Multiple reports released about New Mexico megafires

Whitewater-Baldy June 2, 2012 Photo by Kari Greer-USFS
Whitewater-Baldy fire, June 2, 2012. Photo by Kari Greer/USFS

U.S. Representative Steve Pearce has assembled five reports about two huge wildfires, megafires, that burned hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed many homes in New Mexico in 2012. The Whitewater Baldy Complex blackened over 297,000 acres and destroyed 12 summer homes, while the Little Bear Fire burned 44,000 acres and 254 structures.

Rep Steve Pearce House of Representatives speech, western wildfiresIn June, 2012, Representative Pearce was extremely critical of the way the U.S. Forest Service was managing the fires, mentioning the name of Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, many times during a 22-minute speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The five reports, plus one bonus article from the 1940s, can be found on Representative Pearce’s web site, and include the following:

  • William A. Derr, retired as Special Agent in Charge of the Law Enforcement and Investigative program in California. Mr. Derr was asked by Rep. Pearce to evaluate the management of the two fires, and was given the title of Legislative Fellow during his fact finding mission. It was an unpaid assignment, and Mr. Derr told Wildfire Today that he is not even sure if he will ask to be reimbursed for his travel expenses. 
  • Roger Seewald, retired from the U.S. Forest Service, began his career in wildland fire on the El Cariso Hot Shots in California, and after a decade or two switched over to law enforcement. At one point late in his career he worked out of the Washington office as Deputy Director, Law Enforcement and Investigations. In his report he stated he was representing the U.S. Forest Service. In Mr. Derr’s report he was described as “representing the Chief of the Forest Service”.
  • Doug Boykin, Socorro District Forester, New Mexico – Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, Socorro District. Mr. Boykin was the Type 3 Incident Commander during one of the early stages of the Whitewater Baldy Complex. He wrote a 17-page report packed with details and photographs. One of those details that is surprising for an objective report by a government employee about a disastrous wildfire, is that he apparently thinks God controlled the fire, and wrote: “But, given what we know now, I feel this was the perfect set up by a higher power that had grown tired of our inability to use common since [sic] in forest management and chose to set things right in his own way.”
  •  Allen Campbell, a local resident and rancher who spent his early years “guiding clients”. His report covers the legacy and the environmental impacts of the fire, and is critical of the USFS fire management policy.
  • Impact DataSource, is an economic consulting, research, and analysis firm working out of Austin, Texas. Their report is titled “The Full Cost of New Mexico Wildfires”. The purpose of the report was to “…estimate the full impact of wildfires in New Mexico both during and after the wildfire occurs.” And, “…additional environmental,societal, economic and fiscal impacts are typically not tracked by any federal, state or local government or organization making the full impact of wildfires difficult to quantify.”
  • Earl W. Loveridge, formerly the Assistant Chief of the USFS, and before that the Assistant Chief of it’s Division of Operation and Fire Control. This reprint of a Journal of Forestry article appears to have been written in the mid-1940s. Chief Loveridge covered fire management policy, was critical of a “let burn” strategy, and pointed out the “importance of speed of control”. He also covered the 1935 origin of the “10 a.m. policy”, in which “Forester” F. A. Silcox stated, in part:
    •  “The approved protection policy on the National Forests calls for fast, energetic and thorough suppression of all fires in all locations, during possibly dangerous fire weather. When immediate control is not thus attained, the policy then calls for promptly calculating of the problems of the existing situation and probabilities of spread, and organizing to control every such fire within the first work period. Failing in this effort the attack each succeeding day will be planned and executed with the aim, without reservation, of obtaining control before ten o’clock of the next morning…. No fixed rule can be given to meet every situation; the spirit implied in the policy itself will determine the action to be taken in doubtful situations.”

The management of both fires, the Whitewater Baldy and the Little Bear, has been criticized. The Whitewater Baldy began as two fires, the Whitewater and the Baldy fires, which burned together. The Baldy was a “modified suppression” fire and was monitored, but the Whitewater was managed under a suppression strategy.

Much of the criticism of the Little Bear fire, including from Wildfire Today, was focused on what appeared from a distance to be less than aggressive suppression tactics, even though it was a suppression fire. Two firefighters worked the fire on the first day, and from day two through day five, while the fire was only four acres, a hotshot crew was assigned, but they had very, very little aerial firefighting support; limited use of one helicopter and no air tankers. On the fifth day the wind increased, a tree in the interior of the fire torched, and spot fires took off. The fire grew from 4 acres to 44,000 acres and destroyed 254 structures.

Mr. Derr’s report does not dig into the tactics of the fires, but concentrates primarily on the fire management policy of the USFS. He is critical of less than aggressive strategies, and regrets the abandonment of the 10 a.m. policy.

Mr. Seewald visited the four-acre site that comprised the Little Bear Fire for the first 5 days and cited steep slopes, heavy downed fuel, tree canopy, and rolling rocks as issues that made aerial support inadvisable, and for any more than one crew of firefighters to work the fire. He concluded that the USFS “…made every reasonable effort to extinguish the Little Bear Fire and used acceptable methods and strategies to control the fire.” He found very little to criticize other than suggesting that the USFS could “revisit” the methods used for communicating with the public and cooperators.

Little Bear fire
Little Bear fire. Photo from Seewald report.

The Seewald report said the strong winds that caused the spot fires to take off were not predicted in the spot weather forecasts provided to the firefighters.

Doug Boykin, the Incident Commander on the Whitewater Baldy Fire, believes that the decisions about management of the Whitewater and the Baldy fires were appropriate, after taking into consideration the firefighting resources available, weather, fuels, and topography. Mr. Seewald, while he did not say so explicitly, seemed to agree with that assessment.

Time-lapse satellite images of Whitewater-Baldy fire

The video below shows time-lapse satellite images of the Whitewater-Baldy fire in New Mexico between May 20 and June 6 — which in itself is pretty cool, but this was done with an iPhone. Really?, you’re thinking? Yes, really. Kirk Klausmeyer made it after capturing MODIS satellite imagery on his cell phone.

The images were acquired with an app for the iPhone called The World Daily, which can capture satellite images of any place (as long as it is on the planet Earth). Mr. Klausmeyer told us that after collecting the images, he converted them to a video using the free Google program Picassa.

Video of the BAe-146 jet air tanker dropping on Whitewater-Baldy fire

Here is the description that the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team posted with the video on May 30, which is titled Tanker 40-Bae-146 Retardant Drop Whitewater-Baldy Fire:

Air Tanker puts down a line of fire retardant on Whitewater-Baldy Fire off of the 141 road. This drop was to help pretreat the north side of the road so fire crews could do their burn out on the south side of the road.

It’s not a great shot of the air tanker, but if you look carefully you can see two engines hanging below the right wing, which indicates that it IS the BAe-146 jet-powered Tanker 40.

I noticed that the lead plane was louder than the air tanker, which is very unusual — much less noisy than tankers with huge radial piston engines. BAe-146s are known for their relatively quiet operation, which enables the airliner to fly into some noise-restricted airports when others can’t.

Another thing I noticed was that the pilots were extremely accurate with their drop, placing the retardant right on the edge of the road, probably exactly where the firefighters wanted it.

Here is a bonus video from the Whitewater-Baldy fire, also posted by the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team. It was shot in the same general area, on the northeast side of the fire along Forest Road 141, May 28, 2012.

The Guardian writes about budget cuts and the Whitewater-Baldy fire

Whitewater-Baldy fire, May 28, 2012
Mt. Taylor Hot Shots burning out on the Whitewater-Baldy fire along Forest Road 141, May 28, 2012. USFS photo by Steven Meister, Mt. Taylor Hot Shots.

The Guardian is a newspaper based in the United Kingdom, but they also have a substantial presence in the United States. One of their Washington D.C. based reporters, Suzanne Goldenberg, published two articles today about wildfires in the U.S., and specifically the Whitewater-Baldy fire, which at over 216,000 acres has blasted through the record set last year by the Las Conchas fire for the largest in the recorded history of New Mexico. Ms. Goldenberg’s articles are well-researched and written, and are worth reading, in spite of one particular quote. She obviously talked with actual firefighters on the ground, as well as some folks that you will recognize that are sitting comfortably hundreds of miles away from the fire.

The first article concentrates on the declining budgets of the land management agencies that are involved with fire management. The second covers the Whitewater-Baldy fire, mega-fires, and stories from locals and firefighters, including the first firefighters to rappel into the fire.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the first article:

Fire experts are warning that $512m in congressional budget cuts could leave communities dangerously exposed in an early and active fire season.

Such warnings have sharpened with the early onset of this year’s fire season, and the record-setting outbreak in New Mexico.

Experts fear the shortfall will leave fire crews scrambling for resources, and force government agencies to dip into other non-fire budgets to cover the gap.

“A person has to wonder. Is this going to be the new norm – frequent record-setting fires, while the number of federal firefighters and air tankers continue to shrink?” wrote Bill Gabbert, a former fire management officer in the Black Hills of South Dakota who now runs the blog

A strategic review in 2009 warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said.

It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires.

But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.

Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.

Join Ms. Goldenberg from the Guardian and myself on June 4 when we co-host a live web chat about wildfires. More information can be found HERE.

Firefighters faced challenges during firing operations on Whitewater-Baldy fire

Whitewater-Baldy fire, 4 pm, May 29, Andrea Martinez, USFS
Whitewater-Baldy fire, east of Glenwood, NM, 4 pm, May 29. Photo by Andrea Martinez, USFS

Firefighters on the Whitewater-Baldy found themselves conducting firing operations (burnouts or backfires) with the relative humidity as low as two percent and wind gusts up to 26 mph on Tuesday. One of the firing operations on the 152,000-acre blaze was on the northeast side of the fire where firefighters battled extreme fire behavior with spot fires occurring up to one mile ahead of the fire. The Incident Management Team reported that the Probability of Ignition today was 100%. That is, according to weather conditions and fire behavior models, if a firebrand landed in receptive fuels (vegetation) there was a 100 percent probability that it would start a new fire. Firefighters who were directed to ignite burnouts or backfires under those conditions deserve a raise. There were multiple spot fires across Forest Road 141, with one of them growing to 20 acres, but remarkably they were all suppressed by firefighters, engines, a dozer, and two air tankers. Neptune’s Tanker 40, the BAe-146 jet, was one of the air tankers used on the fire today. A big pat on the back goes out to those folks who did great work under interesting conditions.

Other aircraft on the fire included twelve helicopters: three Type 1 (the largest helicopters), four Type 2, and five Type 3.

IR plane, N144Z
N144Z, USFS Infrared Aircraft

A U.S. Forest Service fixed wing infrared imaging airplane, N144Z, a Cessna Citation jet, has been mapping the fire during the night for the last several nights providing accurate information about the location of the fire perimeter and the extent and intensity of heat sources across the fire. The data is digitized and transmitted via radio from the aircraft immediately after it is collected and ends up in internet servers on the ground . Then an Infrared Analyst, who can be located anyplace where there is a computer with internet access and ESRI software, interprets the imagery and sends it to the Situation Unit on the fire. When everything works perfectly, they will receive it with enough lead time to produce maps that are used for the morning briefing and the Incident Action Plan.

Flight of N144Z, May 28-29
Flight of N144Z, May 28-29

The map to the right shows the flight of N144Z  between 10:38 p.m. May 28, and 1:09 a.m. May 29. It departed from Phoenix, mapped the Gladiator and Whitewater-Baldy fires, then landed at Farmington, New Mexico for fuel. Then it mapped one or two fires in Colorado before heading for home at Ogden, Utah.

The satellite photo below, taken at 7:40 p.m. today, which we helpfully annotated for your viewing pleasure, shows the smoke that was generated by the extreme fire behavior on the Whitewater-Baldy fire today.

Smoke Whitewater-Baldy fire 740 pm MDT May 29, 2012
Smoke Whitewater-Baldy fire 7:40 p.m. MDT, May 29, 2012

You can compare the actual trajectory of the smoke with the projections created by computer models below. Each line is a 24-hour period, beginning at noon local time. The tic-marks on the lines are six hours apart.

Smoke projection for Whitewater-Baldy fire, May 29, 2012
Smoke projection for Whitewater-Baldy fire, May 29, 2012