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 release 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.

Redding Hotshots involved in vehicle crash with multiple injuries

The crew is based in Redding, California

(UPDATED at 11:02 a.m. PDT May 1, 2019)

Stanton Florea, a spokesperson for the U.S.  Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, confirmed that a total of 10 crewmembers on the Redding Interagency Hotshots were injured in the crash of their crew carrier yesterday, April 30.  At least one was transported from the scene by helicopter. Two crewmembers are still in the hospital.

The crew was engaged in chain saw training away from their base in Redding, and was en route back when the accident occurred.

(UPDATED at 7:27 a.m. PDT May 1, 2019)

Redding Hotshots' Crew Carrier
The Redding Hotshots’ Crew Carrier. Screengrab from @KRCR Photog.

We will update this article as more of the details become available.

Redding Hotshots

The Redding Hotshots differ from the typical Hotshot Crew in that firefighters are detailed to the crew from other units. It is a Regional resource rather than being tied to a specific National Forest or Park like other Type 1 crews. In addition they receive a concentrated fire management training opportunity through supervising a squad of 3-7 crewmembers during fire suppression, prescribed fire and other emergency incidents.


(Originally published at 8:05 p.m. PDT April 30, 2019)

The Shasta County News Source is reporting that a vehicle carrying members of the U.S. Forest Service Redding Hotshots was involved in a two-vehicle accident in Burney, California, which is about 56 miles northeast of the crew’s base in Redding.

The report has numerous details which may have been gathered from monitored radio conversations.

The Incident Commander reported the crew carrier was off the road and on its side, and immediately declared it to be a Mass Casualty incident.

Two or possibly three of the injured were flown to hospitals, and approximately eight or nine others with minor injuries were transported in ground vehicles. It is believed that a person in the other vehicle, a Lexus, is included in the numbers.

The accident was reported at about 5:12 p.m. Tuesday April 30.

The details may change as the story evolves. We will update this article as more details emerge.

(Click here for an update on the accident.)

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

Firefighters learn from the Battle of San Pasqual

A Staff Ride to the battlefield

The study of infamous fires and military battles can be a valuable learning opportunity for wildland firefighters. On a Staff Ride, finding out about leadership factors that affected the outcome can help participants benefit from the good decisions, and reduce the chances of making similar mistakes.

Today we have a guest article written by Heather Thurston.


Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Don Garwood, former Incident Management Team Incident Commander speaks to participants. Photo by Heather Thurston.

The Battle of San Pasqual: Decision Making Lessons Learned from the “Bloodiest Battle in California’s History”

By Fire Apparatus Engineer Heather Thurston, CAL FIRE – Monte Vista Unit

During the Mexican-American War President James Polk sent the U.S. 1st Dragoons, under the command of General Stephan Watts Kearny, 2000 miles from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to California. On December 6, 1846 these troops engaged a group of Mexican cowboys known as the “Californios” in what would become known as the “bloodiest battle in California’s History”.

Located in Southern California off of Hwy 78 nestled between Escondido and Poway in the northeast part of San Diego County, the battlefield now provides a unique learning opportunity for wildland firefighters.

On a cool April morning in 2019, cadets from Rio Hondo College Wildland Fire Academy lined up in anticipation for the day while leaders and mentors introduced each other from several departments across southern California. Leaders from U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Marines, CAL FIRE, Lakeside Fire, Newport Beach Fire, and other local departments assembled, ready to share their experiences and learn from each other about the decisions made in 1846. The battle of San Pasqual provides learning opportunities that parallel common issues consistently encountered on the firefighter’s battlefield.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
In the parking lot, students and mentors receive a safety briefing followed by an opening speech which was given to the American Republic soldiers by General Kearny. Participants are asked to imagine a cold foggy morning through Captain Johnson’s eyes. Photo by Heather Thurston.

Mounted troops of Captain Andres Pico’s rebellion have encamped and taken-up positions in the eastern portion of this valley with the intent of attacking and destroying coalition forces of the American Republic, now in armed conflict with the Californios/Republic of Mexico.

You are to reconnoiter as to exact location of enemy forces and perform action using advantages of terrain and nighttime operations to beat-up the enemy camp, so as to achieve capitulation—while minimizing casualties to the extent possible.

They have the capability of eliminating U.S. forces available for action, given their ability to exercise superior local firepower and maneuverability. They can reinforce with organic and out-of-theater assets.

With these words ringing in their heads, participants start the 1/4 mile walk to the day’s first stop. It was here that Captain Johnson took 12 Dragoons, the best of Kearny’s men, under the orders to “TROT” and recon as to the strength and readiness of their adversaries.

Both the Dragoons and the Californios were mounted calvary. The Californios had fresh horses and a few rifles but most of their fighting was done with lariats and long lances.

During their 2,000-mile journey, the longest march in U.S. Army history, most of the Dragoons’ horses died and the soldiers were left with mules and half-broken horses they rounded up around Warner Springs. Much of their gunpowder was wet which reduced the effectiveness of their carbines to clubs and pistols to hammers.

The attendees are asked to imagine a foggy cold morning and look through Captain Johnson’s eyes as he sees the shadow of two men on horses. Captain Johnson believes he sees an opportunity to capture and stop these men from warning the Californio troops of the American’s arrival. Capt. Johnson deviates from the plan and gives the order to “CHARGE”, beginning the grueling and violent, several day long battle that we now talk about 173 years later.

While hindsight is always 20/20, we now know these shadowed soldiers were bait, cleverly set by Captain Andres Pico, leader of the Californios, and they led the Americans into an ambush that led to destruction and chaos.

What allowed a much smaller and lesser armed force to dominate a trained, regular fighting unit consisting of heavily armed men? When compared to the fire fight, aren’t we also more intelligent, better armed, and better trained than the fire? How often do we make decisions and act on partial facts? What factors influence our margin of success or failure?

Exhaustion, stress, complacency, over confidence?

As the staff ride continues, the group moves up the hillside, to the second stand known as the “battlefield overlook”.   U.S. Force Recon Marine Master Sergeant Zeran discusses the purpose and tactics of a military recon. Parallels are drawn between military recon tactics and those used to scout the fire line. How often do units scouting allow themselves to deviate from their original mission, drawn like a moth to the flame into the fire fight just like Capt. Johnson did?

After a short history lesson given by local Historian Stan “Gunboat” Smith in historical US Cavalry Uniform, students are paired with mentors for a short tactical exercise in clear communication and clear thinking under fire.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Discussion at Decision Rock. Photo by Heather Thurston.

The group then moves on to what is known as “Decision Rock”. Here, lessons of leader’s intent are discussed along with the planning and decision making cycle. When General Kearney hears Captain Johnston change the order from “trot” to the order of “CHARGE”, it is recorded in a soldiers journal that General Kearny sighs, “Oh heavens, that is not what I meant!”.

So the question is presented, “Who has the authority to alter tactics at the last minute?” When the time/decision wedge is narrow, how do we make sound and safe decisions with little information? It is emphasized here how unprepared Kearny’s troops were for the battle — their gunpowder wet, their feet bare or boots damaged from their travels, and the attitude that this confrontation would be of no consequence. Also, keeping in mind, the weather was so cold that the buglers could not bugle, effectively crippling the Americans communications. Still, they marched forward to the bloody battle.

Almost immediately after the CHARGE order was given, Capt. Johnson was shot by a Californio marksman and the command structure begins to break down for the Americans.

How should we design our units and train for the possibility of command casualty? General Kearny had the perception that this battle would be easy and his men were far superior than their adversary. How do we recover when the enemy outpaces and outperforms our expectations? Kearny was also working under the pressure from his command (the President of the United States) to engage. Do we allow expectations from Chief officers and the public to drive decision making?

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
In the riverbed where U.S. troops were ambushed by the
Californios. Photo by Heather Thurston.

After a lunch break, participants are led into a riverbed. Once Captain Pico realized his troops were are getting boxed in by the US, he faked a retreat down into this riverbed.

Here, you can start to see more active participation by the academy cadets, as lessons learned from their studies into incidents such as the Yarnell Hill Fire start to connect and draw a parallel to the decision making processes of this battle. Instructors reiterate leadership lessons that had been touched on throughout the day and how they all led to the battle that happened on this very ground.

Finally, participants are at the final stop at the Pioneer Cemetery. After a moment of reflection on mortality, students, mentors, and instructors alike are asked to draw conclusions about the battle’s relevance today. A voice inside me says, “Be hungry for your history”, meaning learn these lessons from others’ mistakes when the time/decision making wedge is wide. Be able to detach from the chaos and fog of our “war”, and make sound and battle-tested tactical decisions. Don’t ever let your guard down. Just when you believe you are stronger, smarter, and more prepared, you are in fact most vulnerable to complacency. And above all, never stop learning.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Discussion at Pioneer Cemetery. Photo by Heather Thurston.