Opinion — What effect will a new administration have on firefighting?

Vice President Biden at the memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013: “Firefighting is not what they did — it is who they were”

Granite Mountain HS Memorial Service Joe Biden Vice President
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ Memorial Service, Prescott Valley, Arizona. July 9, 2013. Screenshot from C-SPAN video.

With a new administration taking the reins of the federal government January 20, some may be thinking about what changes, if any, will affect wildland firefighting. Of course it is dangerous to attempt to predict what any government official will do, but in this case President Elect Joe Biden has a lengthy track record even before he served as Vice President for eight years under the Obama presidency.

Vice President Biden spoke at the memorial service July 9, 2013 in Prescott Valley, Arizona, for the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire. From the C-SPAN recording, we made a video clip of his remarks and the slide show that followed featuring the 19 men.  You can see the entire two-hour service at C-SPAN.

Granite Mountain Hotshots' Memorial Service, Prescott Valley, Arizona. July 9, 2013
Granite Mountain Hotshots’ Memorial Service, Prescott Valley, Arizona. July 9, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

At Prescott Valley Mr. Biden showed tremendous empathy and appreciation for the deceased men, their families, and firefighters in general, saying, “All men are created equal, and then a few became firefighters,” and, “They were heroes long before we knew their names.” Few public servants would be capable or have the desire to exhibit the degree of compassion for firefighters showed by Mr. Biden. Most people will find themselves choking up while listening to his sympathetic words. Cameras caught people in the audience wiping away tears.

Vice President Biden also spoke September 12, 2009 at the memorial service for the two firefighters killed on the Station Fire near Los Angeles, Tedmund Hall and Arnaldo Quinones.

In 2013 Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder presented the Medal of Valor to 18 firefighters and police officers for exhibiting exceptional courage. The Vice President, a former Chairperson of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, made some very meaningful remarks, some of which appeared to be unscripted. Here is a brief excerpt:

There’s something special about firefighters and cops……. You all share — you’re all crazy, God love you — you all share a selflessness that is not easily explained, a commitment to your fellow man that’s rare, bravery that inspires, literally inspires almost everyone that hears about it……. Being a firefighter or police officer is not what you do, it’s who you are….. There’s something about ya’ll. You can smell it when you’re 10, you’re 12, you’re 15. And God we’re lucky for it man. I marvel at what makes them tick. I marvel at what makes them tick.

But showing compassion and empathy does not guarantee future action or passing legislation when necessary.

The Obama/Biden administration worked with Congress to address climate change in many ways, including participating in the 2015 Climate Agreement. During the last four years the U.S. has withdrawn from the Agreement and taken other actions to reverse previous progress, but Mr. Biden has said he will make dealing with climate change an important priority, will again honor the agreement, and has an ambitious goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The large majority of respected climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change has greatly affected our weather. The higher temperatures and bouts of drought and extreme weather have resulted in lower fuel moistures and extreme wildfires that are very difficult to suppress. At stake are lives, private property, health of the population, and natural resources. Lack of action to slow climate change is not a reasonable option.

Here are some examples of Mr. Biden’s record on firefighter issues documented by the International Association of Firefighters:

  • As vice president, Mr. Biden was tasked by President Obama as the administration’s point-person on first responder issues.
  • During his time in the Senate, he played a leadership role on nearly every piece of legislation introduced affecting fire fighters.
  • Early in his Senate career, Mr. Biden championed the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) program, which provides death benefits to the families of fallen fire fighters. He later introduced and passed legislation to increase PSOB benefits from $150,000 to $250,000, and indexed it to inflation so the benefit is now $340,000.
  • Senator Biden helped create the Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE Act) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs, and consistently advocated for robust funding.
  • As vice president, Mr. Biden helped push through the Zadroga 9/11 Act to provide healthcare and compensation to those fire fighters who participated in the 9/11 response and recovery efforts. (Video of Jon Stewart advocating for the extension of the Act in 2019.)
  • As vice president, Mr. Biden worked with fire fighters and Congress to pass legislation creating a nationwide public safety broadband network.

William Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” We can safely assume that in his administration, Mr. Biden will continue to care about firefighters. But he can’t pass legislation — he will need the cooperation of Congress, which has found it difficult move any kind of bill in recent years.

Perhaps Mr. Biden will have more luck than previous presidents due to having served in the Senate for 36 years and his relationship with Mitch McConnell, who may still be the Majority Leader in the Senate going forward. Here is an excerpt from an article at Firechief.com:

In his book “The Long Game: A Memoir,” McConnell stated that trying to deal with then-President Obama was impossible. “[Obama] acted like a professor every time we tried to discuss legislation. The first 45 minutes was always a lecture about how and why we were wrong,” McConnell wrote. On the other hand, McConnell loved dealing with Biden. “Joe would come into a meeting and say, this is what I need, and this is what I understand that you need. Is there any way to work out a deal here?”

NTSB preliminary report on fatal helicopter crash in Arizona does not determine cause

The accident occurred July 7, 2020 on the Polles Fire west of Payson, Arizona

Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman
Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman

On July 7, 2020 a UH-1H helicopter crashed while transporting supplies to firefighters who were spiked out (camping) while working on the Polles Fire about 10 miles west of Payson, Arizona. The only person on board, pilot Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman, 37, of Litchfield Park, Arizona was killed. We send our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Boatman, and to the forestry technicians who were at the fire.

The brief preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) did not mention any obvious causes for the crash, which happened while transporting firefighters’ equipment in an external sling load. Multiple personnel on the ground observed the helicopter flying erratically until finally “it entered a steep nose up attitude and then descended rapidly,” according to the report. Fire personnel saw no signs of fire before the crash and all major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site.

Polles Fire vicinity map
Polles Fire vicinity map

BJ was born on June 8, 1983 in Provo, Utah. He was a third-generation pilot and worked alongside his parents to build their company, Airwest Helicopters of Glendale, Arizona.

3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020
3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020; looking north.

The helicopter, N623PB, serial number 64-13689, was manufactured in 1964. It is a UH-1H registered to Aero Leasing in Glendale, Arizona, the same city where Air West Helicopters is located.

Polles Fire - Payson helicopter crash fatality
Airwest Helicopters photo, N623PB.

In addition to the preliminary report released by the NTSB, a 23-page facilitated learning analysis (FLA) was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.

The FLA is solely devoted to analyzing the response to the accident — the Incident Within an Incident and the actions taken in the following days. It does not address what caused the helicopter to crash. The report found very little to criticize and praised most of the actions that were taken. It goes into quite a bit of detail about how the fire’s Incident Management Team handled the emergency response during the first few hours, as well as organizing over the next several days to care for BJ’s family and the forestry technicians that were witnesses to the crash or were otherwise affected.

Anyone who could in the future find themselves in a similar unfortunate situation would benefit from reading this FLA. Firefighting is dangerous, in the air and on the ground, and others will have to walk this same path.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Below is the text from the narrative portion of the three-page NTSB report. The complete report which will analyze the cause, might be released within the next year.

“On July 7, 2020, about 1213 mountain standard time, a Bell/Garlick UH-1H helicopter, N623PB, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Payson, Arizona. The pilot was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 133 external load flight.

Illustration from the NTSB report
Figure 1: Depiction of helicopter flight path based on witness statements. From the NTSB preliminary report.

“The helicopter was owned by Airwest Helicopters LLC and operated by the United States Forest Service at the time of the accident. According to witnesses, the helicopter was transporting supplies using a long line for a hotshot firefighting crew that were repositioning on the ground. The pilot transported three loads to the new destination uneventfully prior to the accident and had been using an indirect route to the north to avoid a fire area (Figure 1). While transporting the fourth load, witnesses observed the helicopter begin to fly erratically while en route to its destination. During this time, a witness stated that he observed the helicopter enter a high nose-up pitch attitude and the external payload began to swing. The helicopter then displayed irregular movements for several seconds before the external payload settled and the helicopter appeared to stabilize. However, after about 3 seconds, multiple witnesses observed  The witnesses did not observe the helicopter on fire during the accident flight, nor did the pilot report any anomalies over the helicopter crew’s common air-to-ground radio frequency or any other assigned frequencies for the fire.

“The helicopter wreckage came to rest about 0.5 nm north of its drop off destination, oriented on a heading of 074° magnetic and was mostly consumed by postcrash fire. All major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site. The helicopter’s external payload was found 123 ft southeast of the main wreckage.

“The wreckage was retained for further examination.”

Polles Fire
Smoke from the Polles Fire, posted July 6, 2020. InciWeb.

TBT: Senator John Kyl on reducing budgets for fuel reduction

Kiabab NF Gov Prairie Rx 1-2014
Kiabab National Forest in Arizona, Government Prairie prescribed fire, January, 2014.

For Throwback Thursday, let’s take another look at an article published on Wildfire Today February 12, 2008 about a topic that is still an issue 12 years later.

Senator John Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, in an article on his web site criticizes the President’s proposed budget for 2009 which reduces the funds allocated for fuel treatments.

“With almost 48 percent of the proposed budget going toward fire fighting, the Forest Service might be more appropriately called the “Fire Service.”

I believe funding for fighting fires must be complemented by adequate funding for preventing them. Proactive management of our forests not only is the best tool in combating wildfires, it is critical to restoring forest health and improving habitats for diverse species.

Typically, there are two complimentary methods of treatment: mechanical thinning of brush and smaller diameter trees, and prescribed burning. These treatments open up forests so they are less susceptible to “hot” crown fires. More importantly, reducing competition for soil nutrients, water, and sunlight immediately enhances the health of the trees, allowing them to grow bigger and fend off diseases and deadly insects like bark beetles.”

The Apple Fire is generating large quantities of smoke

Areas predicted to be affected Sunday include southeast California, northern Arizona, southern Utah, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico

August 2, 2020 | 9:30 a.m. PDT

Map smoke Apple Fire forecast
Forecast by NOAA for the distribution of smoke created by the Apple Fire in southern California at 2 p.m. PDT August 2, 2020.

The Apple Fire north of Beaumont and Banning in southern California has been burning vigorously and creating a very large amount of smoke since it started at 5 p.m. July 31. The map above is a prediction by NOAA for the distribution of wildfire smoke at 2 p.m. PDT today, August 2. It predicts that areas significantly affected will include southeast California, northern Arizona, southern Utah, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Apple Fire, including the most recent, click here.)

The size of the Apple Fire is uncertain because the north side of the fire could not be completely mapped at 8:30 p.m. Saturday by the fixed wing aircraft due to the very large convection column of smoke and heat over the fire. But the crew was able to map 15,000 acres of the blaze.

Map smoke Apple Fire
Satellite photo by GOES-17 of smoke created by the Apple Fire in southern California at 7 a.m. PDT August 2, 2020. NASA.

Helicopter crashes while working on the Polles Fire in Arizona

(Updated at 8:18 p.m. MDT July 7, 2020)

Map helicopter crash Arizona Payson Polles Fire
Map showing heat detected on the Polles Fire by satellites at 2:06 a.m. MDT July 7, 2020.

Officials from the Tonto National Forest confirmed that a helicopter crashed today while working on the Polles Fire in central Arizona. The only person on board was the pilot, who was deceased. He was identified in a press conference as Bryan Boatman, 37, with Airwest Helicopters out of Glendale, Arizona. He leaves behind a wife and 8-year-old child.

The Chief of the Pine-Strawberry Fire District said the pilot’s wife arrived at the Payson Airport as the body was being retrieved from the accident scene.

The helicopter crashed north of the main fire in a remote area only accessible on foot or by helicopter while transporting supplies for hand crews. After the crash was reported to the fire’s Incident Commander at 12:22 p.m. Tuesday, a Sergeant with Sheriff’s office was transported to the scene via short haul, suspended on a rope under a helicopter. He began the process of the investigation and removing the pilot’s remains.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the UH-1H helicopter went down about 10 miles west of Payson.

A Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) has been issued at the Payson airport due to the crash, Airport Coordinator Dennis Dueker said. All flights in the area will be grounded until the TFR is lifted.

As of Monday night the Polles Fire had burned 580 acres 11 miles west of Payson, Arizona.

The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT) #2 led by John Pierson was scheduled to assume command of the fire July 6 at 6 a.m.

Six hotshot crews and three other hand crews are working in conditions described by the incident management team as extreme. They have been working shifts late into the evening for the last few nights, spiked out in remote locations relying on helicopters to fly in their food, drinking water, and supplies.

The IMT said there are no current threats from the fire to the communities of Pine-Strawberry or Payson.

The fire started July 3 from lightning. It is only accessible by helicopter.

Polles Fire
Smoke from the Polles Fire. InciWeb photo posted July 6, 2020.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family and friends of the pilot, and the firefighters that were working on the Polles Fire.

Thanks and tips of the hat go out to Tom, Eric, and Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Firefighters on the Bighorn Fire near Tucson prepare for Red Flag conditions Sunday and Monday

The fire has grown to over 95,000 acres, approaching “megafire” status of 100,000 acres

(Originally published at 2:29 p.m. MDT June 27, 2020)

Summerhaven Bighorn Fire Tucson Mt Lemmon
Night operations at Summerhaven on the Bighorn Fire. Photo by David Melendez June 26, 2020.

The National Weather Service in Tucson has issued a Red Flag Warning for Tucson and the Bighorn Fire area from noon to 8 p.m. MST Sunday and from noon to 8 p.m. MST Monday. The prediction is for strong winds, low humidity, and very high fire danger. The wind is expected to be out of the southwest at 15 to 25 mph with gusts to 35 mph Sunday, and on Monday, southwest at 15 to 20 mph with gusts between 35 and 40 mph. The relative humidity will be 10 to 17 percent in the valleys and 13 to 21 percent in the mountains.

From the Incident Management Team on Saturday:

“Friday night, burnout operations south of Davis Spring Road and 4 miles west of Redington were conducted to reduce the risk of eastward fire spread. Aerial ignition operations were conducted near Palisade Canyon and Green Mountain to improve firelines and reduce the risk of uncontrolled fire reaching the Catalina Highway. East of Saddlebrook a firing operation improved firelines. Holding, mop up and structure protection was the focus in Summerhaven, Willow Canyon, and Saddlebrook. Biosphere, Oracle, and Sabino Canyon were in patrol status.

“Saturday’s Activities: Crews will hold and improve line near Willow Canyon, Palisade Canyon, Green Mountain, and south of the Davis Spring Road. Hotshot crews will build fireline on the south side of Green Mountain. A hand crew will work to extinguish a hotspot approximately three miles northeast of Catalina State Park.  East of the fire, construction will continue on contingency lines by connecting to existing road systems. Structure protection will be in place for Saddlebrook and along the Catalina Highway.Initial attack resources are pre-positioned around the fire.”

A mapping flight Friday night determined that the Bighorn Fire had burned 95,225 acres, a 24-hour increase of over 7,000 acres.

(To see all articles about the Bighorn fire, including the most recent, click here.)

map Bighorn Fire Tucson Mt Lemmon
3-D map of the Bighorn Fire looking southeast. The red line was the perimeter at 10:31 p.m. MDT June 26, 2020. The green line was the perimeter about 48 hours before.
map Bighorn Fire Tucson Mt Lemmon
Map of the Bighorn Fire. The red line was the perimeter at 10:31 p.m. MDT June 26, 2020. The green line was the perimeter about 48 hours before.
Bighorn Fire Tucson Mt Lemmon
Firing operation on Oracle Ridge at the Bighorn Fire. Inciweb photo June 23, 2020.