Failure – two stories on the failure of wildfire management, one distant and the other closer to home

John Nicholson

By John Nicholson, Friday, 23 November 2018

Click HERE to visit John’s original blog at Bushfire Australia (

In my blog posting Surviving Bushfire, 26 October 2018, I mainly covered two issues: 
  • Lessons for Australia in recent fires in California 
  • Differences in wildfire fuel Victoria v California

In dealing with wildfire fuel I gave examples of how native trees in Victoria are involved in or respond to wildfire compared with trees in California.

Media coverage of the California fires in Australia is sure to unnerve many in our community and prompts the question, why are the fire management agencies not explaining the differences in fire behaviour due to the vegetation involved? Or does the media coverage serve to strengthen the “leave early” policy?

At this point I must stress that my criticisms are of fire and related emergency management policies, not firefighters who no doubt worked very hard and exposed to personal risk at times.

Out of the mouths of babes

There has been much criticism and mocking of US President Donald Trump for his comment about raking: Mr Trump said California authorities should copy Finland’s example and rake forest floors to remove the material which fuels fires … an expert said while Mr Trump may be right to talk about forest management, raking is not feasible.

Yana Valachovic, a forest adviser with the University of California, told the Washington Post that managing forests would actually reduce the severity of the blazes.

“His [Trump’s] general sentiment is correct – that we need to manage fuels,” she said.

While raking the floor of the forest to remove the fine fuel is impractical, basically Trump is correct. 

From the many graphic photographs and video clips posted by various media outlets it’s quite apparent that extreme fire behaviour was occurring in the back country forests and being spurred along by chaparral and dry grassland. Add the effect of strong, dry Santa Ana wind notorious for driving wildfire in California and the result is fire behaviour shown in Plate 1.

Plate 1
A plume of smoke rises above the Camp Fire as it moves through Paradise, California. High winds and low humidity caused the Camp Fire’s rapid spread.
Photo Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

What then of Mr Trump’s raking the ground? Clearly, a failure to properly manage the wildland, regardless of who is responsible together with the effect of global warming, has led to the growing intensity of fires in recent years, which includes the loss of lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters in Arizona in 2013. 

But other factors leading to the life and property loss we are in witnessing in recent times includes a failure to educate communities at risk on what to actually expect and how to survive coupled with mandatory evacuation in the teeth of a fire. 

While putting some at extreme risk, ordering people out also deprives the agency firefighters of the support of many with homes at risk, who with training and support from the firefighting agencies during the run of a firecould do much to reduce property loss and related loss of life.

Plate 2
Land Park, Redding, California.
Photo Axios 12 August 2018

And what of suppression and recovery costs compared to money needing to be spent on effective wildland management and township protection, I expect it would have been mind-numbing, particularly when the cost of air tankers are included.

Plate 3
CFA trialing a Bambi bucket beneath its light observation helicopter in the mid-80s
Photo Nicholson
Plate 4
Dromader agricultural aircraft being demonstrated as a fire bomber in the early 80s.
Photo Nicholson

And on air tankers, I’m a supporter of helitankers (Plate 3) and small fixed wing agricultural aircraft (Plate 4) for their ability to be very precise with the delivery of their suppressant when compared with heavy fixed wing aircraft such as the B737 taken on in NSW for this summer wildfire season

This extract speaks on the limitations of air attack: Firefighters on the ground have to keep their distance if the conflagration is moving too fast, or it will overwhelm them. Particularly high winds will either ground aircraft or mess with their accuracy when doing aerial drops of water or fire retardant. “It’s not as impactful because the retardant gets spread out too far or it misses its area,” says Nauslar [Nick Nauslar, fire weather forecaster at NOAA].

Crews will still try drops if winds aren’t too high to fly aircraft, especially if there are structures or lives at risk. Indeed, helicopters have been dipping into Malibu mansions’ pools, despite the winds. The drops just might not be as effective as they would be in calmer conditions.

An extract on cost-effectiveness from MEGAFIRE The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame, Michael Kodas, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2017, under the chapter heading The Fire-Industrial Complex: Weldon [George Weldon, former deputy director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service’s northern region] cited air tankers, which he helped manage when he was fighting fires, as an example of how industry drives wildfire policy. “The [US] Forest Service is looking at spending $500 million [USD] to get new-generation air tankers,” he said. “But there’s never been a scientific study that demonstrates the effectiveness of large air tankers. If a study was ever done, in my opinion, they are not worth the money at all.” 

Weldon and other retired Forest Service firefighters cited estimates that air tankers are effective only about 30 percent of the time. “It’s a prime example of how powerful the fire-industrial complex has become in a very short time,” he said. 

No study done on the efficacy of large air tankers? Not entirely correct. In my blog posting “Setting priorities – what’s important and not so important to a Coroner”, Saturday, 24 December 2016, I posed questions concerning the deployment of a large fixed wing air tanker to Wye River‒Separation Creek relatively late on Christmas Day 2015. 

Referring to that posting, “For those interested in cost-effectiveness, and governments should be, the Bushfire CRC report “Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the 10 Tanker Air Carrier DC-10 Air Tanker, Victoria 2010” should be food for serious consideration. Whilst it may look impressive to the gullible masses, could the money have been better spent on prevention over the years prior to the fire?”

Causes me to wonder, have we been seduced by the air tanker industry as they are not a panacea for preventing wildfire loss?

And on certain response comments to that blog posting, Karma at work?

Now, back to mandatory or officially encouraged evacuation. I find these stories from California encouraging “Everything Around Him Burned. He Stayed Put, and Lived to Tell the Tale” in the New York Times and With Flames All Around Them, Hospital Staff, Fire Chief Keep Patients Safe in Paradise Home in FOX 40.

The FOX 40 story is interesting, indeed inspiring as it shows how lay people with the support of a trained and experienced firefighter successfully defended a home:

Eventually, they ran into Paradise Fire Chief David Hawks.

“There’s a dog door here that one of the paramedics made access to it. We unlocked the garage, moved patients into this home and sheltered them in place,” Hawks told FOX40.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Emergency medical technicians and nurses became stand-in firefighters, some getting on the roof of the home to clear gutters of brush sic [actually pine needles]. They hosed down the outer edge of the property.

They saved the home, all while their patients were kept safe inside.

“He said, ‘You do this, you do this, you do this,'” Ferguson said. “All of us shifted our minds to what do we need to do for survival mode here.”

“They followed directions,” Hawks said. “They did exactly what I asked them to do.”

Amid a neighborhood devastated by the Camp Fire, the Chloe Court home survived — and so did all the patients and medical staff inside. 

Listen to Chief Hawks in the video at the head of the FOX40 story (above) as he describes the action necessary to successfully defend that house, it’s not rocket science. 

Unfortunately, wildfire survival planning at individual level is still predicated on evacuation.

Plate 5
Jamieson Creek fire rampaging towards the east on Christmas Day 2015 prior to the wind direction changing to push it into Wye River‒Separation Creek
Photo Stoios

Interesting the similarity between the scenes in Plate 1 and Plate 5. A fundamental difference between the two situations, the people under threat from the Camp Fire had a few short hours to take action compared with the people of Wye River-Separation Creek — it seems the Incident Controller had at least from 21 December 2015, four days, and that intelligence firmed up on 23 December, to organise the defence of those two communities with the participation of property owners prepared to assist. Why did this preparation not happen and it was left to well into Christmas Day before people were urged to leave? 

For those interested in MEGAFIRE The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame here is a review in Wildfire Magazine 

Content Sharing

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.