The potential for the 1990 fire season was apparent early in the year. Extreme drought prevailed over much of the West. Southern California recorded the driest winter in 133 years on top of its fifth year of drought. The mountains of the Southwest were devoid of winter snow pack. The debris on the ground resulting from Hurricane Hugo made a million acres in the Carolina’s a matter of real concern. Late rainstorms caused a large amount fine fuels to flourish in the Great Basin.
Even with this potential, the season was slow to start. An abnormally wet climate developed over the eastern part of the country, and aside from a few fires in Southern Florida, there was a quiet season in the Southeast. In late June a rash of fires broke out in Texas, Western New Mexico, and Arizona as record heat brought on numerous dry lightning storms. On the afternoon of 26 June a fire fighting crew from Arizona Prison System was overrun on the Dude Fire, Tonto National Forest, and six fatalities occurred. One day later, two firefighters lost their lives in another fire entrapment situation on the California Fire near Riverside, California.
A lot of new fires occurred during this period, the most notable being the Paint fire near Santa Barbara, California which burned 280 homes in one three hour run. The Bedford Fire near Corona, California also burned homes. Over 120 new fires were occurring each day and although most of the firefighting organizations were strapped, they made excellent efforts in initial attack which were generally successful.
On 2 July, Alaska had a significant lightning storm resulting in 40 new fires. Firefighting resources began to flow northward. Though the fires in the Southwest were beginning to receive some rain, they still had a lot of fire and needed the Nation’s firefighting assets. Strapped for resources, our partners in Canada were tapped for assistance, and they responded with two air tankers.
Twenty-two new fires started in Alaska including on that threatened Tok Junction and closed the ALCAN Highway. A Yukon high pressure system became established, and Alaska was in trouble by 10 July when over 100 large fires spread from west of Galena into Canada. At the same time, a 1,200 ha fire on the Okefenokee Refuge in Georgia required a Type I team and lightning fires were beginning in the Pacific Northwest. The weather in the West was extremely hot and dry with an average of 26,000 lightning strikes per day, but tough, effective initial attack continued to hold any fires from growing very large.
On 8 August the Awbrey Hills Fires on the outskirts of Bend, Oregon, destroyed 28 homes. It became necessary to move some resources from Alaska southward as there were about 350 fires occurring each day from widespread, dry lightning storms in California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. Fires erupting in Yosemite Park and the adjacent Stanislaus National Forest required closure of the Park.
At this point, four battalions of military troops were ordered; two into Oregon and two into California. Troops came from Fort Lewis, Washington, and Fort Carson, Colorado. By mid month the weather patterns began to change, bringing much cooler temperatures and showers into the Pacific Northwest. Demobilization began by 15 August. On 27 August, rains finally came to Alaska, and the crews began to gain control over the large fires they had been fighting. Nearly 1.2 million ha burned in Alaska this year in a very bad season.
By late August the weather over the West again became very hot and dry. Another killer fire in the Wasatch State Park, southwest of Salt Lake City, killed two firefighters and destroyed 18 homes. The Paint Fire in San Diego County burned 28 homes and threatened 175 more. Record high temperatures over most of the country kept initial attack crews busy and another fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge required considerable effort to hold it under 1,200 ha.
1990 was as terrifying and devastating as we thought it would be. Extreme fire behavior cost 14 firefighters their lives, and many injuries were sustained. There were four serious aircraft incidents but fortunately, no deaths. By 30 September 1990, a total of 60,875 fires had burned 4,575,117 acres (ca.1,85 million ha).
From: Denny Truesdale Address: Defense and Emergency Operations Specialist Fire and Aviation Management, USDA Forest Service P.O. Box 96060 Washington, D.C. 20090-6090 U.S.A.