A fire with an interesting name

And, Contain vs. Control

Ojo de los Casos Fire
Ojo de los Casos Fire. Undated Inciweb photo.

It is unusual for a large fire to have more than two words in the fire’s name, not counting the word “fire”. And it is not common for a fire name to be a multi-word phrase. Fire agency employees whose jobs entail completing forms or maintaining records get grumpy when they have to write or type over and over, a long fire name or one that may lead to misspelling.

A fire 17 miles southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico on the Cibola National Forest is named “Ojo de los Caso Fire”. Since it was reported on July 8 the blaze has burned 180 acres of timber, brush, and grass.

The names for many fires are derived from a nearby landmark. I asked the Fire Information Officer Andrea Chavez how the fire was named and what it means in English:

Depending on the map you look at, there are various colloquial names for a spring in Cañon de Chilili near the origin of this fire, including “ojo la casa” and “ojo los caso”. Therefore, firefighters initially on scene dubbed the fire Ojo de los Casos

Ojo de los Casos colloquially translates to Spring of the Cause. However, it is possible this name was derived from an older nomenclature, Ojo de Casa (House Spring), which has been found on older maps of the area.

On Wildfire Today we rarely regurgitate containment percentages that are put out by Incident Commanders, because the numbers are unreliable. I have seen too many large fires that had miles of cold fireline that officially had zero or 10 percent containment. Too often this number appears to be grabbed out of the air with no effort to be accurate. Other times it can be a conscious effort to deceive. An incident commander may think that by publicizing a low containment number, it can be easier to hang on to resources, or to rank higher in priority among fires that are competing for scarce resources. They may also think it makes it easier to justify maintaining evacuations. Other incident commanders actually base the containment on the portion of the perimeter where the spread has been stopped by a fireline.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has a very extensive glossary of wildland fire terms. Their definition of “contain” is:

The status of a wildfire suppression action signifying that a control line has been completed around the fire, and any associated spot fires, which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread.

The incident management team on the Ojo de los Casos Fire posted on InciWeb July 11 that the fire was 10 percent contained. They also described on InciWeb what containment means to them:

Percent containment is based off the actual amount of containment line that is safe enough to leave unattended without worries of heat, embers or hot spots flaring up and having potential to cross that line allowing additional growth of the fire.

I asked Ms Chavez where they got their definition. She said:

Our incident commander and operations personnel elaborated on [the NWCG] definition to provide more detail based on their many years of experience and training.

Later that day an update appeared on the fire’s InciWeb page that was devoted to the concept of containment. It reads in part,

Complete “containment” is the ultimate goal for the fire management team in command of fire suppression activities.


My Opinion

The ultimate goal of firefighters is to put out a fire, or “declare it out”. The step before that is control. And before that, containment.

NWCG Glossary:

Controlled — The completion of control line around a fire, any spot fires therefrom, and any interior islands to be saved; burned out any unburned area adjacent to the fire side of the control lines; and cool down all hotspots that are immediate threats to the control line, until the lines can reasonably be expected to hold under the foreseeable conditions.

The Incident Commander and the operations personnel on the Ojo de los Casos Fire are conflating Contain and Control.

In my mind, Contain is to have a good, solid fire line without a great deal of residual heat near the line. It would still require patrol and mopup but the spread has been stopped at that location. That leaves open the unlikely chance that the fire can cross that section of line if something unexpected happens.

Control is the next step — mopup is complete near the fire line, burning out is complete, snags have been dealt with. At 100 percent control the Incident Commander and the Operations Section Chief are staking their reputation on their assessments that the fire will not spread beyond the established firelines.

When a fire is “Out”, there is no combustion occurring.

Ojo de los Casos Fire
Ojo de los Casos Fire. Undated Inciweb photo.

Forecast for wildfire smoke, June 20, 2020

Forecast for the distribution of smoke from wildfires Saturday evening

Forecast for wildfire smoke
Forecast for the distribution of smoke from wildfires at 7 p.m. MDT June 20, 2020. NOAA HRRR-Smoke

The forecast for the distribution of smoke from wildfires at 7 p.m. MDT Saturday looks rather bleak for areas of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Wildfire potential in the southwest is higher than in 2019

The Energy Release Component in Arizona and New Mexico is average or above for the date, but considerably higher than last year

Energy Release Component New Mexico
Energy Release Component, average of fire weather stations in New Mexico.

For the past two weeks most of the largest wildfires in the United States have been in Arizona, and recently the number of fires in New Mexico has also been increasing.

One of the reasons for this trend is reflected in the Energy Release Component (ERC) which is monitored from data collected at dozens of fire weather stations in the two states.

The ERC is an index indicating how hot a fire could burn. It is directly related to the 24-hour, potential worst case within the flaming front at the head of a fire.

The ERC can serve as a good characterization of a fire season since it tracks seasonal fire danger trends well. Fuel loading, woody fuel moistures, and larger fuel moistures all have an influence on the ERC, while the lighter fuels have less influence and wind speed has none. ERC has low variability, and is the best fire danger component for indicating the effects of intermediate to long-term drying on fire behavior.

Energy Release Component Arizona
Energy Release Component, average of fire weather stations in Arizona.

During the first six months of 2019 the statewide averages of ERC in Arizona and New Mexico were significantly below average, especially during May and June. So far during those two months this year the average ERCs have been slightly above average or well above. For the past week or so the statewide averages in the southwest have been above the 90th percentile and are nearing the 97th.

Click here to see ERC details at each of the fire weather stations in Arizona and New Mexico.

The weather forecasts for the next couple of weeks indicate that there is not much reason to think the ERCs will dip below average. WeatherUnderground predicts little or no rain in Phoenix, Flagstaff, or Albuquerque through the end of June. But the National Weather Service’s 8-14 day outlook predicts slightly higher probability of precipitation during that 7-day period, but with higher than normal temperatures.

8-14 day temperature and precipitation
8-14 day temperature and precipitation forecast. NWS.

On June 1 the Predictive Services office at the National Interagency Fire Center concluded the fire potential during June and July would be higher than normal in northwest New Mexico and most of Arizona.

potential wildfires fires weather forecast predictionpotential wildfires fires weather forecast prediction

Below are excerpts from NIFC’s June 1 wildfire outlook in the section about Arizona and New Mexico:

“Above Normal significant large fire potential is expected across most of Arizona and northwestern New Mexico through mid-July followed by a return to Normal potential after mid-July as the monsoon arrives. Other locations across the region can expect Normal significant large fire potential.

“Over the past two months, average high temperatures have been from 1-4 degrees above Average west of the divide and generally between 2-6 degrees above average further east. Some spots in eastern New Mexico have seen high temperatures from 6-8 degrees above average. As far as precipitation, most portions of the region have seen much drier conditions over the past 60 days.

“Significant Large Fire potential is anticipated to remain Normal for many areas east of the [Continental] Divide during the month of June while most portions of Arizona into northwestern and northern New Mexico will experience Above Normal significant large fire potential. The fine fuels will be the continued focus of fire activity entering June until the larger fuels become receptive mid-month and remain so until the monsoon’s arrival in mid-July.”

New Mexico and Arizona are currently the wildfire hot spots

Large fires Arizona and New Mexico wildfires
Map showing some of the recent large fires in Arizona and New Mexico. June 11, 2020.

The map shows 13 of the more significant wildfires that have occurred in Arizona and New Mexico over the last several days. Firefighters in southeast Arizona, in particular, have been very busy.

Former inmate firefighters establish forestry company

All Around Forestry
All Around Forestry photo

Former inmates that acquired skills while they were incarcerated are making use of that training and experience in the woods of New Mexico.

Lawrence Jaramillo and Joshua Melendrez became qualified as wildland firefighters and chain saw operators while serving time in Los Lunas prison. The Inmate Workers Camp program (IWC) taught them the basics of wildland firefighting.

After they spent three years in prison the two of them formed a private company, All Around Forestry LLC.

I talked with Mr. Jaramillo Friday just after the final inspection was completed on the largest project they have worked on since the company was issued a business license in November. On the 13-acre job the company’s six employees thinned dog hair thickets, removed some large trees, and otherwise reduced hazardous fuels around structures at the Ponderosa Christian Camp in the Jemez Mountains. He said they have submitted bids on other projects that they hope to hear from soon.

Mr. Melendrez told us, “The cool thing about it is that every single one of our employees with us are wildland fire certified as well,” he said. “We all have done the program. We all went through as ADs for New Mexico State Forestry [after we got out of prison] — went on fires and fought fires with each other for quite some time now. We all have the knowledge of what needs to be done, and to do it thoroughly as well.”

They want to realize what is implied in the company’s name, All Around Forestry LLC, and hope to provide additional services such as a 20-person crew and a fire engine.

All Around Forestry
All Around Forestry photo

Below is an excerpt from an article at KOAT:

For these men it’s about giving people like them a second chance.

“A lot of people are happy and proud to see, I guess, a success story,” Melendrez said. “We owe a lot of it to IWC but it’s also our own mindset to be better for ourselves.”

“They’ve been doing an amazing amount of work, they’ve gotten an amazing amount done,” Ponderosa Christian Camp board director Craig Mathews said. “We hope this is just a spring board for them, and that they’re very successful in the projects they get awarded in the future.”

Not only is it an opportunity to grow, but also a chance to go at life a different way this time.

“We did wrong in the past but that’s not us anymore, we’ve changed our lives completely,” Melendrez said.

Jaramillo said they are looking for other clients to do business with, as well as other former inmates who want to join the company.

“Fire is inevitable”

tree density wildfires exclusion
A screengrab from a video below illustrating how the number of trees per acre can increase if fires are excluded from an area.

In the first two in a series of 12 videos produced by the Santa Fe National Forest in Northern New Mexico, Fuels Program Manager Dennis Carril discusses the inevitability of vegetation fires and how fuel, standing trees and deep layers of litter, can build up as a result of fire exclusion. Each video is less than three minutes long.

The videos are “unlisted” on YouTube, however they have been promoted on Twitter by @SantafeNF and @DOIWildlandFire.