NPS releases report on Lassen National Park’s Reading Fire

Reading Fire
Reading Fire. Photo by Lassen National Park.

The National Park Service has released a report about last summer’s Reading Fire in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California which, after being monitored for two weeks and burning 95 acres, grew to 28,079 acres, escaping the park boundaries. The fire started from a lightning strike on July 23, 2012 and was contained on August 22. For the first two weeks it was managed under a “Wildland Fire for Resource Benefit” strategy.

Reading Fire, final perimeter
Final perimeter (in red) of the Reading Fire. The green line is the boundary of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

The expectation was that they could stop the fire when it reached the Lassen National Park Highway, about a mile north of the point of origin. On August 6 when the fire was 140 acres the Type 4 Incident Commander transitioned to a Type 3 IC. Later in the day the fire ran for about a mile and a half, blowing right across the 2-lane highway. Then a Type 2 Incident Managment Team was ordered, which eventually transitioned to a Type 1 IMTeam on August 13. When the fire was contained it had burned 11,071 acres of US Forest Service land outside the park boundaries and 75 acres privately owned, for a total of 28,079 acres. By August 23 the National Park Service had spent $15,875,495 observing, managing, and later suppressing the fire.

As we have stated before, managing a fire with your hands tied by utilizing little to no aggressive suppression action, is extremely difficult, requiring an extraordinary amount of skill, knowledge, expertise, experience, and luck. Especially if the fire starts in mid-July, leaving 6 to 12 weeks of weather ahead that is conducive to rapid fire spread. Few people can do this. It is impossible to predict accurately how weather will affect a fire more than 10 days ahead.

Here are some some excerpts from the 53-page report:
Continue reading “NPS releases report on Lassen National Park’s Reading Fire”

Another report about Lower North Fork Fire offers recommendations

Lower North Fork Fire
Lower North Fork Fire. Photo provided by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

A special commission created by the Colorado General Assembly to investigate the Lower North Fork fire has released their report. The fire originated from an escaped prescribed fire southwest of Denver on March 26, 2012. It burned 4,140 acres and killed three local residents at their homes. The report offers a number of recommendations but did not place blame.

This is the second report about the fire. The first, released in April, 2012, was conducted by Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources. That 152-page report (a very large 11.8 MB file) only addressed the management of the prescribed fire, and did not cover the suppression of the wildfire, the three fatalities, or the controversial evacuation procedures during the wildfire.

The charter of the commission  which produced the second report was to investigate the following:

  • causes of the wildfire;
  • the impact of the wildfire on the affected community;
  • the loss of life and financial devastation incurred by the community;
  • the loss of confidence by the community in the response to the emergency by
  • governmental bodies at all levels; and
  • measures to prevent the occurrence of a similar tragedy

Their recommendations were on the following topics:

  1. Coordination among fire districts
  2. Raising the liability cap
  3. Wildland-urban interface and local land use egulations
  4. Funding for the federal FLAME Act (which is not fully funded by Congress)
  5. 911 capabilities
  6. A consistent revenue source for wildfire suppression
  7. Air emission permits
  8. Funding for the SWIFT Program

The Commission also recommends that four bills be introduced in the Colorado General Assembly:

  • Prescribed Burn Program in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control
  • Wildfire Matters Review Committee
  • Extend Wildfire Mitigation Financial Incentives
  • All-hazards Resource Mobilization and Reimbursement

You can read the entire report HERE.


Thanks go out to Gary

Local Colorado newspaper investigates management of Waldo Canyon Fire

Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012
Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012, the day hundreds of homes burned in Colorado Springs. Credit: Keystoneridin

The Colorado Springs Independent conducted an exhaustive study into the management of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which in June, 2012 killed two people, destroyed 346 homes, and burned 18,247 acres — with some of those acres and most of the homes being within the city limits of Colorado Springs. The results of their investigation, published in a lengthy article on December 12, are extremely interesting. More about that later.

On October 23, the City of Colorado Springs released what they called an “Initial After Action Report”, but in the document they admitted the AAR was not the final, comprehensive report on the fire, but was considered preliminary. An in-depth analysis, they said, would occur over the next several months to fully explore Colorado Spring’s management of the fire.

The report, as we wrote then, was unusual. It listed some strengths and recommendations, but omitted information about the issues that caused the recommendations. Therefore, it was not always clear WHY the recommendations were made, forcing an observer to read between the lines. This limited the opportunities for lessons learned and may not in all cases have the desired result of preventing mistakes. There was no indication that they consulted experts outside the city for unbiased opinions or recommendations.

In reviewing the recommendations in the ARR, it appeared that many of the issues would be mitigated with adequate training and experience in the Incident Command System.

After reading the article in yesterday’s Colorado Springs Independent, I am left stunned. Regarding the management of the fire within the city of Colorado Springs, I have never heard of a wildland fire with such a huge impact that was so utterly, catastrophically mismanaged.

The fire started Saturday, June 23, 2012. A Type 1 Incident Management Team, Great Basin Team 2, with Incident Commander Rich Harvey, assumed command Monday morning, June 25. Except, according to the article:

[Colorado Springs FD Fire Chief Rich] Brown said he specified in the city’s delegation of authority that the city, and no one else, would have control if the fire crossed into Colorado Springs.

The newspaper examined hundreds of documents including reports written by firefighters working on the fire. The article is astounding. If it is correct, and I have no reason to believe it is not, it exposes complete failures in pre-incident planning, qualification and training of fire department personnel, evacuation planning and execution, logistics, daily incident planning, strategy, and tactics. Apparently this large, modern city with an extensive, very vulnerable wildland-urban interface was completely unprepared to manage a large wildland fire or evacuations.

The article does not criticize firefighters. It points out the failures in preparedness and management of the fire by upper level officials, before, during, and after the incident. Some mid-level and upper level firefighters were forced into positions of great responsibility on the fire without having been provided the necessary training and experience. That was not their fault, it was just the way it was done in Colorado Springs.

You should read the article. It’s long, but worth it from a lessons learned perspective. The comments at the bottom of the article are interesting as well.

Here are a few excerpts from the article, copied and assembled into bullets:

  • When the fire swept into Mountain Shadows, the city had a mere four firefighting vehicles, or apparatus, assigned to that subdivision and all other land north to the Air Force Academy.
  • The evacuation plan had been drafted only that morning, and was enacted minutes before the first homes burned.
  • Local firefighters found themselves outgunned, and much of the help from other fire departments was nowhere close, because leaders sought those resources only after flames came into the city. Their chief staging area wasn’t set up and equipped until houses were ablaze, and they didn’t have a mobile command post until eight hours into Tuesday’s firefight [when most of the homes burned].
  • And, as readily admitted by city firefighters leading efforts on the ground that night, the fire could have charged further eastward for miles had it not been for the unanticipated arrival of U.S. Forest Service engines and their hot shot crews.
  • [A Colorado Springs FD Captain], a heavy rescue expert with no current wildland certification, was in charge of the city’s deployed resources on Tuesday [when most of the homes burned].
  • And because the department hadn’t made maps in advance for out-of-town engines, crew’s like Company Officer P.J. Langmaid’s were told to “split all our companies and place one member on each Denver Fire rig as a point of contact and communications/operations liaison.”
  • The next day, the city did sign its own delegation of authority — but apparently made it clear its fire personnel would remain separate from Harvey’s [Type 1 Incident Management] team, which arrived Sunday night. In a July 16 interview, [Colorado Springs FD Fire Chief Rich] Brown said he specified in the city’s delegation of authority that the city, and no one else, would have control if the fire crossed into Colorado Springs.
  • As adamant as the city was that its personnel operate independently during the fire, it is equally adamant that only its personnel examine the response. No third party has been engaged to review the city’s performance, which often is requested when a fire kills people.

The map below shows the progression of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Colorado Springs is on the eastern edge below the blue box that says “July 1-6”.
Waldo Canyon Fire progression map

The Colorado Springs Independent, and the reporter, Pam Zubeck, deserve a great deal of praise for their investigation and the writing of this excellent article. Pulitzer Prize-worthy maybe?

Differences between military and Forest Service accident investigations

The accident report on the fatal crash of the military C-130 MAFFS air tanker which was released yesterday illustrated one very important difference between accident investigations conducted by the military and the U.S. Forest Service. A notice on page two of the report points out that the findings of military aviation accident investigations are regulated by law, 10 U.S.C. 2254(d), which states:

Use of Information in Civil Proceedings.—For purposes of any civil or criminal proceeding arising from an aircraft accident, any opinion of the accident investigators as to the cause of, or the factors contributing to, the accident set forth in the accident investigation report may not be considered as evidence in such proceeding, nor may such information be considered an admission of liability by the United States or by any person referred to in those conclusions or statements.

C-130 MAFFS crash, July 1, 2012
C-130 MAFFS air tanker crash, July 1, 2012. US Air Force photo

For fatal wildfire burnovers or entrapments of U.S. Forest Service employees, a law provides for just the opposite, thanks to a bill that was sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell and U.S. Representative Doc Hastings, which became Public Law 107-203 in 2002:

In the case of each fatality of an officer or employee of the Forest Service that occurs due to wildfire entrapment or burnover, the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture shall conduct an investigation of the fatality. The investigation shall not rely on, and shall be completely independent of, any investigation of the fatality that is conducted by the Forest Service.

The Cantwell-Hastings bill that was signed into law in 2002 was a knee-jerk reaction to the fatalities on the Thirtymile fire the previous year. The Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s office had no experience or training in the suppression or investigation of wildland fires. They are much more likely to be investigating violations at a chicken ranch than evaluating fire behavior and tactical decisions at a wildfire. The goal of the Inspector General investigation would be to determine if any crimes were committed, so that a firefighter could be charged and possibly sent to prison.

After the trainee wildland fire investigator for the OIG finished looking at the Thirtymile fire, on January 30, 2007 the crew boss of the four firefighters that died was charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. The charges were later reduced to two counts of making false statements to which the crew boss pleaded guilty on August 20, 2008. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 90 days of work release.

The criminal charges brought against the firefighter who may or may not have made some mistakes on the fire had a serious, chilling effect on wildland firefighters. Not only does it make them reluctant to speak to anyone about what happened on an accident, some even had second thoughts about their willingness to continue working in a professional they loved because potential criminal charges or convictions could ruin their lives and the livelihood of their families.

In addition, firefighters lawyering-up after an accident makes it difficult to discover the causes of an accident and to learn lessons which could save lives by preventing similar fatalities.

The four-fatality MAFFS accident was a complex chain of events involving many individuals and firefighting resources. But in spite of the complexity, the report was released to the public only four months after the accident, making it possible for lessons to be learned while reducing the chances of a similar accident taking more lives.

This short turnaround is unheard of in the wildland fire agencies in part due to the potential civil and criminal implications down the road.

This is literally a life and death issue — Senator Maria Cantwell’s and Representative Doc Hastings’ hastily conceived Public Law 107-203 must be repealed and replaced by one similar to 10 U.S.C. 2254(d), which serves the military very well. The Cantwell-Hastings law serves no useful purpose. Accidents are investigated, with or without the ridiculous law. It had unintended consequences and needs to be fixed.

Report released on Colorado Springs’ Waldo Canyon Fire

Waldo Canyon After Action ReportAn After Action Report (AAR) was released today about the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned into Colorado Springs June 26, destroying 345 homes and ultimately blackening over 18,000 acres. This AAR is not the final, comprehensive report on the fire, but is considered preliminary. An in-depth analysis will occur over the next several months to fully explore Colorado Spring’s management of the fire.

The organization of the report is a little unusual, listing strengths and recommendations, but omitting many of the issues that caused the recommendations. Therefore, it is not always clear WHY the recommendations were made, forcing an observer to read between the lines. This limits the opportunities for lessons learned and may not in all cases have the desired result of preventing mistakes. Maybe the final report will fill in these gaps.

The report listed several areas identified as “major strengths”, including interagency cooperation, dedicated personnel, pre-incident training and exercises, planning, and the fact that they saved 82 percent of the homes in the direct impact area.

Some of the recommendations:

  • A system needs to be designed to provide immediate notification to first responders and key agency representatives as decisions are made.
  • Real-time documentation. Use “scribes” to track real-time information for record keeping and serve as a communication link between locations when primary staff is busy with their duties.
  • Train staff and volunteers who can serve in the Emergency Operations Center to staff a more robust Logistics Section.
  • Provide additional training on the use of the Incident Command System (ICS).
  • A Communications Unit Leader should be assigned to ensure that an incident-wide Communications Plan is developed.
  • Exercise the numerous emergency management plans. The report listed seven of them.
  • For the Emergency Operations Center, develop an organization chart early in the incident, and train the personnel on their roles and how to interface with the Incident Command Post.
  • Develop a plan on how to provide adequate food to incident personnel.
  • Establish procedures for handling large quantities of donated food and water. Provide incident management training for non-profits and agency personnel to improve management of volunteers and donations.
  • Develop a plan to ensure incident personnel work consistent shifts and receive adequate rest, breaks, and rehabilitation (food and supplies).
  • Evaluate the need for post-incident critical stress debriefings.
  • Develop an ICS organization chart to ensure that a Safety Officer and Accountability Officer are assigned.
  • Ensure that span of control policies are followed.
  • Utilize Staging Areas to assist in accountability of personnel and resources.
  • Use street names rather than neighborhood names to define evacuation boundaries.
  • Provide maps of areas that are being evacuated to first responders.

In reviewing the recommendations in the ARR, it appears that many of them would be mitigated with adequate training and experience in the Incident Command System, NIMS, or NIIMS. A Type 1 Incident Management Team assumed command of the fire at the end of Day 2, June 24; most of the homes were destroyed on June 26. The team was no doubt very fluent in the use of ICS, but if they were interfacing with multiple agencies who had limited knowledge in the management system, there could have been some inefficiencies and a lack of adherence to ICS protocols.

You can download the entire 1.7 MB After Action Report.

HERE is a link to articles on Wildfire Today that mention both “Waldo Canyon” and “Colorado Springs”.

Reviews of Pagami Creek Fire, and FLA for canoe entrapments

The U.S. Forest Service has released two additional reports about last year’s Pagami Creek Fire which was managed, rather than suppressed, for 25 days, until it ran 16 miles on September 12, eventually consuming over 92,000 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. We also remind you of the facilitated learning analysis of the eight USFS employees caught out in front of the fire in canoes.

Policy review

The objective of one of the reviews was to determine if the major decisions made by the incident management teams and the staff of the Superior National Forest were consistent with official USFS policy. The review was conducted by one person, Tom Zimmerman, a program manager for the USFS’ Wildland Fire Management Research, Development, and Application Program in Boise. Mr. Zimmerman analyzed the decisions and compared them with 21 policy statements, manuals, directives, and Forest level planning documents. He concluded that the decisions “appear consistent with all levels of policy and process direction”.

Decisions review

There was another review, “looking at decisions made by line officers and Incident Management teams based on the Delegation of Authority from the Forest Supervisor”. The individuals involved in this review were Jim Thomas, Fire and Emergency Operation Specialist for the Eastern Region of the USFS, and Jim Bertelsen, a Superior NF employee acting in his capacity as President of local NFFE Union 2138. This review also found no fault with how the fire was managed, saying no information was overlooked that would have predicted the unprecedented movement of the fire on September 12.

While we don’t dispute the qualifications of Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Thomas, a person has to wonder if these internal reviews, each conducted basically by one person, would have reached different conclusions had they been completed by a panel of neutral subject matter experts.

Entrapment and near-miss facilitated learning analysis

Pagami fire shelters
Deployed fire shelters on the Pagami fire. USFS photo from the facilitated learning analysis.

In addition to those two reviews, released earlier was an excellent facilitated learning analysis (FLA) of the near misses and entrapments of eight USFS employees who were caught out in front of the rapidly spreading fire in canoes while they were trying to evacuate the recreating public from the area. At one point when they were fleeing the fire, the smoke was so thick they could not see the fronts of their canoes. Two people left a canoe and took refuge in the cold water, deploying a single fire shelter over their heads as they floated, suspended by their life jackets. Two others were flown out at the last minute by a float plane when it somehow found a hole in the smoke and was able to find them and land on the lake. Four people, after paddling furiously in the strong winds, dense smoke, and darkness, unable to find a fire shelter deployment site on the heavily forested islands, finally found a small, one-eighth acre barren island where they climbed inside their shelters as they were being pounded with burning embers.

The very well done FLA is a must read. Someone should make a movie about this.


Thanks go out to Dick