Air tankers and Type 1 crews dispatched to Oregon Lakes Fire in Alaska

Chena Hotshots Oregon Lakes Fire
Chena Hotshots unload their gear at the Oregon Lakes Fire, May 1,2 2019.

Sunday afternoon a burnout operation being conducted by a Type 2 hand crew on the Oregon Lakes Fire 11 miles south of Delta Junction, Alaska slopped over a fireline and burned 240 unplanned acres. Firefighters, aided by heavy equipment and a helicopter, were burning grass along a fuel break about two miles north of a military training impact area.

Two helicopters and both of the state air tankers that were on contract were used on the slopover, including Tanker 42, a Convair 580, that was on the first day of its contract.

It is very rare for retardant to be needed on a fire in Alaska this early in the year. The water-scooping Fire Bosses are not yet on contract, but would have been well suited for the job with the nearby Delta River serving as a water source.

In addition, two Type 1 Hotshot crews were mobilized Sunday, Chena and Midnight Sun.

Oregon Lakes Fire burnout slopover
This small photo provided by the Incident Management Team shows the burning operation in progress. At some point it spotted across the line, burning an unplanned 240 additional acres.

Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is in place over the fire to prevent outside aircraft, including military aircraft, from interfering with the suppression efforts. Part of the TFR is over restricted military airspace.

The fire was reported April 30 and so far has been burning in an area that is off-limits to firefighters and low-flying fire suppression aircraft due to the likelihood of unexploded ordnance on the ground. It is burning mostly in tall, dry grass and downed trees from the 2013 Mississippi Fire west of the braided Delta River.

The Incident Management Team reports that the fire has burned 5,732 acres.

map Oregon Lakes Fire
This is the most current map of the Oregon Lakes Fire provided by the Incident Management Team. The perimeter was updated May 8, 2019.

Two wildfire bills pending in D.C.

A Senator and a Representative in Oregon are pushing two bills that have been introduced in Congress that would affect wildland fire and forest management. One emphasized logging while the other is about mitigating hazardous fuels near communities.

Last week U.S. Rep. Greg Walden introduced the Resilient Federal Forests Act,  which would:

  • Reduce environmental compliance restrictions on projects up to 10,000 acres to treat forest stands affected by insects and disease in order to reduce hazardous fuels and protect watersheds. The limit would expand to 30,000 acres for collaborative projects.
  • Expedite salvage logging after fires.
  • Require replanting 75 percent of burned areas within five years.
  • Increase logging on Oregon and California Railroad lands in Western Oregon.
  • Remove the prohibition on logging trees over 21 inches in diameter in Eastern Oregon.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is working to pass his Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act that stalled in the Senate last year. One of the main provisions is to appropriate $1 billion to the U.S. Forest Service for ramping up projects that would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, including expanding the  U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. These projects would carry out hazardous fuels reduction activities on Forest Service lands in areas that are near at-risk communities, are high-value watersheds, or have very high wildfire potential. The goal is to create fire-adapted communities, restore and maintain resilient landscapes, and to achieve safe and effective fire response.

In another wildfire related issue, Senator Merkley said thanks to a $7 million appropriation from the federal government the Oregon National Guard trained 230 Guard members in March to fight fires and another 125 will be trained in July.

Increased wildfire activity predicted for British Columbia and Yukon

Wildfire potential for North America May, June, July, 2019
Wildfire potential for North America May, June, July, 2019. Click to enlarge.

The Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center has predicted above normal wildfire activity  this summer for southern Arizona, areas of California, and western Oregon and Washington.

An outlook for North America released on Friday also shows enhanced potential for British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in June and July.

Below is an excerpt from the North American Seasonal Fire Assessment and Outlook prepared by NIFC, Natural Resources Canada, and Servicio Meteorológico Nacional.

“For May, recent climate model runs suggest Canada will have lower fire severity than normal. While an early start to warm and dry conditions is leaving much of British Columbia prone to fire starts, rainfall is likely in the last half of the month, which will likely result in normal monthly fire severity for the province. The latest climate model runs hint at continued blocking ridges in the eastern Pacific during June, resulting in warm and dry conditions and resulting elevated fire severity indexes in British Columbia and Yukon. This pattern often features the eastern side of the ridge over the Prairies, so western Alberta also appears prone to elevated fire risk, while conditions east of Alberta are likely to have normal values. July’s forecast is similar to June’s forecast, with elevated fire severity indexes expected throughout British Columbia, western Alberta, and southern Yukon. A slight difference exists as the Yukon area depicted covers only the southern part of the territory in July, while in June it extended north near the Arctic coast.”

Wildfire potential for North America, May
Wildfire potential for North America, May 2019.
Wildfire potential for North America, June
Wildfire potential for North America, June 2019.
Wildfire potential for North America
Wildfire potential for North America, July 2019.

Pennsylvania builds 16 new fire lookout towers

fire lookout tower Pennsylvania
The new 40-foot fire lookout tower at Big Pocono State Park in Monroe County, PA is one of 16 that are replacing old towers. Penn. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources photo.

While most land managers are abandoning their fire lookout towers or installing electronic systems to detect wildfires, the state of Pennsylvania is going old school.

From PA Environment Digest Blog:

In September 2017, [Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] began a $4.6 million Department of General Services capital project to replace 16 forest fire lookout towers on state forest land. Many of the original towers still in operation today were constructed in the 1920s through 1940 and needed to be replaced.

The new fire towers are sturdier to meet today’s structural and foundation code requirements. They will be safer to ascend, with improved stairs and railings, and be topped with weather-proof cabs.

Below is an excerpt from an article at National Public Radio:

…This spring marks the first fire season for the 16 new towers built in Pennsylvania last year.

Gary Weber, treasurer of the national Forest Fire Lookout Association, was surprised by the project.

“My first reaction was, ‘Really?’” he said. “We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Over the past few decades, Weber has seen many states end their lookout programs. Pennsylvania is the only state recently to build new towers on such a scale.

“Nationwide, we figure there were somewhere over 9,000 lookout structures built along the way and probably a little over 2,500 actually left standing, but a lot of those are just abandoned,” Weber said.

He estimates 500 are still staffed, as states turn to other methods of fire detection like planes, cameras and citizen reports from cell phones.

“There are a lot of places where if people see smoke, they will get 10 calls to the 9-1-1 center,” said Mike Kern chief of the division of forest fire protection for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the forest districts. “There’s other places in north-central Pennsylvania especially where no one will see a fire for a couple hours.”

Even if someone wanted to report a fire, they’d have a hard time finding cell service in the Pennsylvania Wilds. That’s one of the reasons why five of the new towers are in the Moshannon Forest District.

John Hecker, manager of the Moshannon Forest District, said the alternative is paying upwards of $1,000 per hour for a plane to search for fires.

“Our towers always spot the smoke quicker,” he said. “Just a little tiny column of smoke comes up, and they’re looking at that against the blue of the horizon and they can spot that.”

Most of Pennsylvania’s new lookouts replaced aging ones at the same location. The forest districts staff about two dozen towers statewide on warm, dry, windy days in the spring, as well as in the fall when fires tend to pop up again.

Throwback Thursday: 27 fires caused by fireworks July 4, 2009

In honor of President Trump and South Dakota Governor Governor Kristi Noem hoping to have a fireworks show over the ponderosa pine forest at Mount Rushmore National Memorial on July Fourth, for Throwback Thursday we are republishing an article we wrote July 5, 2009. We are actually combining two articles from that date (here and here) that listed 27 fires caused by fireworks the day before. It was not meant to be a complete list, it was simply the ones that we were aware of.

Fires caused by fireworks on July 4, 2009

During the day we will update this post with news about wildfires and serious injuries that are caused by people using fireworks. Tomorrow we will start a separate post as additional news comes in about wildland fires and serious injuries resulting from the abuse of fireworks.

In 2007, 9,800 children and adults nationwide visited hospital emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eleven died.

And by the way, the annual July 3 fireworks at Mount Rushmore Friday night were launched into fog, and the tens of thousands of spectators could only see vague glows in the mist.

1. Bigfork, Montana. A 1/2 acre wildfire caused by fireworks around noon on Friday.

Firefighters from Bigfork Fire Department and the DNRC talk after extinguishing a blaze on Commerce Street in Bigfork on Friday afternoon. The .5-acre grass fire was started by fireworks. Alex Strickland/Bigfork Eagle

2. Altamonte Springs, Fla. Seminole County fire Lt. David Williams said one person was burned Friday night when fireworks landed in the crowd. The patient was transported to Florida Hospital Altamonte.

3. Salinas, California: Illegal fireworks have started a fire on the roof of an apartment complex in Salinas. It happened just before 11:00 Friday night near West Bernal and Gardenia. Nobody was injured, but people have been evacuated from their homes. No arrests have been made at this time. Fire crews are still investigating.

4. Ocracoke, NC: A truckload of fireworks exploded Saturday morning on a remote North Carolina island dock, killing two workers and critically injuring three others preparing for an Independence Day celebration, authorities said. Two volunteer firemen were transported by Dare Co. EMS to be treated for inhalation and exhaustion.

Sharon Tugwell photo

5. West Valley City, UT: Fireworks may have caused two fires at a mobile-home park in West Valley City early Saturday morning, said assistant Fire Chief Kris Romijn.

One of those fires destroyed a mobile home on the 7000 West block of Arabian Way (2660 South). The blaze started in a car at the home about 12:15 a.m., and two witnesses reported seeing something that looked like fireworks under the car. The fire spread to the home and gutted it, causing between $60,000 and $100,000 worth of damage, including the car. It also caused radiant damage to a nearby home.

6. Hancock, MD: Authorities say a vehicle loaded with fireworks has caught fire near the town of Hancock.Washington County fire department officials say the incident occurred Saturday on eastbound Interstate 70. They say a man apparently had bought fireworks from a stand and reported his vehicle was on fire.

7 and 8. Missoula, MT: The [fireworks-caused] fire, up Deep Creek near the gravel pit, was quickly surrounded by Lolo Hotshots, and units from Frenchtown and Missoula rural fire departments and the state Department of Natural Resource Conservation also responded. The half-acre fire was well on its way to being snuffed out early Saturday evening, said Paula Short, DNRC fire information officer.

“They’ve got it pretty well knocked down, but the Hotshots are going to go ahead and put a line around it,” she said.

The second fire, in a field near Lolo School off U.S. Highway 93 South, was also reported Saturday afternoon and was likewise fireworks-related. Missoula Rural Fire Department responded, and the blaze was quickly put out before reaching any threatening size.

9. Harrah, MT: A young boy set off fireworks in a structure on Friday, it starts a fire and several structures burn, making 19 homeless and causing $800,000 in damages.

10. Fresno, CA: The largest fire in Fresno, CA in decades was started by fireworks–burns three luxury homes.

11. Marysville, WA: A family is left with no home after their house is destroyed on Saturday by a fire caused by fireworks.

12. Kansas City, Kan.: fireworks were the cause of a fire in a duplex at 3306  N. 84th Terrace.

13. Padre Island, Texas: People with fireworks caused several fires on unoccupied islands in the Laguna Madre. No homes were threatened and the fire department had no boats, so the fires are being allowed to burn until they run out of fuel, which should happen sometime on Sunday.

14. Burbank, Wash.: A fire that may have been started by fireworks burned onto the grounds of a biodiesel plan early Saturday. About 30,000 gallons of vegetable oil spilled during the 3-alarm fire.

15. Canal Winchester, Ohio:Fireworks were the cause of a fire in the 5900 block of Waterloo Road that totally destroyed a barn, according to a report from the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office.Victims said they lit the fireworks and put the remnants in a truck, which they parked in the barn. Between 11:30 p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday, the trash caught fire, consuming the vehicle and then the structure.

The report indicated the barn and items inside appeared to be a total loss.The fire caused an estimated $150,000 in damages.

16. Richland, Wash.: Fireworks are suspected as the cause of a 20-acre fire.

17. Greenwood, Miss.: Investigators believe fireworks were the cause of a fire that destroyed Perry’s Pawn Shot and a vacant building.

18. Tehachapi, Calif.: The City of Tehachapi’s annual 4th of July fireworks display ignited a small grass fire that lit up local airport runways and briefly delayed traffic at the intersection of Tehachapi Boulevard and Dennison Road.

Carin Enovijas photo

Within an hour, the grass fire was contained by local firefighters, with back up units responding from as far away as Mojave, Tehachapi’s Chief of Police Jeff Kermode said. The Tehachapi Police Explorers assisted with traffic control at the scene.

According to Kern County Fire Department’s Public Information Officer Sean Collins, county firefighters responded to 245 incidents within two hours of sundown.

19 & 20. Yakima, Wash.: Two homes were badly damaged by separate fires caused by fireworks.

21. Covington, Wash.: From homes in Covington were damaged by fire Saturday evening when fireworks ignited juniper bushes near one of the homes, the city of Kent reported.

The incident occurred in the 25400 block of 163rd Avenue Southeast when flames leaped from the bushes to ignite the siding of a two-story house. The fire quickly spread to the attic and then into the home.

Firefighters arrived to fight the fire, but sparks spread to three nearby residences, igniting their shake roofs. The fires at two of those houses were put out quickly with only minimal damage to the roofs, but the third house was on an adjacent street and had time to spread before firefighters were notified of the problem.

Firefighters from Kent Fire Department and Maple Valley Fire and Life Safety responded. The warm weather forced firefighters to be rotated out of duty frequently to stay hydrated.

Covington police cited an individual for discharging the fireworks in a dangerous manner, although the fireworks which started the fire were “of the legal type,” according to a spokesman.

22, 23, & 24. Snohomish County, Wash: Three structures burned in separate incidents, all caused by fireworks.

25. Tampa, Florida: Fireworks launched from across the street set a house on fire Sunday afternoon causing about $50,000 in damage.

26. Honolulu, Hawaii: We’ll count this as one fire, but the Honolulu Fire Department responded to 45 fires over the last two days that appear to be fireworks related, a spokesman said in an e-mail this morning.From midnight Thursday to midnight last night, firefighters responded to 26 brush fires, said fire Capt. Terry Seelig. Of those, 19 appear to have been started by fireworks. There were also 28 fires in trash bins or involving rubbish. Fireworks may have started 23 of those fires.

27. Sacramento, Calif.: Investigators believe illegal fireworks may have caused a two-alarm fire that tore through the back of an Oak Park home Saturday night, a Sacramento Fire spokesman said.

Sacramento fire crews arrived to find heavy smoke and flames pouring out of the back of a home on the 3400 block of 12th Avenue around 10:18 p.m. Saturday, Sacramento Fire Capt. Jim Doucette said.

The blaze quickly went to two alarms as approximately 50 firefighters worked to keep the flames from spreading to the house next door. Crews were able to contain the blaze to the single home, which sustained extensive damage before firefighters could fully douse the flames.

Politicians want to resume fireworks displays over the forest at Mount Rushmore

mount rushmore fireworks
Photo showing Mount Rushmore fireworks with burning embers hitting the ground. Photo: South Dakota Tourism

It is possible that July 4 fireworks displays could again be seen at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota beginning next year. The last time fireworks rained down on the sculpture and the ponderosa pine forest below was in 2009.

President Trump sent out a tweet yesterday:

I am pleased to inform you that THE BIG FIREWORKS, after many years of not having any, are coming back to beautiful Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Great work @GovKristiNoem and @SecBernhardt! #MAGA

Governor Kristi Noem distributed a press release, writing in part, “[T]he State of South Dakota and the U.S. Department of the Interior have agreed to bring fireworks back to Mount Rushmore National Memorial beginning with the 2020 Independence Day celebration.”

The Memorial is administered by the National Park Service which is part of the Department of the Interior. The DOI has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the State of South Dakota, “to work to reinstate fireworks at Mount Rushmore for Fourth of July celebrations.”

According to the NPS it is not etched in stone that the fireworks will occur.

“The agreement”, said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, chief of interpretation and education at Mount Rushmore, “is the first step in a long process. The National Park Service will be working with the state, land management agencies, various specialists in a variety of fields, and will be exercising our authority under state and federal law to explore safe and available options in regards to the proposal. So, it’s a proposal. This is just the beginning of the process to look at that.”

For the last three months President Trump and the Governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, have been pushing to resume the fireworks over the faces of the Presidents. There is a report that the President joked that he would be in favor of it only if he could push the button to set them off.

From 1998 through 2009 fireworks were launched over the sculpture with strong support from local businesses that benefited from the thousands of spectators that crowded over the mountain roads to access the site.

During the first five years of the fireworks, Mount Rushmore was one of the seven Parks within the Northern Great Plains Fire Management organization for which I was the Fire Management Officer. Knowing that fireworks often start structure and vegetation fires, I argued against the project when it was first proposed. The park is not just the stone carving; it has 1,200 acres of timber within the boundary, and beyond that is the Black Hills National Forest.

Mount Rushmore
The sculpture at Mount Rushmore is at the icon in this satellite photo. Google Earth.

But the decision was made to begin the July 4 fireworks in 1998. As part of the planning team I developed fire-related criteria that became part of the go/no-go checklist that was fine-tuned over the years. One of the items on the list was a requirement that the Probability of Ignition be within certain parameters. If it was too high, the event would be cancelled or postponed. But there was tremendous pressure to make it happen. Tens of thousands of spectators usually attended, with many of them coming from long distances. It took many days to haul the fireworks up through the steep, rocky terrain and wire them up for the programmed display.

It was also my job to plan for suppression of the fires that started when burning embers hit the ground. We mobilized dozens of firefighters during the busy part of the fire season and had them positioned just outside the falling-debris zone. We had to restrict out of area fire assignments to be sure enough firefighters remained available for the show. After the aerial explosions ended, we would move in, search at night in the steep rocky terrain, and extinguish the fires. One year after searching through the dense timber on a moonless night, a hotshot crew got lost as they tried to return to their vehicles. We were pretty worried about them when they didn’t show up, but they eventually made it, about an hour later than expected.

In one of the first displays over a dozen fires started. They were all put out when they were small, but it was proven then to be an insane concept to shoot off literally tons of fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest in July.

In 2016 the USGS discovered that the ground and surface water at Mount Rushmore is contaminated with percholrate, a component of rocket fuels and explosives. They determined that the chemical came from the fireworks over that 12-year period.

Data from the USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter was measured in a stream sample, which is about 270 times higher than that in samples collected from sites outside the memorial. The Centers for Disease Control says high levels of perchlorates can affect the thyroid gland, which in turn can alter the function of many organs in the body. The fetus and young children can be especially susceptible.

Aside from the impractical aspects of fires, cost, and ruining the water, the esthetics of the display were disrespectful and distasteful — explosions over the faces of Presidents Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Lincoln — raining down onto the sculpture, rocks, and forests. The show left on the sculpture and in the forest unexploded shells, wadding, ash, pieces of the devices, paper, and poisonous chemicals; stuff that can never be completely picked up in the steep, rocky, rugged terrain.

Mount Rushmore fireworks debris
Some of the debris and trash at the launch site of the fireworks at Mount Rushmore.

Trivia of the day: President Trump has tweeted about “fireworks” 19 times. Most often to describe an upcoming episode of “The Apprentice”.