Forest Fires in the United States: 15 May 2000

Forest Fires in the United States

15 May 2000

Los Alamos Fire
by CNN News
Firefighters took advantage of more favorable weather conditions on the weekend to battle the wildfires that have scorched more than 42,000 acres (16,996 hectares [ha]) at Los Alamos. The wildfire in the Los Alamos suburb had been contained, however, fire officials said they had 10 percent of the Los Alamos blaze contained by Sunday Evening. Crews worked to contain as much of the fires as forecasts for Tuesday call again for stronger winds and drier weather.
Forecast warns of high fire risk on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, an investigation team ordered by U.S. Interior Secretary began reviewing the circumstances behind the destructive fire, which started May 4 as a prescrivbed burn by the U.S. Park Service. The park service set the fire in the Bandelier National Monument outside of Los Alamos to clear brush, but whipping winds soon pushed it out of control. About 20 investigators from the Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Energy Department and other agencies are looking into why authorities ordered the fire to be started when conditions were known to be so dry. Their report will be turned over to an independent review board, which will follow up on the investigation’s conclusions.
President Clinton declared on Saturday 12 counties affected by the fire eligible for disaster relief.
The fire forced the evacuation of at least 20,000 people from Los Alamos and White Rock and parts of Espanola, New Mexico (see map below). About 260 homes are thought to have been lost in the fire, and overall damage is estimated to be about $1 billion. The fire also scorched sections of the sprawling Los Alamos National Laboratory, where hazardous plutonium is stored. Lab officials, however, say the fire did not endanger the plutonium storage facility.

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Fig. 1. Map of New Mexico with the Los Alamos Fire related cities
(Source: 1992 Magellan Geographic, Santa Barbara, CA)

Health officials said that the smoke was causing watery eyes, scratchy throats and runny noses across the region, but that the health problems should fade with the smoke. They advised people to remain indoors with windows shut if they have respiratory problems such as asthma, or if they feel eye and throat irritation. Because of questions about pollution and health hazards from the fire, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environment Department were installing independent air monitoring equipment to measure potential contaminants from the smoke.

Other fires in New Mexico
About 65 miles south of Los Alamos, a fire near Las Vegas, New Mexico, was 75 percent contained as of Saturday evening. That fire started when a small plane crashed in a wooded, mountainous area. In the southwest, 21,000 acres (8,498 ha) of the Lincoln National Forest had burned since Thursday. Officials said that fire was mostly contained. And a wildfire in Scott Able Canyon in southern New Mexico was expected to be contained by Tuesday.

No increase in Grand Canyon Fire
by The New York Times/Associated Press
Firefighters battling a 7,000-acre (2,832 ha) wildfire on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park dug fire lines in anticipation of stronger winds. The fire began as a prescribed burn on April 25, designed to help remove some of the brush and grasses on about 1,500 acres (607 ha). Park officials had hoped the fire would rejuvenate the forested areas and prevent large wildfires. However, strong winds beginning Wednesday drove the fire through the prescribed burn area, and by Thursday, it was in both the park and Kaibab National Forest to the north. All North Rim visitors had been evacuated Wednesday night and Thursday. About 800 firefighters and support personnel continued to fight the fire Sunday, with the aid of helicopters and airplane.

Wildland Fire Update (14 May 2000) for the United States of America (National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
There are currently nine large fires burning in Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas. More than 1,000 firefighters are currently battling the Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico, which has burned 36,000 acres and numerous structures in the area. Good progress was made yesterday on the portion of the fire near the community of White Rock. High clouds are expected to blanket most of Arizona and New Mexico today, which may provide some relief in decreasing temperatures. Winds are expected to increase tomorrow, however, especially in the Grand Canyon area, where gusts up to 40 mph are anticipated. Lower relative humidities are also expected to accompany the winds. Florida also remains very dry throughout most of the state and a red flag warning is posted for the panhandle today for gusty winds and warm temperatures.

The NOAA/AVHRR satellite images of 12 May 2000 reflect the fire situation in New Mexico/Los Alamos as it was highlighted in the GFMC reports during the last days. Fire signals from the Cerro Grande Fire and Cree Fire were recorded by NOAA/OSEI with the NOAA-15 AVHRR HRPT satellite on 12 May 2000 in New Mexico.

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Fig.2. NOAA-15 AVHRR HRPT satellite image of New Mexico, 12 May 2000.
A heat signature (red) is visible from the large fires burning near and in Los Alamos. Clouds have obscured part of the area. Another fire is burning in southern New Mexico near Ruidoso.
(Source: NOAA/OSEI).

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Fig.3. Another satellite image of the Los Alamos Fire
(Source: NOAA/OSEI).

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Fig.4. The image showing wildland fires near Los Alamos, detected on May 11 using the CCRS NOAA fire detection algorithm.
(Source: FireM3)

For further reports regarding to the Los Alamos incident the GFMC would like to refer to the Recent Media Highlights on Fire, Policies, and Politics.

The Wildland Fire Assessment System (WFAS) is a contribution of “The Fire Behavior Research Work Unit”, Missoula (Montana USA). The broad area component of the Wildland Fire Assessment System (WFAS) generates maps of selected fire weather and fire danger components. Fire Danger (Potential) is a normalized adjective rating class across different fuel models and station locations. It is based on information provided by local station managers about the primary fuel model, fire danger index selected to reflect staffing level, and climatological class breakpoints. Low danger (class 1) is green and extreme potential (class 5) is red.

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Fig. 5. & 6. Fire Danger Forecast Maps of the United States and Alaska for 14 May (observation time) and 15 May (forecast) 2000.
(Source: Fire Behavior Research Work Unit, Missoula)

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) is a soil/duff drought index that ranges from 0 (no drought) to 800 (extreme drought) and is based on a soil capacity of 8 inches of water. Factors in the index are maximum daily temperature, daily precipitation, antecedent precipitation, and annual precipitation. KBDI = 0 – 200: Soil moisture and large class fuel moistures are high and do not contribute much to fire intensity. Typical of spring dormant season following winter precipitation. KBDI = 200 – 400: Typical of late spring, early growing season. Lower litter and duff layers are drying and beginning to contribute to fire intensity. KBDI = 400 – 600: Typical of late summer, early fall. Lower litter and duff layers actively contribute to fire intensity and will burn actively. KBDI = 600 – 800: Often associated with more severe drought with increased wildfire occurrence. Intense, deep burning fires with significant downwind spotting can be expected. Live fuels can also be expected to burn actively at these levels.

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Fig. 7. Keetch-Byram Drought Index Map of the United States, 14 May 2000
(Source: Fire Behavior Research Work Unit, Missoula)

For further information on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) by Florida’s Division of Forestry / Forest Protection Bureau please refer to Keetch-Byram Drought Index Revisited: Prescribed Fire Applications.

Incident Management Situation Report (14 May 2000)
Current Situation:
No new large fires were reported nationwide, and initial attack activity was minimal. The National Interagency Coordination Center processed orders for airtankers, infrared aircraft, radio equipment, engines, a commissary unit, meteorological equipment, crews, and miscellaneous overhead. Very high to extreme fire indices were reported in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Indiana.
Southwest area large fires:
CERRO GRANDE, Bandelier National Monument. An Area Command Team (Meuchel) and two Type I Incident Management Teams (Humphrey and Bateman) are assigned. The fire is burning near Los Alamos, NM. Structures lost include 191 residences, ten commercial buildings, and 12 outbuildings. In the south zone, crews and dozers are working the southeast portion of the fire to prevent spread into the community of White Rock. In the north zone, the fire spotted across Santa Clara canyon and began to make a significant run to the north. By mid-afternoon, fire activity diminished due to thick smoke shading the fuels.
SCOTT ABLE, Lincoln National Forest. The fire is located 20 miles south of Cloudcroft, NM. A Type I Incident Management Team (Studebaker) is assigned. Unburned islands within the fire perimeter are still active, and the potential for fire spread remains. Preliminary assessment indicates that approximately 20 residences, 16 outbuildings, and six vehicles have been destroyed.
OUTLET, Grand Canyon National Park. A Type I Incident Management Team (Fry) is assigned. The fire is burning in mixed conifer two miles north of North Rim Village. Increased fire activity resulted in an active air operation of multiple retardant drops. Current threats include administrative and historic structures at the National Park Service North Rim Administrative Site.
CREE, Lincoln National Forest. A Type I Incident Management Team (Hart) is assigned. The fire is burning in pinyon-juniper forest near Ruidoso, NM. Moderating conditions are allowing significant progress to be made on fireline construction. Mop up and rehabilitation efforts are underway.
MANUELITAS, Las Vegas District, New Mexico State Forestry. The fire is burning in ponderosa pine forest, 14 miles north of Las Vegas, NM. The evacuation order for all areas and the closure of Highway 94 have been lifted. Some fire spread occurred. Crews conducted a burnout operation to secure the firelines.
COON CREEK, Tonto National Forest. The fire is 20 miles north of Globe, AZ in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness. Crews continued to patrol and
mop-up. No significant fire activity occurred.
A red flag warning is posted in the florida panhandle for gusty winds and warm temperatures.
Florida will be mostly sunny in the panhandle. The rest of the state will be partly cloudy with a chance of showers and afternoon thunderstorms.
Winds will be north to northeast at 12 to 18 mph. High temperatures will be in the mid 80’s to the lower 90’s. Minimum relative humidities will be 30 percent in the panhandle and 40 to 50 percent elsewhere.
New Mexico will be mostly sunny and breezy. Winds will be southwest at 15 to 30 mph. Afternoon temperatures will be near 70 in the mountains and in the mid 80’s in desert areas. Afternoon relative humidities will be 8 to 38 percent.
Arizona will be mostly sunny, breezy and warmer. High temperatures will be in the lower 70’s in the mountains to the upper 90’s in the deserts. Winds will be southwest at 15 to 25 mph. Minimum relative humidities will be 5 to 10 percent.
West Texas will be partly cloudy with a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Winds will be southeast at 10 to 20 mph. High temperatures will range from the upper 70’s in the mountains to near 100 along the Rio Grande. Afternoon relative humidities will be around 20 percent.Long-range, 30-day weather forecasts are predicting above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation for the southern tier of states from southern California to Florida and throughout the Midwest (see 30 and 90-day forecast maps).

Tab.1. Five-Year Wildland Fire Comparison Statistics Year-to-Date for the United States (13 May 2000)
(Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

As of 05/13/00 Number of Wildland Fires Area burnt Acres Hectars 2000 33,535 851,209 344,472 1999 34,928 667,699 270,208 1998 17,721 290,396 117,519 1997 23,988 379,773 153,688 1996 51,321 1,349,890 546,281

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Fig. 8. 30 and 90-day temperature and precipitation forecast maps (May and May to July 2000)
(Source: National Weather Service, Boise, Idaho)

Remarks on Prescribed Burning
At this time of the year prescribed burning operations are conducted routinely.
Fire is an important natural tool for ecosystem management. It can reduce dense vegetation improving wildlife habitat and lessening the potential for large, wildfire disasters. Land managers are directed to prepare a prescribed fire/burn plan for every area of public land that can burn. Some areas require total suppression while others will benefit from a wildland fire. Those areas that will benefit from a fire can be treated by a prescribed fire.
Especially, for the moment, in the southern and southeastern regions of the United States prescribed fire activities will be carried out in the following weeks and months. In this case, fire signals on satellite images can be traced back to this kind of land management activities.

In the Prescribed Fire Position Paper of the Forest Protection Bureau by the Division of Forestry in Florida, prescribed fire activity is described as a land management application that is essential to the practice of forestry, management of wildlife, preservation of endangered plant and animal species, improvement of range conditions and reduction of wildfire damage in the wildland/urban interface areas. While there is general public and landowner concern with increased smoke, reduced air quality, and liability; the general public and landowners benefit significantly from the reduction of devastating wildfire, improved wildlife habitat and forage, preservation of endangered and threatened plant and animal species, and improved management of forest resources. The prospect of severe reductions in the utilization of this management tool is of major concern to Florida’s natural resource managers and conservationists due to the subsequent loss of derived public and private benefits. They suggest the need for legislative attention.

Another report on nation-wide prescribed burning in the U.S.A. was published in  International Forest Fire News No.19 (September 1998).

A set of photographic documents on prescribed burning techniques and objectives in the Southeast can be visited in our photo archive.

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