Infrared mapping, the New York Times on Lassen’s Reading Fire, and more Yarnell Hill articles

Reading Fire
Reading Fire. Photo by Lassen National Park.

Several online articles came to our attention today that you may be interested in.

New York Times

The Times has an excellent article about last year’s Reading Fire in Lassen National Park in northern California. It was a fire use fire that started on July 23, 2012, escaped the maximum management area, and burned outside the park, blackening a total of 28,000 acres. The author, Paul Tullis, oddly, but in a very interesting way, also writes about fire behavior research being conducted at the Missoula Fire Lab. Checking out the article is worth it, if only for the great photos taken by photographer Richard Barnes.

More articles about the Yarnell Hill Fire

The monthly magazines are now coming out with their articles about the fire on which 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. They pale in comparison to the good one that was in Outside Magazine, but if you are obsessed with that multiple fatality incident, like many of us are, you’ll want to see the articles in Popular Mechanics and Men’s Journal.

The USFS infrared mapping program

USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, their Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z, parked at NIFC in Boise.

Earthzine has an article that does a good job of summarizing the U.S. Forest Service program that operates two fixed wing aircraft that map ongoing wildfires. Here is an excerpt:

…The two IR aircraft are a twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air B-200 and a small jet, the Cessna Citation Bravo II. Both aircraft take off at between 7-9 p.m. and continuing mapping runs until 4 a.m.

Mapping flights follow a grid plotted out in advance, at an altitude of 10,000- 14,000 feet. From that height, each pass scans a swath 6.5 miles wide. For accuracy, passes overlap each other by 25-30 percent. Flying at 300 miles per hour, a map produced by the Super King is accurate by plus or minus 1 foot. The faster moving jet is only slightly less precise – providing maps accurate to plus or minus 10 feet.

The imagery is sent in real-time to interpreters on the ground while the aircraft are still making runs over a fire. Some 48 interpreters are scattered across the country and will have completed maps on the screens of firefighter command centers before the aircraft make their last landings of the night.

NPS releases report on Lassen National Park’s Reading Fire

Reading Fire
Reading Fire. Photo by Lassen National Park.

The National Park Service has released a report about last summer’s Reading Fire in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California which, after being monitored for two weeks and burning 95 acres, grew to 28,079 acres, escaping the park boundaries. The fire started from a lightning strike on July 23, 2012 and was contained on August 22. For the first two weeks it was managed under a “Wildland Fire for Resource Benefit” strategy.

Reading Fire, final perimeter
Final perimeter (in red) of the Reading Fire. The green line is the boundary of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

The expectation was that they could stop the fire when it reached the Lassen National Park Highway, about a mile north of the point of origin. On August 6 when the fire was 140 acres the Type 4 Incident Commander transitioned to a Type 3 IC. Later in the day the fire ran for about a mile and a half, blowing right across the 2-lane highway. Then a Type 2 Incident Managment Team was ordered, which eventually transitioned to a Type 1 IMTeam on August 13. When the fire was contained it had burned 11,071 acres of US Forest Service land outside the park boundaries and 75 acres privately owned, for a total of 28,079 acres. By August 23 the National Park Service had spent $15,875,495 observing, managing, and later suppressing the fire.

As we have stated before, managing a fire with your hands tied by utilizing little to no aggressive suppression action, is extremely difficult, requiring an extraordinary amount of skill, knowledge, expertise, experience, and luck. Especially if the fire starts in mid-July, leaving 6 to 12 weeks of weather ahead that is conducive to rapid fire spread. Few people can do this. It is impossible to predict accurately how weather will affect a fire more than 10 days ahead.

Here are some some excerpts from the 53-page report:
Continue reading “NPS releases report on Lassen National Park’s Reading Fire”

Congressmen hold hearing about Lassen National Park’s Reading Fire

Reading Fire Lassen National Park
Reading Fire, August 7, 2012. Credit: Lassen NPS

Two Congressmen held an informal hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday to hear concerns about the Reading Fire that started in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. The fire was not aggressively suppressed, and later escaped the park and burned 11,071 acres of US Forest Service land and 75 acres of privately owned land outside the boundaries.

Reading Fire, final perimeter
Final perimeter (in red) of the Reading Fire. The green line is the boundary of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

It started from lightning on July 23 and after about two weeks was only 95 acres while being managed for multiple objectives as a “fire for resource benefits”. Fire managers established a 700-acre box in which they intended to contain the fire by taking suppression action as needed to keep it from crossing the lines drawn on a map.

Reading Fire acres through August 12
Size of the Reading Fire through August 12

They were unsuccessful, and on August 6 it moved out of the park, ultimately burning 28,079 acres by the time it was contained on August 21. By August 23 the National Park Service had spent $15,875,495 observing, managing, and later suppressing the fire.

Some of the local residents said at the hearing that with the decline of the timber industry they now rely heavily on tourism. According to their testimony the fire had a negative impact on some of the local businesses during a critical time of the year for their revenue.

The list of government officials that testified at the hearing included:

  • U.S. representatives Wally Herger, R-Chico, and Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay
  • Bill Kaage, the park service’s chief of the Branch of Wildland Fire
  • Andy McMurry, CAL FIRE’s statewide deputy director
  • Joseph Millar, director of Fire and Aviation Management for the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region
  • Rick Kyle, Shasta County Fire Warden
  • Steve Fitch, retired Forest Supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest

According to the Associated Press, Rep. Herger said:

The officials responsible for allowing the fire to burn during “a terrible fire season” should be removed and changes made to the national policy that uses managed wildfires as a tool to clear out forests and improve wildlife habitat.

Mr. Millar said in the hearing that the US Forest Service required all of their fires be aggressively suppressed last summer due to the severity of the fire season. However, the real reason may have been that the agency ran out of enough money to manage limited suppression fires for weeks or months.

CAL FIRE’s Andy McMurry testified that if the fire had started on state-protected lands they would have attempted to put it out immediately.

Retired Forest Supervisor Steve Fitch had earlier blasted the National Park Service for not aggressively suppressing the fire, saying:

I can’t believe they went ahead with letting a fire burn for the ecosystem’s benefit in a season that, for the entire nation, is record dry.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight, a person could assume that if the NPS had suppressed the fire when it was 1/4 acre, or two weeks later when it was 95 acres, it would not have spread outside the park and cost the taxpayers $25 million dollars, and would not have impacted the revenue the local businesses depend on in the summer.

The National Park Service has a mixed record when it comes to accepting accountability for serious mistakes. The Superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial absolutely refused to do so in 2009 when protesters easily cruised through inadequate security measures to hang a huge banner over the sculpture. Superintendent Gerard Baker said:

Is it too bad it happened? Yes. Do I think it was my responsibility? Absolutely not. We did everything proper.

A few months later on the other hand, the acting Superintendent of Yosemite National Park Dave Uberuaga took full responsibility for the planned 90-acre prescribed fire that escaped and became the 7,425-acre Big Meadow fire:

I take full responsibility…I have apologized to the communities. I regret that we had to evacuate them. And I regret the situation we find ourselves in. Still, prescribed fire is a necessary tool in the park.

According to the Record-Searchlight, Lassen National Volcanic Park superintendent Darlene Koontz said in August that her agency apologizes for the “impacts” caused by the Reading fire.

NPS spokesperson Roberta D’Amico told Wildfire Today that the National Park Service has commissioned an interagency investigation which should be complete by mid-November. We will be anxious to see if the report concludes that the agency “did everything proper” in managing the Reading fire.


Thanks go out to Kelly

Ponderosa fire forces evacuations near Manton, California. Fire in Lassen NP continues to burn.

Map of Ponderosa and Reading fires 150 pm August 19, 2012
Map showing heat detected by a satellite on the Ponderosa and Reading fires, 1:50 p.m., August 19, 2012. MODIS/Google. (click to enlarge)

The Ponderosa fire just east of the communities of Manton and Shingletown in northern California is forcing the evacuation of many residents in the area 25 miles northeast of Red Bluff. CAL FIRE reports that the fire has burned 12,000 acres and is zero percent contained since it started at about 11:30 on Saturday. At least 3,000 structures are threatened and four have already been destroyed. As of Sunday afternoon 974 personnel, 105 engines, 31 dozers, and 22 hand crews were assigned to the fire.

As you can see in the map above, the Ponderosa Fire is only 12 miles from the Reading  fire in Lassen Volcanic National Park. That fire was not initially suppressed by the National Park Service when it started on July 23, but has now burned almost 28,000 acres and is only 51 percent contained. The estimated costs to the taxpayers for the Reading fire to date is $13 million. Today 795 people were working on the fire

Former USFS Forest Supervisor blasts NPS for management of Reading Fire

Reading fire burn operation
Reading fire burn operation, August 14, 2012. Photo by Kim Lemke

Steve Fitch, a retired Forest Supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and “fire behavior expert” is criticizing the National Park Service for their management of the Reading fire, which has burned 25,242 acres. Approximately 16,000 of those acres are inside Lassen Volcanic National Park, 46 miles east of Redding, California. Apparently the NPS chose a limited fire suppression strategy during the early stages of the fire.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Redding Record Searchlight:

I can’t believe they went ahead with letting a fire burn for the ecosystem’s benefit in a season that, for the entire nation, is record dry. That fire is creating its own weather. It’s extreme temperatures there. … They probably nuked 10 percent or 15 percent (of the land).


Fitch said all signs should have pointed to immediately stopping the fire.

Fitch said prescribed burns, designed to clear out vegetation that climbs up into the trees, normally serve a good purpose in the wetter, cooler months. They prevent fires from using the overgrowth as a ladder to snake up into the tall trees that cover the forest.

But in the summer, high temperatures and low humidity give fires a high growth potential he said.

However, a host of other issues made the bad decision even worse, he said. The Forest Service’s aerial tanker fleet was at one-quarter strength this year.

“Everybody in fire management knew that,” he said. “That country up there, there’s no way to get into it. You’re relying on aerial firefighting resources.”

Firefighters making progress on Lassen NP fire

Reading Fire Lassen National Park
Reading Fire from Harkness, August 7, 2012. Credit: Lassen NPS

Higher humidities and lower temperatures have enabled firefighters on the Reading fire in Lassen National Park in Californina to make some progress in the last couple of days. That may change a little today with the forecast for warmer and drier conditions, including a high in the mid-eighties and a relative humidity of 21 percent.

While the fire behavior has slowed, firefighters have been conducting burnouts and constructing direct fireline where it is feasible. The fire is 46 miles east of Redding, has burned over 25,000 acres, and is listed at 25 percent containment.

Map of Reading Fire in Lassen NP
Map of Reading Fire in Lassen NP, showing heat detected by a satellite at 3:55 a.m. August 16, 2012. The green line is the park boundary. Click to enlarge.

While the firefighters work their butts off today, we can appreciate these photographs provided by the National Park Service.

Reading Fire
Reading Fire, August 5, 2012. Credit: Lassen NPS

Continue reading “Firefighters making progress on Lassen NP fire”