United States is seeking firefighting help from Canada and Australia

Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australi
File photo of Incident Management Teams from the United States arriving in Victoria, Australia. Photo posted February 11, 2020 by Emergency Management Victoria.

The United State is reaching out to Canada and Australia, hoping to get more than 130 firefighters to assist with the battling the 93 uncontained wildfires in the country.

In spite of the travel difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group is “working on a request for 55 overhead wildland fire personnel from Australia and about four to five crews from Canada”, said Kari Cobb, an Acting Public Affairs Officer at the National Interagency Fire Center. In the United States, hand crews usually consist of 20 people.

If the Australian’s accept the assignment, they will be leaving a continent where the virus has been nearly controlled, to come to a country where the opposite is true.

The international assistance has worked in both directions. In July, 2008, 44 Australian and New Zealand firefighters came to the United States to assist with fires in California. The first deployment of firefighters from Australia to the U.S. was in 2000.

Although Australia is no stranger to wildfires, the 2019-2020 season was one of the worst fire seasons on record. Major bushfires began in June, 2019, and by September were stronger, more intense, and more frequent. The fire situation continued to worsen, and by November, Australia requested international assistance to suppress the thousands of fires on the landscape.

Over a span of four months, the United States responded to the request for firefighters by providing personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. In total, The U.S. deployed more than 200 USFS and DOI wildland fire staff to the Australian Bushfire response.

Over 15,000 personnel are battling California fires

Cooler weather has slowed some fires, but the August Complex grew by over 16,000 acres Tuesday

Updated August 26, 2020 | 11:38 a.m. PDT

California Fires August 26, 2020
California Fires August 26, 2020.

The  growth of the big complexes of fires in California, LNU, CZU, and SCU, has slowed in recent days, but the LNU and SCU Lightning Complexes still gained 4,509 and 5,717 acres respectively in the last 24 hours. The August Complex southwest of Red Bluff increased by 16,097 acres.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning fires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)

The blazes have charred more than 1.32 million acres, killed seven people, and destroyed nearly 2,000 structures. The fires are being fought by 280 hand crews, 2,400 fire engines, 300 dozers, and 370 water tenders for a total of 15,000 personnel.

In addition to the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group working on a request for firefighting assistance from Australia and Canada, California activated the National Guard for help containing the blazes. On August 23 CAL FIRE issued equipment to 270 soldiers as they were beginning basic fire training at Camp Roberts. Another group of 300 soldiers will arrive next week for training. CAL FIRE will embed with each 20-person crew a Captain and two firefighters for supervision.

Below are updates on some of the largest incidents in California, with data from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service.

LNU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: North Bay
  • Counties: Napa, Lake, Yolo, Solano, Sonoma
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Sonoma-Lake-Napa
  • Acres: 357,046. The largest fire in the complex is the Hennessey Fire, 299,763 . The Walbridge Fire west of Healdsburg is 54,923, and the Meyers Fire on the coast north of Jenner is 2,360.
  • Structures destroyed: 978
  • Personnel assigned: 2,207
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE LNU Twitter page
  • Notes: Fires that merged to become the Hennessey Fire include Gamble, Green, Spanish, 5-10, Morgan, and Markley Fires.

SCU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: Santa Clara, Alameda, Stanislaus, Contra Costa, San Joaquin
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Santa Clara
  • Acres: 365,772
  • Structures destroyed: 31
  • Personnel assigned: 1,655
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE SCU Twitter page
  • Notes: Fire activity has lessened due to favorable weather conditions and increased humidity across the complex. Deep seated heat still remains in the bottom of the steep, inaccessible drainages. During the evening fire crews held existing control line around the fire perimeter continuing to both reinforce and add new containment lines. When weather and conditions are favorable there will be a controlled burn operation inside the control line. This controlled burn will widen the buffer and consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line.

CZU August Lightning

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: San Mateo, Santa Cruz
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Mateo-Santa Cruz
  • Acres: 79,640
  • Structures destroyed: 443
  • Personnel assigned: 1,697
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE CZU Twitter page
  • Notes: It is burning in Southern San Mateo County and Northern Santa Cruz County actively above the marine layer in the heavy timber and thick undergrowth.  Approximately 77,000 people have been evacuated.

River and Carmel Fires

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: Five miles south of Salinas, near Pine Canyon Rd. and River Rd.
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey
  • Acres: 48,424
  • Structures destroyed: 30
  • Personnel assigned: 1,183
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey Twitter page, and see maps produced by Monterey County here.
  • Notes: Firefighters patrolling the fire Tuesday confirmed that the fire remained within containment lines. The onshore winds from the northwest allowed the fire to travel very slowly to the south with in containment lines.The Carmel Fire 2 miles southwest of the River Fire has burned 6,901 acres and destroyed 37 structures.

Dolan Fire

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: on the coast 10 miles south of Big Sur
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: U.S. Forest Service, Los Padres NF
  • Acres: 21,844
  • Structures destroyed: 0
  • Personnel assigned: 880
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: Fire behavior was moderate throughout Tuesday night. Crews performed structure defense in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and continued to protect private property and clear roadways around Partington and along Hwy. 1. Crews continued to secure direct and indirect lines to keep the fire out of Hermitage, Lucia and Morning Glory. Progress is slow due to rough terrain and lack of available crews. On Wednesday, crews will continue to focus on the northern and southern edges of the fire by constructing and enhancing control lines, with the priority being lines along McWay ridge and above Lucia northeast to Twin Peaks.

August Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: 18 miles southwest of Red Bluff
  • Counties: Tehama, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Trinity
  • Administrative Unit: Mendocino National Forest and CAL FIRE
  • Acres: 197,148
  • Structures destroyed: 10
  • Personnel assigned: 476
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: As of Tuesday evening: firefighters are opening preexisting fire breaks as control lines on the south portion of the Doe fire (160,436 acres 31% contained). Structure protection is continuing when it is safe to do so. Line construction is continuing on the Glade Fire (18,307 acres 0% contained). Firefighters are working in coordination with Crane Mills Timber and using dozers to tie in the north portion of the Tatham fire (8,958 acres 11% contained). .

Lightning, rain, and Red Flag Warnings in parts of California

lightning California
Lightning during the 24-hour period ending at 7 a.m. PDT August 24, 2020. The yellow strikes are the most recent.

So far the thunderstorms that Californians were worried about that could ignite even more wildfires did not have much effect in the Bay Area overnight. But lightning strikes were detected in the Sierras along with rain — none, or less than 0.05 inch generally, but some locations received more, as is the nature of thunderstorms.

In the Bay Area there is still a chance of thunderstorms Monday morning, with decreasing chances in the afternoon.

Precipitation California
Precipitation during the 24-hour period ending at 7 a.m. PDT August 24, 2020.
Red Flag Warnings for August 24, 2020 fire
Red Flag Warnings for August 24, 2020.

Over 26,000 personnel are battling wildfires

August 23, 2020 | 6:48 p.m. MDT

Claremont Fire Plumas National Forest
Claremont Fire, Plumas National Forest, August 21, 2020. InciWeb.

It is not very often that there are more than 400 crews or 25,000 personnel assigned on fires at any one time, but those numbers have been exceeded with the rash of huge fires in California and Colorado.

Table, firefighting resources assigned now and in 2019

The chart above compares the number of resources assigned to wildfires today to the total number mobilized in all of 2019, which was slower than usual. The acres burned in the lower 49 states in 2019 was 39 percent of the previous 10 year average. And the fires in 2019 were spread out over months — there was no extraordinary sudden need for massive mobilizations like is being required now in California and just before, Colorado. When there is an almost instant need for 15,000 or 20,000 firefighters, even the best-oiled mobilization system can struggle to keep up with the demand.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning fires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)

There are only 16 of the highest qualified National Type 1 Incident Management teams that run the largest fires and all are currently assigned. If more were available they would probably be deployed as well. Some fires are possibly being staffed by Type 2 teams when a Type 1 team was requested. But most likely, they will do fine. (Correction: there are 16 National Type 1 teams, but some of the 16 Type 1 teams currently on fires today are organized at the state level.)

In the first three or four days after the lightning started August 16 in California we were aware of multiple situations on emerging fires that were severely understaffed by ground and air resources. On some incidents personnel were asked to work back to back shifts because there was no relief, and requests for engines, hand crews, air tankers, and helicopters were often unfilled. Those conditions have improved now that the system is fully geared up and aid is arriving from out of state, but there are still requests for resources that are unable to be filled (UTF).

One thing that is striking is that no Area Command Teams have been dispatched. This situation is what they are made for. None were assigned in 2016, 2018, or 2019. All three AC teams received limited administrative assignments earlier this year to help put together plans for the COVID-19 pandemic, but in three of the last four years they were not used on fires.

In 2019 the National Multiagency Coordinating Group (NMAC) which manages the AC teams was concerned that if they did not receive assignments some individuals on the teams could lose currency and qualifications in 2020. That issue may have been ameliorated with the COVID mobilization. But a person might wonder how similar pandemic planning is to managing multiple wildfires.

Here is how the NMAC described the function of Area Command Teams in a letter encouraging their use last year:

ACTs provide strategic leadership to large theaters of operation while significantly reducing the workload for agency administrators and fire management staff. Common roles of ACTs typically include facilitating Incident Management Team (IMT) transitions, in-briefings, and closeouts. Additionally, ACTs coordinate with agency administrators, fire staffs, geographic areas, and MAC groups on complexity analysis, implementation of objectives and strategies, setting priorities for the allocation of critical resources, and facilitating the effective use of resources within the area.

Forecasters predict elevated fire danger Sunday and Monday in Northern California

August 23 through 24, partly due to the possibility of dry lightning

Fire Weather Outlook August 23, 2020
Storm Prediction Center’s Fire Weather Outlook for dry lightning August 23, 2020. SCTDRYT is scattered dry thunderstorms. ISODRYT is isolated dry thunderstorms. The colors of the labels apply to the same colors of the shaded areas.

The chance of lightning with little or no rain Sunday and Monday combined with high temperatures and low humidities has led to predictions of elevated fire danger.

Fire Weather Outlook August 24, 2020
Storm Prediction Center’s Fire Weather Outlook for dry lightning August 24, 2020. SCTDRYT is scattered dry thunderstorms. ISODRYT is isolated dry thunderstorms. The colors of the labels apply to the same colors of the shaded areas.

Red Flag Warnings are in effect for the northern half of California Sunday and Monday. The highest threat of dry lightning is Sunday afternoon through Monday morning.

Red Flag Warnings August 23, 2020 wildfires
Red Flag Warnings August 23, 2020

Thunderstorms with little or no rain is what started over 500 fires earlier last week. On Monday scattered or isolated dry thunderstorms could hit northern California and portions of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. The storms are expected to move farther north Monday.

Nick Nauslar, a Fire Meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise wrote about the forecast in a tweet at 11:30 p.m. Saturday, saying, “Hundreds of new fires are likely if this event pans out.”

The Hot Dry Windy Index (HDW) predicts higher than normal fire danger for the area of the Hennessey Fire in the Bay Area Sunday through Tuesday. On Sunday it is above the 90th percentile compared to the average for the date. The HDW is a fairly new tool developed for firefighters to predict weather conditions which can affect the spread of wildfires. It is relatively simple and only considers the atmospheric factors of heat, moisture, and wind. To be more precise, it is a multiplication of the maximum wind speed and maximum vapor pressure deficit (VPD) in the lowest 50 or so millibars in the atmosphere. The HDW only only uses weather information – fuels and topography are not considered by HDW at all. If the fuels are wet or have a high live or dead moisture content it will not be reflected in the data.

Hot, Dry, Windy Index August 223, 2020.
Hot, Dry, Windy Index August 223, 2020.

Forecast Fire Danger, August 23, 2020