Prescribed fire task force mobilizes for 14 days in California

Margaret Click from the Department of Energy in Washington ignites vegetation in the white oak woodlands of Redwood National Park. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Oct. 24, 2013.

Today we have an article written by guest authors, about a 40-person task force that conducted training and then executed 14 prescribed fires in northern California.


Prescribed fire taskforce mobilizes for 14 days in northern California

By Jeremy Bailey, The Nature Conservancy, and Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Northern California Prescribed Fire Council

For the last two weeks, 40 men and women from across the U.S. and Spain traveled as a team and completed prescribed burns throughout northern California. Burning adjacent to homes (right up to the back porch in some cases) and in more remote areas, too, the firefighters on the taskforce experienced a wide spectrum of prescribed fire situations, including burning in a range of fuel types and learning how to communicate effectively with the media. By the end of the 14-day assignment these firefighters had burned 389 acres on 14 separate burn units on both federal and private lands. Sponsored by the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council (NCPFC), the taskforce was made up of students, municipal and wildland firefighters, researchers, scientists, photographers, managers, ecologists, private contractors, and even an air quality regulator. A year of planning and coordinating went into building the taskforce and working with the burn hosts, who completed burn plans and prepped control lines. The NCPFC provided the management team, nearly equivalent to a Type 3 Team. The Incident Commander was supported by Plans, Logistics, Operations and Training officers, and several additional burn bosses worked on the team to provide day-to-day burn leadership; in some cases, the taskforce was able to burn in multiple locations simultaneously.

The taskforce was organized as part of a Training Exchange (TREX), an experiential training where firefighters and practitioners learn by doing. Organized by fire leaders from The Nature Conservancy and the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, and implemented through a collaborative effort of federal, state and private land managers, the Northern California Prescribed Fire Training Exchange blended classroom learning and field experience into a 14-day assignment. The TREX taskforce mobilized to four different locations and accomplished key burns in each place. Firefighters worked on position task books, such as Resource Unit Leader, Burn Boss, Firing Boss, and Fire Effects Monitor. Additionally, there were four firefighters who completed the online S-130 & S-190 coursework and finished their field day requirements on the controlled burns. As the crew t-shirt said, the group spent two weeks “Burning Together, Learning Together.”

Participants spent the first few days in the classroom learning from local scientists, subject experts and managers, and then practicing locally appropriate tactics and becoming familiar with their squad members and equipment. During the two-week assignment, the TREX taskforce burned at Redwood National Park, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Bar 717 Ranch in Trinity County, and numerous private parcels in the Klamath River basin near Orleans, CA. It was a great learning opportunity to go from the National Park Service sites to the private lands. All plans and operations met National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) standards and were led by Type 2 burn bosses. The firefighters brought or were provided the proper PPE. Landowners, neighbors, managers and other VIPs were encouraged to participate in daily briefings, line scouting and After Action Reviews. During the burning, unqualified staff, VIPs and guests were escorted and remained adjacent to safety zones.

There was a real push to prepare for media interactions; participants were trained in the use of key messages for interviews, and they rehearsed with flip phones and in practice interviews with TREX organizers. Their practice paid off when local reporters attended TREX burns. A TV reporter visited a burn in the Bald Hills of Redwood National Park, and participant interviews were included in a Friday night television broadcast. In Trinity County, participants were interviewed for a full-length newspaper story which was published this week in the local paper.

One of the primary principles that the cadre tried to instill is that “everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student”. One participant and former hotshot said it best when he wrote that the TREX provided “…an excellent balance of the science and application of Rx fire management, and a wonderful group of people to build working relationships with. I learned a ton…”

Please visit these sites to learn more about the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, see more photos of our recent TREX on our Council Facebook page, and to learn where the next TREX will be held.

Archive photo, southern California firefighters 40 years ago

Southern California firefighters 1970

Names of Southern California firefighters

Diana Campbell Ellison, former wife of Ron Campbell, was kind enough to send us this photo of firefighters that was most likely taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s, probably in southern California. Since most of them are not wearing uniforms, the photo was undoubtedly taken at a meeting or training session. Quite a few people in the photo went on to very distinguished careers in wildland fire. Click HERE to see a higher resolution version of the photo.

Wildfire briefing, November 4, 2013

After the Rim Fire, water now worries land managers

The 257,000-acre Rim Fire is now 100 percent contained, at a cost of $127 million, but the effects of rain on barren slopes is the newest worry for land mangers. Over 90 percent of the fire burned in the Tuolumne River watershed in and near Yosemite National Park in California. The loss of vegetation and exposure of the soil could lead to erosion and increased water runoff that may lead to flooding, increased sediment, and debris flows.

The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team has been working in the Rim Fire area for weeks and continues to assess the needs and implement emergency stabilization measures. Projects the team is working on include:

  • Improving road drainage and storm-proofing roads at risk of failure from increased flooding.
  • Stabilizing and repairing trails.
  • Monitoring for and treating invasive weeds.
  • Mulching and chipping to protect fragile soils.

Two dry years in a row have worried land managers but now the thought of a heavy rain has them concerned.

Acid frogs are not greatly affected by fires

Often we hear of people who suffer mental anguish over the plight of animals being affected by wildfire — they assume that Bambi and others die by the thousands. But most creatures have adapted to fire over tens of thousands of years.

Recent research in Australia concluded that acid frog “populations did not suffer adversely from moderate intensity fires as suitable refuges, including standing water, were available. All species were present shortly after fire with subsequent successful reproduction occurring once wetlands were sufficiently inundated.”

You can obtain a copy of the taxpayer-funded research by paying the International Journal of Wildland Fire, published by CSIRO, $25. The researchers work for Griffith University, which apparently does not believe in the concept of Open Access to taxpayer-funded research.

New Hampshire may ban fire balloons

New Hampshire may become the 26th state to ban fire balloons, which are sometimes called sky lanterns or Chinese lanterns.

These incendiary devices use burning material such as rubbing alcohol or a candle to heat the air in a bag made of tissue paper or very thin plastic. The heat makes the device lighter than air causing it to rise into the sky, staying aloft for 10 minutes to 2 hours. They can be very pretty to watch especially when they are released dozens or hundreds at a time such as at a wedding or some other celebration. The  problem is they are uncontrollable and sometimes start wildfires or structure fires.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals adopted a resolution this year urging states to ban the sale and use of the devices. Below is an excerpt from their position on the issue:

…Therefore, be it resolved that the National Association of State Fire Marshals strongly encourages states to ban the sale and use of sky lanterns through whichever means is most expedient for them. Banning the use of sky lanterns is important to help control homemade devices as well as those purchased from various sources.

New Hampshire state Senator Nancy Stiles has introduced a bill to prohibit them in her state. Below is an excerpt from USA Today:

Stiles, a Republican, filed her bill at the request of Rye Fire Chief Skip Sullivan. Sullivan said people have lit the lanterns at the beach thinking they would float out to sea only to have them blow inland. One landed in a selectman’s yard but burned out and did no damage, he said.

Sullivan said fire officials want a law “primarily for the fact that when you light these and send them off, it is an open fire you’re sending off.”

He added, “When these things come down, are these people going to clean up the mess they leave behind?”


Cedar Fire, California’s largest

Above: map of Cedar and Laguna Fires. USFS map by Corey Ferguson.

We continue to find retrospective articles about the largest fire in the history of California, the Cedar Fire, that started 10 years ago this month, on October 25, 2003. One of the more interesting is an animation of the spread of the fire which was initially pushed by very strong Santa Ana winds blowing from the northeast and east.

The fire was started by a hunter that got lost and wanted to improve his chances of being found. The 273,246-acre fire accomplished that goal and then some.

Just yesterday a hiker from Redlands, California who had been missing for nearly a week was found stranded in Coldwater Canyon about five miles above Arrowhead Springs Resort after he started a fire to stay warm, but the fire grew out of control. He was rescued after firefighters responded to suppress the fire which had spread to an area about 20 by 30 feet.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has an article that examines how the vegetation is recovering from the 2003 Cedar Fire. Below is an excerpt:

…The Cedar Fire and subsequent burns in 2007 wiped out more than half of the mixed conifer in San Diego County, according to park documents. Cuyamaca [State Park] saw the worst of it. Before the fire, conifers covered about 40 percent of the park, in pine-oak woodlands and mixed conifer forest, [Mike Puzzo, an environmental scientist with the park] said. All but a few stands were incinerated.

A decade later, the alien terrain left after the blaze is recovering to varying degrees. In some spots, such as Fern Flat, charred stumps are surrounded by what Puzzo called a “monoculture” of ceanothus.

In nearby West Mesa, where the fire burned less intensely, signs are more encouraging. Scrub and saplings mingle with 15 to 20 foot oak trees which shot up since the fire. Several miles away, in a meadow near Los Vaqueros, some large pines survived, and new ones are cropping up.

“I think this place is recovering very nicely,” Puzzo said. “This right here is a good representation of what a fire should do. Some is dead, but a lot is still alive.”

Sign in the Cedar Fire area
Sign within the Cedar Fire five months after the fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The video below appears to have been shot by a homeowner in Poway as the Cedar fire burned near his home.

Historic late October California wildfires

Late October has historically seen many large destructive wildfires in California. In addition to the Esperanza fire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters seven years ago today, October 20 through November 1 at times has been an extremely busy period of the year for firefighters.

  • October 20, 1991. The Tunnel Fire (or Oakland Hills or East Bay Hills Fire) killed 25 people (23 civilians, 1 police officer and 1 firefighter), injured 150, and destroyed 2,449 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units in Oakland.
  • October 21, 2007. Witch, Harris, Poomacha, Horno/Ammo, Rice, Ranch, Buckweed, Santiago, and Slide fires in the Southern California counties of San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura.
  • October 21 to 26, 2003 Piru, Grand Prix, Old, Paradise, Padua, Simi, Roblar 2, Verdale, Mountain, and Otay.
  • October 25, 2003. The Cedar Fire east of San Diego is still ranked as the largest fire in the recorded history of California. It started late in the afternoon and the first night killed 14 people living in Wildcat Canyon and Eucalyptus Hills who had little or no warning. Eight of those killed died while they were evacuating. The fire burned 273,246 acres, and destroyed 2,232 homes in San Diego, Alpine, Harbison Canyon, Crest, Cuyamaca, Julian, and Santa Ysabel. While trying to defend a house near Santa Ysabel, fire Captain Steven Rucker, 38, from the Novato Fire Department was overrun by the fire and killed on October 29.
  • November 1, 1966. On the Loop Fire, the El Cariso Hotshots were trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest. Ten members of the crew perished that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following weeks. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Prescribed fire escapes on Fort Ord near Monterey

Fort Ord prescribed fire
Fort Ord prescribed fire at 11:11 a.m. October 15, 2013 nine hours before it escaped. Photo by Andrew Po.

A prescribed fire on Fort Ord near Monterey, California escaped Tuesday. The objective of the fire was to remove vegetation to make it easier to clear the area of unexploded ordnance. The plan was to burn 341 acres but it blacked an additional 100 acres. The fire was ignited in the morning and at 6 p.m. the Army said it was contained. Between 9 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. a large smoke plume was seen in the area.

This is the third escaped prescribed fire on Fort Ord in the last 16 years. In 1997, a planned 100-acre burn turned into a 700-acre wildfire. In 2003, a scheduled 490-acre burn jumped containment lines and burned 1,470 acres.


UPDATE October 19, 2013: Rock, who was at the prescribed fire (see his comment below) sent us this photo taken at about 10 a.m., hours before the fire escaped.

Fort Ord prescribed fire 10 a.m. October 15, 2013
Fort Ord prescribed fire 10 a.m. October 15, 2013. Photo by Rock.


Thanks go out to Rock