The Jefferson County Coroner’s Office has identifed the two fatalities from the Lower North Fork Fire as a husband and wife, Samuel Lucas, 77, and Linda Lucas, 76.
UPDATE AT 2:24 p.m., March 27, 2012
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department has updated the map of the Lower North Fork fire. The blue line is the evacuation Area as of 3/27/2012 at 2:00 p.m. This evacuation zone is the original area and does not include the pre-evacuation notice to 6,500 homes located in regions north of the existing evacuation area. The additional pre-evacuation notice was sent out because “current weather conditions have caused the fire to act in an erratic manner which may threaten those 6500 homes”.
As the temperature rises and the humidity decreases, activity on the fire is picking up. At least two air tankers are actively dropping retardant on the fire, a Single Engine Air Tanker, and Tanker 44, the P2V which is the tanker than ran off the end of the runway at Rocky Mountain Metro Airport in 2010 after its brakes failed. The aircraft was repaired at the airport and has been stationed there for the last week or so. Two National Guard helicopters are enroute from Buckley Air Force Base to start dropping water.
I wish I had known about it earlier, but last night Colorado Public Television aired a documentary about the Fourmile Canyon fire that burned 6,200 acres and destroyed 168 homes west of Boulder, Colorado on Labor Day in 2010. The documentary tells the story of seven residents who refused to evacuate but fought the fire on their own.
A draft report has been released about the the Fourmile Canyon fire. The fire started on September 6 and burned 6,200 acres and 168 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. Wildfire Today covered the fire extensively.
One of the interesting findings was that some fuel treatments done before the fire came through actually increased the intensity of the fire, compared with untreated areas. This was primarily due to the more open stands allowing wind to push the surface fires, and the treatment prescriptions’ emphasis on thinning to a target basal area (density of trees) rather than designing a prescription that accounted for fire behavior during dry and windy conditions. In addition, a significant amount of surface fuels remained, including slash piles in some areas that had not been burned after the treatments.
Another finding was that 83% of the homes that burned were ignited by surface fire, rather than a crown fire, which is typical.
The report includes some statistics on the use of aircraft on the fire. I broke out a calculator and did some analysis, arriving at these numbers:
$343,082, total cost of the retardant dropped by air tankers (just the retardant).
$1.97, cost per gallon of retardant (just the retardant).
174,149, gallons of retardant dropped by air tankers.
86, loads of retardant dropped by air tankers.
47.09, total flight hours by air tankers.
3,698, gallons of retardant dropped per flight hour by air tankers.
$3.55, total cost per gallon for the delivery of retardant by air tankers.
$619,483, Total cost of the air tankers, including retardant and flight costs.
0.55 hour, the average time for each air tanker drop. (This is extremely low and is due to the fact that the air tankers were reloading at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near Boulder, Jeffco air tanker base, about 15 air miles from the fire. This helped keep the cost per gallon of delivered retardant lower than on your typical fire, which is normally much more than 15 miles away from the reload base.)
As a comparison, on September 9 there were three large Type 1 helicopters dropping water:
$99,284, Total cost for the three Type 1 helicopters on September 9.
71,950, gallons of water dropped by the three helicopters.
12.9, hours flown by the three helicopters.
5,577, gallons of water dropped per flight hour by three Type 1 helicopters on September 9.
$1.38, cost per gallon of water delivered.
(?) the number of loads of water delivered was not specified.
A decision about using helicopters vs. air tankers should be based on more than just the above numbers. Retardant, sometimes known as “long-term retardant”, slows the spread of a fire more effectively and for a longer period of time than plain water. And helicopters cruise at a much slower speed than an air tanker, so depending on their location at the time of initial dispatch, it can take much longer to arrive at the fire.
Scroll down to see a map showing the location of every drop by a large air tanker on the fire.
Moving on to the rest of the report, here are some excerpts:
Thinning trees to a specified density (residual basal area) or spacing was the prescription often negotiated with land owners. In addition, the treatments were often focused on improving the health of the forest (removing diseased and malformed trees, i.e., dwarf mistletoe) rather than modifying fire behavior.
Pervasive spotting observed during the Fourmile Canyon Fire easily breached the narrow fuel treatment units and rendered them of limited value to containment efforts.
The abundance of grasses, forbs, shrubs, and often branches and twigs that could have been removed through judicious surface treatments (e.g., prescribed fire) occurring within the areas where the fuels had been treated contributed to the high fire intensities and fire spread rate observed.
Post-fire satellite imagery clearly shows the absence of changes in stand condition inside treated areas compared to neighboring untreated stands. In some cases, treated stands appeared to burn more intensely than adjacent untreated stands, perhaps because of additional surface fuels present as a result of the thinning. One clear example of this comes from near Gold Hill where the piles of slash were scattered in the understory of a thinned stand but had not been burned.
When the Fourmile Canyon fire was burning west of Boulder, Colorado in September, 2010, Jim Roberts, a chemist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, was surrounded by something he had previously studied at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Science Laboratory in Montana — smoke, and lots of it. In Missoula he used a new instrument they had built, a custom mass spectrometer, to examine the levels of isocyanic acid in the atmosphere and in smoke. Isocyanic acid has been difficult to detect with conventional measurement techniques. At Missoula, he measured the levels of the chemical in smoke generated when the researchers burned vegetation in the lab and in cigarette smoke.
When the Fourmile Canyon fire started, Roberts had the mass spectrometer at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.
Here is an excerpt from the Daily Camera:
Isocyanic acid easily dissolves in water, which makes it possible for the acid to also dissolve into moist tissues in the body, including the lungs. The full health effects of exposure to isocyanic acid in the air aren’t fully understood, but the chemical has been linked to cataracts, cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Last September, the researchers had the opportunity to measure the presence of the acid in a real wildfire. On Labor Day, the Fourmile Fire began burning in the foothills west of Boulder, just a few miles upwind of the state-of-the-art atmospheric instruments housed at NOAA’s campus on Broadway.
“Boulder has a world-class atmospheric chemistry building and only once in its lifetime is it going to have a full-on hit from a wildfire,” said Joost de Gouw, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Science. “So just everyone in that building turned on their instruments.”
CIRES is a joint institute of the University of Colorado and NOAA.
The sensitive new spectrometer used in Missoula also picked up the isocyanic acid in the plume of smoke from the Fourmile Fire.
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.