Top wildland fire stories of 2009-with poll

In the United States, at least, 2009 was less busy than your average year, in terms of the number of fires and the total acres burned. In the lower 49 states, 2,720,903 acres burned, which is the lowest number since 2004.

But it was a fairly busy year for wildland fire news. We have put together some of the stories we consider to be the most newsworthy. They are listed here, and below you will have a chance to vote on the ones that you consider to be the top stories. This list does not include the line of duty deaths which we reported earlier, except in the case of the Andrew Palmer fatality investigation report which exposed a great many issues affecting firefighter safety, and survival following an accident.

Feb. 8: Black Saturday fires kill 173 people in Australia

Mar. 7: Raymond Lee Oyler convicted and sentenced to death for Esperanza fire deaths

Apr. 20: Series of 5 articles on wildfire in L. A. Times wins Pulitzer Prize

Apr. 23: 76 homes burn in North Myrtle Beach, SC fire

May 6: Jesusita fire near Santa Barbara; 4 FF entrapments; 77 homes burn.

Jun. 27: San Diego Gas and Electric agrees to pay $686 million to insurance companies that paid claims to their customers for the 2007 Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires.

Jul. 19: Dozens of firefighters are sickened by Norovirus at Redrock and Trailer 1 fires north of Reno.

Aug. 22: Eight members of the Klamath Hot Shots were injured when thier crew carrier was involved in a crash on Highway 99 in northern California.

Aug. 26: The 90-acre Big Meadow prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park escapes and eventually burns 7,418 acres.

Aug. 26: The Station fire started near Los Angeles, eventually burning 160,000 acres. A controversy erupted over accusations that the US Forest Service used less than aggressive tactics on day two of the fire, causing it to become larger than it would have if more resources had been assigned.

Nov. 3: Andrew Palmer fatality report released; many issues identified related to emergency medical care and transportation.

November 8: David Monington pleads guilty to forging wildland fire training certificates.

Dec. 3: USDA Inspector General finds no misconduct in Esperanza fire deaths

(no specific date) Very Large Air Tankers play a significant role in fire suppression in California, and possibly Australia.
Martin Mars:

And now YOU have a chance to select the stories that you consider to be the most significant.  Choose FOUR from the list below.

Choose four of the wildfire stories you consider the most significant of 2009.

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Lessons learned from Klamath Hot Shots vehicle rollover

The Lessons Learned Center has released a document that details some of the lessons learned from the August 22 vehicle rollover:


LESSONS LEARNED – Driving Incident (Rollover)

Date/Time: August 22, 2009 @ 09:00 Hours             Location: Highway 99, Los Molinos, CA

Employee Title: Klamath Interagency Hotshot Crew  Purpose: Returning to Home Unit


Eight personnel from the Klamath Hotshots, Klamath National Forest, were involved in a vehicle accident on Highway 99 near Los Molinos, CA. The crew was returning to their home unit from a fire assignment on the Plumas National Forest and was in the northbound lane when a semi-truck traveling south crossed over into the northbound lane and struck the crew vehicle with a side mirror. This pushed the crew carrier into a sideways skid, crossing oncoming traffic and leaving the roadway, where it experienced a ¾ roll landing on the driver’s side of the vehicle.

One crew member with significant injuries was transported to a hospital in Chico, CA and admitted for treatment. The rest of the crew sustained minor to moderate injuries and were transported to a hospital in Red Bluff, CA and treated then released. One of these was later taken to the hospital in Redding and also the hospital in Chico for further evaluation and treatment. All personnel have been released from the hospital and have returned home.

Lesson(s) Learned:

Seatbelts must be worn at all times. It is State Law and our Policy.

Alert driving prevented a potentially much more serious accident. The driver of the crew carrier saw the semi-truck drift and took evasive action to avoid a head-on collision. Likewise, the driver of the crew carrier following the carrier in the accident was alert and saw the semi-truck drift and the side-strike occur. The driver of the second vehicle immediately slowed down and took evasive action to avoid being struck by the semi-truck.

Be aware that exits/emergency exits may not function after vehicle damage. The crew carrier roll-over damaged the frame of the box (crew passenger area) to the point that the rear door and the emergency exit (side window) would not open. Crew members from the other vehicles tore the emergency exit window (frame and all) from the vehicle to extricate injured personnel. Other occupants crawled through the pass through window between the cab and the box and exited out the broken windshield area.

Drills/training for emergency response pays off. Uninjured crew members did an excellent job of treating injured personnel, dealing with hazardous materials (fuel) spills, and performing traffic control after the accident.


Wildfire news, May 18, 2009

Last of three firefighters injured in Jesusita fire discharged from Grossman Burn Center

Ventura County Fire Department firefighter Robert Lopez was discharged from the Grossman Burn Center today after being treated for burns he received while fighting the Jesusita fire near Santa Barbara. Mr. Lopez underwent two skin graft surgeries to his upper extremities and back. His lead surgeon, Dr. Peter Grossman, said Mr. Lopez will fully recover and be able to return to duty.

Also injured while protecting a home that was over run by the fire, were Captain Ron Topilinski and Captain Brian Bulger, both of whom were treated at the burn center and released. Wildfire Today covered more details about their burn over on on May 7. The CalFire preliminary report was covered HERE. Their incident is the first one in the “Narrative”.

We wish them all a speedy recovery.

Satellite photo of Jesusita fire

Image credit: Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 TeamThis natural-color image from the Advanced Land Imager on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite shows the burned area on May 13, 2009. The fire shows up as purple. Santa Barbara is at the bottom of the image.

A larger version of the image is available HERE.

DHS Secretary Cites Firefighter Input as Justification for Reducing Fire Grant Funding by 70 Percent

From the National Volunteer Fire Council:

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano cited input from firefighters as a major reason that the President’s budget request proposes reducing funding for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program from $565 million to $170 million. The President is also asking Congress to increase funding for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program from $210 million to $420 million.

In budget hearings before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee on May 12 and 13, Napolitano said that feedback she has received from fire departments and local governments indicates that staffing is a more pressing concern than equipment and training.

“Staffing, equipment, and training are all critical needs for the fire service,” said National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg. “This budget request unfortunately doesn’t do enough to address any of these needs, proposing to fund AFG and SAFER at less than thirty percent of their collective authorized level. The dramatic cut to AFG – the lowest level proposed by a President since 2003 – is particularly disturbing considering the need for equipment and training that has been clearly demonstrated through past applications for funding.”

North Tree Fire water tender driver still in hospital

On May 17 Wildfire Today covered the rollover accident of the North Tree Fire water tender on Interstate 5 in California which was returning from the Jesusita fire. The Mail Tribune in Oregon has an update on the driver of the truck, who self-extricated before the fire department arrived:

An Eagle Point firefighter remains hospitalized after breaking his back in a highway crash while returning from Santa Barbara, where he helped battle a large forest fire just outside the Southern California city.

Jeremy Roberson, 33, was driving a water-hauling truck north on Interstate 5 near Stockton, Calif., on Thursday evening when its front tire blew, sending it rolling off the highway, said Heather Roberson, the firefighter’s wife.

“He said he knew what was coming after the tire blew and he tried hard to get the truck off the road so no other cars would be involved,” she said.

Roberson, who had spent the previous four days fighting an 8,000-acre blaze in the hills and canyons surrounding Santa Barbara, was transported to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

“He is expected to make a full recovery, but he’s now in a back and neck brace,” Heather Roberson said. “We have been told he won’t need surgery, just a long recovery time.”

Funding for wildfires

Many fire departments and agencies are having to deal with budget shortfalls and firefighter layoffs. Here are some excerpts from an article in the Press-Enterprise in southern California:

…The sputtering economy has left other local departments in similar straits.

The San Bernardino Fire Department has eliminated eight positions

Riverside County, which contracts with the state agency Cal Fire, is, at least temporarily, losing 28 positions.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has threatened the elimination of more than 1,700 state firefighting positions and the closure of 20 stations across California if a series of budget-related measures don’t pass tomorrow’s ballot.


To counter the shortage of firefighting funds, President Barack Obama’s budget request for the 2010 fiscal year, which begins Oct.1, includes a $135 million increase over this year’s fire suppression budget, and a new $282 million reserve, which would be available to fight fires if Obama deems it necessary.

Fearing that current funding levels may not be sufficient to weather the coming months, lawmakers have additionally attached $250 million to a separate defense-spending bill now before Congress. The bill passed the House on Thursday and could come up for a vote in the Senate sometime this week. The bill is widely expected to pass, and no one in either chamber has raised objections to the wildfire money.

But even that much might not be enough to cover this year’s fire suppression costs, said Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell, who pointed to the drought in the West.

“I hope it’s enough,” she said. “I hope it rains.”

Perhaps more important to local departments is language in the bill that would temporarily ease restrictions on a government grant program, allowing them to use federal funds to avert layoffs.

Previously, the firefighter assistance or SAFER grants could be distributed only to agencies that promised to use the money to add to their staffing levels. Also, caps on the amount of grant funding that could go to each firefighter meant that departments had to provide some amount of matching funds to pay full salaries.

The restrictions amounted to deal breakers for some area fire bosses left financially hamstrung by dwindling budgets.

“We’re not taking any kind of grant that has a match requirement,” Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said. “We just don’t have the money.”

Under the new language in the spending bill, departments for the next two years could devote more of the grant money to each firefighter and could use the funds to retain firefighters, rather than only hire new ones.

Officials at the local and federal levels are also looking to Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package for fire prevention and firefighting assistance. The bill contains hundreds of millions of dollars for forest thinning, fire station construction and other projects. Though little of the money has been released, some local officials are hoping to get a share.


Thanks Ken

Fire names

From an article in the Orlando Sentinel:

Belly, Rock Vegas and Earth, Wind and Fire are burning up across east Central Florida.

That’s not the lineup for the hottest Lollapalooza revival concert. Those are the names of Florida brush fires that have scorched thousands of acres in Orange, Volusia and Brevard counties in recent days.

While meteorologists can spend months preparing traditional names for next year’s hurricanes — names that sometimes end up retired in the archives of history if they represent a large storm — state and local fire officials said brush fires often are named on the spot. And it’s usually what first comes to mind.

“The first one who responds to the fire, either a ranger or incident commander, names the fire after whatever they want,” Division of Forestry spokesman Cliff Frazier said. “Sometimes it appears it doesn’t make any sense.”

Ralph Crawford of the state’s fire division in Tallahassee said officials traditionally named fires after landmarks. Many names, though, are chosen randomly.

Fires the past week or two in Orange County include Dragonfly, near Lake Harney Woods; and Belly and International, in east Orange County. A fire named Bomb was in Sebring in Highlands County.

Duck Curve, in St. Johns County; and Deep, near Everglades City, were completely contained.

The fight for insurance pay-outs may be ugly

From the Business Times:

Santa Barbara residents who are thinking insurance money will flow in easily to rebuild homes burned in the Jesusita Fire may have to think again.

Jesusita fire, Santa BarbaraMany of the 78 destroyed houses sat in high-risk areas where it’s tough to get robust policies, and a sagging economy means insurers and their backers will get aggressive in trying to limit payouts, insurance experts say.

Though the financial woes at insurance giants such as AIG happened in a parts of the companies walled off from homeowner policies, the big carriers are still hurting, said Dave Bender, an insurance policy enforcement attorney with Anderson Kill Wood & Bender in Ventura. Homeowners who suffered losses should be ready to get tough with their carriers, Bender said.

“It would not surprise me if we see some litigation arising out of this,” Bender said “You’ve got carriers who are going to be tough on claims, and you’ve got some sizeable losses because of the high value of homes in the Santa Barbara area.”

Further complicating matters, many of the homes damaged or destroyed in the Santa Barbara foothills sit in high-fire risk areas where insurers are reluctant to tread. And if private insurers do go there, the coverage may not be as robust as in areas farther from explosive chaparral.

“The smarter underwriters know that even if brush is cleared a long way away, you get burning embers that go a mile or more,” said Randy Kinsling, a managing member in TWIW Insurance’s Ventura office. “When you get a hot enough fire, those things are like rockets. It has always been and will always be difficult to get underwriters interested in writing policies for Santa Barbara County.”


Video of brush truck rollover

A video has surfaced of Wednesday’s rollover of the Abilene Fire Department brush truck that Wildfire Today covered yesterday.

The video is no longer available.

After watching the video it is incredible that the two firefighters standing on the back of the truck sustained only minor injuries. All three on the truck were treated and released at a local hospital.

The fire department is still assessing the damage to the 2000 model truck.

Since it is likely the fire was caused by a train, according to the Abilene FD, I wonder if the fire department is going to ask the railroad to pay for the medical bills of the three firefighters and the damage to the truck? Railroads have been getting away with starting uncountable fires for a long time. Some fire departments just assume that’s the way it is, but most fires caused by trains are preventable. The railroads need to be held accountable and they need to implement preventive maintenance measures to reduce the number of fires they start.

Wildfire Today has written about the train-caused fire problem before. There are ways to get the attention of the railroads. In 2008 the Department of Justice 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. Other lawsuits have also been filed against railroads for negligently starting fires.

We wish for a speedy recovery for the three injured firefighters with the Abilene Fire Department.

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.

California: Two dozer rollovers

Two dozer operators rolled their dozers on Tuesday. One was wearing a seat belt and one was not.

A private contractor assigned to the Cold fire in Plumas County suffered a fractured skull, a dislocated shoulder and injuries to one ear when the bulldozer he was operating rolled over, said Dave Olson, a fire information officer for the Canyon Complex of fires on Plumas National Forest.

The employee of Oilar Agricultural Services, based in MacArthur, was flown to Enloe Medical Facility in Chico, where he was in stable condition Wednesday with no life-threatening injuries, Olson said.

In Siskiyou County, a contract operator was digging a fire line between the Alps Complex fire and the Ironside fire when his bulldozer rolled 80 feet down an embankment, said Alexis West, a fire information officer on the complex of fires burning on Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The operator was wearing a seat belt, which probably saved his life, West said. He was taken to a Redding hospital, where he was treated for arm and shoulder injuries.

He was conscious and alert in Mercy Medical Center on Wednesday morning, West said.

From the Sacramento Bee