Some firefighters return from Australia while others are deploying

Angeles National Forest crew returns after 30 days

Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australi
Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australia. Photo posted February 11, 2020 by Emergency Management Victoria.

Three more Incident Management Teams from the United States and Canada have deployed to Victoria, Australia. These teams will continue to support local crews in East Gippsland, positioned in the regional Incident Control Centres and out on the fire ground.

Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australi
Incident Management Teams arrive in Victoria, Australia. Photo posted February 11, 2020 by Emergency Management Victoria.

The 20-person hand crew that left January 7 from the Angeles National Forest (ANF) in Southern California to assist with the bushfires in Australia returned 30 days later on February 5.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
The 20-person hand crew from the Angeles National Forest returned from Australia February 5. USFS photo.

I admit, I am old-school about some issues related to firefighting. I could not help but notice a striking difference between the first photos of U.S. personnel en route down under, compared to the more recent groups. The early photos from December of the personnel from scattered locations around the Western U.S. looked like they could have been on their day off on the way to McDonalds. But beginning in January the photos began to show what was obviously professionals on the way to an important assignment. As they walked, wearing their uniforms, through the airport in Australia other travelers in the airport spontaneously applauded. Very different from the early groups wearing sneakers, jeans, and a wide variety of t-shirts in assorted colors.

I mentioned to Robert Garcia, the Fire Chief for the ANF, the difference in the appearance of the various groups of firefighters when they were traveling. He said:

We honestly believe that how we show up is a key part of professionalism and as such, their duty. Despite many changes, we are trying our best to hold to the professional core values of duty, respect, and integrity.

We insisted that they all depart and arrive in the FS uniform and although they are represented by all 5 ANF IHC crews, ANF Engine crews, prevention, and aviation, they all wore the USFS, Angeles NF Nomex and T-shirt.

Here is a link to more information about the crews from the U.S. working in Australia. The article includes a couple of videos.

Below are photos of the ANF firefighters in more casual attire as they were working in Victoria, but still wearing the ANF t-shirts.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF pose with firefighters from Victoria, Australia. USFS photo.
20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF in Victoria, Australia. USFS photo. USFS photo.

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia

20-person hand crew Angeles National Forest Australia
USFS firefighters from the Angeles NF pose with firefighters from Victoria, Australia. USFS photo.

Firefighter headed to Australia jumps at the opportunity to help

“I am in a unique position where I actually can do something and I actually can help.”

Justine Gude
Justine Gude is interviewed before boarding a flight to help with the bushfires in Australia, January 7, 2020. Screenshot from the ABC7 video below.

As 20 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service were about to depart from Los Angeles for a flight to Australia to assist with the bushfires, reporters found Justine Gude who was willing to speak on camera about the assignment. She gave an excellent interview.

Ms. Gude said, in explaining why she volunteered for the overseas trip:

You watch the news or you read these stories of these terrible things that are happening and you always want to know, ‘How can I help, what can I do?’ And I am in a unique position where I actually can do something and I actually can help. So, who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity. I’m super excited.

Two weeks later in Australia, Carolyn Cole, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, found her. Again she was very quotable:

You know they say ‘It takes a village’. Well it takes all types to have a successful hand crew. You need the funny guy, you need the smart guy, you need the strong guy.

The reporter asked, “What is your role”?

Me? I’m the strong guy!

Then she doubled over laughing

Here is the first interview in Los Angeles, January 7, 2020, by ABC7:

And two weeks later, in Australia, by the LA Times:

Two more 20-person hand crews are traveling to Australia today, January 22. They are a combination of Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service firefighters from throughout the United States. The U.S. has already deployed more than 200 USFS and DOI wildland fire staff to the Australian Bushfire response.

“Recent rains have been a welcome relief to fire crews and communities across Australia, but have not extinguished the risk, “said Stuart Ellis, Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) CEO. “We are grateful for the arrival of US fire task force personnel this week. Australia is a large country, and while we have seen generous rain fall in the past few days in some areas, we are still experiencing kilometers of active fire front and a large clean-up ahead of us. We’re halfway through the summer and there are still challenges ahead for us this season.”

U.S. Forest Service Fire Director Shawna Legarza recently returned from Australia in support of the bushfire response.  “The large, landscape-scale devastation is unprecedented in terms of its impact on Australian economy, its people and their communities, and the effect to numerous ecosystems and habitats. It was humbling to observe the Australians’ resilience, the response in Australia, and level of support from our agency. We will continue to learn from each other in this complex fire environment.”

Based on requests from AFAC, USFS and DOI, the National Interagency Fire Center said wildland fire personnel will continue to provide assistance as requested through the existing agreement. The U.S. firefighters are filling critical wildfire and aviation management roles in New South Wales and Victoria.

Incident Management Team in Australia
A United States Incident Management Team in Australia, January 17, 2020. Photo by Traci Weaver for the US Forest Service.

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

What is behind PG&E’s power blackouts?

The effects on businesses and residents

Power Shutoff California fires powerline
Screenshot from the FULLMEASURE video below.

Investigative reporters from FULLMEASURE looked at how the preemptive electricity blackouts occurred in California and the effects on residents and businesses.

Pentagon says climate change is a growing security threat

Wildfires have the potential to become a concern at seven additional bases where it is not now a serious threat

Canyon Fire entrapment
3-D map of the Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base, looking east. The red line was the perimeter of the Canyon Fire at 11 p.m. PDT September 20, 2016. The white line was the perimeter at approximately 11 p.m. September 19.

A report prepared by the Department of Defense in 2019 identified 36 bases where wildfire is currently a concern. Taking climate change into account that number is expected to grow to 43 over the next 20 years.

An analysis required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 studied 79 priority installations based on their operational role. The goal was to assess the significant vulnerabilities from climate-related events in order to identify high risks to mission effectiveness on installations and to operations.

The installations break down by organization as follows:

Military Base Climate Change Study
Department of Defense

In addition to the predicted effects of climate change on wildfire potential, the report also considers recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, and the thawing of permafrost.

The installations that currently are not classified as vulnerable to wildfires but are expected to become so within 20 years are:

  • Key West Naval Air Station, Florida
  • Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Georgia
  • Joint Base Pearl Harbor & Hickham, Hawaii
  • Wahiawa Annex, Hawaii
  • Naval Magazine Indian Island, Washington
  • Naval and Submarine Base Bangor, Washington
  • Naval Base Guam

Of the 79 installations that were considered in the study, all that were predicted to develop a new vulnerability to wildfire are Naval Bases. Of the 21 Army bases only 4 are now described as vulnerable to wildfire and no others are identified as becoming vulnerable within 20 years.

Military Base Climate Change Study
A summary from the report of current and future (20 years) vulnerabilities to military installations.

One example of an Air Force Base that is currently vulnerable to wildfires is Vandenberg on the Southern California Coast. Two fires on the base come to mind:

  1. On December 20, 1977, three people were entrapped and killed on the Honda Canyon Fire on the base, including the Base Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Fire Chief Billy Bell, and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper. Additionally, severe burns were experienced by Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley.  He later died due to complications from the burns.
  2. In 2016 the Canyon Fire burned over 12,000 acres on the base. Dozens of firefighters were entrapped and endured a harrowing escape through very thick smoke and flying embers. The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned center produced an excellent explanatory video about the entrapment.

California Governor’s proposed budget would add 677 firefighters

If approved, the budget would also establish a Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center

S-2T air tanker Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
An S-2T air tanker makes a drop on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, August 27, 2018. Image from HPWREN camera.

In his proposed $222 billion budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year beginning July 1, California Gov. Gavin Newsom put forth several initiatives that if approved by the legislature could have a significant effect on wildland firefighting in the state. The budget refers to “the new normal fire conditions” and the need to mitigate long periods of fighting fires without respite.

Additional funding for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) would include $120 million in 2020-2021 and $150 ongoing for each of the following four years. This would enable the creation of 677 more positions phased in over five years resulting in operational flexibility through peak fire season and beyond, based on fire conditions. These positions would:

  1. Provide coverage behind personnel vacations, sick days, training, and during predicted weather events and major incidents.
  2. Provide a resource pool to staff additional engines on the shoulder seasons if it becomes necessary to increase the staffing on the existing 65 year-round engines.
  3. Add a fourth firefighter on a portion of CAL FIRE engines as fire conditions dictate.

The budget includes $9 million to establish a Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center staffed by 22 positions to identify current wildfire threats and improve situational awareness of conditions in real-time.

The proposed budget sets aside $100 million for CAL FIRE and OES to administer a home hardening pilot program, with a focus on homes located in low-income communities in areas of high fire risk. The program would also fund 26 positions for defensible space inspections.

The budget approved for the 2019-2020 fiscal year included funds to operate the HC-130H aircraft that will be converted to air tankers, continue the replacement of the 12 aging Bell Super Huey Helicopters with new Sikorsky S-70I Firehawks, and operate 100 additional fire detection cameras.

Senate holds hearing about powerline-caused wildfires

PG&E CEO says preemptive power shut offs during periods of high fire danger in California are likely to continue “for some period of time”

Witnesses at the Congressional hearing December 19, 2019
Witnesses at the Congressional hearing December 19, 2019. L to R: Bill Johnson (PG&E), Michael Wara (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), Scott Corwin (Northwest Public Power Association), Carl Imhoff (USFS Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), Dr. B. Don Russell (Texas A&M)

Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to examine the impacts of wildfire on electric grid reliability, efforts to mitigate wildfire risk, and how to increase grid resiliency.

The five witnesses at the hearing were Bill Johnson (PG&E), Michael Wara (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), Scott Corwin (Northwest Public Power Association), Carl Imhoff (USFS Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), and Dr. B. Don Russell (Texas A&M).

The Senators and witnesses talked about Pacific Gas and Electric’s bankruptcy following the fires caused by their system, the future of preemptive power shutoffs during periods of high fire danger, and two new advances in technology that could help prevent some fires that are caused by power lines.

Dr. B. Don Russel, a professor at Texas A & M, told the committee about distribution fault anticipation technology developed at his university that uses intelligent algorithms to continually monitor electric circuits to detect the very earliest stages of failing devices and missed operations. The concept is simple, he said.  You find and fix it before the catastrophic failure causes a fire or an outage.  Dr.  Russel repeatedly advocated the adoption of this system.

San Diego Gas and Electric’s research found that it takes 1.37 seconds for a broken conductor to hit the ground, for example, if a tree falls into the line or a vehicle hits a power pole. When the line contacts the ground sparks can ignite vegetation. The system is designed to detect a break and shut off the power before the clock hits 1.37 seconds — hopefully, avoiding what could become a dangerous wildfire.

Hearing Senate power line fires
Screenshot from the video.

Bill Johnson became the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric about 8 months ago about the time the company began going into bankruptcy. Senator Murkowski asked him how much longer residents in California would continue to be affected by the electricity being shut off during periods of high fire danger.

Mr. Johnson said San Diego Gas & Electric is still doing Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) in Southern California during periods of high fire danger 12 years after their power lines started multiple large fires in 2007, but the shutoffs are “surgical” and very localized. He said “[I]n Northern California it would take us probably five years to get to the point where we can largely eliminate this tool… So I think over the next couple of years you’ll see a progression of shorter, fewer PSPS events. But the climate change and the weather change is dramatic enough that I don’t think we will see the end of it for some period of time.”

Dr. Michael Wara discussed the effect of PSPS on residents:

The use of PSPSs has both prevented wildfire and caused widespread disruption to families and businesses, especially in Northern California. PSPS events, though they do dramatically improve safety, are likely very costly to the health of the economy, especially in smaller communities. My best estimate, using the Interruption Cost Estimator tool developed by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory indicates that PG&E PSPS events in 2019 cost customers more than $10 billion – that’s 0.3% of gross state product or 10% of overall economic growth this year in California.

In October we wrote about the effects of PSPSs on California residents.

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Johnson’s prepared testimony about PG&E:

PG&E is deeply sorry for the role our equipment had in those fires and the losses that occurred because of them. And we’re taking action to prevent it ever happening again.

And today we’re taking that work a step further by increasing vegetation management in the high risk areas, incorporating analytical and predictive capabilities, and expanding the scope and intrusiveness of our inspection processes.

We deployed 600 weather stations and 130 high resolution cameras across our  service areas to bolster situational awareness and emergency response. We’re using satellite data and modeling techniques to predict wildfire spread and behavior. And we’re hardening our system in those areas where the fire threat is highest by installing stronger and more resilient poles and covered line, as well as undergrounding.

And this year we took the unprecedented step of intentionally turning off the power for safety during a string of severe wind events where we saw up to 100  mile an hour winds on shore in Northern California. And this decision affected millions of our customers,  caused them disruption and hardship even if it succeeded in protecting human life.

We are operating on all fronts to make the system safer and more resilient.

You can watch a video of the entire hearing. It is one hour and 35 minutes, not counting the wait for it to begin at 17:57.