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  www.wildfirenews.com Archived 04-15-2003 16:11 PDT  

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NO WAY, WE WON'T PAY

APRIL 15 -- RAPID CITY, SD:  Black Hills Power in South Dakota and Plum Creek Timber in Montana both insisted this week that they're not responsible for major wildfires and they're not going to pay for them.

Black Hills Power formally denied responsibility for the Grizzly Gulch Fire last summer, which threatened Lead and Deadwood and burned more than 10,000 acres.

"The cause of the Grizzly Gulch Fire was an act of God and/or other independent and intervening acts," attorneys for Black Hills Power wrote in an eight-paragraph answer to a federal lawsuit filed last month. According to the Aberdeen News, the company "denies it caused or contributed to" causing the fire.

The federal complaint blamed the Rapid City utility company for failing to trim trees that grew into a power transmission line and ignited the fire. The fire began June 29 in Grizzly Gulch; dry conditions and strong winds pushed the fire, which destroyed seven homes and 13 outbuildings and forced the evacuation of Deadwood's hotels and gambling casinos. Crews worked for two weeks to bring the fire under control, and the cost is estimated at $17 million.

The federal suit was filed on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In Montana, Plum Creek Timber has said it "respectfully declines" to take any responsibility for two fires ignited by loggers on its timberland at Lolo Pass during the summer of 2000 -- or for the $11 million the Forest Service spent fighting those fires after they spread onto national forest land. The Missoulian reported that an attorney for Plum Creek blamed the contractors hired to log on company-owned forestland. Sparks created by logging equipment accidentally ignited the wildfires, said attorney Stephen Thomas, but no company employees were on-site at the time.

"There is no evidence of negligence by Plum Creek," he said. "Plum Creek respectfully declines to take any responsibility" for either the Bear Camp Fire or the Crooked Fire. A demand letter sent to Plum Creek in February asked the company to reimburse the Forest Service for nearly $11 million in suppression costs. Agency staff say that Plum Creek's reluctance to pay the bills will in no way deter the Forest Service from its reimbursement mission.

"The U.S. citizens -- taxpayers -- are out $11 million, so that's what we are working to recover," said Doug Gochnour, the Clearwater National Forest's administrative officer. "We really don't care who pays us. There's just an outstanding cost to the taxpayers that we want to recover." He said the file on the Crooked Fire has been turned over to Forest Service lawyers.


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EUGENE FIRE VIDEO FINALIST FOR NATIONAL AWARD

APRIL 15 -- EUGENE, OR:   A public service video produced by the Eugene Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is a finalist for a Telly Award, which honors outstanding U.S. television commercials, video productions, and films.

The seven-minute video, "We'll Be There," first aired last summer. The Register-Guard reported that the video explains the department's decision, effective last July, to add daytime ambulances staffed by medical personnel who are not cross-trained as firefighters. The video also explains why fire engines respond to medical emergencies.

"We'll Be There" was produced by Robert Lewis of Metro TV, an in-house video production center that provides services for Lane County agencies and jurisdictions. They produce videotapes to educate citizens and officials, and to enhance public sector employees' efficiency. Ken Warren, also of Metro TV, narrated the video, which was written by Glen Potter, fire department staff.

The Telly Awards were founded in 1980, to showcase outstanding non-network and cable commercials. The competition was expanded several years ago to include film and video productions; judges are top production professionals. Entries scoring 7.0 to 8.9 on a 10-point scale become finalists, and entries scoring 9.0 or higher are winners. Entries do not compete against each other but are judged against a high standard of excellence.

Eugene Fire provides fire and rescue services to an area of about 71 square miles containing urban, suburban, and rural zones. The fire suppression response area includes all of the incorporated area of the City of Eugene, plus several neighboring districts. The department also provides emergency medical response and ambulance transport service to an area of about 440 square miles. The department includes two divisions, Operations and Administration, and staffs 11 fire stations on a 24-hour basis. Administration includes Emergency Medical Services (four 24-hour ambulances plus three peak-demand units), Fire Prevention, Planning, Logistics, and administrative support services. The department employs approximately 200 personnel.


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IT WON'T RAIN ALL SUMMER

APRIL 15 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  Spring rains across the West are making for great greenup in the mountains and across the deserts, but all that rain means more fuels for wildfires. But according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah firefighters are praying for more than just April showers a year after 28 major fires and scores of smaller fires burned 262,200 acres across the state.

"We want to see it rain all summer," said Sheldon Wimmer, fire management officer with Utah BLM.

The first fire of the season burned 25 acres in Panguitch on April 2 when a fire got away from people burning ditches. And fire managers are all too aware that resources this year are limited:  80 percent of National Guard members -- a key clutch-time contingent for fire agencies -- have been activated for duty in Iraq. And nationwide, the heavy airtanker fleet is down 25 percent from 44 to 33, with the grounding of 11 aircraft last summer.

The spring rains are loading the lowlands with non-native cheatgrass and other fuels. Alpine snowpack ranging from 50 to 80 percent of normal means the high country is vulnerable as Utah enters its fifth season of drought.

"So it's the worst of both worlds," said Dave Dalrymple, fire management coordinator for Utah's Division of Forestry. "The potential is high for big fires in the desert and big fires in the mountains."

In 1982, a single lightning storm started 300 fires in Utah. In 1983, one cheatgrass fire burned 209,000 acres from Dugway to the Great Salt Lake because spring moisture had loaded the landscape with fuel. "It took off with strong wind and there was nothing we could do," said Dalrymple. "We threw airtankers and everything we had at it."

"Native grasses stay green a long time," he added, "but cheatgrass is like gasoline after about June 15."

Several years of drought stress across the state has resulted in extensive dead stands of piñon-juniper, or "red slash," and a wind-driven p-j fire can be virtually unstoppable. Utah's worst fire last year was the Rattle Complex in the Book Cliffs, an eight-week blaze that burned 88,000 acres of BLM and state lands and cost $12 million to fight.

Dennis Peebler, (hi peebz) FMO for the Flaming Gorge NRA on the Ashley National Forest, can see the aftermath of last summer's Mustang Ridge Fire from his office window. "It really hit those people at a bad time, right at the Fourth of July last year," he said.

His area has bumped up to 80 percent snowpack with a few late storms, and he hopes the rain continues. "But it could turn warm and windy, and dry up real fast," he said, "or it could be cool and damp and push it way back. It's springtime in the Rockies, you never can tell."


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ARIZONA BORDER FIRE

APRIL 15 -- TUCSON, AZ:  Arizona's first big border fire of the year burned nearly 1,500 acres of grassland yesterday along the Mexican border southeast of Sierra Vista.

According to an AP report in the Arizona Republic, the fire was contained; it started east of the San Pedro River and was human-caused.

Southwest fire map

The Arizona Daily Star reported that the fire was near Palominas on BLM land. Firefighters from Palominas, the BLM and the Forest Service were on the fire, including 11 engines and about 65 firefighters. Firefighters conducted a burnout east of the San Pedro River to contain the fire and protect houses.

BLM spokesman David Peters said the fire was probably started by an undocumented immigrant. He said a Border Patrol agent saw a man in tall grass Sunday morning, then noticed a fire in the same area later.

The Southwest Area Coordination Center reports that crews are patrolling the perimeter and mopping up today.


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$500 MILLION IN FIRE FUNDS YANKED FROM BUDGET

APRIL 13 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  Budget negotiators have stripped $500 million in wildfire funds from the federal spending plan for next year, reversing last month's Senate decision. According to an AP report in the Statesman-Journal, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said majority Republicans rejected his proposal for the $500 million increase that he persuaded the Senate to add. With that extra $500 million, spending for the National Fire Plan would have increased to $3.1 billion in the budget year beginning October 1.

But on Friday, budget negotiators from the House and Senate decided to allocate only $2.6 billion for the fiscal year. The funding increase for the National Fire Plan was among many items that were cut.

"There was a real effort to take out things not directly related to homeland defense, the war on Iraq, or other core items," said one staff member.

Fire agencies last year spent $1.6 billion on suppression -- four times the budgeted amount, and some of the funds came from other accounts such as restoration, fuels reduction, and research.


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PALM BEACH COUNTY SMOKED OUT

APRIL 11 -- ROYAL PALM BEACH, FL:  Stiff winds pushed a fire across more than 400 acres of woodland in and around The Acreage in north Palm Beach County yesterday, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Heavy smoke was reported as far away as Singer Island and in Riviera Beach. Wind gusts were reported as high as 30 mph and officials said the fire could affect traffic on Interstate 95 and Florida's Turnpike. The fire was still smoldering late yesterday, but officials expected it to burn itself out.

The Baker County Standard reported that April 6-12 was designated as "Wildfire Awareness Week," and many residents recalled the devastating season of 1998. "At one time during that fire season, there were wildfires burning in every one of Florida's 67 counties," said Annaleasa Winter, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist. "That was an experience we should never forget."

Also this week, the State Fire Marshal's Office issued recommendations for new statewide training standards after an investigation of the training deaths of two Osceola County firefighters in July 2002. The report summarizes the live-fire training incident in which a flashover killed Lt. John Mickel and rookie firefighter Dallas Begg while they performed a search and rescue drill in a one-story cement block house.

The report, according to firehouse.com, says there was no written plan reviewed in advance, there was too much fuel for the fire and not enough ventilation, and no alternate escape route from the fire room. Also, six minutes passed between the first unanswered radio messages to Mickel and Begg, and the time a crew was deployed to look for them.

In an effort to avoid a similar tragedy in the future, the Fire Marshal's Office is recommending that the current edition of NFPA 1403 be adopted as state law. Osceola County Fire Rescue adopted it in December 2002.


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SOUTHWEST CREWS GEAR UP FOR SEASON

APRIL 08 -- PHOENIX, AZ:   With the scars of last summer's wildfires still covering nearly a half million acres of Arizona, East Valley firefighters are training up as part of a statewide aid system.

Chandler Battalion Chief Kevin Ward hopes to train enough firefighters to have an East Valley strike team, including five engines and crews, available on two hours' notice. Ward, whose first experience with a wildfire was the 1990 Dude Fire that claimed six lives, said it's critical for urban firefighters to learn how fire behaves when it's not contained within a building.

"It's a whole different type of firefighting," Ward said.

The East Valley effort, according to a report by the Arizona Republic, is part of a statewide mutual aid system that's been planned among fire chiefs for a decade and should be in place by this summer. It will be an extension of the mutual aid agreements in place between many urban fire departments, and should streamline the process of calling for help from other agencies.

"The state will link all such cooperative groups together via this system," said Goodyear Fire Chief Mark Gaillard, who heads the mutual aid subcommittee of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association. "If I have that tremendous catastrophic event in my community, I make one phone call and all the help is coming."

The Arizona Fire Mutual Aid System is a grassroots effort that started with $37,000 of federal grant money, said Larry Drake, fire chief of the Sedona Fire District. "We all recognize the state's got a budget problem right now, so we haven't pushed for the money. We're each trying to do it on our own budgets," he said.

The state has agreements with 230 fire departments for fires on state and federal land. "A typical year we may spend $1 million to $3 million," said Scott Hunt, Phoenix District forester for the Arizona State Land Department.

The 2003 fire season is expected to be above average in some areas of the state; early precipitation added fuels across drought-parched areas. New Mexico has already seen its first large fire; the Alamogordo Daily News reported that a fire started around 1:30 a.m. Saturday near the small central New Mexico town of Bernardo south of Albuquerque. State Forestry fire information officer Karen Lightfoot said winds had pushed the San Francisco Fire to over 1,000 acres by late Saturday evening. Firefighters thought they had the fire out early Saturday, but the wind blew it over the river. The fire had two heads, Lightfoot said, one moving south on the east side of the river and one moving north on the west side.

U.S. 60 was closed down Saturday because of thick smoke; two vehicles crashed on the highway because of reduced visibility. State Police helped evacuate Boys Ranch and a few surrounding homes. The Southwest Area Coordination Center reported that the San Francisco Fire was 60 percent contained at 2,080 acres yesterday morning and full containment was expected last night.


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ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS WINS PULITZER FOR FIRE PHOTOGRAPHY

APRIL 07 -- DENVER, CO:  Denver's Rocky Mountain News photo staff have won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for coverage of last year's Colorado forest fires. The package of photos captured residents who lost homes, firefighters battling walls of flame, and photos purchased from a freelancer of an airtanker as it crashed near Estes Park.

"It reflects the commitment of this newspaper to storytelling and that includes great photography," said editor and publisher John Temple. "We know readers love powerful photography."

Photography director Janet Reeves said the wildfires were difficult to cover because they were scattered across the state from April through summer's end. Many photographers gave up personal time and canceled vacations to stick with the story.

"It was good to celebrate the work we put in," said photographer George Kochaniec Jr. "We stayed away from our families for weeks and weeks in bad, bad conditions."

The paper has a photo essay slideshow on their site with some of the best fire photos, and photo reprints are available.


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JALAPEÑO CHEESE AND RANGER PUDDING

APRIL 07 -- NATICK, MA:  There is a seriousness of purpose in the Department of Defense test kitchen these days. They're making MREs. The new Meals Ready to Eat created for the troops in Iraq are developed by the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, and new recipes are tailored to the tastes of an ethnically diverse fast-food generation raised on tacos, teriyaki, and Starbucks.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that when the food scientists originally developed MREs, they didn't ask what the modern soldier (or hotshot) might find appealing. But the soldiers told them -- and in no uncertain terms -- calling the field rations "Meals Rejected by Everyone," "Meals Regurgitated by Ethiopians," "Minimum Retching Equivalent," and other derogatory alternatives. They tossed unopened brown plastic bags filled with casseroles and ham loaf into the desert, and had nicknames for the worst entrees, like the "four fingers of death," or smoked frankfurters.

MRE with SKITTLESSince the war in Iraq began, the MRE part of the program has been front and center. Each year, the military orders about 3 million of the 1½-pound food packages from three commercial food manufacturers contracted to produce them. Since October, however, the order has doubled and the factories are on overtime. More than 48 million MREs are stockpiled in the warehouses of Kuwait.

The new MREs include 24 entrees, with four vegetarian options like cheese tortellini and pasta Alfredo. Some feature Thai chicken, Jamaican pork chops, or a gloppy cheese dish called Mexican macaroni. Little bottles of Tabasco or packets of cayenne are included. Dried cappuccino and chai are replacing freeze-dried coffee. The military has even developed its own power bar, called the HooAH! bar.

An MRE with a pack of Skittles or M&Ms or Jolly Ranchers is considered a good one, and some of those have become popular currency in poker games. The food inside the plastic MRE bag must be edible for up to three years stored at 80 degrees, and the packages have to be waterproof, vermin-proof, and able to survive a 100-foot drop without a parachute. Nutritional requirements are specified in an eight-page publication and overseen by dietitian Judy Aylward at the Natick center. She has to ensure that each meal contains about 1,250 calories, with enough carbohydrate, fat, protein, and vitamins to satisfy the surgeon general. That gives each soldier about 3,750 calories a day.

In the vegetarian meals, getting enough protein and zinc is a problem, so Aylward makes sure those meals have packets of peanut butter. In fact, she is using so much peanut butter, soldiers are complaining.

"No one can eat that much peanut butter," wrote one soldier in a feedback form that hit Aylward's desk recently. "I suggest replacing it with more jalapeño cheese spread, which is excellent."

The crew at Natick constantly tweaks the MRE menu. Behavioral scientists go through soldiers' trash during field exercises to see what's being rejected; they look at items that get traded or used in unexpected ways, like the cocoa powder and nondairy creamer that soldiers mix into crumbled crackers or pound cake to create "Ranger pudding."

Next year, the Jamaican pork chop and the beef with mushrooms will be out, but New England clam chowder will be in. By 2005, the dreaded Country Captain chicken and Thai chicken will make way for a cheese omelet and chicken fajitas -- the latter a dish that couldn't be included until the commercial producers who contract with the military could wade through the specifications and find a way to keep flour tortillas fresh for three years.

"But they really want pizza and beer," Aylward said. "We're working on it -- the pizza, at least."


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McINNIS:  BURN DUFF, GENERATE POWER

APRIL 05 -- SUMMIT COUNTY, CO:  U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis wants to burn duff from the forest floor to generate electricity while simultaneously reducing wildfire danger. A bill he is sponsoring would expand biomass energy production by providing $50 million in two grant programs to nonprofit organizations, Indian tribes, small communities, and private individuals. According to a report by the Summit Daily News, applicants could receive $100,000 from one program to offset the costs of building a plant, and $100,000 from the second program to help pay for the costs of collecting biomass material.

Duff is the woody material on the forest floor -- pine needles, twigs, leaves, branches, and other organic matter -- and in many areas the duff has accumulated to unnatural depths.

"Everyone's looking for alternative energy sources," said McInnis' press secretary Blair Jones. Forest biomass fuel is a relatively clean source of energy, releasing only small amounts of carbon dioxide. The byproduct -- ash -- can be used in fertilizer.

BIOMASS FACTS:

• An area can be harvested for biomass every 15 to 20 years

• Producing energy from biomass is more expensive than generating energy from petroleum or natural gas

• It would take 70 million acres of land to produce enough biomass to offset 20 percent of U.S. fossil fuel emissions

Under McInnis' proposal, grant recipients would be required to abide by all environmental regulations and laws. The proposal was included in President Bush's comprehensive energy bill, which passed the Resources Committee last week. The proposal has bipartisan support, and will head to the House next week.

If biomass markets were available, much of the otherwise valueless material gleaned from fuels reduction projects could generate significant profits to offset the costs of its removal, while providing a source of alternative energy in rural regions. Currently biomass energy contributes 3 percent of U.S. energy production (and 38 percent of the energy generated from renewable fuels). Of this, 34 percent is fueled by wood from mill residues and forests. With existing facilities located in the Northeast, Southeast, and on the West Coast, the buildup of forest fuels in the inland West could provide significant new opportunities for energy development.

California has been producing energy from biomass for more than a decade. According to the California Energy Commission, combustion power plants use forest slash, urban wood waste, agricultural waste, and byproducts from lumber mills to generate electricity. California's biopower industry is the largest in the nation; the state has a total installed biomass capacity of 567 MW, and is responsible for 6 percent of the total U.S. biomass electricity generating capacity. The California Energy Commission provides assistance in developing biomass energy projects and offers many services for companies willing to invest in biomass projects. California also offers grants for biomass innovations.

"With billions of tons of small dead trees, twigs and brush choking our forests, biomass energy could provide a real shot in the arm for domestic energy production," said McInnis, who is Chairman of the Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. "It's renewable, it's clean, and these small woody materials have to be removed anyway, in order to get a handle on our wildfire crisis."

The American Bioenergy Association and Biomass Energy Research Association and Biomass Research & Development Initiative have more information online.


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WYOMING PLANS NEW COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM

APRIL 04 -- CHEYENNE, WY:  If a police officer at point A cannot communicate with a firefighter at point B in the middle of a major emergency, the state has a problem. And, as the Casper Star-Tribune reported today, public safety agencies in the state are not on the same wavelength.

A plan for a statewide communications system to link all agencies is under way; the statewide "Public Safety Mobile Communications Plan" (PSMC) being developed by a consultant firm, Federal Engineering, and is due by October.

Kelly Hamilton, a cochair of the steering committee for the project, said the issue is interoperability -- a system that will allow agencies to talk to each other when the need arises. Hamilton is also chairman of the State Agency Law Enforcement Communications System Commission (SALECS).

Hamilton said that people expect the highway patrol, sheriff, police, and firefighters to be able to talk to each other. But in case of a large rangeland wildfire, the agencies also need to communicate with the state forester, federal agencies, and cities and towns. "Radio systems are so very, very expensive for cities and counties to do on their own," said Hamilton. "We can get more if we pool our resources and we have the ability to talk to one another in a hazmat situation, a wildfire, a high-speed chase, or a bioterrorism or agri-terrorism event."

Last week Gov. Dave Freudenthal said estimated costs of a statewide system ranged from $26 million to $75 million. Robert Wilson of the Wyoming Department of Transportation said that South Dakota spent $26 million on its statewide system, primarily with grant dollars. He said that after the steering committee gets the consultants' report later this month, the state will go to industry for requests for information on the technology needed and estimated costs.


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WYOMING RxFIRE GETS AWAY

APRIL 04 -- SUNDANCE, WY:  Higher-than-expected winds and temperatures blew a prescribed burn out of control north of Sundance on Tuesday, but firefighters had it about 40 percent contained by midday Wednesday. The fire, according to the Rapid City Journal, burned about 400 acres of national forest and private land in the Bear Lodge Mountains. Forest Service fire information officer Rick Hudson said crews were mopping up.

Forest Service crews started the prescribed burn Monday to reduce fuel loads, but unexpected weather conditions pushed it beyond initial control lines. About 100 firefighters were working on the fire Wednesday. Hudson said they expected containment by this evening.


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NEW FUELS BILL INTRODUCED IN CONGRESS

APRIL 04 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  New legislation to protect communities at risk from fire was introduced yesterday by Reps. George Miller of California and Peter DeFazio of Oregon. The "Federal Lands Hazardous Fuels Reduction Act of 2003" (H.R.1621) would provide assistance to local communities to treat private lands at risk of wildfire, and would also speed up the decision-making process for fuels reduction projects on public lands within a half mile of an at-risk community. At-risk lands near municipal water supply systems would also be covered.

"This is an innovative bill that would help protect Western communities at risk of wildfire," said Miller, the former chairman and former senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee with jurisdiction over this issue. "We allow for a faster approval process without weakening environmental laws, and we also provide grants directly to local communities for fire treatment on private lands."

DeFazio, who has served on the Resources Committee for 15 years, said the bill protects communities while providing strong protections for old growth forests. Aggressive fire suppression for decades has resulted in dangerous overstocking of timber and a massive buildup of brushy fuels, and DeFazio said what was once-rare catastrophic wildfires now annually threaten communities.

"This bill is the first step in a long process to help return our public lands to their natural state where low-intensity fires can burn to enhance and protect the natural health of the forest," said DeFazio.

The bill would authorize Congress to spend nearly $4 billion over five years for fuels reduction on public lands; it would require Congress to set aside an additional $500 million over five years from the Reforestation Trust Fund to be given as grants directly to state and local communities for hazardous fuels reduction efforts. Federal lands within a half mile of an at-risk community would receive priority; 75 percent of the new funding would be set aside for such projects.

The bill would accelerate the review and approval process for projects impacting federal lands within a half mile of a community -- or on at-risk lands near municipal water supply systems. That streamlined analysis process would be limited to such areas. The bill would also maintain current protections for roadless areas, requiring full environmental analysis for projects in inventoried roadless areas or endangered species habitat.

The bill would also create a new petition process for communities that object to the classification of lands at risk.

According to an AP story in the Arizona Daily Sun, Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado is expected to introduce another forest-thinning bill later this month. McInnis has said he hopes to pass wildfire legislation before the start of the fire season. A member of his staff called the new bill a "positive signal" that Democratic congressmen who tried to reach a compromise last year are still interested in a bipartisan solution.


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RUSSIAN DELEGATION TOURS NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

APRIL 03 -- DUNSMUIR, CA:  Siskiyou County offers a lot in the way of learning about forestry, which is why a group of Russian foresters has been poking around logging sites, lumber mills, and wildfire burns for the last couple weeks. The group, according to a report by mtshastalive.com, is making its second visit to the north state in two years under the auspices of the non-profit Center for Citizen Initiatives. The 8-year-old program has organized visits by more than 3,000 Russians to 44 states.

"I think what the Russians see here is that there can be responsible development and responsible land-use management," said Hugh Graham, an organizer with the CCI, which oversees the federally funded Productivity Enhancement Program. The program offers Russians visits all over the United States.

The 3½-week tour is designed to help the Russian foresters bolster timber-based industries in their homeland. The technical itinerary and training schedule was prepared by Bill Branham of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The delegates arrived March 22 and have since been learning about forestry practices and the relationships between resource agencies and private timber operators.

"The main reaction we're getting is stereotypes that aren't true, that we're not all fat cats out for the big bucks," said Brian "Buz" Hembling with the Dunsmuir Rotary Club. "They learned that, just like in Russia, we have people in small towns who work for a living."

A similar group came to the area in April 2001, according to the Redding Record-Searchlight. Two of those executives controlled forests larger than the continental United States, and one woman who came headed the Russian equivalent of the Sierra Club. Another visitor helped write the new Russian Constitution after the Soviet Union dissolved.

In addition to funding from the U.S. State Department, the delegation gets donations from Siskiyou County civic groups and will make appearances at various meetings around town. They will attend a public farewell barbecue April 12 at Mount Shasta City Park.


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FIREFIGHTERS BUSY IN TENNESSEE

APRIL 03 -- KNOXVILLE, TN:  Firefighters just in the Knoxville area have responded to more than 40 fires burning about 500 acres in the past two weeks. Winds on the first day of April pushed eight fires that burned almost 300 acres in five counties, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Fire officials were expecting more of the same, according to Nathan Waters, fire prevention forester with the state Division of Forestry, which provides links online to fire danger ratings for six districts in the state.

Most of the recent fires have been escaped debris fires, but arson has contributed to about one-third of this season's fires. Wildfire season in Tennessee generally runs from mid-October to mid-May, and outdoor burning permits are required during fire season. Burning without a permit is a Class C misdemeanor that could carry a $50 fine or 30 days in jail.


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TWO IOWA MEN DEAD IN GRASS FIRES YESTERDAY

APRIL 02 -- MASON CITY, IOWA:  A northcentral Iowa man has died after a grass fire near Clear Lake.

KCCI-TV reported that Louis Hepperly, 87, of Clear Lake, was found dead yesterday afternoon just north of the town of Ventura in Cerro Gordo County.

Authorities said Hepperly was apparently burning a ditch when the fire went out of control. An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death.

WHO-TV in Des Moines reported that another man was killed in a grass fire in Buena Vista County.

Ellis Francis of Storm Lake was found dead Tuesday at a farm site near Linn Grove, north of Storm Lake. Firefighters arriving at the farm found a large grass fire and a storage shed engulfed in flames. When the fire was controlled, the body of 77-year-old Ellis was discovered.

The Iowa State Fire Marshal's office has ordered burning bans in at least 15 Iowa counties because of dry and windy conditions. The burning ban covers any kind of open fire, including burning weeds in ditches and campfires or bonfires. Burning bans have been issued in Madison, Warren, Jackson, and Scott counties in eastern Iowa, and in Benton, Marshall, and Tama counties in central Iowa.

Bans are also in effect in southern Iowa in Appanoose, Des Moines, Jefferson, Keokuk, Mahaska, Marion, and Wapello counties, and in Cass County in western Iowa.


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MONTANA JUDGE TIRED OF FOREST FIGHTS

APRIL 02 -- MISSOULA, MT:  When he first saw the crowd packing his courtroom yesterday, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy thought it might be an April Fools' joke.

"It seems like I see this crowd weekly," Molloy told the 70-plus environmentalists, loggers, sawmill workers, county commissioners, federal forest managers, and attorneys in the courtroom.

This week's argument was over old-growth trees on the Kootenai National Forest -- whether the Forest Service is meeting a self-imposed requirement that 10 percent of the forest be reserved as old growth, and whether the logging of trees burned during the summer of 2000 would further diminish the forest's old-age stock.

The Missoulian reported that two environmental groups -- the Ecology Center and the Lands Council -- say the Kootenai National Forest does not have the required acreage of old-growth. But the Forest Service says the Kootenai has more than the required old growth because its management plan allows counting "replacement old growth" toward the 10 percent minimum.

Molloy says he is frustrated by the steady stream of lawsuits through his Missoula courtroom, each pitting environmentalists against the Forest Service and resource-dependent rural communities.

"My sense of the law is that I'm not supposed to be running the national forests," Molloy said yesterday. "There is supposed to be an administrative process that is not being run by lawyers." He heard testimony from Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose and Owens and Hurst Lumber Co. president Jim Hurst. Both expressed their frustration with the nonstop lawsuits.

"It seems like the federal courts have become another tool in a legislative and political battle," said Molloy. "I can share your frustrations."

In December the Kootenai received notice of a complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction from The Ecology Center and The Lands Council, filed in Federal District Court in Missoula to enjoin all timber harvest, road construction, road re-construction, and prescribed burning in five projects on the Kootenai.

Five projects named in the complaint include the Pinkham Timber Sales and Associated Activities, Pink Stone Fire Recovery and the Gold Boulder Sullivan project on the Rexford Ranger District near Eureka, Kelsey Beaver Fire Recovery on the Three Rivers Ranger Distrtict near Troy, and the White Pine Creek Restoration Project and Associated Timber Sales on the Cabinet Ranger District near Trout Creek. According to the Montana Logging Association, there are 40 separate timber sales authorized by the five decisions affected by this lawsuit. Of these, four sales are already completed and ten others are under contract. All five of the projects were previously appealed by the Ecology Center and the Lands Council, and the Forest Supervisor's decisions on these projects were affirmed by the Regional Forester in Missoula.


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BLUE RIBBON PANEL MEMBERS SAY AIRTANKER SYSTEM HAS NOT BEEN FIXED

MARCH 31 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  Members of an aerial firefighting safety panel assembled in response to a particularly lethal year said last week their safety recommendations are not being heeded.

Forest Service assistant director of aviation Tony Kern and BLM director of aviation Larry Hamilton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that fires that don't threaten lives might be allowed to burn this year, according to an AP story in the Casper Star-Tribune. They said they were working on a plan that would not risk the lives of pilots or communities near forests.

Last year, 11 airtankers were grounded after six aerial firefighters died in two airtanker crashes and one helicopter crash. The grounding reduced the size of the airtanker fleet from 44 to 33. In response to the accidents, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and BLM Director Kathleen Clark created a five-member Blue Ribbon Fact Finding Panel. The panel held "town hall meetings" in six locations, and produced a report in December. But the panel's co-chairman and former NTSB chairman Jim Hall said that the panel's recommendations have not been heeded.

"The present system has not been fixed and it is certainly a situation that needs to be addressed," Hall said.

"The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable," said panel co-chairman and Texas State Forester Jim Hull. "The level of safety for both contractor and governmental aerial firefighting operations is lower than can be financially justified and is less than expected for any responsible employer."

Bill Broadwell, director of the Aerial Firefighting Industry Association, said the panel accomplished a lot in a relatively short time, and "they got it right for the most part."

"The statement that contractors do not have a financial incentive and are 'not required to ensure their aircraft are safe to fly,'" said Broadwell, "ignores the moral responsibility our operators exercise to ensure the safety of their aircrews." He said operators don't purposely send crews out in unsafe aircraft, but that existing inspection and repair programs are not adequate. He said operators were working with Sandia Laboratories to address that.

Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming called for standards and questioned the decision to ground some of the airtankers. "It is clear to me that contractors have been operating under inadequate standards," he said. "We cannot continue to have this happen. There were more than seven million acres of land charred last summer because we were dragging our feet in the bureaucratic mud instead of dousing fires. We will face a bigger challenge this summer if our aerial firefighting fleet is reduced."

Hawkins & Powers director of operations, Duane Powers, said that even though the company's planes have been inspected and are safe, the federal government has grounded them.

Kern countered that the planes had not been "grounded."

"You cannot contract with them," answered Thomas, "which effectively grounds them."

BLM director of aviation Hamilton said that the planes are often employed in situations where they are not needed. "We call it 'political retardant,'" he said, "when the local congressman calls and says that there is a television camera filming a fire and he wants to know why there is not an airtanker there."

Hamilton said the agencies have retired 11 (of 19 total) Baron 58-P leadplanes that had exceeded the 6,000-hour safe life limit. "Within the next couple of weeks," he said, "we plan on releasing a Request for Proposal to replace up to 10 of these planes with newer, more efficient, and safer aircraft through a long-term lease."

The full report of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is online.


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FATAL HELICOPTER CRASH IN TEXAS SHUTTLE SEARCH

MARCH 28 -- BROADDUS, TEXAS:  Two people were killed and three others injured yesterday when a U.S. Forest Service helicopter crashed while searching for shuttle materials in east Texas.

Texas Forest Service employee Charles Krenek of Lufkin and Pilot J. "Buzz" Mier of Arizona were killed in the crash. The injured were identified as Matt Tschacher, U.S. Forest Service, from South Dakota; Richard Lange, United Space Alliance at Kennedy Space Center of Florida; and Ronnie Dale, NASA Kennedy Space Center of Florida. KOTA-TV reported that Tschacher, stationed with the Hell Canyon Ranger District out of Newcastle, Wyoming, will undergo surgery today to remove a bone chip from his neck.

The Bell 407 helicopter was under contract with Papillon Helicopters of Arizona. USA Today reported that seven helicopters were searching in the area yesterday; the crash site was accessible only from muddy, rutted stretches of trail. Investigators from the FAA and NTSB were en route, and News 8 Austin reported that the San Augustine County Sheriff's Office and Texas DPS are assisting in the investigation.

The crash occurred east of Lufkin about 4:30 p.m. in rough wooded terrain on the Angelina National Forest. The Washington Times reported that ground crews were told of the accident at camp briefings this morning; there were "moments of silence" observed before the day's work began.

The Houston Chronicle reported that William Dickerson of San Augustine said he and his nephew were on a fishing trip and saw the helicopter fly overhead. Dickerson said the helicopter suddenly went silent, then crashed into the trees.

"When we heard it, we knew what it had to be," he said. "It was just like the motor went dead." Dickerson said the helicopter landed in a swampy area, with the motor buried in the ground and pieces of the chopper strewn around. He and his nephew helped the three survivors out of the woods and to the side of the road before going to a nearby house to call for help.

Shuttle search aircraft operations have been temporarily discontinued.


Search helicopters at the Palestine airport last month

The Texas Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service have been managing the air crews that fly search grids in coordination with ground crews. Earlier this week they said 36 helicopters were working under contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Ten fixed-wing aircraft fly above the helicopters as spotters and communication links.


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JURY REACHES VERDICT IN UKIAH TRIAL

MARCH 28 -- UKIAH, CA:  There's good news and bad news on the jury verdict in the trial of defendants Richard Mortensen and Frank Brady, who were charged with second-degree murder (and a number of other charges) for starting a wildfire while manufacturing methamphetamine. In August 2001 two CDF airtanker pilots were killed when their tankers collided over the fire that was ignited by Brady and Mortensen in what was alleged to be a methamphetamine operation near Hopland.

The good news is that 7 out of 12 of the counts returned by the jury yesterday afternoon were guilty. The bad news is that the second-degree murder charges against both defendants didn't come through.

Brady was found guilty by the jury of arson causing death, but Mortensen was spared that charge by the jury. Brady could face over 14 years in prison just on the charges he was convicted for, and Mortensen is still looking at 8 years or more.

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported that the jury convicted Brady of causing the fire, and both defendants were convicted of making methamphetamine.

Both men were acquitted of second-degree murder.

According to sources in the courtroom yesterday, Brady was found not guilty of charges 1 and 2 (murder) but guilty on charges 3 and 4 (related to manufacturing meth). He was, however, found guilty on the #4 charge of "recklessly causing a fire that caused great bodily injury." The jury decided that Mortensen was not guilty on that charge.

Leaving alone for a moment the irony of "great bodily injury" as compared with the deaths of two California fire pilots, that particular guilty charge against Brady is (sortof) good news for the fire community.

Linda Jarvis, one of the jurors, said gaps in the evidence presented by the prosecution made it hard to conclude that the fire started inside the trailer where Brady and Mortensen were accused of making meth. She said the rarity of airtanker collisions also was a factor in the decision. The crash that killed Lars Stratte and Larry Groff was the only midair collision in the history of CDF's aviation program.

Mortensen was found not guilty, according to local resident Lorie Egerer, on numerous other counts he was charged with, but the jury did find him guilty of meth manufacturing charges and conspiracy. He may face a sentence of 8 years and 8 months, according to Egerer, whose home and business were saved by air attack on the fire and who has followed this trial with more than a bit of interest.

Two previous attempts by Mendocino County prosecutors to win murder cases involving separate airtanker crashes failed in the 1970s.

Sentencing is scheduled for April 21.


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JURY STARTS OVER ON UKIAH MURDER TRIAL

MARCH 27 -- UKIAH, CA:  Deliberations in the Brady/Mortensen murder trial began anew on Tuesday with a replacement juror; juror number five was removed Monday after he brought into jury deliberations information he'd obtained outside the courtroom.

"The court did find juror number five had committed misconduct," Judge Jeffrey Tauber said. But he added that the information did not appear to be significant, and it had been at least implied during the trial. The Ukiah Daily Journal reported that the information was related to alleged methamphetamine production at a local residence several years before the August 2001 fire at which two fire pilots were killed in a mid-air collision.

Defendants Richard Mortensen and Frank Brady were at or near the trailer when the 2001 fire broke out. They're charged with two counts of second-degree murder because they started the fire while allegedly manufacturing methamphetamine.

Jurors had reached verdicts on all but one count against one of the defendants last Friday. They were working on breaking the stalemate late Monday when one juror revealed information he'd been told by a co-worker several weeks ago. The judge ruled that the jury must now begin deliberations from scratch, so the new juror (who sat in on the trial but not jury deliberations) can fairly participate.

By the time jurors went home Tuesday, they had reached seven of the required 12 verdicts.


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FIRE RESEARCH LESS THAN 2 PERCENT OF NATIONAL FIRE BUDGET

MARCH 27 -- TUCSON, AZ:  Scientists and fire managers are examining better ways to fight fires, reduce fuels, and rehab burned areas at meetings this week in Tucson; they're working on a research agenda for those topics and to improve communication between firefighters and academics.

"We need science to confirm we're on the right track, doing the right things," said John Szymoniak of the USFS Riverside Fire Lab in California. "And we need it as a measure of credibility."

Tucson, AZ, Corvallis, OR, and Fort Collins, CO, were chosen to host this spring's meetings on fire science, according to an AP story in the Casper Star-Tribune, because those three states last year endured their worst wildfires in history. The three meetings will generate proposals for what fire research Congress should fund.

Joint Fire Science ProgramThis year, nearly $40 million has been earmarked through the federal government's Joint Fire Science Program, which began in 1998. But the research funding is still less than 2 percent of the nation's overall fire budget.

"This is a pretty big effort, but it's still insufficient," said Tom Swetnam, Professor of Dendrochronology and Watershed Management and Director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Any business or other organization usually puts 10 to 20 percent into research and development."

Meeting participants yesterday discussed the effects of tree-killing insects on forests, fuels reduction methods, and ways to reduce runoff and erosion after wildfires. John Philbin with the BIA said last year's 469,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire showed that drought in the Southwest had sent fuel flammability off the charts. "Our fire behavior models may need a little work," he said.

The JFSP is a six-agency partnership including the U.S. Forest Service and five bureaus of the Department of the Interior:  Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The partnership solicits proposals for science projects designed to answer questions or solve problems in wildland fuels issues. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are issued periodically as funding is available. For more information, contact program manager Bob Clark at (208)387-5349 in Boise.


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SON OF MAFFS TESTED AT CHICO

MARCH 26 -- CHICO, CA:  The airport at Chico will be a testing ground for new firefighting systems and airtankers for the next three weeks. Butte County Fire/CDF, the U.S. Forest Service, the Air National Guard, and Aero Union are putting a new modular airborne fire-fighting system (AFFS) through its paces at the airport.

New MAFFS systemThe new system should reload faster and drop retardant better than the old MAFFS system, which has been in use since the 1970s. The new system is fully self-contained and uses an on-board compressor system, replacing the ground support requirements of the earlier MAFFS units. A self-contained compressor saves time and expense by eliminating the need for ground support compressors.

Also being tested are a 2,600-gallon Bambi bucket and a "Torrentula" valve, developed by SEI Industries in Canada. For years, the Bambi bucket has been used for helicopter work on fires worldwide. SEI's new dump valve allows more precision, multiple drops, and/or variable flow rates.

Also scheduled for testing, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record, is a new 1200-gallon capacity S2T airtanker. CDF will be collecting data on its performance; the S2T carries 50 percent more retardant than the S2 that CDF has operated since 1973; its improved tank door control system allows for a variety of drop lengths and concentrations.

Aero Union's Airborne Systems Development Group designs, manufactures, and installs special mission equipment for fixed-wing aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules and the P-3 Orion, and rotary-wing aircraft such as the Sikorsky UH-60 BLACK HAWK. Aero Union is based in Chico and is also developing a new product line called ATACS -- Advanced Tactical Airborne C4ISR Systems. These electro-mechanical systems operate sensors and telecommunications and telemetry systems used in search and rescue, border patrol, aerial mapping, and other homeland defense tasks.

Two water-enhancing gel products will also be tested at Chico. The gels, which are biodegradable and non-toxic, hold water drops together as they fall, and slow evaporation and runoff. The tests will continue through April 11.


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SHASTA COUNTY EYES ESCAPE ROUTES

MARCH 26 -- REDDING, CA:  Shasta County may stiffen its safety rules for building and maintaining unpaved roads designed as escape routes for rural residents. According to the Redding Record-Searchlight, the new rules would restrict where and how the roads could be built, and would require that landowners pay the county Department of Public Works for upkeep.

The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing in April to consider the rules, which would not apply to existing escape roads.

"We don't want emergency fire escape roads built in the middle of a slope in heavy fuel vegetation, then put escaping residents in greater fire risk," said county Fire Warden Duane Fry. Under existing rules, fire escape roads are required when new parcels are created more than 1,000 feet from a road. If more than 50 parcels share the same escape road, the road must be paved.

The new rules were developed after officials toured existing fire roads during the summer of 2001. They discovered roads covered by years of growth and locked gates blocking passage. The new rules would restrict where and how escape roads are built, and would require that roads are built away from the primary access road, to increase the likelihood of a successful escape. Property owners would also have to pay into a fund for maintenance of the escape routes.


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FIRE SEASON IN MINNESOTA??  YUP, IN MARCH

MARCH 25 -- DULUTH, MN:  The Northland's wildfire season is off and running -- early and active -- thanks to an already-melted snow pack, high winds, and drought conditions. KARE-TV reported that 50 fires burned 1,700 acres statewide, and several fires were burning ahead of winds that gusted to more than 50 mph yesterday afternoon.

"The fine fuels -- the grasses and such -- are very, very dry," said Jean Bergerson with the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids. "We had reports of unusually high flamelengths, 13 to 15 feet in some fires."

According to a report by the Duluth News-Tribune, unusually thick ice on lakes could limit firefighters' access to water for several weeks. Until the ice melts, Minnesota's firefighting aircraft are mostly grounded, and it's harder for ground crews to fight remote fires.

"We can't get into the rivers or lakes yet, so the only water the crews have is what's in the trucks," Bergerson said.

Fire weather forecasts by the National Weather Service were started yesterday about three weeks ahead of schedule. The time between snowmelt and spring greenup is usually one of the region's busiest fire seasons, but this year there was little or no snow to melt. Duluth has recorded only 33 inches of snow so far this season -- three feet less than the long-term average.

Nearly all of Minnesota and Wisconsin were officially declared in a "moderate drought" in recent days by the Regional Climate Center. The area of drought has expanded in recent weeks; it covered only northeastern Minnesota a month ago. The Eastern Area Coordination Center reports that Minnesota has gone to Preparedness Level 2 and that fire activity is increasing. No precipitation is expected until Wednesday night and Thursday. Minnesota DNR announced that burning restrictions will be in effect over much of central and northern Minnesota within the next two weeks.


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WASHINGTON STATE CIVIL AIR PATROL PRACTICING RECON

MARCH 24 -- BELLINGHAM, WA:  The Washington wing of the Civil Air Patrol flew practice reconnaissance exercises out of Bellingham International Airport over the weekend; 144 volunteers from around the state converged at the airport for debriefing on Homeland Security measures. In Whatcom County, according to an AP story in the Eugene Register-Guard, the focus was aerial photographs of key infrastructure such as the U.S.-Canadian border, BP Cherry Point Refinery, and the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum plant and high-voltage power lines leading to it.

The Civil Air Patrol, a civilian auxiliary wing of the U.S. Air Force, would provide photos to local, state and federal agencies in a crisis, according to Col. Doug Jones of Bellingham.

"Within the last week or so, the world's circumstances changed considerably,'' said Jones. "It's a bit of a different task now.''

The patrol was started in 1941 to monitor the coastline. In recent years, its mission has shifted to recovering missing aircraft or flying over disaster areas. Ernie Schabler of Vancouver, a pilot for 11 years, said the post-September 11 focus on homeland security restores the patrol's founding purpose.

"It's come full circle,'' he said. More than 100 Whatcom County residents serve as patrol volunteers. The group has 546 aircraft nationwide, mostly Cessnas, 10 of them stationed in Washington state.

The Civil Air Patrol flew a half-million hours during World War II and 64 CAP aviators lost their lives. The Civil Air Patrol is chartered by Congress with three missions:  aerospace education, a cadet program emphasizing leadership, aerospace education, physical fitness, moral leadership, and squadron activities, and emergency services, which includes search and rescue and disaster relief operations. CAP is best known for its search and rescue mission; air and ground teams perform 85 percent of inland search-and-rescue missions for the Air Force's Air Rescue Coordination Center. These volunteers donate their time and labor, receiving reimbursement for fuel and oil only.


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COMPUTER-MAPPING FLORIDA FIRE

MARCH 20 -- BUNNELL, FL:   After 20 years on the job, Mike Kuypers, a state Division of Forestry district supervisor, has a pretty thorough knowledge of wildfires and the damage they can do. Kuypers was here in 1985 when wildfires destroyed 130 homes in Flagler County, and in 1998 when about 370 homes were destroyed or damaged across the state. And he knows the trouble spots -- the vegetation, local weather patterns, and a wildfire's likely path.

A new computer software package could put this information at the fingertips of dispatchers, land planners, firefighters, or anyone else in state and local government. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that the new Fire Risk Assessment System takes high-resolution satellite imagery of the entire state, plugs in everything state foresters know about vegetation, fuels, weather, and population -- and combines it on one screen.

After the state's 1998 fire bust, a committee appointed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles recommended the development of a strategic view of the state's wildfire risk. The Florida Division of Forestry contracted with Space Imaging Solutions of Salt Lake City. Teams of foresters were sent to 3,000 plots throughout the state to assess conditions.

"What we feel we have is a fuels map that is 90 percent accurate," Kuypers said.

The computer map breaks the state into quarter-acre pixels shaded to depict vegetation types and conditions in each area. Included is weather history for 18 regions based on the forestry district maps. Dispatchers can log the location into the system and retrieve risk information. The program also will help identify high-risk areas that need to be prescription-burned. The computer system is available to forestry district offices throughout the state; training is under way now and the system will be launched in a couple months.

The system was funded by a FEMA grant of about $600,000, which paid for the computer system and the work that DOF put into gathering information for the database.


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SLOW SNOWMELT EASES RISK OF FRONT RANGE POST-FIRE EROSION

MARCH 24 -- DENVER, CO:  Despite sunny afternoons, cool overnight temperatures are slowing the melting of snow along the Front Range, reducing the risk of flooding and erosion in wildfire-damaged areas. The huge load of snow deposited by last week's blizzard is acting as a coolant, according to an AP story in the Casper Star-Tribune, and hydrologists say the snowstorm was the best thing that could have happened to the Hayman burn area southwest of Denver. Slow-melting snowpack is much less erosive than the pounding summer rainstorms that charged off the Buffalo Creek fire area in 1996.

''There is a tremendous amount of sediment ready to go,'' said Colorado State University professor Lee MacDonald, whose students are studying the aftereffects of the Hayman and Bobcat fires. ''But the flows you get from melting snow are much lower than during a rainstorm. You might get an inch or two of runoff over 24 hours, instead of in just one hour.''

U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Deb Entwistle said the moisture will help replenish drought-baked soils in the burn area.


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OREGON FIREFIGHTER DIES ON TRAINING EXERCISE

MARCH 20 -- INDEPENDENCE, OR:  A Polk County fire engine on a training exercise crashed into a tree south of Independence last night, killing a 25-year veteran volunteer firefighter. The Statesman-Journal reported that Capt. Tom Kistler, 53, of Independence, was riding in the passenger seat and became trapped in the Polk County Fire District No. 1 truck. He died before rescuers could get him out of the engine.

The engine, driven by another volunteer firefighter, was southbound when its front wheels left the pavement and went into a ditch. Neither the driver nor another passenger were injured; all three men were wearing seat belts. A LifeFlight helicopter and Dallas and other Polk County firefighters responded, along with staff from Fire District No. 1 stations.


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SHUTTLE'S DATA RECORDER FOUND

MARCH 20 -- HEMPHILL, TEXAS:  Searchers located a key data recorder in a debris field yesterday, raising hopes that it contains information about the shuttle's final hour or two of flight and what caused its destruction.

The device was found by a search crew near Hemphill, Texas, according to a Los Angeles Times story. It was recovered fully intact and right side up, in damp ground on a slope. The connector side of the box was embedded in the ground about three inches deep.

Texas mud"This is the one we really wanted to get our hands on," said Laura Brown with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "It has data from a dozen sensors that record temperature, aerodynamic pressure, and other sensor inputs."

Though the recorder was recovered fully intact, investigators don't yet know whether it was damaged by heat as it dropped through the atmosphere.

The recorder was transported to Johnson Space Center, where a NASA team will assess its condition.

Four Type 1 teams (Lohrey, Oltrogge, Anderson, and Ferguson) have been assigned in Corsicana, Hemphill, Palestine, and Nacogdoches, and Hildreth's Type 2 team is assigned in Longview.

Lohrey's team has handed off the Corsicana base to Studebaker's team.

An extensive list of needed resources for the search, posted by the Southern Area Coordination Center, includes GPS specialists, safety officers, division/group supervisors, and crew strike team leaders.

More than 1,200 people are involved in the systematic grid search along the Columbia's flight path over Texas.

More than 6,000 federal and state workers from every state in the country are supporting the recovery effort throughout east Texas, and have searched more than 1 million acres.


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NATIONAL FIRE TEAMS MAY BE ON INCREASED ALERT

MARCH 18 -- BOISE, IDAHO:  FEMA announced yesterday that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raised the national threat level from an Elevated to a High risk of terrorist attack -- Level Orange -- and the 16 Type 1 incident management teams may go to an elevated level of on-call status if the level is upgraded from orange to red.

Advisory system levelsThe U.S. intelligence community believes that terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and other targets in the event of a military campaign against Saddam Hussein. The DHS and other federal departments have activated increased protective measures under a national plan called "Operation Liberty Shield." It includes measures to increase border security, strengthen transportation protections, enhance infrastructure security, increase public health preparedness, and ensure that all federal response assets can be quickly deployed.

The Bush administration asked state governors last night to deploy National Guard troops or state police to protect government buildings, bridges, memorials, reservoirs and other public sites, and according to a New York Times report, the DHS will order the detention of all immigrants seeking political asylum in the United States if they arrive here from any one of 34 countries where al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are known to have operated. The FBI will expand surveillance of Iraqi immigrants in the United States, and will request interviews with more than 10,000 of the nearly 131,000 Iraqi immigrants who have entered the nation since the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf.

The Bush administration made its request for the deployment of the National Guard and state police in a telephone conference call to governors about 30 minutes before Bush issued his televised ultimatum last night to Saddam Hussein. New security precautions will go beyond those imposed last month when the government raised the alert level to "high" for 20 days.

The 16 national incident management teams' rotation schedule may see a deployment boost if the DHS raises the threat level to red. At the red level, two teams are suggested to go on 2-hour call, according to Neal Hitchcock, manager of the National Interagency Coordination Center at NIFC.

"This is only one more than we have on call all the time," says Hitchcock. "If we go to red, the first and second teams will go to 2 -hour call. The normal practice all year long has the three teams at the top of rotation on 2-hour, 8-hour, and 24-hour call. This wouldn't change a whole lot, since we're in a response mode all the time."

The Homeland Security Advisory System distributes information to federal, state, and local authorities and the public on the risk of terrorist acts.

At each level of threat, federal agencies implement a corresponding set of measures to reduce vulnerability or increase response capability. The conditions are assigned by the U.S. Attorney General in consultation with the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security. Threat conditions may be assigned for the entire country, or set for a geographic area.

PNW Team 2 on World Trade Center assignmentThe Severe Condition (Red) reflects a severe risk of terrorist attacks. Protective measures for a red condition are not intended to be sustained for long. In red status, federal agencies would increase or redirect personnel to address critical emergency needs, assign emergency response personnel and pre-position and mobilize specially trained teams or resources, monitor or redirect or constrain transportation systems, or close public and government facilities.

The national teams, best known for their response to large wildland fires, have worked all kinds of disasters besides fire, including tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, typhoons in Guam, volcanos in Hawaii, and the 09/11 aftermath in New York.

The teams are established under the direction and coordination of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group; they provide skills in operations, planning, finance, logistics, and command functions, and include members from local, state, and federal organizations. The Forest Service has the lead, with support from the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. The National Interagency Coordination Center, which coordinates the deployment and logistical support of personnel, aircraft, and equipment, also dispatches the teams.


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WINDS STOKE ALASKA WILDFIRE

MARCH 14 -- ANCHOR POINT, ALASKA:   Trees fell. Lights went out. Heat went off. Internet service was disrupted. Planes were diverted. A wildfire still burned. And Kenai Peninsula residents wished for a return to the warmth that marked most of the winter.

The Peninsula Clarion reported today that blustery March winds continued to blow throughout southcentral Alaska yesterday, whipping up problems in all directions. Yesterday's National Weather Service forecast called for 20-30 mph winds with gusts of up to 45 mph for today. Winds were not expected to diminish before tonight.

A wildfire that took off Wednesday near Anchor Point was still burning yesterday as continuing high winds thwarted efforts to control it. By mid-afternoon yesterday, the fire had burned about 100 acres east of the Sterling Highway northeast of Anchor Point, according to Kris Eriksen, information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that several rural homes were evacuated Wednesday afternoon. One elderly couple was evacuated in a helicopter hired by Alaska State Troopers. Strong northerly winds and dry grass made fire conditions dangerous; the NWS issued a red flag warning on Wednesday and again this morning.

State firefighters continued battling the Anchor Point fire yesterday, and more equipment and state personnel were expected to arrive later in the day. The Anchor Point, Homer, and Ninilchik fire departments, which had responded initially, were released by late Wednesday. But yesterday morning the fire was still being buffeted by a strong north wind. By early afternoon the fire was considered 90 percent contained, but conditions remained dangerous. Brush piles and standing dead timber still burned within the fire perimeter, but firefighters were staying on the line to prevent spreading, and because of the danger of falling trees. Through Wednesday night and into Thursday, firefighters battled not only the fire, but also frigid temperatures that froze valves and water supplies.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the DOF Coastal Region today requested that Interior fire crews head toward Palmer and Kenai to assist firefighters in those areas, according to Matt Weaver, fire information officer.

"We're experiencing really high winds down here in Southcentral, and the volunteer fire departments and Division of Forestry personnel are responding to a lot of trees falling down on power lines, causing quick fires that they need to get on right away."

Firefighters from Fairbanks and Nenana were activated yesterday and tested at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Student Recreation Center to ensure they're physically ready for the job. The crews were expected to bus out of Fairbanks today, according to logistics coordinator Darla Theisen. Normally, local DOF officials wouldn't begin hiring firefighters until April or May. The Fairbanks crew is headed to Kenai, while the Nenana firefighters will travel to Palmer.

Earlier this month, five Alaska fire crews traveled to eastern Texas to assist in the search for shuttle materials.


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UKIAH AND PORTERVILLE AIR ATTACK BASES FUNDED

MARCH 13 -- SACRAMENTO, CA:  The CDF Firefighters union today announced that full funding for both the Ukiah and Porterville air bases has been restored for fire season 2003. "We have strong indications that funding for 2004 will also be restored," said firefighters' union president Bob Wolf. "We congratulate our friends in the legislature and strong local support for making the difference in obtaining funding for the bases."

Wolf added that CDF Director Andrea Tuttle and Chief Jim Wright had put forth a strong effort to secure the required funding.

Chief Wright advised the CDF Firefighters union yesterday that the air attack bases at both Porterville and Ukiah would open on schedule.

"This is fantastic!" said Cindy Wallace, who organized the Ukiah saveairattack.com website. She agreed that strong local support from Ukiah had some impact on the decision to keep the bases open. "Our very first open meeting," she said, "we had over 200 people there, and we had so many volunteers. We have a mailing list of dozens of people who were willing to spend time and effort to keep the air attack base open."

In December Gov. Gray Davis instructed all state departments to submit budget cuts to allow a cut of $10 billion or more from the current 2002-03 fiscal year budget. CDF offered $5.8 million in cuts, including abandonment of the tanker bases at Ukiah and Porterville.

CDF had earlier estimated that it could save $700,000 by closing the two tanker bases and reassigning two tankers to bases in Chico and Santa Rosa. By putting faster and bigger airtankers at those two bases, the agency said it could still make the 20-minute arrival time to any location in the state.

But the firefighters' union and airtanker pilots disagreed.

"This is a low-down dirty shame," said airtanker pilot Jim Barnes about the proposal. "Ukiah Air Attack Base played a vital role in delivering rapid response, initial attack, and aerial fire suppression for its entire zone of influence." Barnes said that zone of influence includes all the territory within a 20-minute radius of Ukiah Airport, including roughly 1776 square miles of wildland/urban interface and forest area.

Barnes disagreed with CDF's assessment that the fire protection gap left by Ukiah's closing could be filled from other air attack bases. For starters, Ukiah is generally fog-free during the summer. "On our hottest days, rising air in the interior of California causes costal fog to be sucked in to low coastal areas like Santa Rosa and Rohnerville," said Barnes. "Shrouded by dense morning fog, these bases are rendered useless until 11:00 a.m. or later. Temperatures in the Ukiah area can be in the high 80s while Rohnerville and Santa Rosa are socked in. There are a number of days during fire season that Rohnerville is open only a couple hours a day."

The Ukiah Air Attack base has been in operation for 40 years, covering Mendocino and Lake Counties and parts of three other counties. Last year two S2T airtankers and one OV-10 were based there. CDF had proposed to abandon the base and move one airtanker 85 miles away to Chico, and the other 50 miles away to Santa Rosa. Ukiah residents went nuts. They said the abandonment of Ukiah would have a disastrous impact on fire protection, because minutes count.

"The importance of very rapid air attack has been proven constantly," according to their website. "It saves homes, property, and firefighters' lives, AND reduces overall CDF fire suppression costs."

Closure of the base at Porterville was also a non-runner with residents and fire managers. The Sequoia National Forest, at the extreme south end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, presents a complex and demanding fire management environment. The Forest's proximity to large urban areas, combined with its steep, flammable canyons, makes for heavy recreation use with many human-caused fire starts. Large areas of grass and brush, timber stands with heavy fuel loading, steep topography, and difficult access mean that wildfire's resistance to control is extremely high. Because of the fuels, weather, and geographical layout of the Forest, the threat of a large, intense fire is a reality for most of the summer and into the fall. The Sequoia sees an average of 200 fires each year, with about 9,400 acres burned. Lightning accounts for about 67 percent of fire ignitions.

The Sequoia operates under an agreement with the BLM Bakersfield program on fire operations and the administration of a BLM exclusive use airtanker contract and an integrated dispatch operation out of the Central California Interagency Communication Center. The Forest has agreements with CDF for the area, including local operating plans with the Kern County, Tulare, and Fresno-Kings Ranger Units. The Tulare agreement covers operations of the Air Attack Base to provide both air attack and airtanker services.


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AD FIREFIGHTERS ORGANIZE FOR REALISTIC PAY

MARCH 12 -- BOISE, IDAHO:   It's not exactly a new firefighters' union, but it might do some union-style good things for people who work in fire and don't happen to be government employees.

The ADFA is an organization of Emergency Firefighters (EFF) who provide management skills and support to both wildland fire and all-risk agencies during periods of personnel resource shortages. One of its goals is to help revise AD pay rates so they are consistent with the duties, responsibilities, and complexity of the job, and comparable to existing General Service (GS) pay schedules.

AD Firefighter Association"A group of us have organized the AD Firefighters Association (ADFA) to attempt some redress on this situation," says Hugh Carson. "For better or for worse, the fire agencies are highly dependent on retired AD firefighters to staff fires, ATGS aircraft, overhead teams, and dispatch centers."

The original intent of the Administratively Determined Pay Plan for Emergency Workers was to hire and pay temporary workers in emergency situations. But the AD Pay Plan became increasingly complex; the DOI and USDA operate with different AD Pay Plans. The differences in the two plans, the conditions of hire, and other interpretations used for hiring created a discrepancy in the pay rates versus the classification system -- with inconsistent payment to AD hires for the same work in different geographic areas. The NWCG's Incident Business Practices Working Team established a task group in 2001 to identify needed changes.

The team's recently released proposal would establish one rate for all geographic areas for AD-5 positions. The positions were banded into like rates, and the proposed rates were based on averaging the geographic areas' rates and then inflating by 3.1 percent.

The ADFA points out two major problems with that. Since the establishment of true time-and-one-half for GS employees on overtime, the AD rates have been significantly lagging behind GS rates. And though the 2003 pay proposal resolves the issue of differing rates among geographic areas, some of the rates were so dramatically different from region to region that they skewed the averages.

The ADFA has a new website online at adfirefighter.org that includes their financial analysis of the pay comparability for the OSC (Operations Section Chief), DIVS (Division/Group Supervisor), AOBD (Air Ops Branch Director), and ATGS (Air Tactical Group Supervisor) positions for pay comparability.

"Comparable GS grade level employees," explains Carson, "with true time-and-one-half and hazard pay, will be making $1000-$3000 in a pay period more than the AD firefighters -- for the same job."

The ADFA website includes a number of documents related to this analysis, the group's recommendations for increasing AD rates, and an interest survey on the issues. And there's apparently a lot of interest -- Carson says they signed up 29 dues-paying members (21 retirees and 8 current or seasonal/temp employees) in just two days. Founding members include Carson, David Aldrich, Joseph Bistryski, Bill Moody, Dick Mangan, Doug Houston, and Lonnie Williams.

There's also a draft letter to the agency fire directors and State/Regional/Area FMOs.

For more information, contact Hugh Carson toll-free at (888)870-9020 or email him at airops@rmci.net