Since the staffing at the Santa Maria air tanker base 55 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California was eliminated on March 19, 2009, which downgraded the staff to call when needed, several fire chiefs in the area have been campaigning to reinstate the full time positions at the base. At that time two key tanker base positions — fixed-wing base manager and assistant fixed-wing base manager — were eliminated as part of a reorganization of the Los Padres National Forest staff.
Today Peggy Hernandez, the Forest Supervisor announced that the appropriate staff will be on hand at Santa Maria from October 21 through November 15 of this year, and during next year’s declared fire season, to reload air tankers if there is a fire in the area.
The call when needed status meant that if there was a nearby fire on which air tankers were used, the aircraft had to fly to Paso Robles to reload with fire retardant, which is 58 miles north of Santa Maria. Without a full time staff, it can take several hours or perhaps much longer to round up personnel qualified and available to run the base at Santa Maria, and then the mechanical systems have to be put back into service. [Corrected to say Paso Robles instead of Porterville for the alternate base.]
Summerland-Carpenteria Fire Chief Michael Mingee, who serves as President of the Association of Santa Barbara Fire Chiefs, welcomed the announcement.
“This has been a great example of government agencies at all levels working in cooperation for the betterment of public safety,” Chief Mingee said.
It was 20 years ago today that a rapidly moving fire in the Oakland Hills east of San Francisco ravaged a community. Here is the way we describe it in our Infamous Fires Around the World document:
The “Tunnel Fire”, commonly referred to as the Oakland Hills fire or East Bay Hills fire, occurred on Sunday October 20, 1991. The 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. Eleven of the fire victims died in traffic jams on Charing Cross Road while evacuating. Eight others died on narrow streets in the same area. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.
The fire started when an ember from a grass fire the previous day blew beyond the fire hoses that were still on the fire perimeter and started a new fire. Houses, like the vegetation, have grown back and some of the residents that lived through the 1991 fire are worried when they look around and see that some of their new neighbors are not doing as much as they could to prevent another disaster.
Here is an excerpt from an interesting article in the Mercury News:
As autumn returned and the mercury hovered in the 90s in the Oakland hills, Milt Brown started to feel anxious.
Twenty years ago, on a scorching, wind-whipped day, he lost two houses in one of the nation’s deadliest and most destructive urban wildfires, an inferno that jumped two freeways, destroyed more than 3,800 homes and killed 25 people, including the Browns’ former baby sitter.
Although he tries not to dwell on the horrible memories — or the chance of another devastating blaze — Brown and other survivors of the Oakland hills fire worry that the painful lessons of that day are being forgotten. Or worse, they are being ignored by the many newer residents who didn’t experience firsthand the hell of Oct. 20, 1991. Even the subtlest signs of danger make him nervous.
“I’m looking at the two houses below me and the branches are touching the house,” Brown said from his perch on Buckingham Boulevard — less than a minute’s walk from where the fire erupted on a hot Sunday morning. “I’m in a box canyon. If someone throws a match in there it will set the whole block off.”
But it isn’t just those who lived through the Oakland hills fire who are anxious about what they fear is a growing complacency that has built up alongside the stately homes in these steep, once-woodsy enclaves. Fire officials say that time has not only given rise to dense stands of fast-growing and fire-susceptible eucalyptus on public lands, it has also given vegetation on private property throughout the hills 20 years to mature. It often takes a second notice before residents take heed and clear a defensible space around their homes to protect it from fire.
After two decades of planning and overcoming funding shortfalls, the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial was dedicated on Saturday west of Elsinore, California off the Ortega Highway about two miles from the location of the 1959 Decker fire which killed six firefighters. It is a few hundred yards east of the U. S. Forest Service El Cariso engine station, which is across the highway from the former location of the El Cariso Hot Shot camp. I worked at both places in the 1970s.
More than 300 firefighters and family members paid tribute at the memorial which will display about 200 plaques in remembrance of the 400 people who died fighting wildland fires in California.
After more than 50 years, Carlo Guthrie still cries over her husband’s death—and on Saturday, her tears were bittersweet. Carlo, the wife of fallen California Division of Forestry fire truck driver John Guthrie, was among the more than 300 who gathered for the dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial off the Ortega Highway.
“The tears will never stop. I bet you everything when there’s a wildland fire, there’s widows out there watching that fire, I always am,” she said. “And now there’s a place where John and all California firefighters who gave the ultimate sacrifice can be honored.”
The memorial site sits off the Ortega in the hills above Lake Elsinore, and near the grounds where crews battled the deadly 1959 Decker blaze, which claimed the life of John and five other firefighters.
It serves as a spot where families, comrades and survivors can reflect. The memorial consists of a red brick Maltese cross, guarded by a rock wall with fire plaques embossed with the names of fatal fires, the county, year and the number of fire personnel lost in the blaze. The ground in front of the monument is covered in red bricks engraved with the names of fallen firefighters.
Since the Santa Maria air tanker base northwest of Santa Barbara was downgraded by the Los Padres National Forest on March 19, 2009 from a full-time to a Call When Needed base, some fire chiefs in the area have been lobbying the U. S. Forest Service to reverse that decision. We have written about this issue several times, but it is in the news again, as even more fire chiefs have gotten involved. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Barbara Independent:
Chiefs Demand Fire Support
Want Full Service Restored at Santa Maria Air Tanker Base
Thursday, September 15, 2011
by NICK WELSH
Just two days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the fire chiefs of Santa Barbara County let loose the opening shot of what’s been a long-simmering campaign to pressure the U.S. Forest Service to restore “full-service” status to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, as opposed to the “call when needed” designation the base has had for the past two years. Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio — accompanied by Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace and Operations Chief Terry McElwee — showed up at Santa Barbara City Hall to ask the council to sign a ceremonial letter expressing their support for the fire chiefs in a battle of political will with the Forest Service. While the chiefs wore the brass, it was former county supervisor — and longtime rancher — Willy Chamberlin who held the floor, urging the councilmembers to hang tough and “not weaken.” Chamberlin introduced himself as a “self-appointed bird dog” when it came to air-tanker readiness, but his remarks to the council were relatively tame compared to comments he made in the hallways outside the council chambers. There, Chamberlin blistered the Forest Service for downgrading the status of the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base in 2009. Not only has the loss of a full-service base cost the federal government money, he said, it put county residents at greater peril in the face of wildland fires. Had the tanker base remained at full service, Chamberlin insisted that the Jesusita Fire of 2009 — which destroyed 80 homes — might well have been contained early on. “I’m not saying it would have stopped that fire,” Chamberlin said, “but it would most definitely have been a very different fire.” The chiefs, standing next to him, nodded in assent.
Below is a guest post written by Mike DeGrosky, the CEO of Guidance Group, Inc.
I want to thank Bill for allowing me to blog as a guest at Wildfire Today.
In 2010, my company, Guidance Group, Inc. coordinated the work of the Secretary of Agriculture’s Independent Large Cost Fire Review Panel, which reviewed the six fiscal year 2009 wildland fires whose suppression costs exceeded $10 million. The six fires included the Backbone, Big Meadow, Knight, La Brea, and Station fires in California and the Williams Creek fire in Oregon.
Phil Schaenman (of TriData Corporation) and I presented the Panel’s final report in a briefing to the U.S. Forest Service on August 13, 2010 followed by a briefing with the Secretary of Agriculture’s Chief of Staff later that week. Apparently, sometime after these briefings, but before the Departments of Agriculture and Interior had completed their review and transmitted the report to Congress, someone, who remains unknown, leaked the report. The report found its way to a group of Forest Service retirees as well as Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Pringle, both who were critics of the Angeles National Forest’s handling of the Station Fire.
When excerpts from the report began showing up in LA Times articles critical of the Forest Service and in Congressional panel hearings, a commenter on Wildfire Today accused me of leaking our own report. Not only was this accusation false, this person offered neither justification for their accusation or evidence to support it. In fact, it would not have been in our interest to leak the report and endanger our reputations and working relationship with the Forest Service, but you never know why people get the ideas they do. At the time, in deference to the Forest Service and their review process, I felt it best to say little. However, now that the report is out in the public domain, I would like to clear the air.
In reality, we first became aware that the report had found its way outside agency circles in early October, when I received a call from a member of the Forest Service retirees’ group challenging the Angeles Forest’s handling of the Station Fire. The caller complimented our work, commended the report, and asked me to verify its authenticity. When I enquired as to how he had come to be in possession of the report, he told me that the group had received the report “from a contractor’s association.” I can only speculate as to how it found its way to Paul Pringle at the LA Times.
It is interesting to note that Mr. Pringle never contacted either the panelists or I. I would have loved the opportunity to help him put his story in context. Interestingly, the members of Congress who conducted panel hearings on the Station Fire in October never contacted us either, nor have the various organizations investigating the Forest Service’s action regarding the Station Fire. That is, in part, my purpose for my entry on Bill’s blog. Those who want to understand how the 2009 Large Fire Cost Review does (and does not) relate to the Station Fire need to know a few things that have gotten lost as the controversy took on a life of its own..
First, having the report in the public sphere was not troubling to us. We are proud of our work and do not fear public scrutiny of it. However, a few people focused on a single paragraph taken from a six-page section discussing the Station Fire. Wanting it to support their point of view, they stretched a few phrases beyond their intended purpose and presented these passages outside the context in which the Panel made them. For example, the Panel’s findings included the following:
Incident Management – The Station fire represented a very large, complex incident, in rugged terrain, involving multiple jurisdictions at the edge of the City of Los Angeles. Fire personnel faced extraordinary challenges. However, the agency personnel, including agency administrators who were actively engaged, handled the situation as well as one might expect given the circumstances. The fact that the IMT came from southern California and had experience with this type of high profile fire proved advantageous” (p. 26).
Initial Response – Controversy continues over whether Forest personnel could have stopped the fire on the morning of August 27 (day 2). Critics claim that if the Forest had airtankers and heavy helicopters on station over the incident at first light, they may have stopped the fire’s spread. If true, more than $90M in cost could have been avoided. However, the Forest Service, Los Angeles County, and CAL FIRE jointly reviewed the initial and extended attack. Their report, issued on November 13, 2009, found that the initial attack ICs acted appropriately and made prudent decisions regarding the safety of firefighters, including those involved in air operations. Further, the report determined that aggressive air operations in the early daylight hours of day 2, without necessary ground support, would not have been effective. The matter remains under investigation and, therefore, beyond the scope of this Panels’ review” (p. 26).
In short, the Panel was largely complimentary of the Forest Service’s incident management under nightmare conditions and, more importantly, the Large Fire Cost Review for FY2009 purposefully avoided the initial or extended attack of the Station Fire. However, these facts remained largely unreported.
Unfortunately, the Panel’s report included an unintended choice of words, causing confusion. Citing factors that increased fire costs, in referencing troubles with ordering federal resources, the report described how, in early 2009, the Regional Forester issued a letter providing budget guidance for the region’s fire preparednessfunds. In the course of our fieldwork, it became obvious that field personnel interpreted the letter to mean that the Forests should order Forest Service personnel and equipment before ordering state or local resources; and that this interpretation had delayed, on occasion, the arrival of critical resources. As an example, the report recounted a situation in which the nearby Morris fire released a strike team of CAL FIRE engines who returned to San Diego while an order for a Federal strike team of engines for the Station fire remained unfilled.
Unfortunately, we inadvertently included the word “initially” in the description of events, leading some to believe that this example had bearing on the controversy concerning the extended attack of the Station Fire, despite the Panel’s statement that the initial attack of the Station Fire was beyond its scope. Some even called it the “smoking gun” that they had been seeking.
In reality, this strike team (and another that was reassigned) were released on August 29th, three days after the start of the Station Fire, not during initial attack. However, it is important to note that, way back in October, as the Paul Pringle referenced report passages in the LA times and the report came up in Congressional panel hearings, we acknowledged to the Forest Service that this section of text described resource orders made early in the fire, but not during initial or extended attack. I still contend that other text in the Station Fire section of the report made that context clear. Inclusion of the word “initially” was inadvertent, and the Panel was aware that the situation occurred days after the fire’s start.
I am pleased that the report is finally out in the public eye, where people can read it for themselves rather than speculating on its contents or allowing others to interpret it for them. I hope that these remarks clarify the relationship between the Large Fire Cost Review for FY2009 and the controversy surrounding the Station Fire.
At Wildfire Today we try to keep track of the line of duty deaths (LODD) of firefighters working on wildland fires. The past year, 2010, again produced a lengthy list of firefighters who passed away while doing their job. We make no claim that it is a complete or official tally. If you are aware of any that we missed, let us know. Some of the dates are approximate and may be the date of the report of the fatality. The last three incidents are gray areas, in that the victims were not all firefighters, or were not necessarily actively involved in fire suppression at the time of the incident. They were included because they were very significant incidents.
At the end of the list is a report from the U.S. Fire Administration providing their statistics on the number of LODDs for 2010.
January 11. Australia. A firefighter was killed and four others were injured when their fire truck rolled over while they were responding to a grass fire at Lake Mokoan near Benalla in northeast Victoria, Australia. (map)
April 11. Kansas. A firefighter was overcome by smoke and died while working on a fire west of Peru.
April 24. New Brunswick, Canada. A pilot from Grand Falls, with Forest Protection Ltd., was conducting a practice flight in a water bomber when the plane crashed shortly after taking off from the airport.
June 23. Washington. The chief of the Franklin Fire District 4 in Basin City, Washington, was killed when a snow cat that had been converted to a fire apparatus rolled about 100 feet down a hill while he was working on a vegetation fire.
July 30. Russia. Wildfires in Russia killed at least 25 people including 2 firefighters, and destroyed over 1,000 homes. Some reports say three firefighters died in the fires.
July 31. Canada. An air tanker crashed while working on a fire in British Columbia. The Convair 580, operated by Conair, went down in central B.C. The two pilots were killed.
August 2. Arkansas. A firefighter was operating an Arkansas Forestry Commission 2002 International tractor trailer, and was en route to check on the status of an earlier fire. The tractor trailer load reportedly shifted causing the vehicle to cross the roadway center line, go into a ditch and then overturn.
August 11. Portugal. Civil protection officials said a female firefighter died, one fireman was badly burned and their team had to be evacuated when they found themselves surrounded by flames after a sudden change in the direction of the wind in Gondomar region. On Monday, a fireman was killed and another seriously injured when their truck fell into a burning ravine in the mountainous Sao Pedro do Sul area.
August 13. Spain. Two firefighters were been killed in wildfires. The blazes hit near the village of Fornelos de Montes in the country’s northwestern Galicia region, close to the border with Portugal, where several forest fires are still raging.
September 21. Spain. A 46-year old firefighter died while extinguishing a wildfire in Senes.
September 24. Ohio. A firefighter was killed when a pressurized tank failed and he was struck by debris.
September 24. Virginia. A firefighter collapsed and later died while working on a fire in New Church, Virginia off Route 13.
November 16. South Carolina. A firefighter was suppressing a grass fire in the median of Interstate 20 when a van rear-ended a sedan as they approached the fire scene. The sedan was pushed into two parked fire trucks causing them to crash into a firefighter, causing his death.
November 23. California. One inmate was killed and 12 were injured when their crew carrier vehicle was involved in a head-on accident. Three of the injured were in critical condition. The elderly driver of the other vehicle was also killed. As far as we know the inmate crew was not assigned to a fire at the time of the crash.
December 5. China. A massive wildfire in Tibet’s Sichuan province killed 22 people, including Chinese soldiers during a rescue operation. Of the 22 killed, 15 were soldiers, two were workers with the grassland administration, and five others were local civilians.
December 6. Israel. At least one of the 43 government employees that were killed in the Carmel Mountain fire in Israel was a police officer. The Police Chief in Haifa (Israel) died in the Line of Duty from her burn injuries after 4 days of hospitalization. She was the first ever woman police chief there, and was gravely injured in the Carmel forest fire, while driving along with the bus full of Prison Service cadets that burned and killed the cadets as well.
Below is the The U.S. Fire Administration’s report of the on-duty firefighter fatalities in 2010. Click on FullScreen to see a larger version.