Oregon: Bridge Creek Fire Use fire burns onto private land

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Update, 3:20 P.M., August 18
The fire, plume dominated, was very active on Sunday. One recent report, supposedly accurate as of Sunday night, pegged the size at 2,966 acres. The acreage is difficult to track because some reports include the other fires in the Ochoco Complex in the total.

The fire burned over a mile outside the National Forest in the White Butte area 4.7 miles southwest of Mitchell, Oregon. The fire has been less active on Monday due to milder weather and cloud cover.

8:27 A.M., August 18
The Bridge Creek fire is a fire use fire that started on the Ochoco National Forest in central Oregon, 10 miles southwest of Dayville. For several days it didn’t do much, burning about 1/2 acre. But between 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday morning it grew from 2.5 acres to over 5,000 acres. Saturday night’s southeast winds together with low RHs and an unstable atmosphere (Haines 6) drove the fire outside the Maximum Manageable Area boundary and onto private land.

The Central Oregon incident management team assumed command of the fire at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Here is a portion of a news release about the fire from August 15:

The Northwest Fire Use Management Team is managing four small fires in three wildernesses on the Ochoco National Forest northeast and east of Prineville, Oregon. These fires are one acre to about 75 acres in size and are burning in three wildernesses: Mill Creek, Bridge Creek and Black Canyon.

These lightning fires provide the opportunity to use Wildland Fire Use to achieve resource management objectives, including allow fire to play its natural role in these ecosystems, where private property and social values can be protected.

The Northwest Fire Use Management Team specializes in management of Wildland Fire Use. While this is only the 3rd year for the team, individual members have decades of fire experience in eastern Oregon. The team is led by Matt Reidy and has members from throughout the Pacific Northwest. Presently the team has 35 people working on the four fires on the Ochoco National Forest. This includes a specially trained 10-member “Fire Use Module” that actively monitors the fires in the forests and takes management action when needed to meet objectives.

Flood in Grand Canyon; hundreds flown out by helicopter

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Updated 7:50 a.m., August 18

Rescuers will return to the Grand Canyon Monday morning after an earthen dam burst Sunday morning prompting helicopter evacuations at the Grand Canyon and Supai, a village where about 400 members of the Havasupai tribe live.

The Arizona National Guard, the National Park Service and the Department of Public safety airlifted about 170 residents, campers and river runners. Initially, crews anticipated evacuating nearly 500 people, but the majority chose not to be evacuated.

The helicopter in the video is, I believe, the Grand Canyon’s no tail rotor helicopter.

Rescue operations continued into Sunday night for campers and residents at the Grand Canyon caught in flood waters after an earthen dam weakened by heavy rains broke 45 miles upstream, said Maureen Oltrogge of the Grand Canyon National Park.

KPHO-TV in Phoenix reported that the Redlands Dam ruptured around 6 a.m. Sunday, triggering flooding near Supai, at the bottom of the canyon, Oltrogge said. Supai is home to about 400 Havasupai Reservation tribal members. The town is located about 30 miles northwest of Grand Canyon Village, a popular tourist area on the canyon’s south rim.

The town was not flooded, but there were an estimated 247 campers at a nearby campground, Oltrogge said. The National Guard provided three Black Hawk helicopters and the Arizona Department of Public Safety is dedicating all four of its helicopters to the rescue efforts, Oltrogge said. (The National Park Service also used their helicopter during the rescue.)

Evacuees were being taken to a Red Cross shelter in Peach Springs, about 60 miles southwest of Supai, Oltrogge said. The shelter is located at the Hualapai Tribal gym off Diamond Creek Road in Peach Springs. The shelter will provide an array of support services, including meals, a safe sleeping place and counseling, said Tracey Kiest of the Arizona chapter of the American Red Cross.

Oltrogge said 16 people were left stranded Saturday night on a ledge where Havasu Creek and the Colorado River join after flood waters carried their raft away. Each person was being flown one at a time to the other side of the Colorado River where they will board a helicopter and be flown to the Hualapai Hilltop. Those evacuees will also be transported to the American Red Cross shelter in Peach Springs.

Officers, sheriff’s deputies and rescuers from eight public safety agencies are working to coordinate the evacuation in Supai Canyon, said Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil. National Park Service employees are trying to contact members of rafting parties who have not yet reached the confluence, which is located at about river mile 157, in an effort to inform them of the flooding that has occurred in that area, Pribil said.

West-central Coconino County had been under a flash flood warning early Sunday. Supai police reported foot bridges and hiking trails were washed out and trees uprooted.

The threat of severe storms continued to plague central Coconino County Sunday afternoon, meteorologists said.

In the above photo released by the the National Park Service (NPS), a stranded rafter is lowered to shore by an NPS employee after being short hauled across the Colorado River Sunday Aug. 17, 2008 in the Grand Canyon.

Supai Village, file photo

Courtesy of KMBC

Small fire leads to carbon dioxide emergency

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Firegeezer, always a good source for news about firefighting, has a unique story about a small fire in a lacquer-making plant in Germany that was quickly suppressed by the first-in units, but that was only the beginning. The fire triggered the discharge of the carbon dioxide extinguishing system which normally automatically closes all of the doors. But one door failed to close completely, which allowed massive amounts of CO2 to spill outside the plant.

A lack of wind caused the CO2 to build up to the point where fire engines stopped running and firefighters without breathing apparatus were overcome. Firefighters realized what was happening and requested additional help, eventually having 480 emergency personnel on scene. They evacuated 50 nearby homes and brought in two helicopters to fly low over the area to disperse the CO2. There were 107 respiratory injuries and 19 were transported to hospitals.

Full suppression vs. fire use

The Mail Tribune newspaper in Oregon has an ongoing poll. The question is: “Should agencies send crews to remote areas to fight fires, or should the fires just be left to burn?” The three possible answers are:

  1. Send crews to fight fires
  2. Let fires burn in remote areas
  3. Depends on area

To over simplify this complex issue down to these three choices is ridiculous. It is difficult to understand how an informed person could choose, for example, “Let fires burn in remote areas”. There are far too many variables for this to be a yes or no question.

Items that fire managers take into account are: is there a plan in place that governs how fire use fires are managed, the number of days left to a season-ending weather event, predicted weather, fuel moisture, Energy Release Component, natural barriers or old burns that would slow the fire, availability of firefighting resources, air quality, complexity, resources at risk, can the risks be mitigated…. and others.

This issue has received a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks, and even more after the deaths of the nine firefighters in the helicopter crash on a fire in a remote area of northern California. Several local media outlets have covered it, and now the Associated Press has as well. On August 9 Wildfire Today covered the banning of additional fire use fires on national forests in California.

Having worked on Fire Use Management Teams for several years, I have an understanding of the issue. These teams and the local agency administrators that delegate management of the fires to the teams assume and manage extreme risks.

For example, the Clover fire on the Sequoia National Forest in central California was initially a fire use fire, but in late June it exceeded the Maximum Management Area and burned east out of the forest onto private land, burning over 13,000 acres.

A few decades ago, we used the term “fire control”. “Fire Control Officers” administered fire suppression organizations on national forests. But we finally admitted that we can’t “control” large fires. Now we use the term “fire management”. “Fire Control Officers” are now Fire Management Officers. “Fire Teams” morphed into “Incident MANAGEMENT Teams”.

The forces at play are beyond our “control”. The best we can hope for is to affect the spread of a large fire over a period of time. Wait for a change in the weather, vegetation, or topography, and then take advantage of it.

We will never be able to guarantee that a fire use fire will stay within an area drawn on a map. Occasionally a fire will get up and run despite the best efforts at management and computer modeling. Private land and even homes will burn.

Is the public willing to accept these risks? Or should firefighters assume the higher risks as we continue throwing everything we have at fires, even when they are many miles from valuable resources?

Wildfire News, August 17, 2008

Big Bar evacuated

The town of Big Bar, 20 miles west of Weaverville, California, is under a mandatory evacuation order caused by the spread of the Buckhorn fire, part of the Iron Alps fire complex. The order affects all residents north of Highway 299.

This complex, which has now blackened 102,936 acres, has been burning since June 21 and is 81% contained. Bill Molumby’s incident management team that had such success on the Indians fire east of Big Sur, is assigned to the fire. A major route across the mountains in northwest California, highway 299, was closed on Saturday due to the approaching fire and burnouts near the highway.

The map below was updated at 10 p.m. on August 15.


80 homes burned on Air Force base

A 750-acre wildland fire on Travis Air Force base northeast of San Francisco destroyed 80 unoccupied houses on the grounds of the base. The structures that burned were part of a subdivision of enlisted personnel housing that was scheduled for demolition.
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Five fires in Griffith Park

Five fires burned a total of 50 acres in this urban park on the north side of Los Angeles. From the LA Times:

Park rangers called the city Fire Department shortly after 2 p.m. to report the first fire, which by then had burned about five acres of heavy brush, Davies said. 

Brad Slosar, a 43-year-old volunteer at Travel Town, said he was working in the train shed about 2:10 p.m. when he noticed 20-foot-high flames on a ridge to the northwest.

“You walked out the door and you could just hear it crackling,” Slosar said.

Within minutes, fire and police officials were on the scene and began evacuating busloads of tourists, many of whom had just pulled up, Slosar said.

“Everything was very orderly,” he said. “It was very well done.”

The Fire Department said the second blaze, on the opposite side of the ridge, and a third fire about a mile and a half east of Travel Town, were spotted by helicopters dropping water on the fires about 2:45 p.m., Davies said.

Another helicopter spotted a fourth fire about an hour later in an inaccessible canyon, Davies said.

Ground crews spotted the fifth fire about 3:47 p.m. and directed helicopters there.

Davies said firefighters from three agencies, including the Glendale and Los Angeles County fire departments, were helping to battle the blazes. In addition, four water-dropping helicopters were being used at the scene.

Prosecutor: Ellreese Daniels lied to save his career

Ellreese Daniels is going to be sentenced Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the U.S. District Court in Spokane.

From the Wenatchee World:

By K.C. Mehaffey
World staff writer
SPOKANE — After dropping manslaughter charges against the crew boss of four firefighters who died in the Thirtymile Fire near Winthrop, a federal prosecutor has assigned a motive to why Ellreese Daniels lied to investigators after the fatal 2001 wildfire.

Daniels, 47, of Lake Wenatchee, wanted to save his firefighting career, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hopkins.

A former co-worker, however, says Daniels is not at all calculating, and would not have been thinking about his career when investigators interviewed him just after the fire. His defense attorney, Tina Hunt, filed a response Friday to Hopkins’ charge, saying Daniels believed he was telling the truth when investigators questioned him.

Daniels is the first Forest Service employee to be charged for the deaths of firefighters who died under his command, but the involuntary manslaughter charges were dropped in April when he pleaded guilty to two counts of making false statements to investigators. He will be sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane.

Killed were Devin Weaver, 21; Jessica Johnson, 19; and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, all from Yakima; and Tom Craven, 30, from Ellensburg.

The four were trapped on the Chewuch Road north of Winthrop with 10 other firefighters and two campers when fire swept over them on July 10, 2001. All deployed fire shelters, but the four firefighters were up on a rock slope where they could not properly deploy their shelters.

Daniels pleaded guilty to lying about two things: First, that he told the firefighters who died at least three times to come down from the rocks because it was not a good place to be. And second, that neither of two fire engines reported to him when they arrived at the fire.

Hunt wrote that Daniels has already suffered the consequences for his actions, and should serve no jail time. He is no longer qualified to fight fires, was removed from the fire division with the Forest Service, and was reassigned to the supply cache, her response stated.

Hopkins said he’ll seek a four-month sentence in the custody of the federal Department of Corrections with one year of probation.

He said he believes Daniels should serve in the upper half of the standard range for the misdemeanor charge, which is zero to six months for someone with a low criminal history, such as Daniels. One prior conviction, for assault, counts against Daniels under sentencing guidelines, according to documents provided by the prosecution.

Hopkins said Daniels appeared to lie about all the key turning points that would have shown his poor decisions leading to the firefighters’ deaths.

“Mr. Daniels lied to investigators for the purpose of shifting responsibility for the deaths of the four firefighters to others, to include the victims, in an effort to save his career,” his court document states. It later adds that deployment of fire shelters triggers an automatic investigation, and, “In a profession where success, courage, and image are important, Mr. Daniels wanted to avoid an unnecessary deployment that could hurt his standing among his peers and reduce his prospects for choice assignments and promotion.”

He also wrote that Daniels has only made excuses for his poor performance as an incident commander, but has not recognized that his false information led investigators to false conclusions and wasted government resources.

The false statements exposed an engine foreman to potential disciplinary action, and caused families of the firefighters unnecessary anxiety and anguish, Hopkins wrote.

Heather Murphy, who used to work with Daniels at the Wenatchee River Ranger District, said it’s doubtful that Daniels was thinking about his career when he was trying to assess whether the fire would sweep over his crew.

“It’s ridiculous. With all the years of service, it’s not like he was a ladder-climbing person at all,” she said. Murphy said it makes no sense for anyone assessing a fire to think about what their peers would think if they had to deploy fire shelters.

“I wasn’t there, so it’s really hard for me to respond, but I’ve been on enough fires — around 40 or 50 — to know that you often don’t think you’re going to be overtaken by fire,” she said.

Attorney Tina Hunt, in her response to the prosecutor’s court filing, wrote that Daniels simply forgot the engine supervisor had checked in with him during the fire, and had to be taken back to the site to recall it. She also wrote that while Daniels may not have ordered firefighters to come down from the rocks, others recalled him stating that the road was the place to be, and that he believed he communicated his desire for them to come down from the rocks.

She also wrote that Daniels continues to have nightmares about the incident, and likely suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Mr. Daniels knows that his actions, in part, led to these tragedies. However, he has also had to deal with the fact that NO OTHER PERSON has been forced to be held criminally responsible other than himself,” her response states.