ADVANCED DRIVER'S ED FOR FIREFIGHTERS
JANUARY 16 -- GRANTS PASS, OR: Two summers ago, Wade DeBraal watched the van in front of him go off the road, rolling over and killing five of his friends. They were on their way to a fire in Colorado.
"I don't think I'll ever forget it," he says.
The other folks at Grayback Forestry haven't forgotten, either. Owner Mike Wheelock says that's why DeBraal and other crewmembers got special driver's training this week -- training that focused on handling a big top-heavy rig in critical situations. According to a report in the Statesman-Journal, Wheelock hired Colorado Protective Services-Aspen Inc. to provide the training.
The five Grayback firefighters killed in the van rollover in Colorado were among 23 fatalities in the 2002 wildfire season. Drivers for firefighting crews are required to have a regular driver's license, but Grayback has long given their employees extra training on backcountry driving. Wheelock said the fatal van rollover persuaded him to go even further. He replaced the dozen Ford Econoline E-350 Super Duty vans like the one in the rollover with Ford F-550 dual rear axle pickups retro-fitted to carry 14 passengers.
And he hired Colorado Protective Services from Glenwood Springs for three days of classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction for 55 of his drivers this week -- and 20 more next summer. CPS owner Tom Delassandri, retired sheriff of Garfield County, Colorado, and retired Colorado state trooper Bruce Berry teach the firefighters the same techniques they teach law enforcement trainees, fire departments, and bodyguards.
MUDSLIDE VICTIMS APPROVED FOR DISASTER ASSISTANCE
JANUARY 15 -- LOS ANGELES, CA: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced yesterday the approval by President Bush of a request to modify a previous federal disaster declaration, making victims of the Christmas Day mudslides eligible for federal disaster aid approved for wildfire victims. Bush approved Schwarzenegger's request to modify the disaster declaration, and extended the claims period to February 2.
"With this decision, the communities damaged by mudflows will have greater opportunity for a quick recovery," Schwarzenegger said. "We are continuing to do everything we can to get help to the victims quickly, and I am grateful for the president's action today."
According to an AP report, eligible parties include individuals, businesses, and public entities affected by flooding, mudslides, and debris flow directly related to the fall wildfires. Eligibility will be determined on a case-by-case basis by the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency.
GRAND PRIX FIRE NOT ARSON
JANUARY 10 -- SAN BERNARDINO, CA: Investigators have concluded that the 60,000-acre Grand Prix Fire was human-caused, but was not arson.
Don Atkinson, chief of the San Bernardino County sheriff's arson unit, said the fire was probably started by a spark from a motorcycle or ATV, a dropped cigarette, or a spark from a lighter.
"We've eliminated as much as we can," said Atkinson, "and we've eliminated all of what we call the deliberate causes."
Arson was originally suspected when the fire was ignited October 21 in Coyote Canyon, and Atkinson said the most promising clue was provided by a resident who lives near the ignition point. According to an AP report, that person heard a motorcycle on a dirt path in a brushy area. Atkinson said the person responsible for accidentally igniting the fire probably would be cited only for trespassing or illegal off-road riding.
Investigators said the Playground Fire was also started accidentally -- by a 19-year-old who rode his vehicle into the weeds near Crestline to get a better view of the Old Fire. Federal prosecutors are still reviewing the case against him, and are considering charges. Atkinson said authorities won't name the man unless he is formally accused.
MILITARY HELICOPTERS STAGED FOR CALIFORNIA FIRES?
JANUARY 07 -- EL CAJON, CA: The next fire in San Diego County -- and there will be a next fire -- may have military pilots assigned. California Department of Forestry officials say they hope to get San Diego-based Marine or Navy helicopter pilots certified to fight fires this year.
Mike Padilla, CDF aviation management chief, said representatives of the Navy, Marines, CDF and the state Office of Emergency Services met Monday in El Cajon to discuss plans.
"If we get another Cedar Fire, we want to be able to help," said Navy Cmdr. Jim Ellinger, leader of a local Navy helicopter squadron based at Coronado. "Operationally, I don't see any roadblocks at all."
According to an AP report, Ellinger's squadron was left grounded during the Cedar Fire because the pilots weren't certified by CDF to fight fires. Local residents and reporters objected when they found out in October that Ellinger redirected two helicopters to Ramona to help on the first day of the fire, but they weren't used because they weren't certified to fly fires.
"I think anybody who had water and had a bucket could have assisted," said Ellinger.
But Padilla and other state fire officials have defended the decision, maintaining that standards are standards, and it would have been hazardous to allow uncertified pilots to help battle the firestorm.
PRIVATE GROUPS TAKE ON FORESTRY
JANUARY 05 -- ENTERPRISE, OR: As the U.S. Forest Service budget dwindles, nonprofit community-based groups are stepping up to pick up the slack. These organizations have multiplied over the last ten years, using federal grants, foundation money, and private donations to fill the gap caused by USFS budget cuts that followed a decline in timber revenue after logging on national forests was cut in the 1990s.
Diane Snyder, director of Wallowa Resources in Enterprise, says it's a trend.
Her organization, according to an AP report, budgeted $478,294 in 2003 to hire eastern Oregon contractors for work on public lands in Wallowa County, and more than $150,000 for contract restoration work on private lands.
The 6-year-old organization has a staff of six, and its 2004 budget is expected to run $1.1 million. When the organization was launched in 1997, the budget was only $36,000.
Wallowa Resources hired 50 contractors last year, the equivalent of creating 22 full-time jobs paying $21,000 each. "We are not taking dollars away from the Forest Service," said Snyder. "We are putting dollars on the ground that otherwise would not be there." Though the USFS retains final management authority for national forest projects, groups such as Wallowa Resources can raise money to pay private contractors to do work the agency can't afford.
About 20 similar groups operate in Oregon, said Martin Goebel, president of Sustainable Northwest, a 9-year-old Portland-based nonprofit that helped organize Wallowa Resources.
In Oregon and Washington, the number of full-time Forest Service employees has fallen from 6,533 in 1998 to 5,530 in 2003. That's had a dramatic effect on rural economies -- and on the land that the USFS is charged with managing.
Community-based forestry groups are taking on some of the unfunded projects that were proposed and approved by the USFS, according to Lynn Jungwirth, director of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork, California. "Once the Forest Service stopped generating income through timber sales," said Jungwirth, "they stopped having money to do all the other things they used to do."
HIGHWAY 18 CLOSED TILL SPRING
JANUARY 05 -- SAN BERNARDINO, CA: Wildfires and the floods that followed caused so much damage to the route between southern California and San Bernardino County's mountain resorts that the highway will remain closed until at least May. According to an NBC report, the fall wildfires were hot enough to "bake" boulders along Highway 18 -- and when the flash floods hit on Christmas Day, they carried the rocks onto a 3-mile stretch of the road near Lake Gregory.
The Lake Arrowhead
Mountain-News reported that "The Narrows" area between the State Highway 138 cutoff and the Cliffhanger will be closed indefinitely. There are five "washout/slipout" areas along The Narrows. "It has been severely compromised in five areas," said Holly Kress with Caltrans. She said all the drains that had been cleared before the flooding became clogged when the rains came; that contributed to the washouts and slipouts.
"The water had nowhere to go in the drains because all of the drainage became plugged with debris," said Kress.
Officials surveying the damage found boulders, fallen trees, and banks of mud all over the road. At some locations the road collapsed and left gaping holes; flooding also formed dangerous cliffs along the highway's edge. Installing bridges, according to engineers, may be the only way to get traffic back on the road. Caltrans estimates it will cost at least $3 million to fix Highway 18 -- and it could cost much more.
BURNED AUSSIE FIREFIGHTER HELPED OUT BY MATES
JANUARY 04 -- PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Volunteer firefighter Twynam Cunningham is in the burn unit at Royal Perth Hospital. But he's not too worried about his wheat crop, because his bush mates are doing the harvesting for him. The Great Southern farming community has rallied to help Cunningham, according to a report in the Sunday Times, after he was injured in last Saturday's Tenterden brushfire.
Volunteers from the Tunney and Cranbrook bushfire brigades turned out yesterday to harvest nearly 200 acres of wheat at his farm south of Perth. Cunningham's wife Elizabeth apparently had no choice but to accept the helping hands.
"I made one call and the telephone didn't stop ringing with people wanting to help," said Tunney brigade volunteer Kevin Marshall.
Cunningham suffered burns to 15 percent of his body when his fire unit was caught in the blaze that killed two women last week. He said his injuries could have been much worse; he was operating a hose from the back of a utility when a sudden wind change turned the firefront. "Everything happened so quickly," he said. "The firefront was just racing; it was uncontrollable. Before we had time to react, the fire was over the top of us."
He said he turned the hose on himself but could feel his clothes on fire.
"I knew I was in trouble, but never for a moment did I think I was cactus," he said.
Cunningham was flown to Perth by the Royal Flying Doctor Service for treatment for burns to his face, arms, leg, and back.
BURNED-OUT RETREAT CENTER DETERMINED TO REBUILD
JANUARY 03 -- CEDAR PINES PARK, CA: The Hilltop Renewal Center, a southern California retreat popular with Christian leaders, is seeking financial assistance to help rebuild after the devastating fall fires. The 7,800-square-foot center -- frequently used by faculty, students, and alumni at Biola and Talbot universities -- was wiped out by the wildfires.
"The center now looks like a war zone," said Gene TenElshof, president of the Center. "It looked like firefighters made an attempt to save the center from destruction, as burnt fire hoses were found lying in the driveway." TenElshof and his wife, according to the Christian Examiner, have reached a settlement with their insurance carrier, and 70 percent of the reconstruction costs will be covered. Rebuilding plans include reseeding the mountain; volunteers have already assisted by spreading 350 bales of straw to help prevent erosion.
"It will take a few years for the forest to come back," said TenElshof, "but we hope to break ground by next summer on the new facility." The center is planning a benefit concert and golf tournament; for more information on the rebuilding effort, check the hilltoprenewal.org website.
AUSTRALIAN WILDFIRE KILLS TWO WOMEN
DECEMBER 30 -- PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Two women were killed Saturday in a brushfire in Western Australia that burned thousands of acres of farmland; they were burned to death after leaving their car near the town of Tenterden southeast of Perth. A dog they left in the car survived, according to a report in the Scotsman. Police Superintendent John Watson said the women had apparently become disoriented because of the heat and smoke.
Police evacuated 150 residents and visitors as the fire closed in. At least five people were injured fighting the fire, which destroyed the town hall and five houses. Authorities estimated that 3,000 sheep were killed and 50,000 acres of farmland and national park land were burned. The Age reported that the fire, which was contained on Sunday, may have been set deliberately. Police have interviewed a man who said he saw sparks on a power pole in the area, but they have not ruled out arson. Forensics officers and detectives joined investigators from the police arson unit at the origin of the fire.
FIRE PILOT CALENDARS ON SALE
DECEMBER 30 -- HEALDSBURG, CA: Calendars for the new year from the Associated Airtanker Pilots are now available online.
The 2004 wall calendar features a photo of Tanker 99 -- which went down in southern California this year.
The photo, by Karen Wattenmaker (kwphoto.com), was taken in 1996 on the 8th Street Fire in the Boise foothills.
The calendars are available for purchase at the AAP online store, along with T-shirts and other items.
All items sold on this site help the AAP memorial fund, and profits benefit the survivors of fire pilots killed in the line of duty.
LOS ANGELES SAR TEAM HEADS FOR IRAN
DECEMBER 27 -- LOS ANGELES, CA: A search-and-rescue team, most of its members county firefighters, planned to take off today for Iran to help in the aftermath of Friday's devastating 6.5 earthquake. About 70 firefighters from California Task Force Two loaded equipment this morning and were set to fly to Iran aboard a military cargo plane, according to Inspector Roland Sprewell of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. This is the first international deployment for the LACoFD team.
The team anticipates an assignment of 10 to 15 days, according to an AP report in the Sacramento Bee; tens of thousands are feared dead after the quake, and two U.S. teams are responding. The federal government's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance requested the help of the LACoFD team.
SEVEN DEAD, NINE MISSING IN SoCAL MUDSLIDES
DECEMBER 27 -- SAN BERNARDINO, CA: Two young relatives of the caretaker of a church camp were among several killed when a mudslide smothered an area burned bare by fall wildfires in the San Bernardino Mountains, according to the San Bernardino County coroner. Two victims of another mudslide were found at a campground in nearby Devore. Several others are still missing, including five children, according to an AP report.
"We're still hopeful at this point that we will find someone alive," said Cindy Beavers with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Rescue crews are still searching on the ground and by helicopter.
The mudslides were triggered on Christmas Day when heavy rains fell in the area. Nearly 30 people were visiting for the day with the caretaker of Saint Sophia church camp when the slide occurred, and 14 people were rescued.
Nearly all the missing children were Sunday school students.
DISPATCH CAN'T BE SUED
DECEMBER 20 -- SAN FRANCISCO, CA: The California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that government 911 emergency dispatch agencies cannot be sued, even if they fail to respond to calls for help. The seven justices, in settling conflicting lower court rulings, said that 911 operations generally are immune from lawsuits.
Justice Ming Chin wrote in the unanimous court opinion that "there is no statutory provision declaring or defining a public agency's duty of care with respect to handling 911 emergency calls."
According to an AP report in the Sacramento Bee, Harvey Wimer III represented the Regional Fire Protection Authority in San Bernardino County in this case. He pointed out that local agencies take and respond to thousands of emergency calls -- and could go out of business if they could be sued.
The court threw out the case of a 3-year-old Barstow girl who was electrocuted three years ago while taking a bath. Her father called 911 and was repeatedly put on hold. EMTs never arrived, but a Barstow police officer heard the call, responded, and transported the girl to a hospital. She was revived, but suffered brain damage and is still confined to a wheelchair. The family's attorney said that the lack of response to the 911 call made her injuries more severe.
Wimer, however, said medical personnel did not arrive because the district's computer system could not locate the address and the father refused to provide a cross street.
The justices, meanwhile, said emergency-response agencies could be sued if they acted in bad faith or were grossly negligent. The court determined that the facts in this case didn't support either gross negligence or bad faith.
DECEMBER 12 -- SANTA MONICA, CA: Betcha can't guess what this is:
C'mon, go ahead and guess.
Give up? Okay, we'll tell.
This is a wildfire creature attacking a home. It looks unhappy because the homeowner has created defensible space around the home and used fire-resistant materials in the home's construction, thus thwarting the evil wildfire creature's desire to destroy the home.
Great creature, huh? Much more educational than, say, real footage of a real wildfire.
Guess who paid for the creation of it?
The Forest Service.
You're thinking "no way." But it's true. A company called Dieselfx provided design and visual effects services to ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding of Southern California and The Advertising Council for a new public service announcement about the dangers of wildfires. According to digitalvideoediting.com the ad was sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, and it's part of the government's Firewise program that educates homeowners on fire protection.
Diesel's creative director Elliott Jobe worked with agency representatives to develop the wildfire monsters. "They were restricted from using practical fire elements in the production," he said, "so we had to develop a look for the characters that showed heat and flame but did not depend on using real fire." He said the agency folks were so pleased with the look, they asked to see more of the characters.
Maybe the home-attacking fire monsters will look cooler on the TV ads than they do in the photo.
GET YOUR COOKBOOKS NOW,
HELP OUT THE EUGENE HONOR GUARD
DECEMBER 12 -- EUGENE, OR: A new cookbook went on sale yesterday in Eugene, Oregon, with a collection of more than 150 slightly less-than-healthful comfort foods. It's available for $10 and according to the Register-Guard, proceeds will help out the Eugene Fire Department's all-volunteer honor guard.
Firefighter Scott Olmos said firenhouse meals are prepared by whoever steps up to the plate each day. "We have some guys who don't belong in the kitchen at all, and we have some guys who are outstanding cooks," he said.
Firefighter Scott Hardman says his Baked Swiss Chicken is great for "probies," or probationary firefighters, whose simple minds are overloaded with hose evolutions, nozzle specifications and ladder commands. His recipe of chicken breasts baked with cream of chicken soup and Swiss cheese leaves the probie time to clean the bathroom, vacuum the day room, and wash the captain's car before the cheese melts.
Marsha Morrill, who worked in logistics for 17 years, collected the recipes. "We, as a department, really like enchiladas and we really like chocolate," she said. "If we ever find a chocolate enchilada, we're in business."
This book makes a GREAT gift for only $10 -- shipping and handling is $2.50 for first-class mail in the U.S. -- so you can order the book "Favorite Recipes from Eugene Fire & EMS" for $12.50 from the department's headquarters at 1705 West 2nd Avenue, Eugene, Oregon 97402.
9th CIRCUIT NIXES TAHOE SALVAGE
DECEMBER 12 -- SAN FRANCISCO, CA: A federal court ruled yesterday that a 2001 burn near Lake Tahoe can't be logged, despite the fire hazard; a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals faulted federal forest officials for approving the plan. The court said the U.S. Forest Service hadn't adequately considered the plight of the California spotted owl and other environmental concerns.
According to an AP report, the USFS said the 1,700-acre burned area was so ravaged that the habitat didn't require protection from logging because the area was no longer suited for owl habitat. The environmental group Earth Island Institute sued to stop the project, saying there were owls still in the area. They accused the USFS of targeting large, living trees for cutting on the El Dorado National Forest under the guise of a salvage project to remove trees killed by wildfire. The agency said hundreds of trees marked for cutting are dead and must be removed to prevent disease and increased fire risk.
Earth Island attorney Rachel Marie Fazio said salvage projects increase fire danger because loggers remove the trees, but leave behind tons of limbs and debris. Sierra Pacific Industries has already removed about 12 million board feet of wood from the area burned by the 17,000-acre Star Fire. An estimated 5 million board feet are held up by the court's order.
The California spotted owl is neither endangered nor threatened, but forest rules in California require protection of their habitat. In dissent, Judge Richard Clifton said the court ruling "fails to explain why preservation of a burned-out forest and postponement of rehabilitation plans serve the public interest."
FALL LED TO FIREFIGHTER'S DEATH
DECEMBER 10 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: An untimely fall during a raging fire apparently led to the death of Novato firefighter Steven Rucker as he and his crew defended a home during the Cedar Fire in San Diego County in October, according to a preliminary report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the 10-page CDF summary says a sudden shift in winds forced Rucker's crew to make a run for their lives; Rucker tripped and fell and was unable to escape to safety.
"It wasn't an easy trip," said Novato Fire Chief Jeff Meston, whose department collaborated on the report. "It was a significant fall." Rucker was the only firefighter killed in the Cedar Fire, the largest wildfire in California history. The 280,278-acre fire also killed 13 residents and burned 2,232 structures.
The report said the team was attempting to create a firebreak around the house as flames closed in from the north when the wind shifted, bringing new gusts from the ocean on the west. The fire covered a half mile in two minutes, with flamelengths reaching 78 feet, according to the report. The fire forced the firefighters to retreat to their engine, which was parked in the driveway of the home they were trying to protect. As flames leaped across the driveway, Capt. Doug McDonald ordered the team to fall back to the house, about 170 feet away, where they planned to regroup. Engineer Shawn Kreps and firefighter-paramedic Barrett Smith led the retreat, making it safely to the house. When they found that McDonald and Rucker weren't with them, they retraced their steps and found a dazed and injured McDonald on the patio. He told them Rucker had fallen farther back. Kreps and Smith attempted to rescue Rucker, but the flames pushed all three of them back into the house.
Kreps and Smith were treated for minor injuries and were released a day after the incident. McDonald, who received second-degree burns on 28 percent of his body, was treated at a burn unit and returned home on November 3.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
DECEMBER 09 -- HELENA, MT: After 43 years in air attack, Jim Haslip knows fire. He spotted this summer's Snowbank Fire in Montana when it started, and he says it never should have grown beyond a quarter-acre.
The Snowbank eventually merged with the Talon Fire to become the Snow/Talon, which burned nearly 38,000 acres. And the Helena Independent Record reported that there are also questions about whether the Moose Fire, which threatened the towns of Helmville and Lincoln, would have done so if it had been initial-attcked the evening it was spotted, instead of waiting until the next day.
The Moose Fire burned 1,945 acres. Suppression costs ran $16.5 million on the two fires -- known as the Lincoln Complex. And Haslip says the Snowbank Fire never should have gotten away. "It wasn't that big," he says. "It was right by the road and there was a water source right there for a dip site." He says the fire should have been controlled in a day or two.
Bret Ruby, the FMO on the Helena National Forest, disagrees. "The first day I thought we could have stopped it. But after the smokejumpers got chased off, I knew it was gone."
Problems with the dispatch system, some say, resulted in critical time lapses in getting helicopters for initial attack. Though Haslip ordered helicopters immediately after spotting the fires, he didn't get them for hours. An offer of a state helicopter with a bucket was refused. Other problems included equipment malfunctions and limitations imposed by endangered species. And, once the Lincoln fires started to run, they ranked low on the national priority list.
On August 12, in the Lincoln dispatch center, Enie Fisher requested that Haslip and pilot Doug Powell check out a smoke report. At 7:44 p.m., Haslip reported a single tree burning on a rocky slope that was difficult to reach by ground. He requested a couple helicopter drops, and Fisher called Helena to get a helicopter dispatched. "But because of the hour, and their time already was limited, by the time they got up and got back they would have been over their allowed time," said Fisher.
No one could know that within four days, this single tree would turn into the fire that threatened Helmville and Lincoln.
Early the next morning, Jay Lindgren was assigning initial attack resources in Lincoln. He sent crews to several fires, including the burning tree in the Moose Creek area. And by mid-morning, Haslip spotted the Snowbank Fire. He requested a helicopter, but resources were stretched. A state-owned fire helicopter dispatched out of Missoula was in the area; they heard the radio traffic and told dispatchers in Missoula that they were available. But they were told they weren't needed.
"I would have grabbed them in a heartbeat," said Lindgren. "I don't know if that was something lost in the chain of command, but the dispatch centers knew we were desperate." Fisher said she called Missoula, but was told that nothing was available. So she called Helena. "They told me they were going to launch someone as soon as possible," she said.
Lindgren also requested a "Super Scooper," which was in Montana at the time.
By early afternoon the Snowbank Fire was throwing brands over firefighters' heads, and the Copper Creek Campground was evacuated. Within an hour, the fire was over 20 acres, and Lindgren pulled all the crews.
"Our hoses were burning over, the pumpers were burning over, basically it was a run-for-your-life situation," said Bill Cyr, who heads the state DNRC initial attack force.
At 3 p.m. a new fire was spotted near Snowbank Lake. It didn't get much attention, but it did get two airtankers and a helicopter for part of the afternoon. Two Super Scoopers also worked on it for about four hours, with their costs totaling $23,474 that day.
"It was just like throwing snowballs at it," Lindgren said. "The intensity was something -- I've never really seen anything like it."
Smokejumpers hit the Talon Fire on August 14, but were flown out within a few hours because of the dangerous conditions. Bulldozers and other heavy equipment arrived, but they could be used only on a limited basis because Copper Creek, which runs through the burned area, is home to the endangered bull trout. The Snowbank Fire grew to 100 acres by the end of the day, and the Talon Fire was at 500 acres.
The fires still weren't a priority at the national level. With the lack of resources, the decision was made locally to try to herd the Snow/Talon Fire into the Scapegoat Wilderness and monitor it. "When we analyzed what we were going to do with that fire, we looked at everything from full metal jacket suppression, lining the entire thing, to more of a hands-off, to what we ended up doing, which was full suppression on the south side and letting it burn freely into the wilderness," Ruby said. "That was multiple millions of dollars cheaper than trying to put a line around the whole thing."
Haslip and others are irked at the system that supplied only minimal initial air attack and allowed the Lincoln Complex fires to eventually burn more than 39,000 acres. "I have the highest respect for our firefighters -- it's the system that's broke," Haslip said.
Lindgren, though, is philosophical. "You've got to play the cards that you're dealt," he says. "This was something that was bigger and better than us. I just wasn't holding very good cards."
BIOMASS: TURNING HAZARDOUS FUELS TO ENERGY
DECEMBER 03 -- ANDERSON, CA: The fires still smoldering across southern California have reignited the national debate over clearing out forest fuels; environmentalists, foresters, fire managers, and timber companies all agree that the brush and small trees have got to go. But what to do with it?
"Small trees are almost like toxic waste -- there's no use for it," said Jeremy Fried, a research forester at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station. But the brush and smaller materials thinned from the forest can be used as biomass to fuel electric generating plants. Fried and his colleagues with the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program have developed a complex computer model to predict the volume of biomass within a geographic region, how much can profitably be transported to biomass plants, where those plants should be built, and how many years' supply of biomass is available to keep them running.
Themodel was presented to the Society of American Foresters conference last month, and the Associated Press reported that the computer program analyzed 6,200 samples across 28 million acres of the Cascade Mountains across Oregon and northern California. The researchers hope to complete a similar analysis of Arizona and New Mexico this winter.
In addition to the volume and supply of biomass across a region, the program also considers economic variables. At what point does removing the material stop being profitable and require subsidies to persuade private investors that it's worth building a biomass plant? The program considers how much biomass material is close to roads, the steepness of the slopes, density of the understory, and whether it's in a protected area such as a park or wilderness.
That mimics real-life decisions, said Steve Jolley, fuel manager at Wheelabrator Shasta. "You do it where you can, on the flat ground near where the roads are," said Jolley, who took Fried and colleagues on a tour of Shasta County's biomass industry. "There's the model and there's the real world, and oftentimes they aren't the same." Northern California's Shasta County is perhaps the nation's biggest per capita user of biomass. At the Wheelabrator plant at Anderson, semitrailers line up three at a time around the clock during busy periods. Hydraulic lifts tip the trucks on end, dumping out wood chips, nut hulls, and other forest and agricultural waste onto conveyer belts that move the fuels to steam-fed generators.
When the 53-megawatt plant fired up in 1988, there was plenty of logging waste to burn. But the timber industry has been crippled, and the Wheelabrator plant has had to scramble to find the fuel it needs to provide enough electricity to power nearly 50,000 homes.
Fried's model projects that the Cascades region contains 4.55 million acres where biomass could be readily removed, of which 1.8 million acres would be so profitable that the removal would pay for itself. The projected 29 million tons of biomass is enough to keep four 50-megawatt electricity plants running anywhere from 17 to 42 years, depending on their location. The plants' combined output would power about 160,000 homes. If the biomass is removed only from the most profitable areas, there is enough to power the plants from six to 16 years, depending on location.
Part of the key is the larger-diameter trees. Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative," along with other proposals, sought to include the harvest of some larger-diameter trees -- merchantable timber -- in order to help pay for the removal of the smaller and less valuable fuels. But Fried's model has shown that if the removal of trees over seven inches in diameter is minimized, instead of powering those four electricity plants for 17 or more years, the fuels would keep them going for less than three years.
Policy decisions on providing public subsidies of biomass plants, and policies on the size and location of trees to cut are controversial and complex -- on a large scale. On a smaller scale, though, biomass projects have been tremendously successful. A fire-safe program near Anderson involved landowners and residents and helped them remove unwanted vegetation from their properties. They piled it near the road, where it was picked up by state forestry crews, then chipped and hauled to the Wheelabrator plant.
PROJECT PROTECTS SILVERWOOD LAKE
DECEMBER 03 -- LAKE ARROWHEAD, CA: Helicopter crews have been dropping straw by the ton on slopes that were severely burned in the recent southern California fires; they're working to stabilize the slopes before winter rains, which could cause large-scale erosion of ash, silt, and potentially toxic compounds into Silverwood Lake.
Heavy silt and ash could choke out wildlife habitat and reduce the capacity of the reservoir, which provides drinking water for millions of people. Runoff from the burned areas could also contain high concentrations of naturally occurring lead, according to a report by the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority.
"The timeline is to get it done before the first severe rainfall," said Ruth Wenstrom with the San Bernardino National Forest.
Pallets of rice straw are arriving from the Central Valley; rice straw is preferred over dryland wheat straw because of its water-absorbing ability and its weed-free status. Bales are dropped by helicopters and then ground crews chop and spread the straw. The $675,000 project at Silverwood Lake is part of $2 million in emergency rehabilitation being done after the Old and Grand Prix fires burned large swaths in the San Bernardino Mountains. As of last week, funding had been approved for aerial mulching at nine locations, including 525 acres of aerial heli-mulch and 35 acres of hand straw mulch. A number of hazard trees have been removed in the burn areas, and storm patrol and early warning system projects have been instituted.
For more information on Burned Area Emergency Response projects, check the baerteam.net website.
BUSH SIGNS FORESTS BILL
DECEMBER 03 -- WASHINGTON, DC: President Bush signed legislation today that's intended to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.
"This law will not prevent every fire, but it is an important step forward," the president said.
The Senate passed the bill on November 21 less than an hour after the House approved it, 286-140. For three years, a deadlock in the Senate had prevented the passage of legislation intended to streamline the process for completing fuels reduction projects. But 15 raging fires driven by Santa Ana winds across southern California prompted Democrats to compromise on the bill.
According to AP reports, the California fires burned more than 750,000 acres, destroyed 3,640 homes, 33 businesses, and 1,141 other structures.
The bill -- the first major forest management legislation in a quarter-century -- is similar to Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative;" the Bush administration estimates that 190 million acres are at risk of severe fire. The measure would authorize $760 million a year for thinning projects on 20 million acres of federal land, a $340 million increase. The bill also creates a major change in the way that federal courts consider legal challenges to forest projects -- judges will have to weigh the environmental consequences of inaction and the risk of fire in cases involving thinning projects.
DOES SAN DIEGO COUNTY NEED A FIRE DEPARTMENT?
DECEMBER 01 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: San Diego County, which for decades has been the only large California county without its own fire department, is rethinking that position in the aftermath of the Cedar Fire.
The county is served by a patchwork of fire agencies run by cities, special districts, volunteers, Indian tribes, and state and federal agencies. Elected officials have repeatedly blocked efforts to set up a county fire agency, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"I'm getting pretty tired, every year, of seeing many, many homes burned down because of the lack of resources," said Andrew Menshek, a battalion chief in East County. "A regionalized department is the way to go."
Under its charter, San Diego County is not required to protect residents from fire. Contrast that with Los Angeles County -- which boasts one of the largest and most well-known county fire departments in the West. There are 57 cities that contract with the L.A. County Fire Department, which staffs 163 engine companies, 31 truck companies, and 79 paramedic units. The LACoFD created the nation's second firefighter paramedic program and the nation's first 911 emergency calling system.
Unlike L.A. County's, fire service in San Diego County has historically been spotty -- but like L.A. County's, it's very politically driven. CDF has provided protection for much of the backcountry, but when the county's wildland/urban interface grew, the price shot up. When urban taxpayers complained about paying for firefighting in remote communities, supervisors reconsidered the CDF contracts -- and in 1974 they withdrew. They encouraged rural residents to join special districts or set up volunteer departments.
"Without any equivocation or any qualifying language of any kind, we are not planning a county fire department," Supervisor Dick Brown said in 1975. "In fact, I am very much opposed to the idea. Urban dwellers do not feel they should pay for their own fire protection plus fire protection in the backcountry."
Now, some elected officials want voters to approve a regional fire department as soon as next year. More than 60 fire agencies -- run by cities, special districts, "county service areas," along with the state, federal government, the military, and Indian tribes -- provide some level of protection in San Diego County. Each department has mutual aid agreements for sharing resources, but a single incident commander can't assign resources regionwide unless state officials assume command, as they did during the Cedar and Paradise fires.
Attorney Barry Newman spent two years in the 1990s on a task force that looked into regionalizing government services. They recommended a single group to manage public services. County supervisors ignored the suggestion. "If there is a fire, the people who are affected by it don't care what patch is on the left arm of the responder," said Newman. "All they want is a firetruck."
Jack Snook is a retired fire chief from Oregon who is an expert in consolidating fire departments. His company has overseen almost 60 mergers and reviewed dozens of others. He sees the same initial resistance in community after community, state after state. "It's turf, power, politics, control, and money," said Snook. "If you can overcome them, then you're usually pretty successful."
Robert Pfohl, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, said he doubts that consolidating fire agencies would cut costs or make operations more efficient. "As organizations get larger, there really is the same number or sometimes even larger numbers of support staff," he said.
The county Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services may put the issue before voters next November.
HISTORY'S BIGGEST WILDFIRE RECOVERY EFFORT
NOVEMBER 26 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: As a safety officer on a wildfire-recovery team, Randy Draeger spends his days making sure workers don't get struck by falling trees, bitten by dogs, or run over by bulldozers. But his biggest challenge is preventing exhaustion. Struggling against shortages of equipment and supplies, his colleagues are in a hurry to stabilize southern California's burned areas before the first big storms of the season.
Southern California Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) projects range from the relocation of endangered species to the straw mulching of hillsides by helicopter. The Christian Science Monitor reported that this is the largest and most complex wildfire recovery effort in American history.
"This is going to take a while," says Erv Gasser, supervisor of a federal BAER team northeast of San Diego. "We're not talking a few days. It's more on the line of a few weeks to months."
The fire-charred hills look like graveyards of gnarled limbs and blackened dirt. "The soils in southern California are very erosive," says Matt Mathes with the U.S. Forest Service. "They fall down the slopes even naturally, and when they get a lot of water on them, they tend to erode very readily in the best of times. With the vegetation burned away, there's nothing to hold the soil."
Teams have been using a number of treatments to ward off erosion and flash floods: fiber rolls (giant flexible tubes of straw or other materials that act as dams behind homes), fiber mats (25 x 8-foot straw mats that hold up hillsides), and "K-rails" (runoff-blocking concrete berms often used to line highways).
For more information on the BAER teams and their activities, check out the baerteam.net website.
WILDFIRE EMPTIES WYOMING TOWN
NOVEMBER 20 -- DAYTON, WY: Hundreds of residents were evacuated overnight when a wind-driven wildfire rushed down a tree-lined river that runs through the town of Dayton. The fire burned about two blocks into the town, according to AP reports, but Dayton Fire Chief Eric Lofgren said no homes were burned. The 1,500-acre fire started about 8 p.m. yesterday just west of Dayton, and was pushed into town by winds of 50 to 60 mph. Firefighters evacuated the west side of Dayton and the rest of the town was under a voluntary evacuation order. The fire was contained about 3 a.m. and snow was falling by morning.
CALIFORNIA FIRE LOSSES OVER $2 BILLION
NOVEMBER 19 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: Early estimates of $2 billion in property damage have been verified by industry sources, according to a North County Times report; the Cedar Fire in San Diego County and the Old Fire near San Bernardino together accounted for at least 3,300 burned structures. The figures don't include all of the fire damage in San Diego County, nor are fires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties included in the estimate.
Some sources said the figure could run $2.5 billion to as much as $3 billion in insured losses; Robert Hartwig, chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, also has pegged the insured losses for the two fires at $2.04 billion, and has said the number could rise to $2.3 billion. Nearly 13,000 claims for damage have been filed, and the policies represent a total coverage limit of just under $3.5 billion.
Other disasters in California have cost more. The insured loss for the Northridge earthquake in 1994 exceeded $12 billion, six times the estimate for the Cedar and Old fires. As California fires go, the champion for damage remains the blaze that engulfed San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Total damage estimates for the San Francisco fire approach $6 billion after adjusting for a century of inflation, but most of that loss was uninsured.
RUIDOSO: THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT HERE
NOVEMBER 17 -- RUIDOSO, NM: Surrounded by the forested slopes of the Lincoln National Forest, residents of this vacation town in New Mexico are well aware of the dangers of wildfire. Three large fires burned here in the last few years; one destroyed more than two dozen homes. And those fires, says Ruidoso's full-time forester, Rick DeIaco, "really piqued everybody's interest."
USA Today reported that Ruidoso's fire safety measures make the mountain town a leader in addressing the wildfire threat. The town has a mandate that homeowners must thin trees and brush from around their properties, creating more defensible space around homes.
Ruidoso's forceful approach is likely to become more common across the West; the state of Oregon has a statewide program that makes property owners liable in the county-designated interface areas, should a wildfire begin on or burn across their property, if they've not done appropriate clearing of their property. Other similar measures are under discussion in several other Western states.
Homeowners and builders are increasingly being told to protect themselves. Building codes are being changed to require more fire-resistant construction materials, and insurance companies are encouraging policyholders to make homes safer or risk losing coverage.
But few communities have taken as comprehensive an approach as Ruidoso. Two years ago the U.S. Forest Service designated the town as the second-most-vulnerable community in the nation, based on forest density and the mingling of homes and wildland. The village has focused on public education and warning systems; emergency evacuation routes are well marked with signs, and a "reverse 911" telephone warning system can automatically notify hundreds of residents in just minutes. New construction must adhere to a code requiring good access for fire equipment, adequate water for firefighting, and fire-resistant building materials.
Most important, Ruidoso crafted a comprehensive plan to thin forests on its outskirts and on private land within town.
Joe Renteria, 75, a retired aircraft mechanic, is one homeowner who didn't need much encouragement to do the necessary clearing. He took advantage of a cost-share program through the National Fire Plan, and removed about 75 trees from his one-acre property. He paid only a third of the total cost.
And the insurance industry is pushing compliance; hundreds of homeowners with MetLife have been notified that they should meet Ruidoso's requirements; State Farm has a similar effort under way. "It's definitely the trend in the industry," said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. "They are getting more aggressive about what homeowners need to do to keep their insurance."
THE REHAB "DREAM TEAM"
NOVEMBER 16 -- COLTON, CA:
Every fire season, teams of emergency rehab specialists are assembled to set up Burned Area Emergency Response, or BAER, operations in communities where federal lands have been burned by wildfire. BAER teams took on the aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire at Los Alamos, and they've been to southern California before. But this year is like no other, according to a special report by the North County Times.
And this assignment may be the most challenging ever.
"With the sheer number of acres burned, rehabilitation on these fires will be the first of its kind in many ways," said Matt Mathes, BAER information officer. "The skill and scale of the effort are unprecedented."
"Our goal is to not leave any piece of federal land left out," said Cathleen Thompson, BAER information officer for the region. The two teams -- one in the San Bernardino area and one out of San Diego -- include hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, biologists, silviculturists, range conservationists, archaeologists and other land-use professionals.
"What the teams do is truly remarkable," said David Widmark, another information officer. "The specialists have to look at satellite photos and go out into the field to survey all of the ground destruction. Several hundred thousand acres of land need assessment, so it's a lot of hard work." The teams map the intensity of the burn (see severity maps online) and share information, specialists, and experts -- including local professionals whenever possible. "They know the ground," said Thompson, "and they know which treatments work and don't in that special area."
She said one of the team's priorities is to identify areas in the greatest danger from erosion and flood. Once the assessment report is completed, the implementation process begins. "The treatment team will shadow this assessment group," explained Widmark, "and when it leaves early next week, they take over with implementation."
A concerted effort to protect people and property against flooding and mudslides is already under way. Barriers have been installed on many of the steepest slopes, but experts are well aware that sandbags, hay bales, silt fences, and detention basins are not permanent measures. The San Diego County Department of Public Works is providing free soil erosion-control devices, including sandbags, at its road stations. Erosion experts say that silt fences and straw bales are the most effective when placed so they follow the contours of the slope. Other BAER team projects will include monitoring water supplies and using straw mulch to reduce erosion and promote vegetative recovery. The team will make recommendations on a case-to-case basis for decisions on whether re-seeding is used. In southern California, it may actually hinder the recovery of native plant species and the revegetation of slopes prone to erosion.
More information on the BAER efforts is available at www.baerteam.net
SAN DIEGO FLOODING FIXES IN THE WORKS
NOVEMBER 15 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: Erosion control experts from local, state, and federal government agencies, along with a host of volunteer workers, are preparing for mudslides and flooding after the fires. The potential for heavier-than-usual runoff from rocky slopes has had dozens of specialists out in the burned areas figuring how to keep what's left from washing away. The Cedar and Paradise Fires stripped many slopes of vegetation, and twice as much storm water than normal could end up flowing down hillsides.
Creeks, storm drains, and drainage ditches that don't usually get much water could flood, according to a report by the San Diego Union-Tribune, but the National Weather Service is predicting an average winter. Ne ar-normal temperatures and rainfall are expected, with between 9½ and 16½ inches for the valleys and 20½ to 40 inches for the mountains.
Much of the focus of BAER activities has been determining what can, and should, be done. Some fixes are already in the works; the BAER team is drafting a rehab plan for the burned areas, and they expect to put it into action this week. The County of San Diego and City of San Diego have hired GeoSyntec, an engineering consulting firm, to determine how to shore up stream banks, clear burned vegetation from slopes, remove debris from drainage channels, and keep silt and ash from entering drinking-water reservoirs.
"Our big message is that folks need to be prepared for rain," said Pennie Custer on the BAER team, "and what might happen with those rains if they're flowing into the wrong areas. The big problem is going to be that water runoff."
For more information, burn severity maps, and links to local area agencies, check the BAER team website at baerteam.net
CEDAR FIRE: ONCE-IN-A-CAREER BLAZE
NOVEMBER 15 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The system to alert people of an approaching wildfire, in the case of the Cedar Fire, didn't necessarily fail -- but it was overwhelmed. The Cedar Fire moved too fast, and came at the worst possible time -- in the early morning -- and surged through hard-to-reach rural communities. Fire departments were understaffed with resources already dispatched to other areas and other fires. And standard operating procedure, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, is now under scrutiny.
Some people said they never got word that a fire was minutes away. They said they received inaccurate information from emergency dispatchers. Residents in the Lakeside area, if they heard any warning at all, had only minutes to get out. And 12 of the 16 people killed in the state's worst fire died in this area.
Under normal circumstances, when a wildfire threatens communities, fire officials contact the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which handles evacuations. But on the Cedar Fire, deputies started telling people to get out without any direction from the California Department of Forestry.
"It was like a blowtorch," said Chris Saunders with the Sheriff's Department. "We didn't wait for CDF to tell us where to evacuate. We acted on our own when it looked like the fire was going to threaten any given area."
Another problem was that the fire didn't really display its potential for hours. It started at 5:30 p.m. on the Cleveland National Forest, but didn't really start to rock'n'roll till near midnight. "We had no intelligence other than what we could see," said Andy Parr, division chief for the Lakeside Fire Protection District. He said the fire was a "once-in-a-career fire;" it blew across the Barona Indian Reservation in 40 minutes flat. "No one expected something like that," said Parr.
Some residents in Lakeside are taking matters into their own hands, looking at measures to protect their homes and families, including forming a community-response team.
THE RACE AGAINST MUDSLIDES
NOVEMBER 13 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The first real rain in 193 days soaked fire-scorched San Diego County yesterday, and road crews, rehab experts, and residents were racing to get ahead in the region's next big fight -- erosion -- and the mudslides and rockslides that could play havoc with property and roads this winter. The North County Times reported that road crews were out clearing drainage culverts, while California Conservation Corps volunteers laid sandbags, straw rolls, and straw blankets on soaked hillsides.
"We're working seven days a week," county equipment operator Mike Sporl said. He and his crew used a backhoe and dump truck to remove more than a ton of silt and soil from around a drainage culvert in Valley Center. "We're cleaning out all the culverts ... trying to get ahead of the next storm that's in the system," he added. "We had flooding this morning with just this little bit of rain. We're definitely going to have a lot of mud all over, especially in these burn areas."
The county Department of Public Works has been handing out free sand bags and gravel bags at its road stations. Since last week, they have issued 22,463 sandbags, 4,267 gravel bags, 1,291 straw rolls, 444 straw blankets, and more than a ton of native flower seed.
Though San Diego County has seen several years of average or below-average rainfall, county workers are taking mudslides and road closures very seriously. "There's nothing to hold the water back now," said Sporl. "We're probably going to have flash flooding just about everywhere the fires were located."
FIRE NEAR FORT COLLINS EVACUATES 63 HOMES
NOVEMBER 12 -- MASONVILLE, CO: Winds picked up again this morning in Colorado, worrying crews fighting a wildfire that's burned 125 acres west of Fort Collins and forced the evacuation of 63 homes. The fire started Tuesday and burned grass and brush; at least 10 homes were threatened. The fire settled down overnight and was about 10 percent contained, according to the Casper Star-Tribune, but the Larimer County Sheriff said winds were picking up again.
The fire was believed to be human-caused. Authorities were looking for a silver sports utility vehicle to question its driver and passengers about the fire, said Debbie Wilson, fire information officer with the Forest Service.
ALLSTATE CREATES WILDFIRE RELIEF FUND
NOVEMBER 10 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The Allstate Foundation and the California Community Foundation (CCF) have established a $1 million fund to help with recovery and rebuilding efforts in southern California. Donations from the Allstate Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund will be disbursed to applicant grassroots 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations with programs to aid rebuilding and recovery efforts in the counties of San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, and Ventura. The San Diego Foundation will help administer grants to San Diego-area organizations.
Donations from the fund are earmarked for fire-relief needs including emergency shelter, food and clothing, mental health recovery efforts, community clean-up, restoring community emergency services, and assistance with home re-construction permits.
Thomas Wilson, president of Allstate Protection, said the foundation is taking a stand to deliver critical funding to southern California residents when they need it most.
CCF also managed catastrophe response funds after the 1993 Los Angeles-area wildfires and the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
"The devastation and personal loss caused by these wildfires is at an unprecedented level here in southern California," said Jack Shakely, CCF president. "It's critical that we help people and communities to accelerate the all-important recovery period." He said the fund is designed to reach people and communities that were missed by the initial wave of disaster relief services. More information's available on the www.calfund.org website.
RESIDENTS WARNED ABOUT FLOODING
NOVEMBER 09 -- SUMMIT VALLEY, CA: As the residents who were evacuated from the area of the Old Fire return to their homes and resume their lives, federal and county officials are warning about the possibility of mudslides and flooding.
The most threatened areas are on the south side of the mountain, and through Devore and the Cajon Pass. Areas such as Summit Valley, Deep Creek, and Silverwood Lake, which are below burned mountain slopes, could also be affected, according to a report by the Victorville Daily Press.
"I don't think we've ever had to deal with it on this magnitude," said Pat Mead, assistant director of the San Bernardino County Public Works Department. "The houses against the steeper slopes that have burned, they're going to be at risk."
Federal, state and county officials working with the Southern California BAER Team are surveying fire-damaged areas to determine ways to reduce the risk brought on by winter rains. The team is expected to present a report on the potential mudslide and flooding problems sometime this week.
Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) interagency teams are deployed to eliminate emergency conditions that lead to soil erosion and flash floods. Team members are cleaning out basins and culverts, performing ground and aerial mulching, and constructing water diversion treatments.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are also warning residents to prepare for mudslides and flooding, said FEMA's Gene Romano. Residents in burn areas can call (800)427-4661 to ask about FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. People can also call their city or county public works departments to find out whether their area is threatened. Assessment maps will soon be available from the BAER team website at baerteam.net and the San Bernardino County Public Works/Flood Control Department is at (909)387-7914. Information is also available on their website at www.co.san-bernardino.ca.us and other area contacts are also online.
AMERICAN FORESTS GROUP FUNDS REHAB
NOVEMBER 07 -- WASHINGTON, DC: The AMERICAN FORESTS conservation organization announced yesterday a new national fund to help communities and organizations restore forests damaged by recent wildfires in California. Ecological recovery is expected to take years, the group's goal is to plant a million trees in the state.
"Restoring fire-damaged forests prevents erosion from hillsides and protects waterways that provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife," said Deborah Gangloff, executive director.
The Wildfire ReLeaf program depends on donations to help plant native trees in burned areas that might otherwise take years to regenerate. The fund was designated specifically for California forests after an outpouring of questions and requests from California residents and people across the United States. More information is available online at www.americanforests.org or from Wildfire ReLeaf—California, c/o AMERICAN FORESTS, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013 or by calling (800)545-TREE.
PRESIDENT VISITS FIREFIGHTERS
NOVEMBER 06 -- EL CAJON, CA: Firefighters contained the largest of southern California's wildfires this week, and then turned their efforts to mopping up what's left.
President Bush, who surveyed some of the damage on Tuesday, "hopped on the bed of a California Department of Forestry pickup," according to AP reports, and thanked several hundred firefighters. "We've seen the worst of nature," he said, "but when you go to these communities and when you realize what's taken place, you see the absolute best of mankind."
The Fresno Bee quoted Bonita Fire Capt. Mike Kobliska, who spent 11 days on the fires. He said Bush's speech made him feel better. "Not that we needed a pat on the back, but to say it doesn't feel good would be a lie."
Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams will begin reseeding, digging flood-control trenches, surveying for critical flood risk areas, and working with NOAA personnel and other agencies to coordinate an all-risk response to the aftermath of the fires and the next few weeks of fall rainstorms.
Nearly 7,000 firefighters were still on the lines this week, but dozens of BAER team specialists have converged on the southern California area even as thousands of firefighters are demobilized from the area and sent back home.
FIRST FIRES, NOW MUDSLIDES
NOVEMBER 05 -- CRESTLINE, CA: As fire crews and overhead teams shift from firefighting to mop-up, officials and emergency response experts are scrambling to face another looming disaster in the smoldering hills: mudslides. The pressure's on -- denuded slopes must be stabilized before they're washed away by winter rains, sending what could be devastating floods and mudslides into communities built on what were once barren alluvial plains.
Forest Service employees say it could be the largest effort in history to rehabilitate fire-burned land. The Desert Sun reported that weather is so volatile this time of year that officials may have just a couple more days before the first storm of the year.
In the aftermath of the fires, an interagency team of national emergency rehab specialists has converged on the area and set up operations to take on the safety hazards and threats caused by the fires. Several teams -- of 20 or more specialists from several states and a number of agencies -- will spend the next few weeks assessing and eliminating threats to the people and the land affected by the fires.
The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program deals with these risks immediately after a fire. Teams of botanists, biologists, engineers, archaeologists, and other watershed specialists moved in right behind the fire crews. They're assessing the damage and trying to predict -- and if possible, prevent -- mudslides. A mudslide blanketed Highway 18 near Crestline over the weekend, slowing emergency crews racing to fires in the San Bernardino Mountains and the return of residents to burned-out areas near Lake Arrowhead.
"This is by far unprecedented as far as the complexity and the number of folks and the amount of acreage," said coordinator Rob Griffith, who expects to allocate tens of millions of dollars to the Southern California response.
Federal, state and local teams have been assigned to four units -- the San Bernardino area, the San Diego area, the Ventura County area, and the Los Angeles County area.
"Because it's such a big fire and we have such a short window, we're trying to hit the highest of priorities first, and then work our way down the list," said Todd Ellsworth, who heads the BAER teams assigned to the Old and Grand Prix fires. "Everything's important. It's just that some things are more critically important, and we're running out of time."
More information, along with updates and information on how you can volunteer, is available on the team's website at www.fs.fed.us/baer and the Joint Information Center at www.esri.com/jicfire on the San Bernardino.
THIS PLACE CALLED SOUTH OPS
NOVEMBER 04 -- SAN BERNARDINO, CA: Simultaneously fighting 10 wildland fires -- ordering and moving all the personnel and engines and other equipment and aircraft and other resources -- can be a zoo. And with dozens of agencies -- local, state, and federal -- representing a mix of jurisdictions across southern California, it can be hectic. This is the place they call "South Ops," or Southern Operations, a walled compound in San Bernardino where key decisions are made on deploying firefighters, evacuating people, setting priorities, and saving lives.
One of eleven Geographic Area Coordination Centers across the country, South Ops is one of the biggest and most complex, and is sometimes the busiest. The GACC in the Northeast U.S. manages fire and other incidents in more than 20 states. The one in Atlanta, covering the South, manages an area stretching from the middle of Texas clear to Florida and halfway up the Eastern Coast. California's incident management is so busy and so complex that the state is divided into two separate areas -- South Ops in San Bernardino (formerly Riverside) and North Ops up in Redding.
And as the Sacramento Bee recently reported, it brings coherence to a system that could easily turn into anarchy. While turf battles and minor spitfights are still common, it's a lot better than it was in 1961. That year, a firestorm swept through Bel Air and Brentwood and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. The chaos that year showed that fire agencies were working at cross purposes.
"During the Bel Air fires, everyone suddenly learned that they had different radio frequencies, different terminology, different equipment," said Ron Raley, a veteran fire commander who works for the U.S. Forest Service. Fire crews from different agencies, for example, found they couldn't connect their hoses onto another agency's engines.
As a result of what was learned after the Bel Air fires -- and the Laguna Fire of 1970 -- California's fire agencies developed and set up the Incident Command System. And ICS has since then been emulated by other emergency responders nationwide -- even the military.
After the World Trade Center disaster in 2001, New York City's fire department sent personnel West to "shadow" some of the incident management teams who handle fire. FDNY had had some of its personnel trained in ICS, but those who were were killed in the tower collapse. National teams who handle fire were sent back to New York to help, but things didn't run like usual on an incident. Without ICS in place, chaos threatened to take over.
Under ICS, agencies divide up responsibility for responding to multiple fires. The state fire agency, CDF, takes the lead on fires on mostly private property. The Forest Service handles national forests, and county fire agencies often lead strike teams that work within their jurisdictions.
And it isn't just the fire agencies in the system. Fighting a major conflagration involves evacuations, handling traffic, managing powerlines and utilities, and a score of other things that can make a wildfire into madness. Under the ICS umbrella are the California Highway Patrol, the state Office of Emergency Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service, and many other agencies.
The incident commander on a fire -- or other incidents such as hurricanes or earthquakes -- runs the show on the fire, directing crews and engines and aircraft. The IC confers with South Ops, and they supply reconnaissance reports, such as infrared aerial photography, along with more resources needed by the IC and the team.
Though resource orders are occasionally muffed, things usually run pretty smoothly -- the system's generally staffed by serious professionals with long careers in fire and extensive training. But the system can be interfered with, as evidenced by recent blame-slinging and finger-pointing when fires don't get managed the way politicians or Monday-morning quarterbacks think they should.
"We have to deal with a lot of political crap," said Ray Quintanar, Forest Service Fire & Aviation director for the Pacific Southwest region. "That is part of the job."
Part of the job is also the planning, the organization, the preparedness that goes into the overall year-round management of fires in a state that's infamous for the complexity of its fire season.
"We feel that our pre-planning saved hundreds and hundreds of homes," said Judith Downing at the San Bernardino Joint Information Center.
The mood now at South Ops -- and the pace -- are far more relaxed than the situation just a week or three ago. The cooler wet weather has helped. The legions of firefighters, the incident management teams, and thousands of volunteers have all helped. And the system itself helped.