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.

Tracking the Laguna Hot Shots

I use a SPOT satellite messenger on motorcycle trips. It’s a handy little device about the size of a small digital camera and is equipped with a GPS receiver and a radio transmitter. By pushing just one button, it can send via satellite a message that 1) you are OK, 2) that you need help, or 3) that you have an emergency and need 9-1-1 services. It sends your location with every message. It can also, optionally, send your location every 10 minutes, plotting your location and a track on Google Maps that can be viewed on the Internet by anyone to whom you give the web site address.

The device is fairly reliable. Approximately 80-90% of the auto-tracking messages have gone through when I have used it, but it can be affected by tree canopy, much like other GPS devices. If you send an “OK” message, it sends three identical messages to the SPOT service for redundancy. The first of those three messages is delivered.

If you send a 9-1-1 message, it will keep sending it every 5 minutes until it is canceled or until the batteries run out. When sending your location every 10 minutes, the batteries, two AA Lithiums, will last about 14 days. If the auto tracking every 10 minutes is not turned on, 1,900 “OK” messages can be sent on one set of batteries.

I was looking at the web site today of the Laguna Hot Shots, one of my old crews, and saw a link for “Where are we; crew’s location” which leads to a map of their location. It turns out that the crew, or someone on the crew, is carrying one of these SPOT devices, making it possible to know where the crew is. Apparently they don’t have the every 10 minute tracking feature turned on, but they are pushing the “OK” button every now and then, one to eight times a day.

I imagine that the families of the crew members very much appreciate being able to go to a web site and follow the travels of the crew. While this is a great thing for frequent travelers to have, it probably should not be depended on by firefighters for rescue on fires in a life or death situation, but I doubt if the Hot Shots have that in mind. Having said that, this service which only began early this year, already has some examples of people that have been rescued from various types of mishaps.

The suggested retail price is $169.99, but it can be found for less at Saltys Marine and Cabela’s. You also need to subscribe to the service which is $99 per year for standard service and an extra $49 per year for the SPOTcasting tracking service (the map on the Internet).

Below is an example of a map display of where the Laguna Hot Shots have been. If you go to the site, you can zoom in and out and pan. I believe the tracking data only remains on the web site for 7 days.

HERE is another example of tracking someone who is carrying the device on a multi-day motorcycle rally, Matt Watkins, who has the 10-minute tracking feature turned on. Matt also has a BLOG about his adventures.

Wildfire news, August 13, 2008

Rescued bear cub

The bear cub that was rescued by CalFire firefighter Adam Deem while working as a Field Observer on the Moon fire in northern California on July 17 is improving.

A badly blistered American black bear cub whose plight has touched the hearts of people around the world is continuing his recovery from second- and third-degree burns to his paws after his rescue last month from the hot embers of a Shasta-Trinity National Forest wildfire. 

“His paws are definitely healing,” Cheryl Millham, executive director of the nonprofit Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, said Tuesday. “His toes are coming along beautifully.”

Affectionately called “Li’l Smokey,” the approximately 6-month-old bear cub, who also was badly dehydrated, weighed only about 8 pounds when a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighter plucked him from the scalding ashes of the Moon Fire.

He now weighs more than 16 pounds.

It’s hoped that Li’l Smokey’s severe burns will heal well enough that he can be released back into the Shasta-Trinity National Forest during next year’s hibernation season, Millham said.

The rest of the story is at the Redding Searchlight. The article says regular updates are at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care website, but we could not find any on the site.

UPDATE, August 14: We received an email from the LTWC folks. Lil’ Smokey has a blog which includes updates.

Emotional recovery from helicopter crash

The Mail Tribune has an article about the road to emotional recovery for the people affected by the helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters on August 5. Here is a brief excerpt:

The road to emotional recovery could be a long one for those close to the nine people who died in the Aug. 5 helicopter crash at a wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, a mental health expert says. 

“For the people who have an event like this happen around them or to them, this changes them, probably for the rest of their lives,” observed Vard Miller, 61, a clinical social worker in charge of the critical incident teams for the U.S. Forest Service’s Region 6.

“There are actual brain changes as the result of traumatic events,” added Miller, who fought wildfires in his younger years. “Sometimes they never totally, fully recover in the sense that there can be a small incident that will trigger those memories and feelings.”

This week Miller has been meeting with firefighters and others connected to the crash of the Merlin-based Carson Helicopters Inc. aircraft that killed the pilot, a U.S. Forest Service aviation expert and seven firefighters from Grayback Forestry Inc., which has offices in White City and Merlin.

Grayback Forestry video

Here is a video from August 8 in which Grayback Forestry President Mike Wheelock provides some of the initial information about the victims of the August 5 helicopter crash.

Tributes planned for crash victims and firefighters

Oregon tribute

Grayback Forestry and Carson Helicopters are helping to plan a tribute for the 9 people that died in the August 5 helicopter crash on the Iron 44 fire. It is scheduled for Friday, August 15 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. at the Lithia Motors amphitheater on the Jackson County Fairgrounds in Central Point, near Medford, Oregon. Gates open at 8:30 a.m. The Amphitheater is at 1 Peninger Road in Central Point, off Exit 33 (Pine Street) on Interstate 5.

Call (541) 618-2171 for more information or visit www.graybackforestry.com

James Ramage service

From the Redding Record Searchlight:

Service for pilot set for Saturday

A celebration honoring James N. Ramage of Redding is set for 2 p.m. Saturday August 16 at the Redding Convention Center. The 63-year-old U.S. Forest Service helicopter pilot died with eight others last week in the Buckhorn Fire helicopter crash in Trinity County.

The event will celebrate his life and 24-year career as a helicopter pilot and aviation inspector with both the U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The celebration begins at 1:30 p.m. with a procession of fire apparatus at the Redding Convention Center, followed by the 2 p.m. ceremony of invited speakers, a video presentation highlighting his life and career, remarks and comments by his family and friends, and a fly-over tribute of fire-fighting aircraft.

The public is invited to attend. Those wishing to attend are advised to arrive early because of likely traffic congestion and parking limitations.

IndyCar race tribute at Infineon raceway, “Firefighter Appreciation Day”

From infineonraceway.com

………Infineon Raceway will honor these courageous (firefighters) for their incredibly heroic efforts at the PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County during Firefighter Appreciation Day on Sunday, August 24.

The first 10,000 race fans that enter the raceway on Sunday will receive a FREE commemorative bracelet with the inscription, “Firefighter Appreciation Day,” and the date.

Firefighters will also be recognized during pre-event ceremonies on Sunday prior to the green flag being dropped for the PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County.

There will also be a parade lap around the world famous road course by fire trucks and emergency response vehicles, as well as notable firefighters and dignitaries. Race fans can also visit the special firefighter display booth, which will feature donation buckets for those who would like to contribute.

Firefighters and their families can purchase discounted tickets for Firefighter Appreciation Day. CLICK HERE for more information about the discounts.


Wildfire news, August 12, 2008

New fire use fire in Idaho

The Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho decided to declare the 350-acre South Barker fire a fire use fire, a fire that will not be suppressed but will be herded around as long as it remains within the maximum management area. It is burning in an area that was planned for a prescribed fire. A Fire Use Management Team is in route.

Plan ahead for fires with direct deposit

We had not thought of it before but an article by the Social Security administration advises that if you have your salary or social security checks directly deposited into your bank account you could still access your money if a wildland fire disrupts mail delivery or if you are evacuated.

Air quality rules restricting prescribed fire?

An article in the Macon, Georgia Telegraph indicates that there are concerns that prescribed fires may be limited by federal air pollution rules even as support for prescribed burning in Georgia increases. Land managers in the state annually burn about 1.5 million acres a year, putting them among the top five nationally for prescribed fires. The other states in the top five are Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

“As a council, we want to preserve our ability to burn so we don’t end up like California,” fighting huge and uncontrollable wildfires, Mark Melvin of the Georgia Prescribed Fire Council said. 

Extinguishing fires is usually far more expensive and dangerous than conducting controlled burns, he said. And controlled burns generate less air pollution. Melvin said smoke from last year’s Okefenokee Swamp fire hurt air quality as far away as Cuba for weeks.

And speaking of smoke

Here is the latest smoke map.

Gunbarrel fire update, Aug. 12

The Gunbarrel fire east of Yellowstone NP and west of Cody, Wyoming, has grown by about 4,000 acres over the last three days and is now 39,370 acres. Yesterday there was some very active fire on some ridges primarily in the upper end of Sweetwater Creek. Firefighters have placed sprinklers near cabins in some drainages south of the highway.

The map below is looking west, with Yellowstone Lake in the background, and shows the last perimeter uploaded by the incident management team on August 8. You can see that the amount of vegetation on the north side of the fire is pretty sparse since the elevation of the ridges is around 10,000 feet. On the east side the elevation is much lower and more vegetation is present. The south side along the highway is about 6,300 feet. If the fire should cross the highway, it would be very difficult firefighting.
Extreme mapping

As a former Situation Unit Leader and Infrared Imagery Interpreter, I have an appreciation of maps. The last few produced of the Gunbarrel fire perimeter are the most detailed fire perimeter maps I have ever seen. Every last nook, cranny, finger, island, and spot fire are documented. I believe the perimeters were provided by an Infrared Imagery Interpreter, poring over imagery taken by the U.S. Forest Service’s fixed wing infrared aircraft. Usually perimeters are much smoother, tracing the outermost edges of small fingers of the fire, but the detail in these maps is amazing. Probably much more detail than is needed to manage the fire, but impressive nonetheless. It must have taken hours of slaving over a hot keyboard and mouse to make these perimeters.

Here is an example, a close up of the northwest portion of the fire. North is up, or at the top of the map. Click on it to see a larger version.