Researchers document the effect of pre-fire mitigation on structure losses during 2017 Thomas Fire

Two decades of work in Montecito, California had a positive effect during the fire

Montecito, CA five-mile border with Los Padres National Forest
The northern edge of Montecito, CA shares a five-mile border with the Los Padres National Forest. Looking north. Google Earth/Wildfire Today. Click to enlarge.

In December, 2017 the Thomas Fire burned over 281,000 acres and 1,000 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in Southern California. But in Montecito, with a wildland-urban interface stretching for five miles along the Los Padres National Forest boundary, only seven primary residences were destroyed. Considered a success story, this result is due to many factors, including the fact that homeowners and firefighters had days to prepare for the fire entering the city, which meant that firefighters did not have to make a choice between helping residents to evacuate or protecting homes. This is in stark contrast to last November’s Camp Fire that raced into Paradise, California within a couple of hours after being ignited by a PG&E power line. In that case firefighters did not have the luxury of suppressing the fire as it burned homes; they had to concentrate on helping residents evacuate and saving lives.

But another important factor that helped to reduce the number of homes destroyed in Montecito in 2017 was the pre-fire mitigation work that had been ongoing in the community for two decades.

After the fire the Montecito Fire Protection District sought to document and understand the confluence of social, ecological, and biophysical factors associated with implementing fire adaptation activities and how they affected the outcome of the Thomas Fire in their community.

The findings in this study should be considered by all communities in a fire-prone environment. Cities that resist mitigation efforts such as constructing fuel breaks, enacting FireWise building codes, spacing homes more than 10 to 20 feet apart, planning for evacuations, and being proactive in protecting their residents long before smoke is in the air, are doomed to a very unpleasant and rude awakening one day. It is not IF a fire will impact their community, it is WHEN.

Below are excerpts from the Montecito study, conducted by Crystal A. Kolden and Carol Henson. The entire report is open source.


Montecito wildfire vulnerability to fire embers
The Montecito Community Wildfire Protection Plan used fire modeling to geospatially characterize ember exposure and defensibility across the community with respect to structures, in order to prioritize key areas for future vulnerability reduction activities. (From the report)

…Here, we document both the social and the biophysical vulnerability reduction strategies taken by the community of Montecito, California in Santa Barbara County, USA, prior to the 2017 Thomas Fire, and how those strategies translated into outcomes. Montecito is one of the many communities in the United States that has been repeatedly exposed to wildfires over the last several decades, with multiple disastrous events . As such, the Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD) embarked on an effort to reduce wildfire vulnerability in the community two decades ago. That effort was subsequently tested in the December 2017 Thomas Fire, which consumed over 1000 homes and became the largest wildfire in contemporary California history for several months until it was surpassed in 2018. Most of the homes were consumed at the outset of the Thomas Fire on days when strong downslope winds (i.e., Santa Ana and Sundowner winds) prevailed, and extreme fire behavior including long runs and long-range spotting, occurred, overwhelming fire suppression efforts. By contrast, Montecito experienced relatively little infrastructure damage from the Thomas Fire, despite similar conditions, including extreme fire behavior and the presence of Sundowner winds on the day the fire beset the community (16 December 2018).

Montecito Fire Protection District fuel treatment network
Montecito Fire Protection District fuel treatment network, homeowner defensible space, and locations of residences (both primary homes and guest houses) destroyed by the Thomas Fire in Montecito.

Over the 20-year period between 1999 and 2018, the MFPD expended approximately $1.76 million (mill) USD ($2 mill USD adjusted for inflation to 2018) on wildfire vulnerability reduction activities (Figure 2). We include 2018 here as these are fiscal year totals, where the fiscal year ends June 30 of the year listed, so the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) expenditures were primarily expended in autumn 2017, prior to the December ignition of the Thomas Fire (this also contributes to reduced FY2018 expenditures relative to prior years). When adjusted for inflation, it is clear that funding was inter-annually variable, but generally increasing over time (Figure 2).

Most of the activities undertaken by MFPD addressed more than one component of the vulnerability triangle (i.e., exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity).

  • Any action that specifically identified geospatial patterns of exposure to wildfire (e.g., defensible space surveys), or was designed to reduce direct exposure to wildfire (e.g., defensible space improvements, roadside fuel reduction) addressed exposure vulnerability.
  • Any action that specifically identified populations in the community that are more sensitive to the negative ramifications of wildfire and determined population-specific actions designed to mitigate those ramifications addressed sensitivity vulnerability.
  • Any action that increased the ability of the community to respond to wildfire and reduce the negative ramifications developed adaptive capacity.

An action such as hiring a Wildland Fire Specialist, whose primary position is to build relationships with community members and facilitate programs to reduce vulnerability, addressed all three components of vulnerability.

Evacuation and ingress/egress issues were key elements of two other activities undertaken by MFPD prior to 2017.

First, MFPD improved ingress/egress and evacuation and fire suppression effectiveness by delineating pre-attack zones across the community in their wildland fire initial attack plan. MFPD utilized these pre-attack zones (which are essentially sub-units of the community that were delineated prior to firefighters attacking a future, hypothetical wildfire) in their community education efforts, planning process, and printed high-resolution paper maps of each zone that were pre-packed in a portable file box for distribution to non-MFPD fire suppression resources in the event of a wildfire. Nine of the interviewees noted the utility of these maps in facilitating greater life safety for firefighters and increased suppression effectiveness, because the maps were able to help resources not familiar with the area to navigate the community safely and quickly and find the pre-designated water sources and equipment staging areas in Montecito, which were also marked on the map.

Second, while MFPD implemented several new fire codes focused specifically on structures (e.g., banning cedar shakes for roofing and siding, requiring boxed eaves), a new requirement for wider driveways focused on reducing exposure through improved evacuation, and increasing adaptive capacity by facilitating firefighter safety during fire suppression activities and post-fire clean up. In Montecito, as in many WUI communities, many of the homes are located at the end of long (>100 m), narrow, winding driveways that terminate at garages. Increasing driveway width and turnaround space supports larger fire apparatus and other large equipment allowed firefighters access these areas, and safely use a tactic referred to as “fire following.” Fire following is frequently used during extreme conditions, wherein firefighters (1) prepare homes to resist an oncoming wildfire, (2) retreat from the home or neighborhood when extreme fire behavior and direct flames from the fire front threaten their life safety, and then (3) “follow” behind the flaming front and re-engage with the home or in the neighborhood. During this re-engagement, they focus on extinguishing portions of the structure that are on fire, extinguishing spot fires on the property, remove flaming debris from structures (e.g., flaming palm fronds on the roof or deck), and wetting down vegetation if there are additional threats for re-ignition (e.g., additional spot fires). Fire following depends on firefighters being able to safely navigate to a home and turn around so that they can evacuate rapidly if needed; driveway design is paramount to this dependency.

The effectiveness of fire suppression efforts was directly supported by the pre-fire vulnerability reduction efforts undertaken by MFPD. Interviewees noted that they were able to use fire following tactics because homes were fire-resistant, giving firefighters time to engage and remove flammable debris before a structure became fully involved with fire. Firefighters also described being able to engage because most homes had sufficient defensible space to make it safe for them to do so, without fear of entrapment. This was of particular concern due to entrapment of firefighters that occurred on the nearby Jesusita Fire in 2009, which was associated with lack of defensible space and evacuation routes.

Interviewees also noted that suppression effectiveness was amplified by the reduction of roadside fuels, which allowed them to conduct backfiring operations along some parts of the road system and hold the fire along other segments. Interviewees described the difference between other portions of the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County, where heavy roadside vegetation created a “tunnel effect” that inhibited large fire apparatus passage (leading to over a dozen homes destroyed in one nearby canyon), and Montecito, where roadside clearance eliminated vegetation tunnels and facilitated two large city fire apparatus being able to pass each other on narrow roads. Videos taken by some interviewees further demonstrated how such clearance improved firefighter safety given the low visibility created by heavy smoke. Several firefighter fatalities in the US have been attributed to exiting the roadway due to lack of visibility in smoky conditions.

Both defensible space and roadside fuel treatments were supplemented by the community fuel treatments implemented by MFPD, which served to “link” together with the fuel reductions undertaken by residents and along roadways. All but one interviewee described this network of fuels reduction as being vital to effective suppression efforts and structure protection, specifically because it allowed firefighters to engage the fire safely. Of the seven primary residences destroyed in Montecito, two were located below a ‘gap’ in the fuel treatment network, and the loss of the remaining dwellings was primarily attributed to the presence of fuels immediately adjacent to the structure, and inaccessibility for firefighters to support the fire following tactic. These losses were attributed to fire exposure that was not mitigated.

Iron 44 tragedy — former VP of Carson helicopters disputes restitution ordered

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 helicopter crash

Carson helicoptersThe former Vice President of Carson Helicopters is disputing a court order to pay $51 million in restitution related to his role in falsifying documents prior to the crash of a helicopter on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 but he now claims he was not aware of the requirement to pay restitution.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune:

[Metheny] says he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty had he known he’d have to pay a restitution of more than $51 million, according to documents filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Medford.

Metheny claims that his defense lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t have to pay any damages because by June 2013, Carson’s contract “was canceled and never re-bid” and “the resultant cost and subsequent loss would equal zero dollars,” according to an affidavit Metheny typed from Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc and filed in court May 7.

Metheny claims he was “repeatedly promised” ahead of his sentencing that the loss amount would be “zero dollars.”

Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire in 2008. Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

More information about the fraud and the sentencing hearing of Metheny and Phillips.

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

CAL FIRE confirms — the Camp Fire that destroyed most of Paradise, CA was started by a PG&E powerline

firefighter battles flames Camp Fire
A firefighter battles flames at the Camp Fire. Photo by FirePhotoGirl used with permission.

It comes as no surprise, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has confirmed what was long thought, that equipment on a Pacific Gas and Electric power line started the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California. PG&E has been saying for months that it was likely their power line started the fire but CAL FIRE’s investigation now makes it official. This could open the floodgates for numerous civil and possibly criminal cases.

CAL FIRE discovered two points of origin, both caused by the power line. One resulted from vegetation coming in contact with a conductor, but they were not specific about the second source. A few days after the fire started there was an unofficial report that a piece of hardware on a 100-year old high voltage transmission tower failed, causing the line to fall, but this has not been officially confirmed.

CAL Fire did not released its full investigative report, saying it had been forwarded to the Butte County District Attorney’s office, which is considering filing criminal charges against the utility.

The fire started early in the morning on November 8, 2018 near the small community of Pulga northeast of Paradise. It burned over 153,000 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures, and resulted in 85 fatalities. It became the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in the recorded history of California.

Very strong winds and low humidity that day spread the fire rapidly into the town making it impossible to safely fly air tankers and helicopters close to the ground. The wind would have also blown retardant or water far off any selected target.

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

“Inside the Megafire” premiers May 8 on PBS

Inside the Megafire,” premiering Wednesday, May 8 at 9pm ET/8c and streaming online at PBS

In this episode, NOVA reports from the front line of the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, and follows scientists racing to understand what’s behind the recent rise in record-breaking megafires—from forestry practices, to climate change, to the physics of fire itself.

PROGRAM DESCRIPTION:

Just a few months after California’s devastating Carr Fire, another blaze became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. As residents raced to evacuate, the Camp Fire devoured 150,000 acres and claimed 86 lives. But how did it get so big so fast? And why are megafires like these becoming more common? NOVA goes to the front lines of the deadliest fires of California’s 2018 fire season to hear from the people who had to flee—and the scientists racing to understand what’s behind these record-breaking infernos. Researchers take to the forest, and even a fire lab, to understand the increasing megafire threat. They explore the physics of fire itself, documenting how firestorms move and travel, and what causes phenomena like fire tornadoes. In the process, they decode the link between climate change, drought, and wildfire. And they show how those environmental factors—combined with a century of fire suppression in the American West and new residential developments in the forest—may have created an unprecedented risk.

PROGRAM PAGE:
(Full program will be available to stream here for several weeks, even for those who do not have a paid subscription to PBS)
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/inside-the-megafire/

30-SECOND TRAILER:
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/novapbs/status/1124373051666239488

Refuge Fire burns 2,500 acres in Kern County, California

Refuge Fire

A wildfire in the Kern National Wildlife Refuge 36 miles northwest of Bakersfield, California had burned approximately 2,500 acres as of 10 p.m. PDT Tuesday night. The fire was reported at about 5 p.m. and at one point the Incident Commander said he had seen 100-foot flame lengths in the riparian area but by 10 p.m. firefighters were gaining some containment.

Wednesday morning the Kern County Fire Department announced that thanks to crews working throughout the night the fire was 100 percent contained and the size estimate remained at 2,500 acres.

map Refuge Fire
The red dot represents heat at the Refuge Fire detected by a satellite at 11:30 p.m. PDT May 7, 2019.

All of these photos and videos were taken by the Kern County Fire Department.

Refuge Fire

Refuge Fire

Report released for tree strike fatality on the 2018 Ferguson Fire

Captain Brian Hughes
Captain Brian Hughes. Photo courtesy of Brad Torchia.

The National Park Service has released the Serious Accident Investigation Factual Report for the accident in which Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Hotshots was killed last year. Captain Hughes died when a 105-foot tall Ponderosa Pine fell in an unexpected direction during a hazardous tree felling operation. It happened July 29, 2018 on the Ferguson Fire on the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park in California.

Captain Hughes, number two in the chain of command on the crew, was in charge of the crew at the time since the Superintendent was at the Ferguson Fire Helibase at Mariposa Airport.

You can download the Factual Report and the Corrective Action Plan. Below are excerpts from both.


Excerpt from the Executive Summary:

…Brian returned to California in 2015 and became a captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew. As a captain, Brian was a trusted leader and mentor who led by example, inspiring others to train hard and develop their skills. His crew looked up to him and loved him as a brother.

The Ferguson Fire was reported July 13.

[…]

The Arrowhead Hotshots arrived on scene July 16, having spent the previous month and a half working prescribed and wildland fires ranging from one to ten days long. The crew spent the next eight days working alongside other highly experienced hotshot crews to build and prepare a fire containment line for burnout operations designed to burn away the available fuel in a given area and keep the original fire from spreading.

By July 28, the day before the accident, the Ferguson Fire had grown to 53,657 acres and was burning across multiple jurisdictional boundaries. Hughes and IHC-1 Squad Leader were working along the edge of a spot fire on steep, rocky terrain in Division G and identified several hazard snags—dead trees that posed falling and fire risks. One stood out: a 57-inch wide, 105-foot tall ponderosa pine burning approximately 10 feet below its top and producing a steady stream of embers. With winds expected the next day, they agreed the snag posed a significant risk to keeping the fire contained and agreed it needed to come down.

The Arrowhead Hotshots lead sawyer started cutting the tree down on the morning of July 29 with help from Hughes, who temporarily stepped in for the sawyer’s less-experienced swamper. The rest of the crew staged in an area safely uphill.

Hughes and the sawyer intended for the tree to fall uphill into an opening between trees. Instead, the tree fell downhill, hitting the ground approximately 145 degrees from the intended lay. It grazed another standing dead snag as it fell and then rolled and/or bounced farther downhill, coming to rest against other snags and brush.

Hughes and the sawyer had discussed the felling operation in detail. Warnings were issued prior to cutting. They also identified two escape routes in case something went wrong.

As the tree began to fall, the sawyer saw which direction it was going and instinctively ran directly downhill, escaping injury.

Hughes however, had moved about 20 feet downhill before the tree fell and then ran into the primary escape route as the tree started falling and was fatally struck. He was found lying underneath the tree in a space between it and the ground.

Efforts to save Hughes’ life were made on scene by the sawyer, fellow firefighters, and paramedics on the ground and in the air. Despite these efforts, Hughes was pronounced dead as he was being flown to the Mariposa Helibase.


Excerpts (Actions) from the Corrective Action Plan: (The full plan includes responsible parties and due dates)

  • Propose to NWCG that beginning in Fiscal Year 19 the Hazard Tree and Tree Felling Subcommittee (HTTFSC) conduct an evaluation of the “Forest Service Chainsaw, Crosscut Saw and Axe Training-Developing a Thinking Sawyer” course for applicability within the interagency community as an updated NWCG S-212, Wildfire Chain Saws, course. Based on the evaluation NWCG could adopt the course as is or with modifications for S-212 and individual agencies could adopt and use as appropriate.
  • Propose to NWCG that beginning in Fiscal Year 19 the Hazard Tree and Tree Felling Subcommittee conduct an evaluation and gap analysis of tree falling options, felling procedures, training and current best practices and update applicable supervisory operations position training and position task books as appropriate, i.e. Single Resource Boss, Strike Team and Task Force Leader, and Division Supervisor.
  • Propose to NWCG the development of an Advanced Wildland Fire Chain Saws training course beginning in Fiscal Year 19 unless need negated by adoption of “Forest Service Chainsaw, Crosscut Saw, and Axe Training-Developing a Thinking Sawyer” course on interagency basis.
  • Propose to NWCG a Fiscal Year 19 review and revision, if necessary, to FAL3, FAL2, and FAL1 competency and currency evaluation processes managed by NWCG.
  • Propose USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development, in collaboration with the Western States Division of the National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), conduct a study on effects of acute and cumulative fatigue on wildland firefighters and Incident Management personnel to include fatigue mitigation recommendations.
  • Complete assessment of effects of fatigue, stress, and sleep management on wildland firefighters and incident management personnel to include methods to prepare for and mitigate the effects of fatigue, cumulative stress, and traumatic stress.
  • Propose all wildland fire tree and chainsaw related accident reports since 2004 be reviewed, associated recommendations evaluated for redundancy or conflict, and the current implementation status of recommendations to assist in setting priority actions to reduce similar incidents.
  • Evaluate how changing environmental conditions, such as extensive tree mortality in the west, and more extreme wildfires, are being factored into procedural practices and implementation of wildland fire policy, strategies, and tactics by agency administrators and Incident Management Teams.
  • Assess and consider adoption of USDA, Forest Service Risk Informed Trade Off Analysis process incorporating geographically specific information on topography, fuels, and expected weather to inform decision makers during initial response and extended attack of wildfires.