Wildfire news, August 16, 2008

Record heat in the Northwest

Some areas in the northwest are experiencing record heat which will continue through today. Temperatures across Oregon are expected to exceed 100 degrees and a red flag warning has been in effect for the Cascades since Thursday but will expire this morning.

Hay truck drives through fire, ignites


A man driving a truck with baled straw drove through an area on Interstate 5 in Oregon where firefighters were battling a wildland fire along the highway. He thought it was safe to pass, since cars were driving through. But farther down the road he felt heat through the cab, looked in his mirror and saw flames. His load of straw was on fire.

He stopped and jumped out of the truck, expecting an explosion, probably having seen too many movies when the burning vehicle ALWAYS explodes. It didn’t, but he stood on the road and watched his truck burn to the ground.

Man charged with arson at National Forest trailheads

A man charged with a string of vehicle arsons in 2007 at two different Bitterroot trailheads was charged in Ravalli County Justice Court, Thursday.

Donnie Mack Sellars, 54, was charged with five counts of felony vehicle arson.

The case stems from a rash of trailhead arsons on the Bitterroot National Forest (in western Montana) on March 25, 2007. On that day, two vehicles were torched at the Big Creek trailhead and three others, including a horse trailer, went up in flames at the Bass Creek trailhead.

Witnesses told officials of seeing Seller’s older brown minivan at the scene of one arson shortly before the fires erupted, according to a court affidavit.

One witness said he spoke to Sellars at the Bass Creek trailhead after seeing vehicles on fire, the affidavit said. Sellars was sitting in his vehicle, which was parked next to a Nissan Pathfinder with a broken passenger side window, the records said. Sellars allegedly told the man he was calling 911 on his cell phone, but appeared confused about his location. Sellars handed the phone to the man, who told the dispatcher about the fires, the affidavit said.

When the man handed the phone back to Sellars, the witness said the Nissan Pathfinder erupted in flames, starting around the area of the window. Sellars immediately left the area in his minivan and the man wrote down the vehicle’s license plate number, the affidavit said. Sellars was arrested by a Ravalli County Sheriff’s deputy that same day heading toward the Bear Creek Trailhead parking area.

Pieces of what appeared to be shattered automobile glass were discovered in Sellars’ boots, the affidavit said. Inside his vehicle, officers found about 20 full, partially full or empty beer cans, as well as a hammer with what appeared to be embedded fragments of glass in its rubber handle, matches and cigarette lighters, crumpled newspaper and an empty kerosene container, according to the affidavit.

Sellars was previously convicted on arson charges in 1979 and 1998, when he set fire to a wood frame home in Tacoma, Wash., and for lighting a fire to his own house in Amarillo, Texas, the affidavit said. A felony charge of driving under the influence in November was filed after Sellars was found not competent to assist in his own defense, following two stays at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.

Courtesy of the Ravalli Republic

Wildfire news, August 15, 2008

Training to resume at bombing range in NJ

The New Jersey Air National Guard will resume some training in October at a bombing range that was the source of a 17,000 acre fire on May 15, 2007. Here is what we wrote about the fire on January 10, 2008:

On May 15, 2007, a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16 ejected a flare during a low-level pass on a training flight, starting a fire which grew to 17,000 acres. The fire destroyed four homes in two senior citizen housing developments, and damaged 37 others. Some 6,000 people were evacuated. Ocean County agencies will receive $320,000 from the Air Force as reimbursements for their costs during the fire. The Air Force has already paid nearly $2 million in private property claims and other losses, but many claims are still unsettled. 

USFA Releases Firefighter Fatalities Report

The United States Fire Administration released “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2007,” an annual report of on-duty firefighter fatalities in the United States. There were 118 on-duty deaths in 2007 in the United States.

Of the 118 firefighters that died while on duty in 2007:

  • 68 volunteer firefighters and 50 career firefighters died while on duty.
  • There were seven firefighter fatality incidents where two or more firefighters were killed, claiming a total of 21 firefighters’ lives.
  • 11 firefighters were killed during activities involving brush, grass or wildland fires, the lowest in over a decade.
  • Activities related to emergency incidents resulted in the deaths of 76 firefighters.
  • 38 firefighters died while engaging in activities at the scene of a fire.
  • 26 firefighters died while responding to or returning from emergency incidents.
  • 11 firefighters died while they were engaged in training activities.
  • 15 firefighters died after the conclusion of their on-duty activity.
  • Heart attacks were the most frequent cause of death for 2007, with 52 firefighter deaths.

The full report can be downloaded at http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/fatalities/statistics/report.shtm.

From Firechief.com

Li’l Smokey to be on CBS News

The bear cub that was rescued by CalFire firefighter Adam Deem on the Moon fire on July 17 will be featured on the CBS Evening News on Monday. The piece was scheduled to air yesterday, but got bumped due to breaking news stories. HERE is a link to a blog about the bear.


Photo courtesy of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care

Boise Couple Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit

From the KBOI web site, about the helicopter crash on the Iron 44 fire:

The parents of Gary Lewis and Monica Lee Zajanc filed Monday in Boise federal court a wrongful death suit against Evergreen Helicopters. Lewis, of Cascade, and Zajanc, of Boise, U.S. Forest Service firefighters, died in a helicopter crash Aug. 13, 2006 near Yellowpine. Also killed were Lillian Patten, Olympia, Wash., a fire lookout, and the helicopter’s pilot Quin Stone of Emmett.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined the helicopter collided with a 90-foot-tall dead tree. The NTSB concluded the pilot’s intentional low altitude flight and failure to maintain adequate altitude to clear the trees were the crash’s probable cause.

The suit, filed by Larry Zajanc, Nolene Holllifield, Gary and Kay Lewis, contends McMinville, Ore.-based Evergreen, which was under contract with the Forest Service, is responsible for the deaths because their pilot failed to comply with Forest Service helicopter pilot safety requirements. The Forest Service requires all helicopter flights be conducted at least 500 feet above ground level unless the mission required flight at a lower altitude. Stone was transporting the passengers from Williams Peak Lookout to Krassel Helibase, a five-minute flight.

Wildfire news, August 14, 2008

The wildland fire use debate

There has been a lot of discussion in the media in the last few weeks about total suppression of fires vs. “wildland fire use”, which is less than full suppression. On July 9 the U.S. Forest Service’s Regional Forester in California decided that there would be no more fire use fires on national forests in the state this year. Since the deaths of 9 firefighters in a remote area of a fire in northern California, some people are wondering if all fires need a major commitment of firefighters. Here is an excerpt of an article on the subject from the Mail Tribune in Oregon.

Concerns about smoke buildup in Northern California led to the decision that sent wildland firefighters into the Trinity Alps Wilderness, where seven Southern Oregon men died in a helicopter crash Aug. 5. 

Firefighters went into the wilderness after a regional forester decided to suppress all fires that were burning, including those in remote areas where lives and property were not at risk. Fire managers also were worried that the Buckhorn fire could close the highway linking Redding to the coast, said Mike Odle, a spokesman for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

“Smoke was a huge issue,” Odle said, noting that air quality in the region was poor or unhealthy during 24 of July’s 31 days. Some of that smoke drifted north across the Siskiyou Mountains and settled around Medford and across the Rogue Valley, prompting air pollution alerts here, too.

The deaths have drawn attention to U.S. Forest Service policies for fighting fires in backcountry areas where human lives and property are not an issue. Forest managers say they have an elaborate set of policies and plans for managing fires as they emerge. Critics say they are too quick to go into all-out suppression mode, putting lives at risk and creating excessive resource damage.

Fire Use fire in Arkansas–out

The Hawk’s Overlook fire use fire southeast of Mena, Arkansas, started by lightning a week ago, was put out by 10 inches of rain over the last few days. It burned 52 acres, including 12 acres of private land.

The Father of Fire Behavior

Richard Rothermel performed much of the pioneering research into wildland fire behavior. The AP has an interesting article about him and how he did some of his research during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park.

“I remember talking to some of the guys I was with and saying we really need a way of understanding these crown fire behaviors so we can get some kind of handle on what they’re going to do,” said Rothermel, now retired and living in Missoula. 

The model he developed was an attempt to forecast a fire’s mood swings at the landscape level — offering clues, for example, about when a fire will explode up a mountain valley or how long it will take to reach a residential subdivision.

Residential fire insurance

Some insurance companies have stopped insuring homes in high fire risk areas. Others are requiring 1,000′ clearance from brush. From the Wall Street Journal:

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.

Analysis of the Seige of ’88

Jim Wallmann posted a detailed analysis on MyFireCommunity of the weather that led to the lightning bust in northern California. This LINK leads to a page where you can download the PowerPoint presentation. You don’t need a password.

New publications about High Reliability Organizations

The Lessons Learned Center has three new publications about HRO:

  • Fire Management Today – Managing the Unexpected – Spring 2008
  • High Reliability Organizing Implementation at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks – HRO Case Study
  • Tracking and Responding to Small Errors in High Risk Environments – HRO Story

Thanks to Chuck and FireNet for tips.