HOT TIMES AT CEDAR CITY
JUNE 29 -- CEDAR CITY, UTAH: The tanker base at Cedar City has been a busy place the last week or so, with airtankers flying in and out on a shifting list of fires around the region. David Ricks, assistant retardant manager at the base, told the Salt Lake Tribune he's been loading tankers more than 60 times a day.
Most of the runs this week have been on the Blue Spring Fire, burning on the Dixie National Forest adjacent to Interstate 15. The fire evacuated most of the town of New Harmony Monday night, and has repeatedly closed the highway. The fire last night was 50 percent contained at 12,260 acres.
Tankers out of Cedar City also worked the Red Fire and West Side Complex.
The 10,000-gallon retardant tanks are refilled six times daily from tanker trucks. "I use about 122,000 gallons of retardant a day," said Ricks. Five heavy airtankers have been flying out of Cedar City, along with six SEATs, three helicopters, and lead planes.
Cliff Naveaux, a lead plane pilot, has worked 32 years in fire, and flown a lead plane for the last 18 years. He was a smokejumper, but began flying after he lost a leg in 1987 in an avalanche accident.
"At the time I lost my leg I had some aviation experience and wanted to stay in fire," he said. Based in New Mexico, Naveaux flies a twin-engine King Air for the BLM.
All available heavy tankers have been flying lately, mostly in the Southwest, and more will come on contract in the next few weeks.
Naveaux says the pilots have been busy. "You want to lay the retardant faster than the fire is burning," he said. "If you can't out-gun the fire, then you are playing catch-up."
BLUE SPRING FIRE EVACUATES
UTAH TOWN, CLOSES FREEWAY
JUNE 28 -- NEW HARMONY, UTAH: Fresh crews rolled into town today to relieve crews that had worked through most of the night to protect the town of New Harmony from the 12,260-acre Blue Spring Fire. Muir's Type 2 team puts the fire tonight at 50 percent containment.
The Deseret News reported that five airtankers were on the fire yesterday.
Good progress was made on the fire today, with crews helped out by a little precipitation, cooler weather, and lighter winds. Fire managers said local initial attack crews were supported by air resources, with over 760 personnel on the fire tonight.
Most of New Harmony, about 30 miles northwest of St. George in Utah's southwest corner, was evacuated last night, with about 100 residents leaving 27 homes. The evacuation orders for Harmony Heights were lifted this evening.
Firefighters yesterday worked in the neighborhoods past midnight, drawing water from a local reservoir. David Boyd, team information officer, said airtankers dropped on the fire till dark. "It played a significant role in protecting the homes," said Boyd.
He said four helicopters also worked the fire; they worked the fire all day, and one of the heavies stayed on till about 9 p.m. with a number of engines and hotshot crews on the ground.
Muir said the fire was was pushed by high winds and running hot yesterday evening, burning northward six miles in just two hours. Some residents were at a community fire meeting last night when they were told to go home and evacuate immediately.
The fire burned an 8-mile stretch along Interstate 15, causing intermittent closures for the safety of travelers and firefighters.
Burning on Dixie National Forest land on the west side of I-15, the fire forced the Utah Highway Patrol to close down the freeway in both directions several times on Sunday. Airtankers dropped retardant along the fire perimeter to keep it from jumping the highway.
Several large powerlines were burned, but power had already been diverted.
An early morning lightning storm started two new wildfires in the area. The town of Motoqua, a cluster of 12 homes about 25 miles west of St. George, was put under a one-hour evacuation order as flames moved to within 1½ miles of the town.
ARIZONA FIRE WEATHER: HEADS UP
JUNE 28 -- FLAGSTAFF, AZ: The Moqui Lookout on the Coconino National Forest this afternoon reported southwest winds of 30 to 40 mph with gusts of 80 mph.
There's a red flag warning in effect today for western and northern Arizona for strong southwest winds and low humidity, according to fire weather specialists at the Southwest Area Coordination Center, with scattered dry thunderstorms across the northern and eastern parts of the state.
Fire meteorologists are predicting a strong drying trend for the rest of the week, with lowering humidity, warming temperatures, increasingly poor nighttime recovery, and gusty afternoon winds.
Very active to extreme fire behavior should be expected in brush and grass areas and into the pine belt; extreme fire behavior is possible on slopes and has been observed on recent fires in chaparral.
Long-distance and profuse spotting has been reported from the Cave Creek Complex, and firewhirls are a concern on flanks of fires.
CAVE CREEK ACRES UP, SECOND TEAM ON
JUNE 28 -- CAREFREE, AZ: On the Cave Creek Complex on the Tonto National Forest, Whitney's Type 1 team is managing Zone 1 and Oltrogge's team took over Zone 2 today. The fire burned into Red Creek Drainage, which was a trigger point for activating a second IMT.
The complex includes the Lousy, Broad, and Cave Creek fires northeast of Carefree, Arizona. The fire, burning in chaparral, oak, and grass, is threatening a major power grid, riparian areas, endangered species habitat, and archaeological resources. Steep slopes, extreme fire behavior, flashy fuels, and poor access are proving difficult.
About 250 homes have been evacuated.
Firefighters today are expecting flamelengths up to 30 feet, with plume-dominated fire behavior. The south side of the fire is secure, but crews have been spiked out northwest of the fire to allow for better access.
Yesterday the fire crossed into the Red Creek drainage and burned into the Upper Ranch area. This morning it was 25 percent contained at 124,033 acres. Four injuries have been reported, and 11 homes were destroyed. The fire's threatening the LX Bar Ranch, the Tangle Creek administrative site, the Red Cross Ranch and Upper Ranch, and the Copper Creek administrative site. Whitney's team reports that the fire's been following the path of the Pinnacle Peak 345 KV powerline, which is a critical element of the power grid and provides power from Glen Canyon to Phoenix.
The Western Area Power Administration and the IMT may decide to de-energize the powerline to ensure the safety of firefighters working under it. This is not expected to disrupt service to the Phoenix area.
Fire activity intensified significantly Sunday afternoon, with extreme fire behavior, and the fire burned across the Bloody Basin Road -- the last reasonable control feature before the Pine Mountain Wilderness. "That was our defense line, but it just kept going and going," planning section chief Chris Lyle told the Arizona Republic. "But if you can't catch it, you basically have to back out and decide where it's going to go next."
The East Valley Tribune reported that the second team was ordered because of concerns that the fire could threaten Rim Country communities including Dugas, Pine, and Strawberry; ash has been falling around both Pine and Strawberry. The Pine-Strawberry Fire Department hasn't yet decided on evacuation plans. The fire's expected to reach the Mogollon or Verde Rim in about three days. Back-country roads on the Prescott and Coconino national forests have been closed, a voluntary evacuation was put in place for the Childs Recreation Area along the Verde River, and the Coconino has closed access to Fossil Creek, Irving, and Childs.
A community meeting is scheduled at Camp Verde at 6 p.m. this evening at the Camp Verde High School and another will be held tomorrow at 6 p.m. in Pine at the Pine Cultural Center.
More than 800 people are working on the fire. Resources include more than two dozen hotshot crews and nine Type 2 crews, 28 engines, four dozers, and a dozen helicopters -- four lights, four mediums, and four heavies.
The world's largest saguaro (see 2003 photo), a 46-foot cactus near Horseshoe Lake, was scorched by the fire and is not expected to survive.
SOUTHWEST AND NATIONAL
PREPAREDNESS LEVELS BUMPED UP
JUNE 24 -- BOISE, IDAHO: The National Interagency Coordination Center has raised the National Preparedness Level to 2 because of burning conditions, fire activity, and resource availability; several regions have posted high to extreme fire danger, activity is increasing, and several regions have large fires burning.
The Southwest region is at PL4 -- with nine large fires active. Nationally, 232 new fires were reported yesterday; 11 were large (over 100 acres) -- four in the Southwest, five in the Western Great Basin, and two in the Eastern Great Basin.
The Southwest has two Type 1 teams activated; Whitney's team is on the Cave Creek Complex [photos] northeast of Carefree, Arizona, and Oltrogge's team is handling the Humbug Fire south of Crown King, Arizona. The AP reported that the Cave Creek Complex evacuated about 250 homes in Tonto Hills. Some residents decided to leave when tankers dropped retardant on their neighbor's deck.
The Cave Creek Complex is 5 percent contained at 46,000 acres, and the Humbug is zero percent contained at 1,500 acres. The Humbug is threatening the small mining town of Crown King. The BIA's San Carlos Agency reported a new fire overnight; the 2,000-acre Saddle Mountain Fire. Other recent starts include the Lousy Canyon Fire at 500 acres northeast of Black Canyon City, Arizona, the 200-acres Big Horn Fire northwest of Buckeye, Arizona, and the 75-acre Chewie Fire west of Bagdad, Arizona. The Jane Fire (previously referred to as the Gladden Fire), was 80 percent contained Thursday evening.
The Three Fire on the Tonto northwest of Tonto Basin, Arizona, is zero percent contained at 11,000 acres. Philbin's Type 2 team is assigned.
All teams and all crews in the Southwest are now committed, except for the Silver City Hotshots on a mandatory day off.
In the Western Great Basin, a Type 1 team's been ordered for the 15,000-acre Goodsprings Fire northwest of Jean, Nevada. It's zero percent contained and mandatory evacuations for the Mt. Potosi area and a boy scout camp are in effect. Tankers 48 and 44 were both flying the fire out of Cedar City this morning. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the Goodsprings Fire was burning creosote bushes, Joshua trees, and other desert shrubs; it's reportedly the largest southern Nevada fire in several years, and the largest of 32 lightning-ignited fires in the area.
The region's got eight other fires burning: the 10,000-acre Southern Nevada Fire, the 7,000-acre Meadow Fire, the 7,000-acre Halfway Fire, the 5,000-acre Dodge Pocket Fire, the 5,500-acre Toquop Fire, the 3,800-acre Coyote Fire, and the 300-acre Tule Fire. Containment on all fires ranges from zero to ten percent. The Badger Fire was contained at 736 acres.
Southern California's got three active large fires under way. The 21,200-acre Hackberry Fire at Mohave National Park is threatening the Seven IL Ranch, Mid-Hills campground, historical sites, archaeological sites, and wildlife habitat. Round Valley was evacuated; the fire's 10 percent contained. The Paradise Fire southwest of Morongo Valley is 50 percent contained at 3,022 acres and the Soboba Fire north of San Jacinto is 50 percent contained at 2,080 acres.
An AP report in the San Diego Union-Tribune said the Paradise Fire destroyed at least six homes, threatened hundreds of others, and forced evacuations.
The Eastern Great Basin's Red Fire northwest of St. George, Utah, is 75 percent contained at 8,300 acres. The region reported five other fires contained, ranging from 500 to 2,300 acres.
Alaska reports three large fires -- the 68,480-acre Sheenjek River Fire is at 40 percent containment, the Chapman Creek Fire is still zero percent contained at 48,000 acres, and the Billy Hawk Creek Fire is 85 percent contained at 2,000 acres.
Crews held and increased the firelines on the Sheenjek River Fire yesterday; five helicopters, two CL-215 scoopers, and one of Aero Union's P-3s worked on hot spots and new burnout areas northeast of Fort Yukon. One hotshot crew was reassigned to another priority fire, and two replacement hotshot crews were ordered.
S-2T FLIES OUT OF CHICO
JUNE 24 -- CHICO, CA: A visiting CDF airtanker was put to work yesterday out of Chico, and the tanker base is still waiting for its assigned tanker for the season. Pilot Walt Darran took the Grumman Aerospace S-2T up for a drop on a grass fire east of town.
Darran told the Enterprise-Record that the tanker is faster and more maneuverable than the S-2A he flew last year. He flew the S-2A when he became a pilot in 1973, and said he was the first Chico pilot to fly an S-2T on a fire in the north state.
Darran dropped 1,000 gallons of retardant on yesterday's grass fire; the S-2T can carry 1,200 gallons.
JUNE 22 -- FORT HUACHUCA, AZ: It's fire season in Arizona, with new smokes and big fires from one end of the state to the other today.
The Southwest Area Coordination Center (SWCC) started out the morning with a report from the Tonto National Forest: firefighters there were working a number of fires including two fires in Cave Creek (the Bronco and Humbolt Fires), three fires in Tonto Basin (one at 1,000 acres), and three fires on the Payson Ranger District (two in wilderness areas and one in Deadman Mesa).
By 8:30 a.m. Reinarz's Type 2 team had been assigned to the Goldwater Fire and the BLM had reported a number of fires in northeast Arizona. The Silver Creek Fire was at 200 acres and the Perkins Complex of eight fires had put in orders for two airtankers, two helicopters, and a lead plane. The State was also working a number of fires, including the 30-acre Bronco Fire on the Tonto.
Within an hour, personnel on the Humbolt Fire reported it at 80 acres; firefighters were pulled off the line late yesterday for safety reasons. The 1,100-acre 3-Fire was reported in the Four Peaks area, and the Deadman Fire in Fossil Creek (locally known as Panty Creek) was at 20 acres. The Cedar Fire was at 80 acres, and the Bench Fire also at 80 acres.
At 11:30 a.m. it was determined that the regional MAC Group will confer this evening.
Before noon, SWCC reported that the Humbolt Fire had jumped a road into the Red Rover area, with powerlines affected and possible structures threatened. The Coronado National Forest reported a new fire on Mt. Lemmon, the Cottonwood Fire, and an airtanker and lead plane were ordered. The Tonto reported four airtankers (heavies and SEATs) and a lead and four helicopters committed on initial attack.
And that was just the morning for the coordination center.
Early in the afternoon the Cottonwood Fire, at 30+ acres, requested three airtanker drops. The Goldwater Fire was also requesting tanker drops.
Half of the Southwest area incident management teams are committed, and every single one of the region's Type 1 crews are committed. There are also seven hotshot crews from out of the region working on fires in the Southwest: Midewin from the Eastern Area, Bonneville and Logan from the Eastern Great Basin, Pike from the Rocky Mountain region, and the Dalton, Vista Grande, and Laguna 'shots from Southern California.
And then there's weather. Thunderstorms were forecast all across the Southwest for today, mainly at higher elevations, with sustained winds up to 15 mph but gusting to 40 mph in the vicinity of thunderstorms. Firefighters were cautioned this morning that active to very active fire behavior was possible in brushy and grassy areas and into the pine belt below 8,000 feet, and thunderstorms could cause downdrafts that might produce high winds. The probability of lightning storms across northwest Arizona early this afternoon was 70 or 80 percent.
Whitney's Type 1 team was assigned this afternoon to the Cave Creek Complex, which includes the Humbolt Fire (over 1,000 acres), the Bronco Fire (30+ acres), and several other smaller fires.
RED FLAG ON THE SHEENJEK
JUNE 22 -- FORT YUKON, ALASKA: The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning in effect from 10 a.m. today until 10 p.m. tonight, with predicted northeast winds of 15 to 25 mph and gusts up to 35 mph near Fort Yukon. The Sheenjek River Fire, 15 percent contained at 64,000 acres, had winds picking up overnight and gusting up to 20 mph after midnight.
Information Officer Tom Kempton on Kurth's Type 2 team said firefighters yesterday doubled their efforts to secure the fireline that was burned out earlier at the head of the fire. Helicopters dropped incendiary ping-pong balls from an island on the north side of the Porcupine River toward an area that was burned by the Winter Trail Fire last year; it's planned that this line will keep the fire north of the river as winds shift today.
Crews built a new helispot north of the head of the fire, and firefighters will be flown in today to work on keeping the fire from burning west. Firefighters will also work on protecting cabins along the river and improving helispots.
CL-215 scoopers out of Fairbanks reinforced the line that was fired out earlier; the first two worked several hours before returning to Fairbanks to refuel. Two more were requested, according to Kempton, but were unavailable, so operations continued with helicopters and bucket work.
Other resources on the fire include five Type 1 crews and four Type 2 crews, 14 boats and five helicopters.
WILDFIRES FEATURED ON STORM STORIES TONIGHT
JUNE 21 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: In southern California in the fall, when the Santa Anas begin, residents and firefighters know that wildfires will soon follow. A high-pressure system parks over the region and causes cold, dense air to spin clockwise, moving toward the southwest and eventually slamming into the mountain ranges.
The Weather Channel's STORM STORIES will feature this week a special on the 2003 California fires. It will air tonight at 8 p.m. (EDT and PDT). Check your local listings for details.
Interviews include Division Chiefs Andy Paar and Ken Kremensky of the Lakeside Fire District, and an overview of the Cedar Fire, the largest fire in California history.
The Cedar Fire killed 15 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. It took off after a lost hunter on the Cleveland National Forest set a fire in hopes of attracting rescuers. In a deal with federal prosecutors, Sergio Martinez pleaded guilty to one count of starting the fire.
Also this week, the Weather Channel will air two new 30-minute episodes on the Forecast Earth series, called "Mega Fires" and "Battling Mega Fires."
They're scheduled for Wednesday between 9 and 10 p.m. EDT, Thursday between noon and 1 p.m. EDT, Friday between 7 and 8 p.m. EDT, and Saturday between 1 and 2 p.m. EDT. These episodes will look at the conditions that set the stage for a huge fire, and the people and operations employed in fighting them.
SHEENJEK RIVER FIRE NEARS 60,000 ACRES
JUNE 21 -- FORT YUKON, ALASKA: Eight miles northeast of Fort Yukon, the lightning-caused Sheenjek River Fire has reached 59,572 acres.
Kurth's Type 2 team reports it at 15 percent containment with 20 miles of line yet to build.
Almost 300 personnel are assigned to the fire, and Kurth's team reported that CL-215 air support is essential to meeting their containment objectives.
The Fairbanks News-Miner reported that two of the four CL-215 tankers ordered for the fire were diverted to the Chapman Creek Fire south of Coldfoot.
Information officer Kris Eriksen said the two remaining scoopers were mostly hitting the head of the fire on the west line, which is closest to Fort Yukon. With the scoopers making water drops, the helicopters were hitting hot spots on the eastern and southern perimeters and assisting with reinforceing the burnout done on the western edge. They also helped ferry firefighters and equipment.
Crews on the south and east perimeters are conducting burnouts, and are keeping an eye on the wind.
"You can tell the winds have shifted," said Eriksen, "because there's smoke over camp and the town has this strange yellow glow and particles of ash are falling."
The fire had threatened cabins and allotments in the area, but they've been protected.
Firefighters report the fire's burning in birch, aspen, black spruce, and white spruce, with torching and crowning in the spruce. The fire's made runs in the hardwoods and brush, and yesterday spotted across the Porcupine River.
Temperatures have been in the low to mid-70s, with light winds of 5 to 10 mph expected.
The Chapman Creek Fire is estimated at 21,500 acres, having grown from 100 acres since it was first spotted May 30. Two smokejumper crews were deployed on Monday, with two Type 2 crews scheduled to arrive today.
ARIZONA FIRE CLOSES FREEWAY
JUNE 21 -- CORDES JUNCTION, AZ: Both lanes of Interstate 17 near Prescott were closed today, with six hotshot crews and a couple of heavy airtankers working to contain a 4,500-acre fire near the freeway. The Sunset Point Fire started yesterday afternoon north of Black Canyon City, and grew to more than 1,000 acres overnight. Carrie Templin with the BLM told the Arizona Republic it was at 40 percent containment earlier today.
Walker's team said they hope to have it contained by Thursday evening.
They cited safety issues because of the fire's proximity to the freeway, along with issues posed by open range livestock in the area. The fire has moved into the Agua-Fria river canyon, into extremely steep and rocky terrain. Temperatures over 100º with single-digit RH are also a problem; 15 mph winds are expected today, with temperatures over 110º and low humidity. Firefighters reported rapid rates of spread with heavy fuel loading and erratic shifting winds that pushed the fire through tall grass.
Northbound I-17 lanes were closed at about 2:30 a.m. near Black Canyon City, and the southbound lanes were closed at 7 a.m. The southbound lanes were re-opened this afternoon.
The fire burned across the mesa and blew south into Black Canyon; it was already active early this morning and fire managers reported SEATs up and flying. Philbin's Type 2 team will take over tonight.
Two helicopters -- one light and one heavy -- have been working the fire, and Tankers 21 and 22 dropped on it yesterday afternoon and were flying again this morning. Other resources included a dozen engines and three water tenders.
NOTE: azcentral.com has video online, opening with a drop by T-22, and the first part of the clip is worth watching. Users must allow cookies by the website to view the video. The website also notes that they must be able to "resize your broswer" (sic) so if you have trouble viewing the video you'll have to change that, too.
Another fire south of Gila Bend on the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range is at 15,000 acres with zero containment. The Goldwater Fire is threatening powerlines that supply the towns of Ajo and Why, along with endangered species habitat. The fire's burning in grass and brush; it jumped Highway 85 yesterday and has burned several power poles.
Daniels's team reported that lack of contact and guidance from the military on objectives and concerns has been an issue. Formerly the Luke Air Force Range, the Barry Goldwater Range serves both the Air Force and Marine Corps as an armament and high-hazard testing area, a training area for aerial gunnery, rocketry, electronic warfare, and tactical maneuvering and air support. It also serves "other defense-related purposes."
On the Coronado National Forest, the 1,300-acre Aztec Fire is 40 percent contained. Raley's team reported last night that the fire's threatened 20 homes and about 20 other buildings. There are 460 personnel assigned.
CALIFORNIA FIRE THREATENS 250 HOMES
JUNE 19 -- YUCCA VALLEY, CA: A brush fire that started about 4:30 yesterday afternoon in San Bernardino County caused many residents to leave Pioneertown on a voluntary evacuation. Dispatchers reported helicopters and airtankers working the fire, with more on order.
An AP report put the fire at 500 acres last night, with more than 180 firefighters assigned. By midnight the Pioneer Fire had grown to 1,000 acres and was reported at 10 percent containment; there were 380 firefighters assigned, mostly from CDF and the Forest Service. Steep terrain and high winds contributed to the growth of the fire, which was burning in grass, sage, and juniper and threatening the Pipes Canyon Preserve, a 15,000-acre private nature preserve in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park.
Firefighters reported that the fire laid down some during the night, but winds are expected to increase again today.
PILOTS MEMORIALIZED IN NEVADA ON ANNIVERSARY
JUNE 17 -- MINDEN, NV: Three years after their C-130 airtanker went down on a fire near Walker, California, Steve Wass, Craig LaBare, and Mike Davis were remembered today with a solemn ceremony at the airport where they were based.
"Just as the 2005 fire season is beginning, we recall that they gave their all in 2002," said Russ Bird, aviation manager for the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center at the Minden-Tahoe airport. "We need to remember what the risks are. The forest is important, but life is always the most important to us."
The Las Vegas Sun reported that Mike Lynn, who flew with Wass and had previously piloted the tanker, attended the ceremony.
"We're a very small family, closely knit," he said. "Things like this mean a lot to us."
Previous memorials were established near the site of the crash at Walker and in a park in Minden. The new plaque established at the Minden airport today lists the names of the men on the plane, followed by the phrase, "Go West." Lynn said tanker pilots see going west -- toward the setting sun -- as heading home after a long day.
At a memorial service for Wass three years ago, fellow Minden pilot Brian Bruns did a flyover in an airtanker, veering off to the west. He was one of three who were killed in April on a training flight north of Chico, California.
FAIRBANKS HAZY FROM ALASKA FIRES
JUNE 16 -- FAIRBANKS, ALASKA: Drifting smoke from wildfires northeast of Fairbanks cast a haze over the Tanana Valley yesterday; Aaron Tyburski, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, told the Fairbanks News-Miner that the smoke level was up at 8,000 or 10,000 feet.
"We see it as more of a haze than the choking smoke we had last year," he said.
The 8,345-acre Chapman Creek Fire is more than 200 miles north of Fairbanks, and the 7,927-acre Sheenjek River Fire is northeast of Fort Yukon. They're the largest of the more than 50 active fires in Alaska. A Type 2 team is taking over the Sheenjek River Fire today, and Aero Union's Tanker 27 was headed toward Alaska from Chico this morning.
The Alaska Fire Service reported yesterday that the Sheenjek River Fire has two hotshot crews and three Type 2 crews, with more hotshots and emergency firefighter crews coming in. Crews are working on structure protection and burnouts to protect cabins and allotments, and the CL-215 scoopers have reportedly been very effective. The Chena Hotshots were working on the Dosennaughten Lake Fire southwest of Bettles but were expecting to head for the Sheenjek River Fire.
Some 20 new fires were reported in the Interior on Tuesday and Wednesday, most of them lightning-caused. The National Weather Service said thunderstorms caused more than 12,000 lightning strikes in the Interior last weekend; state forestry officials discovered a 500-acre fire near Monson Creek about 20 miles south of Chena Hot Springs Road during a fly-over yesterday. Robert Schmoll, fire management officer for the Division of Forestry in Fairbanks, said it's in a limited suppression area near where a fire burned about 20 years ago.
So far this year the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reports that 235 fires statewide have burned 46,089 acres.
PILOTS WITH "ISSUES" CANNED BY USFS
JUNE 10 -- PRESCOTT, AZ: The U.S. Forest Service recently determined that contract pilots flying heavy airtankers needed to pass background investigations, and several of the pilots have been effectively grounded because of "issues" with those investigations.
Forest Service helicopter pilots -- some of whom are not even U.S. citizens -- and BLM pilots are not being subjected to the background investigations, which are being conducted by the federal Office of Personnel Management.
Several of the airtanker pilots who have been forbidden to fly have military backgrounds, and some have flown on fires for more than 20 years.
Sidelining pilots is creating havoc with tanker assignments, even early in the season with less than half the airtankers on duty. "Three pilots from Aero Union were told to stay away from the airplanes," said one pilot. "Two others I know are getting the same runaround, and no reason for their rejection was given." One of the pilots who's still okayed to fly is filling in for a pilot who was canned, but he's supposed to be starting his tour with his own tanker soon.
"It's pretty amazing that they can pull us off the line on an assumption," says Steven Maxwell, one of the pilots now on the bench. "The background check isn't even completed."
Del Hunt, another blacklisted pilot, has contacted a lawyer about the issue. " I have flown tankers as captain in excess of twenty years," says Hunt. "I am crushed at losing my job -- I obey the laws of the land! I have done nothing to deserve this."
Former tanker pilot Terry Johnson said he's known Hunt for about twenty years. "I never saw him do anything unAmerican," said Johnson. "Goofy on occasion, but never anti-social."
Greg Rowe, who flies for -- or flew for -- Butler Aircraft in Oregon, said he turned in his Form 85P "Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions" background check forms to the Forest Service in April. "On May 17 Butler was notified by our contracting officer that I had 'issues' with my background check and was not qualified for the contract until the 'issues' were resolved," said Rowe. He says he doesn't have a single thing on his record that should make him ineligible to fly. "I've got excellent credit. My student loans are paid. I have no criminal history. No drug or alcohol related charges. No unpaid speeding tickets. I pay my taxes. I love Mom, apple pie, and baseball and I've just lost my job because of this background check."
The questionnaire for his background check covered the last seven years -- the last five of which he's flown airtankers, after two years as a college student working summers for the Forest Service at an airtanker base.
Rowe says he's tried and failed to get answers on what his "issues" might be. "They will not disclose ANY information to me, or allow me to assist in resolving my 'issues' in any way," said Rowe. He said he faxed a letter requesting the status of his backgound check and received a response that his background check was "still pending."
As many as eight pilots have been removed from service.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website says that part of the agency's mission is to conduct National Security Investigations on individuals who work in positions that require access to classified information. "OPM conducts background investigations for most federal agencies and their contractors." The OPM has a contract workforce of more than 3,000 field investigators and more than 150 federal staff to oversee their work and develop policy.
The OPM's FAQ page includes this: How can I see the report you prepare about me? and the answer is:
The only persons authorized to see this information are Personnel Security, Suitability, and Investigations professionals who have been investigated and have a demonstrated need to review the information. You may request a copy of your investigation file under provisions of the Privacy Act. For an OPM investigation request, write to OPM-CIS, FOIP, Post Office Box 618, Boyers, PA 16018-0618. You must include your full name, Social Security Number, and date and place of birth, and you must sign your request.
The 11-page OPM 85-P form, by the way, is online in PDF format if you'd like to see what the pilots had to submit.
LEAVING CEDAR CITY
JUNE 08 -- CEDAR CITY, UTAH: Reducing the recent crowding at the Cedar City tanker base, several airtankers left for points south this afternoon. Tanker 22 dropped on a fire near Wickenburg, Arizona, this afternoon that went quickly from initial report to 75 acres and soon had five SEATs and several helicopters on it, leaving some fire folks in the Southwest to complain that all their heavies were up at Cedar City.
The Bobby Fire was at about 1,000 acres this evening, according to KOLD-TV; the Arizona Republic had reported that the fire forced evacuations of about 40 residents. The fire's burning near powerlines along Vulture Mine Road. The human-caused fire was threatening about 30 mobile homes, cabins, and other structures this afternoon.
A report from Hunt's Type 3 team this evening put the fire at 20 percent containment, with 30 homes threatened and evacuations in progress. Temperatures in the mid-90s with RH at 10 percent were reported, along with active fire behavior. The team was working to identify other threatened structures in the area. Temperatures nearing 100º with single-digit RH are expected tomorrow.
Tanker 66 was still at Cedar City this afternoon, but T-21 and T-20 also dropped on the Bobby Fire this afternoon out of Prescott, and Tanker 22 was still hitting the fire this evening.
POOP STARTS GRASSFIRE
JUNE 08 -- LIVERMORE, CA: A compost heap was probably the source of a small grassfire in that burned about 20 acres north of Livermore on Tuesday afternoon, according to the Alameda County Fire Department. Assistant Chief Jim Purchio told the Mercury-News that six departments responded, including CDF airtankers and helicopters. Investigators said a compost heap with horse manure and hay managed some spontaneous combustion, and wind pushed the fire spread.
ATV ACCIDENT KILLS NEVADA FIRE CREW BOSS
JUNE 08 -- BATTLE MOUNTAIN, NV: A Nevada Division of Forestry crew supervisor died in an ATV wreck last Friday; Audie Lee Cross, 44, was killed when the four-wheeler he was driving flipped on top of him.
NDF Regional Forester William Wolf told the Elko Daily Free Press that Cross was working with his Carlin Conservation Camp crew south of Battle Mountain on a fence-building project. State Forester Pete Anderson arrived in Elko Friday night to oversee the investigation.
Cross is survived by his wife, Lori, and their seven children. He had worked with NDF since 1999 and lived in Carlin.
CANADIAN HERC RESCUES RESIDENTS
JUNE 08 -- MONTREAL, QUEBEC, CANADA: A Canadian military C-130 Hercules transport plane evacuated 92 people Monday morning from a northern Quebec community threatened by a forest fire.
The aircraft, from CFB Trenton, Ontario, landed on a gravel runway at Eastman River, on the east side of James Bay. CNEWS reported that an attempted landing during the night was aborted because of heavy smoke and bad weather. The rescued residents were flown to temporary shelter at Val d'Or, Quebec.
"This is typical of the missions that the Air Force's C-130 Hercules crews are asked to undertake on a daily basis," acting 1 Canadian Air Division commander Brig. Gen. Dwight Davies said.
AIR FORCE FIRE OVER 21,000 ACRES
JUNE 08 -- LAS VEGAS, NV: The Air Force fire on the Nevada Test Site northwest of Las Vegas had reached 21,000 acres by yesterday afternoon, with more than 450 firefighters, nine airtankers, and seven helicopters committed to the fire.
KLAS-TV reported that the fire was at 20,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon.
Started last Friday by lightning, the fire's being managed by Brunner's Type 2 team, and they estimated yesterday that they had another 10 miles of line to build. The fire was about 75 percent contained and threatening outbuildings and military assets.
The fire yesterday was active in all fuel types, and a continuous bed of fine fuels caused by a wet spring was contributing to the high rate of spread. A number of cultural sites are located to the east of the fire, in Forty Mile Canyon, according to fire managers.
Yesterday the fire was pushed by steady winds of 15 mph or more, and the fire gained another 2,500 acres. Firefighters said airtankers and SEATs made effective direct attack on the flanks of the fire with support from ground crews.
DC-10 TANKER PASSES TESTS
JUNE 07 -- VICTORVILLE, CA: A newly developed DC-10 airtanker was successfully tested at Southern California Logistics Airport yesterday, and it's expected to carry and drop about four times the normal payload of a C-130 tanker.
Victorville Aerospace at the airport has been working along with a company called 10 Tanker LLC for about two years on the DC-10 conversion. It will make its debut next week in France, at Le Bourget Airport's Paris Air Show, the biggest air show in the world.
Flight Engineer Brad Pace told the Victorville Daily Press that the aircraft has a water reload time of eight minutes from the time it lands to the time it's back in the air.
Jordan Aircraft Services did the fabrication and assembly of the tanks and hydraulic system on the DC-10. The new airtanker, according to the Aircraft Technical Service company, evolved from the Erickson Air-Crane helicopter tank system, which was used on the DC-10's proof-of-concept period by attaching a helicopter drop tank to the aircraft.
Victorville Aerospace handled the structural modification of the aircraft and installation of the tanks, and A & M Engineering calibrated the Erickson electrical drop control system to function at aircraft speeds and drop rates.
Aircraft Technical Service handled all of the structural modification engineering, including fuselage reinforcement and tank redesign and reinforcement. ATS also is handling the FAA certification work.
DESERT FIRES GROWING
JUNE 05 -- CEDAR CITY, UTAH: Several large fires in the Great Basin are keeping crews and airtankers busy, including three fires in southern Nevada totaling over 14,000 acres.
The Air Force Fire northwest of Las Vegas was estimated late yesterday at over 7,000 acres; Brunner's Type 2 team is assigned. It was started by lightning on Friday on Nellis Air Force Base. It was burning in piñon and desert scrub and threatening only outbuildings yesterday. Firefighters expected increased temperatures and reduced humidity, which they said could cause the fire to escape and burn further onto military land, threatening communications sites.
The Ian Fire, burning at the south end of the Meadow Valley Mountains, was 70 percent contained last night at 6,000 acres; it also was started by lightning on Friday. It was threatening wildlife habitat and burning in desert grass and shrubs. The low rate of spread may allow crews to reach full containment by Wednesday.
The Summit Fire 70 miles northeast of Las Vegas last night was 20 percent contained at just over 1,000 acres. Also ignited by lightning on Friday, it was burning in short grass, but over rocky terrain in a remote location with erratic winds, and the fire made significant runs to both the north and south. Tankers 66 and 21 and 27 all flew the fire today.
Across the state line southwest of Shivwitz, Utah, the lightning-caused Southwest Utah Hill Fire was estimated at 1,800 acres with 50 percent containment early yesterday. Crews have been challenged by temperatures in the 80s, rough terrain, and rolling rocks; the fire's threatening critical winter habitat for mule deer and communications sites on West Mountain and Utah Hill. Fire managers expect to contain the fire tomorrow evening.
NEVADA FIRES KEEP TANKER PILOTS BUSY
JUNE 04 -- LAS VEGAS, NV: Four heavy airtankers spent most of the afternoon flying out of Cedar City, Utah, today, dropping on the 7,000-acre Air Force Fire northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Brunner's Type 2 team is assigned.
The Air Force Fire started two days ago on Nellis Air Force Base; other major fires on the BLM's Ely district today included the Summit Fire, which started yesterday and is burning south of Caliente, Nevada. It was estimated this evening at 1,000 acres.
Tankers 27 and 44 made runs out of Cedar City today on the fires, along with Tanker 21 (which just left Chico yesterday), and Tanker 66 flew from the base at Prescott, Arizona.
NUTS STARTED FIRE NEAR TEHACHAPI
JUNE 04 -- TEHACHAPI, CA: The Lehigh Fire, which started Thursday near the cement plant of Monolith near Tehachapi, grew quickly to 800 acres, threatening the community of Sand Canyon and keeping crews and airtankers busy.
A report in the Mercury-News said the fire reached 450 acres by Thursday night, and was 25 percent contained.
The Bakersfield Channel reported that the fire was just east of Highway 58.
Officials said the fire was started by the spontaneous combustion of almond piles.
NASTY WEATHER LASHES UTAH
JUNE 04 -- ST. GEORGE, UTAH: Extreme weather left several Utah communities in mud and high water Friday, a huge landslide closed a highway, and a lightning storm touched off a couple dozen fires, according to the Deseret News.
The storms produced nearly 1½ inches of rain in southern and central Utah, washing out farmlands and turning homes into islands. The landslide in Iron County, estimated at 400 feet wide, shoved tons of dirt, trees, and brush across State Route 14 and into Coal Creek, sending a 3-foot wall of water downstream toward Cedar City.
KSL-TV has photos.
"Coal Creek actually breached its banks near the airport last night," said Charlie Morris, Iron County emergency services director. "It ran across Airport Road and came real close to the tanker base building."
The BLM in Cedar City reported 23 new fires overnight; the largest is the 300-acre South West Utah Hill Fire, burning in grass, piñon, and juniper west of St. George; it was threatening a communications site. The Cliff Fire southwest of Gunlock near Zion National Park is over 100 acres. Two hand crews, two helicopters, three large airtankers, four SEATs, and three engines are on the fires. Tankers 44 and 66 and 27 were all flying yesterday.
CONVICTIONS UPHELD FOR STARTERS OF
FIRE THAT KILLED PILOTS
JUNE 04 -- HOPLAND, CA: A state appeals court has upheld a Mendocino County man's conviction for setting a fire that resulted in the deaths of two airtanker pilots, and another man's conviction for manufacturing meth where the fire started was also upheld.
Veteran CDF pilots Larry Groff, 55, and Lars Stratte, 45, were killed when their airtankers collided as they worked the fire north of Ukiah in August 2001.
In March 2003 a jury found defendants Richard Mortensen and Frank Brady, charged with second-degree murder (and a number of other charges) for starting a wildfire while manufacturing methamphetamine, guilty of 7 of the 12 counts. The second-degree murder charges against both defendants didn't come through. Brady was found guilty of arson causing death, but Mortensen was spared that charge by the jury.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Brady was sentenced to 13 years and 8 months in prison, and Mortensen to seven years.
The Court of Appeal in San Francisco upheld the convictions Thursday, rejecting Brady's claim that the judge had wrongly excluded evidence from the trial.
"So long as the midair collision of aircraft engaged in fighting the fire was among the risks foreseeably created by recklessly starting the fire, Brady is responsible for the collision and its consequences,'' said Justice Stuart Pollak in the 3-0 ruling.
PROBLEMS WITH CALIFORNIA DEFENSIBLE SPACE LAW
JUNE 03 -- TWAIN HARTE, CA: A state fire-prevention law regulating brush and tree clearing around rural homes took effect earlier this year, but a lack of funding and ambiguities in the law's language could hamper its enforcement.
Public Resource Code 4291 was changed on January 1 to require property owners to clear vegetation within 100 feet of all structures on the property. Last year's Senate Bill 1369 amended both PRC 4291 and Government Code 51182 to increase the minimum clearance requirement from 30 feet to 100 feet. It also allows local ordinances to require more than 100 feet of clearance, and allows insurance companies to require homeowners to maintain firebreaks greater than 100 feet.
But as the Union-Democrat reported, fire prevention officers say the law's language is unreasonable and that it may require properties to be cleared down to bare dirt.
"The law was not intended to denude the Sierra Nevada," said Twain Harte Fire and Rescue Chief Bob Kempvanee. "And the Board of Forestry and the Attorney General's Office are working on how to get the ambiguity out of the law."
He and others recommend that homeowners clear ground-level debris, trim low-hanging tree branches to about 10 feet, clear roofs of dead vegetation, and trim tree limbs away from roofs.
The California defensible-space requirements are self-regulated; without funding for inspections and enforcement, it's up to homeowners to comply. In some areas, however, county codes do provide for not only inspections but also enforcement -- and bills for homeowners who don't comply (see HESPERIA story below).
In Tuolumne County, non-compliant property owners are subject to a fine of up to $500.
PRC 4291 apparently applies to renters and not just property owners, because it addresses any person who "owns, leases, controls, operates, or maintains a building or structure in, upon, or adjoining any mountainous area, forest-covered lands, brush-covered lands, grass-covered lands, or
any land that is covered with flammable material."
HIBBING GOES HIGH-SPEED
JUNE 02 -- HIBBING, MN: New computer upgrades to the airtanker base at the Chisholm-Hibbing Airport are helping get real-time weather info and other intelligence to the people who need it at an improved rate. The state DNR's tanker base has a new long-range wireless antenna on the communications tower that now provides high-speed internet service, with speeds up to 50 times faster than their old dial-up internet connection.
Tina Phelps, tanker base manager, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that they review weather conditions before taking off from the base, and the new connection may reduce response time. “With this we get the information instantly, less than a minute,” said Phelps. “We like to know what we are heading into. We tend to fly during storms and inclement weather.”
Terry Nowak, air attack supervisor, said the wireless connection helps him stay on top of his duties as a forester when they are on standby.
The Minnesota DNR (possibly the best state fire agency online), has had a busy but brief early fire season so far, with 830 fires reported for 14,077 acres. The state had numerous aircraft flying out of the Ely seaplane base and Hibbing tanker base earlier in the year; they currently have two CL-215 scoopers and two Cessna aircraft on duty; the USFS has two Beaver floatplanes on duty. See Dave Quam's page for info on the Minnesota scoopers.
ROAD WORKER GETS 10 YEARS FOR ARSON FIRES
JUNE 02 -- ELLENSBURG, WA: A man who lit off a string of wildfires in central Washington's Kittitas County last year has been sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison. Wade Kirkwood, 37, of Ellensburg, pleaded guilty to 11 arson-related charges for setting fires that burned 14,000 acres and caused damages estimated at more than $1 million.
Kirkwood was sentenced to 116 months in prison with required probation thereafter for up to three years. He was also ordered to pay restitution, which could total hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to an AP story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Kirkwood was arrested after his vehicle was spotted from the air leaving the scene of two fires last August.
FUELBREAKS A GOOD DEFENSE
JUNE 02 -- WILLITS, CA: A shaded fuelbreak increases a community's chances of surviving a wildfire. In October 1995 the Guntley Fire east of Ukiah, California, was set by an arsonist; low humidity and northeast winds quickly pushed the fire -- with flamelengths of 30 feet or more -- toward the town. But when the fire reached an area that had been treated by vegetation management in the late 1980s, flamelengths were reduced to 10 feet and the rate of spread slowed.
The fire then reached another fuelbreak created in 1994. Sue Crawford with the local Fire Safe Council said at that point the reduced intensity allowed ground crews to attack it with hand tools and hose lays. The fire was contained and no homes were lost.
As she explained to the Willits News, a shaded fuelbreak is an area where large trees are left in place with at least 70 percent shade canopy remaining, while all flammable debris and ladder fuels are cleared. Dense clumps of resprouted trees are thinned, and the shade from the large tree canopy discourages rapid regrowth of flammable brush and ladder fuels.
"Communities that have had the wisdom to prepare ahead of time for fire have a much better record of survival than those that don't prepare," said Crawford.
MOW YOUR GRASS OR GET A BILL
JUNE 01 -- HESPERIA, CA: Property owners in California who fail to comply with county codes for clearing dry vegetation on their properties will be billed for the cost of clearing it, according to San Bernardino County fire officials. The Victorville Daily Press reported that the county requires a minimum of 30 feet around structures, and properties are being inspected.
"It's a very dangerous fire year," said Battalion Chief Dan Odom. "All the areas will be inspected." He said the wet winter produced flourishing vegetation, and it could contribute to a significant fire season.
A new statewide regulation increases the required defensible space around homes from 30 feet to 100 feet, but it will be gradually implemented across California and not enforced immediately. The county code requires 30 feet. "If they're found not in compliance, they'll get something in the mail telling them what needs to be done and given 30 days to comply," Odom said.
Vacant lots must be mowed down to four inches. Property owners not in compliance will find a bill added to their property taxes. The county fire prevention office maintains a list of contractors that provide services for clearing defensible space.
LIGHTNING KEEPS CANADIAN FIREFIGHTERS BUSY
JUNE 01 -- FORT SMITH, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, CANADA: Fire crews in the N.W.T. have just completed their pre-season training, and they're already busy fighting fires. Severe thunderstorms across the region have ignited dozens of fires; northern Alberta has reported 149 fires already this season.
The CBC News reported that six water bombers and crews are on duty, and fire managers say they are on high alert.
One fire at Tsu Lake is burning east of Fort Smith, and another major fire is burning along the border in British Columbia. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported 153 new fires in the last 24 hours; to date Canada's seen 2,037 fires. Quebec had 50 new starts Monday; they have two airtankers committed, and additional helitack and skimmers in place for new starts.
AIR TANKERS BACK ON
MAY 31 -- WASHINGTON, DC: The Forest Service has reinstated nine P2V tankers, along with a Douglas DC-7, for fires this summer. The USFS and Interior agencies abruptly terminated $30 million in contracts for heavy tankers last year in response to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board noting that the agency had no means of overseeing the airworthiness of the tankers. Eight P-3s were returned to service last summer, and an AP report said three more tankers were used on a limited basis after Western lawmakers complained that they were needed.
The Missoulian reported that seven of Neptune's tankers are re-approved, along with two owned by Minden Air in Nevada, bringing the total to 17 civilian airtankers.
The Forest Service was unable to determine the service life of the airtankers that were cancelled, despite two or three contracted studies to acquire and analyze that information. Avenger Aircraft Services of Greenville, North Carolina, a small firm of former Lockheed engineers, established the service life of the P2Vs this spring -- at 15,000 hours. Chris Holm, director of aviation safety for Neptune, said all their tankers are well under that mark.
Neptune's Tanker 44 conducted local flights out of Missoula for about a week and flew down to Cedar City, Utah, late Sunday.
The Forest Service is negotiating a settlement to compensate Neptune for revenues from the cancelled contract.
INJURIES ON VEKOL FIRE
MAY 30 -- CASA GRANDE, AZ: Three firefighters incurred minor injuries yesterday while working on the 6,160-acre Vekol Fire east of Gila Bend. According to a KOLD-TV report, two firefighters were treated for dehydration and another was burned after being scalded with hot water from a pump on a water tender. Philbin's Type 2 team reported the fire was contained yesterday.
RANGE FIRE STARTED BY MODEL ROCKET
MAY 28 -- PROSSER, WA: Firefighters yesterday were mopping up a range fire that burned more than 800 acres in the Horse Heaven Hills; it started Thursday and reached to within 50 yards of some homes. Police Chief Patrick McCullough said some boys who had been playing with a model rocket came forward voluntarily to say they were responsible; McCullough said the fire was accidental.
Steve Sautter with Benton County emergency services said about 100 firefighters contained the Painted Hills Fire. "I hope this is not the kickoff to a really bad season," he said, "but you never know with the temperatures we've had already." The Oregonian reported the fire grew to over 1,000 acres.
VEKOL FIRE 50 PERCENT CONTAINED
MAY 28 -- STANFIELD, AZ: The 6,650-acre fire was first reported Thursday afternoon; Philbin's Type 2 team said the fire's burning in grass with rapid rates of spread.
The Arizona Republic reported that the fire yesterday was threatening homes and that residents were warned to be prepared to evacuate. Carrie Templin with the State Land Department said between 30 and 50 homes were threatened. Winds of up to 20 mph with gusts to 25 mph were forecasted, along with temperatures over 100º for the day.
On the Santa Fe National Forest, Lineback's Type 2 team reported the Mesa Camino Fire contained at 832 acres. The Valle Fire, also on the Santa Fe, is about 60 percent contained at 140 acres, according to Lineback's team. The Green Fire was reported at 952 acres on state lands northwest of Tucson. No containment was reported.
PILOTS SPANK CALIFORNIA FIRE
MAY 25 -- PALM SPRINGS, CA: An aggressive air attack on Sunday contained a brush fire that threatened a windmill farm near Snow Creek.
A passing motorist reported the fire at 5:30 p.m., according to the Desert Sun, and Riverside County Fire and CDF launched an air show to keep the fire from burning the Whitewater Energy Corp. windmill farm. They ordered a helicopter, air attack plane, and an airtanker.
Did it work? "Absolutely," said Capt. Doug Cade. "We had ample resources and got in there immediately." They had the 50-acre fire contained an hour after it started.
Cade said they're not looking forward to the season. "You guys never have grass on the hills," he said. "This year you have twelve inches. It just makes for a nightmare."
Another fire east of Watsonville in Monterey County yesterday was caused by a downed powerline and prompted voluntary evacuations. The Daily Press reported that a brush fire in Oak Hills over the weekend burned more than 120 acres and destroyed a chicken coop. Crews from CDF, the Forest Service and BLM, and San Bernardino County Fire worked the fire, with two airtankers and two helicopters committed.
HEADS UP, CALIFORNIA HOMEOWNERS:
NEW DEFENSIBLE SPACE REGS
MAY 24 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: This year's fire season hasn't officially started, but that doesn't mean firefighters haven't been busy. The near-record rainfall this year has made the Golden State the Green State, and all that lush green fuel will probably be thick tan fuel later this summer and make California the Fire State again.
What's critical for homeowners is to provide firefighters with 100 feet of defensible space around homes and other structures. As of January 1, that's the law -- increasing the space requirement from the previous state-required 30 feet. In California, one of the few states to require defensible space and actually enforce it, fire officials say the 100 feet of clearance not only increases the chances of a home's surviving a wildfire but also provides firefighters the opportunity to save it.
Capt. Rick Vogt with CDF told the North County Times that residents who start a fire -- even accidentally -- can end up footing the bill for suppression costs. "People need to be aware of the consequences of their actions," he said. "People can be held responsible for the cost of suppressing a wildland fire."
Another state that's gotten serious about homeowners and wildland fire responsibility is Oregon, where the Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection Act holds property owners liable for wildland fires that start on or burn over their property if not certified as fire-safe. The law applies to lands classified as wildland/urban interface by a local county classification committee. It's limited to areas protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry where structure density ranges from a setting of urban (inside a city or urban growth boundary) to suburban (lot sizes generally 10 acres or less).
In Oregon, the state can collect up to $100,000 in suppression costs from a landowner if the the property is not certified, a wildfire starts on the property, the fire spreads within the protection zone around a structure and driveway that does not meet the standards, and the Oregon Department of Forestry incurs extraordinary costs for suppression. The cost collection may be greater than $100,000 if a landowner is found to be willful, negligent, or malicious in the origin of the fire.
For more information on Oregon's interface law, contact Brian Ballou, Wildland/Urban Interface Specialist at ODF, and for more information on fire-safe programs for homeowners, try FireFree or the Fire Safe Council. For information on fire-resistant landscaping and other homeowner information, try FireReady.com -- they have a good list of resources for homeowners.
MASSACHUSETTS: WHOLE LOTTA BURNIN' GOIN' ON
MAY 24 -- PLYMOUTH, MA: Fires will burn over hundreds of acres of Massachusetts this summer -- on purpose. In an expanded effort to preserve rare habitat and reduce fire risk, the Nature Conservancy is expanding its prescribed fire program in the Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth and the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod. About 1,000 acres are scheduled for burning, and the project's funded in part by a $331,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service.
The hazard mitigation grant will be administered through the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Conservancy will use the funding toward two objectives: ensuring that fire management takes place at a meaningful and effective scale in Massachusetts, and expanding and improving prescribed fire expertise and capacity in the state. Greatly contributing to this effort are the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Nantucket Land Bank and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. These groups are matching the grant with in-kind services. “The strength of Massachusetts’s fire management program is in its partnerships,” said Conservancy fire manager Joel Carlson.
"The eological benefit is huge," Carlson told the Boston Globe. "The primary reason is to promote biodiversity, maintaining the pitch pine, scrub oak barren in a healthy state."
Last year, the program burned 800 acres in southeastern Massachusetts. Because of the grant, the program will increase by about 200 acres.
The Plymouth Pinelands area hosts some of the most significant natural ecosystems in the Northeast. Thick deposits of sand and gravel provide the geologic foundation for globally rare pine barrens, and this fire-adapted forest is home to a host of rare species found almost nowhere else in the world. Interspersed among the 20,000 acres of pine barrens are dozens of coastal plain ponds. Besides supporting endangered Plymouth redbelly turtles and globally rare plant communities, these ponds are windows on the Plymouth/Carver Sole Source Aquifer -- the largest drinking water aquifer in Massachusetts.
SKUNK FIRE APPROACHES 1,600 ACRES
MAY 24 -- GLOBE, AZ: The Skunk Fire southwest of Globe, which started Sunday, was at 1,572 acres this morning. Philbin's Type 2 team puts estimated containment at next weekend; the fire earlier threatened the Signal Peak communication site.
The East Valley Tribune reported that the fire's on remote and rugged land in the Dripping Springs mountain range; Wendell Peacock, information officer, said the fire wasn't spreading burning as fast as the Bart Fire did earlier this month -- it grew to more than 6,000 acres in one day. The Skunk Fire is burning in heavier fuels, though -- 6-foot chaparral.
"It's got legs," Peacock said. "It jumped up and ran on us." He said firefighters are dealing with open mine shafts in the area, along with snakes and cactus.
Resources assigned include six hotshot crews, three helicopters, 13 engines, and a couple dozers.
On the Santa Fe National Forest southwest of Coyote, New Mexico, the Mesa Camino Fire was up to about 650 acres today. It's in timber and is also on steep, rugged terrain; Serrano's team reported flamelengths of up to 50 feet yesterday. The fire was initially a prescribed fire. It was burning very actively in timber at over 8,000-foot elevations, most of that on south-facing slopes -- surprising fire behavior considering the local flooding in that area from rapid snowmelt. Two heavy airtankers were on it this afternoon out of Albuquerque.
NIFC MOVE TABLED
MAY 21 -- BOISE, IDAHO: The Department of the Interior won't be moving BLM fire managers from Boise to Washington, D.C., at least not in the near future. At issue was a proposal to move the BLM director of fire and aviation, along with another 15 staff positions, and then create positions for two deputy directors, one in Washington and one in Boise. The Idaho Statesman got word of the proposal when a NIFC employee leaked information about the move to the paper.
NIFC employs about 550 people, including meteorologists, dispatchers, program managers, and training staff; another 200 or more employees are hired seasonally.
FIRE WEST OF KINGMAN EVACUATES RESIDENTS
MAY 20 -- BULLHEAD CITY, NV: A brushfire that burned about 100 acres this afternoon northwest of Kingman, Arizona, prompted the Mohave County Sheriff's Department to evacuate residents from the northwest part of Golden Valley. The BLM in Lake Havasu City said the Golden Valley Fire was about 50 percent contained tonight, according to KOLD-TV.
Two heavy airtankers flew the fire today out of Prescott.
The Arizona Republic reported that temperatures this weekend are expected to exceed 110º in Arizona. Crews on Wednesday contained the Bart Fire on the Tonto National Forest northeast of Scottsdale at over 14,000 acres; it was the state's largest fire this year and started right after the nearby St. Clair Fire, also near Bartlett Lake. A reward of $5,000 is offered for information leading to the arrest of those who started the Bart Fire.
EARLY SEASON START IN ALASKA
MAY 20 -- PALMER, ALASKA: Fire crews and managers have been busy already this season, with earlier than normal fires for the state of Alaska. More than 700 fires last year burned almost 7 million acres.
Fire managers say that the recent sunny days and warm temperatures are setting the table for trouble. “We had problem fires in April and that's kind of unheard of, so we’re, of course, watching the weather forecast and being prepared as needed,” John See, coastal region manager with the Alaska Division of Forestry, told KTUU-TV.
The Island Lake Fire, about seven miles from the U.S. Customs station on the Alaska Highway, is almost contained -- with a little help from the weather. It was 1,300 acres last night with about 95 percent containment. The Anchorage Daily News reported that eight crews were still on the fire, and that retardant that was dropped last Sunday kept the fire from spreading significantly.
"We just don't want that fire moving up and down that highway all summer long," said Tom Kurth, fire management officer for Alaska Division of Forestry. "There's a lot of traffic moving up and down there."
There are currently 20 fires active in Alaska; two are staffed and the rest are in monitor status. So far this year the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reports 112 fires statewide have burned 8,212 acres.
AAP SCHEDULES ANNUAL GOLF BENEFIT
MAY 18 -- SAN RAFAEL, CA: The Associated Airtanker Pilots will hold its annual benefit for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation Monday, May 23 at 1 p.m.
Hosted by the the Marin County Fire Department, this year’s tournament is dedicated to the memory of Eva Schicke, the first female CDF firefighter lost in the line of duty. Schicke last September on the Tuolumne Fire near Groveland, when her helitack crew was overrun by fire.
"She was a natural born athlete with total dedication to the firefighting mission," said AAP member and tanker pilot Jim Barnes. "Eva never gave less than her very best. Her tragic loss reminds us of the terrible price too often paid by our courageous men and women who stand next to the flames and fight our nation’s fires."
Barnes said an honorarium from the AAP and Marin County Fire will be donated to a scholarship in Eva’s name.
He added that participants at this year's tournament will also be remembering three comrades lost in an aviation training accident. Aero Union pilots Tom Lynch, 42, Brian Bruns, 47, and Paul Cockrell, 52, died April 20 when Tanker 26 crashed on a training flight north of Chico.
"That training was designed and intended to make aerial firefighting safer," said Barnes. "Tom, Brian, and Paul will be foremost in our thoughts and in our hearts this year. The loss of these three professional aviators of such high caliber gives us a moment of pause to remember that fighting fires with aircraft, like all firefighting, contains elements of risk and danger. Their loss has created a huge hole in our tanker community."
At this year's tournament, airtanker pilots and CDF air attack officers will be barbecuing about 700 oysters, and Outback Steakhouse fare will also be available. The tournament will be held at the Peacock Gap Golf & Country Club at 333 Biscayne Drive, San Rafael, California. [MAP] ::: [DIRECTIONS]
"If you can make it, please come," said Barnes. "If you can’t, we would be grateful for any donations no matter how small." Contributions can be mailed to AAP Benefit Golf Tournament, P.O. Box 91, Woodacre, CA 94973.
ROOKIE HOTSHOT COMMITTED SUICIDE
MAY 17 -- REDDING, CA: California officials have determined that a 22-year-old Redmond, Oregon, woman who disappeared from a houseboat party on Lake Shasta hanged herself on an island.
The Shasta County Sheriff's Department said Gina Zalunardo's body was found in heavy manzanita brush about 300 yards from the houseboat five days after she disappeared.
The junior in business administration at Oregon State University in Corvallis was last seen on the evening of May 7 after an argument with her boyfriend on one of 42 connected houseboats on the lake, according to the OSU Daily Barometer. Zalunardo was training for a job with the Union Hotshots; she spent four summers on an engine crew. She and other OSU students were on an annual sorority and fraternity trip to Lake Shasta. She was planning to finish her degree this fall after a season with the Union IHC.
Zalunardo is survived by her parents, a brother, and her grandparents and other relatives. A memorial service is planned for Saturday, May 21, at 1 p.m. at the Powell Butte Christian Church in Oregon. Memorial contributions may be made to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation [wffoundation.org] at 2049 Airport Way, Boise, Idaho 83705.
DOI FIRE MANAGERS TO MOVE FROM BOISE
MAY 17 -- BOISE, IDAHO: About 20 national fire managers with the Department of the Interior at the National Interagency Fire Center could be moving to Washington, DC, in what the DOI says is an effort toward consistency among national firefighting agencies.
KBCI-TV in Boise reported yesterday that details on the plan are expected today.
PAY CUT FOR A.D. FIREFIGHTERS ON HOLD
MAY 17 -- SANTA FE, NM: For more than 30 years, retired National Park Service employee Tim Stubbs has fought wildfires, in positions from groundpounder to air attack supervisor. As a Park Service employee, he made almost $40 an hour on fires, but as a retired firefighter hired on an as-needed basis, he gets $24 an hour with no overtime and no benefits.
And the National Wildfire Coordinating Group this year proposed cutting emergency firefighter pay by up to 30 percent.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Stubbs is among several thousand firefighters -- from fireline crews to supervisors -- whose pay is set by the federal government under the 1951 Administratively Determined Pay Authority. Called AD firefighters, they may be retired employees with years of firefighting experience, or volunteer and local government firefighters, or other skilled professionals from paramedics to plumbers to computer experts to fire behavior analysts. The AD Authority exempts the government from Fair Labor Standards Act requirements for overtime and hazard pay, making AD firefighters a quick, cheap source of labor.
The NWCG's Interagency Business Practices Working Team reviewed the pay and job requirements of more then 100 AD positions over the last two years. They planned to resolve the disparity in firefighter pay among different regions -- the same people doing the same work in different regions of the country were paid at different rates -- and they proposed a new pay plan for the 2005 season. But instead of a pay raise, many positions were proposed for pay cuts.
Daniel Johnson, 51, is a strikeforce leader in Santa Fe. On the 52,000-acre Peppin Fire last year, which forced the evacuation of more than 100 people, Johnson was in charge of structure protection. The proposed AD rates would have meant a cut of $5 an hour for his position. That's quite a blow to personnel on a fire who are hired as ADs and working alongside agency employees -- doing essentially the same job -- for 80-hour weeks, and after 40 hours one of them starts making time-and-a-half and the other does not.
Incident commanders on smaller fires would have taken a pay cut of over $6 an hour. Class C fallers -- sawyers who cut the biggest and most dangerous trees on a fire -- would have been cut back over $6 an hour. Helicopter and helibase managers -- at a shortage the last few years -- would have taken cuts of $5 or $6 an hour. Other positions critical for safety on a fire, such as communications unit leader and EMTs, would have seen pay cuts in the $5 or $6 range. Airtanker base managers would have been reduced by $6.44 an hour, and expanded dispatch coordinators were proposed for a cut of $6.60.
Johnson and Stubbs are not alone. The proposed pay plan met stiff resistance from both AD firefighters and government fire managers who predicted a major loss of skilled personnel if the pay rates were cut. In March, they agreed to leave the rates at last year’s levels.
The board and members of the AD Firefighter Association contacted 535 legislators in the U.S. House and Senate, all the state governors, and more than 250 media outlets, protesting the attempted pay cut and the entire AD pay system. Hugh Carson, chairman of the ADFA, said that without AD firefighters, a fourth of the skilled positions on major fires would go unstaffed.
RHODE ISLAND ENGINE FLIPS, INJURES DRIVER
MAY 17 -- RICHMOND, RI: A Richmond-Carolina Fire District fire engine flipped over on its way to a brush fire Saturday afternoon, injuring the driver. The 3,000-gallon tanker was upside down when responders arrived, one side ripped off and the passenger side of the cab crushed. The veteran firefighter driver was extricated and transported to a local hospital; the extent of his injuries is not known.
Richmond-Carolina Fire Chief Scott Barber told the Westerly Sun that the cause is under investigation.
ARIZONA FIRE AT 6,000 ACRES
MAY 16 -- CAREFREE, AZ: A fire near Bartlett Lake on the Tonto National Forest has grown to 6,000 acres, and four new fires were reported across the Southwest yesterday. The Coconino National Forest had three small fires, and a new large one, the Bart Fire, is west of Bartlett Lake; it's at zero percent containment and 6,000 acres. Tanker 27 was flying the fire out of Prescott this morning, and Tanker 66 was on its way up from Fort Huachuca.
The Bart Fire started yesterday afternoon near where last week's St. Clair Fire burned. Philbin's Type 2 team is assigned; the fire's burning in chaparral and winds have been causing long-distance spotting. Resources include eight Type 1 crews, a heavy helicopter and a light helictopter, and eight engines.
The Vulture Fire, which also started yesterday, is 11 miles south of Wickenburg and was reported at 450 acres with 80 percent containment. Gusty winds caused some long runs, but Hartman's team reported that significant progress was made with aviation and ground attack resources. The fire put up a large column visible from Phoenix, but containment's expected today.
The Salero Fire, which started Saturday evening, is about 30 percent contained at 400 acres. It's burning on the San Luis Baca Land Grant, and Miller's team expects to have it contained by Wednesday evening. The fire's burning in grass, mesquite, and scrub oak, and access has been a problem.
The St. Clair Fire was contained Sunday at 1,920 acres.
The Arizona Republic reported that a 2-acre fire in Picacho yesterday destroyed two homes and threatened three others. Judy Wood with the State Land Department said it was a wildland/urban interface fire and the homes did not have adequate defensible space. "This is one of those perfect examples of what can happen if residents don't clear brush away from their homes," she said.
Northern Arizona will see southwest winds of 15 to 25 mph today with gusts of 35 mph, and a red flag warning is in effect for central Arizona from noon till 9 p.m. for the lower Colorado River Valley and west-central deserts because of strong southwest winds, low relative humidity, and high to extreme fire danger.
GOVERNOR ARNOLD RESTORES FIRE FUNDING
MAY 15 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released a revised budget plan that would fund the entire fleet of 23 airtankers and 335 engines for the year; an earlier proposed budget cut would have forced CDF to cut airtankers from seven days a week to six, along with laying off tanker pilots.
Schwarzenegger also allocated funds to replace CDF and OES engines. The Napa Valley Register reported that the revised budget would add about $17 million to buy new engines, and would eliminate the $6.7 million cut proposed in January that would have lessened the state's ability to fight fires. The San Luis Obispo Tribune said the earlier budget proposal would have closed some fire stations and cut fire crews.
"I'm very pleased that the governor was able to see fit to restore those cuts," said CDF/County Fire Chief Dan Turner. "Our fire problem hasn't gotten smaller, it has gotten worse."
The new proposal adds $5 million for new engines statewide on top of a $10 million increase that was in the January proposal.
NEW ALASKA FIRE AT 1,400 ACRES
MAY 15 -- TOK, ALASKA: Dave Jandt's Type 2 team has been assigned to the Island Lake Fire, which is burning near outposts on the Alaska-Canada border. The 1,400-acre fire is about seven miles from the Alaska Highway U.S. Customs station; three crews were on the fire yesterday, with plane and helicopter support, and another three crews arrived yesterday. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the fire was started by lightning about 90 miles from Tok on May 10. It's about 20 percent contained.
"I tell you what, I've been up here for 20 fire seasons and I've never been to a fire in April," said Randi Jandt, a fire ecologist with the Alaska Fire Service. "What is going on here?"
More than 100 fires in Alaska this spring have already burned over 8,000 acres. Fairbanks area forester Robert Schmoll said they've been busy with smoke investigations. "And a lot of citations have been issued," he said. "We've had ten this year. That's already twice as many as we had last year."
MAY 15 -- MINNEAPOLIS, MN: Mosquitos and ticks are not merely an annoyance, they can also be dangerous -- ask anyone who's survived a bout of West Nile or Lyme disease -- and two new repellent products have been released and are being tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Officials say the new products are as effective against mosquitoes as low concentrations of DEET, which has been shown to have a negative effect on the flame-resistant characteristics of Nomex fabric -- and can even cause a "flash flame" reaction.
The new products -- oil of lemon eucalyptus and picaridin -- join DEET as the only mosquito repellents recommended by the CDC, but the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that DEET also repels deer ticks, which transmit Lyme disease. The CDC is still testing the new products for tick effectiveness.
DEET's been around for about 60 years, but some people are put off by its strong odor and other effects. CDC officials hope people will use the new products for protection against West Nile virus, which last year infected 2,470 Americans and killed 88 of them. West Nile usually causes temporary flu-like symptoms, but one of every 150 people bitten by an infected mosquito will develop West Nile encephalitis, causing swollen joints, fever, paralysis, or a coma. Lyme disease resulting from tick bites causes flu-like symptoms and can cause rashes, weakness, numbness, facial paralysis, arthritis, and nervous system damage.
Insect repellents with 24 percent DEET content provide about five hours of protection. Ultrathon, with up to 32 percent DEET, remains 95 percent effective for 8 to 12 hours.
Last year the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) had a certified lab conduct flame-resistance tests on Nomex clothing after application of DEET products. They tested both aerosol and non-aerosol products, with single and double applications, and they tested the fabrics 5 minutes and 1 hour after application. Results showed that DEET had a negative effect on flame-resistant characteristics of the Nomex; in some cases the application of DEET resulted in a "flash flame" - burning on the outside of the fabric during the tests.
MTDC is looking into alternative products; for more information contact Leslie Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (406)329-1043 or check the CDC website.
FIRE ON THE TONTO
MAY 13 -- CAREFREE, AZ: The St. Clair Fire on the Tonto National Forest grew quickly today to about 1,200 acres after taking off about 2 a.m. this morning. It was started by a vehicle fire, and is burning on St. Clair Peak near Bartlett Lake east of Carefree.
The Forest Service closed Bartlett Road at the Cave Creek Ranger Station, but the road was re-opened this afternoon. For road information and fire updates, call the Tonto at (602)225-5200.
Resources today included one heavy and one light helicopter, three heavy airtankers, two SEATs, about ten engines, and a lead plane. Tankers 20 and 27 and 66 were all flying on the fire and reloading out of Prescott. The Payson, Pleasant Valley, and Globe Hotshots are also assigned, and crews tonight were working on firelines and hotspots.
CHARGES TO BE FILED OVER WISCONSIN FIRE
MAY 13 -- WISCONSIN RAPIDS, WI: Officials plan to charge a 54-year-old man with starting the biggest wildfire Wisconsin's seen in decades. The 3,870-acre Cottonville Fire, which started May 5, destroyed 30 homes and about 90 other buildings.
The Wausau Daily Herald reported that state DNR officials met Wednesday with Adams County District Attorney Mark Thibodeau, who said he plans to charge the man -- whose name has not been released -- with setting a fire and allowing it to escape.
TV PHOTOGRAPHER HONORED FOR FIRE EDUCATION
MAY 13 -- BOSTON, MA: Nat Whittemore, a career photographer for Boston's WBZ-TV Channel 4, was honored by the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Commission (NFFPC) with an Outstanding Service Award in recognition of his commitment to public education about wildfire.
The NFFPC includes representatives from the six New England states plus New York, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the New England National Forests. They said Whittemore's commitment goes back more than 40 years, and he was honored for his knowledge about wildfire and the wildland/urban interface. The Wellesley Townsman reported that his work was an "added weapon in the prevention and suppression arsenal."
Chief Fire Warden Gilmore said Whittemore's coverage and presence at key fires and prescribed burns has been an integral factor in acceptance by the public.
A FUELS PROJECT THAT OUGHTA FLY
MAY 13 -- BOZEMAN, MT: The Bozeman Daily Chronicle in an editorial this week voiced support for a fuels reduction project planned on the Gallatin National Forest, outlining reasons the project should go forward and chastising an environmental group that intends to appeal it. "If there's any place where environmentalists and industry advocates should be able to find common ground, it's in the proposed Main Boulder Fuels Reduction Project," they said.
The primary goal of the project is to create an escape route from an overstocked forest area that's very popular with recreational visitors -- but has one way in and one way out. Trailheads into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness are found along the 20-mile road, along with campgrounds, vacation cabins, and church camps. Environmental groups appealed the plan, and the Gallatin revised the proposal, but the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies has stated its intentions of appealing the proposal again.
The project would include a combination of overstory and understory canopy thinning, prescribed burning, and hazardous fuels reduction in the Main Boulder River drainage in Sweet Grass County. For more information, contact Brent Foster, Resource Assistant on the Big Timber Ranger District at (406)932-5155.
ARIZONA FIELDS FIRST FEMALE INMATE CREW
MAY 12 -- PHOENIX, AZ: Staci Stagner, 41, and Rebecca Dean, 24, are two of the crewmembers on Arizona's first and only all-female inmate wildland firefighting crew -- the Firewalkers. Spearheaded by Gov. Janet Napolitano to place more certified inmate firefighters on the line, the crew requires intensive training for its members -- daily two-mile runs and dozens of push-ups, along with nearly 60 hours of classroom and field training. Everyone on the crew is classified as nonviolent and as a low flight risk.
Arizona has more than 200 male inmates certified to fight fire, according to an AP report, and this year 16 women were selected for the Firewalkers crew.
"Just getting out there in the wilderness, possibly saving people's houses and their livelihood, that's going to be a wonderful feeling," said Stagner, the crew's oldest member.
And chances are good they'll be working this summer. The Tucson Citizen reported that the BLM will start enforcing the year's first fire restrictions this weekend on about 2 million acres, including Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and the Ironwood Forest National Monument.
Other federal and state agencies are expected to start similar restrictions by Memorial Day weekend; Dean McAlister, FMO on the Coronado National Forest, said federal and state agencies hope to start fire restrictions at the same time to eliminate confusion about which areas are covered.
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning in Cochise County Tuesday because of high winds and low humidity; temperatures are expected to reach 95º this weekend. Heavy winter rains have resulted in above-normal production of grass and brush across the state.
"I don't know that all hell is going to break out, but the potential for large fires is growing exponentially," said Capt. Patrick Talley with Rural Metro Fire Department.
UNION IHC ROOKIE MISSING AT SHASTA
MAY 10 -- REDDING, CA: A Redmond, Oregon, woman who planned to spend this summer as a member of the Union Hotshots disappeared late Saturday from a houseboat on Shasta Lake after an argument with her boyfriend. Shasta County search and rescue, divers, and volunteers have been looking for 22-year-old Gina Zalunardo since she was reported missing Sunday morning.
"She had an argument with her boyfriend and she had walked away from him to calm down," said Lt. Stan Morgan of the Shasta County Sheriff's Department. "At this point, there is no obvious foul play involved."
Shasta County Sheriff's Sgt. Mark Lillibridge told ABC News that the boyfriend is not considered a suspect.
The Bend Bulletin reported that Zalunardo has been home in Redmond training for a job with the Union IHC that was scheduled to begin on Monday. She spent four summers on an engine crew.
The boat where she was last seen was anchored with another 41 boats on an annual OSU sorority and fraternity trip to Lake Shasta. "There were 42 boats; we're talking 500 students," said Morgan. "We're talking one mega-party."
Zalunardo is a junior in business administration at Oregon State University in Corvallis and was planning to finish her degree this fall after a season with the Union Hotshots. The OSU Barometer reported that Zalunardo's vehicle and possessions were found in a marina parking lot.
FIREFIGHTER CASHES IN ON PONIES
MAY 10 -- PHOENIX, AZ: Chris Hertzog searched frantically through the trash after the Kentucky Derby, hoping to find his winning ticket. The Phoenix firefighter gave up after two hours, but on Sunday the clerk who had sold him the ticket found it -- and Hertzog was $864,253.50 ahead.
The clerk at Turf Paradise found his ticket next to the machine where Hertzog bought it on Saturday. "Don't you just love happy endings?" he said.
There were seven winning $1 superfecta tickets sold, according to an AP report, but no one picked the top four Derby finishers in order on a $2 ticket, which would have paid more than $1.7 million. A trifecta ticket buyer picks the three winning horses in order; the superfecta picks all four. Hertzog bought tickets as random computer-generated quick picks, and on Saturday after the Derby he thought he'd lost. He left his tickets on a table at Turf Paradise. Later, though, a track official told mutuel clerk Brenda Reagan that her machine had spit out a superfecta winner. Track owner Jack Simms told Hertzog about it, but when he returned to the table, the tickets were gone.
Maintenance crews gathered all the garbage bags in the clubhouse and Hertzog and others picked through them -- to no avail. But Reagan found Hertzog's winning ticket the next day.
After taxes, Hertzog walked away with over $604,000. No word yet on whether he's sharing with Reagan.
INMATE CREWS TAKE ON FUELS REDUCTION
MAY 07 -- STRAWBERRY, AZ: The Pine/Strawberry Fire Department is using a record $214,000 in grant money to fund a fire prevention program that couples education with fuels reduction. They created a goat mascot named "Billy Brushwacker" to help teach kids about fuels reduction, and they're using 20-person inmate crews for thinning on private property.
"There's actually four wildland-related projects going on at the same time," Fire Chief Bill Dekker told the Payson Roundup. "The grants we received are for more than in the whole history of the fire department combined." Captain Mike Brandt, a 15-year veteran with the department, is overseeing the projects, one of which includes an interactive CD presentation that will be mailed to all taxpayers in the district. Dekker said weekenders and other absentee homeowners will better understand local conditions and prevention solutions because of the CD, which features video footage of last year's 120,000-acre Willow Fire.
Another phase of the program is fuels reduction, funded by a $127,000 Healthy Forests Initiative grant; the fire district is matching that in funds and in-kind services.
What launched the project was an assessment of the survivability of the communities of Pine and Strawberry by one of the incident management teams on the Willow Fire last summer.
"They gave us less than a 20 percent chance of surviving a catastrophic wildfire," Brandt said. "So we got together and started looking at some options and we found this."
Pine and Strawberry are rapidly growing unincorporated communities in north-central Arizona. Pine was named for the surrounding pine timber country, and Strawberry was named for the wild strawberries that grow in the area. Three miles apart on State Highway 87, Pine and Strawberry are about 15 miles northwest of Payson.
All homeowners in the area are eligible for fuels reduction assistance from the fire crews. For more information, call (928)476-4272 or write to the Pine/Strawberry Fire Department, P.O. Box 441, Pine, Arizona 85544.
WISCONSIN FIRE PUSHES 4,000 ACRES
MAY 06 -- WISCONSIN RAPIDS, WI: What started Thursday afternoon as a small brush fire has reached almost 4,000 acres in central Wisconsin, forcing nearly 100 people from their homes. The Cottonville Fire was threatening about 120 buildings in Adams County, and the Green Bay News-Chronicle reported that four planes, two from Wisconsin and two from Minnesota, were dropping water all day. Jennifer Rabuck, fire information officer for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said 20 fire departments responded, with about 250 firefighters assigned. She said the fire was about 50 percent contained late last night.
One local resident said he saw the fire cross the road "in a heartbeat," spreading so fast that firefighters had trouble unloading equipment in time to catch up with the flames.
The Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune reported that Steve Courtney, incident commander, told dozens of residents at a local school that they planned to work the fire through the night and hope to have it contained this morning.
The state Department of Natural Resources dispatched 30 bulldozers with plows to cut line.
Jim Gobel with the DNR said a fire of this magnitude in the state is rare. "Wisconsin hasn't had a really big, huge fire like this in 25 years," he said.
CAN'T AFFORD MUTUAL AID?
MAY 06 -- OAKDALE, CA: Fire agencies in California, for years, have been accustomed to asking for -- and getting -- mutual aid from other fire agencies. But state and federal budget cuts this year may change that, and fire chiefs are worried that requests for mutual aid might be answered with, "Sorry, station is unavailable."
California's system provides for mobilization, organization, and operation of fire and rescue resources of the state and its political subdivisions. It details a five-party agreement with the State of California's Office of Emergency Services and four other agencies -- the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, and CDF -- for reimbursing local government agencies when their resources are used on wildfires or other incidents.
But as the Oakdale Leader reported today, fire agencies in California are discovering that the payment might not be forthcoming.
"For years the system was working well," said Michael Wilkinson, Oakdale City Fire Chief. "But with the state and federal budget dwindling down to nothing, it's not looking so good." The federal government has traditionally reimbursed small agencies through the Federal Management Assistance Grant, but those reimbursements last year were reduced to 75 percent. And there may be more reductions coming. "If that happens it's going to make it fiscally impossible to provide mutual aid," said Wilkinson. "We just can't afford it."
At a recent county chiefs' meeting, Wilkinson said his department will respond to requests from adjacent counties. "But any request beyond that -- no go."
"It's going to be pretty hard to say we're not coming," he added. "But we have to be able to work within our budgets." Wilkinson said he's amazed at the situation. "California has the strongest mutual aid system in the United States, but we're about to take it apart."
SIX KILLED ON MEXICAN FIRE
MAY 06 -- MEXICO CITY, MEXICO: Forest fires burning in Mexico's most-populous state killed four adults and two children on Wednesday, residents who had volunteered to help fight the fires. Environment Secretary Alberto Cardenas issued an urgent call for soldiers to help with the fires outside Tejupilco. The AP reported that the fire caused evacuations and seriously injured one other person.
CHIPPEWA RxFIRE TAKES OFF
MAY 06 -- GRAND RAPIDS, MN: Erratic winds turned a prescribed burn yesterday afternoon on the Chippewa National Forest into a 600-acre wildfire.
The Mississippi Meadows Fire was 10 percent contained last night at 600 acres, and a Type 2 team was ordered. The fire is is 22 miles west of Grand Rapids, burning in grass, brush, and timber. The Duluth News-Tribune reported that ten homes were evacuated, but residents were allowed to return later in the evening. Two CL-215s worked the fire, along with two helicopters, a SEAT, and 13 engines. The BIA-contracted CL-215 and one of Minnesota's CL-215s also assisted with fires in Wisconsin.
The Gilman Fire northeast of St. Cloud was contained at 200 acres after burning one home and three outbuildings. Firefighters said the fire was most likely started by a re-ignited permit fire from the previous evening.
Most of Minnesota now is carrying a fire danger rating of high to very high. The statewide planning level is at 2, and ten of NDR's fire areas reported fires on Wednesday. Most areas are staffing with a full complement of personnel and equipment and are prepared for heavy initial attack. Prescribed burns are under way in many areas of the state. Minnesota's reported over 700 fires already this year, with 7,359 acres burned.
AERO UNION PILOTS REMEMBERED
MAY 05 -- CHICO, CA: Written condolences from fire agencies across the country filled a table and a wall at an Aero Union office yesterday, where friends and families gathered to honor three airtanker pilots killed last month.
Messages of sympathy from Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas, and Florida illustrated that tanker pilots like Tom Lynch, Brian Bruns, and Paul Cockrell serve not only their communities, but the country.
The Chico Enterprise-Record reported that about 350 people showed up for a memorial service at Aero Union. Ron Hunter, company director of flight operations, said Cockrell was a quiet family man with a strong religious faith and a love of the outdoors. Bruns, he said, was known as a practical joker with a heart of gold, and Lynch was thoroughly dedicated to his job and a naturally gifted pilot.
Though he couldn't attend the memorial, State Rep. Wally Herger wrote a letter for the service read by an aide. Herger said the pilots were doing what they loved to the end. "Pilots are the luckiest people on earth," he wrote. "From now on, when I look up I will be remembering Tom, Brian and Paul."
FIREFIGHTER STATUE DEDICATED AT AIRPORT
MAY 05 -- BOISE, IDAHO: A bronze firefighter statue now greets visitors at the Boise Airport; the 8½ foot statue was unveiled Monday between the terminal and the parking garage.
Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, said the statue was created from the same mold used for one of the statues at the monument site at the National Interagency Fire Center east of the airport. Vermont sculptor Larry Nowlan created three statues for the site; they were dedicated at the monument five years ago.
The Idaho Statesman reported that this is the first of many such monuments to be installed at high-profile locations -- mostly airports -- around the country. "The reason for these going in is to raise understanding and support for the role that the wildland firefighters play in protecting life and natural resources in our country," Minor said.
The Foundation is sponsoring the project, and the National Wildfire Suppression Association raised $30,000 to install the 600-pound statue. The NWSA has contributed more than $80,000 for the Foundation in the last few years.
ARIZONA FIRE BURNS 150 ACRES
MAY 05 -- WICKENBURG, AZ: A cluster of fires burning northwest of Wickenburg are about a mile from several mobile homes and a ranch, and about 150 acres have burned. The Rusty Fire is about 20 miles northwest of Wickenburg, and was reported at 3 acres early yesterday afternoon. KOLD-TV reported that
60 firefighters are assigned, along with SEATs and heavy helicopters.
MANITOBA TOWNS GET FREE CL-215 SERVICE
MAY 04 -- WINNIPEG, MANITOBA, CANADA: The provincial government of Manitoba has decided not to charge towns and municipalities for emergency use of waterbombers. Scott Smith, the minister responsible for emergency measures, says the move will help protect Manitobans.
"If you can imagine on a small municipality that has a budget of a couple hundred thousand dollars suddenly being hit with $70,000 or $80,000 -- it just exceeds what is reasonable," he told CBC News.
Ron Bell, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, says the decision will take some of the stress out of the decision-making process during an emergency. He said fire chiefs and local officials had been second-guessing themselves about ordering the scoopers. The province has a fleet of seven CL-215s.
FORESTRY RESEARCHER WINS MAJOR AWARD
MAY 03 -- SEATTLE, WA: University of Washington professor Jerry Forest Franklin was named yesterday as the recipient of the Heinz Award for the environment, an annual $250,000 prize. Franklin, professor of ecosystem analysis at the University of Washington and director of the Wind River Canopy Crane Research Facility on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, began his forestry career as a wildland firefighter in the Columbia River Gorge. The award honors his pioneering research on old-growth forests and his advocacy for selective logging rather than clearcutting.
Franklin received his B.S. in forest management from Oregon State University in 1959, and an M.S. in forest management and statistics in 1961, also from OSU. He earned a Ph.D. in botany and soils in 1966 from Washington State. Between 1959 and 1975 he held a variety of positions with the U.S. Forest Service, including Chief Plant Ecologist and Research Forester with the Pacific Northwest Research Station. He also directed the Ecosystem Studies Program for the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC.
In 1993 he served on the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team (FEMAT) headed by Jack Ward Thomas, under commission by President Clinton. Prior to that, Franklin was appointed as part of the Scientific Panel for Late Successional Forest Ecosystem (commonly known as the “Gang of Four”). He also served for 10 years on the Nature Conservancy's Board of Governors.
Former U.S. Forest Service Jack Thomas, along with the other two members of the "Gang of Four," Norm Johnson of Oregon State and John Gordon at Yale, nominated Franklin for the award.
"Jerry is a most excellent recipient of the prestigious Heinz Award," said Thomas. "He is one of those rare research types who has one foot in the camp of basic research and the other firmly planted in the day-to-day world of natural resources management. His intellect and leadership qualities are superb, and his dedication to research, teaching, and improved day-to-day forest management is a too-rare skill set. There could be no more deserving recipient.”
Franklin's got over 300 publications to his credit, and has made stellar contributions to the field of forestry. High fives, Jerry.
BACK FROM THE EDGE
MAY 02 -- ORCHARD PARK, NY: Nearly 9½ years after Firefighter Don Herbert was injured in a roof collapse, he astonished doctors and his family on Saturday by asking for his wife.
Herbert, with the Buffalo Fire Department, was left brain-damaged and mostly mute after he was injured in 1995 while fighting a house fire, and has been in a nursing home for more than seven years.
When he spoke up on Saturday, nursing home staff raced to get his wife Linda on the phone. Herbert spoke with her, his four sons, and other family and friends over the weekend, according to an AP story.
"How long have I been away?" he asked.
Firefighter Anthony Liberatore told WIVB-TV that Herbert stayed up late talking with his sons. They were 14, 13, 11 and 3 when he was injured. Herbert turns 44 this Saturday.
LANDER CELEBRATION TODAY
MAY 03 -- LANDER, WY: A Forest Service Centennial Celebration is planned for 10 a.m. today at the Washakie Ranger Station in Lander to recognize past and present lookouts and smokechasers. The Billings Gazette reported that one group to be honored is Wyoming's old 115th Cavalry. During World War II, the 115th Cavalry patrolled the Pacific Northwest coast to protect forests from Japanese incendiary balloon bombs. Wyoming's horse troopers worked with the smokechasers, smokejumpers, and lookouts of the region to guard against the threat. Retired USFS Deputy Chief Bob Joslin and retired FMO Bob Jacob will present awards. Historian and author Tamara Linse of the American Heritage Center and the University of Wyoming will also attend. For more information, call Karl Brauneis at the Washakie Ranger Station (307)332-5460.
ALASKA FIRE SEASON UP AND RUNNING
MAY 02 -- HOMER, ALASKA: Fire crews in Alaska have been scrambling to keep up with fires, including one from last summer that recently flared back up after smoldering all winter. Crews were needed on fires even before they'd all completed annual training and safety refreshers.
John See with the state Division of Forestry told the Associated Press that the number and size of fires is a bit early for Alaska. "Mother Nature is throwing us a curve this year," he said. "We're getting more challenging fires like what we usually would be seeing in a few weeks." More resources were requested on the 3,270-acre Tracy Avenue Fire on Kenai Peninsula, where Kurth's Type 2 team is assigned. The fire's running and torching in beetle-killed spruce, slash, grass and understory, about 9 miles northeast of Homer. The Anchorage Daily News reported that the fire tripled in size yesterday. The fire started Friday with a downed powerline; it reached 300 acres by Friday night, 1,000 acres by Saturday night, and by last night was expected to reach 4,000 acres. It was reported last night at 50 percent containment.
"I've been an I.C. for many years and never lost a fire like this," said state firefighter Terry Anderson. "It was a humbling experience."
Only one of two airtankers contracted from Canada has arrived; the other isn't due until May 10. The one on duty Sunday was initially ordered for Homer, but then was diverted to a new fire along the Alaska Railroad near Nenana. But before it got there it was diverted to a 150-acre fire northeast of Delta Junction that was threatening about 20 homes. But then another even more worrisome fire took off south of Eielson, and that's where the airtanker ended up dropping before heading back to Palmer for another load.
REDDING JUMPERS IN CENTRAL PARK
MAY 01 -- NEW YORK, NY: Scaling trees in Manhattan's Central Park is not exactly where you'd expect to find a bunch of smokejumpers from Redding, California, but that's where they are. In the tallest maples, elms, chestnuts, and other trees, they're inspecting limbs for evidence of Asian long-horned beetles.
High above the ground, they're often not even noticed by park visitors. But when they are spotted, they sometimes draw a crowd.
"One police officer said, 'Now you're just part of the Central Park freak show,'" Adam Lauber told the New York Times. "You get some people upset because we're in the trees."
Lauber and four others are surveying the trees as part of the federal government's program to eradicate the Asian long-horned beetle. They were called in after the voracious beetle was discovered in trees at two Upper East Side locations. The Department of Agriculture asked the Forest Service to take the job as part of an interagency effort to search for long-horned beetles in the New York area.
Working 12-hour shifts, the jumpers have covered over 1,000 trees. "We're making a difference," said John Casey, a squadleader. "Tree climbing is the only true accurate way to know whether a tree is infested."
Dylan Reeves said some New Yorkers lean toward the paranoid. "Sometimes people think we're installing cameras in the trees," he said. Lauber probably was wishing for a camera the day he met Cameron Diaz while he was buying pizza at Whole Foods across the street.
The smokejumpers plan to return to Redding in mid-May.
ALASKA FIRE HEADED FOR SUBDIVISION
APRIL 30 -- HOMER, ALASKA: A wildfire near Homer kept growing today while fire crews worked to keep it from a heavily populated area of town. The fire was reported Friday afternoon and had reached 800 acres this afternoon.
Kris Eriksen with the Division of Forestry in Soldotna said the fire was about two miles from the subdivision. The fire was growing mostly to the west, and the subdivision was to the southwest.
John See with the Division of Forestry said the fire has been very active, torching and spotting and spreading through dry grass and beetle-killed spruce.
Incident Commander Terry Anderson said structure protection was in place in some areas. He said someone on the Homer Spit saw a small column and called it in Friday, and he headed out East Road and reported the fire early in the afternoon as the smoke came into view. "I called in a helitack on my way here," he said, "and when I got here I called in the world."
Eriksen said the fire was active last night till about midnight, but it got moving again after 8 a.m. this morning. "That does not bode well for an easy day," she told the Anchorage Daily News. "Things are starting quite early, and they are calling in help."
Eight smokejumpers who arrived in Homer Friday from Fairbanks were still working on the fire. Volunteer fire department crews from Homer and Anchor Point, along with helicopters, were also assigned. The Division of Forestry requested 60 more firefighters, but they likely won't be available till Monday or Tuesday.
A downed powerline is the suspected cause of the fire.
OREGON SENATOR WANTS
FED REPORT ON HELICOPTER CONTRACTS
APRIL 30 -- BEND, OR: Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden wants the federal government to examine and report on the process for contracting helicopters for the fire season, after complaints about irregularities in contracting during last year's season. At least one helicopter company says they were paid under a different type of contract than what they agreed to, according to a report by the Bend Bulletin.
Carl Gossard, assistant director for Fire & Aviation with the USFS Region 6, said he thought the government had made good on all its 2004 contracts with helicopter contractors, but he said the cancellation of contracts for 33 heavy airtankers last year did create some new problems.
Todd Peterson, marketing representative for Columbia Helicopters in Aurora, said the government started contracts with Columbia last year for exclusive-use helicopters in addition to call-when-needed contracts. He said Columbia and other helicopter companies can bid a lower daily rate under exclusive-use contracts, but he said Columbia's ships last year were paid at the lower daily rate for exclusive-use, even though they had call-when-needed agreements for a higher daily rate.
"We view this as an abuse of the exclusive-use contract," said Peterson.
At the U.S. Senate Energy Committee's subcommittee on public lands and forests hearing on fire preparedness last Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden asked Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey to submit a report outlining how the fire agencies intend to deal with the helicopter contracts. Rey agreed to produce the report, but he added that the agencies have "pretty aggressive contract people," and they had said the bids by several helicopter companies were "outrageous."
Last October, at the BLM Aviation Management Conference in Boise, Idaho, it was noted during the exclusive-use helicopter workshop that the call-when-needed contract for heavy and medium helicopters was being re-written -- with many changes. Attendees also discussed adding an “additional aircraft” clause in the exclusive-use contract to allow companies the option of adding additional helicopters at the same price for short-term use.
Meanwhile, Aero Union's P-3s are back on duty, despite media reports indicating they'd all be "grounded," and Butler's Tanker 66 flew from Oregon to Fort Huachuca today.
Butler has signed three airtankers into service for the season -- T-66 with the USFS and Tankers 60 and 62 with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Tanker 66 -- a DC-7 instrumented with stress monitoring equipment -- is on a federal contract similar to last year's P2V contracts with Minden Air and Neptune.
Butler Aircraft's Tanker 62 and Tanker 60 are scheduled to go back on duty with the Oregon Department of Forestry again this year. Unlike California, where CDF is discussing six-day coverage, ODF wants 7-day coverage on their contracts with the Butler airtankers.
PACK TEST STRESS TEST
APRIL 29 -- VENTURA, CA: A $750,000 grant awarded Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will help two local companies study the physiological conditions experienced by firefighters during training. Storm King Mountain Technologies of Camarillo and VivoMetrics Government Services of Ventura plan to test 500 firefighters this season.
According to the Ventura County Star, the firefighters will wear specially designed shirts under their work shirts during training to monitor exertion and stress levels. The LifeShirt® system developed by VivoMetrics is an ambulatory monitoring system that continuously collects, records, and analyzes a range of cardiopulmonary measurements. The shirt is lightweight and machine washable, with embedded sensors that collect respiratory, cardiac, blood oxygen saturation, temperature, posture and activity data that are transmitted to an incident command post.
A number of firefighters have died during annual training for the pack test, and Darrell Ralston, assistant fire chief with the Ventura County Fire Department, says this will increase safety. "We've been doing pack training for four years and we haven't had any problems with it," he said. "But we're hopeful we can be key players in deriving positive results that can help firefighters worldwide."
Jim Roth, president of Storm King Mountain Technologies, said they'll spend three months preparing for the testing, six months conducting testing, and another three months compiling and analyzing the results.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRE CONFERENCE PLANNED
APRIL 28 -- OAK GLEN, CA: The Southern California Association of Foresters and Fire Wardens each year sponsors a two-day training and safety conference for hundreds of firefighters from a variety of fire protection agencies. The 2005 conference will be held at Camp Pilgrim Pines at Oak Glen next week.
An optional golf tournament on Wednesday, May 4, kicks off the event, and Thursday's agenda begins with registration at 8 a.m. The conference opens at 10 a.m., and the day's schedule will include a tour of vendor exhibits, with a barbecue dinner scheduled at 5:30 p.m.
This year is the 75th annual conference; program topics this year include Color Coding Assessment Process for Structural Protection Risks in the Wildland/Urban Interface, History of California’s Large Wildland Fires, Infrared Mapping System, and staff rides to the Rattlesnake, Inaja, and Loop Fires. There will be updates on this year's outlook for fuels, weather, and aircraft, and a presentation on CDF's Helitack 404 burnover.
John Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain and Fire and Ashes, will also attend.
There is a fee of $80 for the two-day conference, which includes the Association's 2005 membership fee, along with all training and safety presentations, a vendor display, vendor’s sales counters, evening entertainment, equipment displays, and all meals served at Camp Pilgrim Pines. Overnight lodging is available at the camp, or just across the road at Camp Luther Glen for an additional fee. More details are available online from the SCAFFW website or by calling Pilgrim Pines at (800)616-6612 or Doug Lannon at (909)881-6920.
WYOMING CONCERNED ABOUT FUNDING CUTS
APRIL 28 -- LANDER, WY: Facing a potentially dangerous wildfire season and major cuts in federal assistance to at-risk communities, officials in Wyoming are worried that the Bush administration's proposed 2006 budget could pinch the state with a $500,000 cut in federal cooperative forestry funds. State Forester Bill Crapser, according to the Jackson Hole Star-Tribune, says it's too early to say what that cut would mean, but that federal fire prevention funds for local fire departments would be ended
Wyoming's combined state and national forest plan budgets were just shy of $2 million for fiscal year 2004, he said; the 2006 budget is estimated at $1.6 million.
Tom Troxel, Rocky Mountain director for the Intermountain Forestry Association, said he supports a greater emphasis in the federal budget on timber sales and fuels reduction projects near communities; he said timber sales and fire prevention projects are not mutually exclusive.
WESTERN GOVERNORS WANT
I.A. PERMISSION FROM FEDS
APRIL 28 -- SPOKANE, WA: Northwest governors plan to ask federal agencies for permission to initial attack wildfires on federal lands this summer.
"We're going to ask the federal government to allow us to respond immediately, so we do not have issues of jurisdiction," said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. "We want first-strike capability. It might be a state response on federal land."
Also attending the meeting in Spokane yesterday were Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. According to an AP story in the Seattle Times, Gregoire said Washington has already had 55 wildfires this season.
The governors also discussed sharing National Guard troops and aircraft. Schweitzer said half of Montana's National Guard members -- and many of their aircraft -- are in Iraq.
The governors agreed they want answers soon from the federal government on issues of airworthiness of heavy airtankers. Kempthorne said they would send a joint letter asking the government to resolve the safety questions.
FOREST SERVICE WANTS MORE P-3s
APRIL 27 -- WASHINGTON, DC: Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said Tuesday that the Forest Service plans to put more P-3 Orions on contract, but that the plan may be re-evaluated in light of the crash of Aero Union's Tanker 26 last week. He told the U.S. Senate Energy Committee's subcommittee on public lands and forests during Tuesday's hearing on fire preparedness that there was no indication the plane had suffered structural failure in flight.
"As we look at where to go going forward," said Rey, "we were leaning and may still yet lean toward acquiring additional P-3s, because the military has a number of Orion P-3s that can be resurrected at a reasonable cost and used as the backbone of a larger tanker fleet in conjunction with all the other aviation assets."
According to an AP story, Rey said the government's longer-term plan is to assemble a firefighting fleet dependent more on helicopters and less on large fixed-wing airtankers. He was questioned by Western lawmakers who have focused on the airtanker issue since last May. Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico said he was unclear on the plan. "I had sort of thought we were on the way to getting that fixed," he said, "but I guess my information was erroneous."
Rey said the 2005 aviation plan includes six heavy airtankers, six large helitankers and helicopters, and more than 70 light and medium helicopters. State and interagency agreements will also make available two exclusive-use CL-215 scoopers, 28 exclusive-use SEATs, and approximately 70 call-when-needed SEATs. They expect that two or three call-when-needed CL-215s will also be available, along with eight MAFFS units.
"The heavy airtankers will continue to be downloaded by 15 percent by weight of retardant as an extra precaution," he said. "All of the airtankers have been configured with traffic collision avoidance systems. In addition, three heavy airtankers will be returned to limited service to collect operational loads data to be used in determining the mechanical stresses of aerial firefighting." He said operational loads monitoring equipment will be installed in all activated airtankers for additional safety and data gathering.
Rey was pressed by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon to move more quickly on negotiating contracts with companies in Oregon that want to provide helicopters.
T-26 INVESTIGATION DONE,
P-3s BACK ON
APRIL 26 -- CHICO, CA: Investigators at the site of last week's airtanker crash north of Chico have completed their examination of the wreckage, but haven't yest come to any conclusions. The crash, which killed three veteran pilots employed by Aero Union and destroyed one of its P-3 Orions, has been under scrutiny by the National Transportation Safety Board and others since Thursday.
NTSB investigator Paul Schlamm said their documentation will be reviewed and submitted as part of a final investigation, which also includes examination of maintenance records and interviewing other pilots who had recently flown Tanker 26, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record.
Aero Union has established a memorial fund for the families of the pilots. Donations can be made by sending checks to "Trust of Tanker 26 Families," 100 Lockheed Avenue, Chico, California 95973.
Media speculation that the tragedy might keep Aero Union's remaining P-3s on the ground was dispelled on Friday. After a one-day stand-down out of respect, Aero Union pilots were asked whether they wanted to fly, and they unanimously voted to get back in the air as soon as possible. The Forest Service agreed, and cleared the tankers for immediate return to service.
SHERIFF'S DEPUTY CHARGED IN FLORIDA FIRE
APRIL 26 -- VIERA, FL: A Brevard County sheriff's deputy, Henry Schook, has been charged with setting a wildfire. Free on $5,000 bond, the 27-year-old Schook was placed on paid emergency suspension from his job with the county.
WTEV-TV reported that state arson investigators watched Schook set a fire while on patrol early Monday; they've been monitoring him as a suspect since February, when the Division of Forestry reported a number of suspicious fires in Brevard County.
The Sun-Sentinel reported that Schook used a flare from the trunk of his cruiser to set the fire. Investigators suspect it was at least the tenth time since January that he had set a fire while on duty. He was arrested on charges of intentional or reckless burning of land and illegal possession of an incendiary device.
"It's disappointing that it's a law enforcement officer; that's for sure," said Lt. Col. Lou Leinhauser. Evidence including flares and residue may link Schook to more than ten other fires and several vehicle fires.
P-3s BACK ON?
APRIL 22 -- BOISE, IDAHO: The four Aero Union P-3 airtankers currently on contract were temporarily stood down yesterday after Wednesday's crash of Tanker 26 that killed three pilots, but an internal Forest Service memo this afternoon said an announcement was expected today that the other contracted P-3s would be back on duty tomorrow.
The memo said that USFS "Aviation and Contracting will be releasing a statement this afternoon regarding the status of the 4 P-3s currently on contract." Aviation personnel said they expected the Aero Union tankers to be available for fire response starting tomorrow.
A team of investigators arrived yesterday and completed an initial review of the crash site. The investigation began in earnest today, and was expected to focus on the tanker's power plant, airworthiness, and maintenance records.
In an AP story, KVOA-TV in Tucson reported that the NTSB's initial review found all the wreckage within a two-acre burn zone, according to the NTSB's Paul Schlamm. And Matt Mathes with USFS Region 5 public affairs said there didn't appear to be any structural causes for the crash.
"This is certainly a promising development," said Mathes. "We're going to wait for more information as the investigation proceeds, but we are cautiously optimistic." He said Aero Union's tankers were rigorously inspected last year. "We put that particular plane through two kinds of tests," he said. "It has passed every single test we can give it."
More than a dozen investigators worked today at the incident site, and they reviewed pilot logs and maintenance records at Chico. Schlamm said that Tanker 26 had left the airport late Wednesday with 2,500 gallons of water onboard, but it was not yet clear whether the crew had dropped the water before the crash.
Firefighting pilots and airtanker contracting operators have complained for years about a perceived lack of communication between them and the federal firefighting agencies. The National Interagency Fire Center's site at www.nifc.gov, for example, hasn't had a new post since Monday, and their front-page link for "Large Airtanker Contract Status" hasn't been updated since August 2004. Forest Service Fire & Aviation Management, where the announcement noted in today's widely-distributed memo was expected, last updated their online "News Room" on April 5. The USFS Aviation office also had nothing online late today.
As NTSB investigators search for the cause of Wednesday's fatal crash, politicians are scrutinizing the risks of the reduced federal airtanker fleet, resulting from last year's abrupt cancellation of federal tanker contracts. Members of Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, are pressuring the federal Departments of Agriculture and the Interior about plans for upgrading the fleet. The Pasadena Star-News reported that California's senior U.S. senator said she contacted both departments seeking solutions. "We urgently need to have tankers," said her staff member Howard Gantman.
California State Rep. Wally Herger lobbied hard last year to get Aero Union's tankers back in the air. Yesterday he called Mark Rey, the USDA undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, about Aero Union's fleet.
Larry Brosnan, USFS assistant director of aviation, said the fatal accident won't immediately affect the agency's contract with Aero Union. The Chico Enterprise-Record reported that Brosnan and other USFS officials expressed confidence in Aero Union's aircraft after they passed rigorous inspections last year.
"We've inspected their aircraft twice and we're confident of their airworthiness," Brosnan said.
Tanker 26 had been scheduled for federal inspection today and was to begin flying May 1 for a six-month contract.
BIG ARIZONA FIRE
APRIL 22 -- TUCSON, AZ: A wildfire near Picacho Peak had grown to about 1,200 acres last night; the Foster Fire started in the afternoon north of Picacho Peak. An AP story said about 90 firefighters were assigned.
Cliff Pearlberg with the state Land Department said seven engines and two SEATs were on the fire.
The 150-acre Antonio Fire in the Patagonia Mountains on the Coronado, near the Mexican border, was contained last night.
The East Valley Tribune reported that Bush administration plans to slash $30 million from U.S. Forest Service programs -- for example, State & Private Forestry, which funds fuels reduction projects for states and local communities -- will delay or scrap critical projects. State Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh said forested land in the state is already dangerously overgrown, and any delay in thinning heightens the risk of another devastating fire like the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski complex.
"The need is immediate," Rowdabaugh said. "We can’t do enough fast enough to avoid the danger of a Rodeo-Chediski. The threat is real. The need to move as quickly as we can is real."
Hank Kashdan, budget director for the Forest Service, said complaints that the budget shortchanges thinning are not valid. He said the planned budget does reduce grants to local communities, but it increases spending on hazardous fuels reductions within the forests by $19 million.
The fire danger across Arizona remains high, particularly in the deserts where rains have produced heavy vegetation that will dry out this summer. Rowdabaugh said that rains were heavier than normal this year, but long-term projections indicate a return to prolonged drought.
TANKER 26 GOES DOWN, P-3s STOOD DOWN
APRIL 21 -- CHICO, CA:
Aero Union's Tanker 26, one of its P-3 Orions, crashed last evening north of Chico while on a training mission with three pilots aboard.
A rescue team spent several hours overnight making their way into the rugged area of the Ishi Wilderness, and this morning there was no word on any survivors. The FAA later confirmed three fatalities.
"Our thoughts and prayers go with the families of Tom Lynch, Brian Bruns and Paul Cockrell," said Aero Union's president Terry Unsworth. "The loss affects each and every one of us deeply. Our immediate concern is for the families and providing the support they need."
A small fire that started after the crash was estimated this morning by the rescue team at about three acres. They said the aircraft debris was scattered over approximately 5 - 8 acres, and a fire crew had lined it this morning. The Tehama County Search and Rescue crew were released about 11 a.m.
The fatal flight -- a training mission -- was the seventh of the day for Tanker 26, which was due for its Forest Service inspection tomorrow.
Chuck Wamack, the assistant center manager at the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, said that Forest Service aviation managers requested a temporary stand-down of all contracted P-3 tankers. The duration of the stand-down has not been determined.
Rose Davis with public affairs at NIFC, however, indicated today it would probably be just a day or two. She said the NTSB has sent a team from Washington, DC -- including NTSB Vice Chairman Mark Rosenker -- for the accident investigation, but that the Forest Service would not be a part of the investigation because the tanker was not on a firefighting mission. She said the Forest Service is "aggressively" working with Avenger Aircraft Services on an Operational Service Life Determination for the P2V-5 and P2V-7 airtankers.
She also cautioned agency employees against speculation, and suggested that condolences
to Aero Union employees and others in the airtanker industry were in order.
FIRE SAFETY SUMMIT SCHEDULED FOR MISSOULA
APRIL 20 -- MISSOULA, MT: Firefighter safety issues and concerns are on the agenda in Missoula next week, with the annual Wildland Fire Safety Summit slated for April 26 - 28 at the University of Montana. It's sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire, and the Missoulian reported that conference organizers expect more than 400 firefighters and fire managers from around the world.
Retired U.S. Forest Service researcher Bob Mutch will be the keynote speaker, with his analysis of the 2003 Cedar Fire in southern California. Incident commander liability has become a hot issue since the Thirtymile Fire and the Cramer Fire, and U.S. Attorney Mike Johns of Phoenix will discuss "Liability Issues Related to Wildland Fire Personnel.''
The banquet speaker is John Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain and Fire and Ashes. He will discuss "The New Age of Fire: Storm King and Beyond.'' Breakout groups will identify issues and develop recommendations at the local, regional, national, and international scale; results will be presented to wildland firefighting agencies.
Online registration is available through the University of Montana.
The International Association of Widland Fire (IAWF) is a non-profit organization representing the wildland fire community. Arrangements have been made for reduced airfares; from most large airports in the West, fares are under $300.
This year's safety summit is the "10th Anniversary Conference" in recognition of the 1995 Human Factors Workshop, a landmark event in firefighter safety. Major sponsors are MTDC, the University of Montana's National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis, and the NWCG's Safety & Health Working Team. For more information, call the conference vendor coordinator, Howard Dupuis, at (705)945-5774 or Bill Gabbert at (605)890-2348 or Dick Mangan at (406)543-0013.
WELSH FIREFIGHTERS STONED BY TEENS
APRIL 20 -- CARDIFF, SOUTH WALES, UK: Fire crews are facing attacks in many small south Wales communities, according to new research for the Fire Brigades Union. Their study identified a series of attacks in villages over the last couple years, and the BBC News reported that fires were started deliberately to lure crews in.
Firefighters were then pelted with stones and bricks by teenage gangs.
The Fire Brigades Union wants a new law to make assaulting an emergency worker a distinct offence. Regional Secretary Dick Pearson said central coordination is needed to address the problem.
"It's frightening," he said. "Even when you are attacked by kids of seven, eight or nine, if you have a group of them around you trying to rob things off you or throwing stones, it's a pretty ugly environment." He said firefighters get distracted by people trying to steal things from fire engines, and that firefighters can't deliver the service that they're capable of when they're under attack.
The North Wales Daily Post reported that brigade bosses are warning that firefighters could be killed by thugs luring them into ambushes. North Wales Fire and Rescue Service is backing up the union study showing 40 attacks a week on firefighters throughout the UK.
North Wales assistant chief fire officer Colin Hanks said there have been 23 assaults on his crews in the last two years, including incidents where bricks, bottles, and missiles were thrown at firefighters. "My concerns are that eventually this anti-social behavior will result in serious injury or death to a firefighter, or a member of the public if firefighters are prevented from doing their jobs during these attacks," said Hanks. "At some incidents, crews have to contend with various items being thrown at them, or having their equipment damaged, such as smashed fire engine windscreens."
The Guardian reported that scaffolding poles have been thrown through engine windscreens, and in one incident a child was killed by youths with air guns while crews fought a fire. Andy Gilchrist, union secretary, said the number and ferocity of attacks appear to be getting worse. "A young boy died in Scotland during one attack," he said, "and it is only a question of time before a firefighter is killed." He said it shouldn't be part of anyone's job to get a brick or bottle in the head.
Union Regional Secretary Pearson, based in Port Talbot, said attacks on fire crews are a growing problem across the UK. Although there were around 2,000 recorded attacks per year, he said there's a serious problem of under-reporting such incidents. He said legislation in Scotland makes it distinct criminal offence to attack an emergency service worker, but that the Welsh assembly does not have law-making powers in Wales.