The Fourmile fire, which burned 169 homes and 6,200 acres west of Boulder, Colorado, in September, 2010, was ranked as the 4th most significant wildland fire story of 2010 in a poll on Wildfire Today. In spite of the devastation, the state of Colorado did not apply for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide help for the property owners that were affected by the fire. If a disaster declaration had been approved by the President, assistance for individuals from FEMA may have included: temporary housing, disaster losses not covered by insurance, related medical costs, replacement of vehicles and clothing, moving costs, and disaster unemployment insurance.
The Fourmile Fire was Colorado’s largest wildfire disaster in history. But in terms of becoming a declared federal disaster with assistance for individual homeowners who lost their property –- 169 homes lost to the tune of an estimated $214 million in insured loss -– last September’s fire never made it past the starting blocks.
County officials are still shaking their heads at the fact the state of Colorado never even submitted the fire to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for consideration. As reports of underinsured homeowners have surfaced, local authorities now nervously wait to see how many homeowners can afford to rebuild, all while watching for potentially disastrous spring flooding in the foothills west of Boulder.
“Whatever the rules are, I think they should be applied evenly across the country,” Boulder County Commissioner Ben Pearlman said. “My goal was just to be treated like any other community across the country … and we saw that other fires in other locations across the country may have gotten different treatment.”
At a glance, that would appear to be true. Many smaller and similarly sized disasters—measured by the only yardstick available, estimated insured homeowner loss—have received FEMA emergency grants for individuals. According to FEMA records, that includes the 2008 Windsor, Colorado, tornado ($193.5 million); the 2002 Colorado fire season as a whole ($82 million, adjusted for inflation); and the 2009 Oklahoma wildfires ($30 million).
Ultimately, Colorado Division of Emergency Management Director Hans Kallam said he made the decision not to recommend that then-Gov. Bill Ritter request a disaster declaration from President Barack Obama. Kallam said he did so on the advice from FEMA Region VIII officials that the high percentage of insured homes in the 7,000-acre fire area, together with the emergency resources already in place, made such a declaration unnecessary, perhaps illegitimate.
Vote on the most significant wildland fire stories of 2010
As we documented earlier this month, the 2010 wildland fire season, when measured by the acres burned in the 49 states outside Alaska, was the slowest since 2004. But in spite of that, there has been significant news about wildland fire. In fact, we posted over 670 articles this year.
Continuing that tradition, below we have listed the top stories of 2010. The line of duty fatalities are not listed unless there was an unusual spin-off story associated with the fatality. Below the list, there is a poll where YOU can let us know which stories you feel are the most significant of 2010.
Top wildfire stories of 2010
Jan. 8: The National Park Service released the report on the August, 2009 Big Meadow escaped prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park. The fire blackened 7,425 acres before being controlled by 1,300 firefighters at a cost over $15 million. It became the eighth largest fire in California in 2009.
Aug. 26: In spite of weather forecasts that would have alarmed most fire managers, the Helena National Forest in Montana ignited the Davis prescribed fire during a near record heat wave. The fire escaped and burned 2,800 acres. The report was released in November. The Forest Supervisor said the report did not point out “something clearly that we did wrong, done incorrectly or that we’re going to make big changes on”.
Sep. 6: The Fourmile Canyon fire burned 6,200 acres and 169 homes a few miles west of Boulder, Colorado. The fire was devastating to local fire districts within the burned perimeter in several ways, including the facts that a firefighter’s burn pile escaped and started the fire, the homes of 12 firefighters burned, and one fire station and an engine inside it burned.
Sep. 21: The Commander of the Utah Army National Guard assumed responsibility and apologized for the Machine Gun fire that burned 4,346 acres and three homes near Herriman, Utah. The fire started during target practice with a machine gun at a National Guard base.
Oct. 13: The US Forest Service’s response to the 2009 Station fire is criticized, and Congress holds hearing in Pasadena, CA about the management of the fire, which burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles.
Dec. 7: NTSB holds a meeting about the helicopter crash on the Iron Complex fire in northern California in which nine firefighters and crew members died. Much of the blame was attributed to falsified helicopter performance documents supplied by Carson Helicopters when they applied for a contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Carson and the surviving co-pilot dispute that conclusion.
Honorable mention stories (not exactly top stories, but interesting; they are not part of the poll).
May 11:NWCG outlaws the use of some terms, including “appropriate management response” and “wildland fire use”.
Jun. 20: It was not a wildland fire, but every firefighter can relate to some of the problems encountered when a kinked fire hose and improper procedures delayed the rescue of IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro from her burning race car which crashed at Texas Motor Speedway.
Feel free to leave a comment (or “response”) explaining your choices, or to discuss other news items that did not make the list.
The fire started on September 6, 2010 and burned 6,200 acres and 169 homes a few miles west of Boulder, Colorado. The fire was devastating to local fire districts within the burned perimeter in several ways, including the facts that the homes of 12 firefighters burned, one fire station and an engine inside burned, and the fire districts will be facing a major reduction in revenues due to the lost homes which will reduce the tax base.
A December 22 article at New West provides more details about the effects of the fire on the local fire districts. Here is an excerpt:
…But for many of those volunteers, the Fourmile Fire continues to be daunting months after the embers have cooled, leaving an aftermath that firefighters continue to battle on many fronts.
“The fire continues every day for everyone involved in the department. It permeates everything you do,” said Brett Haberstick, chief of the Sunshine Fire District, the hardest hit agency in the blaze. “You can’t escape it. There are times when it’s just too much, and you have to take a break, but it’s a job you never leave.”
Haberstick faces severe revenue loss, manpower shortages, and wide-scale rehabilitation and erosion-control needs amid the loss of the departmental records. He and the other chiefs from the affected districts work daily on a complex set of needs from constituents, who individually face a baffling array of insurance, erosion, forest rehabilitation, disposal and building issues complicated by the predictable entry of a few charlatans and thieves.
“It’s been hard, but the district remains strong and continues to provide coverage for our constituents,” Haberstick said. “Sunshine took a big blow, but it wasn’t a knockout punch.”
At least 12 firefighters lost homes in districts that typically have 30 to 40 active members. One of those was veteran firefighter Rod Moraga, an expert in wildfire fuels, mitigation, management and pre-attack planning who founded a nationally prominent wildland fire consulting company, the Anchor Point Group. Now building a new home in Boulder, Moraga said he, and that expertise, will not likely return to the Four Mile Fire District.
“I don’t know how many of us are still really active,” he said, “because even the people who didn’t lose their homes are extremely busy – cutting trees around their home, dealing with insurance claims for smoke damage. …
“I had to completely remove myself from that (the volunteer department),” Moraga said. “Every single day I am dealing with e-mail or phone calls from the insurance people, the county, getting debris removed, getting my house (remains) scraped. There just isn’t enough time.”
And for the fire chiefs for the affected districts – Sunshine, Four Mile and Gold Hill took the brunt of home loss, though Sugarloaf was involved to a lesser extent – it will be some time before they are out of the woods, perhaps even another two years, said Allen Owen, the Boulder District…
This is not a jab at firemen or the fire department. They do a great job. This is for the private fire fighters hired by insurance companies. (Extra special coverage, as long as you have paid for it.) Why would they help, if you were not a policy holder. Some how it does not seem right to me.
Earlier we showed you some of Mr. Wallace’s other cartoons about wildfire. His work appears at the Longmont, Colorado Times Call and at his own web site. The cartoon is published here with his permission.
Firefighter unlikely to be charged for starting Fourmile fire
The District Attorney for Boulder County, Colorado, announced Wednesday that their office will not file charges against the volunteer firefighter whose debris burning fire escaped and started the Fourmile fire that burned 169 structures and 6,400 acres earlier this month.
George Fairer told investigators he burned debris on September 2, and that he applied water and stirred the ashes that day and the following day. The Fourmile fire began on September 6.
Ecologist says climate change will increase the number of fires
Utah experienced fewer wildfires than usual this summer, but the number of blazes will likely increase over time as a result of climate change, according to a local expert.
Michael Jenkins, Utah State University associate professor of disturbance/wildfire ecology, says there is good evidence that rising temperatures will boost the available fire “fuel load” by killing trees, particularly conifers. In addition, heat and low humidity are conducive to blazes.
“Given that the climate is warming, fuels are drying and it’s stressing plants,” Jenkins explained. “I think that has been reflected in the number of acres burned per year over the last 10 or maybe 20 years.”
Jenkins also pointed to intensive firefighting practices that suppress blazes quickly, but boost the “fuel load” by sparing vegetation that would have burned. As a result, when fires do get out of control, they find plenty of shrubs, grasses and trees to feed them.
You can monitor the Antelope fire in Yellowstone
One of the two live web cams on Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park has an excellent view of the 2,800-acre Antelope fire in the northeast area of the park. Here is a screen grab of an image from the cam taken at 11:49 a.m. today. The fire at that time was not very active; earlier in the morning the camera was shrouded in fog. More information about the fire can be found on InciWeb.
The image below was taken by the cam on September 21.
Home owners thank “Bulldozer Man” for saving their houses
The Unified Fire Authority is giving a dozer operator and his D-9 Cat from the nearby landfill credit for saving 32 homes that were threatened by the Machine Gun fire. The fire started during .50-caliber machine gun target practice at a National Guard base near Herriman, Utah.
This gives us an excuse to post this photo of an air tanker working on the fire. Am I the only one that is not fond of the paint job on Tanker 48? Here is a Google search link to a few more photos of the air tanker.
Minimal hero-worship of firefighters
Michael Wolcott writing about the Schultz fire near Flagstaff for Writers on the Range has some interesting thoughts. Here is an excerpt.
My own response was intense curiosity. I wasn’t worried about “destruction” of the San Francisco Peaks: About the only thing that could destroy the mountain is the same thing that created it — a volcanic eruption. As for the threat to Flagstaff’s neighborhoods, I’m glad nobody’s home got burned. But houses built on the forest edge are obviously at risk. The people who choose to live in them are presumably aware of this, and so take their chances. And, having worked on wildland fire crews, my fund of hero-worship for the firefighters was minimal. It’s just a job. Most firefighters will tell you that they are in it because the money is good and because they like the “juice.” Like the rest of us, firefighters are fascinated by fire.
Can the entire New York Fire Department stop an enormous wildfire?
Pam Slater-Price and Howard Windsor, writing for SignOnSanDiego, say no. Here is an excerpt from an article about preparing for wildfires:
Some critics believe only a blank check can solve our fire problem. Yet fire losses still occur because there are times when fire conditions exceed all reasonable capabilities. To be blunt, you could put the entire New York City Fire Department in front an enormous wildfire and the wildfire would still win.
It is interesting that of all the fire organizations the authors could choose from, they picked New York City, a department not best known for their wildfire prowess, although they probably handle structure fires very well. Here is a photo we posted in an article on September 8 about a fire on Staten Island:
The Chubb insurance company, which specializes in policies for high-valued homes, dispatched fire engines to the Fourmile fire near Boulder, Colorado earlier this month. Due to a memorandum of understanding they signed with Boulder County earlier this year, the company was able to send engines directly to their policy holders’ homes after obtaining clearance through the Incident Command Post.
Customers of the company that have homes valued in excess of $1 million are eligible to sign up for the free service that will send privately owned fire engines to their homes if threatened by a wildfire. Chubb contracts with Wildfire Defense Systems out of Red Lodge, Montana, which provides crews for emergency fuel mitigation, zone sprinkler system setup, fuel break preparation and fire blocking gel application.
WDS owns Type 3, 4, and 6 wildland engines that are outfitted and inspected per Federal Best Value standards. According to their web site they also have access to a “network of established and qualified engine companies operating under WDS supervision”. Currently these services are offered to qualified policy holders in 13 western states.
The Fourmile fire, which destroyed 169 homes and caused an estimated $217 million in damages, was the first wildfire in Colorado at which insurance company engines worked alongside government-paid fire resources. The company was not completely successful at the fire, since of the 13 customer homes affected, 10 survived but 3 burned.
We have written about these services provided by Chubb previously, HERE and HERE. And, we have no association with them or WDS.