Wildfire briefing, January 24, 2013

People dump hot ashes, fire starts and burns their vehicles

In what might be karma, several vehicles burned in a vegetation fire near Kernersville, North Carolina early Thursday. It turns out that some individuals dumped hot ashes in the woods which, during low humidity and dry conditions, started a fire which burned their vehicles.

Hunter’s boat sinks, he starts signal fire

The Coast Guard said a 65-year old man started a signal fire after his 15-foot aluminum boat got stuck in the mud and then sank south of New Orleans. His wife reported him missing when he didn’t return home as expected  He was found after a six-hour search by a Coast Guard helicopter and a St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s department boat. Smoke from the fire helped the responders locate the hunter.

Man who started fire that burned 28 homes will not be prosecuted

In January of 2012 an elderly man admitted accidentally starting the Washoe Drive fire near Reno, Nevada by tossing out fireplace ashes that were still hot. During the fire a 93-year old woman died of smoke inhalation and 28 homes burned.

According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, the District Attorney recently made the decision to not prosecute the man just as the statute of limitations was about to expire. An Associated Press report indicates there was a lack of communication between the DA’s office and fire investigators, with both pointing the finger at each other.

San Diego lists ongoing incidents on web site

San Diego Fire-Rescue has created a web site that lists in near-real-time the active Fire and EMS calls dispatched by the San Diego Fire Communications Center. The data is updated in five minute intervals. More fire departments should do this.

Wildfire news, March 22, 2012

Doug Erskine passes away

Doug ErskineDoug Erskine, former National Park Service Director of Fire Management Operations at the National Interagency Fire Center passed away Wednesday night. He had been dealing with the effects of emphysema/COPD for the last eight years. In September the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center posted a 4-minute video featuring him speaking about an intercommunication skill and tactic that worked for him throughout his career. He leaves his wife Margaret, who said there will be a memorial service but not for at least a few weeks.

Civilian fatalities and injuries

Three stories about civilians being killed or burned in fires are in the news:

  • The initial reports were that James Alex Cefaloni, 64, died in a brush fire near Lake Hartwell in Townville, South Carolina. However the Anderson County Deputy Coroner said Thursday that Mr. Cefaloni died of a heart attack after a fire spread from the pile of leaves he was burning.
  • A medical examiner has determined that a woman found dead after the Washoe fire near Reno, Nevada on January 20, 2012 died of smoke inhalation. Both a son and daughter of June Hargis, 93, called her and frantically tried to get her to evacuate, but she did not think the fire was a threat and stayed in her home, which later burned. Wildfire Today covered this tragic story on January 22.
  • Dannie Withrow, 72, suffered burns over 20 percent of his body while trying to put out a fire that escaped while he was burning trash. He was taken off a ventilator Wednesday morning but is listed in critical condition.

Nebraska fire burns nearly 7,000 acres

And speaking of escaped fires, a prescribed fire on private land near Mullen, Nebraska (map) got out of control and burned 6,700 acres on Wednesday. KNOP-TV reports that 20 fire departments responded as well as a “crop sprayer”. The prescribed fire began at 10:30 a.m., it was reported to the fire department as escaped at noon, and was contained at 5:30 p.m.

Early fire season in plains and upper midwest

A story from the AP is being widely circulated. Here is an excerpt:

…The region’s early start to wildfire season was brought on by a “vicious cycle” of weather patterns, explained Beth Hermanson of the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division. Three years of excessive snow and rain fed grass growth before this winter’s relatively light snowpack, which left grass standing 4 or 5-feet tall in some areas dried out – creating perfect fuel for wildfires.

“This time of year that’s very unusual because normally we get that snow cover and it lays (the grass) down,” Hermanson said.

“There’s a lot of fuel to burn out there, which is a recipe for disaster as far as fires go,” added North Dakota Forest Service fire specialist Ryan Melin.

Melin said North Dakota averages about 500 grassfires a year, but he expects far more this season considering dozens have already been reported. He also noted that two consecutive springs of heavy rain and flooding dampened grassfires but also spurred excessive vegetation growth.

“This year, my gut feeling is we’re going to be quite a bit above that,” Melin said, adding that about 90 percent of such fires are sparked by humans. “We’ve had a ton of fires and multiple large-scale events of over 1,000 acres.”

Federal land management agencies advertise thousands of seasonal jobs

An article in the Washington Post covers the tens of thousands of seasonal jobs that the federal land management agencies are advertising, including 12,000 U.S. Forest Service positions.
Thanks go out to Dick

Followup on the Washoe fire: 1 fatality, 29 burned structures

Firefighters have contained the Washoe fire south of Reno, Nevada, thanks to the efforts of firefighters, diminishing winds, and eventually two inches of rain that fell in the area. More accurate surveys and mapping have shown that the final size is 3,177 acres and that 29 structures burned.

An elderly man admitted accidentally starting fire by tossing out fireplace ashes that were still hot. Officials said he contacted them on his own and that he was “remorseful”.

The person that died during the fire has been identified as June Hargis, 93, who was living the studio apartment of her daughter, Jeannie M. Watts. Ms. Watts told the Reno Gazette-Journal that she was getting rehab for a shoulder she injured in an automobile accident when someone told her about a fire that was burning near her house.

Meanwhile, Ms. Watts younger brother, Jim Blueberg, also heard about the fire and tried to drive to his mother’s apartment to help her evacuate, but was turned away at checkpoints. He called her and told her to leave, but she decided to stay. She walked out the front door and told her son that she smelled smoke but didn’t see any fire. What she didn’t know was that the fire was approaching from the back side of the apartment.

Ms. Watts and her husband rushed back home from the rehab center but were stopped at road blocks. Eventually, after explaining about her mother who was in the apartment, they were allowed through but had to detour around areas that were on fire. When they arrived at her house they saw the burned out studio apartment, the burned horse barn, and her home that was starting to burn. She asked a firefighter if her mother made it out of the apartment. He went over and looked and said she did not make it out.

The official cause of death of Ms. Hargis will not be determined until an autopsy is performed, but earlier officials said they believed it to be “smoke inhalation”.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family of Ms. Hargis.

Photos and video of the Washoe fire

Washoe fire
Washoe fire. Photo by Gary Pearl

Gary Pearl, of Gary Pearl Photography sent us these photos and the video below. Thanks Gary. The images are of the Washoe fire south of Reno, Nevada which burned about 4,000 acres and approximately 26 structures on January 19. We covered the fire HERE.

Washoe fire
Washoe fire. Photo by Gary Pearl


Thousands evacuate from Washoe fire south of Reno

10:35 a.m. PT, January 20, 2012

The Western Great Basin Coordination Center reported at 9:30 a.m. that the Washoe fire has burned  approximately 4,000 acres and is 50% contained The Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center web site which was updated at 9:30 this morning says 3,766 acres have burned.. At least 26 homes have been destroyed, according to the WGBCC. Highway 395 remains closed due to guard rail and other damage. Washam’s Type 3 incident management team assumed command at 6:00 a.m. today. Approximately 2,000 people are still without power due to downed power lines.

This is the second major fire for the Reno area in the last two months. On November 18 the Caughlin fire burned 1,847 acres and caused the evacuation of 10,000 residents on the southwest side of the city. It was also mopped up by a snowfall a day or two after the primary spread of the fire. The Caughlin fire destroyed 15 structures and damaged 40 others.

Here is some very impressive video footage that shows how the very strong winds, gusting up to 82 mph, made the Washoe fire extremely difficult to control.

5:55 a.m. PT, January 20, 2012

The Washoe fire south of Reno, Nevada is 50 percent contained and the spread has been stopped, according to Reno Fire Batallion chief, Tim Spencer. Approximately 27 homes have burned but 800 homes were saved in the East Lake area. There has been one fatality but no information has been released about the circumstances or the identity of the person. An estimated 3,700 acres have burned.

Highway 395 is still closed. Some firefighting resources en route from California were turned around in Donner pass due to the weather and chain controls.

There are reports that 6,000 to 10,000 people were forced to evacuate. Some of those have been allowed to return, reducing the number to 2,000.

Below is an updated map posted by Washoe County. It shows the fire size at  7:20 p.m. January 19 to be 2,000 acres. A larger version of the map can be downloaded HERE (large 3.5 Mb .pdf file). The lake at the bottom of the map is Little Washoe Lake. The red highway running roughly north and south is US 395. RGJ.com produced an easier to read map that shows the evacuation areas.

Map showing the estimated perimeter of the Washoe fire, produced by Washoe County at 7:20 p.m. January 19.

RGJ.com has a gallery of photos of the fire. Many of them are excellent.

The National Weather Service predicts that the winds Friday morning will be southwest 10 mph. The wind will increase to 17-31 with gusts up to 49 in the late afternoon, but the chance of rain will increase throughout the afternoon, topping out at 99 percent by 4 p.m. PT. The rain should change to about 1 inch of snow early Saturday morning.

Because of the growing fire, Vice President Joe Biden was forced to cut short a speech he was making Thursday afternoon at a high school in Reno.

6:32 p.m. PT, January 19, 2011

At noon on Thursday a wildfire started north of Washoe Lake, between Reno and Lake Tahoe about 25 miles south of Reno. According to the Western Great Basin Coordination Center (WGBCC) at 5:54 p.m. PT, the fire had burned 3,000 acres, was zero percent contained, and “1,000 structures have been impacted”. They also report that Washam’s Type 3 Incident Management Team is being mobilized for the fire, named Washoe.
Continue reading “Thousands evacuate from Washoe fire south of Reno”