Piute fire heads west

Due to an unexpected wind shift from the southeast, the Piute fire, south of Lake Isabella, jumped containment lines on the west side and made a run up to Brown Peak. The fire is also very active on the north flank. Satellite photos show a very large smoke plume being blown to the west.

The incident has ordered additional engines for structure protection and recommended evacuation for residents along a section of County Road 483. The last reported size of the fire was 25,722 acres and was 26% contained, but this may have been before or after the major blowup this afternoon. The Kern County FD has more information HERE.

The map below, according to Kern County, was current as of 5:00 p.m. today, but it does not appear to show any major increase in acreage on the west or north sides that would be consistent with the smoke seen on the satellite views. Click on it to see a larger version.

Basin fire, July 7 update

The Basin fire was very active yesterday due to the change in the weather.

East side-
Late yesterday the fire made a run north of Willow Springs campground, spreading over a mile to the north. It is now less than a mile from Tassajara. It was also very active at Lost Valley campground and west of Wildcat campground.

South side-
There was additional fire movement north of the Rodeo Flats trail where firefighters hope to tie in the fire to the Indians fire. The two fires are very close at this point. Slow progress continues on the Dolan ridge fireline; they have a couple of miles to go before the firing along this line reaches the coast highway.

North side-
Firefighters fired out at least 4 miles along Mescal Ridge between the Old Coast Road and east of Bottchers gap. They continued working on this overnight and may have completed much more. We hope they did, since the main fire is spreading rapidly towards the north.

The map below shows heat, in red, orange, and black, detected by satellites last night, with the red areas being the most recently burned. The yellow lines are the perimeters uploaded by the incident management teams yesterday. Click on the map to see a larger version.

Memorial to 3 firefighters killed in 1938 in Massachusetts

I ran across this article in the Cape Cod Times about some firefighters fatalities that occurred in 1938. I maintain the list of Infamous World Fires and this was new to me.

Three firefighters — Thomas E. Adams, Ervin Draber and Gordon King — lost their lives in a forest fire that burned 5,000 acres on the Massachusetts Military Reservation.

Here is an excerpt:

The 1938 fire was detailed in the April 28, 1938, Cape Cod edition of the New Bedford Standard Times: “Fighting the blaze on the edge of the Shawme State Forest on the edge of the Forestdale Road, the men were building a back fire when a shift in the wind caused by heat from the head blaze created a blazing circle that engulfed the quartet,” the newspaper reported.

“Gibbs, Adams and Draber fell prone to the ground and attempted to crawl to the nearest haven — a dirt road running through Shawme Forest and constructed by the CCC workers. Fire shooting through dry brush enveloped the men igniting their clothes and burning their bodies.”

Adams, 42, a volunteer firefighter from Sandwich who owned a wholesale meat business, died the next day. King, 35, the son of the Sandwich fire warden and who worked in forestry, died April 30. Draber, 32, of Buzzards Bay died June 10 from complications surrounding a blood transfusion. He was on Cape Cod to help dredge the canal.”

Federal preparedness under fire

An article in the Monterey County Herald explores the current state of preparedness of federal firefighters. Here are some excerpts:

Preparedness under fire: Federal firefighting system understaffed, report shows
Federal system understaffed, report shows
Herald Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 07/07/2008 01:33:12 AM PDT

The federal firefighting system is “imploding” in California, due to poor spending decisions and high job vacancy rates, as the region struggles to keep pace with what looks to be a historic fire season, a firefighters’ advocacy group charges.

As a result, the firefighters say, small fires have exploded into extended, multimillion-dollar conflagrations because the U.S. Forest Service has been unable to contain them during the early “initial attack” stage.

“The federal fire system is imploding in California. They are crossing their fingers and just hoping they get through the season without a disaster,” said Casey Judd, who represents government firefighters from five agencies through the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association.

As the “sheer number” of California wildfires pushed the nation to its worst measurable level of wildland-fire preparedness last week — Level 5 — a national multiagency coordinating group announced in a memo Monday that firefighter staffing levels in Northern California “cannot be maintained.”

In past years, the nation’s average fire-preparedness level for June and July has hovered around a moderate 2 or 3. A Level 5 means that national firefighting resources are stretched critically thin across several regions.

By last Wednesday, 84 wildfires in California were being allowed to burn “unstaffed,” according to a report issued by the National Park Service.

“Many of the existing fires in Northern California have the potential to burn through much of the summer and into the fall until rainfall increases,” said the report, which called the current fire season “unprecedented” and described the firefighter shortage as “acute.”

Of all the agencies battling California wildland fires — including the region’s two largest, the Indians and Basin fires in Monterey County’s Los Padres National Forest — it is U.S. Forest Service crews that suffer the highest vacancy rates, entering this year’s season with an estimated shortage of 500 firefighters, Judd said. Fully staffed, the region has authorized a force of 4,432 firefighters for the season.

Last year, the Forest Service’s Southern California region lost 47 percent of its newly hired firefighting work force, according to a Forest Service report.


Many engines unmanned

After facing pressure from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers last spring, the Forest Service promised it would immediately fill its vacancies and launched a “Fire Hire” campaign to attract firefighters in Sacramento that concluded two weeks ago.

“I believe the agency should have been able to muster a stronger force,” Feinstein said. “All signs indicate that things will only get worse.”

Feinstein said that despite promises of full staffing from Rey, only 186 of the agency’s 276 engines were manned at the start of the 2008 fire season.

Ron Thatcher, president of the union that represents 20,000 Forest Service employees, has estimated that attrition has left the service at 70 percent to 80 percent of its authorized staffing levels, and that up to 39 percent of fire crew leader positions were vacant as the 2008 fire season kicked off.

Unequal pay

Part of the service’s retention problem lies in the fact that when called to battle a wildfire for two or more weeks, federal firefighters are only paid for up to 14 hours’ work per day, while their state counterparts are paid “portal to portal” — that is, 24 hours’ pay for all the days they are on scene, including rest days.

Federal firefighters are “away from home, away from family. And they’re working alongside others who are going to get compensated for all their time, while they’re not,” Judd said. “It’s just nutty.”


Clueless about program

Another issue that firefighters say may come back to bite the region is a brand-new budgetary program — called “accountable cost management”— that was just introduced throughout the Forest Service. Judd said it should have been initiated well before the 2008 fire season started.

“National fire commanders could have been briefed on this during the winter and created a budget. The program was thrown on fire chiefs in the summer,” Judd said.

“The Indians Fire commander had no clue about this program, and they’re looking at (cutting) the least expensive resources. The bean counters are looking at these folks and basically timing them as to how long they spend on dinner. Accountable cost management is you’re looking at minutiae and ignoring the real costs,” Judd said.

“We think obviously there should be a mechanism for cost containment, but it works better for static programs rather than something as dynamic as fire,” he said.

Weather for the Basin fire

The weather is going to be hotter and drier for the next couple of days for the Basin fire in the Big Sur area of California. At the 2,000-2,500′ level east of Big Sur, the maximum temperatures through Wednesday will be around 90, with the minimum relative humidities around 20%. There will be poor humidity recovery, or lower than normal maximum RH’s at night. The ridgetop winds will be moderate at 5-10 mph, mostly out of the northwest or north, through Wednesday.

The fire’s intensity will increase, but having the wind at their back while conducting the firing operation on the northwest and north sides will make it a little easier for the firefighters in that area. However, the north-component winds will complicate the firing on the south side around the North Coast Ridge Trail and Dolan Ridge. Increasing instability in the atmosphere may contribute to greater fire spread and more convection columns of smoke.

Yellowstone fires, 20 years later

Today, Monday, and Tuesday the Billings Gazette will have articles looking back at the fires that burned in the Yellowstone area 20 years ago and the changes in fire policy since then. Here is a very short excerpt (that may raise some eyebrows) from today’s lengthy article.

Twenty years later, the pendulum has slowly swung back to recognizing that natural fires have a place on the Western landscape. And, once again, the Park Service is seen as a leader in that change.

“The Park Service is really the intellectual vanguard of the fire management agenc
ies and the only ones to manage for ecological values instead of economic values,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “They will lead the other agencies to a more cost-effective and ecologically sound way of managing fires, as well.”

Photo: my friends from Yellowstone, Public Information Officer Al Nash and Prescribed Fire Specialist Tim Klukas discuss fire management near Undine Falls on June 20. Photo: Brett French, Billings Gazette

A conference: The ’88 Fires: Yellowstone and Beyond

The International Association of Wildland Fire in association with the 9th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will be sponsoring a major Conference to remember the events of the Yellowstone area fires of 1988. The Conference will be held September 22-27, 2008, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Thanks to Dick for the tip.