HELENA — Helena National Forest officials ignored some of their own fire behavior models, part of their own fire prescription, the advice from volunteer firefighters, and a National Weather Service warning before igniting what was to become the $2.2 million, 2,000-acre Davis wildfire last week.
“I’m mad as hell,” said Bob Drake, chief of the Tri-Lakes Fire Department and head of the local fire council. “There was absolutely no reason for this to happen.”
The wildfire and events leading up to it are under investigation, both by a federal team and by Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton. But documents that the Independent Record obtained from Helena National Forest authorities and others provide insight into what fire managers intended, and into what happened.
Planned for spring
The prescribed fire plan for what was called the Poorman Project was written in February 2009, reviewed and approved in July 2009, and again in March 2010 by Lincoln District Ranger Amber Kamps. The main purpose for what was to be a 537-acre prescribed fire was to restore stands of white bark pine — an important food source for grizzly bears — and to limit encroachment of trees into a mountaintop meadow near Granite Butte.
This prescription was rated “moderate” in risk, consequences and complexity by the Forest Service, but “low” in technical difficulty. Those moderate ratings were due, in part, to the size of the unit to be burned, and the inability to see the entire unit from one location. The plan notes that private land was within half a mile from the project area, but mitigating factors were that the private properties were down-slope, on the other side of the Continental Divide, the prevailing winds didn’t blow that way and their models showed there was little expectation of large, downhill runs by a wildfire.
The burn was planned for a springtime ignition and was expected to take one to three days. The plan noted that the burn could be completed in the fall as well.
According to other Forest Service documents, they were to notify the media about the planned burn, as well as nearby residents by going door to door, and post prescribed fire warning signs on Stemple Road.
None of those recommended actions took place.
“We had requested a communication plan, but I think we missed some steps,” said Nancy Peak, the agency administrator for the Helena National Forest.
About 200 acres in the prescribed fire’s area were successfully burned in the spring. On Aug. 24, Kamps, along with fire management officers Jay Lindgren and Rocky Gilbert, decided that the cool, rainy summer had created conditions that allowed them to complete the prescription.
“On Tuesday, we spent a great deal of time — Jay Lindgren and myself — visiting about whether the objectives for the prescribed fire and weather would be a good window to take advantage of,” Kamps said at an Aug. 26 meeting with Canyon Creek residents after the wildfire took off. She could not be reached for this story.
A Forest Service employee called the National Weather Service in Great Falls at 1:59 p.m. on Aug. 24 for a spot weather forecast for Granite Butte, with an ignition date of Aug. 26. The forecast was completed at 2:19 p.m. A fire weather watch — meaning hazardous fire conditions could occur that week — for Lewis and Clark County was issued 27 minutes later.
“We try to get watches issued anywhere from 24 to 48 hours before warning criteria exists,” said Ben Schott, the National Weather Service’s warning coordinator. “It’s similar to issuing a winter storm watch before the snow flies. The watch was a heads up that in two days we would have high temperatures, gusty winds and low humidity. We were expecting near-record highs on Thursday.”
At 2:34 p.m. on Aug. 24, a second spot forecast was requested, this time with the ignition time of 10 a.m. Aug. 25.
The forecast, issued at 2:46 p.m. Aug. 24, called for maximum temperatures of 69 to 74 degrees and ridge-top winds of 5 to 10 mph, with gusts to 15 mph on the following day. The daily minimum humidity was predicted at 15 to 20 percent during the day, and up to 40 percent at night, with sunny skies and no chance of rain.
The prescription fire plan called for burning when the temperature inside the treatment area were 55 to 75 degrees, with relative humidity of 20 to 40 percent and winds of 5 to 15 mph.
Drake said he got a call from Gilbert on Tuesday, alerting him of the Forest Service’s planned burn.
“I said that debris burning was closed in Lewis and Clark County, asked him if they knew a fire weather watch had been issued Tuesday, and asked if he was sure they wanted to do this,” Drake said. “He said they were going to burn a black line around the perimeter on Wednesday, then burn the inside the next day.
“He called me back later that afternoon and said the weather conditions would be good enough that they would burn tomorrow rather than do the boundary line, so they actually accelerated the burn because of the weather conditions.”
According to the Helena Interagency Dispatch Center radio log, crews started heading to the prescribed burn site, 25 miles northwest of Helena and eight miles southwest of Lincoln, at 8:53 a.m. on Aug. 25.
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At 10 a.m. they called for a new spot forecast and started doing test fires.
Schott said Wednesday that the conditions were good for a prescribed fire, but they issued a red-flag warning Wednesday afternoon for Thursday, beginning at noon.
“We have three criteria for fire weather: warm temperatures, dry relative humidity and winds above 20 miles per hour, with gusts especially into the 40s,” he said. “We met all three that day. There was no doubt. Usually we do that with an 80 percent confidence level, but we were 100 percent that day.
“We knew we would have record, or near-record temperatures, which is why we issued the watch on Tuesday and the red-flag warning on Wednesday for Thursday.”
Crews initially had a hard time getting the prescribed fire started, Kamps said at the Aug. 26 meeting.
“Those test fires didn’t burn that well. The humidity was too high, so we weren’t really in the position to meet our objectives. I was this close,” she said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart, “to saying we better try again another day. But we waited one hour, tried again and the test fire started burning in a way we thought would meet our objectives.”
The dispatch log shows that at 2:15 p.m., crews reported that the fire was burning well, and a tall plume could be seen from Helena.
Half an hour later, the crews noticed a small spot in the northeast corner burning, which wasn’t part of the prescription. They got it out within the hour, but started requesting additional engines and equipment for the next day’s burning.
By 9 p.m. Aug. 25, they were wrapping up the day’s work while assembling crews, engines and helicopters for the following day. Everyone left the prescribed fire by 10 p.m.
Out of control
On the morning of Aug. 26, a 26-person hand crew, nine engines, three water tenders and a helicopter were ready to finish the job. The forecast for Helena called for a high of 94 degrees and warned that a cold front would blow in by Aug. 27, bringing with it gusty winds. The spot forecast for Granite Butte predicted temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees, winds up to 20 mph in the afternoon with gusts to 30 mph and relative humidity of 10 to 15 percent.
“The wind and high temperatures were still decent conditions for what we would consider fire weather,” Schott said. “On that day the relative humidity dropped in some places down to the single digits, which is well below the threshold we typically use for red-flag days.”
Crews continued to arrive at the prescribed fire scene throughout the morning, and the dispatch log doesn’t show when they ignited the fire. However, Greg Archie, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, was working with the Forest Service crews and at the Aug. 26 public meeting recalled that they were “making pretty good headway.”
Then the winds picked up. Embers blew into grasses and trees outside the prescribed burn’s boundary, momentarily unnoticed. Fanned by the wind, they burst into flames and took off running. The prescribed burn was declared a wildfire at 1:13 p.m. Aug. 26.
“We lost 3 acres in a matter of about two minutes, another 10 to 15 acres in the next eight minutes. The fire got up and moved,” Archie told the group gathered that night at the Canyon Creek School. “In no more than an hour, there were more than 100 acres on fire.”
They quickly requested tankers for an air attack. More crews. More engines. Bulldozers. Helicopters. Volunteer firefighters to protect structures only half a mile away.
By Aug. 27, what was now being called the Davis fire was 2,000 acres. It didn’t change much in size after that, and one week and $2.2 million later, the fire was considered to be 100 percent contained.
Dutton said he’s investigating the fire because it burned 383 acres of private land. Another 1,476 acres that burned are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and 156 acres are Bureau of Land Management properties.
Peak said they’ve assembled a crew headed by the regional supervisor in Utah to review actions taken before, during and after the Davis fire.
“The review will include our agency partners, like the BLM and DNRC,” Peak said. “They’ve appointed some folks so we’ll get a real objective look at our process and procedures on prescribed burns, so we can learn from it. They’ll also make sure we followed all the laws and requirements.
“My guess is they’ll come up with some recommendations.”
Drake said that while he favors prescribed burns, especially near wilderness areas where they create fire breaks between public and private lands, the Forest Service needs to be more careful.
“I’m just as mad as the residents who live there, because they pulled the volunteers out of their day jobs for something that could have been avoided. They squandered the volunteers’ hours,” Drake said. “With a fire weather watch and red-flag warning, there was absolutely no reason for this to have happened.”