Border Patrol agent pleads guilty to starting 46,000-acre fire with exploding target

A Border Patrol agent pleaded guilty Friday to starting the Sawmill Fire that burned 46,000 acres southeast of Tucson, Arizona in 2017. Dennis Dickey was holding an off duty party to celebrate his wife’s pregnancy at which the gender of his baby was revealed. On April 23 he mixed colored powder into a Tannerite exploding target which would show blue or pink smoke when shot with a rifle, according to his attorney, Sean Chapman, as reported by the Arizona Daily Star. The target exploded as planned and started what became the Sawmill Fire. A witness recorded a video of the explosion.

A news release from the U.S. attorney’s office says Agent Dickey will make an initial payment of $100,000, then make monthly payments after that. According to the Arizona Daily Star and the Green Valley News, he agreed in court to pay $500 a month for the next 20 years, which adds up to $120,000, for a total of $220,000. He also will be sentenced to 5 years of probation and agreed to participate in a public service announcement with the U.S. Forest Service concerning the cause of the Sawmill fire.

The off-duty agent could not be charged with arson since it was not a willful act. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of causing a fire without a permit, which may allow him to keep his job as a Border Patrol Agent.

Agent Dickey said he attempted to put out the fire but when that failed, he reported it. At one point during the next week at least 799 firefighters were working to put out the fire, which ran up costs of approximately $8.2 million according to the May 5, 2017 national Situation Report.

satellite map Sawmill Fire Arizona
A satellite photographed the darkened outline of the Sawmill Fire east of Green Valley, Arizona on April 26, 2017. The red dots represent heat.

On April 23, 2017, the day the fire started, the Hopkins weather station not far from where the fire began near Madera Canyon, recorded a high temperature of 80 degrees, 11 mph WSW winds of 11 mph gusting to 25, and 6 percent relative humidity. The weather station is at 7,100 feet and the location of the party where the fire started is most likely around 4,000 feet. If correct, this would put the temperature at the fire origin between 90 and 100 degrees.

In court, Agent Dickey told the judge, “It was a complete accident”.

Exploding targets consist of two ingredients that when mixed by the end user explode when shot by a high-velocity projectile. They have caused many fires since they became more popular in recent years, have been banned in some areas, and caused the death of one person. In June, 2013 a man attending a bachelor-bachelorette party in Minnesota was killed after shrapnel from the device struck him in the abdomen. The Missoulian reported that several years ago a woman in Ohio had her hand nearly blown off while taking a cellphone video of a man firing at an exploding target placed in a refrigerator about 150 feet away. In Georgia in 2016 David Pressley’s leg was blown off by an exploding target that he placed in a lawn mower.

After the ingredients are combined, the compound is illegal to transport and is classified as an explosive by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and is subject to the regulatory requirements in 27 CFR, Part 555.

Granite Mountain Hotshots — five years ago today

Granite Mountain HotshotsWhen I think about the June 30, 2013 tragedy where 19 firefighters were killed battling a fire near Yarnell, Arizona, I remember Abraham Lincoln’s Address as he and others dedicated a military cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where thousands of soldiers died almost exactly 155 years ago, July 1-3, 1863, in what has been described as the turning point of the Civil War. We don’t even know for sure the number killed, with estimates ranging from 7,000 to 8,000.

The President was honoring those who were killed in the battle. The men fought each other, the North vs. the South. Wildland firefighters, thankfully, don’t fight each other, but there are similarities between fighting wars and fighting wildfires.

That day in 1863 the President said in part:

“…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

It is difficult to find positive outcomes in a mass casualty incident like the Yarnell Hill Fire. But one thing that is doable, is to at least learn some lessons, and more importantly, use them to take action to reduce the number of fatalities on wildland fires. We will never eliminate all risks of firefighting, but proactive management locally, at the national level within the agencies, and in Congress, can make a difference.

Excerpt from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“…Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Barrel Fire southeast of Tucson burns over 100 acres

Above:  Air Tanker 167, an RJ85, drops on the Barrel Fire, May 16, 2018. USFS photo by Sean Cox.

Several fire departments suppressed a fire, or possibly multiple fires, along Highway 83 approximately 60 air miles southeast of Tucson Wednesday.

The highway was completely closed for a while; later one lane was opened before the highway fully reopened after 10 p.m.

The fire reportedly burned about 146 acres.

wildfire barrel fire tucson
A helicopter assists firefighters along Highway 83 at the Barrel Fire southeast of Tucson May 16, 2018. Corona de Tucson FD photo.

Pinery Fire causes evacuation of Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona

Above: Map showing the location of the Pinery Fire in Southeast Arizona. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:57 p.m. MDT May 11, 2018.

(Originally published at 8:17 p.m. MDT May 12, 2018)

A fire that started at 1:30 p.m. Saturday has forced the evacuation and closure of Chiricahua National Monument in Southeast Arizona. The cause is under investigation but it started on private land, moved onto the Chiricahua National Monument, and has since spread north onto the Coronado National Forest.

Our very unofficial estimate based on 3:57 p.m satellite data is that at that time it had burned approximately 400 acres. At 8 p.m. local time the National Park Service estimated the size at 675 acres.

Red Flag conditions on Saturday, including wind gusts up to 37 mph, are making containment difficult. The forecast for Sunday includes more Red Flag Warnings for the fire area with 86 degrees, 14 percent relative humidity, mostly sunny skies, and southwest winds of 13 to 25 mph with gusts up to 37 again.

The fire is under joint command of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, the National Park Service, and the Coronado National Forest.

Multiple aircraft have been ordered, including 5 single engine air tankers, 4  large air tankers, and 3 helicopters. Seven engines, 2 initial attack crews, and 2 hotshot crews are working on the ground trying to stop forward progress. Additional resources have been ordered, including four more hotshot crews. The fire is 32 miles southeast of Willcox, 20 miles south of Interstate 10, 19 miles west of the Arizona/New Mexico border, and 44 miles north of the international border.


Viewpoint Fire burns thousands of acres north of Prescott Valley

Above: Map showing heat on the Viewpoint Fire detected by a satellite at 1:40 p.m MDT May 11, 2018.

(UPDATED at 7:40 a.m. MDT May 12, 2018)

Firefighters were able to get forward progress stopped on the Viewpoint Fire around 4:30 p.m MDT, Friday. The fire burned 5,100 acres before crews knocked down the fast moving fire that destroyed two homes and possibly three to four more in the Poquito Valley area. Between 10 and 12 other structures also burned. Once the area is deemed safe officials can get in to better assess the damages. More than 250 fire personnel, along with a very large air tanker and other aircraft, assisted in fire suppression efforts.


(UPDATED at 7:13 MDT May 11, 2018)

Arizona State Forestry reports forward progress on the Viewpoint Fire has stopped. They estimate it has burned 2,500 acres.

(Originally published at 4:01 p.m. MDT May 11, 2018. Updated at 6:42 p.m. MDT May 11, 2018)

A fire reported at 1 p.m. Friday has burned thousands of acres in Arizona a few miles north of Prescott Valley. Pushed by very strong winds, it was moving through an area with houses Friday afternoon six miles southeast of Chino Valley.

Our very unofficial estimate based on satellite data shows that it has burned at least 2,400 acres.

Mandatory evacuations were lifted in some areas, but are still in effect in others, according to Yavapai County Emergency Management.

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

OK Bar Fire in New Mexico is just about wrapped up

Above: Satellite photo taken May 6, 2018, showing the OK Bar Fire in Arizona.

Firefighters are just about finished with the OK Bar Fire in the southern panhandle of New Mexico three miles from the Mexican border. They made their “final” update on InciWeb May 4, writing:

The perimeter of the fire is secure, and firefighters are patrolling the perimeter and monitoring the fire by air. Due to aggressive fire management planning by the landowner and supporting non-profit organization, fire suppression actions have been designed to maximize firefighter safety and keep costs commensurate with the values at risk. Smoke and flames will continue to be visible on the mountain until significant moisture has been received on the fire.

The management strategy was not full suppression. Sunday’s National Situation Report shows 61,436 acres burned, an increase of 188 over the day before, and 5 engines assigned, for a total of 20 personnel.

OK Bar Fire Arizona
The red line was the perimeter of the OK Bar Fire as determined by infrared mapping at 2400 MDT May 3, 2018. The red, yellow, and brown dots represent heat detected by a satellite.