre fire by burning a letter from her estranged husband.
Barton was released from federal prison in June after having served five years and two months of a six-year sentence.
State Farm Fire & Casualty, Hartford Underwriters Insurance, Property and Casualty Insurance Co. of Hartford, Hartford Fire Insurance Co. and Allstate Insurance filed suit in 2006.
They argue that the Forest Service was negligent because it allowed Barton to work alone the day she started the fire, didn’t properly train her to contain the fire once it started and took too long to dispatch firefighters.
They also say Barton, while working in an official capacity, drove away from the fire before she was certain it had been extinguished. When she returned later, the fire had spread out of control.
Attorneys for the government say Barton wasn’t acting within the scope of her employment when she started the fire, so under federal law the Forest Service is immune from a negligence claim.
“Burning the letter from her estranged husband was purely personal and was not done to further the Forest Service’s interests,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pharo wrote in a court filing.
Pharo also disputes the allegation that the fire response was inappropriate. He said there could be “enormous” consequences – such as no one volunteering to fight fires – in putting the burden of compensation on the responders.
“Public and social interests require that individuals will be willing to put their lives at risk to fight wildfires, and that they have the discretion to balance multiple factors in determining how best to fight the fires,” he stated.

iv>

Barton
was ordered to reimburse the Forest Service about $14.6 million. She also could be ordered to pay the state up to $27.5 million more, though prosecutors acknowledge she will likely be able to pay only a very small portion of her debt.
California: Private aerial fire patrols
It is news to us, but according to the Eureka Times-Standard certain owners of timber lands are required by the federal government to conduct regular fire patrols.