HUNTINGTON LAKE – Why didn’t they put this thing out right away? Why was it so many days with 0% containment? Are they really trying to get this fire handled, or just letting it burn on purpose?
Those are some of the questions people have been bandying about, and when I visited the Aspen Fire Camp last Friday, I was thrilled to have a chance to spend some time with the guy who has the answers.
Dave Bartlett is the Fire Behavior Analyst on the Aspen Fire, and graciously agreed to share a bit of his time explaining the process to me. Well, that was after I walked into his trailer and plopped down and started asking a lot of questions. So what does a Fire Behavior Analyst do?
“I’m looking at the map and playing with the computer, and looking real-time at what the fire is doing right now,” Bartlett says. “Then I’m trying to forecast out what it’s going to do tomorrow, and the next day. We’re trying to beat the fire to where it wants to be before it gets there.”
The work that Bartlett does goes into helping the Incident Commander and the rest of the team decide how they’re going to attack this fire – where they’ll build line, and what type of line to build. What type of resources they will use, and how many of everything they’ll need. Dozers, helicopters, tankers, ground crews… they’re putting all the pieces on the board and planning the attack. And of course, safety is always the number one priority.
“I’m looking at it tactically to assist the operation and provide information on what I think the fire’s going to do,” says Bartlett. “But also, I need to make sure that whatever we’re planning on doing won’t be of such intensity that it will hurt a firefighter.”
This fire, which started late on Monday, July 22, was only 5% contained as of 7 p.m. on Friday the 26th. Why would it take so long to accomplish what some perceived as so little?
One of at least 15 lightning strikes to hit the area that night, the fire started on the north side of the Aspen Creek drainage just above the San Joaquin River canyon. It spread quickly, allowing the initial attack firefighters limited access due to the rugged terrain.
“It’s very steep in places. Billy goat steep,” said Bartlett, holding his hand nearly straight up and down to indicate the angle of the slope. “Obviously we can’t put people on the ground in a lot of that area.”
(Map shows ignition point. Rock Creek is on the left of the San Joaquin, Aspen Creek on the right. Click to enlarge map.)
The fire raced off to the north, and fanned out toward Stump Springs road on the east, with trees torching and the fire spotting out ahead of itself.
“A tree or brush torches out and burns very quickly,” said Bartlett. “As those needles burn up, the tree can throw those embers quite a ways. Some of the longest range spotting we’ve seen with the terrain and the wind and the fuels aligned, has been as much as a mile out. That doesn’t happen frequently; most of the time it wants to put spots out about a quarter of a mile.”
The behavior of this fire and the challenges of the terrain led planners to utilize “indirect line” as part of the fire plan.
“There were places we just couldn’t get to,” said Bartlett. “We could see we weren’t going to be successful with direct attack, so we had to fall back to a bigger box. It just shows how dry it is out there.”
Bartlett explained just what indirect line is, and how the plan works.
“Since we’ve got all these little spot fires out there, we can’t go out and put fire lines around each one of them. That’s the law of diminishing returns,” he said, pointing out all the heat signatures on the big map on the wall over his desk. “So we go out and put fire line around that whole group of them, and tie that line back in. Then we try to make sure that we hold that fireline until they all burn together, and stop the spread.”
When a fireline is cut out ahead of the fire, crews do what are called “burnouts.” This is not the same as a backfire operation.
“A burnout is just to burn along the edge of the line to make it wider,” Bartlett explained, “to make it more effective.”
There were a few dozer lines way out ahead of the fire on the big map we were referencing. Bartlett said they didn’t think they were going to have to use those lines, but it is part of the contingency plan.
“We have contingency line around a lot of this fire, which means if our primary lines won’t hold, we have secondary lines that we can fall back to real quickly, into what we believe is defendable terrain.”
He then directed my attention to another map, filled with hundreds of little red dots. It was the heat map taken the night before by an aircraft using an infrared camera to map the fire and show where the hot spots are.
“These little spots are the intermittent heat – a stump hole burning, maybe a piece of burning duff,” said Bartlett, indicating all the red dots within the fireline. “It doesn’t mean everything in there is jet black and slicked off. There are huge green islands that didn’t burn, and in other areas, the fire crept along and just burned up the undergrowth. Certainly in some places the fire did take all the vegetation off, but those places are minimal compared to the overall fire area.”
While the edges of the fire on the northeast and the south have been quite active, Bartlett said that in the interior, the fire is burning itself out. Each day, he said, the heat maps will show fewer and fewer of those little red dots.
“Then, we’ll go in along the edges of the fire where those hot spots could still be a threat, and there’ll be dozens of firefighters out there, mixing and stirring, just like you’re putting out a campfire.” The process is called “mopup.”
As to the question of letting the fire burn intentionally, Bartlett dismissed that notion immediately.
“This fire has had nothing but direct containment objectives from day one. This is a very dry year and there’s been a lot of fire activity,” he said, addressing the alternative to suppressing a fire, which is to manage it as it burns.
“Managing a large fire like this on a year like this would be difficult,” he said. “This has had direct containment objectives from day one, and nothing else. We’ve thrown everything at it but the kitchen sink, and if we had a kitchen sink we’d probably throw that.”