Forest Fires in the United States: 19 May 2000

Forest Fires in the United States

19 May 2000

Yesterday, “The Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report” was delivered to the Secretary of Interior. The executive summary and the conclusions of the original document “Bandelier National Monument – Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report – are cited here in unabridged length.

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Executive Summary
On May 4, 2000, in the late evening, fire personnel at Bandelier National Monument, National Park Service, ignited a prescribed fire with an approved plan. Firing and line control occurred during the early morning of May 5. Sporadic wind changes caused some spotting within the unit and a slopover on the upper east fireline. Because of the slopover the prescribed fire was declared a wildfire at 1300 hours on May 5. The fire was contained on May 6 and early on May 7; however, at approximately 1100 hours on May 7 winds increased significantly from the west and resulted in major fire activity and ultimately caused the fire to move out of control to the east on the Santa Fe National Forest. The fire was taken over by a Type 1 team on May 8.
In its most extreme state on May 10, the Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire was carried by very high winds, with embers blowing a mile or more across the fire lines to the north, south, and east, entering Los Alamos Canyon towards Los Alamos, New Mexico. The towns of Los Alamos and White Rock were in the fire’s path and more than 18,000 residents were evacuated. By the end of the day on May 10, the fire had burned 18,000 acres, destroying 235 homes, and damaging many other structures. The fire also spread towards the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and although fires spotted onto the facility’s lands, all major structures were secured and no releases of radiation occurred. The fire also burned other private lands and portions of San Ildefonso Pueblo and Santa Clara Pueblo. As of May 17 the fire was uncontrolled and approaching over 45,000 acres.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt formed an interagency Fire Investigation Team on May 11 to examine events and circumstances from the beginning of planning the prescribed fire until the fire was turned over to a Type 1 Incident Management Team on May 8. Furthermore, Secretary Babbitt and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman suspended all federal prescribed burning for 30 days, or longer, west of the 100 th meridian. The team based its findings and recommendations on interviews with key personnel and other people who witnessed the fire; documents associated with approval and implementation of the prescribed fire; on-site observations; and technical analyses of factors including weather, climate, and fire behavior.
The Fire Investigation Team concludes that federal personnel failed to properly plan and implement the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Fire, which became known as the Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire. Throughout the planning and implementation, critical mistakes were made. Government officials failed:

  • To utilize the correct National Park Service complexity analysis process.
  • To provide substantive review of the prescribed fire plan before it was approved.
  • To evaluate conditions adjacent to the prescribed fire boundary with regards to fire behavior, fuel conditions, and public safety in the event the fire crossed the planning boundaries.
  • To complete and document the onsite review of critical conditions identified in the prescribed fire plan prior to ignition.
  • To provide adequate contingency resources to successfully suppress the fire.
  • To provide any wind predictions in the 3-5 day forecast for the periods of May 7 to May 9.
  • To follow safety policies for firefighters and the public.

Conclusions of the investigation are as follows:

  • The Board of Review needs to consider accountability as described in the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review to determine appropriate actions to address the overall findings of this report (USDA Forest Service and USDI 1995, page 30).
  • This incident critically demonstrates the need to continue to provide for firefighter and public safety, and must be given the highest management considerations when managing wildland fire as outlined in the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review (USDA Forest Service and USDI 1995, page 20).
  • All agencies must ensure that all administrators are actively involved and committed to the fire management activities. Agency administrators must set the example and establish that wildland and prescribed fire management are critical and of highest importance.
  • Agencies must follow all policies set forth in the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review if we are to expect to continue using fire as a critically important management tool to restore natural conditions, maintain forest health, provide wildlife habitat, reduce hazardous fuel buildup, protect watersheds, and improve range condition.
  • Agencies must ensure that leaders and managers at all levels set the example in working closely together in planning and implementing fire management activities. Agencies also must ensure that a component of their fire management program includes proactive communication and coordination with local communities and cooperators. The consequences of not doing so are totally unacceptable.
  • The Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy was adopted by the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture on December 18, 1995. Federal agencies have not fully completed manuals, guidelines, and procedures to fully implement policy along interagency lines. Federal agencies must jointly complete standardization of manuals and procedures to assure consistency of plans and operations to promote cooperation and integrate fire activities across agency boundaries and provide leadership for cooperation with state and local fire management organizations.

The investigation team believes that the Federal Wildland Fire Policy is sound; however, the success of the policy depends upon strict adherence to the implementation actions throughout every agency and at every level for it to be effective. The Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report will be provided to an Independent Review Board, which will review the team’s findings and recommendations.

Wildland Fire Update (18 May 2000) for the United States of America (National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
Five large fires were contained in Arizona, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia yesterday. Firefighters also made good progress on large fires in New Mexico despite strong winds throughout the state. Two new large fires were reported in New Mexico, but favorable weather forecasts should assist in suppression efforts. The 47,000 acre Cook Ranch fire near Ft. Stockton, Texas, was contained yesterday and one new fire was also reported from North Carolina.
There are currently eight large fires burning in Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and North Carolina. So far this year 38,989 fires have burned 954,539 acres.

Fire Weather
Florida continues to experience warm and dry weather and a red flag warning is posted in northeast and central Florida for low relative humidities. Clouds and cooler temperatures are expected over the northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico today along with decreased winds over most of the area.

Drought sparks fire worries in Florida
Due to drought conditions across Florida most outdoor fires were banned on Tuesday in an effort to avert wildfires that are increasingly threatening the state. The ban prohibits any kind of outdoor burning except for outdoor cooking in barbecues at your home or in public facilities like state parks, beaches and state forests. So far this year, 2,800 wildfires have claimed nearly 82,000 acres in Florida as rising temperatures and continued lack of rain are making portions of the state tinder dry. Tuesday’s ban was the first statewide Florida fire ban since 1998, when more than 500,000 acres went up in flames. Compounded by searing temperatures, the 1998 wildfires destroyed or damaged 300 homes and forced the evacuation of 50,000 residents, according to agriculture department statistics.

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. 1.-3. Fire Danger Forecast Maps of the United States and Alaska for 18 May (observation time) and 19 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. 4. Keetch-Byram Drought Index Map of the United States, 18 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 (18 May 2000)
Current Situation:
New large fires were reported in the Southwest and Southern Areas. Crews on the large fires in the Southwest made good progress yesterday in spite of continued high winds. Containment objectives were reached on large fires in Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama. The National Interagency Coordination Center processed orders for helicopters, an air tanker, engines, radio equipment, and miscellaneous overhead. A Buying Team was mobilized to the Southwest Area. Very high to extreme fire indices were reported in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Maryland.
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.
New Mexico will be partly cloudy with a slight chance of showers in the north. In the western part of the state, winds will be southwest to west at 10 to 20 mph. Winds in the east will be north to northeast at 10 to 25 mph. High temperatures will range from the mid 50’s in the northeast mountains to the mid 90’s in the southern deserts. Minimum relative humidities will be 10 to 20 percent.
Arizona will be sunny and warmer. Afternoon winds will be north to northwest at 10 to 20 mph. Temperatures will be in the high 60’s in the northern mountains and in the mid 90’s in the southern lowlands. Minimum relative humidities will be 10 to 20 percent.
West Texas will be partly cloudy in the north and mostly sunny in the southern part of the state. Winds will be southwest to west at 15 to 25 mph. High temperatures will range from the 70’s in the north to near 105 along the Rio Grande. Minimum relative humidities will be 10 to 20 percent.
North and South Carolina will be partly cloudy with a few morning showers or thunderstorms in the northeast. High temperatures will be from the mid 70’s to near 90. Winds will be southwest at 10 to 20 mph.
Virginia will be partly cloudy with southwest winds of 15 to 25 mph. Maximum temperatures will be in the 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 38989 954,539   1999 38071 700,311   1998 19035 304,013   1997 24588 392,490   1996 53574 1,390,538

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Fig. 5. 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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