A Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday found that the U.S. Forest Service has failed to justify its need for more firefighting aircraft, because it hasn’t researched the efficiency of its planes and what they do.
Sen. Mark Udall has asked the U.S. Forest Service to review its use of aircraft during the Black Forest fire to distill lessons learned for future fires along the Front Range.
The air response to the fire, the most destructive in state history, has been touted as a great success by the Senator as well as El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. In a letter to the forest service, Udall asked for details on how the forest service plans to integrate lessons learned from both the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires into future air response plans.
Udall is particularly interested in the use of military aircraft to fight wildfire.
“I was relieved to see that military aircraft from Fort Carson and the Colorado National Guard were activated early in the Black Forest Fire to drop water and fly spotter missions for ground personnel, and eventually dropped approximately 30,000 gallons of water on the fire. On the ground, the 40 personnel from the Colorado’s National Guard Reaction Force who manned security checkpoints in the Black Forest area demonstrated the type of swift cooperation required in rapidly evolving disaster scenarios.”
Udall also requested information about a potential interagency wildfire plan for the Front Range, which could incorporate military as well as forest service aircraft.
Last summer, Udall participated in an after action review of the military aircraft response to the Waldo Canyon fire. Listen to a briefing of that review here.
The U.S. Forest has opened up a 30-day long public comment period on its Waldo Fire Area Sediment Control project, which will be constructing sediment basins, log erosion barriers and bolstering culverts throughout the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar.
The project will span 2,000 acres, and aims to prevent mudslides and debris flow down the mountain–such as the community of Manitou Springs has seen over the past two weeks.
All comments or questions about the project can be sent be letters, emails or messages. Please send comments to:
Mike Picard, Project NEPA Coordinator
San Isabel National Forest
5575 Cleora Road, Salida, CO
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, please reference “Waldo Fire Area Sediment Control Comments” in the subject line.
The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee met Tuesday morning to grill U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on the agency’s management of wildfires and how to cut down costs.
Several experts in the field of wildland fire and forest ecology gave witness statements–which you can read here (scroll down to the bottom of the page)–as well as fielded questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the committee’s chairman. Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a democrat, also serves on the committee.
It’s a long hearing but one notable fact emerged: Studies have shown that aggressive mitigation and reduction of hazardous fuels–eliminating dead trees, for instance–has helped to drastically cut the costs of suppressing wildfires.
County commissioners from El Paso and Larimer Counties will be meeting tomorrow in Denver to discuss the state of wildfire recovery projects and efforts for the Waldo Canyon and High Park fire burn scars.
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, whose district encompasses acres of burned forest as well as Mountain Shadows, will be attending the meeting. In an email, Clark said the meeting should be mostly for planning and funding for future projects. Clark also passed along a great list of the current projects underway in El Paso County.
Based on a round-up of the costs of recovery efforts in both counties, it looks like El Paso is coming out on top.
Here are some highlights:
- Thus far, recovery efforts for El Paso County have reached $10,564,833. That compares to $9,199,941 in Larimer.
- Of all the agencies involved in recovery, the U.S. Forest Service has the most expensive of the various recovery projects, costing $5,631,869.
- A large amount of money for recovery and flood prevention projects came to the city of Colorado Springs through a Colorado Fire Relief Fund grant.
- The city of Manitou Springs spent $18,750 on emergency alert sirens.
I’m working on a way to attach the spreadsheet, which lists all the costs. More to come.
Two recent studies from the U.S. Forest Service discuss how wildfires affect and change urban communities. Both are more or less compendiums of decades of study and approach things from fire survivors’ perspectives.
The first study, “Social Science at the Wildland-Urban Interface,” looks at the social impacts of wildfire–how a devastating fire has psychological consequences for communities, and how homeowners learn from wildfire experiences and change their practices.
- Most homeowners in the wildland urban interface know the dangers that wildfires pose to their neighborhoods. But, awareness of the risk doesn’t always translate into homeowners taking action, such as doing mitigation on their properties. Often many have a “lightning strikes once” perspective, as in, this happened once, why would it happen again? Also, most homeowners who live in risk zones, but who have never experienced wildfire, wait until a wildfire hits to take precautions.
- Community perceptions of how wildfires were managed by firefighters or local governments have long-lasting impacts. Sometimes, a wildfire brings a community closer together; other times, it creates tension and drives a community apart. Communication during the fire is key to this–the more people know, the better they feel.
- Psychological impacts of surviving a fire are equally long-lasting. Home loss, smoke damage, and permanently transformed landscapes all contribute.
- Are their alternatives to mandatory evacuations? The report considers how residents handle being driven out of their homes for days (not always well) and the incredible angst they might feel wondering if their homes have survived. Australia allows residents to fight brush fires, and also allows residents to seek shelter in their homes from flames.
- A few things are on residents’ mind after a fire, and first among them (according to researchers) is the cause of the wildfire. Officials have not yet released the cause of the Waldo Canyon fire.
The second report, “Wildfires, Wildlands, and People: Understanding and Preparing for Wildfire in the Urban Interface,” is pretty self-explanatory. It looks at some of the same aspects as the first report–for instance, what motivates people to prepare for wildfires–and also notes the growing number of homes in the danger zone. It also talks about the delicate balance of wildfires–fire is a key component to many ecosystems, but it is also proving more and more devastating to humans.
- 32 percent of homes in the United States are in the wildland urban interface.
- Wildfires serious impact home values. Studies have found that up to two years following a destructive wildfire, the values of the surviving home are lower.
- More people are moving into the wildland urban interface–something researchers have know for a while. But this report posits something new–that as Baby Boomers start to retire, more of them will be seeking off-the-beaten-path locales, in fire-prone areas, spiking the numbers of residents in the interface.
If you’re into reading more about fires and fire science, I suggest you sign up for the Joint Fire Science Program eblasts–they don’t come very often, but when they do, they point great out studies, like these, on wildfire. Sign up for emails on the program’s website, on the right hand side of the screen.
The U.S. Forest Service announced Monday its plans to create a fleet of “next generation” air tankers for fighting wildfire, a long-anticipated boost to the agency’s decades-old fleet.
The new planes can carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant, whereas the older tankers, some of which were built during the Korean War, can carry up to 1,800 gallons. While the forest service may have announced the contract, there is no indication of when the new tankers will take to the air.
Last year, one of the most devastating wildfire seasons on record, nearly half of the requests for air tanker support went unfulfilled. A Gazette story on April 26 went through the “catch-as-catch-can” air tanker system and detailed why certain requests were unfulfilled.
The reasons requests went unfilled vary — planes were down for maintenance or fighting fire elsewhere, or crews were getting required rest, said Mike Ferris, spokesman for the Boise fire center.
But the availability — or lack thereof — of those tankers has concerned some Colorado firefighters.
“It would be nice to be able to sit here and tell you that we have that the availability 100 percent of the time,” said Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “That’s just not the case.
Without the next generation air tankers, the forest service instead relies on a patch-work system of planes loaned from the Department of Defense, Canada and Alaska.
You’d probably surf the Internet just like everybody else.
But you’d also probably spend some time on these three websites:
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
- 2012 was NOT the most expensive wildfire season in the history of U.S. firefighting. At $1,902,446,000, it draws a close second with 2006, at $1,925,395,000. Look at the list of firefighting costs since 1985.
- 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.
- Total for 2012, there were 67,774 wildfires that burned 9,326,238 acres–both far from the highest numbers in U.S. History. Take a look at stats for these, ranging from 1960 to 2012.