California condors adapt to fire

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Most of the 23 endangered California condors that were residing in the Big Sur area when the Basin and Indians fire began have been accounted for. Some of them were seen on the beach during the fire dining on a beached whale and a decaying California seal lion. Here is an excerpt from the

Two rare California condor chicks have survived the Big Sur-based Basin Complex fire, enduring dense smoke but untouched by flames.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Kelly Sorenson of Ventana Wildlife Society, which monitors each bird along the vast central coast. “We’re so incredibly relieved that two chicks survived.”

The fate of the third remains unknown. Unlike the two survivors, who lived in coastal nests, the nest of the third chick was located in a more remote interior part of Ventana Wilderness Area, where the fire burned especially hot.

In a brief visit to one of the nests on Tuesday, wildlife biologist Joe Burnett found a chick “fat and happy in the cave. Mom and Dad have been keeping this chick full of food despite the disruption of the fire.”

Among the rarest and most imperiled birds in the world, the chicks belonged to a small group of 23 wild condors in Big Sur. They are part of a reintroduction program administrated by the Ventana Wildlife Society. Only 151 wild condors remain in the world.

Because the young birds are only three months old – still covered in downy gray feathers yet already the size of chickens – they were too young to fly and escape the fire.

Sorenson and Burnett had hoped to rescue the birds ahead of the advancing fire, but were forced back by heat and smoke. For more than two weeks, they’ve been braced for bad news.

All but one of the older condors in the wilderness have been accounted for.

Wildland fire news, July 17, 2008

President plans flightseeing trip over fires

President Bush is expected to fly in to the Redding, California airport around 2 p.m. today. Then he and the Governor will cruise around in a helicopter looking at the fires. This will be the first time a sitting president has visited Redding since John F. Kennedy was there in 1963 for the dedication of the Whiskeytown Dam.

Bush will also attend a private Republican fund raiser in Napa.

UPDATE @ 2026 PT, July 17

A reporter for the Redding Record Searchlight, Ryan Sabalow, was at the Redding airport for the President’s visit and was using his Blackberry to send live updates to the newspaper. Here is his description of when the President stopped by to see the jumpers:


Prez Bush just walked into smokejumper room. Walked up to John Casey, a 38-year-old jumper with almost 200 jumps in his career.

“I couldn’t handle it,” he said to Casey.

Bush asked him how many jumps. His eyes got wide at the number — 200.

“I appreciate your service,” Bush said.

Bush went around the room shaking hands and greeting the smokejumpers, who appeared busy sewing and prepping their chutes.

One was so fixed on his work that he apparently missed the president’s approach from behind.

“I don’t want to interrupt,” Bush said, drawing laughter from reporters and firefighters alike.

Gov followed being giving kudos to the firefighters.

“Good to see you,” he said to Casey. “Keep up the good work.”


UPDATE @ 1413 PT, July 17:

Here is part of a transcript from a “press gaggle” that occurred today at 10:55 p.m. PT on Air Force One on the way to Redding, California. Mr. Stanzel is a spokesperson for the President. Under Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey also participated in the gaggle.

Mr. STANZEL: At 2:30 p.m. today, when we arrive in California, the President will participate in a briefing on the California wildfires. That will be at — in Redding, California. We’ll have pool at the top, and he’ll receive a briefing on the response efforts from federal, state and local officials.


And as you — I’ll let the two experts here talk a little bit about the fires themselves, but I would just note that on June 28th, the President signed an emergency declaration for the state of California; that is providing federal funding and support. And we have lots of information about the fires, and these are the single-largest — this is the single-largest fire event in the history of California with over 1,300 square miles burned since June 21st.

After the President participates in that briefing on the California wildfires, he is going to participate in an aerial tour of the area, of Redding, and he will be joined in that by Governor Schwarzenegger. Administrator Paulison will also be there for an aerial tour of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. And following the aerial tour, the — Governor Schwarzenegger and the President will deliver brief remarks.


Q And square miles burned?

UNDER SECRETARY REY: I was afraid you were going to ask square miles burned — it’s about 900,000 acres burned. I’d have to get you the — it’s 66 acres per square mile, so — (laughter) — if you want the divide that number by 66 —

Q Can you give us an idea of what he’ll see in the aerial tour?

UNDER SECRETARY REY: What he’ll see in the aerial tour is areas of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that have burned, as well as areas that have been thinned to reduce flammable materials. He’ll also see a couple of thinning projects that did result in our ability to put out a fire more easily.


UNDER SECRETARY REY: Let me correct a number I gave you. It’s 640 acres per square mile. So I’ve got to remember that. I have a hard time with the metric system and all that sort of stuff. I don’t trust it.

The President will be briefed at the U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper base before he departs for his flightseeing tour. He will meet with Cal Fire Chief Ruben Garijalva, Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester, Gen. William Wade from the National Guard, and Henry Renteria, director of the California Office of Emergency Services. After his briefing he will visit the smokejumper loft and say hello to the jumpers working on their chutes before he departs on a helicopter for a tour of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.


Basin fire, Big Sur area

The satellites have detected quite a bit of heat north and south of the White Oaks area that is outside of yesterday’s fire perimeter, apparently the result of quite a bit of firing from the dozer lines. The update from the fire late yesterday had this information:

Today’s burnout operations went well on Chew’s Ridge. Burning conditions were optimal and a combination of tools, including the helitorch, was used to meet today’s objectives. It is expected that operations will extend east along the containment line to Carmel Valley Road tonight. Burnout operations in this area will continue through the coming days as weather conditions permit.


At the south end of the fire, along Carrizo Trail, the Cobra helicopter that is outfitted with an infrared camera found no remaining hotspots near the containment line.

Burnout operations also continued east of Devil’s Peak on the north edge of the fire, and will continue in the coming days as conditions permit.

The King City Incident Command Post and Carmel Valley Spike Camp have been combined and relocated to Carmel Valley Road near Tassajara Road.

At a public meeting Tuesday night a Forest Service spokesman used technical jargon to explain the slopover in the White Oaks area:

“Two nights ago, we had a little oops,” Buck Silva of the U.S. Forest Service told a group of more than 100 residents at a community meeting late Tuesday at Tularcitos Elementary School in Carmel Valley.


“We’re making progress,” he said. “We just had this little pooch-out that delayed us a couple of days.”

I can’t find “a little oops” or “pooch-out” in the glossary in the Fireline Handbook.


The fire is 122,980 acres and is 61% contained. The map below is of the White Oaks area.

This map shows how much heat (in red) was detected by the satellites outside the last perimeter (in yellow) uploaded by the incident management team. I am going to assume that all of the heat shown shown outside the perimeter, including that on the northeast side in the White Oaks area, was created by the burnouts from the dozer lines.

Cold Springs fire, Mt. Adams, Washington

The spread of the Cold Springs fire on the lower slopes of Mt. Adams in southwest Washington has slowed. After quickly burning over 7,000 acres, it is now about 7,900 acres. Yesterday morning it was 5% contained, but that percentage has increased since then.

Four men trapped, three burned on Motion fire

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Four men wearing camouflage clothing were found in the Motion fire on the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in northern California after one of them made a call in Spanish to 911. The area was burning vigorously and several strike teams of engines, hand crews, and dozers were staged along roads preparing for a burning operation.

Of the four Hispanic males, three of them had burn injuries. Jose Alcazar Fernandez, 25, was flown to Mercy Medical Center with third degree burns and was later transferred to the UC Davis burn unit. A second adult and a juvenile were transferred by ground ambulance, then treated for first and second degree burns and smoke inhalation and released. The juvenile male was treated and released for minor burns. The treated adult and a fourth adult male were arrested on federal charges of being present in a closed area.

Law enforcement officers determined that the men were Mexican nationals unlawfully present in the United States. They claimed to have been hunting in the park but refused to say where their weapons were. A marijuana cultivation site had been under investigation nearby and fire overhead and suppression personnel had repeatedly been briefed over the previous few days as to the specific location of the site and the probability of armed suspects in the area.

Firefighting can be dangerous, and even more so around marijuana plantations. Be careful out there. The following statement was in an Incident Status Summary from the Soda Complex on July 13:

Armed Law Enforcment officers are needed to mitigate threats against fire crews and provide for safety on the fireline.

“Chopper Chick” is a helicopter pilot who, the last we heard, was assigned to the Mendocino Lightning Complex flying a Sikorsky 58T. She blogged about the marijuana on June 29:

The first few days I was mostly amazed at how many back yards grow “pot” in their yards. Pot up here is like rose gardens where I live. Every one’s got one. It’s pretty cool to see from above. Most of the dip sights (where I get water from for the bambi bucket) are sources of water for most of these little pot gardens.

For those who don’t know, it’s legal to grow pot with a doctors note up here. It’s all out in the open, fenced in according to law, completely visible to anyone who flies over. Here are the rules.

But she is referring to “legal” pot growing. The illegal growers too often defend their crops with firearms.

DOI authorized to rehire retirees

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The U.S. Department of Interior has been authorized by the Office of Personnel Management to waive the dual compensation restrictions on hiring reemployed annuitants into positions directly related to wildland firefighting operations. According to documentation recently received by local fire offices:

This authority only extends to temporary, mission critical employment in positions that directly fight fires or immediately support fire fighting operations for no longer than the emergency exists. Management, at their discretion, may submit requests for approval of a dual compensation waiver to the Deputy Assistant Director, Fire and Aviation Directorate, Bureau of Land Management at the National Interagency Fire Center. This authority is limited to the conditions outlined in the memorandum from the Associate Deputy Secretary, Delegated Authority to Waive Dual Compensation Reduction in Support of Wildland Firefighting Operations, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) memorandum, Delegation of Authority dated July 2, 2008.

Some of the documentation sent to the field included this information.

There are several requirements that would have to be satisfied before a retiree start work. Here are a few. See the above document for a complete list.

  1. It must be National Preparedness Level 4 or 5.
  2. There is no regular employee available to fill the position.
  3. Former employees who took a “buy out” are not eligible.
  4. The person must be used to fight fires, support fires, back fill behind someone assigned to fires, or train firefighters.
  5. The person must turn down working without the waiver of dual compensation and working as an AD.
  6. Process the personnel action, and process pay documents.
  7. Drug testing, a physical, and the work capacity test may be required.
  8. Mission critical fire suppression activities are expected to continue for at least 14 days.
  9. The BLM’s Deputy Assistant Director of Fire and Aviation must approve each re-hire.

Obviously it could take a long time to go through all of the steps before a person could begin work. By that time, the PL could have dropped below 4. In contrast, it’s very easy to begin work as an AD. Anyone considering this should run the numbers and compare how much they would make either way.

I made the comparison for a Type 1 Section Chief working 10 hours a day for 2 weeks, and the person would make 13% more by going the re-hired annuitant route if their last federal job was a GS-12 step 4. Working more than 10 hours a day would make the re-hired annuitant position even more favorable. But different AD jobs and GS rates would give you vastly different numbers.

As far as I know the U.S. Forest Service has not asked for this waiver for many years, and this only applies to former Dept. of Interior personnel.

Fire news roundup, July 16, 2008

Basin fire, Big Sur, California

The fire was relatively quiet yesterday with the exception of the Pine Valley campground vicinity and the slopover in the White Oaks area. The fire crews have apparently picked up the slopover on the southeast side across the Rodeo Flats trail.

Cold Springs Fire, Mt. Adams, Washington

The fire is burning along the lower slopes of the mountain, with the most intense fire activity being on the south and east sides. It is burning into an area with some roads and large clear cuts on the east flank which may give the firefighters more options. On the map below, Mt. Adams is in the foreground, with Mt. Rainier in the background. The fire is 7,160 7,604 acres and is 5% contained.

Arsonist(s) at Rainbow gathering, Big Sandy, WY

Eight fires have plagued the gathering of the Rainbow Family at the annual get together held this year east of Big Sandy, Wyoming in the southern Wind River Mountains on BLM land. Investigators have determined that at least one of the fires that occurred near the gathering was arson, but all of them were quickly suppressed by the 20 firefighters that have been staged nearby. Up to 7,000 participants have been camping in the area, but that number has now declined to about 100 who are cleaning up and restoring the site.
View Larger Map

Firefighters rescue injured horse, Mill Fire, California

A fire crew constructing line on the Mill fire, part of the Soda Complex on the Mendocino National Forest, discovered an injured horse Tuesday morning. The firefighters, who were preparing a line for a backfire operation, found that the horse appeared to be dehydrated and had some abrasions and injuries to his front legs. He may have been in this condition for several days. They think he was spooked by the fire and ran off during the initial lightening bust several weeks ago.

Incident Commander Dave Fiorella placed a resource order for a local veterinarian and told the firefighters to prepare for a rescue mission. Dr. Sherry Cronin D.V.M of Covelo was flown by helicopter into the area to assess the horse’s condition prior to rescue.

The horse received some special attention from the fire crew, who brought him water and gave him apples from their sack lunches. After a few hours the horse showed signs of improvement and Dr. Cronin determined the injuries were minor enough that the firefighters could walk him out to a ranch a few miles away where he was then placed in a temporary shelter. The fire crew affectionately named the horse “Mr. Ed”.

A photo of the horse was not available, but I found one of a dehydrated water tender on the same fire getting a drink.

Excellent fire pictures has a great assortment of photographs that have been taken in the last few weeks on fires. Here’s one example, taken by David McNew on the Gap fire near Santa Barbara, but a visit to the site to see the entire collection is highly recommended.

Northern California fires

  • Iron Complex: This series of 28 fires west of Junction City had burned 45,257 acres and was 45 percent contained Tuesday.
  • Lime Complex: The 92 fires in this complex have scorched 80,469 acres and were 60 percent contained Tuesday.
  • Motion fire: This 21,931 acre fire west of Redding is 50% contained.
  • Moon fire: The fire has burned 28,899 acres and is 85% contained.

Insurance companies hiring their own firefighters


Some insurance companies are finding that it is less expensive to hire their own firefighters to protect high value properties than to pay the replacement cost if they burn in a fire. Here is an excerpt from the Herald Extra:

New Jersey-based Chubb Corp., which employs Breglia, began offering free fire protection to its clients in 13 Western states in March. Already 11,000 homeowners have signed up, more than a third of those in wealthy and fire-prone enclaves like Lake Tahoe and Marin County. The company plans to expand the service to other states before the start of next fire season.


Chubb hired Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems Inc. to protect homes with a replacement value of $1 million or more. The company is now subcontracting a pool of 50 fire engines throughout the West dedicated exclusively to Chubb policyholders.

Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company donated $18 million over four years to support public fire departments. But this year it jumped into the private firefighting business, too, joining with Sacramento-based Fire Stop and two southern California companies.

Fire Stop, with nine fire engines, has doubled its employees over the last year. The company is also in talks to acquire helicopter support.


But inside the command trailers at the Big Sur fire camp, surrounded by a sea of tents, portable toilets and smoke-filled air, Thom Walsh looked skeptical.

“Insurance company fire engines need to stay out of our way,” said Walsh, leader of the U.S. Forest Service Resource Unit. “We don’t know who they are or where they are. They’re like the private mercenaries in Iraq.”


Thanks, Dick, for the tip.


Wash.: Cold Springs fire

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Update@ 10:25 p.m. PT, July 15

The Cold Springs fire has now been more accurately mapped at 7,160 acres and it is 5% contained. Crews and dozers began constructing fireline on the south, west, and east sides supported by heavy helicopters. Hot Shot crews that arrived today will be assigned to the night shift to take advantage of the lesser fire activity and cooler temperatures.


2:15 p.m. PT

A climber on Mount Adams, Jennifer Walts, grabbed some great photos of the fire as she and 200 other hikers were being evacuated from the mountain as the Cold Springs fire was gathering up a head of steam yesterday.

I have never before seen, in a photo of a large fire, a large a snow field in the foreground. Looking at it, my head begins to hurt…. does not compute.

The fire, burning on the Gifford Pinchot NF in southwest Washington, has burned over 8,000 acres and is 0% contained.

The map below shows heat, in red, orange, and black, detected by satellites last night and today, with the red areas being the most recently burned. Click on the map to see a larger version.