A student in the Environmental Science Journalism program at the University of Montana wrote an article examining how the media covers wildland fires. In addition to talking with reporters, Andrew Graham extensively quoted Mark Finney of the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Science Laboratory. You should read the entire article, but here is an excerpt.
There is a choice to be made with fire, which Finney says is not made clear to the public.
“We’ve proven that we cannot keep fire out. It is inevitable, it will occur. Everywhere there’s fuel, you will have fire. Your choice is, when do you want it and what do you want it to do? That’s all you have, those are your choices. Your choices are not whether to have fire or not.”
When I heard this morning that the Black Hills National Forest was going to conduct a 94-acre prescribed fire today I looked out my window at the snow in my yard. Curious about how they were going to accomplish this I departed on a expedition to answer this question. It being close to lunch time I stopped at the Dew Drop In for a burger and their wonderful homemade fries, and then again at the TurtleTown chocolate shop for, obviously, a bag of chocolate turtles.
Passing near the Crazy Horse mega-sculpture I saw two bald eagles on the ground in a pasture. I pulled over onto a nearby side road hoping to get a photo, but they were pretty skittish and rudely flew away. But I still grabbed a few not very impressive photos.
By the time I made it to the Whaley prescribed fire near Hill City, South Dakota, I was no longer hungry and was ready to see how the the U.S. Forest Service fire folks were going to pull this off.
It turned out that there was almost no snow on the south facing slopes and they were about 75 percent done with ignition when I pulled up. But there was still snow in some of the flat lands and shaded areas, enough to make it pretty easy to find snow fields, in addition to roads, to serve as control lines.
At the Elk Mountain weather station the temperature was in the 40s, the relative humidity in the low 30s, and the sky was partly cloudy. As it turned out, a good day for being out in the woods with a drip torch.
The video at the top of the article includes still photos, video clips, and an interview with Todd Pechota, the Fire Staff Officer for the Black Hills National Forest.
There are conflicting reports about the role smoke from a prescribed fire may have played in the massive vehicle crashes on Interstate 4 in Florida yesterday. Some law enforcement officials are saying that smoke and fog combined to cause low visibility. Others are saying smoke was not a problem, that it was only dense fog. Describing the current activities on the fire, the Division of Forestry said:
“Smoke is going to continue to be our number one concern until this is over.”
The prescribed fire was conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who started it at 9 a.m. on Tuesday in an area called the Green Swamp. Within three hours it was out of control. Now it is 500 acres and 90% contained.
The Leger has more information about the escaped prescribed fire:
“As the flames picked up, Division of Forestry firefighter John Wurster arrived to help Fish and Wildlife workers. The workers were equipped with a bulldozer that was cutting a fireline in an attempt to stop the flames from spreading.
Conditions suddenly worsened. The wind changed, humidity dropped, and flames increased, Wurster said.
Ten minutes later, Wurster’s fellow firefighter had been burned on his hand and face, the Division of Forestry had lost a $150,000 bulldozer, and firefighters were running from flames.
By late evening, nine Division of Forestry workers helped contain 90 percent of the fire. Smoke continued to billow from the swamp into the morning.”
The death toll has now risen to four. It’s probably going to be long time before the investigation reports (and the civil suits) are complete. Smoke from the escaped prescribed fire may or may not have contributed to the visibility problem. It seems clear that there was some smoke, and some fog, but in what combinations? Here is what the Orlando Sentinel is saying this afternoon:
“But news of a possible problem had been brewing since the night before.
The Division of Forestry notified the FHP at 7:03 p.m. Tuesday night of potential smoke problems from the controlled burn, as part of a formalized interagency agreement. FHP said they would monitor I-4 and close it if needed. FHP also notified the state Department of Transportation, which put out signs with flashing lights that warned of the smoke.
The National Weather Service in Melbourne this morning issued a special weather report warning commuters that visibility in the Polk County area would be down to zero because of smoke from brush fires and fog.
Throughout the day, officials disagreed about the role the smoke and fog played in the crash.
FHP Sgt. Jorge Delahoz said the smoke from the fire may have had some impact, but at the time of the crash it was the fog that reduced visibility in the area. He said people were probably driving at 50 or 70 miles per hour or faster.
A forestry official said he would not say conclusively what caused the pileup until his investigators issued a final report, possibly in the coming week. But the official cautioned that his team could be on scene of the burn for weeks, even months.”