Wildfire briefing, February 27, 2013

Fire burns 407 acres near Lone Pine, California

Map of River FireCAL FIRE expects to fully contain the River Fire on Thursday which has burned 407 acres east of Lone Pine, California. Thick brush and winds measured at 25 mph challenged the 500 firefighters that initially fought the blaze after it started on Sunday. Remaining on the fire Wednesday morning are 234 personnel, 11 engines, 6 crews, and 2 water tenders. CAL FIRE is calling it 85 percent contained.

Oregon may regulate exploding targets and sky lanterns

A bill has been introduced in the Oregon legislature, HB 3199, that would prohibit the use of sky lanterns (or fire balloons), exploding targets, and tracer ammunition on land within the boundaries of a forest protection district. (UPDATE: the bill was signed by the Governor and will take effect January 1, 2014.)

“Concealed carry is a right, target shooting is not”

Those were the words of Utah state senator Margaret Dayton who resurrected her bill that would give the state forester the authority to ban target shooting on state lands during periods of enhanced wildfire danger. Earlier she withdrew the bill after it received criticism from some shooting enthusiasts. The bill passed the Senate this week along with another that would allow firefighters to access water on privately owned land to aid them in fire suppression efforts.

According to Utah State Forester Dick Buehler, of the 1,528 fires in the state in 2012, 33 were caused by target shooting which cost over $16 million to suppress. In October, 2012 when we wrote about the increasing number of fires started by target shooters using exploding targets, we found 10 fires started by these devices in Utah over a 5-month period last year. One of them burned over 5,500 acres.

Colorado Senate considers legislation regulating prescribed fires

A bill is speeding through the Colorado Senate that would add safeguards to prescribed fires conducted in the state. Senate Bill 13-083 would:

  • Establish control over prescribed burning within the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety;
  • “Prescribed Burn Managers” must be certified by the Division for prescribed fires occurring on state lands or conducted by state agencies on private lands. This does not apply to “burning conducted by an agency of the federal government”;
  • A Prescribed Burn Manager must be on site during a prescribed burn “until the fire is adequately confined to reasonably prevent escape”;
  • Allows the Division to collect fees for providing training and certifications.

Getting manufactured crisis fatigue?

While the people we send to Washington to conduct the nation’s business have not passed a federal budget in four years, and they propel us from one manufactured crisis to another, some of us may tire of the hype as we reel from one ridiculous deadline to another. Unfortunately the impacts on the land management agencies from the budget cuts required by the sequester will be significant unless they are reversed within the next few weeks.

On October 13, we first wrote about the sequester, which will require federal wildland fire programs to be cut by at least $218 million, or 8.2 percent.

Here are some excerpts from an article at the Union Democrat with examples of impacts on the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service in California:

The Associated Press obtained a Park Service memo Friday that detailed some of the planned Yosemite cuts. Staff reductions would end guided ranger programs at Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, eliminate a program in which 3,500 volunteers provide 40,000 hours of activities and mean less frequent trash pickup due to loss of campground staff.

Park administrators fear that less frequent trash pickup would potentially attract bears into campgrounds.

Seasonal road closures like that of Tioga Road may be extended later than usual because there will be less staff available to clear snow.

“The reductions would limit the National Park Service’s ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season. Local communities and businesses that rely on recreation to support their livelihoods would face a loss of income from reduced visitation to national parks.”

In the Stanislaus National Forest, cuts could reduce funds available for fuels reductions that help prevent catastrophic forest fires. About $134 million in lost wildland fire management funds would lead to as many as 200,000 fewer acres treated nationwide, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter dated Feb. 5 to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Forest Service is also prepared to close up to 670 of 19,000 developed recreation sites nationwide, such as campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads, according to Vilsack.

Webinar today: Debunking Myths in Wildland Fire

Today from 1 until 2 p.m. MT:

Sarah McCaffrey will present findings from recent research on social issues of fire management with particular emphasis on the accuracy of various accepted truths about the public and fire management and the variables that actually are associated with approval of different fire management practices.

More info and registration details.

Thanks go out to George

Report released on serious injury while suppressing fire aided by ropes

Ropes FLA, cover

A facilitated learning analysis has been released for a serious injury that occurred while firefighters were taking suppression action on an extremely steep slope above the Columbia River Gorge on the border between Washington and Oregon.

That portion of the Milepost 66 fire was too steep for firefighters to work without some form of protection or a fall arrest device. An engine crew from the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area certified in tree climbing and low angle rope use was assigned to work the slope using ropes. The CRGNSA is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Two crew members rappelled down the slope, taking action on hot spots they ran across. They arrived at a bench and mopped up more of the fire. When finished, they rappelled down to the highway below. What happened next is in the excerpt below:

…As crew member #2 reached the edge, or lip, of the 70’ cliff, he though “it’s a little loose,” meaning that rock was falling from the slope below the bench. The loose rock was also noticed by someone watching from below. Crew member #2 continued his descent down the rope when his hand tool got stuck about 20’ below the lip. He reached back to make an adjustment and continue his descent. At the halfway point crew member #2 called crew member #1, “I just got hit by a rock.” Crew member #3 was at the HWY taking photos and witnessed a rock fall and hit crew member #2. Crew member #3 didn’t see where the rock came from but estimated the rock was the size of a small melon or softball. This happened approximately 30’ above the HWY. Crew member #2 paused and then continued the descent to the HWY. Crew member #3 called out to #2, “are you OK?”, received no response and started moving toward #2. By the time crew member #3 arrived, #2 said he wasn’t doing well. Crew member #2 was bleeding and had some deformity on the left side of his face. Crew member #3 removed #2’s harness and called for the trauma kit from the engine. Crew member #3 said it was obvious that Crew member #2 was in serious pain.

Ropes FLA, anchoring from above the bench
Photo from the FLA

According to the report, the injured firefighter was treated on scene by two paramedics and transported to a hospital within 17 minutes of the injury. There are no details provided about the diagnosis of the injury or the patient’s recovery, but the firefighter was admitted to the Hood River County Hospital and later referred to Oregon Health Science University hospital for a more complete evaluation.

Some of the conclusions, lessons learned, and suggestions in the report included:

  • Implement the use of heat-resistant ropes.
  • The applicability of the USFS Tree Climbing training to the fire environment Rope Belay Program should be more fully evaluated.
  • There is a need for a written operating plan, SOP’s, safety checklist and/or risk analyses.
  • Depending on the level of risk identified by the team and duty officer during the risk analysis process of each particular mission, approval for the operation might be bumped up to a higher management level (Fire Engine Operator -> Fire Management Officer -> Agency Administrator).

More fire crew videos, fire season summaries

UPDATED January 1, 2013: added a video from the Wind Cave National Park fire organization.

Yesterday we posted two videos that hotshot crews produced which summarized their 2012 fire season. Today we have more.

The first one is the Entiat Hotshots (based on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington):

Next is the Sawtooth Hotshots (Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho):

And finally, Lakeview Helitack: (near Lakeview, Oregon)

From the fire personnel at Wind Cave National Park:

Let us know if you are aware of any other good videos summarizing the 2012 fire season.


Thanks go out to Matt

Wildfire briefing, November 19, 2012

Firefighters discover dog fighting operation

Hawkins Co Fire in Tn, Photo by Hawkins Co EMA
Fire in Hawkins County, Tennessee. Photo by Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency

Firefighters working to put out a wildfire near Rogersville, Tennessee had to suspend their suppression operations after they discovered a facility threatened by the fire that housed dogs and roosters used for dog and cock fighting. Firefighters rescued about 40 of the animals. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Times News:

Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson told the Times-News Sunday the suspected operation is now the subject of a criminal investigation, and although no arrests had been made he hoped to be able to release more information about that on Monday.

Murrell added, “It put a damper on the firefighting efforts last (Saturday) night because everybody had to pull off until we found out what it was. Then it took most available law enforcement and fire (personnel) to try to get all the dogs out.”

As of Sunday night the fire, which started on Thursday, had burned about 1,800 acres.

Petition to hire the DC-10 air tankers

The managers of the Facebook page for the DC-10 air tankers have organized a petition drive designed to convince the US Forest Service to award a long-term contract for the DC-10s. More information is at our Fire Aviation web site.

Coal seam fire burns 1,000 acres

A wildfire that started from a mostly underground fire in a coal seam has burned 1,000 acres of land in Boone County, West Virginia. Firefighters are suppressing the fire using leaf blowers, rakes, and dozers. Trees that were down as a result of a summer wind storm and then Hurricane Sandy have added fuel to the fire and complicated access to the area. We have reported on numerous other coal seam fires over the years.

Pole Creek Fire affected the economy of Sisters, Oregon

Some wildfires may enhance the economy of a rural area by spending money at local businesses. But too often tourists stay away in droves or in the case of the Pole Creek Fire near Sisters, Oregon, population 2,000, the dense smoke in the community forced some residents to temporarily leave the area. An article in a Firewise publication reported that even though 800 firefighters were housed at an incident base a few miles down the road, in September restaurants had their revenue decrease by 40 to 50 percent. Stores saw less business and motels experienced reservation cancellations up to five weeks out.

In September we reported on a study about the economic effects of large wildfires which showed that on average, the US Forest Service spent six percent of wildfire suppression funding in the county where the fires occurred. Amounts of local spending varied from zero to 25 percent.

The Pole Cree Fire started from lightning on September 9 and burned 26,795 acres before it was contained October 20.

Fire management decisions affect local communities

When land management agencies make decisions about using less than aggressive initial attack strategies, attempt to manage fires “on the cheap”,  or allow a fire to burn naturally for weeks or months, they may not accurately realize the long term economic and health effects those decisions can have on the local population. These may or may not have been issues in the management of the Pole Creek Fire, but they are too often mentioned as factors that have crept into fire management over the last decade.

World Bank says temperatures may rise 7.2 degrees

The World Bank reported that the planet may see temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius, or about 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, resulting in more wildfires, extreme heat waves, a decline in food supplies and a ‘life-threatening’ rise in sea level.


Thanks go out to Dick

Followup on firefighter’s extraction from fire by helicopter water bucket

Water bucket extraction
Photo from the Facilitated Learning Analysis

I have to admit that when I heard about the firefighter on the Pole Fire in Oregon that was rescued from an advancing wildfire by climbing into a water bucket dangling below a helicopter, I was not 100 percent convinced that it actually happened. After all, most of us have heard the urban legends, totally untrue, about scuba divers being grabbed in water buckets or scooped up into an air tanker as it skims across the ocean, then later they were supposed to have been found dead at the scene of a fire.

But after the first report of the extraction, a team of fire and aviation professionals investigated the incident and recently released a Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA).

We will summarize what led up to the extraction and then will include some text from the FLA:

The helicopter pilot was flying a Bell 205A1 and was dropping water to slow down the spread of the fire under the direction of a ground contact working alone in that area. The pilot was in constant contact with him, both visually and by radio. At first the person on the ground had a safety zone, the black burned area, since the fire behavior was slow with occasional torching of standing trees in an area that had a significant amount of bug-killed timber. But then the fire’s intensity picked up dramatically and the fire started reburning the black, vigorously consuming the fuels that had not burned previously, eliminating the safety zone. The pilot wrote in a SAFECOM: “The downed trees that had not burned were now igniting, and this heat was intense enough that it was actually torching heavily and burning the standing bug killed trees that were already in the black.”

The ground contact kept moving away from the fire but the fire was closing in. The pilot, who was making 5-minute turnaround water drops, frequently gave the ground contact advice about what the fire was doing and where it was, as the fire activity increased.

The text and the photo below are from the FLA; the ground contact is identified as “TFLD”, a Task Force Leader.


“…The pilot was very concerned with the TFLD’s position. The fire front appeared to move in waves of heat toward his position; the air between the waves was actually “shimmering.” The TFLD had a finger of fire to the southwest, which was within 200 feet of his position, and another finger to the northeast.

The helicopter made one circle around the area and the pilot noticed how rapidly the fire had progressed during that turn. The pilot urged the TFLD to start moving quickly away from the fire as the fire had closed half the distance to his position. The pilot felt that the TFLD was in the center with increasing fire behavior threatening both his south and north escape routes. He remembers using the term “raging.” He attempted to relay this concern, but the TFLD was comfortable with his location and escape routes to the black. The pilot believed that the black was not going to be the help he needed. He felt that the TFLD was going to need to deploy his fire shelter and that he would have to water-drop on the TFLD’s position. As he began pulling away to get water he realized that the fire would be upon the TFLD before he was able to make the trip to the water source and return. He had only moments to act.

The pilot noticed that in front of the TFLD, to the north, was a small opening of shorter, mostly dead lodgepole pine trees. He could hover safely and lower his bucket to the ground. As he hovered and watched the speed of the fire coming toward the TFLD, the pilot said “I’m going to suggest something to you and I hope you do it. I want you to get in the bucket.” The TFLD believed his escape route was open to the southwest and said “no, I’m fine.” The pilot repeated the suggestion with more urgency: “You don’t see what I’m looking at, you need to get in the bucket now.”

When the TFLD turned around, he saw the bucket on the ground. The TFLD replied to the pilot that “you can see better than I, and I am going to trust your judgment,” and entered the bucket, a 230 gallon Bambi design. He is over six feet tall, so it took him a few moments to get into and orient himself to the bucket and locate the correct cables to grab, not wanting to damage or disable the bucket. He managed to keep his radio but left his Pulaski at the pick-up site.

During the bucket transport, the TFLD maintained radio communication with the pilot. The DIVS was monitoring the communications but did not contact the pilot or the TFLD to avoid distracting their attention from the event. Once in the bucket and ready for lift-off the TFLD radioed to the pilot that he was ready and he said “This is a first for me,” describing his ride in a bucket. Once above the tree canopy the pilot asked if the TFLD now saw what he was talking about. The pilot remembers the TFLD’s response as “I see what you’re talking about.” Although the TFLD can’t recall what he may have said, the TFLD did not feel the same sense of urgency the pilot felt.Water bucket extraction, aerial view

The TFLD’s decision to follow the pilot’s request was based on the trust the two had built with each other during previous and current bucket operations, and the pilot’s vantage point to assess fire activity around the ground operation. Although he felt safe with his predetermined escape routes, he deferred to the pilot’s view of the situation. The pilot set him gently down in a meadow about one-half mile away and informed him of the direction of travel back to DP 24. The pilot made a quick look back toward the pick-up area and believed it was engulfed in flame, taking the photo on page 10.”

(end of text from the FLA)


The FLA discusses the differences in knowlege between the firefighter and the pilot. The firefighter knew little about aviation and the pilot had limited training in wildland fire behavior. The firefighter kept saying to the pilot that he had an escape route into the black, and the pilot told him that he had a better view from the air and the fire was advancing. Finally the firefighter said: “I can’t see what you see; I’m going to defer to your judgment,” and got in the bucket.

Here is one more interesting quote from the FLA:

“A safety zone to the pilot meant a safe place away from the fire – he transported the TFLD to a meadow half a mile into the green; to the TFLD, the more completely burned areas were the safest places he could be.”

As we said when we first wrote about this incident, we’re glad it had a positive result, and congratulate the firefighter and the pilot for thinking outside the box, possibly preventing a disastrous outcome.


Thanks go out to Will

Exploding targets, an increasing wildfire problem

Star Exploding Targets, flames
A screen grab from a video endorsed by Cabela’s demonstrating a Star Exploding Target. We added the arrow and the “Flames” text to point out that flames are visible following the explosion.

Originally published October 11, 2012, updated February 6, 2013

Targets that are designed to explode when shot with a rifle have become more popular in recent years, emerging as an increasing threat to our wildlands. The problem is, they sometimes start fires in spite of claims by the manufacturers saying they are safe.

The military has been using them for at least 20 years when training marksmen to hit targets hundreds of yards away, since it can be difficult to see if a target was hit at that distance. When struck with the bullet from a rifle, the explosion and smoke are easily seen and indicate that the shooter hit the target

They are sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, since they are completely inert until two powders are mixed at the site by the target shooter. After they are combined, the compound is illegal to transport. The manufacturers claim that the only way they can be detonated is by striking them with a high-velocity bullet fired from a high-powered center-fire rifle. At least one company has recently started offering targets that will explode when hit with a much less powerful .22 caliber rim-fire rifle.

While the manufacturers claim they can’t start a fire, the screen grab (above) from a video shows flames in the grass just after a target advertised by Cabela’s and manufactured by Star Exploding Targets, explodes. The video is below, however we expect that eventually Cabela’s and Star will remove it from YouTube. The flames are visible three seconds into the video at the bottom left.

In a quick search, we found numerous reports of wildfires having been caused by exploding targets in a 5-month period. The dates below indicate when the information was published.

  • June 17, 2012, Colorado. The Springer Fire in Park County on the Pike National Forest burned 1,045 acres. It was caused by exploding targets.
  • June 13, 2012, Idaho. Four wildfires were caused by shooters using exploding targets up to that date in 2012.
  • June 15, 2012, Washington. A small fire near the mouth of the Grande Ronde River was apparently started by someone shooting at exploding targets.
  • June 16, 2012, Utah. The 300-acre Little Cove fire was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • June 29, 2012, Utah. A fire investigator said eight wildfires in the previous three weeks were caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • July 2, 2012, Nevada. A five-acre fire in Elko was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • August 19, 2012, Oregon. Five shooters were cited for starting a 35-acre fire using Tannerite exploding targets.
  • September 6, 2012, Washington. The Goat Fire burned 7,378 acres 3 miles southwest of Pateros, WA. It was started by exploding targets. Forest Service officials previously said two smaller fires — a 120-acre blaze in Mud Creek Entiat and one on Deadman Hill near Cashmere — may also have been ignited by exploding targets.
  • October 7, 2012, Pennsylvania. Two state Game Commission workers suffered injuries including burns, temporary blindness and hearing damage when an illegal exploding target blew up while the men attempted to put out a fire at a gun range in Pike County.
  • October 11, 2012, California. A 364-acre fire was started by shooters using exploding targets. A news report (see video below) shows two pounds of the explosive being used to blow up a car.
  • October 19, 2012, Utah. Two men have been charged with starting the Dump fire near Saratoga Springs, Utah that burned more than 5,500 acres and cost $2.1 million to put out. About 2,500 people were forced to evacuate. Investigators say the men were shooting June 21 when they hit an explosive target that started the fire in vegetation.
  • October 23, 2012, Nebraska. Three men have been charged with starting a fire by using exploding targets in Nebraska, and starting the Spotted Tail fire that burned 83 acres south of Chadron October 23.

This is a total of 24 fires that were either confirmed or suspected to be caused by exploding targets since the first of June, 2012. And these are just the ones that we were able to find using Google.

In most areas in the western United States exploding targets are illegal to use if there is a law or temporary ban on open fires.

One of the primary manufacturers of the targets is Tannerite. The company has a patent on the devices and has said the fires are caused by other companies infringing on their patent and adding an additional incendiary component in order to produce a more spectacular explosion.

At an online forum for firearms enthusiasts, The Firing Line, some of the posters decry the lack of wisdom of target shooters who start fires with exploding targets. A person using the moniker “g.willikers” wrote:

It seems that we gun owners have two enemies. Those who would deprive us of our gun rights. And those who throw those rights away.

Others on the forum suggested some alternative targets that can produce an impressive display when hit with a bullet, such as:

  • A milk jug filled with water
  • Potatoes
  • Pop can filled with water
  • Fresh cow pie

UPDATE October 12, 2012:

Ken told us about this news report that appeared on television in southern California October 11, 2012, explaining and demonstrating the hazards of these explosive targets. They use two pounds of the explosive to blow up a car, and Chief John Hawkins of CAL FIRE provides his point of view on the problem.