Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sideline Quarterbacks

Smoke from Eightmile Fire as seen from Falcon, CO.
Photo by R. Widmar
According to InciWeb (, a national interagency all-risk incident information management system, Colorado’s Eightmile Fire in Fremont County has burned about 495 acres. The fire is in rough, steep terrain on BLM land. No structures are directly threatened right now, but some pre-evacuation orders have been issued. And the sideline quarterbacking and questioning have already begun.

“Why didn’t they just send helicopters to put it out when the fire first started?”

“They say all these firefighters are working on it, but it’s getting bigger. Are they just sitting around doing nothing?”

Firefighters just love it when they are critiqued by people who have never worked a fire a day in their lives…

After the pounding our state has taken from wildfires the past two years, residents are naturally a little jumpy. And it’s human nature to question the actions (or inactions) of our governmental agencies, which many believe are incompetent thanks to widely-publicized bureaucratic screw-ups (VA and IRS being two recent examples). People want to know why fire agencies don’t just hit these fires hard and fast from the get-go.

The answers are not that simple.

Let’s use the Eightmile Fire as a case study. The fire, which according to press releases was likely sparked by lightning, ignited in a rugged, remote area. In an interview with KRDO News, incident commander Dan Dallas said firefighters monitored the fire but opted not to battle it right away because of the steep terrain, subsequent safety concerns for firefighters, and other factors that wildland firefighters understand.

Life safety is always, always, the number one priority in emergency services. Safety takes on even greater meaning as we approach two significant milestones in wildland firefighting: the one-year anniversary of losing 19 Hotshots in Yarnell, Arizona on June 30, 2013; and twenty years since 14 Hotshots, smokejumpers, and helitack crews died on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado on July 6, 1994.

So why didn’t the Eightmile Fire incident managers bring in air support while that fire was only about an acre in size? Dallas emphasized that air drops of retardant and water are not what puts out fires. “…it seems easy, you get a helicopter with water or a retardant plane and dump it on the fire and then it's out. (That’s) almost never true. It’s the people on the ground who run in after the aircraft drops its water or retardant who put the fire out,” he told KRDO.

Helicopter with "Bambi Bucket" for water drops.
Photo by R. Widmar (2012)
Even when air resources are called in, safety is paramount. The April 2014 Interagency Single Engine Air Tanker Operations Guide published by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group underscores that point, saying, “It is essential that all aviation operations be planned with the utmost consideration given to safety.” Extreme weather is just one thing that will ground air tankers and helicopters regardless of a wildfire’s size or the number of structures it threatens. 

Other factors can affect when air support is used in wildland firefighting, or whether aircraft are used at all.

Availability: During the past two years of wildfires in the West, air resources were stretched pretty thin. Even if an incident commander calls for a helicopter or air tanker right away, the closest resources may be assigned to a fire in another state. And that fire could take priority because it is directly threatening structures and lives. It could take days for that helicopter or plane to arrive. Until then, the work is relegated to the boots on the ground.

Fuels management: For decades, humans have endeavored to extinguish forest fires to protect people, property, and the forest itself. However, that practice has created an abundance of fuels in wildland areas that would normally burn if left to Mother Nature. Under the right conditions, forest and fire managers may allow a wildfire to burn in a remote area to remove these fuels and reduce the chances of a catastrophic fire in the future.

To read more about fuels management, check out Wildfire and Fuel Management published by the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

There's a lot more to wildland firefighting and management of incidents than what I've covered here. This is just a quick overview to help writers (and others) learn a little more about those subjects, and understand why outspoken critics don't always have all the answers.

Keep in mind that in all wildfires, there is an element firefighters cannot control: Mother Nature. On extremely hot, dry, and windy days, the fire is going to have the upper hand no matter how many ground or air resources are thrown at it. Until someone invents a machine that can control the environment, that’s just the way it’s going to be.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One Year Later…

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Royal Gorge and Black Forest fires, both of which ignited on the same day. The Black Forest fire took two lives – a loss that will always be deeply felt by family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

The photo in the header of this blog was taken by my husband, who used a zoom lens from the front porch of our home on the second day of the Black Forest fire. He was stuck with evacuation duties because I was at an out-of-state training class (which, ironically, was about how to manage large, multi-jurisdictional incidents such as these two fires…).

I haven’t been down to the Royal Gorge since the fire, but I see the scars of the Black Forest fire just about every single day on my drive to work. There are still thousands of acres of tall, black sticks that used to be lush, green trees. Some areas of the burned forest have been clear-cut (little else can be done with acres upon acres of dead trees), leaving behind wide-open spaces and newfound views of the mountains to the west. About 50 of the 489 destroyed homes have been rebuilt, with another 200 in progress.

The Black Forest community is resilient and continues to march forward in the recovery and rebuilding process. It will take time, and the area will never be what it was. But it is still a place that people call home.