Forest Fires in the United States: 18 May 2000

Forest Fires in the United States

18 May 2000

Wildland Fire Update (17 May 2000) for the United States of America (National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
Firefighters were able to make good progress toward containing large fires in the Southwest despite strong and gusty winds throughout the area. States throughout the Southern area experienced widespread activity yesterday with nearly 300 new fires reported. There are currently 10 large fires burning in Arizona, New Mexico, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas. So far this year 38,821 fires have burned 928,945 acres (375,930 hectares [ha]). Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt plans to release the findings of an investigation into causes of the Los Alamos fire Thursday, May 18, at 1:30 p.m. at a news conference in the main convention hall of the Sweeney Convention Center, New Mexico.

Fire Weather
A red flag warning is posted in the north, east and central portions of New Mexico and all of west Texas for strong southwest winds and low relative humidities today. Cooler temperatures are also expected in New Mexico today. Lighter winds, higher humidities and cooler temperatures are forecast for Arizona in the wake of the cold front that moved through the area yesterday.

The NOAA/AVHRR satellite image of 17 May 2000 reflect the fire situation in New Mexico. The image posted for New Mexico is cloud free for the two major fire areas. Neither site has a visible heat signature nor smoke plume at the time of the NOAA-15 pass.

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Fig. 1. NOAA-15 POES AVHRR HRPT multichannel color composite for Arizona and New Mexico, 17 May 2000.
(Source: NOAA/OSEI).

Los Alamos burn plan carried warning
In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution urging the federal government to pay millions in compensation for lost property because the fire was started by the National Park Service. The fire started on 4 May 2000 in Bandelier National Monument when a controlled burn aimed at preventing wildfires by clearing brush and tree limbs raced out of control, blown through drought-parched pine forests by strong winds. Winds were expected to pick up to gusts of up to 60 miles per hour later on Tuesday, the same kind of conditions that blew the blaze into Los Alamos last week, but a cold front also forecast for later in the day could help firefighters.

An investigative team will give a first report on Thursday afternoon. Preliminary estimates ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars for property damage not covered by insurance. The fire forced the evacuation of all 11,000 residents of the town of Los Alamos last Wednesday. About 7,000 people were able to return to their homes on Monday, but another 4,000 were being kept out, either because their homes were destroyed or because the neighbourhoods in which they stood were still in danger. The fire destroyed 220 homes and apartment buildings. It was 35 percent contained at its southern flank but was burning uncontrolled elsewhere. By Tuesday morning the blaze had a perimeter of 143 kilometres.

The final version of the burn plan was filed 19 April 2000. The 250-page plan warned Park Service officials about controlled burns. The plan noted that “smoke impacts to sensitive areas could produce political problems that may impact future prescribed fire operations.” It also said dead wood in the burn area was to be tested for moisture content for at least three weeks before the fire was set and weather conditions were to be monitored hourly afterward. Smaller test fires were to be set before the big one. The fire was planned for 968 acres (391 ha), and Park Service officials rated the consequences of failure as “moderate,” saying it would primarily threaten “timber and private land values,” not buildings. Instead, the wind-driven fire overran the burn area and roared into the nearby town of Los Alamos. It had burned across more than 46,000 acres (18,615 ha) by early today. For the burn to take place, the plan said temperatures were to be between 40 and 90 degrees, with relative humidity of 15 percent to 20 percent and wind speeds of no more than 8 mph. A National Weather Service report sent to the Park Service on the day the fire began predicted temperatures of 68 to 72 degrees and a humidity of 14 percent to 18 percent. But it also forecast winds of 5 mph to 10 mph at lower elevations and 10 mph at the ridge tops, with winds increasing to 10 mph to 15 mph and gusts reaching 20 mph at the ridge tops the next day. It also predicted humidity would fall overnight, creating the worst possible wildfire conditions: dry and unstable air. The application’s contingency plan states that if the fire was to get out of control, air tankers should be made available to fight it within two hours. Two 20-person ground crews and helicopters equipped with buckets were to be available within four hours, with lookouts watching for spot fires started by wind-driven embers.

Some lawmakers have called for a re-examination of the nation’s controlled burn policies. The suspension of nearly all prescribed burns in 11 Western states, which took away a tool land managers use to reduce catastrophic fire risk by burning away brush and other undergrowth in controlled conditions, is discussed controversial. Some fear the restrictions could lead to big fires later in the season, when forest conditions will be drier and fuel loads higher. The postponed burns now may increase the risk. Prescribed burns are conducted in both the spring and fall. Spring is the preferred season in many northern areas because the soil holds more moisture from melted snow than in the fall.

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

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:

Outlet fire still spreads
The acreage of the Grand Canyon fire, which started out as a prescribed burn, grew meanwhile up to 10,000-acre (4,046 ha) on Tuesday. High winds prevented helicopters from fighting the fire by air. The Outlet fire, which began as a 1,500-acre (607 ha) prescribed burn on 25 April 2000, was driven out of control by high winds a week ago. The prescribed fire was set to prevent future wildfires. The fire was 43 percent contained on Tuesday. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the side on which the vast majority of visitors go, remained open. About 900 firefighters and support personnel were fighting the fire Tuesday afternoon. The fire remains very dangerous, especially if the winds shift. A 9,359-acre (3,787 ha) wildfire in the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona east of Phoenix was to 95 percent contained Tuesday. The number of firefighters had been reduced to 36 as crews were sent to the Grand Canyon and to battle New Mexico fires.

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).

Please have a look on the article published by Environmental News Network, 17 May 2000: Grand Canyon fire spreads.

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 17 May (observation time) and 18 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, 17 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 (17 May 2000)
Current Situation:
New large fires were reported in the Southern and Southwest Areas. Crews made progress toward containment objectives on all the Southwest Area large fires yesterday, in spite of strong winds throughout the region. The National Interagency Coordination Center processed orders for helicopters, air tankers, infrared aircraft, radio equipment, engines, crews, and miscellaneous overhead. Very high to extreme fire indices were reported in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, and Montana.
On 13 May 2000, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced a 30-day suspension of all federal prescribed fires west of the 100th meridian.
New Mexico will be partly cloudy and cooler. There is a chance of showers over the northern mountains, while the south will be mostly sunny. Afternoon winds will be southwest to west at 20 to 35. High temperatures will be in the 60’s to lower 70’s in the north and in the mid 90’s in the southern deserts. Minimum relative humidities will be 10 to 25 percent.
West Texas will be partly cloudy and windy. Winds will be southwest at 15 to 25 mph with gusts to 40 mph. High temperatures will be in the 80’s to mid 90’s. Minimum relative humidities will be 10 to 15 percent.
Northern Arizona will be partly cloudy with a chance of showers over the mountains. The southern part of the state will be mostly sunny. Winds will be southwest to northwest at 10 to 25 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 9 to 20 percent.
Florida will be partly cloudy with east to south winds at 5 to 15 mph. High temperatures will be in the mid 80’s to lower 90’s. Afternoon relative humidities will be 35 to 45 percent.
North and South Carolina will be mostly cloudy with a chance of afternoon showers and thunderstorms. Winds will be southeast to south at 5 to 15 mph. High temperatures will be in the 70’s and 80’s.
Virginia will be partly cloudy with south winds of 10 to 20 mph. There is a chance of showers and thunderstorms over the highlands. Maximum temperatures will be in the mid 70’s to lower 80’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 38,484 920,195 372,389 1999 36,956 697,838 282,405 1998 17,662 300,646 121,667 1997 24,287 389,426 157,595 1996 53,032 1,382,830 559,611

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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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