INVESTIGATOR REWRITES REPORT ON RUCKER FATALITY
JANUARY 30 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The San Diego County medical examiner has revised a disputed report on the death of a Novato firefighter who was burned over in a southern California wildfire last fall.
Her initial report contradicted some of the preliminary CDF findings, and colleagues of Steven Rucker had questioned aspects of the medical examiner's report.
According to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, Gretchen Geary, the San Diego County investigator who drafted the report, said yesterday that it contained errors. But she said the reaction was fueled by news accounts that "misconstrued entirely" her report.
Rucker was killed while trying to protect a home in Wynola; he was part of a four-man engine crew overrun by flames. The other three took shelter in the house, but Rucker fell and was burned to death.
Geary said chief among the inaccuracies in the earlier version of her report was a conclusion that the other firefighters deployed their shelters; that error suggested that the firefighters had made a tactical error in deploying shelters rather than using the house as a safety zone.
"If I was a Monday morning quarterback," said Novato Fire Chief Jeff Meston, "I would ask, 'Why in the world didn't they go into the house?' That puts into question a lot of concerns about people's capabilities."
Meston had asked that the report be revised.
Geary said the error was compounded by news reports indicating that Rucker was carrying a chainsaw when he was overrun, but the report actually said, "Near his body were his firefighting equipment, consisting of chain saw, radio, emergency shelter and miscellaneous tools." The amended report says the firefighters put the chain saw and an ax near the house as part of their strategy, and one of the other firefighters said it was actually his radio and tools found near Rucker's body.
Changes have been made already based on the incident; for example, the Novato fire engine's brake lines were made of plastic. They were melting while the crew was trying to escape the flames. The department is now refitting its vehicles with braided stainless-steel brake lines.
LESS TALK AND MORE ACTION
JANUARY 29 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: Fire officials from across the country met up last week for a three-day workshop in San Diego to discuss reducing the threat of disastrous fires, but many agreed that little will be done without the public and political will to act. And, according to a report by the San Diego Union Tribune, most of what was discussed has been discussed before -- it just needs to be put into action.
San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said the fire chiefs plan to take their recommendations to Congress; they say that the government and the public need to get busy -– and get serious –- about preventing fires.
"It's not like we don't know what to do," said Bowman. "We know what the solutions are. The question is, how do you change the cycle? You can't keep doing the same things over and over and expect to get a different result."
Among the ideas that emerged was the need to make prevention a key element of local government -- and to get urban planners, zoning regulators, and developers thinking about fire-safe neighborhoods. Bowman said they need to see firsthand the problems faced by firefighters in the urban interface.
Putting MAAFS units and military helicopters on fires also came up.
"Military aircraft are not the panacea that some people think they are," said Bill McCammon, chief of the Alameda County Fire Department and president of the California Fire Chiefs Association. But some chiefs said they want to explore the 24-hour use of firefighting aircraft.
A recurring discussion was getting the public more involved in prevention. Some said the fire service's reputation for total commitment to fighting fires has created a false sense of security among residents. "The public knows we will show up and put it on the line every time," said Ray Quintanar, Region 5 Forest Service fire director. "And I think we've taken away some of the personal responsibility of the property owners by doing that. If we're to be successful, we need total public involvement."
FOREST SERVICE CHARGES CAMPERS
FOR IDAHO WILDFIRE
JANUARY 29 -- CHALLIS, IDAHO:
The U.S. Forest Service has charged four people with building a campfire and leaving it unattended during last summer's fire restrictions, and they may be asked to pay for the $500,000 Falconberry Fire near Challis.
Each of the four have agreed to pay $200 for the campfire violations, but one denies that his group started the fire. He says they made sure their campfire was out. The 28,000-acre fire burned nearly all the buildings at the Falconberry Ranch.
PREVENTING WASATCH FOOTHILLS FIRES
JANUARY 20 -- FARMINGTON, UTAH: Three public meetings are scheduled in Davis County this week to discuss proposals for reducing fire risk in the foothills. Sponsored by the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, the meetings will be held in Centerville and Farmington.
The Davis County Fuel Reduction Project, according to the Davis County Clipper, would involve a combination of prescribed burns and mechanical thinning above the Farmington and Centerville areas. The project is intended to address the unnatural build-up of fuels that increases the risk of catastrophic wildfire. The project would cover 1,615 acres between Centerville and Farmington on Forest Service lands next spring, unless weather postpones the work. The second project is a proposal from Davis County to construct a 7-mile firebreak from Bountiful to Farmington.
The meetings will be held Tuesday at Centerville City Hall, 250 N. Main, at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at Farmington City Hall, 130 N. Main, at 7 p.m., and Thursday at the Davis County Courthouse, 28 E. State Street, Farmington, at 6 p.m.
The scoping letter and maps will be online at www.fs.fed.us/r4/wcnf/projects/proposed and the comment period ends Friday, January 23. Written comments can be sent to Loren Kroenke, Salt Lake Ranger District, 6944 S. 3000 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 84121 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
FORESTERS CONFERENCE SCHEDULED IN REDDING
JANUARY 18 -- REDDING, CA: About 250 people are expected to attend the 25th annual Forest Vegetation Management Conference beginning Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Redding. More than two dozen speakers will address forest planning, from studies of tree growth to discussions of pending legislation.
One of the highlights, according to the Record-Searchlight, will be a speech on restoration forestry by Thomas Bonnicksen, an author and Texas A&M University professor of forestry. Bonnicksen has studied California forests for three decades.
The Forest Vegetation Management Conference is a nonprofit organization formed by professionals in the field to establish a forum for the exchange of techniques, methodology, and research. The conference will also provide continuing education on forest vegetation management to meet California licensing needs and provide peer and research contacts. Topics on the agenda include "Effects of Thinning and Prescribed Fire on Wildfire Severity," by Carl Skinner, along with presentations on fire case studies and post-fire management strategies.
Officials from both government agencies and private companies are expected to attend the conference. For more information, call Sherry Cooper at (530)224-4902.
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.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION? NOT IN OUR STATION
JANUARY 16 -- KEYES, CA: Moonlighting as a porn star for a little extra cash is one thing, say firefighters, but keep it out of the firehouse.
Seventeen firefighters in Keyes, a small rural town in California's dairy country, have walked off their jobs to protest firefighter Alexas Jones' other job. They say she discussed her porn site with her husband, Assistant Chief Roger Jones, while they were on duty. Capt. Herb Collier, one of the 17 who dropped their gear and resigned earlier this week, said the two of them discussed the topic in the station.
And Roger Jones fired a cadet who got curious and checked out Alexas' site -- without paying.
According to an AP report, Collier said the firefighters are upset with their chief, Eddie Jones -- who is Roger's father and Alexas' father-in-law -- because he will not discipline his son.
"We feel pretty strongly that there needs to be a separation between the pornography and the fire service," said Capt. Collier.
Alexas Jones's site promotes X-rated material, including pornographic wrestling and topless boxing videos, in which she stars as "Chantel Lace." She also sells her underwear to web customers, charging $35 for an unwashed bra and ten bucks for a pair of socks.
"It's called freedom of expression, and speech also," said her husband Roger. "It's not illegal."
Only eight firefighters are left in Keyes. No reports on what they think of Alexa's site. Other nearby fire stations have pledged to help out with the staffing shortage.
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.