california firesNW Strike Teams Battle California’s Thomas Fire

Just in time for the holidays, all 15 strike teams from Oregon and one from Washington were demobilized after two weeks on the fire line fighting California’s devastating Thomas Fire.

Thomas Fire Gets Its Start

The Thomas Fire erupted with a vengeance on December 4, north of Santa Paula in Ventura County. It originated as two separate fires, with the first igniting in Santa Paula Canyon, while the second fire started about 30 minutes later four miles north in Upper Ojai. Driven by strong Santa Ana winds, the two fires joined and quickly reached the city of Ventura, where more than 500 residences were destroyed that night.

The Santa Ana winds eventually shoved the fire north and east, spreading it into Santa Barbara County and the Los Padre National Forest.

It has been reported that, at its height, the fire developed its own weather, turning it into a firestorm traveling at an acre per minute.

To date, the Thomas Fire has become the largest California fire in modern times, devouring more than 281,620 acres and damaging or destroying more than 1400 structures. As many as 235,000 people had to evacuate at one time or another.

Oregon was the largest contingent of personnel sent to the fire among the other Western states that participated. About 360 fire personnel and 75 engines were deployed to California to assist with fire suppression efforts. In all, over 700 firefighters and 216 engines were brought in from participating states, bringing the total frontline personnel to 8,500.

California issued a call for reinforcements a few days after the blaze began through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), which enables states to share resources during natural and man-made disasters. In many ways, it was a reciprocal gesture because several units from California helped battle wildfires in Oregon earlier in the fall.

Drones on the Fire Line

In the past, I’ve taken issue with those nincompoops who fly their hobby drones into restricted airspace attempting to take world class photos and video of raging wildfires. Now there’s good news.

Firefighters are putting drones on the line.

California firefighters deployed drones to assist in getting a precise view of the fire’s path and evaluating property damage.

Instead of carrying Hellfire missiles, California Air National Guard MQ-9 Reaper UAVs were deployed to the Thomas Fire to map the fire and deliver real-time data to show firefighters where the blaze was moving, enabling crews to go where it counted most.

According to, 347 public service agencies in the U.S. bought drones between 2009 and 2017. Of that, 69 are fire departments. also reports that Goldman Sachs estimates the global drone-related firefighting industry is up to $881 million.

Drones are being used by firefighters to aid in developing a more informed strategy and to reduce risk. They are used to over-watch the fire lines, seeing through the smoke with thermal imaging cameras to monitor hotspots and crews from above. Drones can see the immediate fire conditions, monitor ground crews, and provide more reliable data to command centers.

Still, there’s a bit of red tape firefighting operations must wade through before they can fly. Agencies must apply to the FAA for Certificates of Waiver or Authorization for specific missions to get around rules that restrict how UAVs are used. Drone pilots also have to get a pilot’s certification to fly a drone for commercial purposes.

By all reports, the paperwork hassle is worth it, because there is no doubt that firefighting drones can help save lives and property.

Mapping Escape Routes from the Air

Before a hand crew or Hot-Shot crew hikes into a fire to battle the flames, they identify areas where they can retreat using a process that emphasizes available tools and tactics to prevent being trapped in a burnover situation. The process includes recognition of suitable escape routes and safety zones.

Not an easy task when facing deadly bipolar fire behavior and rough terrain.

Now, researchers at the University of Utah have developed a mapping tool that could one day help fire crews make crucial safety decisions with an eagle’s eye view. Their study is the first to attempt to map escape routes from the air.

Using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to analyze the terrain slope, surface roughness, and vegetation density, the researchers assessed how each landscape condition impeded a person’s ability to travel.

Currently, this technology isn’t well suited to real-time mapping of evacuation routes, because the data takes too long to process, and coverage is limited in some regions. As the technology progresses, it will probably get sped up to where it is a practical tool for firefighters on the ground.

There is currently limited information about this process, but UAVs will most likely figure into the equation. Knowing and finding a route to safety is paramount.

california firesWhat’s Burning Now!

Thomas Fire – California
Active - 281,620 acres
Containment: 100%, Structures
Destroyed: 1,063 Structures
Damaged: 280

Massive mud slides hit the small community of Montecito as a result of heavy rains inundated the burned bare ground left by the Thomas Fire. The death toll has reached 20. Over 127 single-family homes were destroyed in the slide and nearly 300 other damaged, adding to the total destructive force created by fire and rain.

Eagle Creek Fire – Oregon

Fire suppression repair – measures to mitigate erosion and restore areas impacted by constructing containment lines – have been completed. A BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team provided recommendations for mitigations on National Forest System lands to prevent further damage to values at risk in the area. Implementation of these mitigations is underway.

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
January/February 2018

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