FirebreakThe Drone Dummies Are Back

By Lindsay R. Mohlere

As soon as fire season started, so did the reports of drone incursions halting air asset activities across the West.

Drones Hamper Firefighting

Last year firefighting air ops in 12 states were shut down more than 20 times. Unfortunately, this year seems to be ramping up to be a banner season for dimwits playing with their drones — and playing with fire.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of July 11 this year, there have already been 17 documented drone incursions over or near wildfires in ten states — Washington, Oregon, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Texas. As a result, air operations have been temporarily grounded more than 14 times.

That many documented instances of unauthorized drone flights this early in the season doesn’t bode well for the home stretch. Despite stiff federal guidelines and laws aimed at preventing this type of goofball behavior, the drone dummies continue to fly.

The nonprofit organization Tread Lightly! (started by the U.S. Forest Service in 1985) recently kicked off an outreach campaign to complement the Forest Service If You Fly, We Can’t program and promote responsible use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This campaign, Respected Access is Open Access, addresses outdoor recreation issues and responsible use to protect and enhance public land access. Public service advertising, a web page, billboards, and digital media will be used to promote the program and hopefully smarten up a few numbskulls.

FirebreakBig Bird and the Bogeyman

Last year I reported that the long-awaited B747-400 Global SuperTanker from Global SuperTanker Services LLC was receiving its final safety and operation approvals from the FAA. Most in the know figured it was a slam dunk before this beast was certified by the Forest Service and set to action dropping up to 20,000 gallons of water or retardant all at once over a three-mile stretch, or at variable rates from its pressurized tanks.

Christened “The Spirit of John Muir,” and designated by the Interagency Tanker Board as Tanker 944, the big bird came on the scene at the end of fire season and was put on hold until certified by the Forest Service this year. Without ruffling a feather, it flew off to Israel to fight huge fires before it even dropped a drop of water in the USA.

In January 2017, Tanker 944 was deployed to Chile to fight the raging inferno threatening to incinerate Santo Domingo and much more of the country. The tanker did fantastic work laying down three-mile-long and 200-yard-wide blankets of fire retardant or water in one pass. Global SuperTanker has said the plane can be reloaded in less than 30 minutes and return to the fire line at 600 mph. In Chile, they had the turnaround down to 13 minutes.

This spring it looked like the Forest Service was going to commission the big bird and put it to work. But no!

With over 4.5 million acres in the U.S. already torched in 2017, the Forest Service sat on its thumbs and blocked contracting Tanker 944 because of a few bureaucratic brick walls rumored to be either environmental concerns or a dispersion pattern problem. At the time, the Forest Service wouldn’t say.

Seems to me, the Forest Service should have laid a big sloppy kiss on the “John Muir” when it came back from Chile. Instead, it ding-donged around for months while forests, homes, and a few lives were lost due to wildfire.

The good news is that they finally cleared the world’s biggest fire engine to fight wildfires in the U.S. As of July 25, the Forest Service entered into an 18-month temporary agreement that will allow the plane to fight fires on USDA lands if requested. It also means that states can get reimbursed if they contract with Global SuperTanker.

Currently, officials say the giant air tanker has contracts in California and one county in Colorado. With more than 17 wildfires burning in the Northwest alone, maybe Oregon and Washington ought to get onboard. I’d bet a couple of sorties over the eastern half of the Northwest would help a bunch.

In Memoriam

With a heavy heart, we send our condolences to the families and loved ones of Trenton Johnson and Brent Witham.

Johnson, a 19-year-old firefighter from Missoula, Montana, working for one of Oregon’s professional wildfire fighting companies, Grayback Forestry Inc., was killed when a tree top broke off and fell toward four firefighters who had just arrived at a lightning-caused fire burning along a ridge near Florence Lake in Montana’s Lolo National Forest. Three of the men were able to get clear, but Johnson did not.

The 29-year-old Witham died while working on the Lolo Peak fire burning southwest of Missoula. A tree that was being felled came down and struck him. He was a six-year veteran U.S. Forest Service firefighter from the San Bernardino Vista Grande Hotshots, stationed in the San Bernardino National Forest.

What’s Burning Now!

Oregon and Washington

As of August 18, 2017, there are 18 major fires and several small fires burning across the region. Only a few have been contained.

Bridge Creek
Location: 12 miles NE of Keller, WA
Acres: 1,658 Start Date: 8/9/17
Cause: Lightning
Contained: 24%
Estimated Containment: 8/31/17

Chetco Bar
Location: Kalmiopsis Wilderness
Acres: 10,963 Start Date: 7/12/17
Cause: Lightning
Contained: 14%
Estimated Containment: 10/15/17

Diamond Creek
Location: 27 miles NNW of Winthrop, WA
Acres: 29,637 Start Date: 7/23/17
Estimated Containment: 10/15/17

Falcon Complex
Location: 25 miles east of Tiller, OR
Acres: 1,750 Start Date: 8/8/17
Cause: Lightning
Contained: 17%
Estimated Containment: 8/30/17

Location: 12 miles NW of Shady Cove
Acres: 587 Start Date: 8/7/17
Cause: Lightning Contained: 90%
Estimated Containment: 8/25/17

High Cascades Complex
Location: 9 miles NE Prospect
Acres: 10,460 Start Date: 8/12/17
Cause: Lightning
Contained: 61%
Estimated Containment: 8/31/17

Jolly Mountain
Location: 13 miles NW of Cle Elum, WA
Acres: 529 Start Date: 8/11/17
Cause: Lightning/Natural Contained: 0%
Estimated Containment: 10/15/17

Location: 10 miles NE of Lowell, OR
Acres: 2,703 Start Date: 8/10/17
Cause: Lightning Contained 10%
Estimated Containment: 10/31/17

Miller Complex
Location: 17 miles E of Cave Junction, OR
Cause: Lightning/Natural
Contained: 6%
Estimated Containment: 9/30/17

Location: 9 miles W of Sisters, OR
Acres: 4,565 Start Date: 8/11/17
Cause: Under Investigation
Contained: 0%
Estimated Containment: 10/1/17

Monument Hill
Location: 4 miles NE of Quincy, WA
Acres: 5,000 Start Date: 8/16/17
Cause: Under Investigation
Contained 40%
Estimated Containment: 8/19/17

Nena Springs
Location: 7 air miles NE of Simnasho - NE boundary of Warm Springs Indian Reservation
Acres: 46,000 Start Date: 8/8/17
Cause: Human
Contained 40%
Estimated Containment: 8/16/17

Noisy Creek
Location: 33 miles NE of Colville, WA
Acres: 4,000 Start Date: 7/15/17
Cause: Lightning
Contained: 65%
Estimated Containment: 9/30/17

Norse Peak
Location: 11 miles W of Cliffdell, WA
Acres: 1,200 Start Date: 8/11/17
Cause: Lightning/Natural
Contained: 0%
Estimated Containment: 10/1/17

Location: 13 miles S. of McKenzie Bridge, OR
Cause: Unknown
Percent Contained: 0
Estimated Containment: 9/30/17

Umpqua North Complex
Location: 50 miles E of Roseburg, OR
Acres: 3,414 Start Date: 8/11/17
Cause: Under Investigation
Percent Contained: 0
Estimated Containment: 8/15/17

Location: 15 miles E of Detroit, OR
Acres: 6,791 Start Date 7/23/17
Cause: Lightning/Natural
Percent Contained: 0
Estimated Containment: 10/31/17

Location: 10 miles NE of Sisters, OR
Acres: 2,030 Start Date: 8/10/17
Cause: Lightning/Natural
Percent Contained: 90
Estimated Containment: 8/16/17

Smokey the Bear turns 73 this month.

That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!

(Talkback - [email protected])

(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC)

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/USFS 

TimberWest November/December 2013
July/August 2017

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