Author(s): Ken Tremblay. Published on September 1, 2011.

A Santa Barbara County firefighter attacks flames in a fully involved structure, ignited by wildfire, in a hillside community above Santa Barbara, California.  (Photo: Keith D. Cullom)

NFPA Journal®, October 2011


Wildfire destroys 82 homes
CALIFORNIA — A wildfire that started when a brush cutter hit some rocks and sprayed a shower of sparks on light ground fuels destroyed 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) of a recreation and wilderness area and burned down 82 homes as it spread across federal, state, and privately owned property. At the time the fire started, the temperature was 80°F (27°C), and a westerly wind was blowing at about 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour. 

A passerby called 911 at 1:40 p.m. to report the blaze, which had smoldered undetected for more than an hour before flaming combustion occurred and flames spread to old-growth chaparral. The steep terrain prevented firefighters from reaching the blaze, allowing it to spread uncontrolled for nearly an hour after discovery.

The fire damaged 71 structures in addition to the 82 homes. Home property values averaged slightly more than $1 million dollars. Some $19.5 million was also spent suppressing the fire. Four firefighters suffered smoke and burn injuries and another was forced to deploy his fire shelter, which was abandoned before it was used.

Three homes lost in lightning fire
UTAH — A fire started by a lightning strike in an inaccessible area of a federal forest property was allowed to burn for 18 days until it grew to 12,607 acres (5,102 hectares) and threatened a town.

The fire was detected by a reconnaissance flight, and officials decided to let it to burn to manage an accumulation of dead and downed conifer. It grew slowly at first, consuming only 7 acres (3 hectares) over the first 18 days and burning approximately 500 acres (202 hectares) over three weeks. Once it began consuming dry brush, however, the fire grew over the succeeding two weeks, spreading into a residential area where it destroyed three homes and eight outbuildings.

The loss of the buildings was estimated at nearly $1.6 million. Suppression costs were estimated at $6.9 million, and rehabilitation costs and the cost of stabilizing the area to prevent flooding came to an additional $4.6 million. Four firefighters were injured during suppression efforts.

Two homes lost to forest fire
WASHINGTON — A lightning bolt from an evening storm passing over a mountainous, forested area struck a dead ponderosa pine, causing the top 30 feet (9 meters) of the tree to fall to a rock below, scattering embers that ignited grass, leaves, and sagebrush. The wind picked up the next day to 8 miles (13 kilometers) per hour, with gusts up to 25 to 30 miles (40 to 48 kilometers) per hour. The fire spread along a drainage ditch to an orchard.

A passerby noticed the fire and called in the alarm at 2:47 p.m., approximately 18 hours after the lightning strike. When the first engine arrived 20 minutes later, the fire was already 3 to 5 acres (1 to 2 hectares) in size. Within an hour, five engines, a helicopter, an air tanker, and two bulldozers arrived, along with numerous firefighting crews. An hour after they arrived, the police ordered a partial evacuation of threatened areas. Thirty minutes later, when the fire had grown to roughly 30 acres (12 hectares), they ordered a full evacuation.

Fire crews tried to control the fire on the ground, using bulldozers to cut fire lines, and dropped fire retardant from the tanker, but fuels were very dry, the humidity was very low, and wind-blown embers started spot fires ahead of them, limiting firefighters’ ability to contain the spread. The ember shower also caused the fire to spread across a highway, while surface fire spread to brush and trees, producing a “laddering” effect that brought the flames into the forest canopy. The torching of large trees intensified the blaze.

By the time the fire was brought under control several days later, it had burned 9,600 acres (3,900 hectares) in state, federal, and private lands, destroyed two homes and 10 outbuildings, and damaged two homes and 13 outbuildings. Damage to the homes and other structures was estimated at more than $400,000, while non-structural losses were estimated at $3.8 million. Suppression costs came to approximately $3.2 million. There were no reports of injuries.

Molten metal from power pole starts fatal wildfire
IDAHO — A woman died when a fast-moving grass and sagebrush fire that began on land owned by a power company spread to a subdivision of single-family homes and up the ridge behind her house, ultimately engulfing it. Her husband managed to escape from the home before the fire reached it.

Conditions that day were ripe for a blaze: a storm front with winds of 37 miles (60 kilometers) per hour were gusting to 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour, the temperature was 96°F (36°C), and humidity was at 9 percent. The fire started when the wind blew a loose power line on a pole into a metal support D-ring, causing arcing at the jumper cable connection from the distribution line to the fuse. The arcing produced molten aluminum slag, which ignited the dry grass and sagebrush below.

A civilian called 911, and a fire department official nearby saw the fire and called it in at 7:00 p.m., bringing fire crews and apparatus to the scene in three minutes. Initially, only half an acre (0.2 hectares) burned, but the fire picked up speed quickly.

Firefighters took up positions between the fire and the subdivision and were able to contain a portion of the fire. However, winds drove flames over the fire break at another end of the fire line, and it quickly spread up a slope to the subdivision, igniting wood shake roofs, wood siding, and evergreen shrubs growing close to the homes.

By the time firefighters extinguished it, the fire had burned 50 acres (20 hectares) of power company land, destroyed 10 homes, and damaged 13. Property loss is estimated at $4.4 million. A fire officer noted that “low situational awareness” contributed to the woman’s death and that the burned structures had “little or no fire-safe preparation.”  One firefighter received a hand injury during extinguishment.

Wildland fire started intentionally burns more than 23,000 acres
CALIFORNIA — A fire that was set on state property when someone intentionally ignited annual grasses burned out of control for five days, eventually consuming more than 23,000 acres (9,300 hectares) of wildland-urban interface area. Weather was a factor in the fire’s spread, with temperatures around 80°F (27°C), winds of 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour, and a relative humidity around 10 percent.

More than 3,800 firefighters and almost 900 pieces of fire apparatus were needed to fight this fire, which threatened 441 buildings and damaged or destroyed 351 as it spread across dry grasses in a valley bottom. Damage was estimated at $24 million.

Discarded smoking materials start fire near vacant housing
CALIFORNIA — Sustained winds of 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour quickly spread a brush fire that started behind a trash dumpster located on commercial property into an abandoned housing area on a U.S. military base.

A passerby called 911 to report the fire at 3:17 p.m. When city firefighters arrived, they noticed a moderate column of smoke and a grass fire rapidly approaching the chain link fence around the base near the abandoned housing. They requested additional units from the city and the base.
Due to the proximity of the fire to the base, base fire crews were told to go to the base side of the fire. Already en route, they responded instead to the city side, where they found that the fire had already breached the base fencing and ignited two vacant houses. Since the homes were slated for demolition, the incident commander decided to fight the fire defensively and established a perimeter separating the abandoned housing development from the active area of the base.  Multiple agencies were involved in fighting this seven-alarm fire.

Complicating the suppression activities were non-functional fire hydrants, poor access, gas and electric utilities that were still connected in some abandoned properties, high winds, and falling trees and poles.

Based on witness statements and evidence found at the scene, investigators believe a cigarette that was improperly discarded near the dumpster ignited landscaping bark. The blaze destroyed 270 vacant residential units, but firefighters successfully protected a school, a chapel, a youth center, and occupied homes.

Damages were not reported, and there were no injuries.

Unattended campfire destroys three homes
CALIFORNIA — A fire in a state nature preserve that was started by an unattended, illegal campfire spread to private land, destroying three homes and some 520 acres (210 hectares) of wildland. Temperatures of 78°F (26°C), winds of about 7 miles (11 kilometers) per hour, and mature fuels contributed to the blaze.

A private citizen called the fire department to report the blaze at 2:54 p.m. Firefighters arrived 12 minutes after alarm, but found it difficult to access the remote area of origin. It took almost three weeks to control the fire.

Damages were estimated at $1.5 million, while suppression cost came to almost $3.9 million. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries as a result of the prolonged suppression effort. 

Pilot dies while surveying forest fire
WISCONSIN — A 36-year-old state air attack pilot died when the plane he was flying over a small forest fire banked into a wooded area and crashed. Firefighters on the ground saw the plane go down and responded to the crash site, but the pilot was already dead of traumatic injuries.

The fire began when a homeowner burning a small shopping bag of household trash in a rusted cattle watering tank left the fire unattended, and it spread to the forest and a nearby garage. At the time, the temperature was 53°F (12°C), winds were blowing at 15 miles (kilometers) per hour, and the humidity was at 17 percent. The homeowner did not have a burning permit; in any case, burning permits had been cancelled due to the high fire danger.

The homeowner said she noticed the fire had spread about 10 minutes after it started and called 911 around 2 p.m. She tried to fight the blaze with a portable fire extinguisher and a garden hose with limited success.

Responding firefighters arrived to find less than an acre (0.4 hectares) burning in the forest. As they fought the fire near the house, the state plane flying over the scene provided the incident commander with information on the fire’s spread. Shortly after the pilot relayed the status report, the plane crashed. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the pilot’s airspeed was too slow, which caused a low-altitude aerodynamic stall.


Crops, livestock lost in wind-driven bush fire
AUSTRALIA — Winds of 47 miles (76 kilometers) per hour, gusting to 66 miles (107 kilometers) per hour, fanned a 13,591-acre (5,500-hectare) fire in a rural farming area that destroyed crops, killed livestock, and threatened homes. The temperature at the time was 102°F (39°C) with 37 percent relative humidity.

Early on the morning of the fire, officials asked farmers to stop harvesting due to the high winds. In the afternoon, a call to an emergency control center reported a fast moving grass fire burning under extreme fire conditions. Witnesses reported seeing impressive flame heights and fire tornados, or vertical flame vortices, starting more spot fires.

As the fire threatened homes, firefighters from several communities responded, eventually supported on the ground and in the air by additional resources. Unfortunately, a change in wind direction that prevented the fire from being pushed further into the range spread the flames toward crops, pasture land, and livestock.

Approximately 13,591 acres (5,500 hectares) burned, as did numerous outbuildings and four homes. In addition, hundreds of cattle and 5,000 sheep died of exposure to fire, heat, and smoke. One firefighter suffered burns over 20 percent of his body, and another lost his own home during the fire.

Source: Bush Fire Bulletin, Volume 32 No. 1 Pg. 5 – 2010. Bush Fire Bulletin is the official journal of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
Town devastated by wildfire
CANADA — A wildland fire that started outside a community of nearly 10,000 people split in two and encircled the town, heavily damaging nearly a third of it as winds of more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) per hour fanned the flames.

As the town’s residents evacuated, nearly 1,000 firefighters mobilized from different parts of the country to help control the fires, which took nearly two months to extinguish.

Investigators could not determine the cause of the fire, which destroyed 433 structures, damaged another 96, and consumed some 11,263 acres (4,558 hectares) of wildland. Damage amounts have not been released. There were no reports of deaths.

Wildfires threaten towns
GREECE — In 2009, wildfire broke out 21 miles (34 kilometers) northeast of Athens, forcing 10,000 residents to evacuate the area within three days as the country mobilized some 600 firefighters and military units to control the blaze.

The fire started in pine forest, olive groves, shrub land, and farm lands, and spread over 15 municipalities and communities. It took ground crews and aircraft dropping water four days to extinguish the blaze, which burned 51,892 acres (21,000 hectares), destroyed 60 homes, and damaged another 150. There was no loss of life.

Two years earlier, a fire in the same area burned 2,700 square miles (69,930 square kilometers) of forest, olive groves, and farmland and killed 84 people, including several firefighters.

Investigators could not determine the cause of the fire, although a heat wave might have contributed to fire spread. Losses were not reported.

Wildland fire fought in national parks
PORTUGAL — The prolonged summer heat dried out vegetation in a national park, providing fuel for two wildland fires that threatened villages on the fringe of the park and came within yards of homes in a hill village.

More than 600 firefighters used 200 vehicles and 9 aircraft to control the fire. One of the fires was stopped by fire breaks firefighters made using heavy earth moving equipment.

Officials noted that local residents had not cleared brush away from their homes as instructed during the winter months.

No injuries were reported.