Whitewater-Baldy fire adds 40,000 acres; may exceed 360,000 acres

Whitewater-Baldy fire 307 am MDT May 27, 2012
Map of the Whitewater-Baldy fire, showing heat detected by satellites at 3:07 a.m. MDT May 27, 2012. The red and orange areas were the most recently burned.

The Whitewater-Baldy fire on Saturday, pushed by strong southwest winds gusting up to 37 mph, added another 40,000 acres and ran 12 miles beyond Highway 159 toward the northeast as far as Reserve-Beaverhead Road. The fire has now blackened a total of 122,000 acres, but that may pale in comparison to the ultimate size of this monster fire. The Incident Management Team has  planned a fireline which would triple its size to over 360,000 acres. The Team apparently concluded that this may be the only viable alternative. The fire continually outflanks the shorthanded firefighters, with the rapid rate of spread exceeding their capabilities to construct effective fireline.

Massive burnout operations from indirect firelines miles from the main fire are not unprecedented on major fires. In recent memory they have been used, mostly successfully, on fires on the Los Padres National Forest in southern California, including the Basin Complex, Indians, Iron Alps, and Zaca fires. Bill Molumby who was Incident Commander of a Type 1 Incident Management Team during phases of these fires, successfully directed (along with others) huge burnouts that ultimately stopped the spread of the fires after they had burned for weeks or months. But implementing large, risky plans like these require the best of the best — highly skilled and experienced Incident Commanders, Operations Section Chiefs, Division Supervisors, and firefighters on the ground. They can take weeks or months to complete, and we hope that the necessary personnel, equipment, and firefighters can be found that can safely execute such an ambitious plan. Maybe Bill Molumby, or someone else equally skilled, can be brought out of retirement to assist during the next several weeks or months.

And there is always the chance that the weather will change and mother nature will put out the fire.

Whitewater-Baldy fire, the 141 Road, 5-26-2012, NWS photo
Whitewater-Baldy fire. The 141 Road. May 26, 2012. NWS photo

So far the relatively small force of 586 personnel, 26 Engines, 2 Dozers, 4 helicopters, and 2 air tankers has been largely ineffective in suppressing the fire. As we noted on Saturday, the number of resources assigned to this 122,000-acre fire is much less than was on the 4,100-acre Banner fire earlier this week which had 73 engines, 2 dozers, 6 air tankers, 7 helicopters, 47 hand crews, and 965 personnel. Thanks to the aggressive initial attack and favorable weather, the Banner fire is expected to be fully contained on Monday. But the degree of difficulty facing the firefighters on the Whitewater-Banner fire is real, with rough country, and powerful winds.

Smoke from the fire is having a significant impact over much of the United States, as you can see from the map below. Some residents of Colorado are detecting a strong odor of smoke and are assuming that there is a nearby fire, but depending on their location, it is most likely coming from the Whitewater-Baldy fire in western New Mexico.

Dense and very visible smoke is drifting into the Albuquerque area, 150 miles northeast of the fire, as seen in this video.

Smoke map - 913 pm MDT, May 26, 2012
Smoke map - 9:13 p.m. MDT, May 26, 2012. NOAA

On Saturday the fire spread to within 2.6 miles of Mogollon, which is frequently described as a ghost town, but has structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Whitewater-Baldy fire grows to 82,252 acres; 12 cabins burned

Whitewater-Baldy fire 0800 MDT May 25, 2012
Map of the Whitewater-Baldy fire, showing heat detected by satellites at 8:00 a.m. MDT May 25, 2012

The Whitewater-Baldy fire in southwest New Mexico grew on Thursday to 82,252 acres. The Incident Management Team announced that 12 cabins have burned as well as 13 outbuildings. Below is an update provided by the IMTeam on InciWeb:


Friday, May 25, 2012 – AM Update: The Whitewater-Baldy Complex grew yesterday to a total of 82,252 acres. Fire behavior was not as extreme as was observed the previous two days. The complex continues to burn in steep, rugged terrain consisting of mixed conifer and continues to be primarily wind and terrain driven. The Whitewater Fire merged with the Baldy Fire on Wednesday, May 23, causing suppression and incident management forces to combine into Whitewater-Baldy Complex.

The fire is currently burning on 3 Ranger Districts, the Glenwood, Reserve and Wilderness Ranger Districts along with an area of private land known as Willow Creek Subdivision. Twelve cabins have been confirmed as lost in this subdivision along with 13 out-buildings. There were NO additional structures lost in the last 24 hours in the Willow Creek Subdivision. Personnel from New Mexico State Forestry and U.S. Forest made all necessary contacts with effected landowners yesterday. Structural protection and damage assessment continue in Willow Creek and structure protection assessments were also initiated in the village of Mogollon.

Due to extreme fire behavior, proximity to private land, and continued high winds forecasted, Tony Sciacca’s Southwest Type 1 Fire Management Team was ordered and arrived in Reserve yesterday. They will assume command of the complex on Saturday morning.

The complex remains at 0% containment as firefighters are unable to directly suppress the fire due to extreme fire behavior and rough terrain. They were, however, able to directly and successfully attack a few spot fires out ahead of the fire on the north end. Crews will continue their hard work today in preparing fire lines across and along the Mineral Creek drainage. Indirect fire line was constructed to the north from Bursum Road to Log Canyon trail connecting to a jeep trail.

Winds are predicted to continue to challenge fire fighters today and tomorrow, shifting from a southwesterly wind to more of a southern wind. Firefighters will be carefully monitoring winds as they continue their efforts. Smoke impacts continue to be substantial in communities to the east and northeast of the complex. A voluntary-evacuation of the town of Mogollon continues to be in effect. Approximately 506 personnel are currently assigned to the fire.

See the latest update on the Whitewater-Baldy fire, dated May 27, 2012.

Whitewater and Baldy fires burn together in New Mexico

Whitewater and Baldy fires May 24, 2012
Map of the Whitewater and Baldy fires May 24, 2012. The dots represent heat that was detected by satellites. The red dots are the most recent, and were recorded at 2:37 a.m. MDT, May 24.

UPDATE at 5:51 p.m. MDT, May 24, 2012: The Incident Management Team has mapped the now-merged fire at 70,579 acres. They have posted a map HERE.


Two large wildfires have burned together in southwest New Mexico. Strong winds on Wednesday caused extreme fire behavior and rapid fire spread on the Whitewater and Baldy fires. A weather station 5 miles northwest of the fire recorded west winds of 15 to 21 mph with gusts up to 39 late in the day on Wednesday. Firefighters had to disengage from their assignment at the Willow Creek summer home area because of the extreme conditions and long-range spotting. The fire has come out of the Gila Wilderness and on to the Gila National Forest in the Willow Creek Subdivision and crossed State Road 159 at the Silver Creek Divide and is working its way into Mineral Creek.

HERE is a link to a more detailed map of the Whitewater-Baldy fire than the one shown above.

Baldy Fire, looking SE down Whiskey Canyon May 21
Baldy Fire, looking SE down Whiskey Canyon May 21. Gila National Forest photo.

The weather forecast for Thursday will not provide much relief. It includes a Red Flag Warning with southwest winds of 22-24 mph with gusts up to 36 mph, and a relative humidity in the low teens.

Earlier on Wednesday the sizes of the Whitewater and Baldy fires were reported to be 10,100 and 15,000 acres, respectively. The agencies have not said what the new combined acreage is after the merger of the two fires, but we did some very rough calculations using Google Earth, and it appears to be at least 40,000 to 60,000 acres.

A Type 1 Incident Management Team led by Incident Commander Tony Sciacca has been ordered. The new name of the fire is Whitewater-Baldy Complex.

UPDATED information about the Whitewater-Baldy fire, May 26, 2012.

NIOSH releases report on CR 337 fire, fatality in Texas

Caleb Hamm
Caleb Hamm

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has released a report on the death of BLM Hotshot crewmember Caleb Hamm, who died from hyperthermia, a heat related illness. (The most severe form of hyperthermia is heat stroke.)  Mr. Hamm was working on the CR 337 fire near Mineral Wells, Texas with the Bonneville Interagency Hotshot Crew when he collapsed and died July 7, 2011.

His parents, including his mother, Lynette Hamm, believe the official BLM report on the fatality has errors and suspects that the agency has not been completely forthcoming in an attempt to hide errors or mistakes in judgement. Ms. Hamm has said she wants all the facts to be disclosed so that other parents of firefighters will not have to bury their sons and daughters.

A television station in Utah, KSL, did a story on the incident.

Here is an excerpt from the article at KSL TV, which quotes Martin Buzbee, a city official from Mineral Wells, Texas who acts as the GIS mapping coordinator. :

…”I kept waiting and waiting for a medevac helicopter to be flown in and take care of the patient,” Buzbee said.

The medical helicopter and ambulance were parked just a few miles away. They were supposed to be called in according to the BLM’s own emergency plan, but the BLM was trying to use its own helicopter.

“They were reconfiguring a helicopter from the fire: from dropping water with a bucket, taking the bucket off and to try to medevac the patient in,” Buzbee described.

Eventually, the BLM did call in the civilian helicopter and ambulance. Official reports said the delay was 20 minutes; however, Buzbee believes it was more like 45 minutes.

Hamm was taken by ambulance from Drop Point Twenty and pronounced dead at the hospital. The incident was investigated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH concluded the 20 minute delay did not contribute to Hamm’s death. But Buzbee believes if the BLM had called the medical helicopter to the top of the hill immediately, it might have made all the difference.

Below is an excerpt from the NIOSH report which was released May 14, 2012.



On June 23, 2011, a 23-year-old male seasonal wildland fire fighter (FF) on an interagency hot shot crew (IHC) deployed from his duty station in Utah to fight wildland fires in Georgia and Texas. After fighting fires in Georgia for 4 days, the crew was dispatched to Texas. After travelling for 3 days, then staging for 3 days, the crew began fire fighting on July 4, 2011.

On the morning of July 7, 2011, the FF was assigned swamper duties (clearing limbs after tree-cutting) to construct a fireline followed by cold trail operations (a component of mop-up) with a hand tool. After lunch, the FF refilled his water supply and continued securing the fireline and mopping up for about 1.5 hours. After being left alone for a short period of time, the FF was found unconscious at approximately 1550 hours. The weather was sunny and hot: a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (°F), relative humidity of 24% with minimal wind (1 to 3 miles per hour).

Initial assessment by the crew’s emergency medical technician (EMT) suggested the FF suffered from heat-related illness (HRI). Air Attack was notified as the crew EMTs provided basic HRI care at this remote location (the FF’s pack and shirt were removed, he was doused with water, and a tarp was held up for shade). Local emergency medical service (EMS) units (ambulance and Air Evacuation helicopter) were not notified of the incident for about 20 minutes due to uncertain drop point coordinates. This delay, however, did not delay advanced life support (ALS) treatment because it took 45 minutes to extract the FF to the drop point where the local EMS units were waiting.

Approximately 30 minutes after his collapse, the FF’s condition deteriorated; respiratory arrest was followed by cardiac arrest, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was begun.

Approximately 15 minutes after his cardiac arrest the FF arrived at the drop point and the local, ambulance and Air Evacuation units initiated advanced life support (ALS) but their treatment protocols for exertional heatstroke did not include cold/ice water immersion therapy. When the FF arrived at the hospital ED a core temperature of 108° F was documented and ALS continued for an additional 5 minutes. At 1703 hours the attending physician pronounced the FF dead and resuscitation efforts were stopped.

The autopsy report listed the cause of death as “hyperthermia.” NIOSH investigators agree with the Medical Examiner’s assessment. NIOSH investigators conclude that the FF’s hyperthermia was precipitated by moderate to heavy physical exertion in severe weather conditions. These factors led to exertional heatstroke.

All of the IHC members were exposed to heat stress (hot environmental conditions). Most IHC members interviewed by NIOSH reported symptoms consistent with HRI (feeling hot, feeling tired/fatigued/exhausted, weakness, headache, or nausea). Although indicators of heat strain were not measured (core body temperature, heart rates), on the basis of the environmental conditions and the reported symptoms, NIOSH investigators concluded that many of the IHC crewmembers had mild to moderate HRI.

Fatal exertional heatstroke is extremely rare among wildland fire fighters; this was the first reported case in the Agency’s 65-year history and only the second reported federal wildland fire fighter to die from heatstroke according to wildland fire service records. Agency records, however, show that less severe cases of HRIs and dehydration are more common; 255 cases occurred over the past 12 years. NIOSH considers cases of HRI to be “sentinel health events” [NIOSH 1986]. Sentinel health events are preventable diseases, disabilities, or deaths whose occurrence serves as a warning signal that preventive or therapeutic care may be inadequate [Rutstein et al. 1983].

To prevent HRI and heatstroke, a number of organizations have developed guidelines for determining when environmental conditions are too hot to continue training, sporting, or work activities. The environmental conditions during this incident exceeded these guidelines. NIOSH investigators offer the following safety and health recommendations to reduce heat stress, heat strain, and prevent future cases of HRI and exertional heatstroke among wildland fire fighters. Implementing these recommendations will demonstrate a continuing commitment to improve the safety culture of the wildland fire service.

  • Strengthen the Agency’s current heat stress program with the following components:
    • instruct fire fighters and command staff that hydration alone will not prevent HRI;
    • develop re-acclimatization schedules for wildland fire fighters not working for more than 4 days;
    • measure environmental heat conditions using a Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer (WBGT);
    • when heat stress criteria are exceeded, discontinue physically demanding training according to the guidelines developed independently by the United States (U.S.) Army/Air Force and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM);
    • when heat stress criteria are exceeded, require hourly work/recovery cycles according to NIOSH and ACGIH guidelines, particularly when the operation does not involve rescue operations;
    • when heat stress screening criteria are exceeded, consider monitoring fire fighters for signs of heat strain;
    • when heat stress screening criteria are exceeded, consider a bimodal shift or two shifts;
    • consider incorporating a screening checklist for heatstroke risk factors into the Agency’s medical screening and medical examination program;
  • Always work in pairs and/or be in direct communication with crewmembers.
  • Promptly alert local EMS units of a medical emergency per Incident Command protocols.
  • When exertional heatstroke is suspected, inform responding EMS units of the potential need for cold/ice water immersion therapy.
  • Seek input from crewmembers and frontline supervisors about removing barriers, real or perceived, to reporting or seeking medical attention for heat strain or HRI.
  • Consider cases of HRI, particularly severe cases such as heatstroke or rhabdomyolysis that result in death or hospitalization, as a sign that the current heat stress program is inadequate.
  • Consider incorporating members of the Department’s Safety Office into the Operations Management Team.
(end of excerpt)


It is interesting that one of the NIOSH recommendations was to use a Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer (WBGT). In 1972 when I was on the El Cariso Hot Shots, a research organization paid the salary of one of the crewmembers that year, Tom Sadowski, to monitor three people on every fire, recording their pulse at regular intervals while they worked, what they ate, weather conditions, and other criteria. Tom also carried a WBGT, which was a thermometer with a three-inch black sphere on the end which had to be wet when readings were taken. The concept was that as the water evaporated the WBGT took into account the ambient temperature, the effect of wind on the evaporation, cooling from evaporation, and radiant heat from the fire or the sun. I don’t know what became of the research and the huge amount of data that Tom collected. Maybe there is a paper floating around out there somewhere.

UPDATE: Ken, in a comment, found the report from the study. The paper was first published in 1974 and a summary appears in a 1975 edition of Fire Management on page 16.

The recommendations the researchers made still seem applicable today. Interestingly, they suggest using a wet globe thermometer in order to “recognize heat stress situations”, which is similar to one of the recommendations made in the recent NIOSH report. This recommendation has been on the books for about 38 years. Maybe it’s time the agencies involved in wildfire suppression took action on it.

Perhaps every safety officer on a fire should have one when heat stress is a possibility. It might save a life.

Google Search found WBGTs listed for sale at $150 to $230.


UPDATE May 16, 2012:

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and the International Association of Wildland Fire are hosting a webinar titled Wildland Firefighter Heat Illness Awareness and Prevention on May 17 at 1:00 p.m. PDT. More info HERE.



Wildfire morning briefing, May 9, 2012

It is dry in much of the southwestern and eastern United States

Average precipitation, January through April, 2012:

map percent of average precipitation

Drought conditions as of May 1, 2012:

Map drought conditions

Escaped prescribed fires complicate future projects in Australia

Last year we first wrote about the prescribed fire in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park that escaped on November 23, 2011 and pushed by strong winds, destroyed 40 structures and burned over 8,400 acres in western Australia. Residents who had refused to evacuate later had to take refuge from the fire at the ocean on a beach. They were rescued by jet ski and ferried to a search and rescue boat offshore. The report on the incident was very critical of the government’s prescribed fire program, saying some employees of the Department of Environment and Conservation were overworked and performing above their skill levels.

A recent article in The Independent examines further the prescribed fire program in Australia in light of the recent failures. Here is an excerpt:

…A lobby group called the Bush Fire Front, which was set up by a group of retired foresters in western Australia, is also predicting dire consequences unless the burning programme is “greatly expanded”. The Front’s chairman, Roger Underwood, deplores a backlash against DEC’s staff, who have stopped wearing uniforms after being hissed at and abused in the Margaret River shops.

“DEC has been looking after their fire safety for years, doing all the dirty work,” says Mr Underwood. “They make one mistake and are crucified for it.”

However, as locals point out, it was not just one mistake. On the day of the fire, another controlled burn escaped near Nannup, east of Margaret River, incinerating 125,000 acres of national park and state forest, and damaging a farm part-owned by Stewart and Alison Scott. Mr Scott was about to start the afternoon’s milking when he saw flames sweeping towards his property. He dashed over to warn his family, but the smoke was so thick that one of his farmhands – who had leapt on a quad bike – collided with a car. The man suffered head injuries and spent months in Royal Perth Hospital.

California wildfire burns structures

A wildfire near Acton, California in southern California yesterday burned 126 acres and several structures. Inspector Quvondo Johnson of Los Angeles County Fire Department said an aggressive air attack, which included five helicopters and fixed wing air tankers, helped the crews on the ground contain the fire.

CAL FIRE sent S-2 air tankers from Porterville and Hemet, 120 miles and 90 miles from the fire, respectively. There were no federal air tankers at the air tanker base at Landcaster, 18 miles from the fire. The DC-10 very large air tankers are based at Victorville, 60 miles east of Acton.

Is fire suppression causing water shortages?

An opinion piece in the LA Times claims the 100-year old policy of wildfire suppression in the United States has caused water shortages. The theory is that over-stocked forests that have become that way due to successful suppression of fires, have locked up moisture in the trees and reduced runoff. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Today, the hottest and thirstiest parts of the United States are best described as over-forested. Vigorous federal protection has stocked semiarid regions of public land with several billion trees too many. And day after day these excess trees deplete a natural resource that has become far more precious than toilet paper or 2-by-4’s: water.

I will have to go on record as being skeptical of this trees-causing-water-shortage theory.

2011 summary of incident reviews

The Wildfire Lessons Learned Center has released a report summarizing the information gleaned from the seventy-eight 2011 incident review reports—from various agencies—submitted to and gathered by the LLC.

New Mexico establishes fire notification system

The state of New Mexico has established a system by which residents can be notified about wildfires. Emails will contain information including when the fire started, the cause, and a description of threatened homes and communities. For now, the system will send people who sign up for the service information about all fires within the state. Later it will be refined so that notifications can be filtered to more specific locations, such as counties. Anyone can sign up HERE.


Thanks go out to Johnny and Dick.

NM: Trigo fire

The Incident Management Team on the Trigo fire southeast of Albuquerque, NM, just made the first map available since the fire made the big runs of April 30 through May 2. The acreage now is 13,790 and the Team is calling it 35% contained. The weather has moderated, making it possible for firefighters to make more progress. They are reporting that “less than 100 homes were damaged”.

The map shows the progression of the fire day by day. Click on it to see a larger version. (The map, which was on Inciweb, is no longer availiable.)