If you are visiting The Lookout for the first time, please check out my intro from two days ago, and the ‘About The Lookout‘ page. This work is 100% supported by donations, so if you find it helpful, please consider making a donation to help us expand our capacities. The intention of The Lookout is to help educate readers on all aspects of wildland fire, including the limits of our capacity to control it. There is no ‘fire-free’ option for most of California and we need to improve our relationship with it, which means putting in the time to learn about how fire works.
These morning briefings are a collection of official maps and forecasts from public sources, and detailed maps produced by The Lookout. We have a lot of new readers and I want to cover some basics of what is going on with the management of this massive fire.
Once a large fire like this gets going, a whole management organization called an Incident Management Team (IMT) gets ordered. This is a group of about 50 people who are organized to support the logistical and leadership needs for a large number of firefighters. The IMT is broken up into four groups: Logistics, Operations, Planning and Finance. Logistics provides the material support to keep the whole show running, Operations does the actual firefighting and Planning keeps everyone on the same page, looking ahead to order resources and figuring out where they’ll be needed. I worked on these teams for 20 years as a mapping specialist and I am going to give you a little tour of the Planning Section in this post.
The mapping teams on big fires like Caldor work around the clock, producing detailed maps for firefighters and separate maps for the Logistics people supporting them. The operations maps are very detailed, and not great for webpage display, so here is a simpler transportation map, also produced daily. This map is designed to be photocopied and distributed in the daily Incident Action Plan (IAP).
Mapping specialists use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software and are referred to as GISS (GIS Specialists), usually working in the fire camp as part of the Planning Section of the IMT. Increasingly, and in part because of Covid, some of this work is done remotely. For example, someone doesn’t have to be in a fire camp to download the infrared heat data from mapping flights and update the fire perimeter shape that will be used for the next day’s maps. Over the past few years, a lot of the mapping work is more centralized out of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Either way, sometimes on-site internet connections are poor, so GISS people on the fire need to be able to work independently, too.
The Planning Section also has Field Observers (FOBS). This is the best job in the world. FOBS hike around near the fire as scouts for the mapping crew, collecting GPS tracks of where the firelines are, and mapping other things that may need special protection during the firefighting. As firefighting winds down, they map damage caused by the firefighting like places bulldozers knocked over fences or pushed a fireline across a creek so crews can repair these areas before they leave the fire.
These maps were created using infrared (heat detecting) sensors on an airplane that flew the fire on August 21, 2021 at 9:15pm. There is a legend in the top left of the colors, and a north arrow in top-right. The white line shows 24 hours of fire spread. Click on the images to view a larger version.
The first image is an overview map. The fire spread about four miles to the east yesterday, and there is was a small spot fire about two miles east of the head at 9:15pm. The spot fire was two miles west of Strawberry, above Station Creek Road.
This view looks down the South Fork American River Canyon, over Strawberry. Kyburz is just right of center. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
The next series of maps works around the fire in a counter-clockwise direction, starting in Omo Ranch. This was the most active area on the western side of the fire yesterday. Bright yellow was the most active heat in this area, with the fire spreading about a mile to the west. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
Looking north over Highway 88. Omo Ranch on left. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
Looking northwest. Mormon Emigrant Trail is on right. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
Looking north over Alder Ridge. Silver Fork American River is canyon on the right. Kyburz in top-center. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
Looking west down South Fork American River and Highway 50 over easternmost head of fire, on Bald Mountain. This part of the fire spread four miles up and out of the Silver Fork drainage yesterday afternoon. White line is 24 hours of fire spread. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
Looking south over Kyburz. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
Looking south over South Fork American River and Highway 50. 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm
Looking over Sly Park Reservoir and Sly Park. Firefighters lit a back fire along the Mormon Emigrant Trail yesterday. There are some spot fires over their line to east of the lake in this image, taken at 8/21/2021 at 9:15 pm.
Large fires like the Caldor have a National Weather Service meteorologist embedded with the Incident Command Team (IMT). They create a daily weather forecast for publication in the IAP, and also, monitor the weather throughout the day so they can inform firefighters if a wind storm is approaching, or other critical changes are occurring. Their positions is called the “IMET” (Incident Meteorologist).
Most fires also have a Fire Behavior Analyst (FBAN) assigned. This person works in the Planning Section. They write a report every day for the IAP, and also present their forecast to firefighters at the morning briefing. Similarly to the IMET, their job is to inform firefighters of potential changes or hazards, making the connection between the weather forecast and terrain and fuels. For example, if strong south winds are forecast and the fire is expected to push north, the FBAN might remind firefighters there is a freshly burned area to the north which will reduce fire behavior when the fire gets there. They also pay attention to smoke, and can discuss the affect it may have on firefighting operations.
Monitoring the fire on your scanner.
There are online scanners for this area, but I am not much of a scanner person, so you’ll have to find them yourself. If you have your own scanner, and are within radio distance, you can use the map at the top of this post showing the Branches and Divisions for the fire, along with the frequencies below to listen to tactical chatter on the fireline.
Aviation Channels – if you are only going to listen to one or two channels, the Air to Ground and Air Tactics are very interesting. Air Tactics is the air-attack talking to all the other pilots.