NIMO team on fire complex near Seiad Valley

Residents of the Seiad Valley west of Yreka in northern California received a 12-hour evacuation notice today at 9:00 a.m. from the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department. The notice informs residents that the Goff Fire is approaching and that they may have to evacuate. The 12-hour notification process includes phone calls to residents’ land-line phones and door-to-door notification by the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department.

We’ll see if Siskiyou County is more on the ball than the Jefferson County system in Colorado was back in March. A reverse-911 system there, intended to automatically call residents to advise them to evacuate may have contributed to the three fatalities during the first few hours of the Lower North Fork Fire on March 26 southwest of Denver. All three victims on that fire called 9-1-1 during the early stages of the fire and talked to dispatchers, but they were not told to evacuate.

Although two of the three blazes in the Fort Complex have been mostly contained, the Goff Fire in the Klamath River drainage is still growing.

The Goff Fire is at 11,712 acres and 15 percent contained. Late last week, the southeast edge of the fire was about three miles from Seiad Valley, according to the Ashland Daily Tidings. “Our first priority is the protection of the Seiad Valley community,” said Mike Ferris, info officer with the USFS.

“A lot of our focus and attention is to reinforce the fireline around the southeast flank of the fire where it has the potential to come down and threaten the community,” Ferris said. “The work is all hand-line because there is no opportunity to use dozers.” Ferris said that crews are available to battle the Goff Fire. “We’re getting the resources we need. We had three hotshot crews come in this morning.”

A structure protection unit is assigned in case the fire approaches the community; they’re assessing structure defense along Seiad Creek Road.  Ferris said there are 85 homes and 10 outbuildings in the area.

Closures near the fire include a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. The 403-acre Lick Fire in the Applegate River drainage and the 977-acre Hello Fire in the Red Buttes Wilderness in the Fort Complex are no longer active; the Lick Fire is 97 percent contained and the Hello Fire is at 83 percent containment. Command of the Hello and Lick Fires has been transferred back to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. No additional updates on the Fruit or Lick Fires are expected unless conditions change. Both are in the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

All three fires in the complex were ignited by a thunderstorm during the first week of August.

Wildfire news, August 18, 2012

Followup on the fatality of Anne Veseth

The Associated Press has an article that provides more information about Anne Veseth, the firefighter that was killed by a falling snag on Sunday, August 12.

“Her cards were up,” said mother Claire Veseth, 55, a nurse in this college town. “It was an act of God.”

Los Angeles City FD adds another helicopter to its fleet

The Los Angeles City Fire Department is leasing an Erickson Air Crane for four months. This baby has a forward-pointing water cannon designed for high-rise fires. It can fill its tank two different ways, by the usual hover-and-draft  mode, or by lowering a pipe and scooping water as it flies at speed over a large water source.


42 uncontained large fires in the US

After having 70 uncontained large fires in the country on Wednesday, that number is now down to 40. The number of incident management teams committed, including Type 1, Type 2, NIMO, and Area Command, has declined from 31 to 28. Six military MAFFS C-130s are still actively working out of Boise and Sacramento.

Smoke from wildfires

The smoke map shows dense smoke in Idaho and also an interesting area of dense smoke over the Atlantic east of Maine.

Wildfire smoke map, 6:36 p.m. MT, August 18, 2012
Wildfire smoke map, 6:36 p.m. MT, August 18, 2012. NOAA (click to enlarge)

USFS issues RFI for Very Large Air Tankers

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a Request for Information which could lead to Call When Needed contracts for Very Large Air Tankers beginning next year continuing through 2015. 10 Tanker Air Carrier currently has a CWN contract for their two DC-10s, but it remains to be seen if any company with VLATs can succeed financially if they are only used for 60 to 100 hours each year, with no guarantees of ANY income. Evergreen in the past has not been interested in signing up their 20,000-gallon 747 Super Tanker on a CWN contract. The RFI specifies that the aircraft must be able to hold at least 10,000 gallons. The USFS expects to issue a Request for Proposals later in the year which they think could lead to one to three VLATs under CWN contracts in 2013. Or… it could lead to none.

National wildfire situation, and resources committed

Wildfire Summary, 5-day trend, August 16, 2012 by NPS

The National Park Service’s Morning Report issued on weekdays lists significant events that occur in National Parks but also includes tables (see above) showing the 5-day trends for the number of large fires and the number of Incident Management Teams that are committed. Today’s report shows that 31 IMTeams are assigned and there are 62 uncontained large fires.

The National MultiAgency Coordination Group (MAC Group, or “Big MAC”) still has the Preparedness Level set at 4. Theoretically, more state and federal employees are available for fire assignments at the higher levels, which top out at 5. Below are the descriptions of PL 4 and 5, according to the National Interagency Fire Center:

Preparedness Level 4: Three (3) or more Geographic Areas are experiencing incidents requiring Type 1 and 2 Incident Management Teams. Competition exists for resources between Geographic Areas. Nationally, 60% of Type 1 and 2 Incident Management Teams and crews are committed.

Preparedness Level 5: Geographic Areas are experiencing major incidents which have the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources. Eighty percent (80%) of Type 1 and Type 2 Incident Management Teams and crews are committed, as well as the majority of other National Resources.

It is difficult to determine how many IMTeams there are, since various criteria can be used to count or not count a team, for example, if it is supported locally, by a state, or by the federal government. Wikipedia (consider the source) states that there are 35 Type 2 IMTeams and 16 Type 1 IMTeams. In addition, there are three Area Command Teams and four National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams. Using these numbers, the grand total of teams is 58. According to the PL criteria, 80 percent, or 46.4 teams would have to be committed in order to move into PL 5.

So far this week there have been from 59 to 70 large uncontained fires burning in the United States, which is a very large number. Looking at the National Situation Report and the map of fires detected by satellites, an observer gets the impression that wildfire activity is very high. With 31 teams committed now, It is unlikely that an additional 15 teams will be activated.

In the next few weeks it will be interesting to see how subjective the PL criteria is, and when or if the Big MAC group will move from PL 4 to PL 5.

By the way, our contest to predict the date of entering PL 5 is still open.

Halstead Fire a long-term proposition

The Halstead Fire on the Salmon-Challis National Forest has burned more 18,500 acres, but winds thus far have pushed the fire to the northeast away from the town of Stanley. Boise State Public Radio reported that firefighters are focused on keeping the fire away from Highway 21.

Fire managers say the Halstead Fire will probably burn till the area experiences a “season-ending event.” Bruce Palmer, information officer on the NIMO team managing the fire, says the fire’s burning in rough terrain. “It’s nasty country with a lot of bug kill and heavy fuels,” he says. “And fire behavior has been extreme. The Halstead Fire will be a long-term event and will likely burn until September or even October.”

Halstead Fire morning inversion 07/31
Halstead Fire morning inversion 07/31

Though the fire is in the wilderness, crews will continue active suppression to keep the fire out of the Middle Fork of the Salmon and other recreation areas. The NIMO team managing the fire brings a lot of flexibility to the assignment; agency administrators sometimes prefer the NIMO team because of its long-term staffing option. “We can draw from the four different teams,” explains Palmer, “so we offer continuity in incident management for a fire that may burn for weeks or even months.” The NIMO teams aren’t subject to the 14-day time-outs in the same way that’s required of other incident management teams, because they can stagger their rest days or days off to maintain continuity of the command for the duration of the incident.

Several ranches and a Boy Scout camp were recently threatened by the fire; the camp was evacuated, according to the Idaho Statesman. The fire’s at 21,915 acres today with 332 personnel assigned.

Idaho fire gets NIMO team

The lightning-caused Halstead Fire northwest of Stanley, Idaho, is mapped at 5,047 acres. Resources assigned include six T1 crews, two T2 crews, two T1 helicopters and a T3 helicopter, two T6 engines, and two T4 engines.

Halstead Fire in Idaho
Halstead Fire in Idaho

The fire started on July 27 between Beaver Creek and Marsh Creek; it’s burning in subalpine fir and lodgepole pine. Firefighters are building fuel breaks along Beaver Creek Road; they’ve reported single and group tree torching on the fire. Houseman’s National Incident Management Organization team took command of the fire early this morning.

An Emergency Area Closure was issued yesterday for all access points to the Cape Horn Area, all access to the Seafoam Bubble, all access to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness east of the Middle Fork Wild and Scenic River Corridor, east of Bluebunch Ridge, and north of Lola Creek, the area northwest of the Knapp-Loon Trail and west of the Pinyon-Feltham Road. In addition, the Pinyon Peak Road in its entirety is closed.

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.