If someone told you about a fire named “Mississippi” that was near Delta, would you guess it was in Mississippi? If so, you’d be wrong.
The Mississippi Fire started May 30 ten miles west of Delta, Alaska. The last time it was updated on InciWeb was August 25 when the Type 1 Incident Management Team turned it back over to the BLM – Alaska Fire Service. At that time it had burned 67,288 acres.
Normally by October firefighters in Alaska don’t have to worry about wildfires — they can’t spread very far under snow. But this year firefighters have to worry, at least a little. Temperatures in Delta Junction on Monday did not just set a new record, they blew it to smithereens — 19 degrees higher than the previous record.
Under those conditions, and combined with winds that gusted to 63 mph, the Mississippi fire found new life, crossing dozer lines and burning another 300 acres. A 10-member Alaska Fire Service crew responded to the fire Monday.
Alaska Fire Service Manager Kent Slaughter said the fire is 2.5 miles from Whitestone Farms but there is little threat it will spread to the community.
Last year in late November dry conditions and strong winds contributed to the rapid spread of a fire near Palmer, Alaska that burned 200 acres and required homes to be evacuated.
Douglas Burts, who posted this video shot at the Tetlin Juction Fire August 16, 2013, called it Alaska Firenado. While I’m not sure that there is an official definition of the term, there is definitely rotation in this smoke column, and it appears to be more than just horizontal roll vortices. Whatever we call it, this fire behavior is very impressive.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a former volunteer firefighter was sentenced to a total of two years in jail for setting fires in the northern California counties of Sonoma and San Mateo. Our original story on the charges is here, and the Chronicle has the details about Friday’s sentencing of Nathaniel Ridgway Schmidt, 20, of Cazadero, California.
Extreme heat forecast for some areas in the West
This weekend and the first part of next week some areas in the west will experience extremely hot weather. The temperature for Death Valley was expected to reach nearly 130 on Friday — just short of the 134-degree reading from a century ago that stands as the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. More details.
A helicopter made a crash landing into a river Friday while recertifying for water bucket operations near Missoula, Montana. Both the pilot and a passenger survived, according to an article in the Missoulian. More details are at Fire Aviation.
Colorado: West Fork Complex Fire
The Papoose Fire, part of the West Fork Complex of fires in southern Colorado, was extremely active Thursday night and early Friday morning, running for four miles and creating new spot fires 1 to 1.5 miles ahead. More details are in our main article about the fire.
New York Times on smaller budgets for fuel management
The New York Times is the latest news organization to run a major story on how the federal government is reducing the budgets for prescribed fire and other types of fuel mitigation which lower the fire risk by removing accumulations of thick vegetation in forests and in wildland-urban interfaces near populated areas. Here is an excerpt from their article:
The government has cut back on programs to reduce fire risks in areas where homes and the wilderness collide. The United States Forest Service treated 1.87 million acres of those lands in 2012, but expects to treat only 685,000 acres next year. Conservation advocates say that is likely to mean fewer people working to prevent runaway fires, fewer controlled burns and fewer trucks hauling away dry brush and tinder.
Trimming trees and clearing brush can make blazes less destructive, and the Forest Service said it had treated more than 26 million acres since 2000. But as the government spends an increasing amount to battle wildfires, critics say it makes little sense to cut back on prevention.
“There is a growing consensus in the West that dollar for dollar, these kinds of prevention efforts are paying off,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. “And when the big fires break out, the bureaucracy steals money from the prevention fund and the problem gets worse. The Forest Service has become the fire service.”
Senators write letter about cuts in fuel treatments
More Senators have written another letter about cuts to fire budgets. The AP reports:
A bipartisan group of Western U.S. senators on Friday urged the Obama administration to focus more on preventing wildfires rather than taking money from programs that clear potentially hazardous dead trees and brush to fund efforts to fight the increasingly destructive blazes.
It is easy to write letters. Politicians tend to look the other way when it comes to actually DOING SOMETHING MEANINGFUL to correct the problem, such proposing and passing budget legislation. (sigh)
Wildfire smoke closes George Parks Highway in Alaska
Smoke from the Skinny’s Road Fire, which is named after a nearby bar, forced officials to close a section of the George Parks Highway between Nenana and Fairbanks on Wednesday. It reopened Thursday but travelers had to be escorted by pilot cars through the smoke. The highway is the main route between between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska.
Lightning in the Yukon starts 23 fires
Fire managers in the Yukon Territory asked the British Columbia government to send 62 more fighters to help put out 23 new fires started by lightning Thursday. They will join the other 45 firefighters that B.C. sent to help out earlier.
“Obviously, the emphasis right now is the protection of life and property, while maintaining the safety of our staff,” said Fire Information Officer George Maratos.
“Given the intense fire behaviour on some of these fires, the safest and most effective response was from the air with air tankers and helicopters.”
One of the priority fires is burning 18 kilometres east of Faro. Two are near Carmacks: one 45 kilometres east of the community near Little Salmon River and another 16 kilometres northwest near Free Gold Road. The fourth is 36 kilometres northeast of Mayo.
Environment Canada is forecasting more thunderstorms in the area for Friday.
Los Alamos National Laboratory criticized for wildfire preparedness
A report issued by the Department of Energy’s inspector general said the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has not done enough to protect the facility from wildfires and other natural disasters. The inspectors were concerned about what would happen if an earthquake or fire caused damage that could lead to exposure from some of the radioactive waste stored at the lab.
On May 10, 2000, a fire that began as a prescribed fire in Bandalier National Monument burned into Los Alamos. The Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire was carried by very strong winds, with embers blowing a mile or more across the fire lines to the north, south, and east. The towns of Los Alamos and White Rock were in the fire’s path and more than 18,000 residents evacuated.
By the end of the day on May 10, the fire had burned 18,000 acres, destroyed 235 homes, and damaged many other structures. The fire also spread towards the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and although fires spotted onto the facility’s lands, all major structures were secured and no releases of radiation occurred.
Washington: Soap Lake fire department quits
The Columbia Basin Herald reports that after the Mayor of Soap Lake, Washington (map) fired the Fire Chief, 11 volunteer firefighters resigned from the fire department, leaving the town with no fire protection. This mess began from a fund raiser to replace the water tank on a wildland fire truck.
Mount Rushmore has again cancelled the July 4 fireworks extravaganza, which rains down large quantities of fireworks debris into the forest and rocky slopes around the sculpture. Previous fireworks at the Memorial have caused over twenty small fires. The Park Superintendent, Cheryl Schreier, cited the fire hazard in the nearby beetle-damaged forest as the reason for the cancellation.
Alaska has about half a dozen large fires that have been active within the last week. The largest is the Doestock Creek Fire which has burned over 18,000 acres of mostly grass 30 miles southeast of Aniak. There was precipitation on the fire Sunday.
The Bitter Creek fire is threatening residences 34 miles southeast of Tok. The fire is torching and spotting, at least before it also received some precipitation Sunday.
The National Interagency Fire Center announced an award today.
BLM firefighters Ben Oakleaf and Chris Swisher have much in common.
They’re both BLM smokejumpers. They both worked on the Midnight Suns Interagency Hotshot Crew in Alaska. They’re both highly respected in smokejumping circles. They’re both described by their supervisors as having a great work ethic and outstanding attitudes. They’ve been good friends for about a dozen years, starting when they met while working as hotshots.
And they were both surprised when they were named winners of the “Al Dunton Award,” which honors the late BLM pioneer in fire and aviation management.
“It was a surprise,” says Swisher, who jumps out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. “I didn’t know anything about it until I was told that I won.”
“I didn’t even know I was nominated until the jumper manager called me into his office and told me. I was very surprised,” says Oakleaf, who is part of the Great Basin smokejumpers, based in Boise, Idaho.
Part of the reason Swisher and Oakleaf were nominated is due to their work in combining the first-year smokejumper training. For a dozen years, the Alaska and Great Basin rookie jumpers trained separately. That didn’t seem the best way to teach the ropes to the new jumpers, Swisher and Oakleaf thought.
“Combined rookie training was done in the past. There’s been talk about it through the years, about doing the training that way again,” Oakleaf says. “We both have great respect for the two BLM smokejumper bases. We thought combining the training would be a good thing to do.”
Smokejumper management agreed and Swisher and Oakleaf were given the challenging assignment to make it happen.
The combined rookie training took place in April of 2012 in Alaska. By all accounts, it was a huge success. Combined training is again scheduled for April of this year, in Idaho.
“They were analytical, deliberate, mutually respectful of one another’s opinions, and ultimately convincing that the timing was right to give this combined effort another shot,” says Hector Madrid, manager of the Great Basin smokejumpers. “They developed guidelines, the training syllabus, a logistics plan and selected a cadre that shared the same viewpoints about rookie training.”
The effort proved worthwhile, according to Bill Cramer, Alaska smokejumper manager.
“The end result was that we had a strong group of first-year jumpers who came ready to contribute. The training could not have been done any better,” he says.
Great Basin jumpers often help Alaska jumpers in the spring, the peak of the northern fire season. In turn, Alaska jumpers often “boost” firefighting efforts in the Lower 48 during July and August, when the fire season is busiest in the West.
Having the same training and familiarity with one another is a big advantage.
“The more we know each other and about each other, the more seamless it is when we integrate the crews,” says Oakleaf.
But it was more than the combined rookie training that distinguishes Swisher and Oakleaf. Their supervisors say the two excel in every aspect of the smokejumping program.
“He seeks challenges, he accepts responsibility, he always looks for ways to improve,” says Cramer of his colleague Swisher. “That’s what resonates with me. It’s not just what he did in 2012, but the way he continually performs his job.
“He’s humble, without reason to be,” Cramer adds. “From his perspective, he just shows up and tries to do his job the best way he can. He doesn’t think he’s anyone special.”
Madrid is equal in his praise of Oakleaf.
“Ben’s strength is that he leads by example. No matter his experience, he’s never been above or beyond doing a task. He has great firefighting and jumping skills. He’s the full package,” says Madrid. “His attitude is second to none. He’s never in a bad mood, never had a bad moment, no matter the situation.”
The “Al Dunton Award” was established last year. Dunton was a rookie smokejumper in Fairbanks in 1967. He managed the smokejumper base there from 1972 through 1984 and remained active in fire management throughout his career. Much of BLM’s success in fire management can be traced back to Dunton’s work and innovations. The award was established by the interagency smokejumper base managers and the National Smokejumper Association, with the support of Al Dunton’s wife, Mary, and other family members.
Last year’s BLM winner was Gary Baumgartner.
The respect level is high between the award recipients.
“On a personal note, (organizing) the combined rookie training was fun to do with Chris. We’ve been good friends now for a long time,” Oakleaf says.
“I think there are more worthy people than me,” says Swisher, “but I’m glad that Ben was chosen.”
Says Cramer of the two, “I wish we could put them in a copy machine and duplicate them. Of course, if we did, the rest of us might be out of a job.”