NO AIRTANKERS? HECK, JUST PUT
TANKS IN THE FOREST
JUNE 01 -- PASADENA, CA: The U.S. Forest Service in southern California plans to place portable 10,000-gallon tanks in fire-prone locations in the forests, according to a report by the Pasadena Star-News, in order to provide more locations for helicopters to re-fill with water or retardant for fire suppression. Planned locations include the San Bernardino Air Force Base (formerly called Norton), serving the San Bernardino National Forest and in Hemet, which serves the Cleveland National Forest.
"We want to be as flexible and as mobile as possible this summer," said Matt Mathes, media relations officer with the Forest Service. "We will drive the trucks with the 10,000-gallon tanks and retardant-mixing stations to the nearest point to the fire. Then, we'll go to work."
Estimated cost for the portable tanks is between $2,000 and $3,000 per day -- for renting the tanks and flatbeds. Mathes also said the California fleet will be increased from 24 to 30 helicopters as a result of the cancellation of the federally contracted heavy airtankers. "This year we counted on 24 helicopters along with nine airtankers," he said. "Now that we don't have airtankers we are building up our helicopter fleet to at least 30 helicopters across California, 10 of which will be the largest helicopters available in the world."
"We lost a plane in California and one in Colorado during 2002," said Mathes. "Five people were killed. It's unacceptable and irresponsible to continue using aircraft such as these, that clearly are no longer airworthy."
MISSOULA CHAMBER LAUNCHES
GREEN RIBBON CAMPAIGN
MAY 31 -- MISSOULA, MT: The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce has launched a community-wide ribbon campaign to rouse public support for the terminated heavy airtankers.
And the campaign is quickly going national, because of efforts by the Associated Airtanker Pilots and supportive wildland firefighters on the ground.
"By terminating the contracts for the use of these planes, the U.S. Forest Service is not only doing a disservice to the local economy, but putting the people of our community and their property in jeopardy in the face of what is likely to be another dangerous fire season," said Kim Latrielle, executive director of the Missoula Chamber. "And thatís just wrong."
Latrielle said they're hoping to raise public awareness of how critical the airtankers are to the protection and safety of their community. Ribbons are available from the Chamber and at area businesses, and Latrielle said they're encouraging community groups to help distribute them.
"Our message is clear," said Latrielle. "Reverse the decision to cancel the contracts and let these tankers fly."
"The airtanker operators in the last year completed all directives of Sandia Labs, the contracted inspection firm designated by the Forest Service and BLM for airworthiness oversight," said Dean Talley, chairman of the AAP, "and they have complied with both the letter and intent of the Forest Service mandate that followed the Blue Ribbon Panel report." He says the airtankers have been inspected and carded, and deemed airworthy and flight-ready by Forest Service maintenance inspectors. Pilots, he said, were issued interagency qualification cards by Forest Service check pilots.
"We believe that canceling the contracts for heavy airtankers creates an unacceptable threat to the public, to ground-based firefighters, to taxpayers' private property, and to the natural resources of the country," said Talley. "We have no intention of flying unsafe aircraft."
AIRTANKERS GROUNDED BECAUSE OF
LIABILITY -- NOT SAFETY
MAY 30 -- WASHINGTON, DC: A Forest Service official said Friday that concerns over liability played a role in the May 10 decision to cancel all contracts for heavy airtankers.
"There was certainly a concern about that, but that is not what drove the decision," said Tony Kern, Forest Service assistant director for aviation management. "We were most concerned with the safety of the crews and the people on the ground."
But liability has been an issue between the airtanker operators and the fire agencies for years, and it was liability that drove Forest Service attempts in previous years to ground or take possession of the airtankers. And it's the issue that was spotlighted by the National Transportation Safety Board report that said that the Forest Service had jurisdiction over the aircraft. The NTSB report -- a 152K PDF -- also cited a lack of cooperation among federal fire agencies as a primary factor contributing to the problems with safety in aerial firefighting.
Which agency has the authority and responsibility for the aircraft has long been at issue. "The NTSB said, 'You are the operators,'" said Kern. "We had always thought that the FAA was responsible. It is kind of a really muddy deal. We always assumed that the FAA certificates were issued based on aerial firefighting conditions."
The Billings Gazette reported that the FAA inspects the planes and issues commercial certificates. But according to Kern and FAA spokesman Les Dorr, the inspections do not test for the stresses related to fighting wildfires. The inspections are the same as those performed on commercial aircraft. The NTSB report, released in late April, said the Forest Service and BLM have jurisdiction over the planes, and it pointed out that the agencies have no way to certify that the planes can operate safely.
Kern said that airtankers often fly over cities when they are full, and the heavy loads stress the planes. He said one of the tankers that crashed lost its wings during regular flight -- not on a firefighting mission.
"The wings just came off while the damn things were flying along," Kern said. "The wings just came right off."
He said a town mayor in the Northern Rockies had expressed concerns because airtankers flew over the city after taking off from its airport. Kern said the mayor wrote, "I expect the federal government to guarantee that these planes will not come apart over the heads of the public." Kern said the Forest Service could be liable if there were such an accident.
"This could end up with a plane landing on a school," Kern said. "You are talking about the potential for negligent homicide."
FUEL TRUCK DRIVER INJURED ON ARIZONA FIRE
MAY 27 -- HANNAGAN, AZ: The driver of a truck delivering fuel for firefighting equipment on the KP Fire was injured last weekend when his truck rounded a sharp curve, slid over an embankment, and rolled over on U.S. Hwy. 191. The Eastern Arizona Courier reported that the wreck occurred about 10 miles south of Hannagan.
The man, whose name was not released, was transported to a hospital in Tucson.
Neither smoke nor lack of visibility was a factor in the crash, Fire Information Officer Jonetta Holt said.
The KP Fire near Hannagan Meadow, south of Alpine, has burned over 10,000 acres and is only 25 percent contained. U.S. 191 between Clifton and Alpine is partially closed because of smoke and safety concerns for firefighters and equipment, which are often on the highway. U.S. 191, also known as the Coronado Trail, was closed from Hannagan Meadow to a point 13 miles south of there last weekend, and is expected to remain closed this coming weekend. The highway, narrow and winding, is considered one of the most scenic in Arizona and draws many tourists. It climbs to an elevation of over 9,000 feet at Blue Vista, south of Hannagan.
PEPPIN FIRE AT 25,000 ACRES
MAY 27 -- CAPITAN, NM: At zero percent containment, the Peppin Fire in New Mexico's Capitan Mountains has burned a dozen cabins, according to AP reports, and burnout operations are planned for today. Crews yesterday put in line along the northern perimeter of the fire.
Lighter winds, overcast conditions, and higher humidity helped slow the fire, but rugged terrain has made it impossible to gain much progress, and thunderstorms are in the forecast.
Bateman's Type 2 team is assigned to the fire, which is on the Lincoln National Forest north of Capitan. Resources include 12 Type 1 crews, two Type 2 crews, five helicopters, 23 engines, four dozers, and 14 water tenders, with a total of 471 personnel.
On Arizona's KP Fire, managed by Kvale's Type 2 team, poor access, heavy fuel loads, and steep rugged terrain have hampered suppression efforts. The fire, on the Apache/Sitgreaves, was 25 percent contained at 10,000 acres last night. Fire behavior was less active yesterday; U.S. Highway 191 remains closed to the public.
NEW MEXICO FIRE QUADRUPLES IN SIZE
MAY 24 -- CAPITAN, NM: A wind-driven fire has blown from 2,400 acres to about 10,000 acres overnight Sunday in the Capitan Mountains of central New Mexico. The Peppin Fire also evacuated seven homes.
"We had a 15-mile flame front last night," Beth Wilson, fire information officer, said this morning. "Basically, it burned up the better part of the northern Capitan Mountains."
Dangerous conditions, fire behavior, and rough country have prevented firefighters from using direct attack on the fire. "It's just nasty terrain," said Wilson, "very steep, very rocky, very dense."
Aircraft have been dropping retardant and water around communications towers on Capitan Peak, according to AP reports, and firefighters were focusing on protecting homes east of the fire.
Fifty miles northwest, the Lookout Fire has burned 4,600 acres west of Corona on the Cibola National Forest. The human-caused fire is at 40 percent containment; Winchester's Type 2 team is on the fire, along with seven Type 1 crews, five Type 2 crews, four helicopters, seven engines, a dozer, and five water tenders. The fire yesterday exhibited intense fire behavior with upslope runs, backing, and torching. Two residences and two outbuildings have been destroyed.
In Arizona, firefighters burned out along State Highway 191 on the 4,000-acre KP Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest south of Alpine. It's about 15 percent contained, with 583 firefighters assigned. Kvale's Type 2 team is on the fire, with 15 Type 1 crews, two Type 2 crews, three helicopters, 21 engines, two dozers, and eight water tenders. Significantly greater active fire behavior was a problem yesterday, with short uphill crown runs, short-range spotting, and group torching. Burnout operations were completed along the western boundary.
OREGON DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY
MAY 24 -- GRANTS PASS, OR: The state forester in Oregon has declared a state of emergency over the loss of heavy airtankers and is seeking to contract airtankers on its own. The Oregon Department of Forestry said today the agency wants two airtankers available as early as July 1 in addition to two tankers and two lead planes due to arrive August 1 after they have completed work in Alaska.
"Aircraft are integral to our aggressive firefighting strategy," said Bill Lafferty, director of fire protection for the department.
The AP reported that State Forester Marvin Brown declared an emergency last week in response to the shortage of airtankers and expectations of an above-average fire season.
A bend.com report said the emergency declaration enables ODF to secure its own aviation contracts for other tankers and helicopters to offset the loss of the federal tanker fleet. The heavy airtankers have for years been a key element in the ODF's efforts to protect the 16 million acres of forestland under its jurisdiction. In previous years, seven airtankers from the federal contract fleet have been available in Oregon and Washington.
"We have an agreement with the State of Alaska to have two of their contract tankers and two lead planes brought down to Oregon around August 1," said Lafferty. Last year, after the federal fleet was downsized by 11 planes, the department secured one airtanker and a lead plane from Alaska under the authority of the Northwest Compact Act, which is an agreement to share resources among member states and Canadian provinces. The Alaskan airtanker saw plenty of action throughout the state last summer.
To help offset the loss of the heavies, the ODF is trying to assemble an air attack capability of four large tankers and seven helicopters.
Federal airtankers were to be based in Redmond, La Grande, and Klamath Falls; Western lawmakers and governors also have mounted a campaign to get at least some of the canceled tankers back into operation.
ALASKA WANTS AIRTANKERS REPLACED
MAY 24 -- FAIRBANKS, ALASKA: The Alaska Fire Service has requested three smaller aircraft to replace the two large contracted tankers that were recently canceled by the federal fire agencies. The AFS planned to have two DC-4s on this season, each with a 2,000-gallon retardant capacity, and now has requested from NIFC two medium-sized tankers and a SEAT.
The season has just begun in Interior Alaska, according to an AP report, and will last through late July. The state has two DC-6 tankers on contract from Conair Aviation in Canada that were unaffected by the federal cancellation. The AFS is requesting two Canadair CL-215s -- medium-sized tankers with a 1,400-gallon capacity -- one Airtractor 802 with an 800-gallon capacity, and two medium helicopters. The agency's also requested extra smokejumpers for the season.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has written Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman asking how the federal government plans to address the loss of heavy airtankers in Alaska. Murkowski noted that the Canadian government, unlike the U.S., specifically certifies aircraft for retardant operations.
"Why, then, does the United States not recognize this airworthiness certification?" she asked.
SEASON OUTLOOK GOES FROM BAD TO WORSE
MAY 22 -- BOISE, IDAHO: Months ago, national fire managers predicted the 2004 wildfire season would be a bad one; now they say it will be even worse than they thought. Unseasonably warm weather in March and April, heavy dry fuels, continuing drought, and the loss of the nation's heavy airtankers combined mean the grim possibility of another devastating fire season.
"Things are much worse than they were in February," said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager at NIFC.
Years of drought have left states across the West vulnerable to extreme fire conditions, and according to AP reports, about a dozen Western states face the possibility of an above-average fire season. The Pacific Northwest looked good early on, with heavy snow in the Cascades. But warm spring temperatures melted the snowpack a month early. The Washington state DNR has already had 70 small fires, up from their usual 20, and forest conditions now resemble typical late July conditions.
In Oregon, snowpack in the Cascades fell from 120 percent of average in early March to just 53 percent of average on May 1.
"It really is huge," said Paul Werth, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. "There's really the potential for a large number of huge fires -- long duration fires."
Losing 33 large airtankers won't help, either. "Those airtankers were critical for initial attack," said Dan Ware with the New Mexico State Forestry Division. "They buy time for your fire crews." New Mexico has repositioned other resources around the state, and now has two National Guard helicopters available for initial attack.
Fire crews were pulled off the Lookout Fire near Corona late yesterday because of high winds, according to an AP report; the fire's burned over 1,500 acres and destroyed a couple buildings. Winds were about 18 mph early today, but were expected to increase. The National Weather Service in Albuquerque issued a wind advisory from noon until tonight for much of eastern New Mexico.
Fire officials in Arizona plan to request $1.5 million from the governor to add more bulldozers and more firefighters in rural and volunteer fire departments. And even before the federal agencies announced the cancellation of the heavy airtanker contracts, the state had contracted four private tankers to boost firefighting efforts.
"If I'd seen it coming, I'd have hired 20 of them," said Kirk Rowdabaugh, deputy state forester for Arizona. "We're putting more emphasis on bulldozers, but there are environmental consequences. It's not something we'd like to do, but in the absence of the heavy airtankers, it's something we may have to do."
NEW MEXICO FIRE EVACUATES RANCHES
MAY 21 -- CORONA, NM: A wildfire estimated at 1,000 acres forced several evacuations in Corona today; the Lookout Fire started in Gallinas Peak, southeast of Mountainair, this morning. Fire officials said it has spread very quickly to the Cibola National Forest near Corona, where it's crowning. SEATs, engines, and a 20-person crew are on the fire.
Along with the evacuated ranches, the fire also threatens television and cell phone towers on the mountain, according to TheNewMexicoChannel.com, which reported winds at about 20 mph with gusts to 45 mph.
A Type 2 team and more hotshots were ordered for the fire this afternoon. The Southwest Area was bumped up to Preparedness Level 3 effective today.
EXTRA $500 MILLION FOR FIRE?
MAY 21 -- WASHINGTON, DC: Lawmakers yesterday introduced a bill to fund an extra $500 million for federal firefighting agencies. "If the president won't act, we will," said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon. "The fire season has only just begun and the Forest Service has grounded the firefighting tankers, is short personnel, and admits they only have half the money they need for the entire fire season."
State and federal agencies reported spending an estimated $1.5 billion last year on fire. After several years of drought, many Western states are now facing the possibility of an above-average fire season. Conditions are prime for a bad season in the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Rockies, and the Southwest, including southern California, where conditions are the driest.
MAN GETS PROBATION FOR LYING DURING WILDFIRE INVESTIGATION
MAY 21 -- TUCSON, AZ: Kenzo Butler, who earlier told investigators that he had not been smoking while hiking on the Aspen trail the day the Aspen Fire started, was sentenced today to two years' probation for lying to authorities. The fire destroyed Summerhaven, a vacation community on Mount Lemmon, last year.
Butler must also complete 200 hours of community service, according to an AP report.
He pleaded guilty in March to two federal counts of providing false statements to U.S. Forest Service investigators. The Aspen fire near Tucson was the most destructive wildfire in Arizona in 2003, burning 84,000 acres and destroying 335 homes.
TAHOE AREA EXPECTING HOT DRY SUMMER
MAY 20 -- SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CA: Fire conditions in 2004 look a lot like fire conditions in 2003 -- or worse -- with drought conditions predicted to last through summer; record high temperatures in March and April caused a premature snowmelt, according to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Gary Barbato, hydrologist for the National Weather Service, said water levels are down from the last few years' levels.
"The snowpack is pretty much done," said Barbato. "If you look at the levels, on the rivers it is pretty dismal. We're even behind where we've been the last couple of years."
And fire managers are expecting the fire season to be severe. The warm and dry weather makes the forested lands of the basin highly sensitive to fire earlier than average, said Rex Norman with the Lake Tahoe Basin Unit of the Forest Service.
"Here in the Lake Tahoe Basin, we are moving into fuel moistures that would normally be seen later in summer," he said.
To counter the threat of wildfire to communities and resources, the Forest Service has treated more than 32,000 acres, primarily near vulnerable communities. Although there has been significant progress, more needs to be done. But fire managers warn Sierra and Tahoe residents not to assume that community defense treatments can "fireproof" communities.
REMEMBERING THE MT. LEMMON FIRES
MAY 21 -- TUCSON, AZ: Roy and Carol Lundstrom moved to Summerhaven in August 2001. Little did they know they would endure the devastation of two major wildfires. The Tucson Citizen reported that the fires changed not only their outlook, but also those of their neighbors and forest managers as they prepare for another fire season. The Lundstroms had lived in their cabin about nine months when the Bullock Fire took off in the early morning hours, two years ago today.
Gail Aschenbrenner, with the Coronado National Forest, remembers the fire. "At seven that morning, I was out at the base camp on Redington Pass Road," she said, "standing there with the incident commander and a Northwest crew watching the helicopter take off."
But the helicopter didn't fly much that day. High winds grounded aircraft, and Aschenbrenner got the idea early on that the fire would get away. "I remember walking to the top of one of those hills, trying to get cell service," she said. "I was having a sinking feeling. We were losing those golden hours of opportunity."
Those early hours of initial attack on a fire are often what makes the difference between a small fire successfully contained and a major rager of a campaign fire that burns thousands of acres and requires millions of dollars in suppression costs. And with the recent cancellation of heavy airtanker contracts by the Forest Service and the Department of Interior, a vital firefighting tool has been taken away from fire management and firefighters.
The Prescott Daily Courier reported that Forest Service officials said they didn't have the time before the upcoming fire season to develop maintenance and inspection programs for the planes as the National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended, so they decided to cancel the contracts for the heavy tankers. The NTSB report noted that aerial firefighting companies often can't acquire a complete service history on their aging planes; maintenance crews for the two heavy tankers that were stationed at the Prescott Fire Center said their companies have records dating back to the planes' early days.
The heavy airtankers have decades of history in slowing wildfires and working with ground crews to contain fires early -- which is critically important in the burgeoning wildland/urban interface of Western states.
The Coronado National Forest is situated next to several rapidly expanding urban areas -- Tucson, Oracle, Sierra Vista, Nogales, and Sonoita/Patagonia. Approximately 34,000 acres of the Forest are classed wildland/urban interface, and in the Tucson area alone there are approximately 60 miles of interface. The mixture of houses, flashy fuels, and brush fields in full view of a large metropolitan area adds significantly to the challenges and complexity of even small wildland fires.
After the Bullock Fire and last year's Aspen Fire, residents and the fire agencies are more pro-active than they were. "It's such a changed world," said Josh Taiz, biologist on the Coronado National Forest. "There's been a real loss of innocence. In the past, if a wildfire got up to a couple thousand acres, it seemed like a really big fire."
Taiz said planning for fires that require hundreds of firefighters, aircraft, and engines is integral to fire season preparations. The fire season generally runs from April through November, and the average fire occurrence is 150 fires each year, for a total of 9000 acres. Nearly 70 percent of all fires are lightning-caused.
RED FLAGS OVER THE SOUTHWEST
MAY 21 -- CLOUDCROFT, NM: New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest hasn't seen any huge fires yet this year, but it's probably a matter of time -- and luck. "Needless to say, we're not as bad off as in the past few years," said James Villard, fire management officer for the Sacramento Ranger District on the Lincoln.
Crews have been working on fuels projects and prescribed burns, according to the El Paso Times, but fire managers are keeping an uneasy eye on the weather -- and are unhappy about the cancellation of the federal heavy airtanker contracts.
"The grounding of the heavy airtankers has hurt our response quite a bit," Villard said. He added that they were missed earlier this week on a fire near Timberon. "We would have used heavy airtankers continuously" on that fire, he said. "The single-engine tankers were not able to get through the canopy where we wanted to be."
The Southwest Coordination Center reported this morning that a second SEAT and lead plane were ordered for the Lookout Fire on the Cibola National Forest. A Type 2 crew is assigned.
NEW MEXICO SCORES BLACKHAWKS
MAY 20 -- SANTA FE, NM: Two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters will be available for initial attack on fires; the state requested the helicopters in response to the cancellation of federal airtanker contracts by the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior.
Joanna Prukop, secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said they're working with the federal agencies to augment fire resources around the state.
"The state of New Mexico and our partners are doing everything possible to counter the loss of the airtankers by adding as many other resources as are available," said Prukop.
This will be the first time Blackhawks have been used on initial attack in New Mexico, according to an AP report.
The state Forestry Division purchased two bambi buckets for the helicopters, each with a maximum capacity of 400 gallons.
Fire crews, meanwhile, are working a fire of about 100 acres on the Lincoln National Forest; the Peppin Fire was ignited by lightning on Saturday northeast of Capitan. According to an AP report, two SEATs and a helicopter were dropping water, with about 60 firefighters assigned. The fire was 20 percent contained at 120 acres last night; crews were challenged by steep rugged slopes, erratic winds, and difficult access. More lightning moved through last night on the east side of the Capitans and Sacramento Mountains.
The KP Fire south of Alpine last night was estimated at between 800 and 900 acres; Kvale's Type 2 Team was scheduled to take over the fire today. Significant spread to the northeast happened yesterday under afternoon high winds, and the fire was torching in timber.
CONGRESSMEN SAY MAYBE YES ON AIRTANKERS
MAY 18 -- WASHINGTON, DC: Some of the country's contracted heavy airtankers could be restored to service this summer, according to some members of Congress, who said today that eight of the 33 tankers could be in the air again if they're determined to be safe and if their complete records can be located. FAA officials aren't promising, but have said they'll work with the Forest Service to develop a system for certification.
According to an AP report, the Forest Service and BLM -- not the National Transportation Safety Board or the Federal Aviation Administration -- are responsible for certifying that planes used for public purposes are safe. The Forest Service, however, wants the FAA to bear responsibility for certifying the airworthiness of the airtankers. Lawmakers and the federal agencies involved agreed today to develop an inspection system to ensure airworthiness. They will focus on eight P-3 Orions -- owned by Aero Union Corp. in California -- which have a more detailed history than other converted military planes.
The aircraft could be recertified as soon as mid-June, said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon.
"I'm pleased that we've broken the bureaucratic logjam so we can have large tankers safely in the air this fire season," DeFazio said. "Grounding the entire fleet of large tankers has left a huge hole in our firefighting resources that I feel cannot be filled in any other way."
Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA, said he could not speculate whether any or all of the 33 tankers would be certified for use this summer, saying that decision is up to the Forest Service.
Meanwhile, the president of Aero Union of Chico, California, one of the operators whose contracts were canceled last week, said the company is unfairly being lumped in with a Wyoming firm responsible for most of the catastrophic accidents. In a report by KTVU-TV, Terry Unsworth said that Hawkins & Powers of Greybull, Wyoming, was responsible for five of the six structural accidents in the last 30 years. He cited Aero Union an example of a company that was able to maintain high standards and avoid problems by upgrading its planes and training its pilots. Unsworth said the company plans to fight the contract cancellation by seeking support from Congress. He also said Aero Union plans to lay off many of its employees.
ARIZONA FIRE SHOULD BE CONTAINED TOMORROW
MAY 18 -- SUNFLOWER, AZ: The Tonto National Forest didn't have heavy airtankers to dispatch, but they had four SEATs and five helicopters on the Diamond Fire today; other resources included five hotshot crews, three Type II crews, and eight engines. The 1,150-acre fire was about 65 percent contained this morning, according to an AP report.
"We're hitting it really hard with our air power," said Emily Garber with the Tonto. "There's very little smoke any more."
She said the helicopters dumped a lot of water on the fire, which started Sunday in grass and chaparral near Sunflower, between Payson and Phoenix. State Highway 87 was closed intermittently because of heavy smoke. Vincent Picard, a fire information officer with the Tonto, said the fire appeared to be human-caused.
72-HOUR REPORT ON FLORIDA FATALITY ISSUED
MAY 17 -- LAKE CITY, FL: A firefighter assigned to the Mailbox Fire on the Osceola Ranger District, Florida National Forests, was found dead near the fireline last Thursday, according to the 24-hour report issued by an investigation team headed by Bill Damon, Forest Supervisor on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.
At about noon on May 13, according to the report, U.S. Forest Service and Florida Division of Forestry firefighters responded to a wildland fire near Lake City, Florida. A Forest Service firefighter, Randy H. Henderson, died while working on the fireline; he was assigned as a Safety Officer on the incident.
According to a report by firehouse.com, Henderson, 42, was detailed to the Osceola as District Fire Management Officer. His permanent position was on the Bienville Ranger District in Forest, Mississippi, where he began his Forest Service career in 1980.
According to the team's 72-hour briefing, sometime after 3:40 p.m. Henderson collapsed about 33 feet inside the fireline. He was on an old fireline in an area of unburned fuels; after he collapsed, a low-intensity backing fire moved through the area. Henderson was found at 5:15 p.m. by the Incident Commander and another of the firefighters.
Preliminary analysis of fire weather and fire behavior indicates no unusual nor extreme fire behavior. The fire was first spotted about noon, and was contained by 7 p.m. at 95 acres. The briefing said Henderson was found about eleven yards from a wide-bladed fireline that could have served as a safe area.
The team reviewed Henderson's Red Card qualifications and said he was fully qualified for the position he was filling, and that he'd passed the arduous pack test last October.
Henderson is survived by his wife and two daughters; funeral services were scheduled in Lorena, Mississippi. Cards may be sent to the Henderson family in care of Bienville Ranger District, 3473 Hwy. 35 South, Forest, Mississippi 39074.
The investigation is ongoing, but the initial report says -- contrary to rumor -- that the death of the firefighter was apparently not caused by an entrapment or burnover. The investigation team is awaiting results of an autopsy and continuing with investigation of other aspects of the incident.
CONGRESSMEN WANT MORE FIREFIGHTERS
MAY 17 -- WASHINGTON, DC: Federal agencies could be fielding about 30 percent fewer firefighters this season, and congressmen from Washington and North Carolina are not happy with that.
"All indications suggest that this will be an extremely challenging fire season, and we cannot afford to allow our federal firefighter capability to fall so far below last yearís level," Reps. Charles Taylor of North Carolina and Norman Dicks of Washington said in a letter last week to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
Taylor chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior and related agencies -- which controls funding for the U.S. Forest Service -- and Dicks is the panel's ranking Democrat. They want Veneman to divert money from other accounts, according to a Los Angeles Times story, in order to hire more firefighters. An internal memo for the committee said budget shortfalls have created an "immediate wildfire funding crisis."
But Mark Rey, Undersecretary of Agriculture, said the agency will be prepared. "It is my judgment that we will meet and exceed last year's performance," he said. He added that nine military C-130 MAFFS units will be available this year. That won't do much, though, to fill the gaping hole in suppression resources left by the agencies' cancellation last week of the contracts for 33 heavy airtankers operated by private companies.
A number of early-season fires have burned already in California, and firefighters say the conditions in California and other western states are typical of mid- to late summer. This has not escaped the notice of congressmen.
"I am not at all certain that Washington officials understand the dire need to put all available resources in play with all due speed," said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California. He and others have noted the shortfall of as much as $95 million in the agency preparedness account -- which includes money to hire temporary firefighters. Taylor and Dicks want the Agriculture Department to transfer $54 million from suppression to the preparedness account. Congress already increased the Forest Service's suppression account by almost $250 million this year, but the preparedness account remained essentially flat at about $670 million.
The committee memo blames the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for skimping on firefighting resources; the OMB essentially decides what the firefighting budget will actually be after the fire agencies determine what it should be. "While the agencies are trying to address these issues," said the memo, "the OMB is once again refusing to address these realistic staffing and equipment needs."
GOV. ARNOLD'S PLAN FOR FUELS REDUCTION
MAY 16 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to streamline the logging approval process in exchange for a $10 million increase in logging fees. The state budget last year cut $10 million from CDF's programs with the expectation that logging fees would be increased. But the state Assembly rejected the fee increase, according to the Marin Independent Journal.
Schwarzenegger said that in exchange for higher fees, the state should cut its "overly burdensome" bureaucratic reviews of logging plans and revise its program to something more like Oregon's with its one- or two-page applications and brief one-stop reviews. California requires detailed harvest plans prepared by licensed foresters; the typical plan runs 100 to 500 pages, costs over $40,000, and takes 65 days for state approval.
"Oregon has extremely lax forest practice rules," said the Sierra Club's Paul Mason.
A second Schwarzenegger initiative would use $39 million in Proposition 40 bond money over five years for prescribed burns and other forest thinning to protect Sierra Nevada waterways.
VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTER KILLED YESTERDAY IN SOUTH CAROLINA
MAY 15 -- BELTON, SC: A young firefighter who would have graduated from high school next week died Friday morning while responding to an emergency call. Anderson County authorities said Michael Martin, a volunteer with the Ebenezer Fire Department, was killed when his pickup truck ran off a road and struck a tree. According to the Associated Press, the pickup was torn in half at the crash site.
ARSONIST SOUGHT IN MAINE
MAY 15 -- TOWNSHIP 24, ME: The Maine Forest Service is searching for information on an arson-caused 148-acre wildfire in eastern Maine. Rangers determined Friday after investigating the site in Washington County that the fire was caused by arson.
Investigators will interview suspects and others who might have information; according to the AP the Maine Wildland Arson Reward Program offers up to $2000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a wildland arsonist. Persons with information should call 1-800-987-0257.
HEAVY AIRTANKER CONTRACTS CANCELED
MAY 14 -- WASHINGTON, DC: The U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department on Monday canceled contracts for 33 heavy airtankers because of concerns for airworthiness and public safety. The decision, which affects eight airtanker contracting companies, comes after an April report by the National Transportation Safety Board that recommended major upgrades in inspections to determine airworthiness of the heavy tankers. The USFS and DOI say they don't have the personnel or the funding to comply with the NTSB recommendations.
Some contractors, according to a report by the Associated Press, have questioned whether the states could hire the airtankers on for this season. Given state budget problems and liability issues, however, that's not likely.
Though the airtankers are now on the ground, one big question in the air is what the states will do about operating firefighting aircraft. California's fleet of S2 tankers aren't technically owned by the state -- they're owned by the Forest Service. Chances that the Forest Service would take possession of them now are probably pretty slim, but it's not impossible. The Forest Service considered taking possession of all the heavy airtankers some years ago when Jack Ward Thomas was chief -- the agency was ordered to. But Thomas refused, insisting to the federal Department of Justice that if the airtankers couldn't fight fire, the firefighters wouldn't either -- he said he wouldn't allow ground crews to go out without the air support. He threatened to resign and make a stink if the agency was forced to take possession of the airtankers.
The contractors have complied with all maintenance and inspection requirements issued by the federal government, and this contract cancellation surprised the contractors.
Len Parker with Minden Air in Nevada said the tankers can be flown safely.
"There are no airworthiness concerns, from our standpoint," he said.
The NTSB report -- a 152K PDF -- is available online, and related stories on the tanker contract cancellation are available from the Bend Bulletin, FOX News, the Porterville Recorder, the Tucson Citizen, the Arizona Daily Sun, the Missoulian, the Anchorage Daily News, and the Reno Gazette-Journal.
MONTANA FIRE EVACUATES 30 HOMES
MAY 10 -- ROUNDUP, MT: A fire that was started by lightning last week grew to about 700 acres by this morning, pushed hard by winds yesterday afternoon. The Dean Creek Fire prompted the evacuation of about 30 homes, according to CNN. Dena Lang with the BLM said cooler weather this morning was helping.
"The single-engine airtankers working the fire did an excellent job in preventing those homes from being burned," said Lang.
Early fires and conditions resembling those of summertime have got firefighters' attention in the area. "And this is just the beginning," said Cheri Kilby, disaster and emergency services coordinator for Musselshell County. "It's only going to get worse."
BAY AREA'S GOT EARLY FIRES TOO
MAY 10 -- MILL VALLEY, CA: A 35-acre wildfire in unincorporated Marin County has been contained, according to the Bay City News, and county sheriff's Sgt. Doug Pittman said it should be controlled soon. CDF crews and resources from the Marin, Sonoma, and Contra Costa County Fire Departments are on the fire, which borders a residential neighborhood on one side. The fire started yesterday afternoon along state Highway 1 near the junction of the Shoreline and Panoramic highways.
COLORADO'S GOT EARLY FIRES TOO
MAY 10 -- RIFLE, CO: Crews have contained a fire in Rio Blanco County, according to Frankie Romero, incident commander, who told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent that the 46-acre Lower South Fork Fire should be controlled by this evening.
"There will be gradual decline in resources over the next two days," said Romero. The fire was ignited on Friday when a brush pile burn on private land got out of control. The area will require extensive mop-up because of the number of dead trees in the perimeter.
NEW MONTANA FIRES
MAY 09 -- ASHLAND, MT: The 2,000-acre Cook Mountain Fire was contained Saturday evening, but firefighters are now battling a new fire south of Ashland.
Nearly a dozen new fires were ignited by lightning Friday night, according to the Billings Gazette, and the Rimrock Fire grew to about 700 acres after two smaller fires burned together. Cline's Type 3 team is on the fire, which was estimated last night at 20 percent containment. According to reports, airtankers and crews secured the heel of the fire yesterday, but running fire behavior and spotting was common. The fire made some short crown runs. More than 100 firefighters are assigned, along with helicopters, airtankers, and dozers, on the Custer National Forest.
Mop-up is under way on the Cook Mountain Fire, and additional resources will be added to the Rimrock Fire today.
Montana Gov. Judy Martz warned recently that the state could be in for a bad wildfire season and called for coordination among local, state, and federal government officials. "Unless all levels of government and the public continue to work closely together," she said, "we may soon find that what would have been seen as an extraordinary fire season in the past will start to be considered routine." The Missoulian reported that in 2003 more than 3.7 million acres burned and $1.5 billion was spent on suppression.
$317 MILLION APPROVED FOR 2003 CALIFORNIA FIRES
MAY 09 -- LOS ANGELES, CA: State and federal funding to support burned areas in southern California -- including a mix of grants and loans -- is helping pay for emergency response and restoration after last fall's fires. More than $317 million in state and federal aid, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee, has been approved over the last six months. Greg Renick, information officer for the governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES), said the funding also benefits residents and and small business owners who suffered losses.
The fires last fall in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties killed 24 people and destroyed over 3,600 homes. More than 40,000 people registered for aid, according to FEMA.
SIX FACE DISCIPLINE FOR FATAL CRAMER FIRE
MAY 07 -- BOISE, IDAHO: Six Forest Service employees could be suspended or dismissed for their roles in the management of the fire that killed two firefighters near Salmon last summer. Idaho residents Jeff Allen, 24, and Shane Heath, 22, were killed in July when they were overcome by the Cramer Fire.
The employees could appeal the final decision.
Regional Forester Jack Troyer said they intended to hold employees accountable for their actions and limit future risks, according to a report by the Idaho Statesman.
The investigative report on the fire noted that errors contributing to the fatalities included a failure to accurately assess the fire situation, failing to aggressively seek weather information, using mid-slope suppression tactics during extreme burning conditions, and not taking appropriate action when the fire moved from initial attack to extended attack. Forest Service employees on the Cramer Fire violated all 10 standard orders and 14 of the 18 watch-out situations; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the Forest Service for failing to include safety and health program performances in fire managers' evaluations, even after the agency was cited for the same violation in 2002 after the Thirtymile Fire.
CONDITIONS IN CALIFORNIA JUST RIGHT FOR BAD SEASON
MAY 06 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: California's fire season, already off to an early start, will likely be worsened by the volume of disease- and bug-killed trees, dead and dying fuels, stalled funding for fuels projects, and a legal delay on hiring some 500 seasonal firefighters.
Early-season fires have burned across nearly 29,000 acres of southern California brushlands and forest this week, according to AP reports, but hundreds of evacuated Riverside County residents have returned home. The two biggest fires burned 14 homes and more than 30 other structures in the inland region east of Los Angeles. The 16,500-acre Cerrito Fire in Riverside County was 75 percent contained after threatening about 1,000 homes in the northeastern Lake Elsinore area. South of there, the 8,945-acre Eagle Fire near Temecula was 80 percent contained. Fourteen homes and 27 other structures were lost.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that federal officials yesterday approved $240 million for removal of dead trees in three southern counties after Sen. Dianne Feinstein complained about restrictions on the funds. Most of the Southwest, though, is still in the fifth year of drought, and conditions in northern California have worsened because of sudden oak death, a disease that's killed off hardwoods in the coastal counties.
Karen Terrill with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention said the severe fires last year were fueled by tremendous numbers of insect-killed trees. Another concern for CDF, though, is the thousands of trees in the northern part of the state killed by sudden oak death -- in areas that are both heavily wooded and heavily populated. Only about 5 percent of the standing trees in southern California's fire areas were consumed by fire last fall, leaving a huge load of fuels adding to fire risk this year.
Adding to the fire outlook, there are also concerns in the firefighting community that the federal agencies won't be able to field the usual fleet of heavy airtankers this season. A recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends -- though it stops short of requiring -- that the Forest Service initiate a far more serious and intense system of maintenance inspection and monitoring than what's currently in place. A program such as that recommended in the NTSB report -- a 152K PDF available online -- would be prohibitively expensive for the Forest Service and the airtanker operators, would probably require the creation and funding and filling of new positions in the Forest Service, and would be pretty much impossible to pull off this year. Much more likely is that the agency's heavy airtanker funding will be re-directed to the programs for helicopters and single-engine airtankers.
And it isn't just airtankers the Forest Service is struggling with in California. The recruitment, hiring, and training of something like 500 seasonal firefighters has been delayed for weeks by a legal situation requiring the hiring of Hispanic employees in the Forest Service's Region 5 as preferred applicants over new hires -- even those with better qualifications. A lawsuit Settlement Agreement from 2002 resulted from a suit that alleged that Region 5 violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; the agency's hiring and promotion processes discriminate against Hispanics, who are therefore under-represented in the Region. This resulted in an ordered hiring freeze, causing a delay of at least one month, followed by the forced hiring by the agency of hundreds of new employees who are Hispanic -- rather than trained or experienced or educated in wildland fire.
None of this bodes well for the 2004 fire season in California.
But will it be a record year? No one with any smarts will answer that. Thirteen years ago, 1991 was a sizzling drought year, but only 23,000 acres burned -- the lowest in state history. But 1991 was also the year of the Oakland Hills fire, one of the state's all-time worst disasters. Fire officials and firefighters are ready, though, for a serious summer, even if they won't predict the severity or length of the season.
"If you ever see the word 'predict' by my name," says Karen Terrill, "you'll know I've been misquoted."
MONTANA ROLLS RESOURCES
MAY 06 -- BILLINGS, MT: Firefighters haven't yet been able to get engines onto a fire near Ashland, according to a report by the Billings Gazette, because of the steep terrain where it's burning in the Cook Mountain Recreation Area. The fire was estimated at 150 acres last night, but could be much larger and will be flown today for aerial assessment.
Eight smokejumpers were deployed yesterday, and 24 more are en route. Three SEATs, two helicopters, one heavy airtanker, and an air attack plane were dispatched. The fires were ignited when a lightning storm passed through on Tuesday.
The Manning Fire on the Custer National Forest east of Ashland burned through about 15 acres and was reported at 60 percent containment last night. The Trapper Fire, also on the Custer, burned about 10 acres east of Ashland. The Garden Fire, on BLM land northwest of Ashland, has been contained.
Parts of Montana are faced with conditions that could mean a serious fire season. Since the beginning of the year, for example, only .34 inches of moisture was reported in Miles City -- about 2.76 inches less than normal for this time of year. The National Weather Service has issued a fire-weather watch for tonight with possible dry thunderstorms.
Federal recognition of the drought-caused fire danger came yesterday when the Department of Homeland Security released a $1.56 million grant to help offset costs for last summer's Cooney Ridge Complex outside Missoula. The Missoulian reported that the FEMA grant will offset 75 percent of the state Department of Natural Resources' firefighting costs at Cooney Ridge, where nearly 25,000 acres burned.
AIRTANKERS OF THE FUTURE
MAY 05 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: A new report by AVweb says the aerial firefighting industry has produced a plan to address safety issues in the federal fleet. The SAFE initiative (for "Strategic Aerial Firefighting Excellence") recommends replacing the heavy airtanker fleet over the next 10 years. The initiative recommends revision of the existing contract structure and better monitoring, and suggests that contractors will require as much as three times more funding to cover their investments in new aircraft. At current hourly flying rates, contractors say it's possible to break even on their original airtanker investment within three years. With newer aircraft, however, the break-even point would be over 14 years, and for newer C-130E or P-3C turboprops it would stretch to 20 years.
Wing failures and airtanker crashes, followed by the Blue Ribbon Panel report, followed by the recent NTSB report, have contributed to a situation wherein federal attorneys and agencies know they must get out of the airtanker business. The agencies can't certify airworthiness, the FAA is not well versed in aerial firefighting, and the agencies' liability for future fatalities would be tremendous after the crashes and recent reports. The Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior will soon face a tough choice among three bad options -- continue the heavy airtanker program as it is, replace the heavy airtankers with helicopters and more SEATs, or get out of aviation altogether. None of those would land within the triangle of the financially feasible, socially acceptable, and politically possible.
The report, available online in a 43-page PDF, was developed by the Consortium for Aerial Firefighting Evolution (CAFE), an organization formed by some -- but not all -- of the aerial firefighting operators in response to last year's Blue Ribbon Panel report. The report recommends the establishment of a working group comprising representatives from the Forest Service, BLM, FAA, and industry contractors.
WILDFIRE TRAINING SCHOOL: COMMENTS, ANYONE?
MAY 05 -- MADRAS, OR: Firefighters from all over Oregon and Washington travel every year at this time to the Crooked River National Grassland for COWS.
'Scuse me? Cows?
The Central Oregon Wildfire School (COWS) is hosted by Jefferson County Fire District #1 and is now in its seventh year of providing two days of intensive hands-on training complete with live fire exercises for wildland and structural firefighters.
The Grassland, according to a report by bend.com, provides the firefighters with the open space and fuels needed for both safety and a realistic experience in a wildland setting. Two training stations are set up to use live fire under controlled conditions as a training tool. One station instructs trainees in mobile attack with engines and the other teaches effective deployment of fire hose.
The primary intent of the live fire exercises is to provide an educational training opportunity, but the area was selected to reduce built-up fuels of juniper and brush.
Other firefighters or members of the public who'd like to contribute comments on the project for the record can send them to Battalion Chief Jeff Bell, Ochoco National Forest, 3160 NE Third Street, Prineville, Oregon 97754 -- or you can email email@example.com by May 13. Photos from the 2003 COWS exercises are online courtesy of the Ochoco National Forest.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES UPDATE
MAY 05 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: In Riverside County, the Eagle Fire south of Temecula has grown to more than 5,000 acres; it was 30 percent contained late Tuesday. At least 25 structures were destroyed, including 14 homes. Hundreds of people were ordered to evacuate, according to AP reports, and two firefighters suffered minor injuries. Full containment is expected by late Thursday.
The Cerrito Fire between Corona and Lake Elsinore was 15 percent contained last night at 10,500 acres. The fire started Monday on the east side of I-15 and destroyed five structures, two of which were unoccupied motor homes, and threatened nearly 1,000 homes. CDF officials arrested a suspect late Monday on two felony counts of "recklessly causing the fire with equipment."
The 375-acre Gafford Fire southeast of Lake Elsinore was contained Tuesday morning. Three firefighters were injured.
In San Diego County, the India Fire on the Camp Pendleton Marine base was 80 percent contained last night at 1,900 acres. The fire's burning in brush west of Fallbrook, and extreme wind-driven fire behavior with spotting well in advance of the fire head was reported on Monday.
In Santa Barbara County, the Cachuma Fire was 20 percent contained at 515 acres. It started Monday on private property, then burned onto the Los Padres National Forest and destroyed more than 30 vehicles at the Red Rock Mine.
MAFFS UNITS HELP WITH CALIFORNIA FIRE
MAY 05 -- CHANNEL ISLANDS AIR NATIONAL GUARD STATION, CA: The California ANG's 146th Airlift Wing launched aircraft today on the Cachuma Fire in Santa Barbara County. The C-130 Modular Airborne Fire-fighting System (MAFFS) units were activated yesterday afternoon.
FIRE SHUTS DOWN INTERSTATE 10
MAY 01 -- YUCAIPA, CA: A brushfire next to the I-10 freeway shut down traffic in both directions Friday afternoon, according to AP reports, and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) said all westbound and eastbound lanes were closed between San Bernardino and Riverside counties because of smoke and fire equipment traffic.
The fire was reported about 4:15 p.m. and the freeway closed shortly thereafter; some lanes were reopened within an hour, and all lanes were open before 8 p.m. Vehicles were escorted by CHP on the east side through the smoke. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.