Tracking dust devils

Mars_dust_devil_tracksDust devils can be the bane of the wildland firefighter, sometimes throwing burning embers across the fireline or even turning into a little fire tornado if it involves flames from burning vegetation.

But as far as I know, the dust devils on Mars don’t cause any problems for firefighters.

NASA describes the photo above this way:

Who’s been marking up Mars? This portion of a recent high-resolution picture from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows twisting dark trails criss-crossing light colored terrain on the martian surface. Newly formed trails like these had presented researchers with a tantalizing martian mystery but are now known to be the work of miniature wind vortices known to occur on the red planet – martian dust devils. Such spinning columns of rising air heated by the warm surface are also common in dry and desert areas onplanet Earth. Typically lasting only a few minutes, dust devils becoming visible as they pick up loose red-colored dust leaving the darker and heavier sand beneath intact. On Marsdust devilscan be up to 8 kilometers high. Dust devils have been credited with unexpected cleanings of mars rover solar panels.

Why Athens burned-again

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial about the recent fires near Athens, Greece, written by Costas Synolakis. Here is an excerpt.

ATHENS—The catastrophic fires that raged in Greece for several days and threatened Athens have scorched several of the capital’s hillside suburbs. The images are remarkably similar to those of two years ago, almost to the date. Then, the fires threatened ancient Olympia and torched Mt. Parnes, a once picturesque national park where Athenians took refuge from the summer heat and enjoyed the winter snow. The current fires have burned hundreds of homes and the forested hills that used to filter Athen’s polluted air are no more. In total, 10 major fires have burned Athenian suburbs since 1981.

There are, however, stark differences from the 2007 fires. This time, Greece immediately mobilized the European Union’s Monitoring and Information Center and 10 fire-fighting aircraft from France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Turkey joined the battle as quickly as typically slow intra-European logistics allowed. Despite the complexity of the disaster—with heavy winds creating fire tornadoes and hilly terrain dotted with thousands of power lines and buildings—the fires were put out relatively quickly—but at a huge cost.

Compare this with the Italian response during the L’Aquilla earthquake last spring when dozens of people might had been saved if emergency crews from neighboring countries had been allowed to help. In 2007, over 50 people died in the Greek fires, whereas no lives have so far been lost this summer. Partly this is because officials have learned their lessons. The decision to evacuate threatened areas no longer rests with the central government in Athens. Instead, local mayors—who generally followed the advice of firefighters on the ground—have been given the authority to order these emergency measures, and they successfully directed thousands to flee and escape the fires. Patients from a children’s hospital in an at-risk area were transferred well ahead of the advancing flames. For once, disaster plans were implemented as drawn.

And yet there are also stark similarities to the incompetence and mismanagement on display two years ago. There were still few or no forest roads to allow rapid access to burning mountain tops, thus necessitating aerial water drops, which are less precise and more expensive. There are still few or no hydrants in urban forests (and no trained volunteers to use them) and virtually no constant-pressure reservoirs to store water for emergency use.

Dry brush and pine needles had not been cleaned in years, while undeveloped land next to luxury homes contained enough combustible material to power entire village power plants for days. Amateurs were everywhere trying to put out fires, succeeding only in spreading them. Houses now dot high-risk land that burned just a decade ago. Urban planning and zoning is nonexistent for most of the country. Fire crews and reporters alike had trouble locating on maps the obscure names of unincorporated areas developed without permits just a few kilometers from the Acropolis.

Mr. Synolakis is a professor of natural hazards at the Technical University of Crete and director of the Tsunami Research Center at the University of Southern California.


Firefighter refresher, 2009

I just finished the 2009 version of the “Fireline Safety Refresher Training”.  I thought it was pretty good, but leave a comment if you have taken it and have an opinion.  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I think it’s great that the National Wildfire Coordinating Group “coordinates” this annual nationwide refresher by preparing a DVD, instructor materials, and a student workbook.  It’s a good way to be sure we get consistent, quality information out there.  Before they did this, some organizations, if they did any annual refresher at all, would just put on “Standards for Survival” or some other canned, repetitive program every year.
  • The DVD included a talk by Jennifer A. Ziegler, PhD., Department of Communication, Valparaiso University. She is well-known in the wildland fire community for her work on the human factors of fighting fire and has spoken at many wildfire conferences.  In fact Wildfire Today quoted her on February 26 when we introduced our series of articles about the 13 Watch Out Situations.  On the refresher DVD, Ms. Ziegler gives some excellent information about the genealogy of the 10 Fire Orders.
  • There was an entire unit devoted to “Fire Operations Doctrine”.  Doctrine was developed by the U.S. Forest Service and was unveiled at their Pulaski Conference a few years ago.  The video in the refresher training talked about it, but never did define it.  The Department of Interior firefighters I was training with were left scratching their heads trying to figure out what it was. But the student workbook did give some basic information about Doctrine.  Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I know, the Department of Interior Agencies have not adopted Doctrine.  I have some calls in to try to confirm this.
  • Here is a passage from the student workbook about Doctrine:  “In order to generate effective decision making in fire operations and to cope with the unpredictable nature of fire, commanders’ intent must be lucid and unambiguous, and lines of authority must be clearly articulated and understood.  Subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative based on their understanding of their commanders’ intent.”
  • The DVD had a lengthy video about the Idaho City Hot Shots.  It had some great footage of fire, tree felling, and action shots, but other than being entertaining it added little to the training.
  • A lot of time was spent on weather.  I have seen many presentations in fire classes by meteorologists who got far too technical, showing, for example, charts that were undecipherable by firefighters.  But in the DVD a TV weatherman (from I believe Channel 6 somewhere) provided great information about “sky watching” and interpreting clouds.  He showed some time lapse films that were very interesting.  This was a good example of a speaker analyzing his audience and presenting technical information in a manner that could be easily understood…..a quality of a good TV weatherman.  Fire instructors should take note.  Later in the unit other time lapse films taken in Australia were less useful.  We were asked to predict the weather based on the films, which was asking a little too much of the average firefighter.
  • A section on communicating with aircraft was succinct and very worthwhile.
  • A case study of a situation on the Indians fire on the Los Padres National Forest in California last year was very thought provoking.  On that fire, which burned for many weeks, an engine crew and some members of a hot shot crew that were conducting a burn out were in a sort of burn-over when a massive fire whirl, or fire tornado as I would call it, caused the fire to change direction. One firefighter estimated they were exposed to 80 mph winds blowing burning embers and large tree limbs around. Several firefighters received some serious burns.
  • We were told that the maximum time allowed for getting into a fire shelter has been reduced to 20 seconds.  And I have to admit I did not make it on the first try, missing it by 2 seconds.

I want to thank the fire staff at Wind Cave National Park for putting on a great class today.

So, what were your impressions of the 2009 firefighter refresher?