USA In the 10 years since an explosive Esperanza fire killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters protecting an unoccupied home in the San Jacinto Mountains, wildland firefighting tactics, philosophies and organizational culture have changed, with agencies now strongly emphasizing valuing emergency workers lives over buildings.
Some of the new guidelines, officials say, are inevitable improvements in firefighting, the timing of which are coincidental. Others can be directly attributed to efforts to prevent a repeat of the doomed stand that the Engine 57 crew of Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, Jess McLean, Jason McKay, Daniel Najera and Pablo Cerda made at the so-called Octagon House in Twin Pines overlooking the San Gorgonio Pass.
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For many of us who were there, there is the awareness that you never want to go through this again, said John Hawkins, chief of Cal Fires Riverside Unit, which assumed initial command of the Oct. 26, 2006, fire before being joined by the Forest Service. The job of firefighting is continually evolving, whether we have fatality fires or not. Fatality fires truly do drive the law of catastrophic reform.
Shawna Legarza, who in June became the Forest Services director of Fire and Aviation, said she inherited an agency that is in transition.
The biggest shift that weve made from Esperanza and Engine 57 is really trying to become a learning organization, said Legarza, who was chief of the San Bernardino National Forest from 2011 to 2013.
Its not that the Forest Service is just now emphasizing safety. The 10 safety-related Standard Firefighting Orders were developed in 1957; shortly thereafter, 18 Watch Out Situations also were created to avoid tragedy.
But John Phipps, director of the Forest Services Rocky Mountain Research Station, said those 28 rules did not consider the complexities of fighting wildland fires that can increase in ferocity at a moments notice because of wind, topography and temperature, and as a result, firefighters for a time were too strictly held accountable for violating them.
In 2001, when four hand crew members were killed battling the Thirtymile fire in Washington state, victims families and politicians clamored for answers and accountability. That resulted in Congress passing a law requiring that the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, investigate every wildland fire that resulted in a federal firefighter death.
Ellreese Daniels, a Thirtymile fire incident commander, was charged with four counts of manslaughter among 11 felony charges. Eventually he pleaded guilty to two counts of making false statements to investigators about his crews positioning and was sentenced to 90 days in a work-release program.
The prosecutions had a secondary effect: Federal firefighters, fearing jail, began refusing to cooperate with investigators, limiting what officials could glean from mistakes to make sure they didnt happen again, Phipps said. Firefighters also began purchasing liability insurance and refusing supervisory assignments, according to reports.
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The Inspector Generals 2009 report on the Esperanza fire said some firefighters refused to cooperate with investigators, fearing criminal prosecution. To allow the joint Cal Fire/Forest Service investigation to go forward, Inspector General investigators delayed their interviews until January 2008.
Eventually, Phipps said, Forest Service officials began to realize that firefighters were still dying despite the heavy-handed approach. The Forest Service in 2014 adopted new investigation methods that focus on learning from mistakes instead of finding fault.
Instead of holding individuals responsible, were trying to hold the organization responsible for learning how to change this system so it can increase the probability that everybody goes home, Phipps said.
No fire commanders were prosecuted in the Esperanza fire.
The 2013 book The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, by John N. Maclean, suggests that the Forest Services Loutzenhiser misunderstood what Cal Fire Battalion Chief Bob Toups said was his warning to leave the Octagon House for safety reasons, or that Toups did not clearly convey the gravity of his concern before the flames roared up a funnel-shaped creek drainage and swept over the crew in seconds with temperatures of at least 1,600 degrees.
The 118-page Esperanza Fire Accident Investigation Factual Report, released in July 2007 and jointly written by Cal Fire and the Forest Service, did not attempt to sort that out. Investigators instead wrote that they found a loss of situational awareness concerning the dangers associated with potential fire behavior and fire environment while in a complex wildland urban interface situation, a term for where homes abut forests. They also wrote that the decision to attempt to save the Octagon House at the head of a rapidly developing fire either underestimated or accepted the safety risk.
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The captains of four other engines protecting homes nearby rejected those assertions in a September 2007 response. Others in the fire service, including Toups, have described the title of the Factual Report as a misnomer.
The Inspector General report, meanwhile, provided a detailed account by Toups. Toups said Loutzenhiser told him he planned to leave the Octagon House when the flames approached, and that he told Loutzenhiser that this was not a place they wanted to be and that they could not fight the fire there.
Engine 57 was to leave the Octagon House and meet up with crews in a safer area several hundred yards away when the fire was close to the bottom of the drainage area, Toups told investigators.
Hawkins, who said he believes Toups account, added sadly that the other witnesses to what happened are dead.
Toups retired seven years ago as an assistant chief and lives in Canyon Lake. He declined in a recent interview to talk about his conversation with Loutzenhiser. But he did say: Its a terrible tragedy. People like myself are still scarred by it.
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Toups now consults for a company that has developed a web-based product that can track the exact location of firefighters and fire engines and allow fire commanders to see from afar when they are in danger. Hawkins and Legarza said firefighting agencies in general are behind in adopting technology.
I think it would significantly reduce the possibility of a terrible accident like this, Toups said.
Tim Chavez was a Cal Fire captain when the Esperanza fire broke out about 1 a.m. He watched as a combination of heat, dry brush and Santa Ana winds caused flames to suddenly explode uphill toward the Engine 57 crew. Chavez said some of the ideas for the operating principles definitely came out of Esperanza.
Now a battalion chief and fire behavior analyst, Chavez said Cal Fire is getting away from putting firefighters in the path of flames.
Oftentimes, in the first place, you are not successful, and in the second place, thats how you kill people, Chavez said.
The Factual Report also expressed concern over a joint Cal Fire/Forest Service firefighting plan that investigators said appeared to have emphasized aggressive structure protection over firefighter safety.
Some issues raised by the report were addressed when, in 2014, Cal Fire released the 313-page Wildland Urban Interface Operating Principles to provide better training in safety, protecting structures, leadership, fire behavior and other subjects.
Because firefighter and civilian safety is always the first consideration, any tactical action should reflect that concern, the document says.
Hawkins said he hopes all local, state and federal firefighting agencies in California will adopt the standards in the 2014 document.
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The Forest Service has, in the past year, had conversations with its firefighters that emphasized their safety, Legarza said.
We want to make sure all of our employees, when they have time to think things through, they think things through more than they have in the past. Talking about life and property and what is the most important value: human life, Legarza said.
The Forest Service has made other changes, such as ranking areas by risk to firefighters and the public, with dispatchers relaying that information to fire crews. Over 2011-12, Legarza said, the Forest Service turned over primary responsibility for structure protection during wildfires in Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead and Idyllwild to Cal Fire.
It seemed like that was putting our firefighters in a place of more risk and a conflict of what the mission of this agency is: land management and exterior (structure) protection, Legarza said.
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Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said a vast majority of the homes in those areas are in locations where state and local firefighters have responsibility for structure protection.
We are trained to do that. Its a risk we accept, Upton said.
The Forest Service also has completed implementing seven recommendations made by a Forest Service task force in the wake of Esperanza, including integrating its firefighting plans with those adopted by Riverside County fire safety task forces and improving risk assessment.
Reducing risk … it will never end, Legarza said. We manage our risk so we can come home every single day on every single fire.
A U.S. Forest Service accident review board convened after the Esperanza fire in 2006 produced this plan, which USFS officials say has been implemented:
Distribute maps that identify high-risk fire areas.
In California, integrate U.S. Forest Service firefighting plans with those adopted by Riverside County fire safety task forces. Aggressively seek ways to improve firefighter safety.
Update investigation training to clarify reporting requirements, collateral investigations, union involvement, reporting writing and procedures for documenting near-miss incidents. Develop investigatory lessons learned from Esperanza.
Begin reviewing wildfire fighting principles and determine ways to assess risk when making decisions about fighting fires in the wildland urban interface, the area where homes and property abut with wildland.
Based on the previous recommendation, ask the National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group to review Forest Service operations in the wildland urban interface.
Use the fatalities and investigation as a training tool to emphasize the priority of preserving life over structure protection.
Include the creek drainage that funneled the Esperanza fire toward the USFS crew in a terrain-awareness poster.
Source: U.S. Forest Service
Riverside County in 2015 made what spokesman Ray Smith said were significant updates to the Fire Hazard section of the General Plan, which guides development in the county. Among the highlights:
Emphasize the potential for disastrous loss of structures and life.
Proposed development within Fire Hazard Severity Zones shall be reviewed by the Riverside County Fire and Building and Safety departments.
All proposed development and construction shall meet minimum standards for fire safety as defined in the Riverside County building or county fire codes, or by county zoning.
Continue to implement additional standards for high-risk, high-occupancy and essential facilities to make sure the buildings do not impede emergency exits for firefighters and equipment.
Encourage continued operation of programs for fuel breaks, brush management, controlled burning, revegetation and fire roads.
Winters have started approaching the northern region of India that also includes Delhi-NCR along with Punjab and Haryana. Due to this, minimums have also started dropping in many parts of North India including Delhi and NCR. In fact, as per the temperatures recorded on October 15 and October 17, the minimums ofDelhi and NCR went down to 17°C.
As per experts, an increase in the pollution level normally occurs during the winter months. However, there are a few reasons that could enhance the pollution level in Delhi and the adjoining areas. The very first reason that can be attributed to an increase in pollution level in the national capital is crop fires in the neighboring state ofHaryana andPunjab.
These two states lie in northwest proximity of Delhi and normal pattern of winds during this season is northwesterly. These winds drag the smoke and fine particles of the burnt crop and mix them with Delhis atmosphere. Moreover, the temperatures also start dipping, therefore, the air near the earths surface tends to condense leading to formation of haze.
Whenever the winds are light or calm, these air pollutants get mixed with the haze or mist and forms a blanket of smoke haze which remains suspended for few hours in the mornings. Thereafter, the haze disappears as the sun rises and temperatures increases during the day.
But as the winter progresses in the month of December and January, the duration of haze, mist or fog gets extended and these pollutants remain suspended in the atmosphere for longer duration of time. Other factors including the smoke emitting from vehicles and factories and dust from construction sites also add to the rising pollution levels.
Sometimes this situation can continue for days altogether. However, relief is expected only when a strong Western Disturbance gives rain over the region. It is then that these pollutants settle down for a few days.
Another criterion which reduces the pollution levels is the strong and moderate dry winds from northwest or west which carry away these pollution particles. In a nutshell, it can be said that in October, intensity and duration of pollution remain less though increases in November as winters sets in.
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