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SPOTFIRE! ~ The FUSEE Blog

It takes just one little ember to spark a Spotfire! Like fireline scouts, FUSEE’s crew of bloggers size up emerging incidents and issues, report back vital information, and mark the route for others to follow.  Here you will find news and views you can use to promote safe, ethical, ecological fire management. We hope interested readers and investigative reporters will follow up on our blog posts to get the whole story of wildland fire.

Make America Rake Again

Approaching the holidays, phantoms of fairy tales danced through my head in my dreams at night.  Though sometimes those dreams turned to horror with the faces of Sonny Purdue and Ryan Zinke attached to crazy meth-addicted hillbilly caricatures, sort of like the characters of Squidbillies.  And of course, they were just part of the zany Trump clown car teetering from one crisis to another, spilling blood, hydraulic fluid, and incompetent agency heads all the way down the hill behind the wreckage. read more…

The Fire Permeable WUI (Wildland-Urban-Interface). #1: Introduction

 

Wildfire haunts the WUI. Dreaded and imminent, the inevitability of wildfires’ invasion sparks fears conjoined to the terror of homes burning. Long before they burn down, a lot of WUI houses will experience catastrophic financial meltdown. And this implicates actors beyond the usual suspects of insurance and bank mortgages, both becoming unaffordable and unavailable. read more…

Burn My Shorts has its own page!

Burn My Shorts, a series of short stories and parables about fire, now has its own page!  You can also just click on the arrow by the Blog menu item to find it.  One of FUSEE’s staff writers, Letter Burn, otherwise known as Parts Permillion from Chartoons, will be teaming up with Catalonian Fire Artist, Josep “Pep” Serra Tarragon, about every other week to deliver the latest “fire-adapted” tale. read more…

CWCG Shuffles Federal Incident Management Teams (IMTs) for 2019

The California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) is the interagency body in California that helps arrange and manage agreements, develop standards and stand-up eleven IMTs each fire season to manage increasingly deadly and destructive wildfires.  These teams have a set number of members in the four functional areas:Operations, Plans, Logistics, and Finance. Each team member has specialized training and experience to hold that position (sometimes Command is considered the fifth functional area).  Aside from the four Section Chiefs and the the Incident Commander (IC), the Command and General Staff (C & G) is rounded out by the Safety, Liason and Public Information Officers, as well as a Deputy IC.  There are usually more than one Operation and Plans Section Chief (e.g. Day Ops, Night Ops, Planning Ops, Day Plans, Night Plans) and one or more Deputy ICs.  All told, there is a core C&G of about a dozen folks. All the rest of the personnel fill out the myriad of unique specialty positions within the four functional areas so that a fully-staffed team, both Type 1 and Type 2, represents fourty-four people. CWCG currently manages four Type 1 and seven Type 2 IMTs.

IMT Types

Incident Management Team typing starts at Type 5 as the least complex (e.g. a single tree snag with fire in the top), with Type 1 and Type 2 incidents being the most complex. For instance a Forest or local interagency group may roster a Type 3 IMT, but CWCG maintains these rostered Type 1 & 2 IMTs for assignment through California year-round as needed.
CALFIRE separately retains command and control of six Type 1 IMTs in the State.  Together, it is these CalFire and CWCG IMTs that are expected to manage the largest and most dangerous fires in California, and the Federal government is having a hard time providing staffing for these voluntary team assignments. The number of available teams is shrinking right as the need is peaking.  Climate, inadequate prescribed burning and ill-conceived development are all coming to the fore as issues stoking the flames.  Managers on National Forests, Parks, Refuges and and other Federal jurisdiction rely on these teams to meet a wide variety of objectives far from the wildland urban interface (WUI).  CWCG has just released a sustainability analysis addressing the succession problem. read more…

Stephen Pyne on Recent California Wildfires

Stephen Pyne, a FUSEE collaborator and ally, as well as distinguished fire historian, was joined last Friday by Alexandra von Meier, and urban electrical grid specialist, to discuss the devastation witnessed during the past two seasons of California wildfires and how this might be avoided in the future. Their discussion was moderated by Ira Flatow, on Science Friday, a radio show heard on public radio stations across the country and distributed by WNYC Studios.

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Fire, Smoke and Inversions Explained

In the following video recorded on the Hirz Fire, FUSEE Board Member, Mike Beasley, along with the Incident Meteorologist and Air Resource Advisor describe the nature and importance of inversions.  First, a balloon is launched to capture an atmospheric sounding. Inversions are an indicator of atmospheric stability. With atmospheric stability smoke and clouds tend to form in layers that resist mixing, often inhibiting fire behavior below the inversion. The opposite condition, atmospheric instability, is when air wants to rise in a column, as in a towering cumulus cloud, a cumulonimbus cloud associated with a thunderstorm, or a towering pyrocumulus column above a large fire.   An unstable atmosphere is most often associated with critical or extreme fire behavior.

 

Firefighter Safety Begins at Home

News is spreading across the country about the sexual assault of a wildland firefighter by an inmate working inside a fire basecamp in Utah. This horrifying incident has shocked the nation—indeed, the news story has been picked up by newspapers and radio stations across the country. It is truly shocking that inmates were able to mix freely with crews within basecamp, apparently unsupervised by their guards or other camp security staff, and placed in work stations where firefighters, especially women, would be most vulnerable to harassment and assault.

After a long shift on the line, coming back to basecamp exhausted and needing to take care of one’s basic needs of food and hygiene before catching a few hours of precious sleep—who would even be thinking about potential threats to one’s personal safety inside firecamp!

Firefighter safety is the number one priority of every wildland fire incident. While most people think about this in terms of the risks and hazards firefighters face out on the firelines, we need to be aware of the risks and hazards that crews face off the fireline. Crews don’t get hazard pay inside firecamp, but perhaps they should.

Like most other crimes of violence, the media is focusing on the perpetrator, portraying him as some kind of beastly animal for his deviant behavior, and this will be even easier to do because the perpetrator is an inmate already labeled as a deviant. But this is not just an issue about the lack of proper supervision of inmate crews, and while inmates should certainly be closely supervised and/or segregated from fire crews and other staff, this kind of incident is not rare and will not be prevented by eliminating the use of inmate crews.

In focusing on the perpetrator of this crime, this lets the institution evade any blame for its breakdown in security for firefighters, and for its systematic inability to effectively prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Incidents of sexual assault make the news, but they are part of the wider spectrum of sexual harassment and gender discrimination that rarely gets reported by the newmedia, yet are systemic within the wildland fire community. The Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) and the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) have been taking several initiatives to educate the wildland fire community and advocate for agencies to confront the systemic ongoing problem of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Unfortunately, their efforts did not make it into the news stories. Fortunately, their advocacy for greater firefighter safety including personal safety from harassment and assault will hopefully be carried forward at the IAWF’s upcoming Fire Safety Summit and AFE’s upcoming International Fire Ecology and Management Congress.

This shocking, horrifying incident should be another wakeup call that risks to firefighter safety happen both on and off the fireline, from the fire environment—and from the fire community itself. Firefighter safety truly begins at “home.”

Cat Scratch Fever

The Mendocino Complex has taken its place in the record books–but probably not for long–as the largest wildfire in California state history. While the River Fire is 100% contained at this time, it is possible that the Ranch Fire may eventually burn over a majority of entire Mendocino National Forest before it stops its advance.

One thing that leaps out with a casual glance at the current fire map is the extensive use of dozers in primary and contingency firelines. Several of these dozerlines a.k.a. “catlines” come right up to and possibly encroach into the Snow Mountain Wilderness. In fact, the California Regional Forester gave permission for dozers to enter the wilderness with the blessing of the Mendocino Forest Supervisor.

A noble but futile attempt at direct attack with dozers on the northern portion of the fire failed to stop the fire earlier. The fire breached the dozerlines and eventually spread into the wilderness area. This fireline was constructed despite the visiting Risk Management Assessment Team (RMAT) informing the agency leaders that it had a low probability of success.

No matter, the Forest Service leadership felt that they had a duty to try something, anything, anyway to stop the fire spread. But now we have several miles of useless dozerlines scarring the landscape for a long, long time. A costly maneuver for mere posturing to the public that the agency was doing everything it could to attack the fire.

This sad spectacle is an example of what some local forest conservationists are calling “overaggressive attack syndrome,” and it raises a couple of key questions:

Question #1: Why did the agency leadership attempt to stop the fire from entering the wilderness area?

Was it merely an attempt to limit the fire size and/or speed up containment time? Or was it to avoid having the fire impact the wilderness area?

If it was the former objective–limiting the fire size or duration as a means of reducing taxpayer costs or firefighter exposure–well, it did not work, and the RMAT had warned the leadership that it most likely would not work. So the expense of putting those dozers to work was an unacceptable waste of money. And the exposure of firefighters to risk in a futile attempt at direct attack on the fire is even more unacceptable. This season has already had the tragic death of a dozer operator on the Ferguson Fire (harkening back to the loss of another dozer operator on the 2016 Soberanes Fire) and two near-misses of dozer operators on the Carr Fire, and a firefighter was recently killed on the Mendocino Complex. Firefighter fatalities are the highest cost of suppression, and risk assessments must always prioritize those potential losses above all.

If it was the latter objective–keeping fire out of the wilderness–then what the #@&% were they thinking?! Sparing the wilderness from impacts of fire? Fire helps enhance both wildness and naturalness, and these are some of the defining qualities and highest values of designated wilderness areas. In short, fire keeps the wild in wilderness! On the contrary, dozerlines intruding into wilderness are the worst kind of trammeling imaginable. Again, an unnecessary, inappropriate, and unacceptable use of dozers in this plan.

Question #2: Why did the leadership ignore the RMAT’s input?

Again, the RMAT crew warned the leadership that going direct attack with dozers to try to stop the fire from entering the wilderness had a very low probability of success. This marks the second time that the RMAT’s recommendations were ignored by incident leaders and area administrators, and then the RMAT were later proven right.

Admittedly, RMATs are a novelty at this time and it will take some time for IMTs to get comfortable with them and fully utilize their analyses. But, it also seems that, like Resource Advisors who offer advice on ways to limit the impacts of suppression actions on natural and cultural resource values, the RMATs have yet to gain respect by Incident Commanders and are not seen as “equals” in the hierarchy of fire administration. Type 1 ICs are all about containing and controlling fires, and all this stuff about resource damage or risk assessments is a bunch of pointy-headed bleeding-heart liberal hogwash that doesn’t belong in a paramilitary organization devoted to aggressively attacking fires.

The day must come when RAs and RMATs and LTANs are fully integrated and equally respected members of IMTs, especially on large-size/long-duration wildfire incidents. We need to manage fire in wildlands intelligently with firefighter safety and fire ecology and taxpayer expenditures at the forefront of developing operational strategies and tactics. Throwing whatever wherever whenever at wildfires to try to limit their size or duration as the end-all be-all is obsolete and is bankrupting the system. And now that we’re headed into the traditional peak of fire season with PL-5 and all resources tapped out, we’re seeing the consequences of the overaggressive attack syndrome waged on other earlier fires that might have been managed for “other than full suppression” and spared those resources.

So, the Ranch Fire of the Mendocino Complex continues its steady spread onward, leaving the cut-and-runover catlines literally in the dust.

Ferguson Fire Update, August 2nd

A quick glance at the publicly available infrared data taken last night reveals three key areas of concern. While much of the west flank of the fire has been secure for some time now, protecting the residents of Mariposa Pines, Jerseydale, Midpines, and most of the the Triangle Road area, the north, south, and east flanks remain challenging for the 3,344 firefighters engaged in that containment effort.  Below the fold, we will quickly take a look at those three critical operations in the order of their apparent importance, based on last night’s IR imagery.  read more…

FUSEE Releases New Instructional Guide for Citizens to Access Wildfire Information Online

The incredible speed and ferocity of the Carr Fire spreading into Redding, California has dramatically reinforced the need for citizens to access accurate information about wildfires in their area without the delays of waiting for official agency press releases to be picked up by the next newspaper edition or television news broadcast.

Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) released their new report, FireWatch: A Citizen’s Guide to Wildfire Suppression Monitoring, that provides easy step-by-step instructions for accessing a number of different internet sites that track wildfires. Many of these internet sites offer the same maps and essential information that are used by fire managers and firefighting crews. read more…

Ferguson Fire: Hoping for Yosemite’s Road Less Trammeled

It seems that the Ferguson Fire is destined to enter Yosemite National Park, and by God, the Type I Incident Commanders have vowed to stop the wildfire in its tracks, no matter what! They are currently planning to convert the southern entrance Hiway 41 (known locally as the “Wawona Road”) into a fireline that will contain that flank of the Ferguson Fire. This is one of the most traveled roads in the Park, leading to the ranger compound in Wawona, the community of Yosemite West, and access to the famed Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias as well as Yosemite Valley. read more…

Carr Fire Takes Aim at Redding

Climate chaos strikes, again, this time deep into the heart of Redding, California, the regional hub and commercial center for Northern California.  The Carr Fire started near the cross of Hwy. 299 and the Carr Powerhouse Road on Monday, July 23rd. read more…

Ferguson Fire: Yosemite’s Proving Ground for Ecological Fire Use

The Ferguson Fire has been burning for nearly two weeks and has captured most of the attention of the national news media. Tragically, one firefighter was killed on the second day of the fire when the bulldozer he was operating rolled down a steep slope. Miraculously, no homes have been lost as of July 25th. The Ferguson is going to burn a large area over a long time. read more…

History never repeats itself but it rhymes: Rim Fire redux

The year was 1961.  President Robert F. Kennedy was President of the United States.  The Central Valley Project had been built and the growing San Joaquin Valley agribusiness gave way to traditional ranchland in the oak savanna of the Sierra foothills southwest of Yosemite National Park.  The Harlow Fire started on July 10th.  The following day it exploded, burning over 20,000 acres in two hours, vaporizing the communities of Ahwahnee and Nipinnawasee, and killing an elderly couple.  Supposedly, that run on the Harlow Fire was one of the fastest ever recorded.  The communities would never recover.  It chased ranchers in their ranch trucks and would eventually burn into Oakhurst, scorching over 43,000 acres.  This event is etched into the cultural memory of the people that live here and into the institutional memory of the organization tasked with protecting this “state responsibility area” or SRA, Cal Fire, or as it was known back in the day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Fast forward to 2018, the present, less than two weeks ago. On Friday, the 13th ,of July, deep in the Merced River Canyon at the confluence with the South Fork of the Merced…another fire started.  read more…

A New Hotlist, A New Fire, and a Tragedy

Ferguson Fire looking southeast from Greeley Hill – July 14, 2018

Tragically, a CalFire dozer operator was killed this morning in a rollover accident on the new emergent Ferguson Fire on the Sierra National Forest.  The Ferguson Fire started yesterday evening near the bottom of the Merced River Canyon near the junction with the South Fork of the Merced River, and is forcing evacuations throughout the river canyon.  Hot temperatures today spurred the fire growth to over 1000 acres.  The Central Sierra Type 2 IMT is taking the Fire and the Incident Command Post (ICP) has been established at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds.  Yours truly, will be joining the effort as Fire Behavior Analyst, briefly abandoning my own team, with the understanding I be released if NorcaL Team 1 gets assigned.  The fire may burn into Yosemite  National Park, and could be a threat to Yosemite West, El Portal, or even Wawona, in the days to come.  The area around Cedar Lodge has been evacuated. read more…

Drop the Rhetoric, Work Together

I’ve spent most of my career working in fire management, reaching back to the 1970s when we knew very little about the behavior of wildfires and often took a seat-of-the-pants approach.

Now we have solid science and skilled fire professionals to guide our response to wildfires, but unfortunately that knowledge and experience has not yet been put to full use. In our hyper partisan age, the issue of fire management is becoming as politicized as timber management was in the 1980s.

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Managing Wildfire: What Works and What Doesn’t

We now have solid science and decades of experience managing western wildfires. But in our hyper-partisan age, the issue of fire management is becoming as politicized as timber management was in the 80’s and 90’s. In an attempt to contribute to a fact based debate, I present a brief summary of respected, published findings on wildfire management.

The fire management status quo is not working

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FUSEE Radio Podcast 001 – Risk Management Assistance Teams

Good morning.  I’m pleased to present FUSEE’s first in a series of podcasts.  In this installment, we interview Dr. David Calkin about the Risk Management Assistance Teams (RMATs) – his involvement, the team’s purpose, and what to expect from them during the upcoming fire season. Dave is a Research Forester for the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station,  He lives and works in Missoula, Montana, and is currently focused on risk management in wildland firefighting.

As an outgrowth of the Forest Service’s Life First initiative, the RMAT role was articulated in an agency presentation by Becki Heath, Acting Associate Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, in Reno this spring at the Cohesive Strategy workshop, sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF)

⇒ RMAT role was to bolster the Line Officer’s ability to examine alternative strategies that better consider:

  • inherent tradeoffs of exposure
  • risk to highly valued assets
  • opportunities for fire benefits

⇒ They tested an effort to address Line Officer’s needs for:

  • decision-making tools
  • enhanced analytics and alignment with response strategies

⇒ Intent was to enhance capacity, apply decision support tools with risk expertise, and improve the

effectiveness and efficiency of our fire management response.

read more…

Science Continues at the Continuum

Hey, dear readers. Your stalwart voice for ecological fire management here, HunterX.  I was just up on the mesa top in Canyonlands National Park gazing into the Maze, and I wondered what Heyduke, Edward Abbey’s fictional proto-enviro, would make of humanity’s pickle today.  Likely he would have had to take a road trip somewhere, tossing beer cans as he went, and would ultimately have concluded it was an apt fate for humanity, preferring to work on issues in his own backyard – a strong statement for grassroots organizing!  But, oh the intersectionality of it all!  That word recently burst forth implying areas of overlapping social concern. In the world of natural science, it’s called ecology, following one of Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology, “Everything is connected to everything else.” It’s a basic Buddhist precept, and It is turning out to be true in climate change, as well.  We see this as, one-by-one, other environmental issues trace their origin or accelerant to be a warming Earth.  “The new normal” as Califonia Governor Jerry Brown has said of wildfire’s increasing occurrence and impact. Making my way north off the Colorado Plateau and over the Eastern Uintas, I crossed the Big Horn River, and I’m reminded this is the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn – A perfect metaphor for America’s losing war on Fire.   As I dropped into the Clark Fork drainage, it’s banks were swollen, leaking toxic sludge into swirling waters. It was peak runoff, but officials were concerned about the minimal snowpack in the Colorado and Utah mountains and the heightened fire risk for the summer.  I would probe these questions and others with scientists and wildland fire professionals from around the world at the Fire Continuum Conference on the beautiful University of Montana campus in Missoula.

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2018 California Incident Management Team (IMT) Workshop Notes

What If?

What if?  That was the ominous theme for participants when the California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) held their annual IMT Workshop at the Wildland Fire Training Center in McClellan Park on the first three days of May.  Incident Commanders (ICs) from all the Federal Type 1 and Type 2 IMTs from both Northern and Southern California were in attendance, along with other team members.  The purpose of this annual gathering is to receive guidance from agency heads and set the tone for the upcoming wildland fire season.  read more…

Hype Conversion Burn

The conversion of the Sims Prescribed Fire to the Grape (Wild)Fire brings up a scary ghost from the past.

In 2000, the crew managing the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Fire in Bandelier National Monument had difficulties getting the fire to ignite and spread.  Test burns were ignited in moist grassy fuels at the top of a mountain in 50 degree air temperature with upslope winds 1 to 2 mph. Hardly a reckless action, but, mistakes were made in the planning process that resulted in a smaller crew size than could handle the fire as it progressed downslope, moving from grassy fuels to shrubs and eventually timber stands with lots of downed fuel. When a 30 x 30 foot slopover at the top of the unit occurred, the National Park Service crew put in a request to the U.S. Forest Service to get some extra “contingency” resources to bring the “escaped” fire back into prescription. This is where things went terribly wrong. read more…

Prescribed Fire Escape – Six Rivers National Forest

Wildfires are already a hot button in California, following on the heels of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in the State’s history just last year.  Governor Brown holds up the wildfire impact as a certain indicator of climate change in the State’s suit against the U.S. Government headed by climate denier-in chief, President Trump.  Local governments are joining in the fray.  2018 looks to be no different.

The Grape Fire was an escaped prescribed fire being jointly conducted by the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests at the end of last month.  According to the Redding Interagency Command Center WildCAD records, the Sims burn was converted from a prescribed fire to a wildfire and renamed as the Grape Fire at 4:59pm on April 24th.  read more…