CalFire sued for letting fire escape

The Sierra Sun has a rambling article about the California Dept. of Forestry, now called CalFire, being sued, according to the suit, for partially demobing a fire before it was 100% contained. Apparently the strategy and tactics that were used on the fire are being questioned in a court of law 4 years after the fact.

If this sets a precedent, holy shit, what’s next? Firefighters have enough liability to worry about just fighting fire every day, or heaven forbid, when someone gets injured or killed on a fire.

Is your professional liability insurance paid up?

Here is an excerpt:

“What if the fire department runs out of water while fighting a structure fire or has a flat tire and doesn’t make it to your house? Or what if the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), now called Calfire, has a brush fire 90 percent contained at 1,200 acres, and begins demobilizing, then the fire burns out of control consuming 64,000 acres? That’s what happened in the Piru Fire in Ventura County.

Piru Fire
On Oct. 23, 2003, a spark from construction equipment operated by the United Water Conservation District started a brush fire near Lake Piru. Within two days, after 1,200 acres had burned, Calfire had the blaze 90 percent contained. They began to demobilize. Ten days later the fire burned itself out after consuming some 64,000 acres of forest land.

Fire liability
Public entities are entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of fighting fires that are negligently set or allowed to escape onto public or private property. Under the Health and Safety Code, fire agencies may recover their reasonable expenses incurred in fighting a fire.

Two years after the Piru fire, Calfire sued United Water Conservation District seeking reimbursement of its fire fighting costs in the amount of $3,871,695.

Calfire at Fault?
Did United Water Conservation District write a check for $3,871,695? Of course not or we wouldn’t be reading this new case. The water district defended the lawsuit claiming Calfire was “comparatively at fault” and “failed to mitigate damages” (legal mumbo jumbo but you get the idea) by failing to properly extinguish the original, smaller fire, thus allowing the larger blaze.

In other words, Calfire’s firefighting costs should be reduced to what it had incurred when the fire was 90 percent contained at 1,200 acres when it “failed to douse the flames completely and instead began to demobilize its fire fighting resources,” as alleged by United Water.

Court ruling
The Court of Appeal agreed with United Water Conservation District that it could question particular Calfire expenses as to whether they were excessive or unrelated to the Piru fire, but it could not question whether Calfire improperly pulled off the fire as decisions regarding sufficient personnel, equipment and fire fighting methods and tactics are all subject to the fire agency immunity statutes. No liability.”

New term for prescribed fire?

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F-16 flare
F-16 flares

The Philadelphia Inquirer is using terms that are new to me, calling a planned New Jersey prescribed fire a “preventive burn”, and later a “partial burn”. This burn project is in the area where an Air Force F-16 dropped some flares last May and started what became a 17,000 acre fire.

N.J. plans a preventive burn today in Pinelands.

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service is scheduled to conduct a partial burn today in the Stafford Forge area near Warren Grove in southern Ocean County.

The burn is to begin about 10 a.m. east of Route 539 near the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, and wind and other conditions will determine its duration, said Jim Petrini, a spokesman for the service.

The service plans to burn as much as 2,200 acres of the Pinelands in the next few weeks in an effort to eliminate dry underbrush and tree debris that accumulate and act as tinder and fuel when a fire ignites.

The prescribed burn is a response to a May 15 wildfire that scorched 17,000 acres near the gunnery range, forced hundreds of residents to evacuate, and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes.

Fire Captain dies from bacteria possibly inhaled on wildland fire

Matt Moore
Matt Moore. Photo courtesy of the Murrieta Firefighters Association

This is scary as hell. A firefighter has died after being infected with a rare brain-eating amoeba that usually lives in soil. A biopsy showed his brain had been invaded by the parasite Balamuthia mandrillaris.

From The Californian:

“MURRIETA — Murrieta Fire Capt. Matt Moore died Monday night at UCSD Medical Center in San Diego, succumbing to complications from meningitis, fire department officials said.

Moore, 43, a 17-year veteran of the department, had been hospitalized in a coma for the last two weeks.

He had been in various hospitals since November battling an aggressive form of meningitis. It is believed Moore inhaled a parasite while fighting the region’s wildfires late last year. The parasite reportedly caused swelling in his brain.

He is survived by wife, Sherry; daughter, Alyssa, 16; sons Trent and Brandon, both 13; brother, Mark Moore, who also is a captain in the city’s fire department; sister, Jill; and parents Carol and Phil Moore.

The fire department will hold a procession today to bring Moore’s body to England Family Mortuary in Temecula from the medical center in San Diego’s Hillcrest community.”

Study: 4 large fires = 7 million cars for 1 year

A non-profit organization called The Forest Foundation has released a study that claims the greenhouse gases released by the 4 large wildland fires that they studied is similar to the gases released by 7 million cars on the road for 1 year.

The Foundation says they studied these 4 California fires:

  • The Angora Fire, which burned more than 3,100 acres near South Lake Tahoe in June and July of 2007.
  • The Fountain Fire, which destroyed nearly 60,000 acres east of Redding in August 1992.
  • The Star Fire, which burned more than 16,000 acres in September 2001 in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests.
  • The Moonlight Fire, which burned more than 65,000 acres in September 2007 in and around the Plumas National Forest in the northern Sierra Nevada.

I have never heard of this organization, and have no idea of the credibility of them or the study. But it is certain that information like this, credible or not, is going to have an increasing effect on the management of public and private land.

So, should land management agencies redouble their efforts at preventing and suppressing wildland fires? Or, should there be a greater emphasis on prescribed fire or fuel reduction? Of course, prescribed fire will put greenhouse gases into the air, but will it be less than when the vegetation burns in an unplanned ignition? You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Fire Management Plans and Prescribed Fire Plans are going to become more complex, time consuming, and expensive to develop.

Update, March 21, 2008:

I have found out more about the origin this “study”. According to an article written by Thomas M. Bonnicksen in the Sacramento Union published yesterday March 20, Bonnicksen claims that he “authored (it) for the Forest Foundation”.

Bonnicksen is a “Professor Emeritus” at Texas A&M University. And, according to a Greenpeace web site called Exxon Secrets, he is associated with National Center for Public Policy Research.

In August of 2000 an article he wrote called “The Lesson of Los Alamos” was published on the Heartland Institute web site in which he was extremely critical of the National Park Service (NPS) and prescribed burning in general. In the article, Bonnicksen is not encumbered by facts in reaching his conclusions.

It is true that mistakes were made by the NPS on the prescribed fire at Bandelier National Monument that led to the Cerro Grande fire, and also in 1988 in Yellowstone National Park, but Bonnicksen is only correct in some of his analysis. For example, many of the fires that burned into Yellowstone in 1988 were human-caused and started outside the park.

According to Wikipedia:

Almost 250 different fires started in Yellowstone and the surrounding National Forests between June and August. Seven of them were responsible for 95% of the total burned area.

Yet Bonnicksen said:

Park staff did the same thing in Yellowstone in 1988, when they allowed a natural fire to burn until it became impossible to control. When it was over, the fire had charred nearly one-half of our oldest national park.

The Chapparal Institute has an exhaustive analysis and critique of some of Bonnicksen’s attention-grabbing writings. An excerpt:

When someone spends so much effort to promote an idea, especially with such inflammatory language, it is often helpful to consider their motivation and connections. Due to his economic and political interests, it is difficult to view Dr. Bonnicksen as the objective observer and expert that he portrays himself.Dr. Bonnicksen is on the advisory board for the following organizations:

The Forest Foundation, a non-profit organization supported by the California Forest Products Commission. “The Forest Foundation strives to foster public understanding of the role forests play in the environmental and economic health of the state and the necessity of managing a portion of California’s private and public forests to provide wood products for a growing population” (from their website).

According to public documents, Dr. Bonnicksen has been paid by the Forest Foundation to write opinion pieces in newspapers and to give presentations to promote land use policies favored by the logging industry. He also offers consulting services regarding timber and vegetation management. Nothing wrong with any of this of course, but it should be taken into consideration when measuring an individual’s objectivity.

How much should we fear mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and wildland fires?

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Burr Williams, of the Midland Reporter-Telegram in Texas, has some interesting thoughts comparing mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and wildland fires. Here is a brief excerpt:

“Mountain lions, grassfires and rattlesnakes are part of our landscape. We cannot prevent all wildfires nor can we kill every mountain lion or rattlesnake. We can learn how to behave if we run into a mountain lion (stand tall, wave your arms and yell). If we run, the lion will think we are food. In mountain lion habitat, we learn not to jog at daybreak or at sundown, because their prey (deer) often feed at that time. To avoid being bitten by a rattlesnake, we can learn to walk through pastures with respect, always putting our feet down where we can see them, and reach to the ground with our hands only after looking first.

During the month of February grassfires burned over a half-million acres of West Texas, prompting evacuations, killing livestock, destroying fencing and destroying buildings. Our semi-arid prairie brushland has adapted to fire over the centuries. Every rainy period will be followed by a dry year, and either lightning or man will sooner or later burn the dried-out litter left after the rainy times. Fire keeps our ecosystem healthy, according to ecologists. We can learn never to toss a cigarette out the window or to weld on a windy day without wetting the ground or to pull onto a grassy shoulder on the highway where a hot catalytic converter can start a fire.”