28 years ago eight firefighters survived the South Canyon Fire in their shelters

South Canyon memorial
South Canyon Fire memorial in Two Rivers Park, Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the entrapment and death of 14 firefighters on the South Canyon Fire who were overrun by the fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Those firefighters were Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, Jim Thrash, and Richard Tyler.

Barry Stevenson of Outside Adventure Media produced the short video below that looks at an often overlooked part of the event — the eight smokejumpers further uphill who took refuge in their fire shelters for two hours as the fire burned around them.

If you have not seen it already, be sure and watch the excellent lessons learned video about the South Canyon Fire titled Everyone Goes HomeIt includes numerous interviews of wildland firefighters who were involved with, or were on scene during the entrapment and deaths of the 14 firefighters.

For more information about the South Canyon Fire visit southcanyonfire.com.

Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook

Looking back 45 years at large fire organization charts, “support teams”, and hair requirements in California

CDF Fire Control Handbook, 1977
Cover of the 1977 California Department of Forestry Fire Control Handbook.

Chief John Hawkins shared with us a copy of the California Department of Forestry’s Fire Control Handbook, 1977 edition. The agency was known as CDF before they became the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE.

It is a .pdf copy of Handbook 5600 with a few amendments around 1979 and 1980 to address the agency’s limited trial of the Incident Command System (ICS) in their Region VI starting in 1978, and the planned California-wide implementation of the ICS in 1983. The entire document can be downloaded here  (large 10.2 Mb file).

Firefighters of a certain age will most likely enjoy skimming through the pages of this 45-year old document.

CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook
From page 51 in the CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook, amended December, 1980.

The 324-page book contains many operational guides, as well as information about aviation, safety, pre-attack planning, “support teams”, and flood control operations. Much of it is timeless, but there have also been many changes. It is interesting to compare the 45-year old policies with current procedures.

But going back even further, let’s take a look at fire organizations before ICS began to be adopted in the 1980s:

forest fire organization, forest service, 1953
Two-Sector Fire. From Principles of Organization for Forest Fire Suppression, US Forest Service, 1953.
Organization on the, Battlement Creek Fire, July 1976
Organization on the Battlement Creek Fire, July, 1976. From the report.

My career was with the US Forest Service and National Park Service. The CDF organization from the Fire Control Handbook has at least one feature unfamiliar to me, the “Attack” function, which was called the Line Function by the USFS. It is now labeled “Operations” in the ICS. In the USFS it was led by a Line Boss in the pre-ICS days. “Service” became Logistics, and in the Planning section the Maps and Records Officer was replaced by two units, Resources Unit and Situation Unit. Sectors became Divisions, and a new position was inserted between the Planning Section Chief and Division Boss: Branch Director. There were numerous changes in Service/Logistics.

CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979
CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979.

And then there is the current Incident Command System structure; keep in mind, you only fill the positions that are needed.

Continue reading “Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook”

From the evils of fire, to using and living with fire

Truck and projector
A truck with a movie projector visited rural communities to teach people about the evils of wildfire. PBS.

A PBS program, “The future of Fire,” takes us from the 1920s when trucks visited rural communities in the Southeast and used a projector to show a movie on the side of barns about the evils of fire, to today when modeling tools help fire managers make better decisions about using and managing fire.

"Her vision is that she'd be able to sit on her front porch and just watch the fire go by and be completely unconcerned because the conditions around her home were such that she would be confident that she had done her work and her neighbors had done their work and it was safe to actually have fire play an active role in restoring the landscape. And that we don't look at all smoke as bad, that we be really working toward seeing smoke and have that be a positive experience, that it's like, oh, the forest is under renewal right now." 

Anne Bradley, Forest Program Director, The Nature Conservancy, paraphrasing someone she knows who lives in the forest.

Training material for wildland firefighters 70 years ago

Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals publication
Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals, title page

John Hawkins, retired CAL FIRE Unit Chief and County Fire Chief, sent us a .pdf copy of the publication, Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals, which I had not seen in many years. It may have been considered part of basic training for wildland firefighters, written by the US Forest Service and the agency then known as California Department of Forestry (CDF).

I’m not sure when the 58-page document was first published. As you can see above, it was received on the Medicine Bow National Forest in 1953. The National Museum of Forest Service History says it was published around 1945 (“1945 ca.”), but I wonder if there were multiple editions throughout a couple of decades.

Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals publication
Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals, p. 23

There are many hand-drawn illustrations, many of which are attention-grabbing or funny, which may have made it easier to retain the lesson being taught.

Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals publication
Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals, p. 32

There are no chain saws or air tankers, but you will see a dozer and a very early model helicopter. Numerous times it mentions “men” being used to fight fire, “Only physically fit men should be used,” for example.

Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals publication
Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals, p. 40

It mentions aggressive initial attack, saying that when using direct attack, “You either ‘hit the head’ (point of most rapid spread) or start at the rear and work forward on both sides (flanks) at the fire edge and thus pinch out and control the head.”

Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals publication
Forest Fire Fighting Fundamentals, illustration on page 39

It is very out of date in many respects, but the physics of fire and general principles of fire suppression and firefighter safety remain basically the same. It has been a while since I looked at what rookies are shown in basic firefighter training, S-130/190, but it would not hurt to let them peruse this document to help reinforce some fundamentals.

You can download the 2.3 MB document.

Most of the vegetation in the Dixie Fire has not burned in more than 40 years

A look at the fire history

9:01 a.m. PDT August 6, 2021

History previous fires near Dixie Fire
History of fires in the vicinity of the Dixie Fire over the lat 23 years.

Most of area where the Dixie Fire has been burning has not been visited by fire within the last 40 years. There are roughly 100,000 acres of the 430,000-acre blaze that did burn in several fires between 2008 and 2012. This is the area in the center of the present footprint, that burned in the two to three weeks after it started July 14. Since then it has been spreading more quickly in very old vegetation.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Dixie Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.

Generally the predominate wind direction is from the southwest, but wind events can come from other directions that can cause major growth. Thursday night the Dixie Fire was 13 miles southwest of Susanville, population about 15,000, but there are a number of old burns near the city that could slow the fire if it makes it that far. Closest to Susanville are two large fires from 2020, Sheep and Hog. Between them is the 2016 Willard Fire.

Update 7:44 a.m. PDT August 7, 2012

Dixie Fire History before 1980
Fire history in the area of the Dixie Fire before 1980. (Data from NIFC)

I added this map that shows the history of fires in the area of the Dixie Fire before 1980. It is unknown how complete this data from NIFC is, or how far back in time it goes.

Study offers earliest evidence of humans changing ecosystems with fire

Evidence for anthropogenic fire 85,000 years ago in Africa may reflect intentional use at the landscape scale, widespread populations creating more or larger on-site ignitions, alteration of fuel availability through harvesting of the understory, or a combination of these activities.

This article was first published at Yale News

By Mike Cummings

Mastery of fire has given humans dominance over the natural world. A Yale-led study provides the earliest evidence to date of ancient humans significantly altering entire ecosystems with flames.

The study, published on May 5 in the journal Science Advances, combines archaeological evidence — dense clusters of stone artifacts dating as far back as 92,000 years ago — with paleoenvironmental data on the northern shores of Lake Malawi in eastern Africa to document that early humans were ecosystem engineers. They used fire in a way that prevented regrowth of the region’s forests, creating a sprawling bushland that exists today.

“This is the earliest evidence I have seen of humans fundamentally transforming their ecosystem with fire,” said Jessica Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the paper’s lead author. “It suggests that by the Late Pleistocene, humans were learning to use fire in truly novel ways. In this case, their burning caused replacement of the region’s forests with the open woodlands you see today.”

Thompson authored the study with 27 colleagues from institutions in the United States, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Thompson led the archaeological work in collaboration with the Malawi Department of Museums and Monuments; David Wright of the University of Oslo, who led efforts to date the study’s archaeological sites; and Sarah Ivory of Penn State, who led the paleoenvironmental analyses.

Stone Age artifacts Lake Malawi
Stone Age artifacts excavated near the shores of Lake Malawi in eastern Africa, combined with paleoenvironmental data drawn from the lakebed, provides the earliest evidence of ancient humans manipulating their ecosystem with fire.

The artifacts examined by the researchers are of the type produced across Africa in the Middle Stone Age, a period dating back at least 315,000 years. The earliest modern humans made their appearance during this period, with the African archaeological record showing significant advances in cognitive and social complexity.

Thompson and Wright logged several field seasons of archaeological work in the region before a conversation with Ivory helped them make sense of the patterns they observed in their data. The researchers discovered that the regional archaeological record, its ecological changes, and the development of alluvial fans near Lake Malawi — an accumulation of sediment eroded from the region’s highland — dated to the same period of origin, suggesting that they were connected.

Landscape evolution Lake Malawi basin
Landscape evolution and ecology of the northern Lake Malawi basin.

Lake Malawi’s water levels have fluctuated drastically over the ages. During the lake’s driest periods, the last of which ended about 85,000 years ago, it diminished into two small, saline bodies of water. The lake recovered from these arid stretches and its levels have remained high ever since, according to the study.

The archaeological data were collected from more than 100 pits excavated across hundreds of kilometers of the alluvial fan that developed during this time of steady lake levels. The paleoenvironmental data are based on counts of pollen and charcoal that settled to the floor of the lakebed and were later recovered in a long sediment core drilled from a modified barge.

According to the researchers, the data revealed that a spike in charcoal accumulation occurred shortly before the flattening of the region’s species richness — the number of distinct species inhabiting it. Despite the consistently high lake levels, which imply greater stability in the ecosystem, the species richness went flat following the last arid period based on information from fossilized pollen sampled from the lakebed, the study found. This was unexpected because over previous climate cycles, rainy environments had produced forests that provide rich habitat for an abundance of species, Ivory explained.

stone artifacts
Excavations yielded dense clusters of stone artifacts dating as far back as 92,000 years ago.

“The pollen that we see in this most recent period of stable climate is very different than before,” she said. “Specifically, trees that indicate dense, structurally complex forest canopies are no longer common and are replaced by pollen from plants that deal well with frequent fire and disturbance.”

The increase in archaeological sites after the last arid period, paired with the spike in charcoal and absence of forest, suggests that people were manipulating the ecosystem with fire, the researchers conclude. The scale of their environmental impact over the long term is something typically associated with farmers and herders, rather than hunter-gatherers. This suggests early ecological manipulation on par with modern people and may also explain why the archaeological record formed.

The burning paired with climate-driven changes created the conditions that allowed for preservation of millions of artifacts in the region, the researchers explained. “Dirt rolls downhill unless there is something to stop it,” Wright said. “Take the trees away, and when it rains, there is a lot of dirt moving downhill in this environment.”

Previous transitions from dry to wet conditions in the region didn’t yield a similar alluvial fan and were not preceded by the same charcoal spike, the researchers noted.

It’s not clear why people were burning the landscape, Thompson said. It’s possible that they were experimenting with controlled burns to produce mosaic habitats conducive to hunting and gathering, a behavior documented among hunter-gatherers. It could be that their fires burned out of control, or that there were simply a lot of people burning fuel in their environment that provided for warmth, cooking, or socialization, she explained.

“One way or another, it’s caused by human activity,” she said. “It shows early people, over a long period of time, took control over their environment rather than being controlled by it. They changed entire landscapes, and for better or for worse that relationship with our environments continues today.”

This work was funded by the Australian Research Council, the National Geographic-Waitt Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the University of Queensland Archaeological Field School, the Korean Research Foundation Global Research Network, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Emory University, and the Belmont Forum.