Forest Fires in the United States: 17 May 2000

Forest Fires in the United States

17 May 2000

Wildland Fire Update (16 May 2000) for the United States of America (National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
Nearly 300 new fires were reported on 15 May 2000, eight of which grew to become large fires. There are currently 10 large fires burning in Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas. More than 4,000 firefighters are battling blazes and are supported by 834 engines, 48 helicopters, 28 airtankers and 1,254 support personnel. The Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico, is 35 percent contained (16 May 2000) at 44,323 acres. Fire managers are concerned about increased winds today that are predicted to gust up to 50 mph. More than 1,2000 fire personnel are currently assisting with fire suppression efforts on this fire.

Fire Weather Watches
A red flag warning is posted in all of New Mexico and west Texas for strong southwest winds and low relative humidities today. A fire weather watch is posted for all of Arizona for strong winds and low relative humidities. A fire weather watch is also posted for north and central Florida for low relative humidities.

The NOAA/AVHRR satellite image of 16 May 2000 reflect the fire situation in Arizona and New Mexico. Heat signature (red) is visible from a fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The fire, which was started as a prescribed burn three weeks ago, was fanned by strong winds today and has started to move deeper into the Kaibab Forest. The fire has reportedly burned over 10,000 acres on the Canyon’s North Rim. The fires burning for nearly a week near Los Alamos and Cloudcroft, New Mexico, are obscured by cloud cover.

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Fig. 1. NOAA-15 POES AVHRR HRPT multichannel color composite for Arizona and New Mexico, 16 May 2000.
(Source: NOAA/OSEI).

Winds picking up in New Mexico (USFS Fire News, 16 May 2000)
Clouds that shaded fuels and lowered temperatures helped slow the growth of wildfires in New Mexico the last two days. A red flag warning was issued with lower relative humidities (10-15%) and winds increasing to 30-40 mph, possibly gusting to 50 mph. means that conditions are prime for extreme fire behavior and rapid fire growth.
The Cerro Grande Fire has grown to 44,323 acres, making it the largest fire in New Mexico history. The cews made good progress improving and holding lines yesterday, and the fire is now 35% containedThere are currently 1,262 people assigned to the fire. No towns are threatened. Efforts are now focusing on holding the northern edge of the fire south of Santa Clara Creek and protecting important Native American cultural sites in the area, including the Puye Cliff Dwellings. On the south side of the fire, crews continue to mop up and patrol burned areas for hot spots, and assist with scattered flare-ups in the Los Alamos National Laboratory. An interagency investigative team has been formed look at the Cerro Grande Fire to find out what went wrong and to determine if the prescribed fire policy is sound and the established procedures are adequate.
The investigation will be completed by Thursday, 18 May 2000.
The Scott Able Fire on the Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico is now 50% contained, with 100% containment anticipated by 17 May 2000. The 1,241 people asigned to this incident are focusing their efforts today on establishing secure lines in critical areas, particularly where structures are threatened on the north and east flanks of the fire and in unburned areas within the perimeter of the fire. Contingency plans have been made for evacuating people in these areas should it become necessary. To date, 64 homes and several outbuildings and vehicles have been lost.
The Cree Fire on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, and the Manuelitas Fire on New Mexico State Forestry’s Las Vegas District are 100% contained.

On Friday last week, the 30 day suspension of federal prescribed fires in the American west was announced, and increased levels of approval for such fires are required. This suspension was instituted immediately and may be extended beyond the 30 day period.

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Fig. 2. Overview map of the Prescribed fire implementation Suspension, 12 May 2000.
(Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

Los Alamos Fire fueled by US Protectionism is an article published by Gazeta.Ru on 16 May 2000, which reported that the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) received an urgent request from the head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about the use and the practical operation of the Russian IL – 76 Waterbomer to assist extinguish the fires in the region of Los Alamos, New Mexico. However, the plan of international fire fighting assistance with the Russian waterbomber was chanceled in the last minutes. The article critisizes U.S. Forest Service protectionism against the use of the fire fighting planes.

Fire Update: Outlet Fire, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Tuesday, 16 May 2000
On Monday, 15 May 2000, high southwest winds with gusts of 20 to 30 mph contributed to continued erratic fire behavior on the Outlet Fire. Abnormally heavy fuel loadings, erratic fire behavior and potential for sufficient fire growth will continue to be our concern during the predicted high winds on Tuesday. The fire is considered to be 43% contained. Total acreage has grown to 9,964 acres. A Type I Incident Management Team is managing the incident. 914 firefighter from all over the nation are working on the incident. The Outlet Fire began as a prescribed burn on 25 April 2000 within Grand Canyon National Park. It was declared a wildland fire on Tuesday, 9 May 2000 as result of unexpected high winds of up to 80-mph gusts. On Thursday, 16 May 2000, the fire burned onto the North Kaibab Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest. The majority of the Kaibab National Forest is open, but there are campfire restrictions in effect throughout much of the Southwest. While other visitor destinations along the Arizona Strip are open, access to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park REMAINS RESTRICTED. Operations and services available at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park have not been affected by the fire.
The Coon Creek Fire on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona is reportedly 85% contained, but there is no estimate of full containment at this time. Demobilization of fire resources on the Coon Creek Fire has begun.

For this reason the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) would like to refer to an interesting book, Fire on the Rim, by Stephen J. Pyne. Fire on the Rim is the story of a fire season in the Grand Canyon National Park. Stephen Pyne’s portrait of the experiences as firefighter in a seasonal forest fire crew describes the complex relationships of a crew, the fires they fight, and explains also in realistic details, the coherence and connections of fire management and personal excitement (Fire on the Rim : A Firefighter’s Season at the Grand Canyon, by Stephen J. Pyne. Paperback University of Washington Press; ISBN: 0295974834).

Heat signature (red) and smoke plumes (light blue) are visible from a number of fires burning throughout Florida. Some may be controlled burns.

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Fig. 3. NOAA-14 POES AVHRR HRPT multichannel color composite for Florida, 16 May 2000.
(Source: NOAA/OSEI).

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. 4.-6. Fire Danger Forecast Maps of the United States and Alaska for 16 May (observation time) and 17 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, 16 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 (16 May 2000)
Current Situation:
New large fires were reported in the Southwest and Southern Areas. Initial attack activity increased in the Southern Area. The National Interagency Coordination Center processed orders for helicopters, an air tanker, infrared aircraft , engines, radio equipment, shower units, and miscellaneous overhead. Very high to extreme fire indices were reported in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Utah, California, Colorado, and Oklahoma.
On 5/13, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced a 30-day suspension of all federal prescribed fires west of the 100th meridian. For more information, see the U.S. Forest Service Fire web page at
A fixed wing aircraft working on the Lincoln Zone near Alamogordo, New Mexico crashed yesterday. Both the pilot and the passenger were killed. The entire fire community extends condolences to the family and friends.
New Mexico will be partly cloudy and very windy. There is a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms in the southeast portion of the state. Afternoon winds will be southwest to west at 20 to 35 mph, gusting to 50 mph. High temperatures will be in the 70’s in the north to near 100 in the southern deserts. Minimum relative humidities will be 5 to 15 percent.
West Texas will be partly cloudy and windy with isolated afternoon thunderstorms. Winds will be southwest at 10 to 25 mph with gusts to 40 mph. High temperatures will range from the upper 80’s in the northern part of the state to near 110 along the Rio Grande River. Minimum relative humidities will be around 10 percent.
Arizona will be partly cloudy and windy. Winds will be southwest at 20 to 40 mph. High temperatures will be in the 60’s in the mountains and up to the lower 90’s in the southern deserts. Minimum relative humidities will be 7 to 15 percent.
Florida will be mostly sunny with east winds at 5 to 15 mph. High temperatures will be in the 80’s. Afternoon relative humidities will be near 25 percent in the north and up to 45 percent elsewhere.
North and South Carolina will be partly cloudy. Winds will be southeast to south at 5 to 10 mph. High temperatures will be in the mid 60’s to lower 80’s.
Virginia will be partly cloudy with south to southwest winds at 5 to 10 mph. High temperatures will be in the 70’s.

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 (16 May 2000)
(Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

As of 05/16/00 Number of Wildland Fires Area burnt Acres Hectars 2000 38,484 920,195   1999 36,956 697,838   1998 17,662 300,646   1997 24,287 389,426   1996 53,032 1,382,830

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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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