Howe Ridge Fire causes more evacuations in Glacier National Park

Above: CL-215 water scooping air tankers working the Howe Ridge Fire August 16, 2018. InciWeb photo.

During the last four days the Howe Ridge Fire has spread almost three miles toward the southwest, and also moved south along the shore of Lake McDonald where it is 7 miles north of West Glacier, Montana. On the north end it is less than half a mile west of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

There are 134 personnel are assigned to the 7,835-acre blaze. That is a small number considering its size and the fact that the fire is causing evacuations, has destroyed 27 structures, and is threatening numerous others. Fire officials have not been able to acquire the number of firefighting resources that they need. This is due to reductions in the budgets of the federal land management agencies and competition from the other 55 large wildfires burning across the western states, many of which are also making do with inadequate staffing on their fires.

map Howe Ridge Fire
The red lines represent the perimeter of the Howe Ridge Fire at 12:30 a.m. MDT August 19. The white line was the perimeter on August 15. Click to enlarge.

Below is a video posted to YouTube August 16 by Justin Bilton. He described it like this:

We were camped 2.5 up the North Macdonald Trail when we saw the then small Howe Ridge Fire began to spread from 5 acres to over 2000 in a matter of hours. We hiked back to the car to get out where it was parked at the end of a dead end road. We had just driven this road (safely) 3 hours before to get in and it was our only way out, apart from trying to stay ahead of the fire on foot. After we were stopped by the downed tree, we reversed back through all of this and were rescued by two park employees on a boat. They saved our lives. We were not joyriding through a wildfire.

Very dry weather and record-setting high temperatures in the Glacier National Park area in the last several weeks have dried out the fuels and are causing the fire to spread much more rapidly than is typical for the area. Usually firefighters have days to think about rates of spread and to run fire behavior computer models, but this blaze is shortening those time frames making it difficult, for example, to evacuate the west side of Lake McDonald as quickly as needed.

A weather system will bring slightly cooler temperatures, but the frontal passage will increase winds and cause shifts in wind directions. This could significantly affect fire behavior on the southern and western flanks of the fire. Saturday smoke over the fire prevented aircraft from dropping water.

Crews are working around structures in the Fish Creek Campground area and along the Inside North Fork Road to reduce fuels and to set up sprinkler systems. Structure protection efforts continue along the north end of Lake McDonald using sprinkler systems around the remaining structures on North Lake McDonald Road. Personnel are installing hoses and sprinklers to minimize potential fire spread towards the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Fire managers will continue to proactively plan for protection of other areas as the fire progresses.

The Fish Creek Campground area is now under an evacuation order. Evacuation orders remain in place for the North Lake McDonald road (private residences and the Lake McDonald Ranger Station), Lake McDonald Lodge area (all businesses, employees, and private residences), private residences along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and Sprague Creek and Avalanche Campgrounds.

Howe Ridge Fire burns thousands of acres in Glacier National Park

The fire is on the north end of Lake McDonald north of West Glacier, Montana

Above: The Howe Ridge Fire at the north end of Lake McDonald, August 12, 2018. NPS photo.

(Originally published at noon August 16, 2018)

The Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park has burned 3,500 acres at the north end of Lake McDonald 8 miles north of West Glacier, Montana. It started August 11 from a lightning strike and is being “managed”, or herded around, rather than being fully suppressed. The 78 personnel assigned to the fire are protecting structures and utilizing water drops from air tankers and helicopters to slow the spread where needed. However on Wednesday fixed wing aircraft were grounded due to heavy smoke.

Structural protection crews worked Wednesday to reduce risk to buildings at the head of Lake McDonald and Kelly’s Camp.

The time-lapse video of the fire below is very impressive:


The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team, under the command of John Pierson, is onsite and will be taking over management of the fire at 6:00 a.m. Friday. Mr. Pierson’s team is also managing two other fires, the Paola Ridge and Coal Ridge fires.

map Howe Ridge Fire
Map showing the perimeter of the Howe Ridge Fire based on a mapping flight at 10:30 p.m. MDT August 15, 2018.

Area closures and evacuations remain in place. The Going-to-the-Sun Road remains open between St. Mary and Logan Pass. It is closed between the foot of Lake McDonald (near Apgar) and Logan Pass. Apgar Village, Apgar Campground and Fish Creek campground remain open. Most other areas of the park are open.

Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park
Howe Ridge Fire, August 12, 2018. NPS photo.
Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park
Water scooping air tankers work the Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park. Undated NPS photo.

 

Interview with Kari Greer about her photography exhibit in Missoula

Above: Kari Greer, wildfire photographer, at a reception for the opening of her exhibit at the University of Montana May 21, 2018.

Tuesday we had an opportunity to interview Kari Greer about her “Facing the Inferno” exhibit of wildfire photography. It is on display for three days, May 21-23, during the Fire Continuum Conference at the University of Montana in Missoula in the University Center, room 227.

The photos in the exhibit are borrowed from the main venue showing her photography which was at the Prichard Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Idaho until April 14, 2018.

Kari is a very well respected and skilled wildland fire photographer who has specialized in the field for years.

Drip torches and snow machines

The jobs of some wildland firefighters change dramatically during the winter

These photos were taken over the last couple of days by Shelby Majors during pile burning operations on the Lewis and Clark National Forest west of Augusta, Montana. He said they have been burning landing piles for the past month throughout the Benchmark Corridor that were created during a fuel reduction project started in the winter of 2016-2017.

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

 

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

Thanks Shelby!

Former firefighter convicted second time for arson

The ex-firefighter started 20 fires in 2013 and another in 2016

James Frederick Maw
James Maw

(Originally published at 12:40 p.m. MST January 11, 2018)

Five months after a former seasonal Montana wildland firefighter was given a 40-year suspended sentence for starting 20 wildfires in 2013, he lit another fire in 2016 that burned about an acre on the ranch where he was working.

James Frederick Maw started the first batch of fires in May, 2013. Five of them near York, Montana were managed as the Sweats Complex, with the total number of acres burned listed at 450 with 225 personnel assigned when we reported on the fires and the arrest May 17, 2013. The series of fires in 2013 in the Priest Pass, Spokane Hills, and York areas caused almost $1 million in damages.

The Missoulian reported:

He was arrested [in 2013] in the York-Nelson area in full firefighting gear holding a trigger-operated lighter. He initially said he was a contract firefighter but confessed to starting the fires because he enjoyed the camaraderie of firefighting and needed the financial payoff from fighting fires.

Due to Mr. Maw’s mental health issues his 40-year sentence was suspended by Judge Katherine Seeley.

Below is an excerpt from MTN published November 2, 2015 about the sentencing hearing for the 2013 fires:

However, Lewis & Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and Broadwater County Attorney Corey Swanson told the court that due to the severity of the crimes — 14 arson fires set in May of 2013 in both counties — require some form of incarceration.

“He threatened the lives of the firefighters in this community,” said Gallagher. “People with homes that were in harm’s way out there, and I just think there needs to be a consequence, your honor, beyond just probation.”

The fire service community also called for prison time.

“Mr. Maw’s statement and his memory lapses give no indication he is either sorry for the lives he put at risk or taking responsibility for his actions,” said Chief [Jordan Alexander of Baxendale Fire].

While still on probation for arson, in April 2016 Mr. Maw was arrested for starting the fire on the ranch. He told investigators the chain saw he was using hit a rock, creating a spark which ignited the fire, but his story did not match the facts uncovered.

After delays for another mental health evaluation, on January 8, 2018 the same judge, Katherine Seeley, sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

Repercussions of a government prescribed fire that escapes and burns private property

In 2010 a prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest escaped and burned approximately 450 acres of private property.

Davis Fire, Aug. 26, 2010
Davis 5 Fire, Aug. 26, 2010. Photo: markholyoak

On August 26 and 27, 2010 the Davis 5 prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest in Montana escaped control 28 miles northwest of Helena. It happened on a windy day during Fire Weather Watch conditions when the temperature in Helena set a record for the highest ever recorded on that date .

(Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Davis 5 prescribed fire”)

The project that was expected to treat 100 acres eventually burned about 1,600 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and approximately 450 acres of private property.

Today the Helena Independent Record and the Missoulian published an article written by Tim Kuglin that retells the story of the Davis 5 Fire. Mr. Kuglin concentrated on the effects on the private landowners and their battles, largely unsuccessful, to obtain reparations from the federal government.

The post-fire report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, as is the custom with federal land management reports about fires that have bad outcomes, did not outline many significant issues or bad decisions that led to the escape.

Davis fire
Firemen line the Stemple Pass Road August 26, 2010, on the Davis Fire. Dylan Brown photo.

Most of Kent Taylor’s 146 acres burned in the fire. After being rebuffed by the USFS he went to court to seek payment for damages. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell decided on March 22, 2015 that the U.S. is immune from the suit, writing in his decision:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service was negligent either in conducting the Davis 5 Unit prescribed burn or in fighting the escaped fire once it occurred or that the Forest Service violated any mandatory policy or prescription. In addition, and more significantly, strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies to bar Plaintiff’s tort claims.

The court decision, the official USFS report, and the recent newspaper article did not seriously consider two issues that we mentioned in 2010:

1. The first was the failure to take notice of the spot weather forecast that was issued at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday on the day of the burn, just before the firefighters ignited the test burn. That forecast predicted stronger winds than in the forecast that was issued the previous day which was for “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”. Here is what Wednesday morning’s forecast predicted for the day of ignition (the all-caps are from the weather forecast):

WIND (20 FT)……..SOUTHWEST WINDS 10 TO 15 MPH WITH AFTERNOON GUSTS 20 TO 25 MPH.
RIDGE TOP WIND……WEST AT 15 TO 20 MPH.

The report says:

The prescribed fire personnel stated they did not note any differences between the two forecasts.

That forecast also stated that on the following day, Thursday, the winds in the afternoon would be 30 to 35 mph.  The maximum wind speed allowed in the prescription for the project was 15 mph, which, from my experience, is quite high for a prescribed fire.

2. The second issue is the fact that they knew on Tuesday, the day before the burn began on Wednesday, that near record heat and a Fire Weather Watch with gusty southwest winds was forecast for Thursday. This Watch was upgraded to a Red Flag Warning on Wednesday afternoon after ignition had begun. Even in a best case scenario, if there had been no spot fires or other control problems on Wednesday, the 30 to 35 mph winds predicted for the day after ignition should have alerted experienced fire management personnel that the winds across the 100-acre prescribed fire could have caused embers to be blown across the lines, resulting in the fire escaping. Control would have been difficult in 30 to 35 mph winds.