The traditional way — and the easiest way — to compare wildfire seasons is the number of acres burned. That figure is fairly straightforward and reliable, at least for data within the last 35 years; before 1984 the data is questionable.
But blackened acres does not tell the whole story about the effects of fires on humans. A 50,000-acre fire in a northwestern California wilderness area has fewer direct impacts on the population than, for instance, the 3,200-acre Almeda Fire that destroyed 2,357 residences in Southern Oregon a few months ago.
Headwaters Economics has built a user friendly interactive data base of the number of structures, by state, destroyed by wildfires from 2005 to 2020. It presumably includes all structures, including back yard sheds, other outbuildings, commercial buildings, and residences.
Here are three screenshots, examples for the entire U.S., Colorado, and Montana.
The best way to prevent homes from being destroyed in a wildfire is not clear cutting or prescribed burning a forest, it is the homeowner reducing flammable material in the Home Ignition Zone. This includes spacing the crowns of trees at least 18 feet apart that are within 30 feet of the home, 12 feet apart at 30 to 60 feet, and 6 feet apart at 60 to 100 feet. The envelope of the structure itself must be fire resistant, including the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home. When implemented, Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, regulates these features.
Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable; however, by reducing home ignition potential within the Home Ignition Zone we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Unfortunately, protecting communities from wildfire by reducing home ignition potential runs counter to established orthodoxy.
For Throwback Thursday we are revisiting an article published February 28, 2008 about an issue that is still before us today.
At a three-day conference organized by FireSafe Montana, Wally Bennett, a Type 1 Incident Commander, told the group that climate change and fewer air tankers and hand crews are making the job of wildland firefighters more difficult.
“Coming summers will bring more and bigger wildfires to the Northern Rockies. But it also will bring fewer firefighters, less equipment for them to use, and more and more homes to protect in flammable landscapes.
That’s the message spelled out Tuesday by climate and firefighting experts at a conference at the Bozeman Holiday Inn.
“We’ve got a lot less of the toys we need to do the job we’re doing out there,” said Wally Bennett, a veteran commander of a Type I incident command team, the type of force that tackles large and complex blazes.
Bennett was one of the speakers at the three-day conference organized by FireSafe Montana, a fledgling nonprofit group that is trying to motivate landowners, county governments, developers and other entities to do more to protect private land before wildfire reaches it.
Several years ago, Bennett said, firefighting teams had 32 large retardant planes available to them. Last year, they had 16.
The number of 20-person hand teams has declined from roughly 750 to about 450 over the same time period, he said, and that number is likely to fall further.
“There’s not enough to go around,” he said.
That’s partly because a rookie firefighter can earn about the same pay flipping burgers at McDonald’s.
Meanwhile, a warming climate is bringing earlier snowmelt along with hotter, drier summers, said Faith Anne Heisch, a climate researcher who works with Steve Running, the University of Montana professor who was part of the Nobel-prize winning International Panel on Climate Change.”
Two current or former firefighters were quoted in the Billings Gazette as asserting that the downgrading of the West Yellowstone Interagency Fire Center air tanker base in Montana to a Call When Needed base may have affected the amount of retardant applied on a recent fire near Bozeman, Montana.
Bridger Foothills Fire
The Bridger Foothills Fire that started September 4, 2020 northeast of Bozeman burned 8,224 acres and destroyed 28 homes. Three firefighters were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters September 5 when their safety became compromised by the spread of the fire. After the danger passed they moved to a safety zone and were later treated at Bozeman Health for “smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion” and then released.
West Yellowstone air tanker base
From the Billings Gazette, quoting a former smokejumper who had been based at West Yellowstone:
“The Bridger fire could have been staffed with more planes and twice the retardant dropped had West Yellowstone been used with the other bases,” said Tommy Roche, a retired wildland firefighter, in an email.
In addition to the former air tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, there are three other bases in that part of the country. Listed below are all four with their distances from the Bridger Foothills Fire.
West Yellowstone, 73 miles
Helena, 76 miles
Billings, 118 miles
Pocatello, 142 miles
Forest Service will not release the Conklin de Decker and Associates air tanker study
From the Billings Gazette:
A Freedom of Information Act request, filed more than a year ago by West Yellowstone airtanker base manager Billy Bennett, for the Forest Service’s airtanker study has not been fulfilled. “In my opinion, I do not believe the study exists!” Bennett wrote in an email. “No one admits to ever having seen it.”
According to documents provided to Fire Aviation by the Custer National Forest in Montana, in 2019 the Forest Service commissioned an independent analysis of next generation air tankers performance by Conklin de Decker and Associates (CdD).
We asked for a copy of the study today and were told by Forest Service Fire Communications Specialist Stanton Florea that it “…contains proprietary information. You would need to file a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act Request] with our national office.”
Forest Service did not release the RAND air tanker study
We were told the same thing after requesting and then filing a FOIA to obtain a copy of the $840,092 RAND air tanker study completed in 2012. The Forest Service refused to honor the FOIA, saying “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4.” Their refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete” and that the USFS wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”
The RAND study recommended that the U.S. Forest Service upgrade its airborne firefighting fleet to include more scooper air tankers. “Because scoopers cost less and can make multiple water drops per hour when water sources are nearby, we found that the most cost-effective firefighting fleet for the Forest Service will have more scoopers than air tankers for the prevention of large fires,” said Edward G. Keating, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “However, air tankers are important in an ancillary role in initial attack for the minority of wildfires where water sources are not nearby, and possibly for fighting large fires as well.”
Performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone
In a letter signed April 4, 2019 by Shawna Legarza, who at the time was the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, she wrote, “Based on CdD information, the BAe-146 [air tanker] will not be able to operate from West Yellowstone unless temperatures are below 69°F”, and included the table below. She also wrote, “Retardant will not be downloaded”, meaning the BAe-146 must always carry 3,000 gallons.
The performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone is due to the elevation at the base, 6,640 feet above sea level. On a warm day the thin air results in a density altitude that makes it difficult for the aircraft to take off with a full load of retardant on the 8,400-foot runway.
The table indicates that there would be no restrictions for the C-130, C-130Q, RJ 85, and the MD-87 air tankers, but the BAe-146 tankers operated by Neptune Aviation would not be able to carry a full 3,000-gallon load of retardant under certain conditions. The BAe-146 and the RJ 85 are very similar, but the RJ 85s operated by Aero Flite have more efficient engines than the BAe-146.
Closing West Yellowstone air tanker base
The letter from Director Legarza included this:
Based on safety and efficiencies, Region 1 should consider whether any future investment into the West Yellowstone Airtanker Base is warranted. The airtanker bases in Billings and Helena, Montana, and Pocatello, Idaho are within 30 minutes flight time for a next generation airtanker and can maintain the airtanker response and capability needed for that portion of your geographic area. Additionally, a temporary airtanker base could be setup at the Bozeman, Montana airport if the fire situation in that portion of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming warranted a quicker response.
Forest Service begins to appreciate scooping air tankers
Another reason cited by the Forest Service for downgrading the West Yellowstone tanker base was the “increased use of scooper aircraft”, such as the CL-415 which can skim across a lake while scooping up to 1,600 gallons of water without having to return to an airport to reload with water or retardant. Historically the agency has been extremely reluctant to use scooping air tankers but four are currently under contract. For years they completely disregarded the RAND report’s recommendations about the efficiency of scoopers.
“The timing for the new scooper contract is this winter for the 2021 season and it is expected that Bridger Aerospace (based in Bozeman, MT) will have four turbine CL-215’s ready to bid which will add to the four CL-415’s on the current contract for a total of 8 nationally,” said Marna Daley, a Public Affairs Officer for the Custer National Forest in an email. “Regionally, Canadian scoopers are available and used through the agreement the Montana DNRC has with Canada.”
Bridger Aerospace is in the process of acquiring six old piston engine CL-215s that have been overhauled and upgraded with new turbine engines; they are designated as CL-415EAFs.
West Yellowstone becomes a CWN base, dependent on portable retardant infrastructure
The West Yellowstone air tanker base is now classified by the Forest Service as a Call When Needed base. In the fall of 2019 the powder retardant was removed and the retardant mixing equipment was decommissioned according to documents supplied by the Forest Service. The base can now only be used to reload air tankers if a transportable retardant mixing plant is ordered and set up at the airport.
Forest Service’s evaluation of the use of air tankers at the Bridger Foothills Fire
In an email to Fire Aviation, Ms. Daley explained the agency’s opinion about the use of air tankers and the availability of the West Yellowstone tanker base during the Bridger Foothills Fire:
In terms of LATS (Large Air Tankers) and VLATs (Very Large Air Tankers) the Bridger Foothills Fire initial attack (day 1) and extended attack response (day 2 and day 3) was the most effective air resource response on the Custer Gallatin in 20 plus years. There wasn’t a moment where suppression efforts were lacking a retardant response. The ability of the Helena and Billings tanker bases to reload was unprecedented and fire managers were able to get full retardant loads on every tanker drop. The transition of the West Yellowstone Tanker base to a call when needed base did not affect the outcome of the Bridger Foothills fire. The base in West Yellowstone could have been opened under the Forest’s Call When Needed plan but that was not requested or needed because Helena and Billings bases were far more efficient.
Three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman, Montana were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters September 5 when their safety became compromised by the proximity of the fire, fire officials said Sunday. After the danger passed they moved to a safety zone and were later treated at Bozeman Health for “smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion” and then released. They are otherwise in good condition and will be rejoining their families as soon as possible.
Fire shelters are small foldable pup tent-like fire resistant devices that a wildland firefighter can unfold and climb into if there is no option for escaping from an approaching inferno. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.
The Bridger Foothills Fire is three miles northeast of the intersection of Highway 86 (Bridger Drive) and Interstate 90. Since it was reported September 4 it has burned 7,000 acres, including an unknown number of structures. It exhibited extreme fire behavior Saturday when the passage of a cold front brought sustained winds of 10-20 mph with gusts to 30 mph. A Type 1 Incident Management Team has been ordered.
Resources assigned, according to the incident management team, include 6 helicopters, 4 hand crews, plus engines, smokejumpers, and dozers. Sunday’s National Situation Report said there were a total of 99 personnel assigned (but 23 hand crews, which does not make any sense).
In northern Montana Thursday morning seven fires were discovered in Glacier National Park in the North Fork area. Park spokesperson Gina Kerzman said they have all been controlled but the Ford Creek Patrol Cabin built in 1928 which is on the National Register of Historic Places was destroyed.
Due to the suspicious nature of the fires, several investigators are on scene including the FBI and the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch, which is assisting remotely.
Anyone with information about the fires is urged to call 406-888-7077.
Resources responding to the fires included local county, state, and federal agencies with hotshot crews, engine crews, and law enforcement personnel.
The Ford Creek Patrol Cabin was built in 1928. The rustic log structure was a significant resource both architecturally and historically as part of a network of shelters approximately one day’s travel apart used by patrolling backcountry rangers.
The nomination of the Ford Creek Patrol Cabin to be on the National Register of Historic Places prepared in 1984 included this description:
“In 1928, Glacier National Park appropriated $2,000 for the construction of four identical snowshoe cabins. The Park hired private contractors to erect the buildings since the staff carpenter force was occupied with construction at Belton headquarters. Documents do not indicate the names of the contractors, although invitations to bid were sent to “several good log men in the vicinity.” The Park provided floor shiplap, roofing materials, cement, okem (chinking), cellar planks, windows and doors and their frames, shakes, and hardware. The contractor cleared the site, cut trees marked by the Park Engineer, built the cabin, and cleared the site.
“The project took three weeks and the cost for all materials and labor totaled $350. This cabin is one of many similar structures built in Glacier National Park during the 1920s and 1930s to facilitate the supervision of lands within the park boundaries. The park’s rugged topography and the often rapidly changing weather conditions made it imperative that these cabins be built at strategic points to protect rangers charged with park surveillance. The cabins were usually located 8 to 12 miles from a permanent ranger station. Thus, a park ranger could spend a number of days on patrol duty without returning to the station for supplies or shelter. The Ford Creek patrol cabin is significant because it illustrates an important aspect in the development and administration of Glacier National Park.
“It is a one-story, rectangular log structure with new corrugated metal on a gable roof, a metal stove pipe, and nine log purlins. The wall logs are saddle notched with sapling chinking and square-cut crowns. There is a concrete alignment foundation under the structure and porch posts. The roof extends to a full porch with a tie beam and vertical pole beneath the ends of seven purlins. There are shakes in the gable ends. The door is solid wood and “bear-proofed.” The windows are iron bars woven with barbed wire over six-light, wood frame casements. The structure is in good condition.”
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
For Throwback Thursday I found a good news story — much needed during these turbulent times. Published March 21, 2015, it feels like it was a thousand years ago:
The six-year-old son of a wildland firefighter was one of 15 filmmakers to be invited to show a video at a film festival at the White House. Noah Gue worked with his father, Michael Gue, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Bozeman, Montana, to make the film to help raise awareness of climate change and inspire conservation. Noah’s parents produced the film in which he is the on-screen narrator. He also got a credit for editing. The film was selected to be shown Friday at the second White House Student Film Festival.
The fact that Noah had a loose front tooth did not escape the notice of President Obama who mentioned it in his opening remarks at the event. Here are some excerpts from the official transcript:
Thank you so much, everybody! Have a seat. Well, hello, everybody, and welcome to the second annual White House Film Festival. (Applause.) It’s like the Sundance or Cannes of film festivals that are open to the public through a government website. (Laughter.) It may also be the only film festival where one of the entrants has his tooth loose. (Laughter.) And may pull it out right here at the ceremony. (Laughter.)
…Today, we’re celebrating a 6-year-old in Montana. Is that you? (Applause.) He’s the guy without — he’s missing teeth. (Laughter.) But he’s also challenging us to see conservation through a child’s eyes…
Noah’s father, Michael, is a prolific photographer, as is his wife who is a wedding photographer. We have featured Michael’s fire pictures a couple of times on Wildfire Today, HERE and HERE. His Instagram account has over 7,000 followers…