2018 California Wildfire Update – Is This The New Normal?

Last Year’s Disaster

During the massively destructive 2017 wildfire season in California, certain phrases kept being repeated. “Unprecedented”, “Uncharted territory”, “Historic”, “War zone”, “New normal”, and other descriptive phrases were used to try and give people an understanding of the magnitude and severity of the fires. People hoped 2018 would be different, but “New Normal” seems to be an accurate description of what we can expect from wildfires in California.

This Year’s Activity (So Far)

California governor Jerry Brown has started to get lawmakers and the public to brace for the increasing threat of wildfires. He was recently quoted in a SacBee article, saying that fighting wildfires in the state is “going to get expensive, it’s going to get dangerous, and we have to apply all our creativity to make the best of what is going to be an increasingly bad situation.”

Around a quarter of California’s annual fire suppression budget has already been spent; even though the fiscal year just started July 1st. Simultaneous large fires are also spreading resources thin. As of this writing, 16 large uncontained fires burning a total of 343,700 acres continue to to challenge California firefighters. The largest and most destructive of these fires is the Carr Fire near Redding, which claimed 6 lives and destroyed over 1,000 homes. It already ranks as California’s 6th most destructive wildfire. In fact, half of California’s 10 most destructive wildfires have happened in the last 4 years.

National resources are also spread thin, as the National Interagency Fire Center has upped the National Preparedness Level to 5 (out of a possible 5), indicating that resources are already fully committed to current fires. New fire starts will have a higher potential for large growth, as there will be limited resources to stop the fire before it gets established.

NASA image courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) project. Image taken August 1, 2018.

 

California Active Large Fire Facts

 

The Ferguson Fire burns near Yosemite National Park on Sunday, July 15, 2018, as seen from El Portal, Calif. (Carrie Anderson via AP)

Ferguson Fire Scorches over 21,000 acres near Yosemite

The Ferguson Fire began last Friday evening (13/July) in the Savage Trading Post area of Mariposa County, CA. It quickly grew past 4,000 acres by Sunday morning. Evacuations were issued for several areas in the vicinity and parts of Hwy 140 were closed due to firefighting activities. From the beginning, crews focused on securing fire line along Hwy 140 and structure protection where needed. In preparation for the hot and dry forecast, additional resources worked to extend containment lines to the east on both north and south flanks of the fire. Daily, an inversion has kept the smoke low over the fire which limits the usage of aircraft for water and retardant drops. Another compounding factor to this very active fire is the available fuels – this area has had no significant wildfire in nearly 100 years.

 

Ferguson plume at sunset

Ferguson Fire smoke-plume at sunset from Yosemite National Park, 17/July/2018. (Photo: Scott Newmann)

 

Fire Outlook

The forecast has been much the same each day for the Ferguson Fire area. Today’s weather was similar to yesterday with upper 90os and into the triple digits, relative humidity around 17-20%, and light & variable west winds at 5-10 mph with gusts to 20 mph. As thunderstorms built over the area after lunch, these winds increased to 15 mph with stronger gusts. These conditions will lead to ongoing active fire behavior. As safety allowed, crews conducted burning operations along the western and eastern sides of the fire. This means they purposely burned fuel to remove it in controlled portions. Removing this fuel allows resources to better control where the fire can grow and spread next. At only 7% containment, crews are pre-positioned in the communities around the fire in case the winds drive it quickly to the houses. So far, no homes have been destroyed from this fire, but the destructive California fires of this past fall and winter remain fresh in everyone’s minds.

 

Smoke traveled from the Ferguson Fire into Yosemite National Park and lingered as the inversion continued day after day. (Photo: Scott Newmann)

Smoke traveled from the Ferguson Fire into Yosemite National Park and lingered as the inversion continued day after day. (Photo: Scott Newmann)

Fire Facts

  • As of: July 19th, 2018
  • Location: Mariposa, CA
  • Size: 21,041 acres
  • Containment: 7%
  • Fire Behavior: Moderate fire spread through brush/chapparal and light pine timber
  • Structures Threatened: 108
  • Structures Destroyed: zero
  • Evacuations: In place for Jerseydale and Mariposa Pines to the south, Yosemite West to the east, and along Hwy 140 to the north
  • Incident Page: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5927/

WildfireIntel.org is Quickly becoming a Trusted Source

Late June and early July added several new ignitions to a wildfire season that was already off to an ominous start. So far in 2018 major fires have already igniting across Texas, Oklahoma, and the Southwest. The recent heat wave that swept Red Flag fueled wildfires across the US resulting in evacuations and structure loss in Colorado, California, Utah, and  As we move deeper into the summer months, increasingly warm and dry conditions will continue to fuel the threat of wildfires. The National Inter-agency Fire Center released their fire potential outlook for summer months, predicting an above average fire season for all of the twelve western states making wildfire intelligence gathering even more essential.

A New Source for Wildfire Intelligence

Understanding the need for real-time wildfire intelligence, a conversation started between group of devout users and former moderators. This group came together to revive a forum that once popular among the fire community. For a variety of reasons they ultimately decided it was best to spin-off a new website. This new website, branded wildfireintel.org, was created as a non-profit with the mission to create a free public forum for discussing “topics important to the fire community”. Relevant subjects include fire related “incidents, jobs, industry, safety, and health”.

Wildfire Intelligence Forum Example

An example of how the forum is structured based off geographic regions.

Recent Fire Activity Drives Traffic and Additional Users to the Website

Although it’s still in the initial stages of development, wildfireintel.org is up and running and gaining traction. WildfireIntel.org is quickly becoming a trusted source for accurate, real-time information. Recent fire activity is helping increase traffic to the forum, with the last 30 days adding over 200 new users and almost a million page views. Knowing that forums survive by the active participation of its users the founders of the website are encouraging the fire community to continue to contribute to the site. The founders hope that with increased participation an “active and sustainable wildfire community” will again foster and provide much need wildfire intelligence. For more information, please visit the wildfireintel.org website and/or become more involved by registering.

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Wildfire Intelligence Logo

A New Source for Wildfire Intelligence and Discussion

The 2018 wildfire season is already off to a strong start. So far this year major fires have already igniting across Texas, Oklahoma, and the southwest. As we move into the summer months, increasingly warm and dry conditions will continue to fuel the threat of wildfires. The National Inter-agency Fire Center released their fire potential outlook for summer months, predicting an above average fire season for all of the twelve western states making wildfire intelligence gathering even more essential. This foreboding outlook comes on the heels of an oft dubbed “unprecedented” 2017 wildfire season that shattered multiple records.

A Trusted Source Lost

2017 thrust the threat of wildfires back into the public spotlight. Numerous fires across the United States grabbed nationwide media attention but none more than the two most significant California fires; The October Fire Siege in Napa/Sonoma and the Thomas Fire in the Ventura/Santa Barbara area. With broadcast and social media flooding in, one trusted source of wildfire intelligence was surprisingly absent from the conversation. Without notice, during the late season chaos of the Thomas fire, the WildlandFire.com forum was taken offline and all the data was lost.

What was WildlandFire.com?

WildlandFire.com was conceived in the early nineties as a way to provide, “a quick, reliable system to allow firefighters and other employees (and their families) the ability to voice their thoughts, ideas, experiences, or even ask a few simple questions.”. By the late nineties the forum gained traction, soon becoming a trusted source within the firefighting community.

Wildfire Intelligence Forum

Understanding the essential role this type of web forum plays, a conversation started on how to revive the website. A group of “devout users and former moderators” ultimately decided it was best to spin-off a new website. This new website, branded wildfireintel.org, was created as a non-profit with the mission to create a forum for discussing “topics important to the fire community”. Relevant subjects include fire related “incidents, jobs, industry, safety, and health”.

Wildfire Intelligence Forum Example

An example of how the forum is structured based off geographic regions.

For More Information and How to Register

Although it’s still in the initial stages of development, wildfireintel.org is now up and running. Knowing that forums survive by the active participation of its users the founders of the website are encouraging the fire community to contribute to the site. The founders hope that with increased participation an “active and sustainable wildfire community” will again foster. For more information, please visit the wildfireintel.org website and/or become more involved by registering.

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Wildfire Intelligence Logo

RedZone Disaster Intelligence

RedZone Attends WUI Conference

Last week, a few of RedZone’s leaders attended the (Wildland Urban Interface) WUI Conference in Reno, NV. To kick it off, Pat Durland lead a featured course Sunday and Monday, teaching WUI mitigation techniques to a class of 40+ from all over the country. Pat prides himself on sharing the latest findings, lessons learned, and mitigation techniques each and every year. Mr. Durland touted the class as a success, citing a 40% increase in attendance from the previous year.

WUI Conference General Session area

Wildfire Urban Interface Conference in Reno, NV

WUI Conference: Day 1

The rest of RedZone and nationwide attendees arrived as the conference began Tuesday and ran through Thursday afternoon. The full conference opened with a General Session on the state of Wildland Fire from a policy perspective. CALFIRE Chief Ken Pimlott, the IAFC Head, and USDA Forest Service (USFS) Deputy Chief, Vicki Christiansen, spoke during the session. The group highlighted the trends seen in terms of growth for wildfire activity and spending as well as the decline in both personnel and budgets. It turns out that 2017 was the costliest year in USFS history with the 2.4 billion spent on last year (up from 1.6 billion in 2016). Chief Christiansen also suggested that a year-round fire season is the expectation of leadership at the USFS. Consequently, she stated, “Wildfire consumes the USFS budget.” Fortunately, their strategy to overcome this relies on further development of a separate fund to pay for the outlier, 1-2% of, fires whose wildfire suppression costs cause the majority of the disparity. In turn, the fund should help alleviate the strain on the shortfalls for the non-fire forestry programs (a $100 million deficit on average annually). Sounds like tough times monetarily.

October 2017 Northern California Fire Siege

Day Two began with the highlight of the conference for me, a detailed report on the October 2017 Northern California Fire Siege. Our team spent nearly two weeks following and responding to one of the worst wildfire catastrophes in human history. I followed the Sonoma fires’ every move that eerie night, so it was interesting to hear from the Santa Rosa Incident Commander on his experience that night on the ground. These fires have been covered well so here are a few things I learned from Chief Tony Gossner (Santa Rosa City Fire, Tubbs IC for Santa Rosa City).

  • On October 8th and 9th (2017) 172 different fires started, 21 of which went extended attack
  • 3,600 911 calls were received
  • Life Safety and Rescue were 100% priority for the first 12 hours
  • Tubbs fire travelled 12 nautical miles in 3+ hours
  • Learned a New term ‘mountain wave’, used to describe the wind pushing the fire down the mountain
  • 78 strike teams were requested before midnight
  • 150 elderly were left to shelter in place as evacuation of the facility became impossible, three engines were told “to not let this building burn”
  • “Sounded like a war zone” (hundreds of cars and propane tanks blew up)
  • There were more personnel than vehicles to respond, so firefighters used personal vehicles, rented vans, trucks, whatever they could get their hands on.
  • “One group actually cut a lock and stole one of Santa Rosa City’s Fire Engines” (Chief Gossner)
  • Alerting in the middle of the night was very ineffective

“One group actually cut a lock and stole one of Santa Rosa City’s Fire Engines” (Chief Gossner)

Other Seminars

We attended several other seminars during the next two days of the WUI conference. The next most relevant was an interesting discussion of the shortfalls of evacuation planning, terminology, and strategies for the different stages of an event. Lastly, Greg Miller, Chief of Gatlinburg fire then shared his department’s fight with the Chimney Tops 2 fire in late November of 2016. Similarly to the Tubbs fire, that fire devoured 2,501 structures in 8 hours due to another ‘mountain wave’ event. The deadly tale was yet another reminder that wind driven fires such as these are especially dangerous when they happen overnight.

wui quotes

Powerful quotes from Incident Commanders on two of the worst fire disasters in history

Napa Sonoma Fires

2017 Fire Season, A Short and Sweet Review

Fire Season in 2017 was yet another headline-filling wildfires across the US and North America. Data reported by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) for the 2017 calendar year showed 66,131 total fires (+3,277 from 2016) and 9,781,062 (+4,365,941 from 2016) acres burned across the fifty states. In recent blog posts, we highlighted the two major wildfire events, which were the pinnacle of this fire season in terms of destruction and acreage burned. October’s Northern California Wildfires included the Tubbs Fire that burned the most structures (5,000+) in recorded history and the equally significant Thomas Fire (in Ventura/Santa Barbara) that burned the most acres in California history, in December!

2017 Fires

Major Fires from Fire Season 2017 reported by GEOMAC and NIFC

A Look Back at 2017 Fire Danger

Like most years, 2017 saw high fire danger transition across the country, coinciding with regional climate and conditions. High fire danger started in the Midwest and South in March and April, crept into the Southwest in May and June, moved into the Mountainous West and California by July, before finishing with the Southern Appalachians towards the end of the year. The nearly 10 million acres was the second most since NIFC began recording totals across the country. 2017 ranked higher in number of acres burned compared to the 10-year average.

2018 Early Fire Season Outlook

January:

La Niña conditions are likely to continue drying the southern third of the U.S., although occasional storms will bring some helpful moisture. Nonetheless, an elevated threat of large fires along the southern California coast will continue. Dry conditions in the Southwest and southern Plains will worsen but conditions in January are not likely to support much fire activity.

Feb/March:

Drying continues across the southern third of the U.S. Transition to early spring across the southern Plains will bring increasing wind events that could spread fire quickly across the dry grasslands of the southern Plains and the Southwest. The increased potential will spread across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, southern Kansas, western Arkansas and Missouri, and southern Arizona by March. Increasing potential for dry, windy fronts in the northern Plains and poor snow cover could contribute to elevated risk of large fires across eastern Montana and western North Dakota in March. Persistent dryness and potential for offshore winds will keep an elevated threat in coastal southern California.

2018 early fire season

An early look at the Fire Danger in the first three months of 2018

Sources: NIFC, GEOMAC, Predictive Services

SmokeJumper Fire

Smokejumpers: Flying into the Danger Zone

Introduction

In the Wildland Firefighting community Smokejumpers are widely regarded as one of the most prestigious positions in the fire service. Smokejumpers are transported to fires in fixed wing aircraft, where they jump out at altitude and parachute down to the fire area. This seemingly wild process reduces response time to remote areas of the forest, and has allowed firefighters to access and attack fires long before heavy equipment could arrive. These seasoned firefighters utilize their vast fire knowledge, coupled with hand tools and chainsaws, to build a fire break around these newly sparked isolated incidents. Smokejumpers have a long history of fighting fire in some of the most secluded forested areas of the United States.

Read more

Thomas Fire Set to Become Largest in CA History

UPDATE 01/03/18 @ 4:49 p.m. – The fire is now 92% contained at 281,893 acres.

Thomas Fire Summary

The Thomas Fire began in Ventura County just north of Santa Paula around 630pm on Monday December 4th. Under Red Flag and Santa Ana Conditions the fire quickly made a push along Hwy 150 to the south and parallel to Hwy126 to the west threatening Santa Paula and Ventura the first night. The fire continued its push west, crossing Hwy 33 and reaching the ocean at Hwy 101 shortly after. Over the course of the next week the fire slowly boxed in Ojai, eventually surrounding it, and pushed its way further west towards the Santa Barbara County line. By this time, the majority of the 1,330 structures impacted already had been. A few days later, the fire used a new round of overnight wind gusts to make a big run on the morning of Sunday Dec 9th, establishing itself above Carpinteria and Montecito. The following Saturday another round of morning winds forced the fire down into the fringe of Montecito, forcing a wall of engines into a several hour battle to push stall its progress. Luckily, by this time over 8,000 firefighters were assigned to the fire, and up to the task of suppression the big morning run. Thanks to their efforts, of the reported 1,300 homes threatened on Dec 16th, only 15 or so were impacted.

thomas progression

Thomas Fire’s progression from Dec 4th (green) through Dec 22nd (red)

Since that push, the fire’s progress has stalled and containment has increased to 65%. Still over the last 17 days, the fire is only 500 acres shy of topping the Cedar Fire for largest in California history. A burn operation is expected to add the acres needed with a few thousand more before all is said and done. Luckily, the firefighters necessary to see the fire out have been halved since the peak last week, but the suppression costs could eclipse last summer’s costly Soberanes fire in well short of the time. The full containment of the historic fire is not expected until after 2018 has begun.

Thomas Fire Major Developments:

  • Yesterday’s wind event produced 50 mph gusts, but fire activity remained minimal.
  • The firing operation was stalled yesterday due to high humidity and some snowfall. It was able to continue in the afternoon, and further firing is planned today for the Rose Valley area.
  • The fire area effectively endured two straight weeks of high to extreme fire weather conditions. Over that period, RH dropped as low as 3-5% and wind speeds were recorded over 60mph.
  • The fire is 500+ acres shy of passing 2003’s Cedar Fire for largest (in terms of acreage burned) in recorded California history.
  • Total fire suppression costs have ballooned to $170 million in just 17 days. It took last year’s Soberanes Fire twelve weeks to cost its total of $236 million.
top ten acres burned

Thomas Fire is 2nd all time in California’s history for acreage burned, but not for long.

Thomas Fire Facts:

  • Location: Fillmore all the way to Santa Barbara, both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties
  • Size: 272,800 acres (as of 1/3/18 – 281,893)
  • Containment: 65% (as of 1/3/18 – 92%)
  • Fire Behavior: Light fire behavior with interior burning on the northern portions of the fire
  • 1,063 structures have been destroyed and 267 more have been damaged.
  • 18,000 Structures remain threatened.
  • All Mandatory Evacuations have been lifted.
top four ca fires

California’s four largest fires in history (update 01/03/18 : Thomas is now number 1)

Sources:

NIFC.GOV

CalFire Incident Page

Inciweb

Wikipedia – List of California Wildfires

Santa Ana Conditions This Week for Southern California

Red Flag Warning Possible through Saturday

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for Southern California beginning in the early AM hours on Monday through (at least) Friday 1200 PDT. The areas will experience a significant Santa Ana conditions with the strongest winds expected Monday night and Thursday night into Friday. Offshore winds will exacerbate the problem by drying the air and reducing humidity to the single digits. This will likely be the strongest and longest Santa Ana event we have seen in the 2017 season.

Around this time two years ago we discussed what the thresholds are for a Red Flag Warning in Southern California. In this case, the National Weather Service sees the region’s relative humidity ≤15%, with sustained winds ≥ 25 mph and/or frequent gusts ≥ 35 mph (duration of 6 hours or more). The early event projections have even stated this could extend into next weekend. Specifically, wildfire danger will be most critical in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The combination of Santa Ana winds, low humidity, warm temperatures, and dry fuels will increase the risk for the rapid spread of any new fire starts. In response for this week, extra strike teams, and brush engines have been strategically staged in case of a big wildfire ignition.

RFW stats

This week’s expected Red Flag Warning statistics

Areas Impacted by Santa Ana Conditions:

Ventura County Mountains, Orange County, Los Padres National Forest, Los Angeles County Mountains, Angeles National Forest, Santa Clarita Valley, Cleveland National Forest, and San Diego County.

Click for official Santa Ana Conditions information: Red Flag Warning

santa ana conditions Dec 4

This week’s Red Flag Warning covers Southern CA from Santa Barbara to the border

 

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Book Review: “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”

In The Big Burn, author Timothy Egan takes the reader through the beginning years of environmentalist and activist John Muir’s growing friendship with then Governor Teddy Roosevelt. The book builds by highlighting their growing, shared desire to preserve the frontier and forestlands of the West. During Roosevelt’s presidency, he leaned heavily on forester and politician Gifford Pinchot to manage and develop the nationally protected forestry lands. Pinchot, in turn, formed the US Forest Service, as we know it today. Egan provides in-depth historical accounts of the politics involved in the establishment of the protected areas and the fight against unregulated land clearing by logging companies.

 

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

As the story leads in to 1910, Egan sets the stage by depicting a newly established forestry service still developing its forestry management plan. Many areas had no trained or allocated firefighting groups. With little-to-no fire crew system in place, Egan tells how forest rangers would have to staff their crews with any able-bodied men in town when the need arose, oftentimes from the nearby saloon. The whole situation becomes harrowing when one day in late August, a wildfire began burning out of control in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. In response, a ranger named Ed Pulaski, was sent with a 45 man crew to work a part of the fire and ended up forced to find shelter in a nearby mine. Pulaski knew the area, was familiar with fire behavior, and was determined to save his men, even giving up his horse to an older fire fighter so the man could keep up with the crew. Pulaski kept his men sheltered in the mining tunnel overnight until the fire passed, keeping some of the panicked men inside the tunnel by force at gunpoint. The next day, he famously led them out of the forest into the nearby town to the hospital. Included in Egan’s relating of the Big Burn, as it came to be called, are many first-hand accounts and photos that pull the reader even closer into the events that occurred in the Coeur d’Alene area. The August 1910 fire across portions of Idaho, Montana, and Washington burned approximately 3 million acres of logging and mining land – nearly the size of Connecticut.

Image of mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight - now called the Pulaski Tunnel

Mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight – now called the Pulaski Tunnel

This book is recommended for readers interested in the historical account of the Big Burn and the inspiration for the development of the US Forestry Service and National Park Service. It is easily readable and engaging while giving an incredibly detailed and laid out history of the events surrounding this fire. Readers familiar with the wildland fire fighting world may know Pulaski’s name from the Pulaski tool credited to him (and likely created after this incident due to the need shown for better firefighting tools) that is a national standard.

For more information: