In 2021 40% of the requests for hand crews and 29% of the requests for engines were unfilled
A letter signed by a bipartisan group of 28 lawmakers urged that steps be taken to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce. The document was sent May 10 to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior.
It noted that years of low pay and other issues “have hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce.” Last year 1,858 (40 percent) of the orders for hand crews were unfilled, and 1,853 (29 percent) of orders for engines were unfilled. In addition, the number of cancelled orders were 32 percent of crew orders and 22 percent of engine orders. There can be multiple reasons why orders are cancelled, but they can include the order sat unfilled and the requesting unit gave up, or finally the need no longer existed. The number of orders actually filled in 2021 were 27 percent for crews and 49 percent for engines.
“In one state, the U.S. Forest Service had 60 engines idle because of low staffing in the midst of the largest fire in state history,” the lawmakers wrote. “Such shortages exist throughout the West heading into the 2022 fire season, with officials estimating staffing will be below 75% in some regions. This is an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars, as the Federal Government pays a premium to contract and borrow firefighting resources from state and local authorities when federal resources are unavailable. ”
The lawmakers urged the OPM to use their authority for establishing special pay rates when staffing problems are caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, remoteness of the location involved, or the undesirability of the working conditions.
One of the provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year required the two Departments and the OPM to establish a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series. The lawmakers warned yesterday that “a new series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins.”
The letter linked the lack of “portal-to-portal” pay with recruitment and retention difficulties:
“Many state and local firefighters are paid on a “portal-to-portal” basis, meaning 24 hours a day, from the time they are assigned to a wildland fire until the time they return, and are reimbursed on that basis by the federal government. Insisting on scheduling and paying federal wildland firefighters in the same manner as other federal employees, rather than other wildland firefighters, is one way in which arbitrary policies are driving recruitment and retention problems.”
“The Administration must stop attrition and commit to rebuilding the ranks of our firefighting service,” the letter from the 28 Senators and Representatives said. “This starts with increases in pay and benefits. The situation is urgent, and we stand ready to work with you to ensure our federal wildland firefighters are fully supported and compensated.”
The schedule calls for most of them to begin in April and May
The U.S. Forest Service has 18 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year.
In 2020 the agency started out with 13 on contract in April and May but by June 24 had added 11 on modified call when needed (CWN) contracts for a total of 24. Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems C-130 aircraft from the National Guard and Air Force Reserve were deployed from July 23 until October 4 in 2020, usually two at a time.
This year the 18 EU large air tankers are being supplied by five vendors:
Six, Aero Flite (RJ85)
Four, Erickson Aero Tanker (MD87)
Four, Neptune Aviation (BAe-146)
Two, Coulson Aviation (C-130)
Two, 10 Tanker (DC-10)
The dates they will first be on duty could change if the Forest Service decides they need to come on early, but the scheduled 160-day “mandatory availability periods” (MAP) which are different for every air tanker specify that two will begin in March (11th and 17th) and most of the rest will start in April and May. The MAPs end August 18 through November 20 for the 18 aircraft, but those dates could be extended if necessary.
The 2020 fire season started with much less activity than average (see the chart below) but when hundreds of fires began burning millions of acres in the West in mid-August, the number of large air tankers on contract was less than was actually needed. September 19 saw 32,727 fire personnel deployed, the highest number since August 24, 2015 when 32,300 were assigned. Many fires during that six-week period had numerous requests for ground and aviation firefighting resources that were unable to be filled when the fires were discovered. This allowed some of the blazes to grow virtually unchecked for days — or longer. In 2020, 34.3 percent of the requests for large air tankers were either cancelled or unable to be filled.
Since 2001 the four years with the highest number of total fire detections in Washington, Oregon, and California have all occurred since 2015, according to satellite data processed by the New York Times in September of last year.
The report released Friday about the burnover of three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire is jaw-dropping — and not only because there were three firefighters with only two fire shelters to protect them as the flames swept over. It is a well written and thorough report but lists few lessons to be learned, leaving it up to us to read between the lines.
The incident occurred about three miles northeast of Bozeman, Montana on September 5, 2020 when there were 115 active large wildfires burning in the United States which at that time had consumed 3,000,000 acres. Over 22,550 wildland firefighters and forestry technicians were committed across the nation. The August Complex of fires in Northern California had burned 305,000 acres which would be less than one third of its total size when it finally slowed down in the Fall after blackening over one million acres. In August and September there was a serious shortage of personnel to staff the fires. Few if any areas had an adequate number of firefighting resources to initial attack new fires or contain those that had been growing for weeks.
The initial attack on the Bridger Foothills Fire on September 4 included four smokejumpers, “several engines,” plus helicopters and air tankers. According to statistics on the national Situation Report at the end of the day on September 5, the second day of the fire, there were a total of 99 personnel on the fire. Five structures had been confirmed as destroyed and it was on its way to ultimately burning 28 homes and growing to 8,224 acres.
The 37-page report can’t be fairly summarized in a few paragraphs here. I suggest you check it out yourself, then leave a comment below with your impressions.
But briefly, three members of a Montana state helitack crew attacked the fire on September 4, spent the night on the fire, then during the afternoon of the next day were overrun by the fire in the meadow that served as their helispot. They attempted to set an “escape fire”, as used on the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, to burn off the grass and sage before the fire reached them, but the grass was too green to easily ignite. As the fire approached them two men deployed their aluminized and insulated fire shelters designed to reflect radiant heat, but the third had failed to replace the shelter in his pack he had removed days earlier to lighten his load while on physical training hikes. Two of the men, both large individuals, crammed into one shelter that was made to accommodate one person. The three of them only suffered fairly minor injuries and walked away to a point where they could be transported to a hospital.
From the report:
The firefighters involved in this deployment came to decisions that made sense to them at the time. To learn from this unintended outcome, it is important that you read this without the assumption that this could never happen to you. Instead, please consider that you read this with the luxury of hindsight bias. Our intent is that you find the lessons that you can apply to your program to hopefully avoid experiencing what these folks went through.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, there were many things that contributed to the entrapment. If only one of them had occurred, the three helitack crewmen probably would not have been burned over. But the cumulative effect of numerous issues led to this near-fatal event.
Firefighters are familiar with the Swiss Cheese Model of Accident Causation.
The New York Times published on December 5 a version of the model adapted for the current pandemic:
Many of our readers could study the report and substitute events that happened on the Bridger Foothills Fire for the layers in the Swiss Cheese Model.
Let us know in a comment below what you’re thinking. I’ll get it started with a few:
Very few firefighting resources initially attacked the fire.
Communication issues were mentioned many times in the report. Almost every very serious incident within an incident has communication problems.
Air tankers dropped retardant on the west side of the fire but not the east side that day. A person who was on the fire told Wildfire Today that if retardant had been applied to secure the east side it may have prevented the blowup. With the national fire situation at the time, air tankers may not have been available to continue dropping retardant that afternoon. (Would it have made a difference if the air tanker base 73 air miles away at West Yellowstone had not recently been closed and converted to a call when needed base?)
At times there was confusion about the location of the three entrapped firefighters. If a safety officer or Division Supervisor had known the exact location of the firefighters and the real time location of the fire, it may have made a difference — there might have been enough time to extract them by helicopter before the smoke and the flaming front made it impossible. THIS RECURRING ISSUE COULD BE SOLVED WITH OFF THE SHELF LOCATION TRACKING SYSTEMS for personnel and the fire! Federal and state wildfire organizations need to make this an urgent priority! This is a life-safety issue and the tools should have been deployed years ago by the federal and state agencies. Funding is not an acceptable excuse. Neither is apathy. Dig deep to find the motivation and the money.
Below is the section of the report that describes the deployment itself, but does not include what led up to it. The names have been changed.
The Deployment “What do you mean you don’t have your shelter?”
Charlie frantically worked to light off the sage with his fusee. Hands shaking, the sage was lighting better than the grass had before. But it didn’t matter – there was no more time to burn – the fire was coming up fast on him and his crew from both the south and the east.
Charlie turned around to his crewmembers and noticed that one of them, Sam, was already in his shelter. The spot fire that had cut-off their last possible escape route was now well established on the slope below them, and the trees were crowning out with flame lengths of over 100 feet. The wind was blowing so hard that his helmet went flying off his head. Next thing Charlie realized, he was back at the small oval that they had cleared of ground fuels, looking down on his other crewmember Casey, who was laying in the fetal position with his chaps slung over his back and gear bags piled up around him.
“Get in your f**king shelter!” Charlie screamed to Casey.
“I don’t have it – share with me!” Casey shouted back.
“What do you mean you don’t have your shelter?! Did it blow away?!”
It hadn’t blown away, although that would have been easy in the “hurricane-like” winds that were whipping across the hillside in all directions. Casey had taken it out of his pack a few weeks earlier for PT hikes, and never put it back in.
But ultimately, why the shelter wasn’t on the hill did not matter. At this moment, Charlie realized how dire of a situation they were in. Casey was roughly 6’2” and weighed in at around 225 lbs, and Charlie was around 6’ and 190 lbs. And if they were both going to survive this flame front, they would have to squeeze into his one shelter as best as they could.
They could both feel the heat now, and the fire was “cooking.” Charlie ripped out his shelter and struggled to open it. Unlike Sam’s shelter, which Sam later described as “shaking out just like a practice shelter, [or] better,” opening Charlie’s shelter felt like trying to open a ball of tin foil. With Charlie and Casey each pulling at it, they fought to get it open, and valuable moments were lost as they furiously tried to shake it out. The moment they opened the shelter, Casey and Charlie locked eyes, then glanced up at the flames towering above them before they dropped to the ground. The updraft winds at that point were so strong, they had to fight to reach the dirt.
The last-minute nature of their deployment meant that neither Casey nor Charlie were completely in the shelter. Casey had dropped to get his head facing to the north and lined up with the hole he had dug and filled with water, with his legs largely sticking out of the shelter. Charlie was facing nearly the opposite direction, in a crouching position. In this arrangement, neither firefighter could get a seal on the shelter, and embers were blowing in just as fast as Charlie could sweep them out. Casey screamed over the radio that they had deployed, a transmission that was copied by air attack. Charlie then took the radio and remembers transmitting that there were three of them who had deployed, with only two shelters. Air attack, who confirmed that three people had deployed, did not recall hearing that there were only two shelters.
Charlie later described how, in their initial arrangement, “I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t get air, and it felt like I was in a microwave.” In this moment of desperation, Charlie stood up, thinking nothing could be worse than being crammed into the shelter, in the heat, without any way to breathe. Charlie immediately realized how much worse it could get with the fire burning all around and was forced to dive back into the shelter. This time, Charlie was shoulder to shoulder with Casey, which allowed them to get a slightly better seal.
The experience, however, was still far from comfortable. Unable to breathe and battling through the extreme heat, Charlie “was certain we were gonna die. [I thought] every second was our last second.” Casey described the sensation of trying to breathe as like “if anyone has ever been cleaning around you and it’s extremely potent – it’s like that but it’s on fire.” To try to alleviate the heat, he began splashing plastic water bottles on himself and Charlie, squeezing 4-5 bottles out along their backs.
Sam was equally certain that they were not going to survive. “100%, I thought we were dead. No doubt … I couldn’t breathe.” To try to get a breath, he wet down his shirt and started digging a hole into the ground. Although opening the shelter had been easy, Sam struggled in the wind to create a strong seal. For the fifteen or so minutes that Sam remained in the shelter, he was absolutely terrified for his life.
Casey and Charlie emerged from their shared shelter around 8 minutes after they first got in, after the initial flame front had passed. Their surroundings, however, still resembled a hellscape. Casey’s line gear, which he had been unable to throw very far away from the deployment site, was on fire and burning Charlie’s leg, so Charlie kicked it farther away. Outside of the circle, the cans of bug spray and sunscreen in the bag exploded. Combined with the combustion from the remaining fusees, the explosions caused the gear to burn down to nothing.
Even without the flames, the heat, smoke, and winds were still so intense that Charlie and Casey reentered the shelter, where they remained for another eight or so minutes, getting continuously hammered by the wind. Eventually, while getting oxygen was still nearly impossible, it became clear that they were going to be miserable whether they were in the shelter or out. Knowing that everything was nuked around them, and the worst of the heat had passed, they emerged from the shelter again. But the beating afflicted by the fire was still far from over.
“I deployed my shelter and within probably a minute or two could hear, feel, and see the fire going over and around us. The inside of my shelter glowed red … there was no place to get a cool clean breath. Embers blew inside my shelter and I would push them out. I tried to dig in the ground to get a clean breath and was unsuccessful. At some point I remember Charlie asking how I was doing. I responded with ‘Not good man, I can’t f**king breathe.’ I thought about my wife and kids and knew with some certainty that I was dead.”
It is not very often that there are more than 400 crews or 25,000 personnel assigned on fires at any one time, but those numbers have been exceeded with the rash of huge fires in California and Colorado.
The chart above compares the number of resources assigned to wildfires today to the total number mobilized in all of 2019, which was slower than usual. The acres burned in the lower 49 states in 2019 was 39 percent of the previous 10 year average. And the fires in 2019 were spread out over months — there was no extraordinary sudden need for massive mobilizations like is being required now in California and just before, Colorado. When there is an almost instant need for 15,000 or 20,000 firefighters, even the best-oiled mobilization system can struggle to keep up with the demand.
(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning fires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)
There are only 16 of the highest qualified National Type 1 Incident Management teams that run the largest fires and all are currently assigned. If more were available they would probably be deployed as well. Some fires are possibly being staffed by Type 2 teams when a Type 1 team was requested. But most likely, they will do fine. (Correction: there are 16 National Type 1 teams, but some of the 16 Type 1 teams currently on fires today are organized at the state level.)
In the first three or four days after the lightning started August 16 in California we were aware of multiple situations on emerging fires that were severely understaffed by ground and air resources. On some incidents personnel were asked to work back to back shifts because there was no relief, and requests for engines, hand crews, air tankers, and helicopters were often unfilled. Those conditions have improved now that the system is fully geared up and aid is arriving from out of state, but there are still requests for resources that are unable to be filled (UTF).
One thing that is striking is that no Area Command Teams have been dispatched. This situation is what they are made for. None were assigned in 2016, 2018, or 2019. All three AC teams received limited administrative assignments earlier this year to help put together plans for the COVID-19 pandemic, but in three of the last four years they were not used on fires.
In 2019 the National Multiagency Coordinating Group (NMAC) which manages the AC teams was concerned that if they did not receive assignments some individuals on the teams could lose currency and qualifications in 2020. That issue may have been ameliorated with the COVID mobilization. But a person might wonder how similar pandemic planning is to managing multiple wildfires.
ACTs provide strategic leadership to large theaters of operation while significantly reducing the workload for agency administrators and fire management staff. Common roles of ACTs typically include facilitating Incident Management Team (IMT) transitions, in-briefings, and closeouts. Additionally, ACTs coordinate with agency administrators, fire staffs, geographic areas, and MAC groups on complexity analysis, implementation of objectives and strategies, setting priorities for the allocation of critical resources, and facilitating the effective use of resources within the area.
Most of the wildfires in the LNU Complex were very active Tuesday. Based on data from a satellite at 2:06 p.m. the Del Puerto Fire especially increased in size.
(To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning-caused wildfires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)
August 18, 2020 | 7:43 a.m. PDT
Most of the wildfires that started in the San Francisco Bay area in the last three days that escaped initial attack and were already large by Monday evening continued to grow into Monday night, according to heat data collected by a satellite at 2:48 a.m. PDT Tuesday.
At least 16 fires north and south of Livermore are being managed as one “complex”, the SCU Lightning Complex. SCU is the CAL FIRE unit responsible for the counties of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, western Stanislaus, and San Joaquin. Some of the names of the individual fires have changed in the last 24 hours, but the largest blazes in the complex are Marsh, Ohlone, Reservoir, and Del Puerto.
Very little detailed information is available about the individual fires.
The Del Puerto Fire, formerly part of the Canyon Zone Fires, is about 10 miles west of Patterson and about three miles northwest of Diablo Grande. With all the name changes the size is not clear, but it is likely 5,000 to 15,000 acres.
The Ohlone and Reservoir Fires southeast of Fremont are adjacent to the Calaveras Reservoir three to seven miles east of the 680 freeway.
Fires that have been grouped into the CZU August Lightning Complex include the Waddle, 5-14, 5-15, and 5-18 Fires, plus other smaller fires. CAL FIRE says they total about 1,000 acres.
Outside of the South Bay area there are many other fires. Further north there are more than 60 fires combined in Butte and Napa Counties, for example.
There are reports that competition for firefighting resources is intensifying as requests placed by some incident commanders are unable to be filled (UTF). Firefighters in some cases are being asked to work double shifts. This situation is unlikely to improve soon, based on the extraordinary heat predicted for this week.
August 17, 2020 | 7:21 p.m. PDT
The map above is an updated version of the one below. The satellite heat data from 2:24 p.m. August 17 shows that the Canyon Zone Fires are growing rapidly toward the southeast and the west.
The Deer Zone Fire west of Los Vaqueros Reservoir was also active on the south side, but not to the same degree. It was mapped at 1,161 acres.
The Marsh Fire east of Milpitas was active at 2:24 p.m. Monday and has burned 1,775 acres.
The three fires oddly named 5-14, 5-15, and 5-18 did not create enough heat to be picked up during the latest satellite overflight at 2:24 p.m. Monday. They are about 5 miles east of Pescadero.
August 17, 2020 | 4:14 p.m. PDT
A rare series of intense summer thunderstorms passed through the San Francisco Bay Area Sunday morning and Monday morning. Some of the cells passed through so quickly there was little chance for precipitation.
Numerous wildfires ignited and while not all of them have been investigated, lightning is the likely cause for many. Combined with winds that accompanied the storms with gusts of 50 to 70, very high temperatures, and a Red Flag Warning, there are so many fires now that they are difficult to track, at least from this writer’s vantage point.
The southern Bay Area has quite a few and there are others in the North Bay and Napa area.
There is competition for firefighting resources. Some of the incident commanders placing orders for aircraft, dozers, engines, or crews are at times being told that a particular order can’t be filled at that time, or there may be a lengthy delay.
From the Washington Post:
In California, the heat resulted in scores of record highs over the weekend including around Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento. Early Sunday morning, a bizarre “heat burst” raised the temperature 20 degrees in two hours in Fairfield, about 40 miles northeast of San Francisco. The temperature shot from around 80 to 100 degrees in the hours around sunrise.
The National Weather Service in San Francisco issued an unusually large severe thunderstorm warning that covered more than 7,000 square miles from Monterey Bay to the Bay Area and north into Napa Valley. The office warned of “erratic outflow wind gusts of 50 to 70 mph wind gusts, [and] frequent lightning.” The warning, the largest ever issued by that office, was six times larger than the state of Rhode Island.
“This 20-year forecaster cant recall such a widespread [thunderstorm] event on the heels of such a heat wave,” wrote one meteorologist in the office forecast discussion late Sunday.
We will add to this post later with more details about individual fires.
The number of acres burned in the lower 48-states was the least since 2004
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.
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.
The eight largest fires in Lower 48 states in 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.