Accuracy and Critique

Critique vs accuracy venn diagram

When a wildland fire incident has a controversial outcome it will often be pointed out by those who are knowledgeable on the subject, or by someone who is directly or indirectly affected.

I understand how venting can be cathartic. As long as it is done in private, no problem. If it is done in public there can be cascading repercussions, and therefore more responsibility. At worst, it can be self-serving, cruel, damaging, and counterproductive. But if everything said is completely accurate, and the result can benefit mankind, then the greater good might be served in many situations. At Wildfire Today, I know that sunlight can be the best disinfectant. Helping shine a little light on lessons learned by firefighters through information about reports being released or critique from various sources, might reduce the chances of someone else learning a lesson the hard way — with unpleasant consequences.

Years ago in a comment section on Wildfire Today someone made statements about another person. It was slanderous, not true, and damaged the reputation of a very honorable and skilled professional. Since then I have strived harder to have factual information on the web site. There are times when that objective is not met, but it does not stop me from trying.

Even the best intentioned formal investigations of incidents may occasionally miss the mark of being accurate. Other times the report an investigation team releases might purposefully deceive, or lie by omission. I certainly do not have all the answers, not by a long shot. In cases like these, and others, attention is needed by the hive mind of the wildland fire community.

Critique not meshing with accuracy can keep me up at night.

Attempting to redefine the common denominators of tragedy fires

“A Classification of US Wildland Firefighter Entrapments Based on Coincident Fuels, Weather, and Topography”

Above: Figure 1 from the research paper. Distribution of 166 US wildland firefighter entrapments that occurred within CONUS (1981–2017) by time of day (local time) and month of the year.

On October 9, 2019 a document was published that summarized the work of four researchers who sought to find commonalities that led to the entrapments of firefighters on wildland fires. The paper is titled, “A Classification of US Wildland Firefighter Entrapments Based on Coincident Fuels, Weather, and Topography.” Apparently they were hoping to confirm, fine tune, revise, or update the “Common Denominators of Fire Behavior on Tragedy Fires” defined by Carl C. Wilson after the 1976 Battlement Creek Fire where three firefighters were killed near Parachute, Colorado.

Mr. Wilson developed two lists, one with four items and another with five. Here is the five-item list:

  1. Most of the incidents occurred on relatively small fires or isolated sectors of larger fires.
  2. Most of the fires were innocent in appearance prior to the “flare-ups” or “blow-ups”. In some cases, the fatalities occurred in the mop-up stage.
  3. Flare-ups occurred in deceptively light fuels.
  4. Fires ran uphill in chimneys, gullies, or on steep slopes.
  5. Suppression tools, such as helicopters or air tankers, can adversely modify fire behavior. (Helicopter and air tanker vortices have been known to cause flare-ups.)”

The four more recent researchers conducted an analysis of the environmental conditions at the times and locations of 166 firefighter entrapments involving 1,202 people and 117 fatalities that occurred between 1981 and 2017 in the conterminous United States. They identified one characteristic that was common for 91 percent of the entrapments — high fire danger — specifically, when the Energy Release Component and Burning Index are both above their historical 80th percentile.

They also generated an update of the time of day the entrapments occurred as seen in the figure at the top of this article. This has been done before, but it’s worthwhile to get an update. And, this version includes the month.

You can read the entire open access article here. If you’re thinking of quickly skimming it, the 7,000 words and the dozens of abbreviations and acronyms make that a challenge. There is no appendix which lists and defines the abbreviations and acronyms.

The authors of the paper are Wesley G. Page, Patrick H. Freeborn, Bret W. Butler, and W. Matt Jolly.

Below are excerpts from their research:

…Given the findings of this study and previously published firefighter safety guidelines, we have identified a few key practical implications for wildland firefighters:

  1. The fire environment conditions or subsequent fire behavior, particularly rate of spread, at the time of the entrapment does not need to be extreme or unusual for an entrapment to occur; it only needs to be unexpected in the sense that the firefighters involved did not anticipate or could not adapt to the observed fire behavior in enough time to reach an adequate safety zone;
  2. The site and regional-specific environmental conditions at the time and location of the entrapment are important; in other words, the set of environmental conditions common to firefighter entrapments in one region do not necessarily translate to other locations;
  3. As noted by several authors, human factors or human behavior are a critical component of firefighter entrapments, so much so that while an analysis of the common environmental conditions associated with entrapments will yield a better understanding of the conditions that increase the likelihood of an entrapment, it will not produce models or define characteristics that predict where and when entrapments are likely to occur.


The one characteristic that was common for the majority of entrapments (~91%) was high fire danger. As a general guideline, regardless of location, the data suggest that entrapment potential is highest when the fire danger indices (ERC’ and BI’) are both above their historical 80th percentile. Until recently, spatially-explicit information on fire danger has not been widely available as most firefighters have relied on fire danger information available at specific weather stations, which are often summarized into Pocket Cards [83]. Fortunately, fire danger forecasts across CONUS are now available in a mobile-friendly format (see that can be displayed spatially for each of the fire danger indices separately or combined into a Severe Fire Danger Index.



The times and locations where wildland firefighter entrapments occur in the US cover a wide range of conditions. Current firefighter safety guidelines seem to emphasize only a subset of the possible conditions due to a focus on the factors that maximize the potential for extreme fire behavior. While many of these safety guidelines are still intuitively valid, caution should be exercised during relevant firefighter training so as to not ignore or undermine the fact that entrapments and fatalities are possible under a much wider range of conditions.

Despite the wide range of environmental conditions associated with entrapments, we have shown that it is possible to identify unique combinations of environmental variables to define similarities among groups of entrapments, but these will necessarily be context and site specific. For most entrapments, the only common environmental condition was high fire danger, as represented by fire danger indices that have been normalized to represent the historical percentile at a particular location. As such, at large spatial scales, fire danger and its association with fire weather should continue to be monitored and reported to firefighters using both traditional methods (i.e., morning fire weather forecasts) and also newer methods that take advantage of advancements in mobile technology.

Orange County introduces pilot program for real time wildfire mapping

It is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
An example of the technician’s screen when using the FIRIS system. Screenshot from the video below.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority began a 150-day pilot program that could lead to real time fire mapping being available to firefighters on the ground. Not knowing exactly where a fire is has been a factor in more than two dozen firefighter fatalities in recent decades. Smoke, terrain, and darkness can obstruct the view of fire crews and supervisors which can severely compromise their situational awareness.

The 150-day Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) pilot program got off the ground September 1 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

“The State of California must shift strategies to address the constant crisis of wildfires – this is no longer a seasonal threat,” stated Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris. “I am proud to have partnered with the Orange County Fire Authority in securing $4.5 million in state funds for technology that will protect lives and property by giving first responders better, stronger tools to use against the threat of wildfires.”

The system utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling.

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
Screenshot of aircraft featured in the FIRIS B-Roll video.

A supercomputer at the University of California San Diego will run fire spread projections based on fire perimeter data collected by the aircraft. The output will estimate where the fire will be in the next six hours. The fire spread model will adjust for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.

“The ability to place resources exactly where they need to be to successfully battle a wildfire can mean the difference between lives and property saved or lost”, said Orange County Fire Authority Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. “Technology is becoming increasingly important as we work to suppress wildfires quickly. We’re hopeful this pilot program may someday become a routine asset statewide.”

For decision-makers on the ground, a common operating picture increases situational awareness. Firefighters on the front line, incident commanders, law enforcement, and regional and state emergency operation centers all could have the ability to see the same fire intel on a smartphone, tablet or computer in real-time. Fire perimeter maps and live video feeds are provided through an electronic network to assist decision-makers.

This is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety which would ultimately provide to fire supervisors the real time location of a fire and the location of firefighting personnel and equipment.

The video below is “B-Roll, that is, unedited footage. The first 6.5 minutes are simply images of aircraft, but after that you will be able to look over the shoulder of the imagery technician as he observes infrared imagery of a fire, manually interprets the heat signatures, then traces the fire perimeter on the screen. That perimeter could then be electronically sent to the super computer in San Diego County which would run a fire spread model to predict what the fire will do in the next six hours.

Research: selecting the optimum escape route at a wildland fire

Escape Route Index: A Spatially-Explicit Measure of Wildland Firefighter Egress Capacity

Escape Route Index

Above: a figure from the research

Previously we covered research that is underway to help wildland firefighters determine the best escape routes from a dangerous fire. A paper published in 2017 looked at the use of LiDAR to analyze the effects of slope, vegetation density, and ground surface roughness on travel rates for wildland firefighters’ escape routes. And earlier this year we reported on research that studied crowd-sourced fitness data to estimate rates of foot travel on slopes and how it could be integrated into recommendations for escape routes.

Below are excerpts from a research paper that was published July 8, 2019, written by Michael J. Campbell, Wesley G. Page, Philip E. Dennison, and Bret W. Butler. It is titled, Escape Route Index: A Spatially-Explicit Measure of Wildland Firefighter Egress Capacity. Link to the entire document.

From the Abstract

A previously published, crowd-sourced relationship between slope and travel rate was used to account for terrain, while vegetation was accounted for by using land cover to adjust travel rates based on factors from the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS). Land cover was found to have a stronger impact on ERI values than slope. We also modeled Escape Route Index (ERI) values for several recent wildland firefighter entrapments to assess the degree to which landscape conditions may have contributed to these events, finding that ERI values were generally low from the crews’ evacuation starting points.

From the Conclusions

In this paper, we have introduced a new metric for assessing and mapping egress capacity, or the degree to which one can evacuate from a given location, on a broad, spatial scale based on existing landscape conditions. ERI is not a single metric, but a suite of four spatially-explicit metrics that define the relative travel impedance caused by terrain and land cover faced by a fire crew, should that fire crew need to evacuate. The intent is that this modeling technique will be employed to aid in wildland firefighter safety operations prior to engaging a fire, acting as a decision support tool. Given that the metric relies on US nationwide, publicly-available datasets, the goal is that ERI metrics would be mapped in advance of fire suppression and used to direct fire crews toward potential control locations with higher capacity for evacuation, thus reducing the potential for injurious or even fatal entrapments.

ERI does not map escape routes, per se, it highlights areas that have a greater or lesser capacity for providing efficient escape routes. Areas with high ERI values will likely have an abundance of open, easily-traversable terrain, through which many potential escape routes may exist requiring little alteration of the land cover. Conversely, areas with low ERI values possess some combination of rugged terrain and dense vegetation, thus making the designation of suitable escape routes difficult or even impossible.

This is why you don’t want to be under a retardant drop

If that video does not convince you — last year a firefighter from Utah who was working on a fire in California was killed when a retardant drop uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him.

Panel details improvements on the horizon for wildland fire situational awareness

New tools being developed that can help fight fires more safely and efficiently

fire situational awareness speakers
Left to right: Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group; James Reilly, Director of U.S. Geological Survey; and Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association. Screenshot from USGIF video below.

A very interesting panel discussion titled “The Power of Real-Time Data for Firefighting” occurred at a conference organized by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) — a nonprofit, educational organization supporting the geospatial intelligence tradecraft.

The three primary speakers during the panel were Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group; James Reilly, Director of U.S. Geological Survey; and Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association.

They discussed some tools that are slowly beginning to appear in the hands of wildland firefighters and what is being worked on that could show up in the field soon that will enhance their situational awareness. They talked about real time fire perimeters that could be displayed on mobile devices, tracking firefighting resources, and high-resolution LIDAR mapping of the entire United States — right along the lines of what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting.

The video below begins with introductions of the speakers and is followed by a description of the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California. If you’re already familiar with that incident, you  can skip ahead to 8:00 where Kate Dargan begins her excellent presentation. She became a firefighter at the age of 18 and worked her way up to the post of California State Fire Marshall and later co-founded the Intterra Group.

Here is a sample from her remarks where she described her vision of real time fire intelligence:

We need a persistent fire perimeter. I need to know where the fire is at all times. I need to know where I am against that fire perimeter. I need to know where my forces next to me are. I need to know that at a minimum of one square meter resolution. And I need to know that what is collected and served to me on my mobile device is no more than two minutes old. I need to see that in a shape file so I can put other data with it. That’s what real time means to me…That’s the bulls eye we should be aiming at.

Below is a screengrab image from the video.

Kate Dargan situational awareness wildfire
One of the slides from the presentation by Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group. Screenshot from the video below.