Texas: truck overturns, 3 firefighters hurt

An Abilene Fire Department brush truck. Photo: Lt. Greg Goettsch, Abilene FD.

A brush truck with three firefighters overturned while working on a fire along railroad tracks near Abilene, Texas. The fire, along with a second one nearby, was probably caused by a passing train, according to the fire department. The accident happened Wednesday afternoon and all three firefighters were expected to be released from the hospital by the end of the day.

Here is a video about the accident.

The video is no longer available.

UPDATE: Feb. 20, 2009.

We now have video of the truck actually rolling over posted HERE.

BNSF railroad sued for starting fire

Eleven property owners near Marshall, Washington, just south of Spokane, have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against BNSF Railway for allegedly causing a 365-acre fire in 2007. According to the Seattle Times, the suit…

…cites a state Department of Natural Resources investigation that concluded a carbon buildup in the stack of a BNSF locomotive spewed hot cinders, which started a series of fires along the railroad’s right of way.

BNSF was negligent, the suit contends, because 36 similar fires caused by the railroad’s locomotives broke out along the same right of way since 1970.

Several of the fires sparked on Aug. 11, 2007, merged, becoming what was called the Marshall Complex Fire, causing evacuations of homes between Marshall and Cheney.

Wildfire Today has written previously about irresponsible railroad companies who fail to perform routine maintenance on their turbocharger exhaust systems and cause fires like those above. It can be very difficult for a cause and origin fire investigator to prove within a reasonable doubt that a particular piece of carbon or brake piece caused a fire, since there is usually a lot of carbon and brake debris along railroad tracks.

On November 22 we wrote:

The U.S. Forest Service has filed a lawsuit against the Union Pacific Railroad for starting a 2002 fire in Price Canyon in Utah. The fire burned 3,200 acres and the government is seeking $653,364 in restitution for suppression and rehab costs.

The suit also names MotivePower, the company that installed and maintained the turbo charger which is blamed for starting the fire.

Fires caused by railroads are much more numerous than people think. Most railroad fires are caused by improperly maintained turbochargers on the engines. If not maintained, large pieces of red-hot carbon can be blown out of the turbo chargers, starting fires. A smaller percentage of railroad-caused fires originate from brakes that lock up, become super-heated, disintegrate and shower the area with hot metal. I once responded to a series of 11 fires over several miles that started from hot brakes.

As a former cause and origin investigator, I like to see other investigators doing their jobs well, and getting the attention of irresponsible railroad companies.

Fire Recovery Litigation Teams

The U. S. Department of Justice and the state of California’s CalFire are assigning additional personnel to investigate and prosecute individuals and companies who start wildland fires. The DOJ has supplied special funding for “fire recovery litigation teams” in three of their districts in Utah, central California, and the Sacramento area.

Last year the DOJ settled a record $102 million civil lawsuit with the Union Pacific railroad for starting the 52,000 acre Storrie fire in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests in 2000. CalFire expects a 10-to-1 return on their investment of $2.4 million to hire 13 additional fire investigators dedicated to cost-recovery.

The Sacramento Bee has an article on the subject that is on the front page of their dead-tree edition today. Here is an excerpt:

For one California man, a little fix-it job in the driveway wound up costing big – $1 million, to be exact.

This week, the U.S. Department of Justice approved a settlement with a homeowner from North Fork, east of Madera, whose attempt to sharpen a wood splitter with an electric grinder sparked (the North Fork) fire in the Sierra National Forest that burned more than 4,100 acres.

The settlement marks a new chapter in the federal government’s intensive push to collect damages from individuals or businesses whose actions touch off costly forest fires. California also is bolstering its efforts with new state money dedicated to a fire cost recovery team.

“We’re not looking to put people on the streets,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kendall J. Newman, who oversees fire litigation in the Sacramento-based Eastern District. “But we are looking to recover for the taxpayers.”

Last year, the Eastern District – whose sweeping territory includes more than 16 million acres of national forest, or 8.3 percent of the nation’s total – was one of three districts to receive special federal funding for designated “fire recovery litigation teams.” The other teams are located in California’s Central District, based in Los Angeles, and in Utah.

USFS sues railroad for starting fire

The U.S. Forest Service has filed a lawsuit against the Union Pacific Railroad for starting a 2002 fire in Price Canyon in Utah. The fire burned 3,200 acres and the government is seeking $653,364 in restitution for suppression and rehab costs.

The suit also names MotivePower, the company that installed and maintained the turbo charger which is blamed for starting the fire.

Fires caused by railroads are much more numerous than people think. Most railroad fires are caused by improperly maintained turbo chargers on the engines. If not maintained, large pieces of red-hot carbon can be blown out of the turbo chargers, starting fires. A smaller percentage of railroad-caused fires originate from brakes that lock up, become super-heated, disintegrate and shower the area with hot metal. I once responded to a series of 11 fires over several miles that started from hot brakes.

A cause and origin fire investigator, looking for what started a fire near railroad tracks, can usually find many pieces of carbon along the tracks. To definitively say that a single piece started a particular fire can be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

In some parts of the country, including northwest Indiana, railroads have gotten a free ride. They save money by reducing the maintenance on their turbo chargers, start fires, then many times get away with it.

I know of one instance where a National Park Service manager directed that cases against railroads not be pursued, because the railroads might then be temped to reduce the vegetation along their tracks through the park by using herbicides.

Peshtigo fire: 137 years ago today

The origin of Fire Prevention week is usually attributed to the Great Chicago Fire on October 8 and 9, 1871, which killed 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, and destroyed more than 17,400 structures across 2,000 acres of Chicago.

But the same day the Chicago fire started, the Peshtigo fire, the most devastating wildfire in American history, burned across northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16 towns, killing between 1,200 and 2,400 people, and blackening 1.2 million acres. There are reports that it spotted 10 miles across Green Bay and only stopped when it reached Lake Michigan.


The fire began when railroad workers clearing land for tracks unintentionally started a vegetation fire. Before long, the fast-moving flames were whipping through the area ‘like a tornado,’ some survivors said. It was the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin that suffered the worst damage. Within an hour, the entire town had been destroyed.

The fire is named after the town because about 800 of those who died were in Peshtigo. The 1870 census listed the population at 1,700. More than 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave, primarily because so many had died that few remained alive who could identify them.

Survivors said the firestorm generated winds that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many residents ran toward the nearby Peshtigo river, but some never made it. A little girl did, and held on to the horns of a cow in the river for hours. One man thought he had led his wife to the river through the smoke and flames, only to discover the woman was not his wife. According to reports, he later went crazy. Some made it to the river but then drowned.


The Peshtigo Fire Company had a single horse-drawn steam pumper to protect houses and the small factories near the river, but it was ineffective in the fire storm that wiped out the village. There was no other organized fire protection between the City of Green Bay and Marinette.

From U-S-History.com:

Conditions were ripe in the area that Fall, owing to an unusually dry summer. Small prairie fires were common and either burned themselves out or were quickly quenched. Loggers tried to hold their slash burning to small areas. Some farmers needed to burn small piles of brush that had accumulated from clearing land for additonal crop-growing acreage. And a railroad was being constructed at that time, between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This necessarily left debris to the sides of the track.

A cold front moved across a broad expanse of northcentral America that day, which brought swirling winds that allowed small fires to combine into larger ones. Circumstances, such as this wind, the topography of the area, and the abundant fuel, all came together to create a perfect setting for a catastrophic event. As the temperature rose, so did the wind’s intensity. A firestorm, in essence “nature’s nuclear explosion,” burst into being.

The firestorm, whipped by what is today acknowledged to have been a low-grade tornado, was described as “a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass.” It destroyed 12 pioneer towns and about 1.5 million acres, or nearly 2,000 square miles, of prime timber, and killed an estimated 2,200 people.

Traveling in a northeasterly direction, the fire leapt the Peshtigo River (after the winds shifted to come out of the west) and burned a swath through the countryside before reaching the Bay of Green Bay, where it finally died out.

The U.S. military studied this perfect storm of conditions that devastated such a large area. Some of the lessons learned were used during World War II during fire-bombing campaigns of Japan and Germany.

Wildfire news, July 22, 2008

Total suppression or defensible space?

An article in the Red Orbit discusses the effectiveness of suppressing every wildland fire vs. preparing homes to withstand a frontal assault from a fire.

More provocatively, the research suggests that fighting fires on public lands to protect homes is ineffective and, in the long run, counterproductive.

It is also far more expensive.

This is the paradox of wildland fire management in America: Most scientists and fire managers agree that fire is a healthy and needed part of the forest, and that fighting these blazes serves only to build up fuels and boost the size and frequency of catastrophic fires.

But federal agencies keep attacking almost every wildfire, many deep in the woods, and the rising costs of suppression divert money from protecting homes and communities _ which can be saved with the right, often inexpensive, measures.

The result: Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on what most experts agree is the wrong approach. The lives of firefighters are put in danger on fires that don’t need to be fought. And homes are left vulnerable, their fate often decided by wind direction and the availability of federal firefighters to protect private property.

Railroad to pay $102 million for fire

The Union Pacific Railroad Company has agreed to pay $102 million for starting a fire north of Sacramento in 2000 that burned 52,000 acres of the Lassen and Plumas national forests. The government was seeking damages of $190 million, but a settlement of $102 million still sets a new record for the largest damage recovery for a wildfire by the U.S. Forest Service.

Sparks from welders repairing tracks caused the Storrie Fire on August 17, 2000, in Plumas County. The suppression costs were estimated at $22 million. A judge said the government could seek more than $13 million for “damage to wildlife habitat and public enjoyment of the forest,” as much as $33 million to plant new trees, and $122 million in lost timber. More information is HERE.