Wilderness Fires in Utah and Montana

The Dallas Canyon Fire, about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, was mapped today at 43,610 acres. Ignited by lightning on July 27, the fire’s burning in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area southwest of the community of Delle. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the fire area includes sensitive habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, and wild burros — along with raptor nesting grounds.

Resources on the fire include about 360 firefighters, and Erik Haberstick’s team put the fire at 60 percent containment this morning.

Another wilderness fire, the Rapid Creek Fire in the Bob Marshall, took off yesterday. The Great Falls Tribune reported that the fire is 27 miles west of Augusta.

Rapid Creek Fire
The fire was reported at about noon on Sunday by two different lookouts. It was estimated at 3,000 acres late yesterday, burning in heavy timber and mountain pine beetle kill, and it grew to over 5,000 acres by this morning.

Dave Cunningham with the Lewis and Clark National Forest said an incident management team and air resources have been ordered; fire behavior has included sustained crown runs. The Rapid Creek Fire yesterday burned over the Continental Divide and into the Triple Divide Fire, then into the Elbow Pass Fire. Sheriff’s deputies and USFS personnel contacted cabin owners and others in the area and warned them that the fire could move toward the Benchmark Corridor.

The 700-acre Elbow Pass Fire in the Scapegoat started on July 12 southwest of Augusta, and the Triple Divide fire west of Augusta is at about 7 acres.  The complex is being managed as a suppression fire.

Montana: fire near Helena burns homes, forces evacuations

Corral fire, Helana, MT
Corral fire, a few miles northwest of the state Capitol building in Helena, Montana. Photo by Chris Denning

The Corral Fire just northwest of Helena, Montana has burned three homes and forced some residents to evacuate. Below is an excerpt from an article at helenair:

The Corral Fire in the Scratchgravel Hills continued to burn actively Tuesday morning, officials said. About 150 firefighters worked through the night on the fire from a variety of volunteer, federal, and state agencies.

“This fire has a lot of potential,” said John Huston, a fire manager with the state Department of Natural Resources. “There has been a good amount of fuel reduction work done in the area, but ground fuels are deep in places and the terrain is rough for engine access. Helicopters and hand crews are going to play a key role on Tuesday.”

Two DNRC helicopters were joined by two Montana Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters in battling the blaze, which started late Monday afternoon.

Fire officials are concerned about an approaching cold front with possible 30 to 40 mph southwesterly winds, which could begin around noon Tuesday.

The Corral fire has grown to more than 700 acres; there have been no human or livestock casualties, but 3 homes and a couple of cars have burned. Smoke has been too thick to allow a more complete assessment of the damage.

Map of Corral fire at 1107 pm June 25, 2012
Map showing heat detected by satellites at 11:07 p.m. MT, June 25, 2012, on the Corral Fire. MODIS/Google

The video below is a 15-minute time-lapse of the fire:

More information about the fire can be found at Lewis & Clark County and InciWeb.

3 Montana families sue USFS over escaped prescribed fire

Three families in Montana whose property burned when a prescribed fire escaped on the Helena National Forest are suing the federal government, seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial. The Davis prescribed fire northwest of Helena, Montana escaped on August 26, 2010 and burned over 2,000 acres of private and U.S. Forest Service land. Approximately 450 acres belonging to multiple landowners burned.  The three landowners in the suit own a total of 296 acres and claim “total destruction” of their property.

Below is an excerpt from the Ravalli Republic:

“The Davis Fire took place under extreme weather conditions consisting of gusty winds and very warm temperatures. In fact, the prescribed fire was set during a fire weather warning,” John Heenan, the attorney for the families, wrote in the lawsuit. “The Forest Service failed to follow its own guidelines for proper prescribed fire implementation in starting the Davis Fire.

“Had the Forest Service notified plaintiffs, they would have been able to take measures to protect their properties and/or ensured that the Forest Service took measures to do so.”

Wildfire Today covered the Davis Fire extensively in 2010. We wrote the following on November 22, 2010 after the U.S. Forest Service released their report on the incident:
Continue reading “3 Montana families sue USFS over escaped prescribed fire”

Reaction to al Qaeda forest fire arson threat

Wildfire Today reported on May 2 that a magazine published by members of al Qaeda has called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires. The article gave detailed instructions on how to build an “ember bomb” in order to set wildfires in the United States and Australia, and specifically suggested Montana as a choice location. The magazine article led the national news programs for a couple of days. Here are some of the reactions that have surfaced in response.

Dr. Anthony Bergin of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute:

…But [Dr. Bergin] said Australian authorities had recently adopted more sophisticated approaches to firefighting, including surveillance and land clearing measures.

The article provides specific examples and statistics of devastating bushfires in NSW and Queensland. It does not mention the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.

The article talks up the devastation caused by fires and provides details about the best times of the year to start a fire in different parts of Australia.

The article says of past fires in Australia: ”These fires ruined the dry before the green, exhausted lives and properties, wiped out a lot of farms and houses, destroyed thousands of trees that are used in manufacturing and created an atmosphere of terror and panic.”

Montana’s Missoulian:

An al-Qaida threat to burn Western Montana’s forests hasn’t had the intended effect on Darby Marshal Larry Rose.

When the terrorist organization’s English-language magazine recently advised its readers to use forest fires to destabilize the United States, it used the fires of 2000 as an example — and said Western Montana was the ideal location for such an attack.

Specifically it recalled how in August 2000, “wildfires extended on the sides of a valley, south of Darby town. Six separated fires started and then met to form a massive fire that burnt down tens of houses.”

The magazine suggested using “ember bombs” to ignite forests, providing instructions for building trigger mechanisms and advice about the best weather conditions to promote big burns.

“My comment is the forests are pretty much all burnt up,” Rose said on Friday. “What more would they burn here?”

The fires of 2000 burned nearly 400,000 acres of the Bitterroot Valley, including much of the hillsides around Darby. Most were started by lightning during an extremely dry summer.

The idea that jihadist infiltrators might build upon their 9/11 World Trade Center destruction by torching trees hadn’t sparked much coffee-counter conversation, Rose said. It also hadn’t produced any alerts from the Department of Homeland Security for heightened vigilance.

The U.S. Forest Service:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the U.S Forest Service, works closely with its partners within the intelligence community, including both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice on any terrorist threats, including threats of this nature,” said Forest Service spokesman Brandan Schulze. “We are asking Forest Service employees, law enforcement and the general public to continue to be vigilant for any signs of wildfires, and to report unusual circumstances or situations that seem out of the ordinary for outdoor recreation on all public lands.

A video from ABC News:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player


Thanks go out to Chris and Dick

Al Qaeda magazine encourages forest fire arson in the US

(Originally published May 2, 2012)

A magazine published by members of al Qaeda has called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires. According to ABC News, a recent issue of Inspire magazine has surfaced on jihadi forums with one article titled “It Is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb”, which gives detailed instructions on how to build an “ember bomb” in a forest in the United States, and suggested Montana as a choice location due to the rapid population growth in forested areas.

In America, there are more houses built in the [countryside] than in the cities. It is difficult to choose a better place [than] in the valleys of Montana.

A previous issue of the magazine contained information on how to construct remote-controlled explosives, and helpfully listed the needed parts along with instructions and photos.

ABC News has been calling around today to find a wildfire expert who can be interviewed on camera for a piece they expect to be on Wednesday’s Good Morning America. One person they called was Dick Mangan, a past President of the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), but ABC was not able to work out the logistics of quickly getting a camera crew to his house in Montana. The last we heard they found someone in the Sacramento area who works for CAL FIRE.

It’s odd, or maybe that is why ABC contacted Dick, because he wrote an article for the March/April 2005 issue of Wildfire, a magazine published by the IAWF, titled *Terrorists in the Woods, about the potential for terrorists to set vegetation fires in wildland areas. In the article he mentioned that police and structural fire departments receive funding for the possibility of terror-related incidents, but the land management agencies receive little or nothing to plan for or prevent threats such as these.

(*UPDATE December 23, 2017: The link to the article in the March/April 2005 issue of Wildfire Magazine no longer works, but we found a copy of it and added the entire piece below.)

From the President’s Desk
Dick Mangan
President, International Association of Wildland Fire

Terrorists in the Woods

Ever since September 11, 2001 the focus of much of the world has been fixated on the issue of Terrorism! The tragic deaths of thousands of Americans in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC, coupled with hundreds of deaths in Spain and Bali at the hands of terrorists has led to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, and the expenditure of billions of dollars (that’s billions with a capital “B”) to improve security and reduce the risks from terrorists and their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

The massive increases in the US budget for protection from terrorism has been mostly sent to Police and Structural Fire Departments. But, wait: what about the threat of terrorist-caused wildland fires in our forests, community watersheds and wildland-urban interface? Who’s worried about that threat, what are they doing about it, and how much is being spent to fund the efforts to prevent it?

The history of fire being used as a tool of warfare is well documented: Native Americans used fire against their enemies, both other tribes and against the expanding European whites; the Aboriginal people of Australia also used fire to discourage the incursion of the British settlers onto their island.

In World War II, the Japanese launched “fire balloons” against the western US, and while largely unsuccessful, did start a few fires, and killed 6 citizens in Oregon. The Palestinians in the latter half of the 20th century used fire to try and destroy the carefully planted pine plantations in Israel.

Now, in the beginning years of the 21st century, more and more folks are moving into the wildland-urban interface. Even under the best of conditions, when a single ignition occurs under critical fire conditions, hundreds and thousands of citizens are threatened with entrapment, injury or death from rapidly spreading fires. Imagine if a small band of determined terrorists, with only some basic fire weather and fire behavior training like we teach in S-190, decided to set multiple ignitions in some our most vulnerable areas, like heavily populated valley bottoms with limited egress/access and a heavy, dry fuel loading at the peak of the burning period?

There are many such areas around the world, in the foothills of Andalusia in Spain; outside of Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; and in numerous areas of the US from Florida to the Pine Barrens of New York, to the foothills surrounding Los Angeles. Even my own home town of Missoula, Montana has areas that fit all the above criteria, and is surely at risk under the wrong combination of weather conditions and a committed terrorist with fire on his mind. And any of us who have traveled to areas like Red Bird, Kentucky in the fall season when the “woods-burners” are out in force have an appreciation of “domestic terrorism” at work, often successfully!

The real question that lingers for fire managers at risk from terrorists is what are you planning to do to prevent terrorist-ignited wildfires that are intended to destroy resources, kill innocent civilians, and disrupt normal life? And, are you prepared to deal with multiple terrorist-ignited wildfires under the worst possible conditions? And for our legislators in the countries that are being targeted by terrorists, what are YOU going to do to insure that the wildland fire agencies in your areas are trained, equipped and financed to address these threats?

The clock is ticking, and its probably a matter of “when” rather than “if” such events, so where do we go from here??

Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana

Fall River Forest Fire FlamesOn April 20 Wildfire Today covered the jury verdict following a trial that awarded $730,000 to the owners of a Montana ranch, part of which burned in the Ryan Gulch wildfire in 2000 during a period that saw numerous fires burning across the state. The heart of Fred and Joan Weaver’s case was their contention that firefighters used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of their ranch. The jury decided that of the monetary award, $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 was for the rehabilitation of pasture land, and $350,000 was to compensate them for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire.

In the 18 hours since we posted the article, seven comments have been left by our readers, including two from the Weaver’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades. Mr. Rhoades is not your typical barrister. He worked as a wildland firefighter for eight seasons between 1987 and 1994, serving on the Helena Hotshot crew and later as a smokejumper at West Yellowstone and Missoula. He told Wildfire Today that he was in the first planeload of jumpers on the South Canyon fire in Colorado in 1994, the fatal fire on which 14 wildland firefighters were entrapped and killed.

The Ryan Gulch fire was managed by a Type 1 Interagency Incident Management Team from the southeast, the “Red Team”, with Mike Melton as Incident Commander working under a delegation of authority from the state of Montana.

The list of witnesses for the State of Montana included:

  • George Custer, the Type 1 Operations Section Chief on the fire, who recently retired as the Incident Commander of a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team.  (As this is written on April 21, 2012, Mr. Custer is still listed on the NIMO web site as the IC of the Atlanta NIMO team.
  • Three firefighters who work for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation — two initial attack firefighters, Mark Nenke and Todd Klemann, and Jonathan Hansen, who according to Mr. Rhoades “was in charge of the Red Team for the State”.
  • Stephen Weaver (no relation to the Plaintiffs), the Planning Operations Section Chief for the Red Team on the fire. Mr. Weaver has been working for the U.S. Forest Service for 38 years.
  • Ron Smith, who was a Division Supervisor for the Red Team, presently working as a USFS District Ranger in Mississippi.
  • Shelly Crook, retired from the USFS, served as the State’s expert witness as a Fire Behavior Analyst
  • Chuck Stanich, retired from the USFS, was the State’s Type 1 Incident Commander expert. He is a former Fire Management Officer for the Lolo National Forest and Type 1 Incident Commander.
  • Red Team members who worked on the fire but did not testify included the Incident Commander Mike Melton, retired from the USFS; Tony Wilder, the Night Operations Section Chief; and Keith Wooster, the Fire Behavior Analysist, now retired from the USFS.

The Plaintiffs called one expert witness, Dick Mangan, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service Technology & Development Center in Missoula, Montana in 2000 with more than 30 years of wildfire experience. He is a past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire and currently works as a consultant in wildland fire, instructs fire courses, and raises black angus cattle in Montana.

Mr. Rhoades told us that local firefighting resources from the area staffed some divisions on the fire, and they employed direct tactics, not burning out or backfiring, and never used a drip torch or a fusee for igniting vegetation. He said they offered their local expertise to the Red Team but it was refused. Instead, the Red Team “planned and used all kinds of firing operations from day one”.

According to Mr. Rhoades, the firing operations were approved by the Incident Commander and were planned by the Day and Night Operations Section Chiefs, and the Planning Operations Section Chief, who consulted the fire behavior forecasts prepared by the Fire Behavior Analyst. However, no records could be found in the incident files that any backfires were ever lit or that there were any written planning or oversight documents related to backfires. While 272 pages of Unit Logs were found in the incident records, none of them were completed by Division Supervisors. George Custer, one of the Operations Section Chiefs on the fire, testified that Unit Logs were not necessary for Division Supervisors, but the 1998 Fireline Handbook uses the word “must” when talking about Division Supervisors completing Unit Logs. Members of the Red Team said the Fireline Handbook was “not authoritative”.

Mr. Rhoades got Chuck Stanich, a witness from the State, to admit under cross-examination that from studying the documentation, it was clear that no backfires were ever lit. Mr. Stanich and Mr. Mangan both held the opinion that if backfires were ever lit, they were done without adequate planning, documentation, and oversight. But locals, as well as George Custer, the Operations Section Chief who planned the backfires, testified that backfires were used on the fire. Apparently, the jury was convinced that backfires were used on the fire, but since there were no written records of planning or approval of them in the incident files, then they must have been conducted without adequate planning and oversight.

The jury also heard testimony about two near misses on the fire which were not documented or investigated. One involved two volunteer firefighters, and the other involved a Division Supervisor and two dozer operators. Regarding the second incident, Mr. Rhoades wrote in a comment on Wildfire Today April 20:

I stood on the spot, on the ridgetop, with one of those who nearly died. We could see right down to the Clark Fork from where they were about to be burned over. They would have all three died if a Type 1 helicopter had not been already operating within a mile of the blow-up. It dropped load after 2000-gallon load from the river right on top on them or they’d be dead, as they hurried their dozers down 40 and 50% slopes. Not to mention the 9,000 extra acres of land that burned.

These incidents may have helped to create in the minds of the locals serving on the jury that the Incident Management Team from the southeastern United States, where fires burn differently than in the west, was out of their element in Montana.

It may also be difficult to convince a jury pulled in off the street that setting fire to more vegetation can be a successful strategy of wildfire suppression, especially if local volunteer firefighters say they did not use that technique. There could also be an us-versus-them attitude, with rural Montana residents failing to see the benefit of the Federal Government’s fancy-dancy team from the other side of the country coming into their area and doing their own thing without adequately respecting ranchers and the expertise of local firefighters.

What can firefighters and Incident Management Teams learn from this?

  • First, do all the damn paperwork that’s required, especially Unit Logs. It’s not the most fun part of the job, but grow up. You can’t ignore this. Some teams attach a blank Unit Log form to every Incident Action Plan.
  • Document all major decisions, especially those that could be controversial.
  • *Conduct outreach with locals, have town meetings, personally interface with landowners that are directly affected by the fire, use web sites and social media, including but not limited to InciWeb and Twitter, updating them many times a day. Provide updated maps once or twice a day.
  • Talk with local firefighters. Become informed about local weather and fuel conditions, as well as local firefighting tactics that have been successful in the past.
  • Ensure that the final incident paperwork package is complete.
  • Follow-up on near misses. Document and investigate as necessary and required.
  • If the Fireline Handbook, Red Book, or other manual says something must be done, don’t interpret that as a tip, hint, or suggestion.

*Over the last few years, especially in 2011 in the Southwest, I observed that some Type 1 IMTeams really suck at stakeholder outreach and keeping the public informed. During the fatal Lower North Fork fire near Denver in March the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office did a wonderful job before the Type 1 IMTeam assumed command of the fire. They updated their web site numerous times a day, briefed the media on a regular schedule, held briefings for local residents after the media briefings, and used Twitter, providing a great deal of information to their community of very concerned citizens. They did not use InciWeb, but plenty of information was available on their own web site. Organized IMTeams could learn a lot about public information from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office.

UPDATE April 23, 2012:

The Ryan Gulch fire was 30 miles west of Missoula and 8 miles east of Drummond, Montana. The trial was held in Philipsburg, MT (map), a town with a population of 930 in 2009.