PBS film explores issues around the largest fire ever in California

Last year the Creek Fire burned 379,895 acres

Afterburn - The Start of the Creek Fire
From PBS. Afterburn – The Start of the Creek Fire.

Jeff Aiello, a producer from Fresno, California, created a 26-minute film for PBS about the Creek Fire northeast of Fresno, California that last year burned 379,895 acres to become the largest single fire in the recorded history of the state.

“Afterburn — The Creek Fire Debate” includes opposing points of view about fire and forest management — for example from a fire ecologist and a forester. You might find yourself picking sides, or not agreeing with either side.

Click here to see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Creek Fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.

A story from the initial attack on the fire that became the largest ever in California

Mountain Rest Fire Station Engine 331

Creek Fire video
Screenshot from the video below.

The engine crew from Mountain Rest Fire Station was one of the first to respond to the Creek Fire that eventually burned 379,895 acres to become the largest single fire in the recorded history of California.

The Captain of Engine 331 tells their story that began at 6:30 p.m. on September 4, 2020:

Click here to see all articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Creek Fire”.

Fuels reduction projects limited damage in some areas of California’s massive Creek Fire

A result of collaboration by state and federal agencies

Creek Fire
Creek Fire September 5, 2020. IMT photo.

The 379,895-acre Creek Fire that destroyed 853 structures last year northeast of Fresno, California was the largest single fire in the recorded history of the state. But there is a silver lining hidden deep inside the fire’s perimeter. In some areas, years of state and federal collaboration on fuels reduction projects paid dividends.

A video produced by the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team describes an example.

The map below is zoomable.

Click here to see all articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Creek Fire”.

Study found hazardous air quality conditions at fire camps in Oregon and California

Smoke exposure levels at the Creek Fire ranged from hazardous to unhealthy for 30 days

(From Bill: Wildland firefighters and people who live in areas where long-term fires are common, such as Northern California and the Northwest, know that smoke can persist for days or weeks and can cause or aggravate respiratory and other medical issues. But knowing it exists and having peer reviewed quantifiable data proving it is hazardous to health, are two different things. Science like this could lead to changes that may benefit firefighters and the general public.)

In September and October the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deployed two staff members to serve as air resource advisors at wildfires in Oregon and California.

Air resource advisors were fully integrated into the wildfire incident management teams to provide insights into understanding and predicting smoke exposure levels. The individuals interacted with stakeholders, including air quality regulators, fire personnel, public health practitioners, and community residents. A primary aspect of this engagement was to forecast smoke levels for areas immediately affected by fires and generate a daily smoke outlook to keep stakeholders informed about prevailing smoke levels. 2020 is the first year during which the CDC worked with the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and deployed staff members as air resource advisors for wildfire incidents.

From August 31 to September 14, 2020, one CDC staff member supported wildfires in central Oregon’s Cascade Range east of Sisters, which included the Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm, Lionshead, and Riverside fires. Strong east winds across the Cascade Mountains resulted in more than 560,000 acres of fire growth from September 7 through 10.

satellite photo fires smoke Washington, Oregon, and California
GOES-17 photo of smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California at 5:56 p.m. PDT Sept. 8, 2020. The photo was taken during a very strong wind event.

Another CDC staff member was deployed to the Creek Fire from September 20 to October 5, 2020. This fire near North Fork, California started September 4 and grew to 193,000 acres during its first week; as of December 3, 2020, the fire had burned 379,895 acres.

Air quality study, fire camps, 2020
Abbreviation: PM2.5 = particles with aerodynamic diameters ≤2.5 μm.
       * Sensitive groups include persons aged ≤18 years; adults aged ≥65 years; pregnant women; persons with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, including asthma and diabetes; outdoor workers; persons experiencing homelessness, and those with limited access to medical care. (https://www.cdc.gov/air/wildfire-smoke/default.htm).
       † Fire camps typically offer logistical support to the wildfire suppression operation by providing firefighters and incident personnel sleeping locations (camping), morning and evening meals, workspaces, and administrative services.
       § The monitoring instrument in North Fork, California, recorded errors and did not report data during September 12–15, 2020.
       ¶ Start date of Creek Fire in California was September 4. Start dates of fires in Oregon were as follows. Lionshead was August 16; Beachie Creek was August 16; Holiday Farm was September 7; Riverside was September 8.

During these two deployments, several public health concerns came to light. Of note, although smoke from wildfires drifted long distances and affected downwind communities, the brunt of poor air quality was observed in communities adjacent to wildfire incidents. For example, communities near the fires in California and Oregon experienced high concentrations of PM2.5, as measured by air quality monitors, resulting in “Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” conditions, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.

Fire personnel who camped and rested between work shifts at nearby fire camps (North Fork, California and Sisters, Oregon) were also exposed to poor air quality levels. These fire camp exposures contribute to higher overall cumulative smoke exposure and, along with other occupational risk factors such as fatigue and stress, could limit recovery that is much needed for fire personnel while away from the active fire perimeter. In addition, environmental hazards such as extreme heat and higher concentrations of ambient carbon monoxide were prevalent during days with heavy smoke and after extreme fire growth days. These hazards added a layer of complexity to fire response efforts and might have limited fire personnel recovery between work shifts.

From: Navarro K, Vaidyanathan A.  — Notes from the Field: Understanding Smoke Exposure in Communities and Fire Camps Affected by Wildfires— California and Oregon, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1873–1875. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6949a4

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob.

Creek Fire has burned over 346,000 acres northeast of Fresno, CA

Updated October 18, 2020   |   7:18 a.m. PDT

The map above shows the perimeter of the Creek Fire collected by a mapping aircraft (N170WL) at 10:30 p.m. PDT Oct. 17, 2020. The red shaded areas represent intense heat. During the last 24 hours there was growth on the east side northwest of Mono Hot Springs. The preliminary updated size is 348,085 acres.

October 17, 2020   |   11:40 a.m. PDT

We are trying something new on Wildfire Today — creating a Google Map containing the perimeter of the Creek Fire. One of the main differences from our usual maps is that you can zoom in to see more detail. But keep in mind the perimeter is the approximate location, and can rapidly change as the fire spreads.  The data came, as usual, from an overnight USFS fixed wing mapping flight. Let us know your thoughts about this type of map.

The 346,477-acre Creek Fire is the largest fire in the recorded history of California, when comparing fires that are not part of a complex or multiple fires that merged. It is about 22 air miles northeast of Fresno.

Most of the spread of the fire over the last two days has been on the northeast side, which compared to the overall size of the blaze seems like a relatively small area, but it is generating large quantities of smoke affecting much of Central California.

Forecast for wildfire smoke
Forecast for wildfire smoke at 2 a.m. MDT October 18, 2020.

Firefighters make firelines by removing vegetation, so that the fire will burn up to the line and stop, since there is nothing left to burn. Roads and natural barriers can also be used. On October 12 there were 600 miles of fireline on the Creek Fire:

  • Dozer Lines: 363
  • Handline (constructed by hand crews): 87
  • Roads as Line: 150

Resources assigned to the fire include 19 hand crews, 43 fire engines and 13 helicopters, for a total of 983 personnel.

The incident management team reports that 105 residences and 508 other structures have been destroyed.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ken.

Trump administration reverses decision to deny California’s request for fire disaster assistance

A disaster declaration allows cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding

Updated October 16, 2020   |   3:25 p.m. MDT

Friday afternoon the Trump administration reversed their decision to deny the request submitted by California for a disaster declaration for six destructive wildfires in 2020.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the President has approved California’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration to bolster the state’s emergency response to wildfires across the state and support impacted residents in Fresno, Los Angeles, Madera, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego and Siskiyou counties.

“Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request. Grateful for his quick response,” said Governor Newsom.

A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration helps people in the impacted counties through eligibility for support including crisis counseling, housing and unemployment assistance and legal services. It also provides federal assistance to help state, tribal and local governments fund emergency response, recovery and protective measures.

October 16, 2020   |   8:20 a.m. PDT

Fires California aid request denied

The Trump administration has denied the request submitted by California for a disaster declaration for six destructive wildfires in 2020. A declaration would allow cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding between the state and federal government. The state plans to appeal the decision.

According to data compiled by Wildfire Today from InciWeb and the National Interagency Fire Center, the six fires in the aid request burned a total of 655,637 acres and destroyed at least 1,604 structures.

One of the six, the 341,722-acre Creek Fire northeast of Fresno, is the largest single fire in the state’s recorded history that was not part of a complex or the result of multiple fires burning together. It is still very active and grew for another 4,067 acres Thursday, producing large quantities of smoke affecting much of central California.

The other fires in the aid request were the Slater in northwest California, Bobcat near Los Angeles, El Dorado east of Yucaipa, Valley in San Diego County, and Oak near Mendocino.

From ABC News:

Federal Emergency Management Agency press secretary Lizzie Litzow told ABC News in a statement Friday that “the damage assessments FEMA conducted with state and local partners determined that the early September fires were not of such severity and magnitude to exceed the combined capabilities of the state, affected local governments, voluntary agencies and other responding federal agencies.”

FEMA, however, did approve four fire management assistance grants in five California counties for wildfires included in the state’s disaster request, according to Litzow.

“These grants will deliver millions of dollars of assistance for emergency expenses and funds to help reduce the risks of future disasters,” she said. .

Under the Fire Management Assistance Grant Program, FEMA provides assistance in the form of grants for equipment, supplies, and personnel costs for the mitigation, management, and control of any fire on public or private forest land.

Mr. Trump has threatened numerous times to stop sending federal money to California, including during a Cabinet meeting October 17, 2018:

So I say to the Governor, or whoever is going to be the Governor of California, better get your act together cause California we’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money that we’re paying because of fires that should never be to the extent.

The President reaffirmed the issue November 10, 2018 in a tweet:

There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!

Trump tweet Nov 10, 2018 forest fires california

On January 9, 2019 Mr. Trump again addressed the issue in a tweet:

Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forrest (sic) fires that, with proper Forrest (sic) management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives and money!

Trump President forrest
Tweet by President Trump which was deleted Jan. 9, 2019, then reposted with correct spellings.

According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.

Climate change is part of the equation that has resulted in longer fire seasons, extremes of heat and cold, drought in some areas, high fire danger, and dry fuels that are very receptive to rapid fire spread.

Creek fire burned gas station
Gas station on the Creek Fire, photo by Daniel R. Patterson, PIO
national guard helicopters creek fire california
Helicopters from the California National Guard mobilized for the Creek Fire. Photo by Daniel R. Patterson, PIO.