The wildfires in 1970 brought about FIRESCOPE, changing the way emergencies are managed

Wildfires in Southern California, 1970 map
Wildfires in Southern California, 1970. Capital Public Radio.

FIRESCOPE has produced a video that describes the evolution of the Incident Command System after the disastrous fire season of 1970.

Here are more details:

During a 13-day period in Southern California in 1970, 773 wildfires burned 576,508 acres, destroyed 722 homes  and killed 16 people. At the time there was no widely accepted interagency standard for organizing a management structure at an emergency or for sharing resources across agency and state boundaries. To help deal with these issues the federal government funded a project in  Southern California called “FIrefighting REsources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies” — FIRESCOPE. Later when the rest of the state bought into the effort the name was changed, leaving out the word “Southern”, becoming “FIrefighting RESources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies”, but retaining the same acronym, FIRESCOPE.

In the early 1970s tests of the Incident Command System, later also known as the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS), began. By 1982 NIIMS and the Multi-Agency Coordination System (MACS) developed by FIRESCOPE had been fully implemented in some areas. In 1987, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recognized the value of the management concepts of ICS/NIIMS and MACS when used for many types of incidents. Sixteen months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the President ordered the Director of Homeland Security to develop, submit for review, and administer a National Incident Management System (NIMS). The next year the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security issued a memorandum formally adopting the National Incident Management System (NIMS) as the national model. NIMS was built upon NIIMS and was very recognizable to first responders who had been using it since 1982.

After the fires of 1970 California state agencies released what is now a classic film, “Countdown to Calamity”.

CAL FIRE confirms — the Camp Fire that destroyed most of Paradise, CA was started by a PG&E powerline

firefighter battles flames Camp Fire
A firefighter battles flames at the Camp Fire. Photo by FirePhotoGirl used with permission.

It comes as no surprise, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has confirmed what was long thought, that equipment on a Pacific Gas and Electric power line started the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California. PG&E has been saying for months that it was likely their power line started the fire but CAL FIRE’s investigation now makes it official. This could open the floodgates for numerous civil and possibly criminal cases.

CAL FIRE discovered two points of origin, both caused by the power line. One resulted from vegetation coming in contact with a conductor, but they were not specific about the second source. A few days after the fire started there was an unofficial report that a piece of hardware on a 100-year old high voltage transmission tower failed, causing the line to fall, but this has not been officially confirmed.

CAL Fire did not released its full investigative report, saying it had been forwarded to the Butte County District Attorney’s office, which is considering filing criminal charges against the utility.

The fire started early in the morning on November 8, 2018 near the small community of Pulga northeast of Paradise. It burned over 153,000 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures, and resulted in 85 fatalities. It became the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in the recorded history of California.

Very strong winds and low humidity that day spread the fire rapidly into the town making it impossible to safely fly air tankers and helicopters close to the ground. The wind would have also blown retardant or water far off any selected target.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Forest Service Chief testifies about proposed budget for next fiscal year

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen budget FY2020
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified about the White House’s proposed budget for FY2020 on May 15, 2019.

A Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, held a hearing May 15 to receive testimony from Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, about the administration’s proposed budget for next year, FY2020. In response to some of the questions related to recommended cuts by the White House, the Chief politely mentioned the fact that the administration ordered an overall five percent cut in the Forest Service budget.

One of the first topics of discussion were the large reductions in two programs. This fiscal year the Volunteer Fire Assistance program was funded at $11 million and State Fire Assistance program at $66 million. These programs provide assistance to states and local fire departments for wildland fire prevention, detection, and suppression. In Fiscal Year 2019, the programs were funded at $17 million and $81 million respectively.

I made two of the three clips below to highlight the sections when the committee was discussing fire-related issues. In the first one Chief Christiansen is asked to defend the cuts in the Volunteer Fire Assistance and State Fire Assistance programs.

In the next Clip Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico asks Forest Service Chief Christiansen if the proposed funding amounts for next fiscal year can help restore forests and reduce the need for fire suppression.

Senator Steve Daines of Montana asks Chief of the Forest Service Vicki Christiansen if more fuel breaks should be constructed along roads.

In an April 9 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee other issues were discussed about funding for next fiscal year.

Rare nesting stork hatches eggs as wildfire burns

Screengrab from the video below.

A surveillance camera overlooking an endangered oriental white stork nest in Russia’s Far East captured a scene of a wildfire spreading in a field on April 28. The fire went by without doing any harm to the birds. The camera was installed at a power pylon as a part of World Wildlife Fund Russia project to monitor the stork family online.

Lawsuits filed to block renewal of grazing permits for Hammond family

Members of the family were convicted of arson on BLM land in Oregon, and in 2016 their incarceration inspired a 40-day armed takeover and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Ryan and Ammon Bundy

Dwight and Steven Hammond.
Dwight and Steven Hammond.

Three environmental advocacy organizations have filed suit to block the 10-year renewal of grazing permits for Dwight and Steven Hammond on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon.

Below are excerpts from an article at Oregon Live:

Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wildearth Guardians filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Pendleton against the interior secretary, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the district manager of the land bureau’s Burns District office.

The three groups argue that then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s renewal of the grazing permit after the Hammonds were issued pardons violated federal administrative regulations because it failed to consider the Hammonds’ unsatisfactory record.

The groups contend the father and son’s cattle-grazing record violated regulations set by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the Department of Interior and that the new permit didn’t undergo proper environmental assessments.

On Jan. 29, Zinke ordered the permit renewal for Hammond Ranches Inc. to last through 2024.

In February 2014, the federal agency rejected the Hammonds’ renewal application, citing their criminal convictions for setting fire to public land.

Before a 40-day armed takeover and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Ryan and Ammon Bundy, inspired by the incarceration of Dwight and Steven Hammond in 2016, the Hammonds set fires in 2001 and 2006 that started on or spread onto public lands and endangered wildland firefighters, in some cases forcing them to take evasive action when their safety was compromised. On one incident fleeing firefighters were led to safety via radio by an orbiting Air Attack.

Court documents revealed that the Hammonds conscripted a 13-year old to help ignite a fire who was too successful. He found himself surrounded by flames and fearing for his life. A group of three hunters, whose location was known to the Hammonds, were also threatened by one of the fires and had to hurriedly evacuate the area without having time to pack up the equipment at their campsite. The Hammonds also had several previous run-ins with law enforcement.

While the Hammonds were in prison for the arson on federal land convictions, President Trump issued them full pardons.

For more information about the Hammonds, check out the detailed timeline we put together covering their interactions with the legal system between 1994 and 2015. We developed the timeline from court documents, information provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Gerri Badden, and other sources provided by some of our loyal readers.

The article was corrected to show that Ryan and Ammon Bundy led the 40-day armed takeover and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. 

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Fireline fatality shines light on Forest Service workforce

Logo Laguna Hotshots
An example of a crew logo worn on hard hats and t-shirts. This is the logo of the Laguna Hotshots, created in 1974 by Kyle Rayon, wife of Howard Rayon, one of the Squad Bosses on the crew. The oak tree was chosen because it represented the  trees most commonly found on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California.

Like other wildland firefighter fatalities, the death of Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Hotshots last year during the felling of a hazardous tree has had an effect on many of the 15,000 wildland firefighters in the Federal government. As described in the report that was released last week, Captain Hughes and others on the crew did many things right while working to get the tree on the ground, but he ended up in an unfortunate location when the tree fell in an unexpected direction. Many firefighters can relate to that and may have been in similar situations, but had a better outcome.

Captain Kevin Mecham, a U.S. Forest Service employee and Captain on the Truckee Hotshots in Northern California, was motivated to put some of his ideas into a letter. It was intended to be read primarily by other Forest Service personnel, but we have his permission to publish it here. After the letter, below, we explain some of the acronyms, the names mentioned, and the issue regarding the “t-shirt mandate”.

My name is Kevin Mecham and I am a Captain on the Truckee Hotshots. I am writing this letter to provoke a larger discussion about wildfires and the Federal Employees whose lives are defined by them. I started fighting fire with the US Forest Service when I was 19. I was enrolled in a Natural Resources program and was aiming to have a career that was meaningful, conservation oriented, adventurous, in the great outdoors and contributed to something bigger than myself. I attended an employment outreach seminar where a Forest Service Firefighter spoke and I thought to myself “that sounds great, I’ll be outside, it sounds noble and it’ll be an adventure.” I didn’t know a single Firefighter. The thought of being a Firefighter had never crossed my mind; in fact when I was 12 my family almost lost our home in a wildfire and I remember driving through the flames with my Mom to escape and I was terrified. But, seven years later and I had become a passion driven, adventure seeking 19 year old and it sounded great.

15 fire seasons later a lot has changed. I am a husband, a father and my perception of the world has changed. Wildfires themselves have changed; size, severity and frequency have all increased. My career still parallels what I anticipated as a college student seeking a meaningful career. I am outside a lot, it is noble and it is definitely an adventure. I’ve worked on Engines, a Helitack module and two Hotshots Crews. It was Hotshoting that really resonated with me. I have enough pride and emotion about being a Hotshot that I could write more than anyone would ever want to read so I’ll keep it short. Just know that I have a lot of heart and a ton of pride in the people and places that developed me into the person that I am. But a lot has changed and what my younger self failed to foresee was the weight of the psychological toll of this profession and how unnecessarily exasperated it is by the Agency. Some of the psychological weight is part of the job. We work in the woods and the woods are an inherently dangerous place. Introduce fire, increased fuel loading, wilder deviations from weather norms, an ever expanding reach of the wildland urban interface, more state and local government working with a scale of fire and an environment they are unfamiliar with and we find ourselves in very dynamic and complex situations. But the single most vexing and compounding factor is that we are a conservation agency ran by politicians and science based academics that just happen to oversee the most effective and comprehensive wildland firefighting force in the world.

The catalyst of this letter is the line of duty death of friend and co-worker Daniel Laird and the WO and RO’s management of its Forestry Technicians. Our current management structure and its subsequent repercussions on our Firefighting workforce are not new problems. Line of Duty deaths are not new problems. But Dan’s death and the Agency’s structure have shone a glaring light on the implications of our current leadership organization. As these tragedies and issues hit closer and closer to home for the “boots on the ground” it makes the weight feel even heavier. The loss of Dan and the Agency’s proposed attempts at solving our problems: hiring / staffing, retention, fatigue management, work life balance and the aborted uniform t-shirt mandate illustrate our greatest obstacles. We are being managed by people that don’t have experience in our profession. There isn’t the necessary context to the commitment and sacrifice required to prepare for and work a tough fire season. Incident complexity has increased and demand has increased. When will the Agency embrace what we do on a daily basis? When will the Agency recognize what the public already expects of us? We invented wildland firefighting and yet the individuals making the decisions that impact us the gravest have never done our job. We have leadership attempting to manage fatigue when they don’t understand the complexities of our fatigue. I wouldn’t supervise a botany crew. I wouldn’t oversee a multi-million dollar budget. Ancient hunters wouldn’t select a gatherer to lead a hunt. How can we expect to succeed if we have people supervising in facets in which they have no experience? This is an illogical structure that would universally fail across all spectrums of humanity throughout time.

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