Friday, August 31, 2007

Where the Heck is Yellowpine - Part II

In Part I of this dispatch, I asked "Where The Heck Is Yellowpine, and why am I risking my ass to save it?" Since I wrote that post, we have had a busy few weeks in the wildlands of Idaho.

By now, many of you have heard about or seen video of an incident on August 13th during which the Knox Ranch Incident Command Post (ICP or 'firecamp') on the Cascade Complex - in Central Idaho - was burned into by a wildfire. Backfires set to protect the camp from the fire's advance spotted across the road between the fires and the camp, and despite heavy helicopter work for much of the afternoon, at about 4:30 p.m., the fire burned up to the edge of the camp, melted some porta-potties, burned a yurt, destroyed several historic cabins, and ignited a dumpster in the middle of camp. Nobody in camp was seriously injured, and many non line-qualified personnel got a chance to experience group torching in lodgepole and subalpine fir up close and personal. An old Alaska Smokejumper friend who knows a thing or two about crown fire said simply "It was fu*#ing hot!"

After a few days off, many of us turned on the computer, caught up on some email, and browsed to the "Theysaid" blog on wildlandfire.com - the unofficial gossip column of American wildland fire. Here, the debate about the incident has centered mainly on language: Was this incident an "entrapment," a "burnover," or "close-call"? The USFS has coined a new phrase for such an event, they are calling it, a “burn-by.” None of these terms are casual - all have specific definitions and are usually associated with investigations, finger-pointing, and maybe a bit of new policy, e.g. "Though shalt not burn up thy firecamp."

Some have minimized the incident, pointing out that the camp (a mountain meadow) was essentially a large safety zone in which the camp's occupants were able to weather the firestorm without fire-shelters.

Much of the discussion about the ICP fire seems to blame Incident Commander Paul Broyles (in charge of the Cascade Complex when the incident occurred) for letting fire burn into his camp. This oversimplifies the case. Paul Broyles was the third IC to work out of the Knox Ranch ICP, and as the fire approached his camp, his Team had barely gotten their feet on the ground on an assignment with a myriad of political, tactical, and leadership challenges. None of the posts that I have read so far have talked about the bigger picture of the Incident - operations controlled by the Knox Ranch ICP were only one part of a huge operation involving several large fire complexes, hundreds of square miles of uncontrolled fire, thousands of firefighters, and hundreds of overhead personnel.

I have been working on the Cascade Complex for most of the time that it has been burning, and was in the ICP up until about 4 days before it burned. I think that the events leading up to the Incident are worth sharing because they raise wider issues that need to be discussed by the wildland fire community. The ICP burn didn't unfold overnight - like most wildfire accidents, this one was the result of a series of multiple oversights and miscommunications, and occurred during a major transition, which is a common cause of firefighter accidents. While the story below is mine, most of us who were involved think that the ICP fire merits further discussion, and begs larger questions regarding Federal Fire Policy in general.

Some Key Questions:
  • What direction was the Area Command Team providing the IMTs as the IMTs defined objectives for their respective fires?
  • At what point did the IMTs receive the direction to shift priorities from 'perimeter-control' to 'point-protection.'?
  • What were the dynamics between the IMTs working on the Cascade vs. East Zone Complexes?
  • Did having an Area Command Team overseeing operations help or hinder communication between the Incident Management Teams that they were charged to support?
  • At an early juncture, it was clear that the Central Idaho Fires were beyond control. Why did it take over a month for the fire organization to officially change their tactics to emphasize 'point-protection'?

The Central Idaho Fires of 2007.
The Cascade Complex was born out of a large lightning storm that swept fire ignitions across large portions of the Boise, Payette, and Salmon-Challis National Forests of Central Idaho on July 17, 2007. This storm started the fires that would become the 'East Zone,' 'Cascade,' 'Middle Fork,' and 'Krassel WFU (Wildland Fire Use)' Complexes. Each of these complexes has required their own Overhead Teams, and to date, have cost taxpayers over $85 million.

When Tom Suwyn's Central Utah Type II Team arrived at Knox Ranch on July 20th to manage the Cascade Complex fires, 5 fires were burning across about 650 acres - of steep, thicketed, backcountry land. Even though these fires had plenty of potential for growth, the Cascade Complex was 15th in priority for resources in the Eastern Great Basin Area. Other fires competing for resources in the region included the Murphy's Complex, which started on 7/16/2007 near Twin Falls and had burnt over 500,000 acres by 7/21. By July 26th, 1,420 personnel were assigned to the Murphy’s Complex alone.

By the 22nd, the incoming Team had three Type II crews to work with and no engines, and the fires had grown to over 8,000 acres. This is not an uncommon occurrence - most large fires get started when other large fires in a region draw down firefighting resources. The incoming Team did what they could with the resources they had on hand; they set up a firecamp, ordered 11 hotshot crews, 6 helicopters, and 25 engines, and focused on their mission "do what we can with what we've got, don't get anybody hurt".

Originally, the Cascade Complex was made up of 3 fires on the Northern End of the Boise National Forest - the 'Monumental,', 'Riordan,', and 'Whiskey' Fires. In Tom Suwyn's Team's short tenure, new lightning starts established the 'Sandy' and 'Yellow' Fires, and Suwyn's Team was able to successfully contain the 'Whiskey' Fire. Smoking on the backside of a ridge West of the Knox Ranch ICP was the North Fork Fire. This fire was one of the closest to firecamp, but it had started on the Payette National Forest, and operations on it were being run out of the East Zone Complex ICP in McCall - about 55 miles away. This created a disconnect where the intel (mapping, planning, and analysis of fire behavior) on the North Fork Fire was basically unavailable to the Overhead at Knox Ranch - even though they were camped only 4-5 miles from the fire.

Around July 22nd, Rocky Oplinger's California Type I Team arrived on at Knox Ranch and Tom Suwyn's Team went home. Simultaneously, Jeanne Pincha-Tully's California Type I Team arrived in McCall to take over the East Zone Complex. With the arrival of the Type I Teams, resources poured in from across the West. By 7/26 the Cascade Complex had 2 Type I helicopters and 17 engines assigned, but it was too late. August brought hot dry days and high winds, and within a few days, the fires on all of the Central Idaho Complexes blew up. On August 1st, the Monumental Fire covered over 7 square miles, the North Fork Fire was at 1,582 acres, and the week-old Sandy Fire had already blown up to over 10,000 acres. By August 4th, the Monumental Fire covered 12 square miles, the North Fork Fire had grown to 4,186 acres.

As early as August 1st, both Oplinger's and Pincha-Tully's Teams had taken note of the potential threat that the North Fork Fire posed to the Cascade Complex ICP. A Draft camp evacuation plan was developed for the ICP, and firecamp contractors with shower and catering trailers were being asked to consider mobilizing drivers in case the camp needed to be moved. The general feeling at this time, though, was that prevailing winds would carry the North Fork fire to the Northeast, bypassing the ICP. As days went by and the North Fork Fire began to blow up, Rocky Oplinger's Team sent a field observer over to take a look at what was happening there. Pincha-Tully's Team took offense at this action, feeling that their toes were being stepped on. Heated phone calls between the ICs may or may not have improved communication between these two Teams.

Cascade ICP - 8-7-2007

By the end of Oplinger's Team's two-week assignment on the Cascade Complex (8/8), the fires had burned over 69,000 acres, and the Area Command Team in Cascade made the decision to add the North Fork Fire (now over 7,000 acres) to the Cascade Complex, and to split the two Easternmost fires in the complex (Sandy and Riordan) into their own Complex - the Landmark Complex, which was to be managed by Tom Suwyn's Type II Team.

Splitting the Cascade Complex in two pieces meant that Paul Broyle's Incoming Type I Team had to inbrief with two separate outgoing Teams, and also had to coordinate with Tom Suwyn's Team to reassign/split resources from two Complexes into three. It goes without saying that this period of time (8/5 thru 8/8) redefined the term clusterf*&k -- at a time when the fires continued to blow up daily. Also, Joe Ribar's Area Command Team transitioned with James Loach's Team between 8/7 and 8/9. As the IMT transition finished its third day, the North Fork Fire crested the last ridge between it and the Knox Ranch ICP, and the biggest mob of blue-polo-shirted Overhead folks ever seen by this firefighter faced a wild sunset: a smoked-salmon disk sliding across ridgeline sillhouettes of torching Subalpine Fir.

Regardless of whether anyone in the Knox Ranch ICP got hurt in the fire, many people were placed in harm's way fighting fires that we all knew were going to burn "until the snows fly." While the North Fork Fire was threatening the Knox Ranch, Tom Suwyn's Type II Team was forced to relocate their Landmark Complex ICP twice within a week, as first the Monumental, and then the North Fork Fires threatened their camps. Both of these moves involved hundreds of people and long convoys of support vehicles (crew buses, porta-potties, personal rigs, clerical, catering, and shower trailers) moving across over 20 miles of washboarded, narrow, dust-spewing backcountry dirt road.

Crashed garbage truck burned by wildfire.

When Suwyn's Team moved out of their second camp -- at Cox Ranch, in the Johnson Creek drainage -- the convoy drove over Warm Lake Summit thru an area that had experienced thousands of acres of crown fire the day before, had not yet been 'snagged' (hazard trees felled), and was still actively burning. At this point, this was the only road leading out of the area -- the other egress had been closed by the Loon/Zena Fire's advance. The day before this second move, a skateboard-sized piece of bark launched by explosive growth on the North Fork Fire (over ten miles upwind) fell from the sky onto the firecamp! Smoke from this blowup drifted across the entire continent, and out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Smoke from Central Idaho Fires on 8/12/07

Map of Monumental and North Fork Fires - the Convoy passed right thru the middle of these two fires.

So, "Where The Heck Is Yellowpine, and why am I risking my ass to save it?"

The first "Yellowpine" post asked why were we fighting backcountry fires that were clearly beyond human control. That post leads directly to this one: if it were not for the presence of a few cabins (one owned by a Senator), or private ranches in this area, it would likely be "Fire Use" ground -- where lightning fires are allowed to burn naturally as they have done so since the dawn of time. Hundreds of firefighters and support personnel were placed out in front of wildfires that were running as much as seven miles a day in order to do some politically-motivated structure protection, and to try to hold onto the heel of huge fires that were heading for the wilderness. Idaho's Salmon River Watershed is Fire Country. The land needs fire, and any fires that we suppress there only delay the next big one -- and everyone knows this.

I applaud the decision to quit trying to contain and attempt perimeter control of these fires, and to concentrate instead on 'point-protection' of a few historic cabins, old guard stations, or pack-bridges. My biggest hope is that we can learn to make these sorts of calls earlier in the game -- not after the fires have kicked our asses around the woods for five weeks. Why did it take so long for the order to come to disengage from 'confine and control' tactics?

The firefighters on the Cascade Complex have had excellent leadership in their camps, but have been let down by those at higher levels. Jerking hundreds of people around (including Overhead, camp crews, cooks, and garbage haulers) in front of running crownfires is unacceptable. Wildland firefighters deserve a clearer mission.

- fire hobo



  • nice synopsis. I was there during the burn-by. This term was coined by a group of people trying to figure out exactly what to call what happened. It wasn't a burn-over; the fire didn't enter the camp from one side and burn over or through and out the other. It actually flanked the camp (ultimately on two sides)...so "burn-by" seemed appropriate. Broyles team did provide good leadership. Should they have moved the camp before this? Probably...but as you note, there were complex reasons this wasn't done. Was this an unexpected event? No, it was planned for. Was it pulled off perfectly? No, but no one got hurt. Will there be a lot of monday-morning-quarterbacking going on for a long time over this? Certainly. This was the largest safety zone for 25 miles in any direction. It may not have been the best option, but it did work.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:37 PM  

  • This website is great. As a civilian I hear about wildland fires with as much background info as an earthquake in indonesia. We think there must be something tragic occurring- its on the teevee right? But then we wonder, well how bad is it. Then we are told how many acres have been burned, and how much money it has cost to suppress, watch, or whatever. Maybe we need some more tools to communicate the situation that would incorporate property value, timber value, ecosystem value, fire history etc.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:47 PM  

  • Great post, thanks for putting the link on the comment section of Firefighter Blog.
    I may highlight your post tomorrow.
    Thanks again and for all your service!

    By Blogger Mike, at 10:00 PM  

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