Wildfire news, November 24

Los Angeles County Fire Chief announces retirement.

P. Michael Freeman today announced that he will be retiring in March, 2010. Chief Freeman has served as Fire Chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department LACFD for 21 years.

On November 18 the LADFD issued a report about the Station fire that lobbed some criticism towards the U. S. Forest Service for their management of wildland fires.

NASA’s Predator UAV flies burn sites in California

NASA provided this information in a press release:

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MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – NASA’s remotely piloted Predator B aircraft, named Ikhana, recently conducted post-burn assessments of two Southern California wildfire sites, the Piute Fire in Kern County and the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest. Ikhana, an unmanned aircraft equipped with an infrared imaging sensor, completed a seven-hour imaging flight on Nov. 19, 2009 from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The Autonomous Modular Scanner, developed by NASA’s Ames ResearchCenter, Moffett Field, Calif., was carried in a pod under the aircraft’s wing. The scanner operates like a digital camera with specialized filters to detect light energy at visible, infrared and thermal wavelengths.

The scanner operated with a new photo mosaic capability requested by the U.S.Forest Service. A photo mosaic provides easier interpretation for the end user, which in the case of an active wildfire, is the fire incident commander.

Traveling northwest of NASA Dryden, the aircraft flew several data collectionroutes over the area burned by the month-long Piute Fire in Kern County that grew to 37,026 acres before it was contained in July 2008. The burn area is located in the Sequoia National Forest and on Bureau of Land Management public land near Lake Isabella.

Ikhana then traveled southeast to fly image collection routes over the arson-caused Station Fire. It burned more than 160,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles after being ignited on Aug. 26, 2009. The scanner collected images that will indicate the severity of devastation within the fire area. Another use of the images is for the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation, or BAER.

The Forest Service uses BAER to reduce further damage to land made unstable by fires, rather than replace what is burned. The BAER data are derived using multi-spectral data available from the Autonomous Modular Scanner on the aircraft. The processes can be changed mid-mission to enable improved collection of critical information, either in mapping active fires or assessing post-burn severity.

The post-burn images collected by the scanner were transmitted through a communications satellite to NASA Ames, where the images were superimposed over Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth maps to better visualize the locations. The images then were made available to the Forest Service for initial assessment of the damage caused by the fires and rehabilitation required.

Scientists prove mega-droughts occurred

By studying mineral deposits in caves, scientists have proved that extended droughts, or “mega-droughts” have occurred hundreds of years ago. The researchers took core samples of deposits left by dripping water in caves, and studied them much like scientists study tree rings to determine fire history.

Their analysis in caves in the Sierra Nevada in California determined that one of the droughts they detected lasted 140-years around the year 1100. The pattern of droughts seems to be associated with rapid climate warming.

Bushfires wreaking havoc in Australia

From The Trumpet:

Thousands of homes are threatened by huge wildfires sweeping across eastern Australia. Record temperatures and persistent winds have combined to make this the worst bushfire threat in 100 years in New South Wales, just months after the country’s most devastating wildfire disaster to date.

The record heat has kindled fears of a repeat of February’s cataclysmic fires in Victoria that killed 173 people and consumed more than 2,000 homes. The conditions have prompted authorities to issue the first “catastrophic” or “Code Red” alert—a new level of warning introduced since the deadly Black Saturday fires in February—for parts of New South Wales and South Australia.

“The very hot temperatures we’ve seen across New South Wales right throughout this last week are simply breaking hundred-year records,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

In a Code Red warning, residents cannot be forcibly evacuated, but are strongly advised to leave their property because of the dire risk of death, injury and destruction.

Fire expert Kevin Tolhurst said, “What we saw on (Black Saturday) was an extraordinary day from a weather point of view. We are starting to see those sort of days more frequently.”

Bill introduced in Senate to aid in control of pine beetles

From KPVI news:

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall says the insect infestation killing millions of pine trees in the West is 1 of the region’s “biggest natural disasters.”

The Colorado Democrat said Monday he has introduced a bill to give forest managers more ways to respond.

The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, would allow the U.S. Forest Service to identify high-priority areas and expedite analysis of proposed treatments.

More than 2.5 million acres of pine trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming have been killed by tiny beetles that burrow under the bark.

Forest managers say the outbreak poses wildfire and public safety risks.

A national management team will help the Forest Service coordinate responses to the outbreak.

As we reported on November 11, one of the NIMO teams has been activated to assist in battling beetles.

Fewer inmates could hamper fire suppression in California

The state of California is under a court order to reduce their prison population by 40,000 people, from 150,000 to 110,000. In order to comply, Governor Schwarzenegger is seeking legislation to implement alternatives to state incarceration, such as house arrest or utilizing local jails.

A reduction of this size in low risk inmates will mean there will be fewer prisoners available to staff the state’s Type 2 inmate crews. When working on a fire an inmate earns $1 per hour, much less than a CalFire employee, so replacing the crews with CalFire firefighters is not an option in a state with major financial problems.

The reason the court ordered a reduction in the prison population was to improve the treatment of physically and mentally ill inmates. They labeled the care so poor that it violates an inmate’s constitutional rights.

Climate change researchers: Yosemite NP to have 19% more fires

According to researchers who published a recent paper in the International Journal of Wildland Fire (Volume 18[7] 2009), climate change will increase the number and burn severity of fires in Yosemite National Park. Using fire records, weather data, and satellite imagery they analyzed the fires in the park that occurred between 1984 and 2005. Comparing snowfall records with fire severity, they determined that during those years, decreased spring snowpack exponentially increased the number of lightning-ignited fires and the proportion of the landscape that burned at higher severities.

The researchers then made some predictions:

Using one snowpack forecast, we project that the number of lightning-ignited fires will increase 19.1% by 2020 to 2049 and the annual area burned at high severity will increase 21.9%. Climate-induced decreases in snowpack and the concomitant increase in fire severity suggest that existing assumptions may be understated – fires may become more frequent and more severe.

Here is the way this is supposed to work. There is some evidence to suggest that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to more lightning strikes. With less snow, the lightning strikes are more likely to ignite fires. The dryer fuels will result in the fires burning more intensely.

UPDATE, November 5, 2009:

The authors of the report are James A. Lutz, Jan W. van Wagtendonk, Andrea E. Thode, Jay D. Miller, and Jerry F. Franklin. They are employed by the National Park Service, the U. S. Forest Service, the University of Washington, and Northern Arizona University.
They chose to publish the results of their taxpayer-funded research in a publication that is not accessible to taxpayers unless they pay substantial subscription or membership fees to the International Journal of Wildland Fire or the International Association of Wildland fire. IAWF members after paying their membership fee can access the content of the Journal.
We have written about this issue before. If you want a copy of this taxpayer-funded research, you can pay the fees, or you can email James A. Lutz at jlutz@u.washington.edu and ask him for a copy.
The authors of the report are James A. Lutz, Jan W. van Wagtendonk, Andrea E. Thode, Jay D. Miller, and Jerry F. Franklin. They are employed by the National Park Service, the U. S. Forest Service, the University of Washington, and Northern Arizona University.
They chose to publish the results of their taxpayer-funded research in a publication that is not accessible to taxpayers unless they pay substantial subscription or membership fees to the International Journal of Wildland Fire or the International Association of Wildland fire. IAWF members after paying their membership fee can access the content of the Journal.
We have written about this issue before. If you want a copy of this taxpayer-funded research, you can pay the fees, or you can email James A. Lutz at jlutz@u.washington.edu and ask him for a copy.

Tracking dust devils

Mars_dust_devil_tracksDust devils can be the bane of the wildland firefighter, sometimes throwing burning embers across the fireline or even turning into a little fire tornado if it involves flames from burning vegetation.

But as far as I know, the dust devils on Mars don’t cause any problems for firefighters.

NASA describes the photo above this way:

Who’s been marking up Mars? This portion of a recent high-resolution picture from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows twisting dark trails criss-crossing light colored terrain on the martian surface. Newly formed trails like these had presented researchers with a tantalizing martian mystery but are now known to be the work of miniature wind vortices known to occur on the red planet – martian dust devils. Such spinning columns of rising air heated by the warm surface are also common in dry and desert areas onplanet Earth. Typically lasting only a few minutes, dust devils becoming visible as they pick up loose red-colored dust leaving the darker and heavier sand beneath intact. On Marsdust devilscan be up to 8 kilometers high. Dust devils have been credited with unexpected cleanings of mars rover solar panels.

Wildfire news, September 10, 2009

It is a busy day in the world of wildland fire.

SDG&E’s proposal to turn off electricity is rejected

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday rejected the plan proposed by the San Diego Gas and Electric Company to turn off the power to large sections of the county during periods of high fire danger. The company’s power lines have caused numerous large fires over the last 40 years and critics have said the company thought it would be less expensive to turn off the power than to harden their infrastructure.

We have written about the power company’s proposal a number of times.

Drought in California

The USA Today has a story about the third year of a drought in California. Here is a brief quote:

California is in the third year of a drought that has contributed to extreme fire conditions. Fire officials say the lack of rain makes brush burn more easily. And when fire hits parched forests, the fire tends to burn faster and do more damage.

“You can have a fire go through the same area, and the damage to a forest is always more significant in drought years,” says Del Walters, director of CalFire. Trees and logs burn hotter and more completely in droughts, he said, and their heat kills nearby trees that might otherwise survive.

Ex-FEMA chief gets a job

Remember “You’re doing a heck-of-a-job Brownie”? Michael Brown who was run out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the hurricane Katrina debacle, has been hired by Cold Creek Solutions to be their vice president of its disaster recovery practice, the company said on Thursday.

Cold Creek Solutions is quoted as saying:

With Michael’s experience and his unique view into what possibly could go wrong when looking at a plan, we can truly help clients be prepared for the unexpected.”

Seriously. No shit. (Note to self: do NOT buy any stock in Cold Creek Solutions.)

NASA (mostly) evacuated the JPL during the Station fire

The Station fire came within one-eighth of a mile of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles. They do a lot more than just study jet propulsion there, they manage the Deep Space Operations Center which controls spacecraft that are whizzing around our solar system. At one point all but essential personnel were evacuated, but, according to a NASA news release

Two of the five Deep Space Network operators on weekend duty were sent to Monrovia, but three volunteered to stay at the control center at JPL, to ensure systems continued to operate normally, to keep connections open with the flight projects, and to maintain the flow of engineering and science data to flight projects and scientists around the globe.

The three who stayed at JPL – along with about 40 other mission-critical personnel at any given time – were told not to spend much time outside. Hodder called frequently to check on the health of the crew and to obtain status reports on the network.

On Saturday afternoon, Sible and Hodder were ready to pull out those remaining three operators and put further communications with the network on hold if the fire reached the Mesa, a flat helipad and testing site at the northern edge of JPL.

That afternoon, the fire burned to within an eighth of a mile of the northern border of the lab. Emergency managers told staff to be ready to evacuate in 30 minutes.

Thankfully, with fire department handcrews cutting firebreaks, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dropping water and flame retardant, and the wind shifting, the danger passed on Saturday night. An unpleasant haze of smoke settled on the lab, but the air had cleared enough for the network operators in Monrovia to return to JPL Monday evening. The rest of JPL opened as usual on Tuesday morning at 6 a.m.

In the end, the Deep Space Network was able to complete its 182 scheduled uploading and downloading sessions with spacecraft over the weekend without interruption.

Reward for Station fire arsonist

A reward of $150,000 is being offered for the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for setting the 160,000-acre Station fire.

More about fuel management and fire prevention

I have probably already given researcher Jon Keeley more attention than he deserves, such this article. He has a theory that says it is unlikely that age class manipulation of fuels can prevent large fires. He is featured in an article written by Judith Lewis in the High Country News.

Thanks Dick and Kelly