North America’s largest ski town prepares for wildfires

There’s only one way in and out of the Canadian municipality of Whistler.

The Coast Mountains surround the forested British Columbia town north of Vancouver, giving Whistler its world-renowned trait of being North America’s largest ski resort community. The rocky slopes, however, occasionally cause transportation problems for Whistler’s residents. Highway 99, the only passage through the southern parts of the mountain range, stands as residents’ only escape route during times of emergency.

Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season
Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season

The frequently suffocated roadway and recent devastating wildfires in the nearby communities of West Kelowna and Kelowna pushed the perennially  snow-focused municipality to begin serious planning for a potential fire disaster. Most Whistler neighborhoods are classified as “interface,” but the wildland and ornamental fuel load between residences have characteristics of an “intermix,” or homes being within a forest community. Because of this, Whistler scores high in the plan’s “overall fire risk” category.

Whistler’s pervasive forest primarily drove town officials to take a more proactive approach to wildfire defense in its creation of a community wildfire defense plan.

Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season
Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season

“Typically when a wildfire is approaching a community, these defense plans are done at the time as it’s approaching,” Whistler Fire Chief Thomas Doherty told Global News journalists for a recent article. “Obviously wildfire specialists will come in and assist with doing these neighborhood defense plans. We’ve done that in advance. We believe we’re one of the first municipalities to do this type of plan, to have this information readily available ahead of time.”

Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season
Whistler firefighters reflect on the 2023 wildfire season

The approach Doherty references includes increasing FireSmart education for residents and visitors, changing municipal legislation and community planning with a wildfire resiliency focus, increasing interagency and firefighters’ wildfire response, and continuing strategic vegetation management efforts.

Resort Municipality of WhistlerGlobal News, in their conversation with Doherty, reports that one of the tools created from this plan includes 19 tactical sheets and GIS maps for various critical infrastructure and water source locations, identifying which neighborhoods have a one-way-in and one-way-out access, and safe zones for responders during times of emergency. All this information will reportedly be available to fire personnel through scannable QR codes.

“Extremely critical to have all this information done in advance,” Doherty said. “It’s just unfortunate when an event does occur. At least we’re that much more prepared. And we have all that information readily available.”

You can read the full Whistler Community Wildfire Defense Plan [HERE].

The Coast Mountains surround the forested British Columbia town north of Vancouver, giving Whistler its world-renowned trait of being North America’s largest ski resort community. The rocky slopes, however, occasionally cause transportation problems for Whistler’s residents. Highway 99, the only passage through the southern parts of the mountain range, stands as residents’ only escape route during times of emergency.

Forest Service expects to substantially increase the number of firefighters this year

Personnel from the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior testified Tuesday before a Congressional Committee

Congressional hearing, April 5, 2022
Witnesses in the hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, April 5, 2022. L to R: Brian Ferebee (FS), Jaelith Hall-Rivera (FS), Jeff Rupert (Dept. of Interior).

The standard line from the US Forest Service about the number of wildland firefighters in the agency has been 10,000 wildland firefighters nationwide, but in recent years they have been unable to fill all of their positions due to difficulties in recruitment and retention. The San Francisco Chronicle (subscription) reported that in 2021 the number stationed in California dropped from 5,000 in 2019 to 3,956, more than a 20 percent decline.

In a hearing today before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, the Forest Service said they believe they are turning that problem around.

Representative Katie Porter from California asked how many firefighters does the agency need to have. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, USFS Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry said their goal this year is 11,300. That would be 13 percent more than the maximum they have had in recent memory.

When Rep. Porter asked how many they have now, Ms. Hall-Rivera said she didn’t know because they are still hiring.

“We just completed an additional fire hire event in California at the end of March and those numbers are still coming in,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “I do think we are on pace [to meet that goal]. By all accounts that hiring event went very well. Importantly what we are seeing is a very high acceptance rate in our permanent and seasonal permanent firefighting positions, which is what we want. We want to be able to convert this workforce to have more or a larger proportion of it to be permanent and a smaller proportion of it be temporary… We think that we will be at the capacity we need at the Forest Service this year.”

“That’s really great to hear,” Rep. Porter said, “because as you know last year according to the National Federation of Federal Employees, about 30 percent of the federal hotshot crews that worked on the front lines of wildfires in California were understaffed. Last year the Forest Service had 60 fire engines in California alone that were idled because of understaffing. I’m very heartened to hear a concrete number, a concrete goal, for what full staffing looks like.”

Rep. Porter asked how much it costs to bring in firefighters from other fire departments when the Forest Service does not have adequate staffing for fire suppression. Ms. Hall-Rivera said she did not have those numbers, but would get back to the Representative. Firefighters from CAL FIRE and municipal fire departments make two to three times what federal wildland firefighters make and they get paid 24 hours a day, “portal to portal”, for weeks on large fires until they are back in their own station. Federal firefighters are usually limited to 16 hours a day, and are forced to take a 30 minute lunch break even when they are on the steep slope of a God-forsaken ridge breathing smoke miles from the nearest road.

Earlier Ms. Hall-Rivera said the Forest Service has lost 40 percent of their non-fire workforce. This reduction in personnel, some of  whom were qualified to be assigned to a fire in addition to their regular duties, can increase the difficulty of staffing fires and other incidents.

Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission

Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico asked when members would be appointed to the new Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which was required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, H.R.3684, signed by the President on November 15, 2021. The law required that the appointments were to be made by January 14, 2022. Their initial meeting was to be held no later than February 13, 2022.

Ms. Hall-Rivera said the announcement for applications closed last Friday after receiving more than 500 responses. The members will be selected “in a month or two,” she said.

Tamarack Fire and aggressive initial attack

Representative Tom McClintock of California, brought up the subject of the Tamarack Fire in California which was monitored but not suppressed for 13 days while it was very small. It burned at least 15 structures and more than 67,000 acres as it ran from California into Nevada jumping Highway 395 and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people.

“This is insane,” Rep. McCLintock said, referring to the management of the fire. “Please tell me that you are dropping that policy and you will be vigorously attacking fires on their initial discovery rather than waiting for them to become one of these massive conflagrations.”

“We put out 98 percent of fires on initial attack,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “The Tamarack Fire is one of those 2 percent that we were not able to do that because we were resource-limited in the country as a whole.”

“You deliberately sat on it,” Rep. McClintock said. “Can you assure me that henceforth upon discovery of a fire you will order an aggressive initial attack?”

“Yes, Congressman, that is what we do,” said Hall-Rivera.

Goals for fuel treatment

“While the Forest Service’s budget has more than doubled since 2014, the amount of hazardous fuels treatment has remained frustratingly stagnant, only addressing roughly two percent of their needs annually,” said Rep. Herrell. “I am concerned that the recently announced 10-year strategy to combat the wildfire crisis will fall short because not only are the tools not in place to implement this strategy, but the Forest Service is also only relying on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan. This is especially concerning considering yesterday’s release of the Department of the Interior’s wildfire strategy which is only 5 years.”

“The Infrastructure law was a significant step in the right direction in terms of wildland firefighter compensation, and once again I thank you for your work on that,” Ms. Hall-Rivera replied. “But we need to continue to work together to find a permanent solution to increasing our wildland firefighters’ pay and making other system changes that insure that we can continue to support our firefighters and insure that this is a career that others will pursue in the future.”

Rep. Herrell asked why the 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. Ms. Hall-Rivera said that it was a timing issue, in that the strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.

Staffing for the additional fuel management workload

Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona asked in regards to the additional funding and new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation, “Does the Forest Service have adequate staff capacity to fill the new dollars they will be responsible with implementing, and how does the Forest Service intend to address staffing capacities with new hiring?”

After Ms. Hall-Rivera and Brian Ferebee, Chief Executive of Intergovernmental Relations for the Forest Service, glanced at each other, Mr. Ferebee turned on his microphone and basically said they were looking at the issue.

My take:

I did not summarize every topic that came up in the hearing, but attempted to capture the most significant ones related to wildland fire. After reading through the above, I noticed a trend: PLANNING, and a lack thereof.

  1. Failure to meet the deadlines required for the establishing the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.
  2. Planning to rely on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan for fuel management.
  3. The 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. “The strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.”
  4. The Forest Service does not know if they have enough staffing to accomplish the new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation.

It reminds me of the effort by Congress to transfer seven C-130 aircraft to the Forest Service to be converted to air tankers.

On December 27, 2013, President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also supplied $130 million for the Air Force to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.

About 522 days later, on June 1, 2015 the FS distributed internally a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency was not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor operated venture (GO/CO). On that date the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel. The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned.”

“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”

The FS did not use the 522 days to plan for the absorption of the aircraft into the fleet.

They came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper:

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

Eventually, more than four years after the transfer and tens of millions had likely been spent on the refurbishment of the seven aircraft, the Forest Service decided they did not want the air tankers. Congress passed additional legislation to give the seven HC-130Hs to the state of California instead.

Video of the hearing:

New California law requires seller of home to disclose vulnerability to wildfires

EIler Fire Home
One of the homes that survived the Eiler Fire in northern California, August, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Beginning January 1 in California the seller of a home in a designated high fire area built before 2010 must disclose to the buyer conditions that make the home vulnerable to wildfires.

The seller must provide documentation stating that the property is in compliance with local laws pertaining to defensible spaces or local vegetation management laws. If there is no such local law, the seller shall provide documentation of compliance with state law, assuming the seller obtained such documentation within six months prior to entering into the transaction. But if neither of the above, the seller and the buyer must enter into a written agreement in which the buyer agrees to obtain documentation of compliance with defensible space or a local vegetation management ordinance after close.

Here are the details from the legislation:

Disclosures re Home Hardening

Beginning January 1, 2020, if a seller, after completion of construction, has obtained a final inspection report regarding compliance with, among other things, home hardening laws (Gov’t Code 51182 and 51189*), the seller shall provide to the buyer a copy of that report or information on where a copy of the report may be obtained.

Beginning January 1, 2021, this law requires for properties located in high or very high fire hazard severity zones for homes built before 2010, delivery of a notice to include the following three items:

1. A statutory disclosure that includes information on how to fire harden homes as follows:

“This home is located in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone and this home was built before the implementation of the Wildfire Urban Interface building codes which help to fire harden a home. To better protect your home from wildfire, you might need to consider improvements. Information on fire hardening, including current building standards and information on minimum annual vegetation management standards to protect homes from wildfires, can be obtained on the internet website”

2. Disclosure of a list of features that may make the home vulnerable to wildfire and flying embers if the seller is aware. The list includes, among other things, untreated wood shingles, combustible landscaping within five feet of the home, and single pane glass windows.

3. On or after July 1, 2025, a list of low-cost retrofits re home hardening (listed pursuant to Section 51189 of the Government Code*). The notice shall disclose which listed retrofits, if any, that have been completed during the time that the seller has owned the property.

Potential point of sale compliance requirements re defensible space or local vegetation management laws

Beginning July 1, 2021 seller of property in high or very high fire hazard zones shall provide documentation to the buyer stating that the property is in compliance with laws pertaining to state law defensible spaces (Public Resources Code 4291**) or local vegetation management ordinances, or in certain cases the buyer and seller will agree that the buyer is to obtain the documentation after close as follows

1. If there is a local ordinance requiring the seller to comply with state law governing defensible spaces (PRC 4291**) or a local vegetation management ordinance, the seller shall provide the buyer with: 1) a copy of the documentation of such compliance, and 2) information on the local agency from which a copy of that documentation may be obtained.

2. But If no such local ordinance exists, and the seller has obtained an inspection from a state, local or other government agency or qualified nonprofit which provides an inspection with documentation for the property, the seller shall provide the buyer with: 1) the documentation of the inspection if obtained within six months prior to entering into a transaction to sell the real property and 2) information on the local agency from which a copy of that documentation may be obtained.

3. If seller hasn’t obtained documentation of compliance per 1 or 2 above, then the seller and buyer shall enter into a written agreement stating that the buyer agrees to: a) obtain documentation of compliance per the local ordinance or b) if there is no such local ordinance, the buyer shall, within one year, obtain documentation of compliance as long as there is a state, local or other government agency or qualified nonprofit which provides an inspection with documentation of compliance for the property.

This law also requires the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to enter into a joint powers agreement with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal FIRE) to administer a comprehensive wildfire mitigation and assistance program to encourage cost-effective structure hardening and facilitate vegetation management, contingent upon appropriation by the Legislature.

Officials disagree on responsibility for evacuation planning in Marin County, California

Marin County fire history 1917-2020
Marin County fire history 1917-2020. The blue areas were all prior to 1980. NIFC map.

Many residents and government officials in Marin County recognize the importance of evacuation planning, but there is no agreement on which agency has the responsibility. In March voters approved a parcel tax that would raise about $19 million each year for the newly formed Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority (WPA), but the county’s Civil Grand Jury ruled in December that the agency’s plans do not adequately address the issue.

Marin County map
Marin County, outlined in red. (Google)

From the Marin Independent Journal:

Part of that funding will go toward studying evacuation routes, creating evacuation maps and clearing vegetation along narrow Marin roads. But the agency does not have the authority or the funding to take on infrastructure projects that could create safer roads for people fleeing wildfires, the grand jury said.

“The grand jury is concerned that Marin’s public may have a false sense of security regarding evacuation routes, thinking that all issues relating to the matter will be handled by the new government agency,” the report says.

While Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber agreed that the wildfire authority doesn’t have the funding to take on road infrastructure projects, he said the agency is taking the initial step in addressing Marin’s evacuation safety problem.

Marin County, population 258,826, is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge north to Bodega Bay and east to Novato and San Pablo Bay.

Evacuation planning will likely point out a need for road infrastructure projects, for which the WPA does not have funding. The Transportation Authority of Marin, or TAM, is the only agency in the county with access to funding and authority over countywide transportation projects. The grand jury recommended that a representative from TAM serve as a non-voting member of the WPA.

Marin County evacuation choke points
Marin County Civil Grand Jury, Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach, Appendix C, April 25, 2019.

Fire officials in Marin County have identified “choke points” where residents are likely to get caught in congestion when evacuating from wildfires. Since many of those run through multiple jurisdictions, the grand jury said TAM should serve as the coordinating agency but TAM officials “continue to deny that the agency has any role or responsibility for considering evacuation needs in its transportation projects.”

Community infrastructure and planning was one of the six categories of actions Wildfire Today pointed out in April, 2019 that must be taken to reduce the impact of wildfires on communities. That category includes:

  • Distance to nearby structures
  • Evacuation capability and planning
  • Safety zones where residents can shelter in place
  • Road and driveway width, wide enough for large fire trucks
  • Turnarounds at the end of roads
  • Signage, and
  • Emergency water supply.

The other five categories that need to be considered in fire-prone communities are home spacing/lot size; envelope of the structure itself; home ignition zone; wildland-urban interface; and fire codes.

TBT: Everybody has a plan until…

For throwback Thursday we’re re-upping an article from December 8, 2018:

espn announcers While I was watching the Clemson vs. Mississippi State University basketball game today on ESPN2 I didn’t expect to hear words of wisdom or a pithy quote. One of the announcers was Chris Spatola, a former basketball player for Army West Point who is also a veteran.  After only 8 minutes into the game MSU had thrown in “tons of three-pointers.” As they talked about how Clemson had hoped to limit MSU’s three-pointers, Mr. Spatola said,

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

The other announcer, Jon Sciambi, recognized the quote as being from Mike Tyson who had been asked by a reporter whether he was worried about Evander Holyfield and the fight plan he had bragged about.

After Mr. Spatola did an impression of Mr. Tyson, Mr. Sciambi said, “I am going to enjoy working with Chris Spatola.”

As a Planning Section Chief on Incident Management Teams, of course I appreciate the necessity of planning. And I think Mr. Tyson’s quote while it at first seems crude and simplistic, actually is worth thinking about and can have multiple messages. The most obvious is that yes, you have a plan, but you encounter difficulties and quickly realize that you’re going to need a Plan B. If you prepared for an alternate strategy, you might succeed after all. If not, well, thanks for playing and here is your Participation Trophy.

Another interpretation is that after encountering unexpected problems, you don’t throw in the towel, but you have the guts and perseverance to keep fighting and working through the complications, eventually achieving the goal and overcoming the odds stacked against you.

Helmuth Von Moltkex said:

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Bob Robins told me about a good plan on a wildfire that was poorly briefed and executed. He was in one group of firefighters that was attempting to stop the spread of a fire at night by burning out along a road, working toward another group that started at the other end. The objective was to burn the vegetation between the road and the fire, removing the fuel. The fire would then be stopped in that area. When the two groups met, they were horrified to find that they had ignited opposite sides of the road, and they suddenly had a lot more fire to deal with.

General Norman Schwarzkopf directed the planning and strategy to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait after they invaded the country in 1990. His plan was based on overwhelming force using strong infantry attacks supported by artillery and armor after bombing the crap out of them from the air for weeks. It worked. The ground fighting in Desert Storm was over within about 100 hours. Not long after, most of the U.S. troops returned home. I have latched on to his strategy when writing about using the concept of overwhelming force for the initial attack of new wildfires. It can often be successful, and then everybody goes home and prepares for the next one, not getting bogged down and tying up resources and taxpayer dollars in a months-long campaign.

Here are some other planning-related quotes. Do you have a favorite, or an example of a plan that worked? Or didn’t?

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
― Abraham Lincoln

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
― Benjamin Franklin

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you don’t know the past, you can’t understand the present and plan properly for the future.”
― Chaim Potok, Davita’s Harp

“I wasn’t planning to lead, I was standing in the back and then everyone turned around.”
― Avery Hiebert

“No matter what the work you are doing, be always ready to drop it. And plan it, so as to be able to leave it.”
― Leo Tolstoy, The Journal of Leo Tolstoy

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
― Yogi Berra

On December 8 Mississippi State beat Clemson, 82-71. They sank 19 three-point shots (63 percent), led by Lamar Peters who accounted for 9 of them.

Area Command Team prepares analysis of firefighting needs for the rest of the year

California 2020 Wildland Fire Situation Strategic Management Plan

Area Command Team 2 led by Tim Sexton was assigned to the Southern California Operations Center in mid-September to assist with strategic planning for the rest of the fire year.

These screen shots are borrowed from a PowerPoint presentation the team developed (3.6 Mb) of the likely fire activity, scheduled resource availability, likely resources needs, the gap between needs and availability, and suggestions on how to address the gap.

The group looked back at the previous four years of fire activity and the use of firefighting resources to help predict what the needs are going to be during the rest of the calendar year, or “Fire Year” as we are hearing these days. Of those four years, one was an outlier, 2019, with much less fire activity than average, so it was not used to predict resource needs. The 2,210,266 acres burned in the 49 states outside of Alaska in 2019 was the lowest total since 2004. Almost twice that many acres have already burned in just California so far this year, according to CAL FIRE October 2, 2020.

The slides shown here are 11 of the 15 in the presentation.

California 2020 Wildland Fire Situation Strategic Management Plan

California 2020 Wildland Fire Situation Strategic Management Plan

California 2020 Wildland Fire Situation Strategic Management Plan

Continue reading “Area Command Team prepares analysis of firefighting needs for the rest of the year”