Flooding a swamp wildfire douses the flames, but boosts ‘noxious’ smoke

A “super fog” is blanketing the New Orleans area, worsening vehicle crashes and causing health concerns among residents. The weather phenomenon has been blamed for numerous traffic incidents including a series of horrific crashes in late October involving 158 vehicles that left seven people dead and 25 injured.

But attempts to douse a nearby wildfire may actually be making the super fog worse.

A 200-acre wildfire burning near the Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge has been fully contained for weeks, but residents have told local media that “noxious smoke” from the fire is causing a harsh chemical-like odor. The uniquely foul-smelling smoke is caused, in part, by the fire’s underground burning.

Bayou Sauvage NWR
Bayou Sauvage NWR

“Your usual marsh fire is on dry brush and grass, and it burns fast and has a sweet smell,” the New Orleans Fire Department told the Times-Picayune. “But when it gets into that stuff underground, that’s rotting vegetation. And yes, it starts stinking.”

The stink may be gaining potency because of firefighters’ suppression efforts. They are working with the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the city’s Sewerage & Water Board, and the Army Corps of Engineers to drive drainage canal water to flood the swamp where the wildfire is burning.

The City of New Orleans’ Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said the flooding is a last-ditch effort, with few other above-the-surface suppression efforts having any effect on extinguishing the fire. But, as more water is poured on the fire, more smoke rises.

“As you put water on some areas, you do experience more smoke coming up,” New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent Roman Nelson told the newspaper.

Vegetation in swamps and wetlands have a higher than average fuel moisture content, which requires more energy to drive off the water and increases emissions, i.e. smoke, per unit of fuel consumed, the FS Smoke Management Guide said. The last-resort flooding is, albeit temporarily, increasing the fuel moisture content and the noxious emissions.

Firefighters say it’s difficult to estimate just how much of the fire has been extinguished since the ground absorbs so much of the flooding, but they believe around 20 percent of the fire is now out.

FSI: When a fire scene becomes a crime scene

A $15,000 reward is being offered for any information on whoever started numerous wildfires still burning around Louisiana. Officials hope the reward, offered by the Louisiana Forestry Association, will help bring those who started the Hwy 113 Fire, the Lions Camp Road Fire, and the state’s largest wildfire on record, the Tiger Island Fire, to justice.

But how do officials even determine whether wildfires were intentionally or accidentally started? It’s not what TV would have you believe.

The biggest offender of incorrect investigation portrayals, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (and its numerous offshoots), has long frustrated detectives, forensic scientists, and other law enforcement personnel, but the frustration doesn’t stop at police shows. CAL FIRE, the agency portrayed on the popular show Fire Country, voiced its frustrations with the show’s inaccuracies from the moment the trailer dropped.

Fire Country largely skirts the actual evidence that helps  investigators determine the cause of fires. Because of that, fire investigators are often reduced to an antagonizer role in the show. The reality of fire investigation is much more important and in-depth than Fire Country makes it out to be, especially at a time when arsonists are setting some of the world’s most devastating wildland fires.

Tiger Island Fire 8-27-23

Tiger Island Fire on Saturday, Aug 27th. Extreme fire behavior was present over the weekend as the Southern Area Red Team took command of the incident.
Tiger Island Fire 08-27-2023 — Extreme fire behavior persisted over the weekend as the Southern Area Red Team took command of the incident. Inciweb photo.

Greece’s Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias announced that there have been 79 arrests of “arsonist scum” in connection to the hundreds of wildfires burning around the nation. A man in Canada is facing charges in connection to numerous forest fires that forced evacuations. Albania officials arrested two men caught on camera starting the area’s worst wildfire of the season. And the arsonist who lit the fatal Esperanza Fire in southern California in 2006 was sent to Death Row at San Quentin after a jury in 2009 found him guilty on 42 of 45 counts including 5 counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires.

But how does a fire scene turn into a crime scene? It all rests on investigators to determine the origin and the cause of the fire, according to an NWCG handbook.

“Accurate wildland fire origin and cause determination is an essential first step in a successful fire investigation,” the handbook reads. “Proper investigative procedures that occur during initial attack can more accurately pinpoint fire causes and preserve valuable evidence that might be destroyed by suppression activities. If a fire is human-caused, the protective measures described in the guide can preserve evidence that may lead to effective and fair administrative, civil, or criminal actions.”

Separating some of the wildland fire arson myths perpetuated in media like Fire Country is also a focus of the handbook. While fictional arsonists are depicted as highly sophisticated and using elaborate electronic devices to set numerous large fires in rapid succession, real-life arsonists are usually unskilled offenders who use matches or other simple devices to set small fires that may escalate in frequency and severity.

(Two classic wildfire arsonist stories — and investigations — are detailed in books by John Maclean:  The Esperanza Fire and River of Fire.)

Patterns often accompany arson fires, usually involving multiple fires geographically near to each other within a close timeframe. Most wildland arson fires are set at a location that can be accessed by motor vehicle and are not in rugged terrain. Arson can also be indicated by a lack of evidence, like when numerous fires with undetermined causes exceed normal fire history.

Despite the in-depth guide provided by NWCG, humans often can’t determine the cause of a fire on their own. Fortunately, arson dogs can often pick up where humans are lacking; State Farm actually has had an arson dog training program for about 30 years, and many states keep a trained accelerant-detection arson dog on staff.

Investigators of the Tiger Island Fire used one of the state’s five arson dogs to help determine the wildfire’s cause. The dogs are trained to detect 15 different types of ignitable liquids and identify whether they were used at the origin of fires.

You can learn more about arson dogs, specifically Pablo from the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal, [HERE].


Louisiana’s governor asks the impossible: Please don’t barbecue on Labor Day

One look at Louisiana’s traditional barbecue practice can set off alarm bells in the heads of firefighters.

The French Louisianan practice of Cochon de lait (co-shaun-du-lay) translates literally to “suckling pig” and involves pit roasting a young pig. Images of the practice show a long row of logs and hot coals blazing with high flames surrounded with split hogs hung on racks.

Cochon de laits were originally cooked over fireplaces in early-American kitchens, but the most common method today is in an outdoor cooking shed, grill or open fire pit,” according to the state’s official travel authority. “A fire that is constantly maintained should cook a 50-pound pig in about five or six hours, giving you plenty of time to kick back and relax with family and friends. It’s a good bet you’ll find it at a variety of fairs, festivals and tailgates around the state.”

The very open flame barbecue practice, along with the state’s affinity with smoked meats, shows why Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards may have felt it was necessary to explicitly ask the state’s residents to not barbecue for Labor Day weekend — and the beginning of the football season this year — as numerous wildfires burn across the state.

“We know [Labor Day] typically involves a lot of cookouts and barbecues, especially with the return of football,” Edwards said during a press conference on Aug. 30. “I’m asking that people not engage in barbecuing and so forth outside where a fire can start.”

The request itself isn’t out of the ordinary. Louisiana has been under a statewide burn ban since August because of extreme heat, widespread severe drought, and ongoing wildfires in the southwestern portion of the state. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry also banned prescribed burns, and Edwards prohibited all agricultural burning with an executive order. However, what media found especially unusual about the governor’s request was that it coincided with the weekend that rings in the final days of summer barbecuing and the beginning of LSU football tailgating barbecuing.

“Let’s be patient and not create more work for firefighters in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “We need to prevent what is already a serious situation from becoming worse.”

The state’s residents may need to be very patient. This year’s burn ban has already far exceeded the length of the state’s previous statewide burn ban in 2015, which lasted only 10 days. On August 7 Louisiana Fire Marshal Daniel Wallis expanded the in-effect burn ban to include burning on both public and private property.

“This new burn ban order … prohibits ALL private burning, with no limitations,” the Office of Louisiana State Fire Marshal said. “The already extremely dry conditions statewide, and the concern over first responder safety in these dangerously high temperatures, have worsened as wildfires spread across Louisiana and significant rain relief remains elusive in weather forecasts.”

Time will tell whether Louisianans will obey the burn ban to stop further wildfire tragedies, or stick to tradition and risk igniting more fires.

Prescribed fire near Caroline Dormon School

prescribed fire Louisiana
Prescribed fire near Caroline Dormon Junior High School in Louisiana. Photo by Julia Denning.

Julia Denning sent us this interesting photo of a February 28 prescribed fire on the Kisatchie National Forest near the Caroline Dormon Junior High School in Woodworth, Louisiana. I asked about the two signs in front of the school, wondering if there was also a U.S. Forest Service facility at that location. Ms. Denning explained:

There is no USFS facility at the school, but the land on which the school is built was donated by the Forest Service, hence the Smokey-style signs. The school itself was named in tribute to conservationist Caroline Dormon, who was instrumental in the designation of the Kisatchie National Forest in 1930.

In October she also sent us some excellent photos of a prescribed fire on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon. Thanks again, Julia.

Louisiana firefighter seriously injured by falling tree

tree fell on firefighter
The tree that fell on firefighter Ezernack. From KTBS video.

A firefighter in Desoto Parish in Louisiana was seriously injured during a tree felling operation on a 100-acre wildfire Wednesday afternoon. Haden Ezernack, 21, suffered a head injury when a large hardwood tree, estimated to be 50 to 75 feet tall, fell on him. Firefighters decided to cut the tree down because it was burning and they were worried that embers from it would jump a river and spread the fire into Texas, which had happened before on another fire. The tree, which fell in an expected direction, also fell onto the Fire Chief’s car, according to one report.

Mr. Ezernack was unconscious for a while after the accident, and was airlifted to Louisiana State University Hospital where he was admitted to intensive care. He is expected to recover.  He has worked for the DeSoto Fire District since Sept. 1, 2009.