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  • If you were a wildland firefighter…

    Tue, April 30, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    You’d probably surf the Internet just like everybody else.

    But you’d also probably spend some time on these three websites:

    1. Inciweb.

    Used by the U.S. Forest Service, and other land agencies, to post updates on wildfire incidents around the county. Those of us who watched the Waldo Canyon fire are pretty familiar with this site–a great place to fire updates on acres, damages, and how many firefighters are involved in wildfires . You can also get maps, photos, useful phone numbers and other tidbits about fires near you.

    2. National Interagency Fire Center’s “Sit” Report (for April 26)

    “Sit” stands for situational–this is a long list of all the current fire activity around the country, monitored by the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. You can see how many fires are burning in your region (for us in the Rocky Mountain area, there are six fires burning right now). As fires season picks up, these updates should be more frequent. Not quite as user friendly as InciWeb, but still an interesting wrap-up.

    Take a look at the regional breakdown of the United States.

    3. Wildfire Today

    Run by longtime wildland firefighter and former president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, Bill  Gabbert, this wildfire blog has a stellar mix of wildfire data and inside “trade” secrets for those non-firefighting types out there.

    Anything that remotely, or intimately, concerns the world of wildfires–Gabbert’s got it on his blog. He also runs a separate blog for fire aviation, Fire Aviation, that’s a great guide to all things air tanker.




  • New bill addresses role of state forest service in wildfire mitigation

    Tue, April 30, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    A new wildfire-themed Senate bill that seeks to involve the Colorado State Forest Service in biomass and wildfire plans passed the State Senate on Monday.

    The bill, Senate Bill 273, was sponsored by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass. Here’s the wrap-up the senator’s office provides of the bill:

    • Directs the Colorado Forest Service to work with federal departments to facilitate the use of forest biomass at timber mills.
    • Directs the Colorado Forest Service to assist neighborhoods in high risk areas with their community wildfire protection plans.
    • Requires the Air Quality commission to analyze equipment fueled by biomass
    • Creates eligibility for bonding with the Water Resources Power Development Authority up to $50 million for timber and biomass related industrial development.

    The question is–how would this bill change things for the state forest service? The agency is currently involved both in using forest biomass–dead trees, slash piles, anything that’s a result of forest work--at timber mills, said Ryan Lockwood, a spokesman for the agency. For communities with land in the state forest service territory, the agency must sign off on the community wildfire protection plans for them to be approved.

    Lockwood said officials will have to look at the bill’s exact language to see what’s new, or different, about it. I hope to have more details about that soon.

    In the meantime, the bill was introduced in the State House on Monday, and was moved into the Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee for consideration. It must pass that as well as two more readings before it becomes law.

  • Red Flag Warning for El Paso County

    Tue, April 30, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Remember those? During the Waldo Canyon fire, the National Weather Service in Pueblo frequently issued these alerts for Colorado Springs, calling attention to high winds, higher temperatures, and a general state of danger for wildfire-prone areas.

    On June 26, the day the firestorm roared through Mountain Shadows and destroyed 347 homes, the weather service issued a red flag warning.

    The warning was issued at 8 a.m. Monday and will last until Tuesday evening, according to the National Weather Service in Pueblo. That means gusty winds and low relative humidity–dry conditions.



    Take a look at the weather service’s fire information page to learn more about fire weather, and read the weather report for El Paso County today.

  • VIDEO: Fire in the Great Plains

    Fri, April 26, 2013 by Ryan Handy with 1 comment

    Much of Colorado’s wildfire focus has been on the mountains–areas with steep terrain and dry pines.  But the entire eastern flank of the state is technically part of the Great Plains, where wildfires can be just as deadly and just as key to the ecosystem.

    Check out this series of videos put together by the Great Plains Fire Science program about the history of fire on the plains, and how ranchers rely on it as a cost-effective way to restore their acres.

    Take a look the Great Plains Fire Science Facebook page for more wildfire video.

  • Cigarettes and wildfires, round two

    Thu, April 25, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Yesterday I wrote about a U.S. Forest Service study that correlates a decrease in cigarette smokers to a decrease in wildfires caused by cigarettes. The study did not claim that the two were connected, but just noted that the trajectory of both–fewer smokers, fewer forest service fires–could be related.

    Reader Pete Vanvuren, who is a wildland firefighter, sent me this email in response:

    “I would have to say that the two are most likely unrelated.  When a fire ignites near a road, people are pretty quick to jump to the assumption that ‘it must have been started by a cigarette tossed out a car window’.  It is actually much more likely that such a fire was started by sparks from a lose tow chain dragging on the road, etc.  There are very specific conditions of temperature, RH (Relative Humidity), available fuels, etc and then there are the outside variables of altitude, wind conditions, etc. that are required to get a tossed cigarette to actually start a fire…If there is a correlation between the cigarettes and wildland fires, I would suggest it have to do with the more common use of lower ignition propensity cigarettes.”

    So, a lot of factors and “etcs.” when it comes to fire ignitions.  Pete’s point seems to be that getting a cigarette to start a fire is not as easy as one would suppose.

    I set out to answer that–exactly how does a cigarette start a fire? And what on earth is a “lower ignition propensity” cigarette?

    For question one, I talked to Sara McAllister,  a research mechanical engineer at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Station’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Mont.

    “Cigarettes burn in smoldering combustion mode,” McAllister said. “Even though you don’t see flames, it’s still hot.”

    Cigarettes burn at about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Dry grass only needs to be about 650 degrees to ignite–so a cigarette could do that easily. But, after a fire lights, how can you guarantee that the fire will spread? It all depends on the day, McAllister said.

    “There are a lot of variables– fuel, weather, topography, all of the usual concerns from any ignition source,” she said.

    Now, for question two: What is  a low ignition propensity cigarette and why would it make a difference when it comes to wildfire/fire ignition?

    For that, I spoke with Kristine Van Cleve, the Colorado Division of Fire Safety ‘s Fire Safe Cigarettes and Data Specialist.

    Low ignition propensity cigarettes need to be inhaled for them to burn, essentially.  If someone is not inhaling, then the cigarette will burn down to a certain point and snuff out.

    “It’s kind of a safe guard, if they don’t inhale and it gets to that then it just puts the cigarette out,” Van Cleve explained. All cigarettes in Colorado are officially required to have a low ignition propensity certification, Van Cleve added.

    So, if you fall asleep  while smoking a low propensity cigarette, in theory it should go out before you come to any harm. In theory as well,  if the cigarette gets tossed out a window into a patch of tinder-dry grass, it should snuff out.

    McAllister, on the other hand, had never heard of such a cigarette.






  • Wildfires: A statistical wrap-up

    Thu, April 25, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    For all the wildfire geeks out there, the National Interagency Fire Center has a fascinating statistical round-up of the worst fires in North American history–how many homes and acres they burned, how much they cost, and how many lives they claimed.

    But, if pouring over the minutia of wildfire history is not your thing, then at least take a look at how wildfire season 2012 went down in the history books:

    • Four 2012 fires made it onto the list of Historical Fires–so the biggest and most destructive fires. Last year, those fires were: The Waldo Canyon fire, The Whitewater-Baldy (NM), White Draw (SD), and Long Draw (OR).  The list stretches back to 1804, when explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recorded an epic fire in the Dakotas. It also includes some devastating fires around the turn of the century, one of which killed 450 people in Minnesota.
    • In 2012, the Rocky Mountains had the most lightning caused fires in the United States, at 1,992 fires.  When it comes to the highest number of human caused fires–the southeast far out-shone the west there, with some 29,000 fires versus the Rocky Mountain number around 3,500.
  • Fewer smokers. Fewer wildfires. Are they related?

    Wed, April 24, 2013 by Ryan Handy with 2 comments

    Since 1971, adult smoking has decreased. So has the instance of wildfires in our national forests (so a U.S. Forest Service study says).

    The question is: Are the two related?

    According to a recent U.S. Forest Service study on wildfire ignitions, there seems to be a correlation between the two.

    Smoking vs. Wildfire

    The number of smoking-caused fires has dropped from 991 in the 1970s to 97 per year in the 2000s, the report said.

    “One possible explanation for the observed trend in the number of smoking-caused wildfires–though not examined in any study of wildfires as far as we know–could be the falling rate of tobacco use,” the report said.

    The report also lists common causes of wildfire–and while lightning strikes are at the top of the list, smoking and campfires are the second and third most frequent causes.  Railroads through national forest lands are also on the list.

    “Humans directly or indirectly ignite most wildfires in the United States, and these wildfires more often occur near values at risk,” the report said.

    The cause of the Waldo Canyon fire has not yet been explained by authorities–all we know is that it was human caused.


  • Colorado to be awarded $19.8 million for watershed protection

    Wed, April 24, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Sen. Mark Udall’s office got the news Tuesday that Colorado will receive $19.8 million from the federal government to help with emergency watershed protection.

    It’s yet another step forward in the long battle to get Colorado some wildfire recovery money–a battle that started last August, following a devastating fire season, when several of the state’s watersheds were compromised by wildfire. Local and state politicians rallied to the cause, after several setbacks, and in March got Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP)  funds included in the continuing resolution.

    The Natural Resources Conservation Service gave Colorado the $19 million, which should then be evenly split between communities affected by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fire.

    As for when the money will actually reach Colorado, Udall’s office wasn’t sure. Once it gets into the hands of local officials, the money will be allocated to various erosion control and watershed projects throughout El Paso County.

    Check out a timeline of the EWP process.

  • Sen. Mark Udall questions forest service chief about budget cuts, sequester

    Tue, April 16, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell Tuesday about how the agency plans to grapple with budget cuts that could impact its ability to fight fire this season.

    The forest service expects to add next generation, or modernized air tankers, to its fleet this month, but will still have to deal with cuts to its fire suppression programs. In short, although it has yet to get seriously underway, wildfire season 2013 could be an expensive endeavor for the agency.

    As of last week, the 2013 budget was a done deal–and the forest service announced that it will be cutting funds to its fire suppression program by 37 percent.  For the committee of senators from Oregon, Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota, that will come as big blow, particularly as the country gears up for another potentially record-breaking wildfire season.

    Both fire suppression and preparedness funds were cut, Tidwell told the committee. There are about 87 million acres of forest lands that need fuel treatment–the cutting down of trees, and thinning of forests to make them less of a breeding ground for megafires–but the forest service’s hazardous fuel reduction budget will be focused entirely on red zones, where people live.

    That doesn’t mean that other forest lands won’t get the treatment they need, Tidwell said; instead, those projects will be funded by other projects besides hazardous fuels reduction.

    The sequester will also impact the agencies wildfire fighting resources–it has cut 500 firefighters and between 50 and 70 engines from its pool, Tidwell said.

    “We’ll start off the season with less resources,” Tidwell told the committee. “Because of the sequester it will probably just cost us more money when it comes to fire.”

    Watch the two-hour committee hearing and read Tidwell’s witness statement by clicking here.

  • WESTERN WILDFIRE: Life in the red zone

    Thu, April 11, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments



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    Call it what you want–the red zone, wildland urban interface, or hillside overlay–but the message is still the same: If you live there, you better be prepared.

    Much of the focus of day one of Western Wildfire 2013, an international conference focusing on wildfire prevention and recovery, has been on those who chose to live in wildfire-prone zones, and how to prepare them for what experts say is inevitable–destructive wildfire.

    In the past two decades, potential climate change and persistent drought have escalated the severity of wildfires across the globe, from western Canada to Australia. But, more people are moving in the interface zones that abut forests or wildfire-prone landscapes, making fires more destructive and costly when they burn through the area. The struggle to get homeowners to understand the risk and react to it by doing fire mitigation is a universal problem, said Dan Bailey, president of the International Association of Wildland fire.

    As in Colorado Springs, programs like Fire Wise and Fire Adapted Communities strive to prepare homeowners for wildfire danger. A recent report praised Colorado Springs as one of the first American cities to adopt the Fire Adapted Communities program–something that made a material difference for firefighters during the Waldo Canyon fire.

    But in the west, there is still plenty of urban interface land to be settled, and research shows that people are slowly starting to fill up the remaining interface space.

    Headwater Economics, a Montana-based research firm, studies interface development. According to the research, El Paso County has only moderate interface development, with about 30 percent of the county’s population living in the interface.

    Check out this county-by-county map of the western United States to compare El Paso with other Colorado counties. If you live in the interface, check out this map of Colorado Springs and see what your wildfire risk is.

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