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.


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.

Wildfire news, September 6, 2008

Ministry for Extraordinary Situations requests air tankers

We’re thinking that Bulgaria’s “Ministry for Extraordinary Situations” is equivalent to the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their country has requested air tankers through the European Union and NATO to assist with a forest fire burning in Rila National Park. France will be sending two air tankers for the 130 hectare (321 acre) fire.

Model plan for hurricane response

Commissioner (Ret.) David H. Fischler of the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Fire Rescue has prepared for the International Association of Fire Chiefs “Model Procedures for Response of Emergency Vehicles During Hurricanes and Tropical Storms“.

From the introduction:
The purpose of this guide is to provide guidance to chief officers in establishing a policy for response during hurricanes and coastal storms to minimize the risk to fire/EMS personnel and to protect the human, physical and cyber infrastructure critical to safeguard a community before, during and after a storm.
This guidance provides a common framework on which departments may build a local protocol tailored to a specific community.
Gunbarrel fire
This fire between Yellowstone National Park and Cody, Wyoming is pretty much done, at least for now. Earlier this week the Type 1 incident management team turned it over to a Type 3 team, which then turned it over to the National Forest District on Saturday. The fire has received a significant amount of rain and even some snow. They are calling it 78% contained–full containment is predicted for October 15. The 67,141-acre fire cost about $153 per acre, which is much less than your typical suppression-type fire.
Cut trees down to protect house or not?
Many property owners are resistant to cutting down any trees near their house. They expect the fire department to protect their house during a wildland fire regardless of what they have done or not done to manage the vegetation and fire risk. But according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, other property owners are cutting down trees unnecessarily, or in some cases all of their trees, thinking that is what they must do to make their house safe from fires.
Chuck Eckels cut down six Australia-native Brisbane box trees on his half-acre Escondido lot about a month after the Witch Creek fire roared past.
“I look at trees as detrimental to the property as opposed to beneficial,” Eckels said.
His attitude is not an aberration. A “less vegetation, the better” approach, Cal Fire urban forester Lynnette Short said, has led many people to needlessly chop down healthy trees.
“People are taking drastic measures,” Short said. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there.”
Local foresters and arborists want trees to stand tall again. They met last week to begin crafting policies that communities can use to save trees while protecting property. They say most well-tended trees pose little fire risk and can even prevent houses from igniting in some instances.
Pete Scully, a division chief for Cal Fire, said healthy trees have gotten a bad rap.
“Live trees, properly maintained and spaced adequately, are fine,” he said.
Arborists say the threat from pines and eucalyptuses in particular has been exaggerated. They say healthy trees aren’t the guzzlers people think they are, so tearing them out to conserve water is often unwarranted.
“We want the public to realize that trees are not the problem but part of the solution,” said Mike Palat, an arborist and chairman of the San Diego Urban Forest Council, which includes arborists, government agencies, landscapers and nonprofit organizations.
Good and bad
Fire-conscious arborists say the Mexican fan palm is one tree they won’t defend. Drew Potocki, urban forester for the city of San Diego, said the palm’s fibrous material ignites easily, and strong winds often turn burning bark chunks into “flaming, flying Frisbees.”
But pines and eucalyptuses – if solitary, properly spaced and 30 feet from a home – are equipped to survive most blazes, Short said.
“One of the major misconceptions I get, even from fire departments, is that eucalyptus are time bombs ready to go off in the next fire,” Short said. “That’s really wrong. I have eucalyptus on my property, and I would never think of cutting them down.”
Arborists say no matter the variety, keeping the ground around trees free of litter is key in fire prevention. Yet many people erroneously conclude that any tree’s presence greatly raises the risk.
Arborists say eucalyptus trees, such as these along Golden Hill Drive in Balboa Park, are equipped to survive most blazes if they are properly spaced and at least 30 feet from a home. That’s how Eckels viewed it. He said some of his 15-foot trees, which all were more than 20 feet from his home, had singed leaves and blackened trunks, though the fire was hundreds of yards away. That was all the evidence he needed. He said he saw plenty of green trees going up in flames on television, and he wanted to eliminate that possibility on his property.
“I actually liked the trees,” Eckels said. “They provide shade, and they made the property look nice. But I don’t want tiki torches next to my house.”
Eckels’ fears are largely unfounded, said Anne Fege, co-founder of San Diego Partners for Biodiversity and the San Diego Fire Recovery Network.
“Fires don’t ignite a house because your trees have a few scorched leaves,” said Fege, also a member of the San Diego Urban Forest Council.
Cal Fire’s “100 feet of defensible space around the home” mantra has been taken to extremes, said Short, a former firefighter. The standard doesn’t mean remove all vegetation within 100 feet, yet that’s what many people are doing, she said.
Cal Fire says healthy, pruned trees 30 feet or more from a home, including pines, can safely remain if owners have created “horizontal and vertical spacing between plants” within 100 feet of the home.
Many houses that burned in 2003 and last year ignited when wind-driven embers from a mile or more away landed on a flammable part of a home. Shade trees lining a property will catch flying embers before they can hit a home, Potocki said. “The trees could be doing you more good than harm.”
Some people have made matters worse since the fires by scraping their property clean down to the dirt, said Rick Halsey, a biologist, wildland firefighter and director of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido. He said that’s what a man down his street did.
“What these people end up doing is creating a bowling alley for embers to blow right through to the house,” he said.
BLM: Grazing can reduce fuel
That, of course,
sounds intuitive, but the
Bureau of Land Management decided to study the fire behavior and post-fire effects of the Murphy fire which burned 650,000 acres in southern Idaho and northeast Nevada in July, 2007. Some of the recent newspaper stories reporting on the study gave the impression that grazing was the answer to preventing large fires, but the actual findings are more complex than that. Here is an excerpt from the abstract in the report.
The team found that much of the Murphy Wildland Fire Complex burned under extreme fuel and weather conditions that likely overshadowed livestock grazing as a factor influencing fire extent and fuel consumption in many areas where these fires burned. Differences and abrupt contrast lines in the level of fuels consumed were affected mostly by the plant communities that existed on a site before fire. A few abrupt contrasts in burn severity coincided with apparent differences in grazing patterns of livestock, observed as fence-line contrasts.
Fire modeling revealed that grazing in grassland vegetation can reduce surface rate of spread and fire-line intensity to a greater extent than in shrubland types. Under extreme fire conditions (low fuel moisture, high temperatures, and gusty winds), grazing applied at moderate utilization levels has limited or negligible effects on fire behavior. However, when weather and fuel-moisture conditions are less extreme, grazing may reduce the rate of spread and intensity of fires allowing for patchy burns with low levels of fuel consumption.
The team suggested that targeted grazing to accomplish fuel objectives holds promise but requires detailed planning that includes clearly defined goals for fuel modification and appropriate monitoring to assess effectiveness.
Some insurance companies requiring 1,000-1,500′ clearance around houses
Allstate insurance in response to the massive fires in recent years in southern California is no longer selling new homeowner policies in the state. Some companies that are still selling new policies are requiring massive clearances around structures.
Daniel Sparks, a 29-year-old investment manager, bought a home last July in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood of San Diego, where thousands of houses burned down in October 2003. He had to scramble to find coverage, saying his old insurer, Mercury Insurance Group of Mercury General Corp., refused to issue a new policy.
“I tried to use the same insurance provider, and he would not cover my new house,”

Mr. Sparks says. “They said (his property) had to be 1,000 feet away from brush.” Since his lot abuts a Marine air base, he can’t clear it because it’s government property, he says. (A spokesman for Mercury said its clearance requirement for the area isn’t new.) Mr. Sparks finally found insurance from another company.
Companies also impose tougher policy conditions. Some have recently started requiring property owners to increase clearances to as much as 1,500 feet of vegetation from around homes in some fire zones. That’s 15-times more clearance than what’s currently required by California law. Indeed, Allstate says that 1-in-5 houses in high-risk areas it has inspected had hazardous brush conditions.
Increasingly, some insurers also won’t issue policies for homes on steep slopes, because wildfires burn uphill faster. Some are underwriting policies only where the home is located near a professional fire department, not the volunteer fire departments common in some rural areas, agents and brokers say.
Most insurers are using satellite imaging to inspect properties, agents say. And more companies also are physically inspecting houses and requiring documentation for safety measures like fire-resistant roofing. Homeowners whose properties are cited for hazards are given a period of time, usually six months, to correct the problems or their policies can be dropped.

Survivor talks about helicopter crash

Michael Brown, one of the four survivors of the August 5 helicopter crash in northern California that killed nine firefighters, talked to the press while recovering from his injuries at his mother’s home in Rogue River, Oregon. An excerpt:

As the helicopter lifted off, it felt “sluggish,” he said. Then, Brown heard a sickening thump and watched as the helicopter’s main rotor smashed into tree limbs and splintered.


“All these alarms started going off,” Brown recalled. “I remember the ‘beep beep beep’ and then I heard the pilot shouting ‘Mayday! Mayday! Helicopter going down!’ into his headset.”

William Coultas, the co-pilot, shouted at the men to put their heads between their knees.

“It was pretty scary — it all happened so fast,” Brown said. “The helicopter was leaning to the left. Then I remember hitting the ground really hard.”

There was a fire, he said, and thick smoke.

“Rick Schroeder told me later that seats had collapsed on top of us, and he must have pushed them off. I couldn’t unbuckle the harness, but somehow I wriggled out. Rick said he jumped out the side door,” Brown said.

Brown, who doesn’t remember how he got there, was found by other firefighters 200 yards down the slope from the burning wreckage.

Schroeder and 18-year-old Jonathan Frohreich were found about 20 yards away from the crash site, Brown said, “because they were hurt much worse than I was. I made it a lot further.”

Coultas, the fourth and final survivor, was badly burned. He remains in fair condition at UC Davis Medical Center. The others have returned home.

Killed were Roark Schwanenberg; Jim Ramage; Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.

A preliminary report on the crash by the NTSB found that the helicopter lost power to its main rotor as it took off. The investigation — which could take up to a year before a final report is issued — is focusing on the downed helicopter’s engines, drive shaft and transmission.

Most of Brown’s injuries were to his face — including broken cheekbones, a broken nose, a dislocated jaw and a concussion. It will take another two to three months before he can return to work at Grayback, where he hopes to work in the forest this fall and winter.

Meanwhile, he is “sitting around and getting better” at his mother’s house, cashing his workers’ compensation checks to make ends meet. He has trouble sleeping, but says he will return to fight fires next season.

His thoughts are with the men who died that day.

“I lost seven guys who were really close to me,” Brown said. “I do my best to remember them the way they were.”

From Oregonlive


Wildfire news, September 4, 2008

San Diego’s new helicopter

The City of San Diego introduced their new firefighting helicopter to the public yesterday. Copter 2, a Bell 412, is the city’s second helicopter. From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

The city is paying for the nearly $11 million helicopter with a 15-year lease-purchase agreement, financed by Koch Financial Corp., said Deputy Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. The helicopter will cost $15.9 million over the term of the lease. 

The Bell 412 is quieter, carries more weight, and is faster than Copter 1, the city’s Bell 212, Fennessy said. He said Copter 2 can be flown with instruments in zero visibility, while Copter 1 requires some visibility to be operated.

According to the city, Copter 2 can drop 375 gallons of water. While hovering over a lake, a pilot can refill its drop tank in 17 seconds.

File photo of an LA County Bell 412


Fire quiz
The Rhinelander Daily News web site has a “Fire prevention quiz“. Some of the questions are Wisconsin-specific, but see how many you can answer correctly.

Last fire of the season in western Colorado?

There is a good chance the reporter from the Citizen Telegram in Rifle, Colorado misquoted or misinterpreed what they were told by Chris Faronetti from the Grand Junction coordination center. The headline of the article is: “Porcupine Fire could be last one of fire season.
The smoke that rose high into the air outside Rifle at the end of last month should be the last time residents have to worry about a large wildfire for this year, according to federal and local fire officials.
With the arrival of September, cooler weather and more predicted moisture mean firefighters shouldn’t have to rush out again, said Chris Faronetti, operations specialist for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit in Grand Junction.
The group sends firefighters to wildfires across more than 4.5 million acres of federal land, oriented along the Interstate 70 corridor from the Continental Divide on the east to the Utah state line on the west.
“This pretty much puts us in fall conditions,” Faronetti said. “We’re going to recommend to the counties pretty soon that they lift any fire restrictions they might have in place.”
The less likelihood of a major fire comes after 17 lightning stike-caused fires of at least 150 acres in Northwestern Colorado during the last week of August, according to Faronetti.
“We took the stance of hitting ‘em hard with retardant drops so we wouldn’t have any large fires,” he said.
The Porcupine Fire outside Rifle burned 130 acres but no buildings at the end of August. It took several days to completely extinguish.


NTSB: jet engine disintegrated on Tanker 09

More information is confirming that one of the jet engines on the air tanker that crashed on Monday, Tanker 09, failed just before the accident.  
(NTSB lead investigator Tom) Little told reporters on Tuesday that investigators had recovered several large pieces of metal beginning about one-quarter mile north of the runway that appear to have come from the burning engine.
“It appears it had disintegrated and subsequently left the aircraft,” he said.
Little said investigators completed accounting for all of the pieces of the plane that remain on Wednesday. He also confirmed there was no last-minute radio communication from the pilots.
“There was no distress call,” he said. “When you are in a situation low to the ground and you have an emergency, the last thing you try to do is communicate.”
But the investigators are baffled about what actually caused the jet engine to fail.  
“The cause of the fire, that is the question. And that might not be forthcoming for some time,” Little said at a briefing Wednesday night.
“I asked the operator if they had ever experienced anything like this and they haven’t,” he said.
Wildfire Today wrote more about the P2V aircraft and the engines HERE.
A 7-minute video of still photos of Tanker 09 is on YouTube.  It was uploaded to YouTube in December, 2007