Firefighter’s symptoms trigger COVID-19 protocol

A helitack crewmember had been on the 84 Fire in southwest Colorado

84 Fire San Juan NF
84 Fire. San Juan National Forest photo, May 5, 2020.

The first time that the 11-person Durango, Colorado helitack crew all assembled in the same place they realized they were one person short. That May 7 morning one crewmember had called from home saying they had run a fever overnight. This initiated a response in accordance with the COVID-19 protocols established by the U.S. Forest Service.

A Rapid Lesson Sharing report has been released about how this played out. The information below came from the document.

Since the crew started their wildland fire season 25 days before, they had been following the COVID-19 procedures — the 11-person crew, a “Module as One”, was split into two Squads. One staffs the helicopter from its base of operations with the three-person contract flight crew (Pilot, Mechanic, Fuel Truck Driver). The other half is on call from their places of residence on ordered standby and responds if activated on a delayed response. This schedule switches every seven days, with a day off for each squad every 13 days.

The crew had self-isolated for 14 days prior to working with each other.

On May 5 and 6 five of the crewmembers were on the 84 Fire in southwest Colorado, along with approximately 95 other personnel. The Helicopter Manager flew to the fire with three of the five Helitack crewmembers, while the other two drove in separate vehicles.
84 Fire. San Juan National Forest

Manager+3 is the minimum staffing required for a Type 2 Helicopter and they flew to the fire with the minimum during the COVID-19 conditions. Within the confines of a Type 2 Helicopter, there can be no social distance spacing of 6 feet unless only the pilot is onboard.

They spent two days on the fire, sleeping on the front lawn of a nearby fire station after the first day. At end of shift the next day the five Helitack crewmembers got into the two vehicles that were driven to the fire, two in one vehicle and three in the other. People stayed in the same vehicles throughout and the drivers didn’t change.

The individual that called in May 7 with a fever was one of the five who spent the night on the 84 Fire. That morning 10 of the 11 crewmembers gathered in a physical setting and did an AAR on the 84 Fire. This was the first time they had gathered as crew — it was 25 days after the first onboarding of seasonal employees.

The person with the fever took two COVID-19 tests, on May 8 and 9. The requirement for the agency is that the individual with symptoms must remain at home until three things have happened:

They no longer have a fever (without the use of medicine that reduces fevers); AND other symptoms have improved; AND they have received two negative tests in a row, 24 hours apart.

Both tests results, on May 11, found that the firefighter was negative for COVID-19, however the clinic took another nine days to give the results to the individual, on May 19 — 14 days after reporting that they had a fever.

The crewmember self-isolated at their home while waiting for the test results. They are feeling better and believe they had allergies and cold symptoms.

This crewmember is still in the same pay status as the rest of the crew. A CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 was discussed being filed—but wasn’t. No other crewmembers have reported any symptoms and all appear to be very healthy.

Below are some of the lessons identified in the Rapid Lesson Sharing document:

  • A well-defined notification system should be established so Duty Officers, Line Officers, and various Forest entities are aware of individuals on crews who become sick or ill—to prevent causing a “panic” situation.
  • We shouldn’t hit any panic buttons if someone becomes sick. Rather, we need to take the necessary steps with everyone’s well-being in mind during these heightened times.
  • Symptoms that look like COVID-19 could well be the flu, a cold or seasonal allergies. But as a Supervisor you have to take the “better safe than sorry” approach if adverse health symptoms do arise
  • Expect an employee to be out for at least 7-14 days in self-isolation if they get symptoms and longer if a COVID-19 test comes back positive. It took 14 days from the crewmember’s first symptoms to finding out testing results.
  • Are our Best Practices actually the Best Practices? In an effort to limit people at the Durango Tanker Base we told a mechanic for the helicopter to stay in town. And when ordered for a fire, a minor mechanical issue occurred, and it took 30 minutes for the mechanic to get back to the Tanker Base to deal with it.
  • Forest Leadership needs to reinforce to their Forestry Technician Fire personnel that regardless of being sick or not, they will be paid for their respective crew’s readiness ability as a “Module as One”. This can be as simple as knowing your time will have the approved button clicked.
  • COVID-19 information sharing from the Washington Office to the Regional Office to the Supervisors Office to the District Office is at best a fluid mess of forwarded emails, chain emails, conference calls, and Microsoft Team meetings with unmuted participants and all manner of disturbing background sounds.
  • Information needs to be quality over quantity. We need to flatten the curve on an overabundance of excessive information that nobody doing their real job has time to read.

Questions that need to be addressed and answered:

  • What do we do with employees in government housing who come down with symptoms? For that matter, SW Colorado is high COLA (Cost-of-Living Adjustment). What about employees who share housing with other people and who may become sick? Are we authorized to put these people into a safer hotel situation and on per diem? What about the 1039s who camp in parking lots and elsewhere? What about local AD Tanker Base Employees?
  • Do we have a blank check on Maintaining a Healthy Workforce in terms of funding?
  • Is there a clear crosswalk for Supervisors and for employees about the reality of being exposed to COVID-19 and how well our agency will really support us? CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 OWCP, how’s this going to happen and occur?
  • Honestly, what are we going to do if an employee tests positive? How do we react? How do we respond?

AAR completed for the Lion Fire near Meeker, Colorado

Lion Fire Map Meeker Colorado wildfire
Map showing the approximate location of the Lion Fire 1.5 miles west of Meeker, Colorado. Data from Orora Technologies detected from 2:12 p.m. MDT April 7, to 2:30 a.m. MDT April 8, 2020.

An informal After Action Review has been produced for the Lion Fire that burned about 229 acres west of Meeker, Colorado on April 7. The fire was attacked by the Meeker Volunteer Fire Department, Bureau of Land Management, and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. By the end of the day firefighters had stopped the spread. Investigators determined that it started near a mobile home which was consumed in the fire. Several outbuildings and vehicles were also destroyed, according to Meeker Fire Chief Luke Pelloni.

Below is the ARR, distributed by the Zone Fire Management Officer:


As many of you know we had the Lion Fire last week just west of Meeker involving multiple jurisdictions/agencies.  I was tasked with letting you all know how things went as far as COVID-19 measures and mitigation’s.

We have taken multiple steps in our station to limit and minimize exposure to firefighters as we are entering fire season.  I believe there have been lots of good discussions and decisions made in regards to COVID-19.  However, just like in everything we do the plan looks good on paper until the smoke is flying in the air.  Listed below are some of the lessons learned from on the ground experiences last week.

  1. Social distancing is very tough in stressful situations.  The crew discussed social distancing before leaving for the fire and to try and abide by the guidelines, upon arrival multiple structures/vehicles were burning and instincts to protect life and property take over.
  2. When evacuating public, maintaining distance is difficult when property/landowners are panicked and looking for answers and guidance.
  3. When working with multiple agencies the COVID-19 mitigation measures and messages have varied widely and are hard to enforce or maintain.
  4. Briefings are hard to conduct in the field with large crowds and maintain the appropriate distance that is recommended.  We usually don’t have microphones or platforms in initial attack so harder to hear and voice critical information to multiple crews.
  5. Once dispatched we utilized four vehicles with eight firefighters.  This idea seemed like a good idea until arrival and the parking and safety areas for vehicles was minimal.  It added a bit of cluster you could say to the initial arrival to the incident.
  6. Upon arrival personnel jumped into different trucks and engines to engage on the fire creating more “contaminated” surfaces by different people at different times of the incident.
  7. It is very difficult to keep equipment sanitized throughout an incident (examples: truck radios, hand tools, chainsaws, steering wheels, compartment doors, etc.)
  8. A few individuals did wear masks and experienced a harder time communicating to one another thus decreasing the distance between individuals.  The people who did wear masks seemed to be touching their faces and adjusting masks more.

These are a few of the lessons or experiences that we noticed on our first wildfire of the year.  I think we are taking adequate measures to address issues and potential situations that crews will experience this summer.  I think the list above will be some of the issues or challenges that firefighters will encounter on incidents.  One concern I have is the ability to sanitize and clean work areas.  We have spent an entire day trying to purchase items but our current credit card procedures are making that difficult to achieve.  If anyone has any questions or concerns feel free to give me a shout anytime.  Hope everyone is safe and making it through these interesting times.

End of AAR


Lion Fire
Lion Fire. Photo by Rio Blanco Co Sheriff’s Office April 7, 2020.

Report reveals actions taken after fatal helicopter crash on prescribed fire

One person was killed during aerial ignition operations in Texas March 27, 2019

Helicopter Flight Tracking Daniel Laird firefighter killed

A report has been released about the fatal helicopter crash that occurred on a prescribed fire in Texas, March 27, 2019. One of the passengers, Daniel Laird, was killed. The pilot and the other passenger were injured and transported to a hospital.

Tribute to Daniel Laird

Daniel, was born August 30, 1977 in Yuba City, California, the youngest of four siblings.

Daniel went to school at Grace Christian Academy, then on to Bridge Street School, and graduated from Yuba City High School in 1995. He joined the U.S. Forest Service after high school and worked his way up through the ranks to the position of Helitack Captain on the Tahoe National Forest. Daniel had served 23 years with the Forest Service.

Daniel was an avid fisherman, a staunch supporter of the Sacramento Kings, and a competitive golfer. He was also a Yuba City skateboarding icon. His greatest love and highest priority was always for his family.

Daniel’s complete obituary.

Daniel Laird memorial

Below are excerpts from the 33-page Facilitated Learning Analysis which goes into much more detail than seen here, and includes lessons learned. The excerpts are primarily from the viewpoint of Hailei who was in the front of the Airbus AS350B3 helicopter with Matthew, the pilot. Daniel Laird was in the back operating the Plastic Sphere Dispenser which dropped small spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being ejected from the machine. This was one of the methods used to ignite the prescribed fire that day, in addition to firefighters on the ground carrying hand-held devices.

It is common in reports like this to not use real names, but the document does not specify if they were changed.

The following events, from the time of the Mayday until the injured were transported to the hospital, occurred within a short amount of time, from 1409 to 1517. Those injured were actually receiving professional medical care on scene within 15 minutes of the Mayday. The excerpt begins at about 1408 just before finishing ignition on the prescribed fire.


Mayday – The On-Site Response

Hailei talked to Daniel and told him to get ready to turn off the Plastic Sphere Dispenser machine after they made the next turn. They were about to button the whole thing up. “We had one little piece we needed to do. We were 99.9 percent done. As soon as we made the turn, that’s when everything just stopped, and went silent,” Hailei recalls.

Hailei continues, “I looked at Matthew but I wish I would have looked back at Dan, too.” Matthew was fighting with the controls. She doesn’t remember doing it at the time, but Hailei asked Matthew, “What is happening?” He was busy with the controls. Hailei had the “push-to-talk” in her right hand. She keyed the mic and tried to say: “Kendall, we are going down.” But the only thing they heard on the radio was: “Kendall, we are going d . . .”

Hailei remembers hitting the tops of pine trees and then coming to. She later recalled, “I think I got knocked out. The last thing I remember, I was thinking of my daughter.”

Texas March 27, 2019 helicopter crash aerial ignitions
The March 27, 2019 incident in Texas. Photo by Sgt. Erik Burse/Texas Department of Public Safety.

Hailei said, “We [the helicopter] slid 50 feet down a live pine tree and rolled over onto our right side. I realized I was alive and then the pain hit. I undid my seatbelt and looked at [pilot] Matthew and saw a tree had come through between his leg and across his chest. I remember standing there and realized Matthew was alive because he was talking. He looked like he was hugging the pine tree. His head was laying on the PSD sphere bag. He said, ‘Help me move this bag.’ It seemed like forever to get the bag loose. As his seatbelt was unbuckled he fell out of the seat, but his foot was lodged. I had to crawl back in and twist his foot to get him loose.”

Hailei told Matthew: “We’ve got to go.”

She recalled seeing fire around them. She explained, “I wanted Matthew to get up but he couldn’t. I wanted him to get up so I could help him walk out. I wanted to get the fire shelters. I started thinking where the fire shelters were and started looking but couldn’t get to them.

Hailei continues, “I remember seeing Dan’s legs and thought ‘Please move your foot.’ But that never happened. I knew in my heart, he was gone. I thought about my training and remembered that fire extinguishers on board the aircraft are for people—not the aircraft. So I found the extinguisher and gave it to Matthew and said: ‘I have to go get help.’ The entire scene was very quiet for what had just happened.”

Hailei wanted her phone so she could call for help but couldn’t find it. Matthew was able to reach in the console and hand her his phone and she called FMO John. At that moment, John Kendall [Fire Management Officer on the Sam Houston National Forests] sees a Portland, Oregon phone number calling his phone. He remembered thinking that he didn’t recognize the number and he was trying to limit the time he was on the phone, but for some reason, he answered it.

It was Hailei on Matthew’s phone.

Hailei screamed for John to come get her. Hailei kept saying that she could not get the fire shelters from the helicopter. John told Hailei to move east away from the fire, but Hailei was unsure of where she was. Fire was spreading all around them. She told John, “We can’t get out of here.” Upon hearing this plural pronoun, John surmised that there must be at least two alive.

Right then, Hailei looked down and her phone was lying in the grass in front of her. She quickly hung-up with John and put the pilot’s cell phone in her pocket. She called her boyfriend with her phone and told him: “My helicopter crashed, I think one of my crew members is dead, please call my daughter. I don’t want her to find out about this on social media or the news.”

Hailei ends the call with her boyfriend, calls John back on her phone, and tells him that she could hear the UTV. He told her to hang up and call Robbie because he was closer to her.

She called [prescribed fire crewmember] Robbie from her cell phone. Robbie picked up the call. Hailei told him she heard the UTV drive past her. She told them to turn around, drive back, and pick her up.

Hailei remembers: “I thought I was going to have to walk through fire but a path opened up.” Robbie recalled seeing her through the fire. She was in an unburned pocket within the burn unit. Hailei recalls: “I got to Robbie who picked me up and carried me to the UTV where I had a meltdown. I then asked Robbie to stay with me.”

Prescribed Fire Crew Member, Brody, ran by. Hailei told him to hurry because fire was coming and she pointed toward the crashed helicopter. He headed that way and was first on scene at the helicopter. Then Jack, the firefighter who was serving as trail guard and weather observer, responded quickly. Robbie told him, “You need to grab a hand tool.” Jack grabbed a hand tool from the UTV and headed into the crash site following Brody’s path.

When Brody found the helicopter he saw pilot Matthew on his hands and knees under the ship. He recalled, “I asked if he was okay and he said ‘yes.’ I asked about Daniel, and the pilot didn’t know his condition. I ran around and looked and noticed the position of Daniel’s body and knew he was pinned. I knew the only way to help was to keep fire away. I helped the pilot up. I knew there was likely to be fuel everywhere, so I went out away from there and began to dig line.”

At about 1421, Jack met up with Brody at the helicopter as Brody was putting in a handline. Jack saw that Matthew was up and walking around. Jack asked Matthew if he could walk out. Matthew didn’t exactly answer his question, but explained that he didn’t have a fire shelter. Jack gave Matthew his fire shelter and said: “If we need to evacuate, I will open-up the fire shelter and we will leave together.”

Jack asked Matthew to “Show me the location of the PSD Operator so I can check him for signs of life.” Matthew pointed in the general direction and replied: “I don’t believe he made it.” He also informed,

“You can’t get to him.” Jack walked in that direction and quickly determined that, because of the helicopter’s position, he couldn’t get to Daniel.

Jack started helping Brody finish the handline and they started lighting a backfire with lighters. Jack was working on the fireline while having an ongoing conversation with Matthew.

Robbie started driving—very carefully—Hailei out on the UTV. She asked, “Where are we going? Robbie replied, “I want to get you a little better help.” She said, “Well, you can go a little faster.”

It took them about 10 minutes to get to the ambulance. While on the UTV, Robbie gently told Hailei that once he got her to the ambulance he would need to go back to help at the crash site. However, at 1426,  once they made it out to the ambulance, FMO John told Robbie to stay with Hailei because there were enough people at the scene and he wanted Hailei to know that she was supported.

Robbie gave Hailei a few minutes to calm down. Hailei called her supervisor, Toby, the Helicopter Program Manager, at 1430. He didn’t know the crash had happened and answered in a calm laidback voice, “What’s going on?” Hailei explained that the helicopter went down. She reported that she was fine and Matthew was fine but that she wasn’t sure about Daniel. She then handed the phone to Robbie. Toby asked Robbie about Daniel. Robbie informed that Daniel was still unconscious. Toby cancelled the scheduled post-burn recon for the Davy Crockett burn, had a conversation with his pilot, and both agreed to fly back to the Angelina airport. Toby then began to make his way to the hospital in Conroe.

At around 1507, Sam called Dispatch to say Hailei was in route to the hospital. Hailei recalls that Robbie rode in the front of the ambulance and it made her feel better to know that he was going with her. She also recalls that the Medic in the back of the ambulance also made her feel calm. She said, “I was mad because they cut my favorite pair of Nomex off me. I told them not to cut off my boots but to unlace them and tuck my socks in them! After all I went through, my concern at the time was that I didn’t want to get stuck by a needle. The Medic said, ‘You won’t even know’—and I didn’t. I was so impressed.”

While on the way to the hospital, the Medic was answering Hailei’s phone calls and responding to texts for her. One of these phone calls was from Hailei’s dad. The Medic was able to reassure and calm him about Hailei’s condition.

Honoring Daniel with the Utmost Respect and Dignity

The Montgomery Fire Department stabilized the helicopter with lifts that they had carried in. Based on their experiences, they had packed in quite a bit of stabilizing equipment. But because of the position of the helicopter, they only needed a few pieces of equipment to secure it.

While waiting for the Justice of the Peace to arrive, they decided that they would not remove Daniel until they were able to honor him with the utmost respect and dignity. A member of the Montgomery Fire Department requested an American flag be brought to the scene. At 1622, the Justice of the Peace confirmed that Daniel had expired.

Bob, the Angelina/Sabine Assistant Fire Management Officer (AFMO), recalls pulling up to the scene when everyone was waiting for Daniel to be brought out. He said, “We got in line and Daniel was brought out wrapped in an American flag. It was something to see.”

Surprisingly, Hailei was released within three hours of arriving at the hospital. Evan continued to stay with Matthew until James arrived late that night.

Conclusions

4 Crashes
16 Years
8 Lives Lost

The helicopter crash on March 27 that claimed Daniel Laird’s life has opened up old wounds from previous helicopter crashes, including: the 2003 space shuttle support crash (two fatalities, Charles Krenek and Buzz Miller); the 2005 Sabine National Forest crash (three fatalities, Jon Greeno, Charles Edger, and Jack Gonzalez); and the 2015 De Soto National Forest crash (two fatalities, Steve Cobb and Brandon Ricks).

There have also been numerous helicopter near-misses that have left a lasting impression on those involved. Some qualified personnel on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas no longer want to be included in helicopter operations. These realizations have left employees asking large-scale questions about the nature of their work.

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

Forest Service personnel provide input on fighting fire during COVID-19 pandemic

A summary of the report

Firefighters spike camp
NPS photo.

In an effort to gather perspectives from personnel in the field about fighting fire during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Forest Service held virtual focus group sessions in each of their regions. We acquired a report about the sessions, and below are the highlights from the undated document — which may have been circulated the week of April 5, 2020, or earlier.

The report was titled, “What does fire season look like amidst the COVID-19 pandemic? Concerns, perspectives, and ideas from the field.”

You will see “HP&IOL”, which may stand for “Human Performance & Innovation and Organizational Learning.”

Here is the summary:


INTRODUCTION

This document will discuss the concerns, perspectives, and ideas garnered from the field on how to approach fire season 2020. While the concern is real for the upcoming fire season, COVID-19 has exposed blind spots, pinch points, and weaknesses in the wildland fire system and within the Forest Service as a whole. Whatever actions are taken this season should not be looked at as a temporary fix for a temporary situation. Rather, they should be looked at as possible permanent changes to how we fight fire into the future that make us, as a group, more resilient.

We have a unique opportunity to focus on what is important in life. We have the opportunity to put things into place that help us do our jobs better and make life better for the employees in the long run. We need to ensure that whatever the changes, our primary responsibility is to care for the safety of our people during and after assignment.

What people want most is a message from national leadership acknowledging that this fire season isn’t going to be normal and that we are going to have to use different strategies. Some of those strategies may not be well taken by the public and it is going to take some political courage to follow through.

METHOD

To engage the field in a timely manner, HP&IOL held virtual focus group sessions in each region to gain a variety of perspectives. Each focus group session hosted a diverse set of resource types including IHC, engine, crew, aviation, IMT members, dispatch, and line officers. Notes from each region were combined and distilled into this summary document.

It should be noted that the participants of the focus groups were extremely appreciative to be given the opportunity to express their concerns and ideas and to be a part of the planning process.

HIGHLIGHT REEL — THE TOP SEVEN

From the perspective of the field, we need to crank up discussions and hard thinking. We can do a lot of things to reduce risk of exposure to the virus, but it will likely increase risk elsewhere. When all is said and done, we can’t let the pandemic and its associated precautions distract our resources from the basics of wildland fire and the risks associated with it. Put plainly by an IHC superintendent, “There is concern that this will be a high fatality year due to all of the distractions playing out right now.” While we don’t have control over the distractions on a personal or professional level, it is very important for leadership at all levels to understand these distractions and what the unintended consequences of those are going to be.

MISSION-CRITICAL, STRATEGIC DIRECTION AT A NATIONAL LEVEL NOW, IF NOT WE NEED TO PAUSE

The direction currently being pushed down to units offers a lot of decision space for units in creating different approaches. If forests and regions are rolling their own plans, some may be more lax than others on protocols, putting the resources from other forests and regions at risk. The field urgently requested clear national leader’s intent. With crews already on-boarding employees and many others about to be on-boarded, maybe it is time to take a pause on operations until strategic direction is released. Until then, the field would like to know what the WO is doing to assess the situation. Be transparent with your efforts even if you don’t have a “final” solution or guidance yet.

ACTING AS VECTORS FOR COVID-19 SPREAD

Personnel are concerned about contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to other firefighters and the public as they travel between incidents. Responders are also deeply worried about bringing the virus home to their families. For many, this is not an option; they would refuse to go home and risk exposing their loved ones. When considering how to protect our employees, we must also consider how to protect their families. If not, the available work force numbers may suffer drastically.

OPERATIONAL PREPAREDNESS

As a nation, we are not anywhere near the pinnacle of this outbreak and what the field has already seen is a lot of disruption in peoples’ lives. The field is worried that we are not going to have the organizational capacity to respond to fire. The same goes for our partners and cooperators. The pandemic has only magnified issues with hiring and staffing and many of our surge resources, such as Job Corps, have been severely impacted.

ISOLATION IS THE KEY – RE-TOOLING HOW WE ORDER, MOBOLIZE, AND PAY RESOURCES

Reducing the amount of exposure to employees typically means isolation, whether that be individually or clustered as groups. Re-structuring how we order and stage resources is going to be extremely important in reducing exposure. However, this may mean asking employees to do things outside of their normal position descriptions and as such, they should be paid commensurately.

GO VIRTUAL – REDUCE NUMBERS

Many IMT positions can be successful operating remotely and numerous large fire tasks can also be transitioned to a virtual platform. Personnel can work at remote stations reducing the number of people required to be in the same area. We need to start planning now to identify which tasks and positions can be made virtual and the IT and software support needed to stand up those changes.

FIRE CAMP – WE CANNOT DO IT THE WAY WE HAVE ALWAYS DONE IT

If there ever is a place for COVID-19 to spread quickly it is at fire camp. Close quarters, many shared surfaces, and a general lack of hygiene all contribute to an arena that would make COIVD-19 containment nearly impossible. While the potential for COVID-19 to spread outside a fire camp makes this a more significant issue, the on-going threat in a normal season to a communicable disease spreading throughout camp and sidelining a significant portion of much needed wildland fire personnel warrants capturing these best practices as the new normal way of doing business. We need food, water, communication, medical support, and supplies to work but we don’t necessarily need them from a single location.

WORKERS COMPENSATION – HOW DO WE PROVE EXPOSURE?

OWCP claims are often long and drawn-out. It has also proven to be hard to substantiate an “illness” as connected to work. How are we going to prove COVID-19 cases and exposure if contracted at work or on a fire assignment? We need to plan for the worst-case scenario with COVID-19 spreading quickly through responders on a fire. Is the Forest Service prepared to help its employees if they contract the coronavirus while working when OWCP denies their claim due to a lack of evidence?

CONCLUSION

As always, our field-going personnel answered the call, joining us with short notice to attend a series of focus groups. They provided extensive, thoughtful responses to the challenges of the upcoming season. Their responses can be best captured by this risk-based question: Many people are talking about reinstating the 10:00 AM rule or getting more aggressive with initial attack efforts to reduce the need for large-scale IMT responses. Will IA resources take on more risk to keep fires small because of the COVID-19 threat?

As this question indicates the wildland fire environment has always been complex. This season we have the added challenge of COVID-19. The best way to deal with complexity is through transparency. Transparency doesn’t just happen, it takes effort. We need to create the space for reflection, dialogue, and forging connections between the different levels of our organization. We believe HP&IOL is in unique position to assist in these efforts.

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.

 

Wildfire activity in 2019 was heavier than usual in Alaska, but slower than average in rest of U.S.

The number of acres burned in the lower 48-states was the least since 2004

Williams Flats Fire Washington
The Incident Management Team titled this photo at the Williams Flats Fire, “Success at the goat ranch”. It was uploaded to InciWeb August 4, 2019 and shows a single engine air tanker scooping water to refill its tank.

The statistics collected by the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) for last year’s fire activity confirm what wildland firefighters in the United States already knew — the fire season in the lower 48 states was much slower than average. Outside of Alaska 2,210,266 acres burned, about 40 percent of the 10-year average of 5,608,376 acres. The 2019 lower 48 total was the least since 2004 when 1,451,902 acres were blackened.

However, the number of acres burned in Alaska, 2,454,098, was almost double the 10-year average for the state and was more than the other 49 states combined. That and the fact that fires in Alaska are managed far differently than those in the rest of the U.S. is why at Wildfire Today we keep the statistics separate.

Wildfire acres burned -- US except Alaska, 1971-2019
2019 US acres burned, except Alaska. Stats by NICC. Numbers prior to 1983 may not be reliable. Processed by Wildfire Today. (this image corrects one posted earlier)
Number of fires, US except Alaska, 1970-2019 wildfires
Number of fires, U.S. except Alaska, 1970-2019. Data prior to 1983 may not be reliable.

All other Geographic Areas saw below average acres burned: Southwest (78%), Northern California (48%), Great Basin (42%), Eastern (38%), Southern Area (38%), Northwest (28%), Rocky Mountain (24%), Southern California (20%), and Northern Rockies (15%). Only 27 fires and complexes exceeded 40,000 acres in 2019, which is 21 fewer than 2018.

Map showing the occurrence of large wildfires in 2019
Map showing the occurrence of large wildfires in 2019. NICC.

The eight largest fires in Lower 48 states in 2019

NameStateStart DateSizeCauseEstimated Suppression Cost
WoodburyAZJune 8123,875Unknown$20,000,000
SheepIDJune 22112,106Lightning$710,000
KincadeCAOct. 2377,758Unknown$77,144,000
PotholeIDAug. 669,704Human$600,000
WalkerCAAug. 1654,608Unknown$35,600,000
Williams FlattWAAug. 244,446Lightning$19,432,000
SawgrassFLJune 2342,000Lightningnot reported
Cold CreekWAJuly 1841,920Unknown$900,000

One reason for the slowdown in wildfire activity was the weather — it was not as hot, dry, and windy across the Western United States as we have been accustomed to in a typical summer. This affected the Preparedness Level (PL), which is the planning and organizational readiness dictated by burning conditions, fire activity, and resource availability. In 2019 the PL never rose above three, with five being the highest possible level of preparedness. On August 6 it was raised to PL 3 where it remained for only nine days. This is the first time PL 4 has a not been reached since 2010. In 2017 and 2018 we were at PL 4 or 5 for a total of 122 days.

Incident Management Team mobilizations 2009-2019
Incident Management Team mobilizations 2009-2019. NICC.

The number of mobilizations of Type 1 Incident Management  Teams was about a third of the 10-year average — 12 fires compared to the average of 33. There were no T-1 IMTs deployed during 2019 in the Great Basin, Northern Rockies, or Northwest Geographic Areas.

Between June 5th and July 10th the United States provided 20 crews and 24 individual wildland fire personnel to Alberta, Canada. Between November 14th and December 31st, through the NIFC-Australia Agreement, 85 wildland fire personnel were assigned to support large fires in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia. Support to Australia has continued into 2020.

The number of crews mobilized, 614, was 71 percent of the 10-year average. Nationally the unable to fill rate on crews was 15 percent, but was much higher in Northern California where it was 42 percent.

2019 Engine mobilizations wildfires
2019 Engine mobilizations. NICC.

NICC received 949 engine requests in 2019, which was 61 percent of the 10-year average. Of these requests, 789 were filled, 64 were canceled and 96 (10 percent) were unable to be filled (UTF). There were 13 requests placed to NICC for tactical water tenders, of which 11 were filled, two canceled, and zero UTF.

The number of overhead mobilizations was two-thirds of the 10-year average, with 9 percent UTF.

Large air tankers exclusive use contracts 2000-2019
Large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, 2000-2019. NICC data processed by FireAviation.

A total of 438 Very Large Air Tanker, Type 1, and Type 2 large airtanker requests were received by NICC in 2019. Of that total, 308 requests were filled, 41 were canceled and 89 (20 percent) were UTF. The NICC received no requests for MAFFS in 2019.

NICC received 78 requests in 2019 for Single Engine Air Tankers and Type 3 Air Tankers, of which 64 were filled, 6 were canceled, and 8 were UTF.

Eurocopter AS-350 AStar, N357TA
Eurocopter AS-350 AStar, N357TA, owned by Roberts Aircraft Co. Working the Prairie Dog Fire in Wind Cave National Park July 7, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A total of 351 Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopter requests were received by NICC in 2019, 274 were filled, 38 were canceled, and 39 (11 percent) were UTF. Of the 151 Type 1 helicopter requests placed to NICC, 130 were filled, 14 were canceled and 7 (5 percent) were UTF. Of the 100 requests placed to NICC for Type 2 helicopters, 66 were filled, 12 canceled and 22 (33 percent) were UTF. Of the 100 requests placed to NICC for Type 3 helicopters, 78 were filled, 12 canceled and 10 (12 percent) were UTF.

There were no activations of military C-130 aircraft with Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems, MAFFS, for the first time since 2010.

NICC arranged for 5,197 passengers to be transported on large aircraft, mostly on a B737 that was on fire season contract. There were also two additional large aircraft charter flights that were arranged by NICC.

A total of 49 requests for mobile food services were received at NICC in 2019. Of these 47 were filled, two were canceled and zero were UTF. A total of 62 shower units were requested, and all of these were filled (none were canceled or UTF).

The number of shower and food service mobilizations were both 44 percent of the 10-year average.

acres wildfires human caused
Acres burned, broken down by geographic area, of fires caused by humans (rather than lightning). NICC.

Here is a list of the abbreviations for the Geographic Areas as shown in the reports: AK Alaska, EA Eastern, GB Great Basin, NO Northern California (North Operations), NR Northern Rockies, NW Northwest, RM Rocky Mountains, SA Southern, SO Southern California (South Operations), SW Southwest, ST/OT States/other, and CN Canada.

number of prescribed fire accomplishments in 2019, by federal agencies
Prescribed fire accomplishments in 2019. NICC.
number of prescribed fires in 2019, by federal agency
The number of prescribed fires in 2019 by agency. NICC.