Forest Fires in the United States: 22 May 2000

Forest Fires in the United States

22 May 2000

On 18 May “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.

National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) Wildland Fire Update (19 May 2000):
Five large fires were contained in the Southwest yesterday, as winds and temperatures decreased. Although fire activity has decreased, extreme conditions still exist throughout the Southwest and in the Southeast from Alabama to Florida.
There are currently six large fires burning in Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Missouri and North Carolina. So far this year 39,243 fires have burned 1,004,930 acres (406,680 ha).
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. Winds throughout the Southwest will be mild today with temperatures ranging from 60s and 70s (15°C to 26°C) in the northern mountains to 80 to 100 degrees (26°C to 37°C) in the deserts and southern plains.

Drought sparks fire worries in Florida (from PlanetArk, 18 May 2000)
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 and 2 Fire Danger Forecast Maps of the United States for 21 May (observation time) and 22 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. 3 Keetch-Byram Drought Index Map of the United States, 21 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 Southern and Southwest Areas. The Southern Area had moderate initial attack activity, while activity in the rest of the nation was light. Firefighters in the Southwest Area are meeting containment objectives and demobilization continues. The National Interagency Coordination Center processed orders for a lead plane, infrared aircraft, engines, and miscellaneous overhead. Very high to extreme fire indices were reported in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah.
On 13 May, 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 weak cold front will move through Alabama and Georgia Sunday bringing a chance of showers and thunderstorms. The northern part of the front will stall over North and South Carolina with cloudy skies and a chance of showers and thunderstorms. Florida will continue to be sunny and dry with afternoon minimum relative humidities of 30 to 40 percent in the interior portion of the state.
Arizona and New Mexico will be sunny with high temperatures in the 70s and 80s (21°C – 31°C). Minimum relative humidities will be 10 to 20 percent.
West Texas will have a slight chance of thunderstorms during the day.

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

As of 05/18/00 Number of Wildland Fires Area burnt Acres Hectars 2000 38,989 954,539 386,288 1999 38,071 700,311 283,405 1998 19,035 304,013 123,029 1997 24,588 392,490 158,835 1996 53,574 1,390,538 562,730

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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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