Rancher wins suit, says backfires ruined his land

GavelA Montana rancher who said firefighters’ backfires ruined his ranch won a suit against the state of Montana on Wednesday. A jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000 — $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 for rehabilitation of pasture land, and the balance was for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire. About 900 acres of the Weaver’s land burned during the fire.

Here are some excerpts from an article in the Missoulian:

…“I hope it will make the state think twice about these operations,” attorney Quentin Rhoades said after the Granite County jury delivered its verdict on Wednesday. Rhoades represented Fred and Joan Weaver and their daughter, Vickie Weaver.

Although the state was the defendant, much of the fire crew came from Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast under a federal interagency management team. Rhoades said the evidence indicated the crew appeared unaccustomed to working in windy mountainous terrain.


Witnesses at the scene reported firefighters setting “backfires,” where one blaze is used to divert or control another. They are different from “burnouts,” where firefighters ignite the green foliage between their defensive fire line and the flame front to deprive a forest fire of fuel.


“The state said we saved structures, the power line, the highway and the railroad with backfires,” Rhoades said. “Our argument was it would have been a lot easier to save that stuff if you hadn’t gone around lighting fires everywhere. They said they had plans to light fires eight or nine days in row, but that was the documentation that was missing. The jurors found that particularly troubling.”


“I believe this outcome is unprecedented in Montana history,” Rhoades said. “I don’t think there’s been a verdict against the state for negligent forest firefighting. There haven’t been many verdicts on that anywhere.”

This could be worrisome for wildland firefighters, if they have to be thinking that a jury of people off the street may second-guess their tactics in a trial 12 years down the road. It makes a person wonder to what extent these jurors were educated during the trial about wildland fire behavior, the advantages and disadvantages of employing different tactics, and the reality of fighting fire during a major fire bust when firefighting resources are spread very thin, as they were in 2000 when this fire was burning.

The way the Missoulian article is written seems to imply that the difference between a backfire and burn out is significant. It may or may not have made a difference in the trial, but the definition of a backfire in the article does not agree with that listed in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology.

Backfire: A fire set along the inner edge of a fireline to consume the fuel in the path of a wildfire or change the direction of force of the fire’s convection column.”

Burning out: Setting fire inside a control line to consume fuel located between the edge of the fire and the control line.”

UPDATE on April 21, 2012: Ryan Gulch fire, and how the ranchers won their case against the state of Montana
Thanks go out to Dick

Top wildland fire stories of 2010 – with poll

Vote on the most significant wildland fire stories of 2010

As we documented earlier this month, the 2010 wildland fire season, when measured by the acres burned in the 49 states outside Alaska, was the slowest since 2004. But in spite of that, there has been significant news about wildland fire. In fact, we posted over 670 articles this year.

In 2009 we listed some of the top stories and invited you to vote on the ones that you considered to be the most significant.

Continuing that tradition, below we have listed the top stories of 2010. The line of duty fatalities are not listed unless there was an unusual spin-off story associated with the fatality. Below the list, there is a poll where YOU can let us know which stories you feel are the most significant of 2010.

Top wildfire stories of 2010

Jan. 8: The National Park Service released the report on the August, 2009 Big Meadow escaped prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park. The fire blackened 7,425 acres before being controlled by 1,300 firefighters at a cost over $15 million. It became the eighth largest fire in California in 2009.

Jan. 11: One of the five Type 1 Incident Management Teams in California was disbanded. Bill Molumby, who had been the team’s Incident Commander for several years, retired in November, 2009 and apparently they were not able to replace him.

Jan. 21: Federal wildland firefighter bill introduced in Congress. The “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act” would affect the pay, retirement age, and fireline liability of federal wildland firefighters.

Feb. 1: Fire contractor sentenced to 10 months in prison for forging wildfire training certificates and task books.

Apr. 23: NIOSH to study long-term health effects of working as structural firefighter, but not as a wildland firefighter. In a follow-up a few days later, Brian Sharkey of the USFS’ Missoula Technology and Development Center downplays lung cancer risks for firefighters. NWCG later responds to our article.

Apr. 30: The International Association of Fire Chiefs, an organization that concentrates on structural fire, received at least $13.2 million from the U.S. Forest Service and DHS-FEMA over a seven-year period, reportedly for wildfire-related purposes. The IAFC became furious at Wildfire Today for exposing the information.

Jul. 5: Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, sues the Billings Fire Department over the loss of “trees and ground cover” on his property during an 1,100-acre fire in 2008.

Aug. 2: Hundreds of wildfires in Russia claimed more than 50 lives, left more than 3,500 people homeless, and caused massive air quality issues in Moscow and other areas.

Aug. 2: A BAe-146 jet airliner was converted to an air tanker and was tested in Missoula. The Interagency Air Tanker Board failed to certify it due to inadequate ground coverage of retardant.

Aug. 24: The 100th anniversary of the fires of 1910 and Ranger Pulaski’s incident are commemorated at several events in Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

Aug. 26: In spite of weather forecasts that would have alarmed most fire managers, the Helena National Forest in Montana ignited the Davis prescribed fire during a near record heat wave. The fire escaped and burned 2,800 acres. The report was released in November. The Forest Supervisor said the report did not point out “something clearly that we did wrong, done incorrectly or that we’re going to make big changes on”.

Sep. 6: The Fourmile Canyon fire burned 6,200 acres and 169 homes a few miles west of Boulder, Colorado. The fire was devastating to local fire districts within the burned perimeter in several ways, including the facts that a firefighter’s burn pile escaped and started the fire, the homes of 12 firefighters burned, and one fire station and an engine inside it burned.

Sep. 21: The Commander of the Utah Army National Guard assumed responsibility and apologized for the Machine Gun fire that burned 4,346 acres and three homes near Herriman, Utah. The fire started during target practice with a machine gun at a National Guard base.

Sep. 24: The Australian state of Victoria tested the U.S.-built DC-10 very large air tanker and concluded that it did not perform adequately and would not be suitable for use in their wildland-urban interface areas.

Oct. 13: The US Forest Service’s response to the 2009 Station fire is criticized, and Congress holds hearing in Pasadena, CA about the management of the fire, which burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles.

Oct. 26: “Dirty Jobs” TV show features prescribed burning in a Florida wildlife refuge. Video footage captures some activities that are criticized by some viewers.

Dec. 2: A fire in Israel kills 43 prison guards and firefighters. Air tankers from the United States respond.

Dec. 7: NTSB holds a meeting about the helicopter crash on the Iron Complex fire in northern California in which nine firefighters and crew members died. Much of the blame was attributed to falsified helicopter performance documents supplied by Carson Helicopters when they applied for a contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Carson and the surviving co-pilot dispute that conclusion.


Honorable mention stories (not exactly top stories, but interesting; they are not part of the poll).

Feb. 24: Wood piles were burned on frozen Lake Pactola in South Dakota.

Mar. 29: Washington D.C. Metro train drives through wildfire, and stops in the middle of it. And on July 25 we posted a very impressive video that was shot from a Greyhound bus that drove past a large bushfire during the night in Queensland, Australia.

May 11: NWCG outlaws the use of some terms, including “appropriate management response” and “wildland fire use”.

Jun. 20: It was not a wildland fire, but every firefighter can relate to some of the problems encountered when a kinked fire hose and improper procedures delayed the rescue of IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro from her burning race car which crashed at Texas Motor Speedway.



Choose three of the wildfire stories you consider the most significant of 2010.

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Feel free to leave a comment (or “response”) explaining your choices, or to discuss other news items that did not make the list.

Report released for Davis escaped prescribed fire near Helena, MT

Davis fire
Firefighters line the Stemple Pass Road Thursday, Aug. 26, watching the Davis Fire. Dylan Brown photo.

The Helena National Forest has released their report on the Davis prescribed fire that escaped on August 26, 2010 and burned over 2,000 acres of private and U.S. Forest Service land 11 miles southeast of Lincoln and 28 miles northwest of Helena in Montana.

The firefighters ignited a test burn at 10:45 a.m on Wednesday, August 26. By 2:00 p.m. strong winds became a problem and the fire moved into the tree canopy. All ignition ceased, but soon there was a spot fire which burned 20 acres in heavy mixed conifers. When all personnel left the fire at 10:00 p.m. to avoid the hazard of falling trees, the spot fire had been partially lined.

The next day, Thursday, additional personnel were on scene. They were completing the fireline and gridding for other spot fires when an undetected one took off at 1:00 p.m. which quickly transitioned to a crown fire. The prescribed fire was declared an escape at 1:15 p.m. and a Type 2 Incident Management Team was requested at 2:27 p.m. By nightfall the fire was estimated at over 1,600 acres on federal land and 450 acres on private lands involving multiple landowners. Approximately 22 structures were evacuated on Thursday afternoon and evening.

The five-person review team consisted of three US Forest Service employees, one from the Bureau of Land Management, and one from the state of Montana.

The Helena Independent Record today quotes Kevin Riordan, the Helena National Forest Supervisor, about the findings from the report.

“I don’t want to push anything off or say it was no big deal on any of those things, but each of the factors identified in and of themselves were not a huge piece where we can say, ‘Jeez, here’s something clearly that we did wrong, done incorrectly or that we’re going to make big changes on,'” Riordan said on Monday. “I think there are some small pieces of something that adds up to be a bigger thing. Those are what we are trying to dial into and focus in on so we can make some changes.”

I will go beyond Mr. Riordan’s assessment, and go out on a limb and say there are at least two “huge pieces” that were clearly “done wrong”.

1. The first issue 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, a bad habit the NWS needs to break):


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.

We wrote about the escaped fire as it was burning in August. This Wildfire Today search page lists some of the Wildfire Today articles about the fire.

Background information about the Davis escaped prescribed fire in Montana

Davis fire
Davis fire, August 28, 2010. USFS photo.

More information is coming to light about the events that led up to the ignition and later escape of the planned 100-acre Davis prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest that so far has burned 2,181 acres and required the evacuation of about two dozen homes. About 1,000 acres of private land has also burned.

Montana State University’s Fire Services Training School distributes an electronic newsletter five days a week, covering news items about all aspects of fire, including wildfire. It is also available on their web site a number of days after the emailed version is broadcast. The newsletter, widely distributed and praised, is called The Latest and is free to Montana residents; non-residents are charged a fee. It’s probably safe to assume that there are hundreds of people, if not thousands, on their daily distribution list.

Today’s edition of The Latest included copies of emails written by Amber Kamps, the District Ranger for the Lincoln Ranger District where the escape occurred, as well as one by a local fire chief. Portions of those emails are in the time line below.

Here is the sequence of events related to the Davis prescribed fire, beginning the day before ignition.

Tuesday, August 24

The National Weather Service issues a Fire Weather Watch for Thursday, effective from noon to midnight.

District Ranger Amber Kamps meets with her staff. They discuss the objectives for the prescribed fire and whether the weather would be appropriate.

An employee of the Forest Service calls a local fire chief to inform him about the Davis prescribed fire planned for the next day. The fire chief then sent an email to his colleagues to let them know about the prescribed fire:

..[the prescribed fire will start tomorrow] with black lining tomorrow and the burn starting thereafter. The burn should take about 3 days.

I told [the Forest Service employee] about the Fire Weather Watch issued for Thursday at noon to midnight for all our local zones. He said they were still evaluating the parameters and would only start the operation once everything was in place. Just thought you would all like to know where the smoke was coming from.

Wednesday, August 25

The USFS ignites the 100-acre prescribed fire. There was at least one spot fire, and it burned an additional 20 acres outside the project boundary.

In the afternoon or evening the National Weather Service upgrades the Fire Weather Watch to a Red Flag Warning effective for the afternoon of the next day, Thursday.

Thursday, August 26

District Ranger Amber Kamps sends an email about the project, thanking those who helped, and going into some detail about the prescribed fire. We don’t have a time stamp for the email, but it obviously was sent before the fire escaped around noon or 1 p.m. Here are some excerpts:

Subject: Davis Prescribed Fire

Thank you to all the fire folks on both Forests for lending a hand in helping us apply prescribed fire yesterday. It was a good day – we met objectives both for the resource and in safety.

I thought I’d address a few questions that did come up yesterday internally and externally.

Acres: achieved about 100 – 120 acres of fire within the 530 acre unit, 200 acres of the parks/grass were burned this past spring = approximately 300 acres of total treatment

Today’s goal: holding and applying lots of water to cool it down, we have hose lay around the majority of the burn and have plenty of resources such as a 20 person crew, engines, tenders, and a helicopter

Yesterday a large column of smoke was created and very visible from Helena. The smoke was very black as well, which we suspect is due to the mountain pine beetle killed lodgepole combined with the subalpine fir. We also had a spot fire that eventually tied into the unit. The spot or “slopover” also achieved objectives and nicely has tied together two open parks.

Yesterday a Red Flag Warning was issued in the afternoon. Many questions arose as to why we’d be burning under these conditions. However, people need to know we had done careful planning with the National Weather Service and spot weather forecasts. Conditions on the burn were 70 degree temperatures, humidities over 20%, and winds less than 10 mph – right in prescription. We know today is critical for holding given the passage of a cold front predicted for this afternoon. As you know, it is not “normal” to be burning in August and we wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for this strange summer opening up a burning window earlier than it usually does.

Even though we know yesterday was a success in achieving objectives, we also learned a lot and were challenged given the conditions as a result of the mountain pine beetle caused mortality. We have more of these types of burns planned and more upcoming with expectations established under the Southwestern Crown. We will keep learning, adapting, and applying as we move forward.

As people are reading her email, multiple spot fire are occurring or being discovered — more than the firefighters can handle. At 1 p.m. it is declared an escaped prescribed fire. From Helenair.com:

Greg Archie, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, is the incident commander for what’s now being called the Davis fire. He was helping the Forest Service with the prescribed burn Wednesday, and said that when they returned on Thursday morning, he brought “65 people to deal with that 20 acres.” They also had nine engines, three water tenders and a helicopter as they started the day.

“We were making pretty good headway collecting all the spots, controlling the 20-acre slop-over, when a spot came up that we hadn’t had any people on and were not aware of,” Archie said. “Once it got going and started to branch out in the subalpine fir, it’s pretty alarming in the way it can spread.”

The prescribed burn turned into a wildfire by 1 p.m. in the upper portion of Gould Creek, growing from 20 to 100 acres in an hour. Archie said they couldn’t safely put people on it, so they called for an air tanker and retardant, as well as other resources. By 8 p.m. the Davis fire was estimated to cover 2,800 acres [later mapped at about 2,100 acres].

Confusion about the weather forecasts

During the formal investigation of the events surrounding the escape of the Davis prescribed fire, there will be a lot of scrutiny of the weather, the weather forecasts, and the requests for spot weather forecasts which are written specifically for the area of the fire. From our analysis of the spot weather forecasts available on the National Weather Service web sites, it appears that while two spots were requested on both Tuesday and Wednesday, August 24 and 25, it appears that the forecasts they received on Tuesday did not specifically, or at least clearly, provide detailed forecast information for Wednesday, the day the prescribed fire began.

But, the forecast the fire managers requested at 10:16 a.m on Wednesday did have a detailed forecast for Wednesday, Wednesday night, and Thursday.

Weather forecasts requested on Tuesday:

The District Ranger said they obtained a spot weather forecast from the National Weather Service on Tuesday. While the list of spot forecasts for Tuesday August 24 does not show any for the Davis fire, apparently two were issued, and show up on the lists for August 25 and August 26. It appears that the NWS lists them on the days when ignition was planned, rather than the date the forecasts were requested or issued…unless you want to be a conspiracy theorist and think they were written after the fact and back-dated.

The two spot forecasts requested on August 24 were issued 35 minutes apart, according to the data at the top of each of the forecasts. The predicted weather for the two is significantly different, possibly because the first request included weather observations, while the second did not. Knowing what the actual conditions are at the site can make it possible to provide a more accurate forecast. Unfortunately, the names of the NWS meteorologists who developed the forecasts are not identified on either of them.

The first forecast was requested at 1:59 p.m. and was “based on an ignition time of 10:00 MDT on August 26”, Thursday. It said a fire weather watch was in effect for Thursday afternoon, for very warm temperatures and gusty southwest winds along with the passage of a cold front. But while it had a detailed forecast for Thursday August 26, there was no forecast for Wednesday, the day the USFS ignited the prescribed fire.

The forecast requested at 2:34 also mentioned the fire weather watch for Thursday. The forecast was “based on an ignition time of 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 25”.  It had a “discussion” that mentioned “light terrain driven winds on steeper slopes”, and it had detailed forecasts for “today” and “tonight”, but does not clearly have a forecast for Wednesday. Since the forecast was written on Tuesday, August 24, a person would assume that a forecast for “today” and “tonight” referred to Tuesday.

Weather forecasts requested on Wednesday:

The Forest Service said they obtained a spot weather forecast on Wednesday. The NWS site lists two spot weather forecasts that were requested on Wednesday, one at 10:16 a.m and another at 7:51 p.m.  The list of spot forecasts on the NWS site for Aug. 25 lists three, but one of them was supposedly requested August 24 and was the forecast for August 24, but it proposed an ignition date of August 25.

The 10:16 a.m. forecast predicted a minimum relative humidity of 18-23% on Wednesday with wind gusts at 20 to 25 mph by the afternoon. For Thursday, the forecast included wind gusts to 40 mph by late afternoon with an RH of 10-15% .

The red flag warning was first mentioned in the 7:51 p.m. spot weather forecast, which also said the winds late in the afternoon on Thursday would gust up to 30 mph, and the minimum humidity would be 9-14%.

Weather forecast requested on Thursday:

One spot weather forecast was requested on Thursday, at 5:56 p.m. after the fire was declared a wildfire at 1:00 p.m. The forecast said the red flag warning would be in effect until midnight, for very low humidity, winds gusting up to 45 mph in exposed locations, and possible isolated thunderstorms with variable and erratic winds near the fire area.

Map and update of Davis escaped prescribed fire near Helena

UPDATE @ 9:15 p.m. MT, Aug. 27

The U. S. Forest Service has lifted the evacuation orders for some areas. More information is at InciWeb. They are now saying the fire has burned 2,050 2,800 acres as of approximately 6 p.m. today and it is 20% 5% contained. Jess Secrest’s Type 2 Incident Management Team will assume command of the fire at 9 p.m. tonight.

The weather forecast for the fire area brings some good news, including a 50-60% chance of rain Saturday night and Sunday morning. On Saturday the temperature will be 55 to 70, depending on the elevation, and winds should be light and variable, becoming 5-10 out of the northeast on the ridge tops in the afternoon.

Ellen Bacca, the meteorologist for the Helena NBC station, posted some photos related to the fire. I believe they were taken from Helena.


UPDATE @ 11:00 a.m. MT, Aug. 27

The weather forecast is more favorable for firefighters on the Davis fire today than the weather conditions were on Wednesday and Thursday. The temperatures will be much cooler, maxing out at 53-58 at the fire, however it will still be breezy with west winds of 15-25 gusting up to 35 in the morning . The RAWS weather station at Lincoln, 11 miles northwest of the fire, received 0.04″ of rain at 2 a.m. today, Friday.


map of davis fire August 27 2010
The map of the Davis fire shows heat detected by satellites during the early morning on Aug. 27. Click to see a larger version of the map.

The updated map of the Davis fire, an escaped prescribed fire between Lincoln and Helena, Montana, shows that the fire has spread to the east near the eastern boundary of the Helena National Forest.

Davis fire map 3-D 8-27-2010
A 3-D map showing heat detected on the Davis fire by satellites early on Aug. 27. We are looking West. Stemple Pass Road is on the right side of the map and the USFS boundary is the yellow line. The Red areas indicate the most recent heat. Click to see a larger version of the map.

The latest official update from the U.S. Forest Service late Thursday night said the fire had burned 2,000 acres and that “Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton has ordered evacuations of homes located at the top of Stemple Pass over to Highway 279 (Lincoln Road)”. There are some media reports that the fire has burned 2,800 acres.

Helenair.com has an article describing a public meeting on Thursday at which the USFS District Ranger for the area, Amber Kamps, talked about what they were thinking when they decided to conduct the prescribed fire on Wednesday. On Thursday the high temperature of 97 set a new record in Helena. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Continue reading “Map and update of Davis escaped prescribed fire near Helena”

Escaped prescribed fire near Helena, MT

Davis fire near Lincoln Montana
The map shows heat detected by satellites at 3:35 p.m. today from the Davis fire — in red southeast of Lincoln. Click to see a larger map.

UPDATE at 10:00 p.m. August 26:

KXLH is reporting that the fire has now burned about 2,800 acres and is threatening almost two dozen homes. Also:

On Thursday evening, fire officials held a town hall meeting to explain the situation. Forest Service Ranger Amber Kamps told the residents that when Forest Service officials began the prescribed burn on Wednesday, the weather was good. She said, “I can not tell you how sorry I am that we have to meet under these conditions. That you are having to go through this. I can’t make it up to you. I can just tell you I am sorry and we will do the best we can from this point forward,” Kamps says.


Davis fire near Helena and Lincoln
Davis fire, Aug. 26, 2010. Photo: markholyoak

Yesterday the Helena National Forest in Montana initiated a prescribed fire in the Virginia Creek area 11 miles southeast of Lincoln and 28 miles northwest of Helena. The fire weather forecast for today for western Montana included red flag warnings in three areas with the possibility of dry thunderstorms. Today the high temperature of 97 in Helena set a record that was two degrees higher than the highest ever recorded for this date. That, combined with strong winds and low humidities today contributed to “active burning and some spotting outside the planned fire area”, according to a news release from the U.S. Forest Service.

At 1 p.m. today the Davis fire was officially declared escaped and was designated a wildland fire. Helenair.com reported that the fire was spotting a half mile to a mile ahead. The Associated Press reported that the fire was pushed by 30 to 35 mph winds.

As of 5 p.m. today it had burned about 1,000 acres, structures were threatened, and the Sheriff had ordered evacuations of homes located at the top of Stemple Pass Pass over to Highway 279 (Lincoln Road).

Yesterday at the RAWS station in Lincoln the maximum temperature was 86 degrees, the minimum relative humidity was 13%, and the winds gusted up to 15 mph. Today at the same weather station the high was 91, the RH was 14%, and the maximum wind gust was 25 with an average wind speed of 5-10 in the afternoon.

The USFS said the prescribed fire was within prescription when they ignited it on Wednesday.

The video below is from KXLH.

UPDATE on August 27, 2010