Dispatching issues may have led to a one hour delay in attacking Canyon 2 Fire

Fire Chief calls for independent investigation of early decisions made on the fire that destroyed or damaged 60 homes in southern California.

Interim Fire Chief Patrick McIntosh
Interim Fire Chief Patrick McIntosh at October 25 news conference about the Orange County Fire Authority’s response to the Canyon 2 Fire.

In a news conference Wednesday the interim Chief of the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) revealed the timeline for actions taken, and not taken, when the Canyon 2 Fire was first reported on October 9, 2017. The fire eventually burned 9,200 acres, destroyed 15 homes and damaged 45 others. For the last week the OCFA has been criticized over reports the initial response to the fire was delayed.

Chief Patrick McIntosh said Wednesday “flames and smoke” were first reported in a 911 call at 8:32 a.m. near the 91 freeway and the 241 Toll Road interchange in Orange County, California. The nearest fire station, Station 53, was not staffed because about three hours earlier the wildland engine was dispatched with four others from the OCFA to one of the fires in Northern California. Support personnel at the station were asked if they could see smoke. They went outside and seven minutes later reported they could only see what appeared to be ash blowing off the previous Canyon Fire.

At 9:27 and 9:28 two more reports came in of smoke near the 91 Freeway and Gypsum Canyon which is in the same area as the earlier report. At 9:31 one engine from Station 32 and a helicopter were dispatched.

At 9:41 personnel at Station 53 said they could see a column of smoke which appeared to be building and recommended additional resources.

Chief McIntosh said the OCFA initiated a “High Watershed Dispatch” at 9:43 which included 7 engines, 2 helicopters, 2 water tenders, 2 dozers, 1 hand crew, 2 air tankers, and one fixed wing air attack.

The Orange County Register earlier this week reported on some details about the response of aerial resources:

At 9:52 a.m., the first OCFA helicopter lifted off from Fullerton Airport. But a second helicopter – which a Fire Authority memo dated Oct. 8 said was required because of “red flag warnings” in effect that week – did not leave and had to be dispatched again five minutes later.

The fixed-wing planes that would have been part of a “medium level” response were not en route until 10:19 a.m., from Hemet, 51 minutes after the fire was reported.

There are also questions about the helicopters operated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that were not used on the fire. The ships reportedly have water dropping capabilities but may or may not be certified by state or federal agencies to work on wildfires. The OCFA and the Sheriff’s office have been feuding about the responsibilities of their two helicopter fleets. Historically the Sheriff’s fleet has taken the lead for searches, while the OCFA has handled rescues. In the last year, however, the Sheriff has been poaching responses to rescues resulting in multiple helicopters appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion.

In the news conference the Chief said he will recommend to the County Board of Supervisors an independent review be conducted of how the fire was handled.

“My heart tells me we could have done something different”, the Chief said, but he wants to wait for the review before saying exactly what that should have been.

“Our commitment to you and to our community is full disclosure, full transparency, we have nothing to hide as an agency” the Chief continued. “If there are things that need to be done better and different, we will do those.”

In Fullerton at 8:53 a.m. the day the fire started, about 9 miles northwest of the fire, the winds were calm and the relative humidity was 68 percent. But by 12:53 p.m. the humidity had dropped to 5 percent and a Santa Ana wind was blowing from the east at 24 mph gusting to 35 mph — conditions that could cause a wildfire to spread rapidly.

We have been writing since 2012 about how a prompt, aggressive attack may prevent a small fire from becoming something much more serious.
Dr. Gabbert prescription new fires magafires prevent

Sometimes a timid initial attack can lead to the loss of structures. The U.S. Forest Service and other agencies spent a small amount of money on the anemic and delayed initial attack of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. But later, homeowners and insurance companies had to spend $353 million for the property that was destroyed in Colorado Springs. Other times a weak response can result in a large fire that kills many people, such as the 1994 South Canyon and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fires which killed a total of 31 firefighters. The Waldo Canyon Fire also killed two residents. And let us not forget the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.  Very little ground-based action occurred during the first five days which then spread into the eastern Tennessee city of Gatlinburg killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,400 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres.


Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Mike.
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Researchers design satellite to detect wildfires — a step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?

A concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires.

Researchers at Berkeley have designed a concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires. Decades ago we relied on a network of lookout towers staffed by employees and later volunteers who observed emerging fires and reported them by telephone or radio. Today most fires are turned in by residents or travelers with cell phones.

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

But if a fire is not detected and reported quickly, rapid initial attack is not possible.

This proposed satellite, called FUEGO – Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less and could detect a fire that is about 10 feet in diameter. Assuming that the data from the satellite could be transmitted to the appropriate dispatch center within a minute or two, this could be a major step toward keeping fires small… IF the fire agencies have the appropriate initial attack policies in place and an adequate number of firefighting resources, both ground and air-based, to respond and arrive at the fire within the first 10 to 30 minutes.

FUEGO satellite
Artist’s concept for FUEGO on orbit (FUEGO Concept Art by R. E. Lafever, LBNL)

While the cost of the satellite could be several hundred million dollars, it could conceivably save money if it prevents a few megafires like the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park last summer that to date has cost more than $127 million.

The real time detection of new fires is a very worthy goal, but added to this system should be the capability for real time monitoring and mapping of existing fires. The Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety is a system that could track firefighters on the ground AND the location of the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.

All of this technology exists. It would be expensive to implement, but it could save lives.

The cost of saving money on wildfire suppression

Myrtle Fire
Myrtle Fire north of Hot Springs, SD, July 19, 2012 Photo by Bill Gabbert

Maintaining a wildfire suppression infrastructure is expensive, but as the saying goes, “you can pay me now or pay me later”. Wildfires are going to occur, regardless of the number of fire suppression resources that are funded by the government. An adequate number of firefighters on the ground and in the air can implement a prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

The current paradigm of cascading federal budget cuts for fire suppression has reduced the capability of putting out wildfires while they are small. An aggressive initial attack on an emerging fire may cost $10,000, or $50,000, or even $75,000. But when the fire is put out quickly, the firefighters become available to attack the next fire with overwhelming force, rather than being tied up on a huge fire that may take six weeks to wrap up.

And that huge fire may cost $30 million to $50 million to suppress.

Suppression costs of seven fires in 2012:

  • Mustang Complex, Idaho, $38 million
  • High Park, Colorado, $38 million
  • Chips, California, $54 million
  • Wenatchee Complex, Washington, $32 million
  • Bagley, California, $37 million
  • North Pass, California, $30 million
  • Trinity Ridge, Idaho, $41 million

But the suppression costs can pale in comparison to the property damage for an urban interface fire. In 2012 insurance companies in Colorado paid an estimated $450 million for damage caused by two wildfires, primarily for structures that burned.

Estimated costs to insurers for property damage on wildfires:

  • 2012, Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado, $353 million
  • 2012 High Park Fire, Colorado, $97 million
  • 2010, Fourmile Canyon Fire, Colorado, $224 million
  • 2007, Witch Fire, California, $1.142 billion
  • 2003, Old Fire, California, $1.141 billion
  • 2003, Cedar Fire, California, $1.240 billion
  • 1991, Oakland Hills Fire, California, $2.687 billion

In 2012, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, wildfires in the state destroyed more than 648 structures, killed six people, burned more than 384,000 acres and caused at least $538 million in property losses

Fighting fire on the cheap can be very expensive in lost lives, megafires, and property damage. Investing money up front to reduce the number of megafires can save money. The current strategy of fewer federal firefighters and large air tankers is not working. In the decade of the 1990s the average size of a wildfire in the lower 49 states was 30 acres. In the three years of the present decade the average size is 93 acres. In 2012 almost half of the time when wildland firefighters requested an air tanker to help slow down a wildfire, the call went unanswered because none were available.

We need to restore the initial attack capability that we had in the 1990s. More firefighters and large air tankers can help to keep fires small. In 2002 the federal government had 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. By 2012 the fleet had atrophied to nine. Some wildfire experts recommend that we need 30, 40, or even 50. The U.S. Forest Service has been trying to contract for approximately seven additional “next generation” air tankers, bringing the total up to 16. The newer aircraft would be turbine-powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and preferably have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant. The USFS issued the solicitation 1 year, 3 months, and 2 days ago, but no contracts have been awarded.

The USFS-funded RAND air tanker study found that a 3,000-gallon air tanker costs approximately $7.1 million a year without the costs of retardant. In fiscal year 2010 the USFS spent $10.3 million on retardant. Using these figures, a fleet of 30 large air tankers for a year would cost about the same as the property damage and suppression of one large urban interface fire, the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder, Colorado — or about one-fifth of the property damage on the 2003 Cedar fire in California.

Firefighters on the ground and in the air will never put out every fire while they are small, and air tankers alone can’t do it either. Aircraft don’t put out fires — at best they can slow them down temporarily, allowing firefighters on the ground to stop the spread. Going forward we need a complete palette of resources, a tool box of complementary weapons, each with their niche, working together.

Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

I am not a doctor, but some of us remember when this was standard operating procedure, at least in the federal government. CAL FIRE still understands and practices this strategy.

One of our loyal readers sent us some information about a June 19 fire on the El Dorado National Forest in California. A cooperator, CAL FIRE, helped the U.S. Forest Service by sending three S-2 air tankers, arriving at the fire 16, 19, and 30 minutes after the first smoke report. The U.S. Forest Service dispatched one helicopter and some ground forces to their fire.

It was contained within the first hour.

On the day of the fire the USFS had somewhere between zero and two large air tankers in the state of California.

Fires like this, success stories, don’t make the news. But they do when they burn 44,330 acres and 254 structures and cost taxpayers $17.9 million to suppress.

Until 2002 the U.S. Forest Service also subscribed to this initial-attack-with-overwhelming-force strategy, which works when you’re fighting wars and fires. Now that the federal firefighting budgets have been reduced and the air tanker fleet has withered away from 44 to 9 exclusive use large air tankers for the entire country, they have abandoned that policy.