• 06 May 2018 2:38 PM | Anonymous

    by Bernie Black

    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.


    Unfortunately, when Bandelier (NPS) put in a call for more resources from the Santa Fe Dispatch Center (USFS), they were told that no additional resources could be sent unless and until the Park Service declared it a wildfire. This was woefully incorrect information that was contrary to the 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy that permitted contingency suppression resources to be used on prescribed fires to prevent them from becoming wildfires.


    This mistake involved more than ignorance of fire policy, though. Much of the apparent "miscommunication" with the Dispatch Center flowed from years of interagency rivalry between Bandelier (NPS) and the adjacent Santa Fe National Forest (USFS). This, too, was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Federal Fire Policy that pledged interagency collaboration and cooperation across all federal land management jurisdictions in order to jointly manage fire.


    Basically the NPS was "extorted" by the USFS to convert the prescribed fire slopover into a full-suppression wildfire in order to get additional resources. But that conversion set in motion a whole new mindset that led to tragic consequences. Crews continued igniting fires but these changed from blacklining to become backfiring. Tragically, one of these backfires was ignited at the base of a steep slope in one of the densest fuel zones just a few hours before a major windstorm hit the mountain and literally blew the burn out of the park. 


    What started out as a slopover that was eventually contained at approximately 30 acres in size set in motion--after the prescribed burn was converted to a wildfire--to a backfire that led to 48,000 acres burning uncontrollably across the fuel-choked Santa Fe National Forest. The renamed Cerro Grande Fire was an epic disaster that spread into the city of Los Alamos, destroying approximately 200 homes, and entered the grounds of Los Alamos National Lab where the fire exposed several long-forgotten dumps of radioactive waste that nearly became the nation's fire "nuke" wildfire.


    Opponents of the Park Service and prescribed burning had a field day vilifying Bandelier, at times charging NPS with "criminal negligence." At that time, Bandelier had one of the nation's vanguard fire restoration programs, but it was dismembered in the aftermath of the disaster. To this day people blame the NPS for its escaped prescribed fire, not the USFS for the escaped backfire. Literally buried on the last page of the 134-page Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report is the fire behavior analyst report that revealed the main culprit for the blow-up:


    "In summary, it is believed that had sufficient contingency resources been available on site the morning of May 5th, they would have been able to control the slop-over fire and the need to convert to a wildfire would not have occurred. It was the suppression action that put fire along Road 4 that resulted in the escape from the project area."


    Yes, mistakes were made by Bandelier staff in the planning and implementation of the prescribed fire, and the rapid change in weather conditions were unforeseen, but that is why contingency resources are supposed to be available to call in, to make up for resource deficits or changing conditions.


    Which brings up the recent Sims Prescribed Fire ala Grape (Wild)Fire. The same flawed reasoning drove the decision to convert the burn to a wildfire in order to tap into suppression funding and gain additional resources to manage a slopover. What is different about the Grape Fire compared to the Cerro Grande Fire is that the extra suppression resources ordered seem to be wildly excessive given the changing weather conditions (i.e. incoming rainstorm vs. incoming windstorm) and the values-at-risk (a few isolated structures vs. a city and nuclear lab). It appears from a distance that the Grape Fire was not as "wild" as it was made out to be, and the conversion to a wildfire was more about gaining resources than about managing fire.

    Another difference between the two fires that is most perplexing is that unlike the Cerro Grande fire that was triggered in part from interagency conflict, the Grape Fire was the result of intra-agency non-cooperation, between two units of the same federal agency! Again, this runs afoul of the Federal Fire Policy and warrants more investigation.

    All of this brings up a potential danger of Congress's recent authorization to allow the USFS to tap into disaster recovery funds in order to pay for firefighting costs. Will any future escaped prescribed fire qua wildfire be declared a "disaster" in order to gain contingency suppression resources, this time from near-limitless disaster recovery funds--even if they are accomplishing resource benefits? Should we call these "Hype Conversion Burns"? Well, Public Enemy said it best: "Don't believe the hype!"

  • 05 May 2018 4:58 PM | Anonymous

    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.  Fortuna Interagency Command Center records the first order for suppression resources to respond to the Grape Fire at 6:18pm.  The Redding dispatch center serves the Shasta-Trinity National Forest (SHF), while Fortuna serves the Six Rivers National Forest (SRF).

    An unnamed fire official working on the Six Rivers reported that the two Forests were conducting separate operations with separate Burn Bosses “on either side of the ridge.”  This individual also reported that the fire never left the designated project area, for which a NEPA analysis had been conducted, and SHF officials did not attempt to contact the SRF Duty Officer, prior to making the conversion to a wildfire.  The official map below seems to suggest that the fire left the project area, but these were only the units being burned at this time.  The Sims Fire Restoration project area is much larger and covers the entire landscape with a variety of treatments.  This official suggested the only reason the fire was converted was the additional expense of aircraft and the need to order CalFire crews that will not work non-wildfire projects like prescribed fires unless a local agreement to exchange funds is in place.  In the absence of that, CalFire crews can only be activated through the statewide interagency agreement covering wildfires.

    Fig. 1  Official Grape Fire incident map with an insert showing the nearest structures just ½ mile east of the fire perimeter.

    The InciWeb site for the Grape Fire, administered by a Shasta-Trinity flack states, “The most recent prescribed burn was on the Six Rivers National Forest, however the Shasta-Trinity National Forest is taking the lead on the wildfire response due to the larger number of acres on the Shasta-Trinity.” There seems to be a need to point fingers at the SRF and point out that the SHF was saving the day. Clearly, someone on the SHF side took strong offense to the escape starting on the SRF side of the hill, but let’s be real.  While there was checkerboard ownership in the fire area with structures and private land within a mile of the fire area, the response does not seem commensurate with the values at risk. There seems to be ample roads in the fire area and the nearest structure appears amenable to a point protection strategy.

    InciWeb continues the finger pointing by offering the following narrative:

    The last time that prescribed burning was initiated was on April 19, 2018. The fire was staffed every day for the following five days. At 3 p.m. on April 24, crews from the Six Rivers National Forest monitoring the fire observed very little to no heat or smoke showing in the prescribed fire area and returned to their station. This observation was similar to those of the previous four days. At 4:59 p.m. that same day the Shasta-Trinity National Forest responded to the report of smoke and initiated a wildfire response.

    The first spot weather forecast requested from the National Weather Service in Eureka at 2pm on April 25th called for “chance of showers Friday through Sunday.” By the 26th the forecast called for “cooler temperatures accompanied by showers will spread across the region during Friday. Additional showers are expected during Saturday.”  Knowing this on the 26th it begs the question why the incident ramped up from 150 folks to 218, forcing crews to build direct line in a dangerous snag patch with slick surfaces underfoot in the rain?  As soon as wetting rain coated the fine fuels, rapid rates of spread are impossible.  Heavy fuels may continue to burn down, but smoldering and creeping are the only spread vectors, not torching and spotting.


    Fig. 2 Image on left shows fire severity from the 2004 Sims Fire.  The resultant standing dead snag patch is shown blown up from Google imagery of the same area.

    By April 28th InciWeb showed as many as 218 personnel committed to the incident, including six crews, eleven engines, two dozers and a helicopter.  All for what?  What were the values at risk to warrant such a robust response, when significant rain was predicted. In fact, the nearest weather station began to receive trace amounts of precipitation by the morning of Friday, April 27th.  Rain continued all day on Saturday and into Sunday leaving 0.4 to 0.8 inches of accumulated rain across the fire area, with a greater accumulation and longer duration closer to the coast.  Sadly, the least rain fell on the offices of the SHF in Big Bar and Hayfork, likely influencing the risk decision made from the dry side of the mountains. One has to ask how much unnecessary dozer line was constructed with all the associate negative impacts?  Perhaps the SHF was too wrapped around the axle for losing some recently planted trees.  Asking firefighters to build direct line through a snag patch in the rain smacks of overkill and poor risk decision-making.

    Weather Station

    Amount (in)

    Distance from Grape Fire (mi)




    Brush Mountain



    Big Bar









    Table 1  Rainfall amounts at nearby weather stations for the period April 27-29 (from Mesowest)

    This prescribed fire was being conducted as part of the multi-million-dollar Sims Fire Restoration Project, funded by the huge settlement against PG&E awarded to the U.S. after the electrical power behemoth was found to have been negligent in the 2004 Sims Fire.  The Sims Fire started, allegedly, when a “100-foot-tall Douglas-fir tree broke and struck a PG&E transmission line.”  The power company ended up paying more millions in settlements to private entities, as did the sub-contractor doing the tree work. The theme of power infrastructure, built to endure 40 mph winds, being overcome by violent storm winds will be a recurring theme under a climate change regime.  Longer seasons of burning, more lightning, more violent storms, more wind – all expected in the near future.  It’s no accident that power companies butcher vegetation near their transmission lines.  PG&E will be embroiled in litigation for years after last year’s fires around Santa Rosa.

    On the Lower Trinity District of the SRF, fire managers should be applauded for going out and getting the less glamorous, but still risky, work of fuel reduction done.  Fewer and fewer young firefighters find an interest in being a Burn Boss, perceiving more professional risk and a risk averse management posture.  Frankly, the increasingly insular California wildland firefighting culture is less and less willing to engage in any activity that might invite public scorn, preferring the eternal gratitude showered on those embracing the pure suppression mentality.  There will often be criticism, however misplaced, of any land management activity embarked upon by Federal officials.  The anti-government sentiment stirred up by conservative think tanks has made land managers easy targets, especially when the unexpected occurs.  But the Sims Prescribed Fire Burn Boss should understand there is no dishonor and no shame. No private property was damaged and the fire stayed in the project area.

    The Six Rivers National Forest is hurting right now with a Forest Supervisor, Forest Fire Chief, Fire Planner and Fire Program Support positions recently vacated.  Another Chief is transferring to the SHF soon, and it begs the question, “Who is mentoring and shielding the Burn Boss from an overly aggressive smear campaign from a neighboring Forest?” A review of the incident is scheduled, and there are questions to be asked, like the following:

    ·        Should the incident have been rated Type 2 rather than Type 3 in complexity?

    ·        Why weren’t spot weather forecasts requested before April 25th?

    ·        Was there adequate coordination between the two Forests?

    ·        Should there have been a single Burn Boss for the entire project, irrespective of Forest boundaries?

    ·        And most importantly, was the firefighter risk exposure during the suppression effort, cost and damage to resources commensurate with the values at risk, especially considering the weather forecast?

    ·        Was retardant used in the Grapevine Creek drainage, a retardant avoidance area and likely domestic water source for nearby homeowners?

    Fig. 3  Map showing nearby private land in shaded green.  Red is retardant avoidance area.  The nearest structures were ½ mile east of the fire.  Manzanita Ranch and the high voltage powerline were a mile away to the northeast.

    In no way should this prescribed fire be a programmatic setback.  Learn and move on.  FUSEE supports and honors those willing to return fire to the landscape, and they should be applauded in the same way as those who extinguish fires.  Let’s place the microscope on the suppression response, instead.



FUSEE members quoted in the press

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