Outlook points to active fire season

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Outlook points to active fire season

DENVER — Fire scientists preparing this year's national wildfire forecast don't expect much of a reprieve from 2006, the worst fire season in a half-century.

An average or above-average year is likely; including more fires in parts of Southern California not already scorched in recent years, said Rick Ochoa, fire weather program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. Potential hotspots could include the Great Basin states of Nevada and Utah, and Arizona if unpredictable summer monsoons miss the state.

Those areas are locked in a pattern of widespread dryness, warmer temperatures and an early melting of mountain snow in the West, Ochoa said Thursday. He is among about 30 fire experts meeting this week in Boulder, CO to draft the fire outlook. The four-day session ends today.

The forecast is due out on Tuesday.

Although much of the USA may see normal conditions, a continuing worry now is the Southeast, where severe to extreme drought grips parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi. A 61,000-acre blaze in Georgia has burned for more than 11 days and was only 50% contained Thursday.

“I would be very surprised if we had a light fire season,” said Ochoa, who sketched out the factors likely to influence the forecast:

  • Summer heat. The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center sees a warmer-than-usual spring and summer in the West. If that holds true, “the probability of a big fire season in places like the Northwest, the Northern Rockies and Idaho is going to go up quite a bit,” Ochoa said.

  • Dead forests. Bark beetle infestations continue in Colorado, Idaho, and British Columbia. Dead or dying trees make abundant fuel for fires, but Ochoa said those trees are more fire-prone in the first year. Needles still on the branches make trees torches for fires to race through the treetops.

  • Carry-over fuels. Ochoa said Nevada has above-normal fire potential because of “carry-over” grass and brush that sprouted in the wet winters of 2005 and 2006 and are ready to burn after a dry winter.

  • Uncertain monsoons. The annual mid-summer storms in the Southwest rarely hit Arizona and New Mexico equally, Ochoa said. Arizona needs moisture, while New Mexico had a decent winter. “It's really tough for us to call, and it will make a huge difference,” Ochoa added. And if the monsoons are late or weak, fire season could be worse.

  • Alaskan temperatures. Fall, winter, and spring were dry in the state's interior. If temperatures are warmer than normal in May and June, that is “really going to tell the tale for their fire season,” Ochoa said.

Five of the seven worst fire seasons in the past half-century have been since 2000. Last year's damage was the worst: 9.9 million acres burned.


Wildfire at YMCA ranch quashed

Y’s tree-thinning efforts are hailed

SNOW MOUNTAIN RANCH, CO: 06/27/2007 - More than 100 firefighters attacked the blaze, which officials feared would jump to adjacent forests. The Y's tree-thinning efforts are hailed.

Fire crews mopped up the remains of an intense but short-lived wildfire Tuesday at the YMCA of the Rockies near Granby that had threatened to spread to tinder-dry adjacent forests.

The fire broke out Monday afternoon near a cluster of large cabins and lit up 60-foot lodge-pole pines. But firefighters quickly gained the upper hand, aided by a rapid response and fire breaks that the family resort has created by thinning dead trees.

“I think it played a huge role,” said Grand County Sheriff Rod Johnson. “The Y is kind of a leader in this forest-mitigation stuff. They've been working on the forest up there since before we had a lot of the beetle kill.”

Tens of thousands of acres of adjacent forest land, left brown and dying by an infestation of the pine-bark beetle, were at risk, but about 100 firefighters attacked the blaze within the first hour.

The fire forced the YMCA camp, known as Snow Mountain Ranch, to evacuate several cabins and a children's camp. It also prompted Grand County officials to notify homeowners in a nearby subdivision, but no buildings were damaged.

Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the fire, which burned about 50 acres of woods and grasslands.

A logging crew was working nearby but not in the immediate area, Johnson said. The fire started in an area not commonly used by guests but close to the large cabins used for family reunions.

Officials were pleased that the evacuation of 354 youths and staff members participating in the traditional summer-camp program took only 15 minutes, a testament to weekly fire drills.

Activities resumed Tuesday after the campers stayed overnight at a Granby middle school.

Meanwhile, a 19-member hot shot crew from Craig relieved local firefighters in dousing the remaining embers while residents and guests breathed a sigh of relief.

“It's one vacation to remember,” said Cindy Mannas of Ardmore, Okla., who, along with her husband, David, was waiting Monday evening to rejoin her two teenage sons attending a family reunion. “It was scary.”


Some background

  • The wildfire season is clearly back – it seems like it is present at least somewhere all of the time.
    • The Angora fire near Lake Tahoe in northern California started on 6/24 and destroyed 254 structures (damaging 26 more) before it was contained early 7/2. It ravaged 3,100 acres.
    • The Neola North fire in northeastern Utah started on 6/29 and is presently burning out of control. While it has yet to destroy any structures, the towns of Whiterocks and Farm Creek were evacuated and three civilians lost their lives when the fire exploded over the top of a hill. So far the blaze has consumed 30,500 acres of grass, pinyon, and juniper.
  • Wildfires are very unpredictable – sometimes they destroy well protected property, sometimes they bypass ill-protected property; nonetheless, prior preparation is vastly preferable

What they did

not all from the cited source

They planned

  • they researched the danger both in general and as it specifically related to their site and operation
  • they applied what they learned to their operations and site - its terrain, its trees, its roads and trails, its structures, and most importantly, its guests and staff
  • they developed protocols and procedures for preventing fire start and spread, summoning aid, evacuating guests, fighting fire, and communicating with outsiders during and after the fire

They prepared

  • they developed a fire response system
  • they purchased firefighting gear and equipment
  • they established a permanent command center that would always be available
  • they removed and controlled potential fuel from around their buildings and structures
  • they created fire breaks between their property and the surrounding timber (which had significant damage from pine beetle infestation)

They trained

  • they practiced all aspects of the plans and protocols so that each person knew what to do and when to do it; and they practiced some more, and they practiced some more
  • They executed – smoothly and efficiently – a feat only possible because of all the work that proceeded it

What we should do

Plan

Learn what can be done, then do it – the following on our website provide greater detail:

Prepare

Develop site and operation specific plans and protocols and obtain the necessary gear and equipment to perform those tasks

  • Train, train, train – if you can’t do it perfectly in a practice situation you don’t have a chance in the pressure and confusion of a real emergency; do it so often you can do it without thinking – but keep the manual close and easily available to consult if needed
  • Stay vigilant – worrying won’t help, but planning, preparing, training, and staying alert to recognize the need for implementing will allow you to do all that you can do

What we should remember

  • It can happen here – and the impact will be felt long after all directly involved had moved on. The following comments are from Merv Bennett, CEO of the YMCA of the Pikes’ Peak Region, five years after two separate fires less than three weeks apart left Camp Shady Brook a smoking ruin.
    • In the case of the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, we had worked to mitigate the devastation of a wildfire and had put in place the procedures required to assure that staff and campers were safe. Our thoughts were that if a fire did happen the Forest Service would quickly and easily control the situation. What we did not understand was that wind would place everyone and everything at risk.
    • Our camp was three miles from the lightning strike that started the fire in Schoonover Gulch (3,700 acres burned. At 9:00 in the morning we were notified that the wind could pick up putting our property at risk. By 9:30 the entire camp was evacuated and by 11:00, just two hours after the evacuation notice, the fire, stoked by the wind, had traveled the three miles and burned the camp. It was a helpless and devastating feeling but we felt massive relief that the children (128 campers) and staff were safe. The knowledge that while the camp was burning all the children were home safely with their families was profoundly important (we had evacuated them the evening before, per our protocols, when we received stand-by notice).
    • The permanence of a fire that in minutes burned the forest we took for granted was overwhelming. Ours was a crown fire that burned everything in its path. Nothing was left except a moonscape with black dead trees. The knowledge that our beautiful forest would never be seen again in our lifetime was over-whelming and emotionally defeating. After the initial shock of the event, it took courage to focus on the future and what we could make it rather than flounder in the defeat we felt. Each day our energy increased as we worked as a team to identify what would need to happen to return the camp to a better place than it had been. We saw hope! Although we would lose a year of camping experiences for the children, we envisioned a new camp with greater dedication from everyone involved.
    • Then it happened again, two and a half weeks after the Schoonover burned 90% of camp, the Hayman fire (137,000 acres burned) was raging straight toward us. This fire was a giant and nothing could stop it. For three weeks we were not able to get to camp to appraise any additional damage. Little did we know at the time, the damage from this fire would be far more severe than the actual burn of the Schoonover fire. The effects of the Hayman fire would impact camp for many years to come.
    • We are now five years after the fires of 2002. Camp has returned to greater experiences than ever in its history. Children are developing life memories and values are being instilled by powerful role models. Although the children are having a wonderful experience, the cost is overwhelming and is expected to continue for the next 10 -20 years. It is a constant reminder of the devastating loss.
    • It doesn’t always go according to plan, but the fact that a fire won does not mean that you failed.

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at www.redwoodsgroup.com to learn more about camp risk management issues.

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