Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region postpones all prescribed fires

Safely fighting a wildfire during the pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to be extremely difficult

risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk of conducting prescribed fires based on COVID-19 pandemic conditions. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

(UPDATED at 3:56 p.m. MDT March 23, 2020)

Wildfire Today confirmed on March 23 that the U.S. Forest Service has postponed all new ignitions on prescribed fires.


(Originally published at 9:43 a.m. MDT March 21, 2020)

The U.S. Forest Rocky Mountain Region, Region 2, has postponed all planned prescribed fires due to the conditions that exist during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien made the decision after an assessment was conducted that evaluated risks to employees and the public, as well as the ability to mitigate the risks. She consulted with Fire and Aviation Management staff, a leadership group of line officers, and members of the region’s Type 1 Incident Management Team.

U.S. Forest Service Regions map
U.S. Forest Service Regions

The Forest Service has also postponed all prescribed fires in California (Region 5) and the Southern Region (Region 8). Other Forest Service regions are considering or may have implemented similar prescribed fire postponements.

The Rocky Mountain Region’s assessment for the current situation identified risk factors and the ability to mitigate those risks (as shown in the illustration at the top of the article). They included:

Risk to Public of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic

  • Extra holding resources may be brought in from areas where known COVID-19 community spread has occurred or is ongoing, bringing possible unknown infections into an area with little or no known infections.  No community spread occurring.
  • No real way to mitigate public interaction with the need to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
  • Need for contingency resources from the local area may put additional stress on an already stressed system.
  • Increasing smoke with pandemic respiratory illness globally.

Risk to Employees of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic

  • Resources will likely be required to travel and rely on restaurants, extra gas stops, public facilities, and stays in hotels.
  • No real way to mitigate interaction from the public at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, etc. This may increase odds of community spread.
  • Needed extra planning for medical facilities in the event we have community spread through our organization.
  • Briefings and face to face meetings are generally part of standard practice and required.

Ability to Mitigate risk of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic

  • No known vaccine.
  • Unclear on actual risk factors.
  • Community spread known within the Region.
  • Unhygienic conditions.
  • No ability to separate from public and each other.

The factors above led to the decision to pause or postpone all prescribed fires in the Region.

A second risk assessment considered the conditions needed to allow prescribed fires to again be conducted. (as shown in the illustration below) It included:

Risk to the public of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved

  • Extra holding resources may be brought in from areas where known COVID-19 exists but little or no community spread has occurred or is ongoing. Thus, unlikely to bring possible unknown infections into an area with little or no known infections.  No community spread occurring.
  • There is little need to mitigate public interaction with the needs to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
  • Scheduling or utilizing contingency resources from the local area will likely not put additional stress on the system.
  • Smoke Impacts on the public in communities will likely not increase acute illness or exasperate ongoing illnesses caused by the COVID-19.  By ensuring this we will likely be back within acceptable levels and normal operating circumstances.

Risk to Employees of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved

  • Resources will likely be required to travel and rely on restaurants, extra gas stops, public facilities, and stay in hotels with little community spread. Restaurants are functioning more under “normal” staffing.
  • Little need to mitigate public interaction with the needs to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
  • No known need for extra planning for medical facilities in the event we have community spread through our organization.
  • Briefings and face to face meetings are generally part of standard practice and required.  Often these briefing are greater than 50 individuals with little known community spread. This risk will be negligible.

Ability to Mitigate risk of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved

  • Known vaccine.
  • Actual risk factors known, and facts are clear regarding spread, and treatment.
  • Community spread limited or halted within the Region.
  • No large scale needs to separate from public and each other.
risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk that would allow prescribed fires to be restored after COVID-19 conditions have improved. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

Below is a statement issued March 20, 2020 by the Rocky Mountain Regional Office:


“The Forest Service remains focused on the safety and well-being of our employees and the public we serve across the U.S. and abroad. Our mission-critical work, such as suppressing wildfires, law enforcement, and other public service responsibilities, will continue within appropriate risk management strategies, current guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, and local health and safety guidelines. At this time, the Forest Service continues to remain open and operational, and we are committed to the continuity of our mission. In areas of community spread where telework has been maximized, we are working to exercise our technology capabilities where possible to ensure connection and service to the public. At this time, we encourage visitors to contact their local forest, grassland or ranger district for the latest office hours and availability.

“The decision to postpone [prescribed fire] ignitions will:

  • “Prevent any effects from smoke that might further endanger at-risk members of our communities, and
  • “Reduce exposure for Forest Service employees, cooperators and other resources assigned to the prescribed fire who would not be able to follow current guidance on unnecessary travel and social distancing.”

Our opinion

After going through the analysis above it becomes obvious that during the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting a wildfire is at least as risky as conducting a prescribed fire. It is actually more so since on a prescribed fire you have months to carefully plan and attempt to mitigate the risks in advance where possible, and you are managing a carefully controlled fire. When wildfire breaks out there are many unknowns during the emergency — where, when, the weather, fuel conditions, which firefighting resources will be there and where they will come from. Lives and property could be at risk which may lead firefighters to make decisions they could later regret.

Safely fighting a wildfire during a pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to incredibly difficult. I am not sure if it can be done safely even if everyone involved has been tested for the virus and squadrons of air tankers and helicopters are used to the max in numbers not previously seen.

air tanker Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019 DC-10
A DC-10 air tanker, T-911, drops on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

There will be two choices — fight the fire and put firefighters and possibly the public at risk of being infected by the virus as large numbers of firefighters assemble, or, attack it primarily from the air very, very aggressively, perhaps limited to point protection (high-value areas) — and otherwise let it burn.

An additional issue is how to protect the public during an evacuation. What would an evacuation center with hundreds of refugees look like while attempting to maintain a six-foot separation distance and isolating high-risk individuals and anyone that has been exposed to the virus? Testing everyone at an evacuation center for the virus would be helpful if the results could be obtained quickly.

Earlier this week we wrote more about fighting wildfire during a pandemic. And, in 2009 we covered the H1N1 or “Swine Flu” pandemic.

Midewin Hotshots assignment Missouri
The Midewin Hotshots on an assignment in Missouri, posted March 15, 2020.

Escaped prescribed fire burns 20 acres near Elsinore, CA

The spread of the South Main Fire was stopped by 286 firefighters and 4 aircraft

South Main Fire Cleveland National Forest map
The arrow on the 3-D map shows the approximate location of the South Main Fire on the Cleveland National Forest March 6, 2020.

A prescribed fire on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California escaped the intended project area on March 6 and burned an additional 20 acres. It occurred near the South Main Divide between Lakeland Village and a residential community west of the road.

The spread of the South Main Fire was stopped by 286 firefighters, 3 helicopters, and at least one S-2T air tanker.

South Main Fire Cleveland National Forest helicopter
A CAL FIRE UH1 helicopter drops water on the South Main Fire on the Cleveland National Forest March 6, 2020. USFS photo.
South Main Fire Cleveland National Forest
Smoke from the South Main Fire as seen March 6 from an HPWREN camera on Santiago Peak.

Report released for escaped prescribed fire northwest of Fort Collins, CO

The project was on private land, the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch

Elk Fire Map
Map showing the location of the escaped prescribed fire in northern Colorado, which was named Elk after the escape.

A five-page report described as an executive summary has been released for a prescribed fire that escaped on private land last fall in Colorado. As required by state law, the review was completed by a team of subject matter experts led by the Compliance and Professional Standards Office of the state’s Department of Public Safety.

The Nature Conservancy planned and executed the Elkhorn Creek Unit #4 prescribed fire that took place on the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, private property located in Larimer County, Colorado 25 miles northwest of Fort Collins. It was part of a forest restoration effort aimed to reduce the impact of high severity wildfire on Elkhorn Creek, an important tributary of the Poudre River.

On day two of the project a spot fire occurred an hour after cloud cover moved out of the area. It was suppressed, but later two more ignited.

Below are excerpts from the report:


Located in dry, dead grass on a steep slope aligned with strong westerly winds, these two spots quickly grew together and began spreading rapidly away from the unit towards the Glacier View community to the east. Leadership personnel, quickly determining that on-site resources would not be able to contain the fire, immediately ordered ground and aerial resources and then declared the wildfire at 3:59 PM. In total, the fire burned 682 acres, with 118 acres outside of the planned boundaries of the project and 82 acres off the Scout Ranch property. One outbuilding was destroyed by the fire.

[…]

Recommendations for All Prescribed Fire Practitioners

1.  A strong understanding of fire weather is critical to mitigating risk and responding to changing conditions. Review fire weather concepts presented in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Intermediate Wildland Fire Weather Behavior (S-290) course and fire weather data acquisition and analysis concepts presented in the NWCG Intermediate National Fire Danger Rating System (S-491) course before each fire season utilizing an Incident Meteorologist (IMET), a Long Term Fire Analyst (LTAN), Fire Behavior Analyst (FBAN), or other knowledgeable individual, and incorporate these concepts into development of prescribed fire plans.

  • Review and remain diligent regarding the differences between 20-ft sustained 10 minute average winds, gusts, eye level, and midflame wind speeds.
  • Ensure on-site wind measurements are consistent with the type of wind parameters used in the prescribed fire plan, or ensure that accurate conversion techniques are accurately and consistently applied.

2. Apply “lessons re-learned” from the factors and best practices identified as being common between this prescribed fire and previous prescribed fires that were later declared wildfires.

Recommendations for The Nature Conservancy

3. Evaluate and refine the collaborative burning approach, including considerations for additional cooperative or partnership agreements to increase the experience level below that of overhead or trainee positions on high consequence prescribed fires.

4. Consider the full adoption of the DFPC Colorado Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Policy Guide as well as the Prescribed Fire Complexity Rating System Guide (NWCG PMS-424-1).

  • Adoption of these guides would increase consistency and support cooperation between The Nature Conservancy and DFPC and other Colorado partners.

Recommendations for the Division of Fire Prevention and Control

5. Evaluate all DFPC statutory and policy frameworks and craft solutions to align with all three co-equal goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

  • Changes to DFPC’s organizational focus and statutory authority may be necessary to reduce wildfire risk to communities and create resilient landscapes. In the face of an increasingly complex wildland fire environment, the ability to implement proactive measures must be part of a holistic strategy to reduce risk.

 

Some prescribed fires are more challenging than others

Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.

Firefighters on the Angeles National Forest are using prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break north of Los Angeles that separates the Arroyo Seco from the Big Tujunga drainages.

“It helps to protect some of the largest communication sites anywhere, some of LA’s drinking water storage, and major communities,” said Robert Garcia, Fire Chief on the Angeles National Forest. “It is also on some of the toughest ground we have on the ANF making initial attack very difficult. The adjacent slopes are unfortunately known from such incidents as Woodwardia, Bryant and more recently the origins of the 2009 Station Fire.”

When I worked on the Laguna and El Cariso Hotshots nearby on the Cleveland NF, to us the ANF was infamous for its extremely steep slopes, which are evident in these photos.

Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
map Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF.

In most other locations super-steep slopes are not a serious obstacle while conducting prescribed fires, as in the example below.

Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma by M. Fidler, February, 2013.

WTREX provides prescribed fire training for women

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges are supported by TNC, USFS, and DOI

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange
Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange event in Florida, March, 2019. WTREX photo.

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX) holds 12-day training sessions to help women advance their formal qualifications in wildland fire management. The goal is to enhance their understanding of fire ecology, fire effects, communications, outreach, prescribed fire policy, and planning. At least three sessions have occurred, in Florida and California.

When the U.S. fire management system was conceived in the early 1900s, women’s roles in the workforce were much different than they are now. Even today, women constitute a relatively small proportion of the workforce, filling roughly 10 percent of wildland fire positions and only 7 in 100 leadership roles. In recent years, there has been an increased effort to recruit women into fire, yet social and cultural challenges remain. New recruits often find the dominant fire management system to be dismissive of female perspectives and strengths, even as its increasing complexity requires fresh approaches and insights.

More information about all types of Prescribed Fire Training Exchange events can be found at The Nature Conservancy and at the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) Facebook page.

Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange
Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange event in Florida, March, 2019. WTREX photo.

WTREX is supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resilience and Fire Adapted Communities Together, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, and agencies of the Department of the Interior.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paula. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

OSHA reveals more about the fatality on the Fort Jackson prescribed fire

Wildfire Today obtained the information through a FOIA request

Nicole Hawkins
Nicole Hawkins, the wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson’s Directorate of Public Works Environmental Department, Wildlife Branch, checked an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and prepared to put him in the hand-made artificial cavity box 20 feet up in a tree at Fort Jackson Nov. 6, 2015. The bird was relocated from Shaw Air Force Base. (U.S. Army file photo by Jennifer Stride/Released)

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Wildfire Today has produced more information about the death of Nicole Hawkins, a wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson in South Carolina who died while working on a prescribed fire at the Army base May 22, 2019. She had worked as a civilian at the base since 2007, with much of her time spent in helping to bring back an endangered species, the red-cockaded woodpecker. One of the techniques used to improve the bird’s habitat is the use of prescribed fire. She was 45 at the time and the mother of two pre-teen sons.

The FOIA was filed with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), one of five entities investigating the fatality.

OSHA determined that Ms. Hawkins was a member of a six-person squad conducting the prescribed fire that day. The others were from the Department of Defense and contractors from Whitetail Environmental, LLC.

After a 10 a.m. briefing followed by a successful test burn they began ignition at 10:30 a.m. OSHA’s information reports that at that time the skies were fair, the temperature was 90 degrees, and there was a 5 mph wind out of the southeast. At noon a weather station at Congaree, SC about 10 miles to the southeast recorded 91 degrees, 55 percent relative humidity, winds  out of the west at 1 mph gusting to 7 mph, and fuel temperature of 108 degrees.

Ms. Hawkins was operating a Yamaha All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) equipped with a “power torch” made by Hayes Manufacturing. ATV torches are commonly used for igniting prescribed fires and burnouts on  wildfires. They pump a small stream of a diesel/gasoline mixture through a nozzle where it is ignited. The fuel lands on the ground while still burning and ignites vegetation. The NWCG Standards for Ground Ignition Equipment (Feb. 2019) lists Hayes Manufacturing as one of five sources for ATV torches.

ATV torch
File photo. Example of an ATV torch used by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It  may have been manufactured by a different company than the one being used at Fort Jackson. USFWS photo.

Most of the time Ms. Hawkins was paired with another worker. But occasionally on prescribed fires on the base one member would go off out of sight to do something quick and come right back.

Ms. Hawkins said over the radio that she was going to light around one of the red-cockaded woodpecker cavity trees and would be right back. It is not clear what time she said that, but at 11:30 a.m. the others knew she was working on that task and “all were in communication with each other for the next few minutes”, according to the information from OSHA.

At 12:14 p.m. she came on the radio and stated she was heading out of the burn area. One of the other firefighters parked his truck on the route she would be taking to wait for her.

At 12:23 p.m. the  firefighters noticed a column of black smoke which was different from the white smoke normally produced by the prescribed fire. At 12:28 p.m. Ms. Hawkins did not respond to radio calls.

One of the workers found Ms. Hawkins on the ground next to her ATV, which were both on fire. She was presumed dead, according to OSHA. The period in which she last contacted anyone on the radio until the discovery of her body was 13 minutes. The dark smoke was seen 8 minutes after her last communication.

OSHA did not determine what caused the accident. A preliminary  autopsy performed on May 23, 2019 by the Armed Forces Medical  Examiner revealed no signs of trauma other than the injuries sustained from the fire. Their report also stated that they would not determine a cause and manner of death until receiving the toxicology results. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division found no criminal activity associated with the fatality.

The  radios the firefighters carried on chest harnesses had “man down” buttons which when pressed and held for two seconds would notify the Fort Jackson Fire Department that there was an emergency and it would provide the location from an internal GPS receiver. However the “man down” system had been deactivated for several weeks after several false alarms. Following the fatality it was turned back on, an action that was recommended by OSHA.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also investigating the incident. It is likely that they will thoroughly look into the  cause of the fire that engulfed Ms. Hawkins and the ATV, to determine if she was entrapped and overcome by the spread of the prescribed fire, or if there was an incident related to the ATV torch.

OSHA found that the fuel mix used by Fort Jackson personnel that day was 50/50, gasoline/diesel.

In 2002 the National Wildfire Coordinating  Group sent a message to the field after a firefighter was burned when flames erupted after removing the spout assembly from a drip torch that had just been extinguished. It contained approximately 35% gasoline and 65% diesel or 1 gallon of gasoline for every 1.9 gallons of diesel. In the message written by Wesley Throop, a Mechanical Engineer at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center, he stated:

The most volatile mixture authorized by the agency is 1 gallon of gasoline to 3 gallons of diesel. Use of this mixture carries the following warning the agency’s health and safety handbook: “Caution: 1 gallon of gasoline to 3 gallons of diesel fuel produces a very volatile mixture. This mix should be used only in appropriate fuel types and during periods of high humidity.”

The U.S. Fish  & Wildlife service’s Standard Operating Procedure for the Mountain Prairie  Area states: “The correct fuel mixture for the refuge’s ATV mounted torch is 1 part gasoline and 3 parts diesel fuel.”

An article written by Amanda Stamper for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center published on March 14, 2017 also addresses the drip torch fuel mix.

More diesel than gasoline is perhaps the only cardinal rule when it comes to mix ratio, with somewhere between 3:1 and 4:1 [diesel to gas] being the most common.

On October 18 OSHA issued a Notice of Unsafe and Unhealthful Working Conditions to Fort Jackson. It stated that the Army base did not furnish “a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm, in that employees were exposed to burn hazards associated with control burning of forest vegetation.” And, on the day of the fatality Fort Jackson failed to ensure that employees “were protected from fire hazards while igniting or controlling the burn areas.”

OSHA suggested that Fort Jackson develop a mandatory procedure for igniting burns that includes use of a tracking system so that employees could be easily located.