This article was written as the million-acre Dixie Fire neared its conclusion, in September 2021. Many bad things happened during the two months of action during this firefight, and much of the fire’s growth was affected by fire put on the ground during firefighting. Firing operations are one of the main tools firefighters have at their disposal to corral large fires once they have escaped initial attack, but putting fire on the ground at the peak of fire season, often during the extended periods of drought which bring us megafires, is rarely anybody’s first choice. Often these operations take place in a ‘we had to try something‘ context. We are reprinting this article now, as firing operations rarely get much attention in the press, and the mechanics behind how they are conducted is at the core of how large fires get fought.
8/31/2021 – 5pm.
What’s going on up north of Westwood on the Dixie Fire? Three DC-10 tankers are flying there today. Also, what’s going on at Lake Davis?
This post is all about firing operations. We are going to talk about why we do them, how we do them, what it takes to pull one off, where they have been successful and where they haven’t. It’s not my intention to rub anyone’s face in failure, but losing is part of this conversation.
What’s up with the big airshow on Highway 44?
Firefighters are trying to catch about four miles of fire they lit and then lost control of along the 10 Road near Caribou Lake.
On August 29, the main fire was three miles to the west of the 10 Road, inside of Caribou Wilderness. The fire has been hung up in Caribou for almost a month, slowly burning through the rocky, alpine red fir forests above 7,000′ elevation. With the forecasted winds and red flag warnings this week, however, firefighters were concerned the fire would race to the east. This likely added a sense of urgency to finish burning work that has slowly brought fire around the northeast corner of Caribou from Butte Lake. With major structure threats around Lake Almanor, Westwood, Susanville, Janesville, Milford, and everywhere else in Lassen and Plumas Counties, this north end of the fire has been a low priority. Once the major threats to communities in the West Zone were buttoned up last week, work began to try to get some containment around the northern end.
As we have seen previously, fires descending north and east from the high country of Lassen Park and Caribou accelerate in intensity as they drop in elevation and move out of short-needled fir forests into pine-dominated areas with fluffier needle litter. The lower elevation areas get much less snow and the fuels are less compacted. The north and east sides of Lassen and Caribou are also in a rain shadow, and thus drier. Sitting on the ragged edge of the eastern slope of the Southern Cascades (20 miles east, past Eagle Lake), you’ll find more of a desert climate, with hardly any conifer forest at all. The climate and terrain are far different than anything else in the West Zone of the Dixie Fire.
They started firing this area on the morning of August 29 and by 2pm the fire was spotting over the road in many places. By that night the fire was well out of control. Then on August 31, as the firing operation became its own wildfire, the main fire in Caribou came to life and ran east. Now the wildfire and the backfire are headed east together.
So our knowledge and concern that the main fire was going to make a run east forced us to hurry up and finish the 10 Road firing operation when the conditions set us up for failure. The fire forces our hand. There is huge pressure to DO SOMETHING! DO ANYTHING!
But when is it better to do nothing? The fire that ran out of Caribou was coming one way or another. Instead, we put four miles of extra fire on the ground, doubled the potential head of the fire and gave it a one-day head start going into a two-day wind event.
Slideshow below. Click to advance images.
The only thing that has reliably secured the active edges of the Dixie Fire have been large-scale firing operations. ‘Firing operations’ are a fire control technique that lays fire on the ground between a fireline and the actively burning fire front. On large fires, preparing for a major firing operation can take days or even weeks. The more preparation, the better the odds of success. Firing usually takes place on ridges or adjacent to major roads, where bulldozers or fire crews can cut the largest possible fire line time allows. On big fires, the fire lines can be truly massive. Even so, if weather conditions are not favorable, as we’ve now seen many times on the Dixie, spot fires don’t care how wide your dozer line is.
When prepping a fireline for firing ops, firefighters cut down snags that could catch fire and fall across the line. They move as much fuel as possible from the fire’s side to the ‘green’ side. And if time allows, hoselays may be installed or aerial retardant may be dropped to the ‘green’ side of the fireline. How much prep you need is 100% contingent on burning conditions. The photo below is from a prescribed fire, where the conditions were mild and we could burn off a two-foot wide trail with some limbing. In the same fuel conditions in the middle of summer, you might need a line that is 10 times as wide.
Prescribed burning and firing operations use a lot of the same skillsets. However, prescribed burns, generally taking place during less extreme weather, often require much less effort to hold. In the image below, a two track road and a little bit of water is all that is needed to hold the fire.
Ideally, firing takes place when the timing is advantageous, often at night. Ignition crews walk the inside of the fireline with torches or flares (called fusees), and light a fire. The first lighter usually lights right up against the fireline, so the fire can only back away from the bare dirt. As the edge of of the firing is established and fire begins to spread away from the line, more lighters follow, ‘adding depth.’
Adding fire to an already burning landscape is sketchy. If we’re already on a 30,000 acre fire in extreme conditions, having capable people on the torches is really important. It’s easy to put too much fire on the ground, and once you light it, you can’t take it back. The big firing operations on Humboldt Road used drones that dropped flammable ping pong balls. This is new technology with great promise for increasing firefighter safety on prescribed fires. It is also something most people on firelines have zero experience using, so it is easy to see how quickly things can get out of hand.
Done well, firing is an art. Burning operations are choreographed by the most experienced people on the line and supported by engines, helicopter water drops and many people on foot watching the ‘green’ side for embers or spot fires. Hotshot crews are generally known to the public as dirty-faced ditch-diggers, greasy saw-slingers and brush-chucking cavemen. Within the fire community, they are revered for their burning skills. They spend their summers prepping line for burn shows, and then lighting when the conditions are right.
There have been many successful firings on the Dixie Fire, including operations that held the fire on A-21 north of Westwood, secured the north side of Highway 36 between Chester and Westwood, kept fire south of the east side of Fredonyer Summit, protected the south shore of Lake Almanor, held fire on the Mount Hough Road above Quincy, or kept fire out of Crescent Mills. But there is extreme risk involved almost every time we put more fire on the ground in the middle of a megafire. Often a tactical ‘success’ with a firing operation still has devastating outcomes on the black side of the line. For instance, the firing operation that kept fire out of Butte Meadows and Jonesville burned about 5,000 acres of private timberland. The firing operation that burned the north side of Highway 89 leading into Lassen Park established containment across much of the western edge of the fire, potentially keeping the fire out of Mineral and the entire Lassen Foothills down toward Manton and Red Bluff. But the conditions under which we were forced to fire these areas resulted in a severe crown fire which roasted 10,000 acres of old-growth forests across the headwaters of Mill Creek — one of the last creeks in California to support runs of wild Chinook salmon. This is a huge loss and it’s difficult for me to really of this as a ‘win.’
Another series of escapes and bad outcomes is unfolding on Grizzly Ridge, north of Greenhorn Ranch. Over the course of two windy days on August 30 and 31, the fire burned nearly 60,000 acres (100 square miles) to the east, driven in part by firing operations which started on the night of August 29. Then on August 31, another firing operation in the same area north of Lake Davis escaped control and ripped off to the east.
This map is from 10:38am on August 31. It looks east over the 30,000 acres that burned yesterday. The incident command team seems to be doubling down on their strategy of firing the ridge under high winds in a bid to keep the fire from coming south into the Highway 70 corridor. A new firing operation is visible in lower-right on a road north of Lake Davis.
This view from two hours later shows the new firing operation spotting and running two miles to the east. If we let it cross the ridge, we don’t know if the fire would run downhill to Highway 70 (left side of image). Instead we may be sacrificing 100,000 acres of the only forest remaining on the east side of the Plumas National Forest. The Fly Fire, earlier in the season was corralled without any structure losses on the south side of Grizzly Ridge, and even achieved a bunch of resource benefits while it was burning, reducing brush and lowering fire hazards across plantations in old burn scars.
Time lapse of fire spread on north side of Grizzly Ridge, 8/27/2021 – 9/1/2021. Click for slideshow and use arrows or click to advance.
About a month ago, when several spots from the major firing operations on Humboldt Road took off to the north, they burned together as a massive headfire run that almost took out Chester and burned most of the mature forest between Lake Almanor and Juniper Lake. A firing operation that squirted out control of the northernmost edge of the fire near the Hat Creek Rim about a week ago led to a difficult firefight that lasted several days before the fire was contained near Highway 44 at the Butte Lake Road. The latest escapes on the 10 Road and at Lake Davis provide examples of what can go wrong when we are rushed into using firing tactics as a ‘last resort.’
So why do we keep trying to pull off these big firing operations under terrible conditions? They are often the only real tool we have to contain fires burning at the landscape-scale. A tougher question for us to face might be: Why are we still focused on containment, when it’s clear that parts of this fire are beyond our control? We are resorting to desperate measures that increase the negative outcomes of the fire, wearing out the firefighters we’ll need later when our escaped burns are knocking on back doors in places like Milford or Grizzly Ranch.
Here is a good video about Hotshot crews. There are some examples of what we have just talked about here, and also, just a good look at how quickly things can head south at any given moment.