The just-released review of the Lower North Fork Fire, which cost three lives and destroyed dozens of structures, is quite a thorough document given the short amount of time it took to produce. And while the report (on view below) is written dispassionately, it's plenty damning when it comes to the prescribed burn that started the blaze.
Among the lessons learned by the review team, which was assembled at the behest of Governor John Hickenlooper, about fuel conditions and fire behavior:
• There was a lack of recognition of the amount of unburned fuel remaining in the interior of the Unit. Overall consumption within the unit was less than assumed.
• Extended burning and smoldering within the burn area leads to increased exposure to adverse weather events. Residual heat sources can be an escape threat during high winds.
• A 200 foot buffer is not sufficient in a high wind event with continued burning inside the line.
• Recognize that an area that presented holding problems during blacklining could be a problem area during subsequent ignitions and mop-up. In this case a spot fire occurred during blacklining operations on October 19, 2011, in the same location where the spot fire that resulted in the escape occurred on March 26, 2012.
Here's the main lesson regarding the burn plan:
• Patrol and monitoring needs to be more responsive and adaptive to changing conditions.
And finally, regarding the weather:
• The better the communications with the local National Weather Service office the better the understanding of weather conditions by the local manager; managers who use prescribed fire on a regular basis should ask more questions of and provide more feedback to their fire weather forecasters.
• Besides the 1-5 day forecast products from the National Weather Service, there are also products available from National and Geographic Area Predictive Services that may augment the ability of managers to make better mid-range strategic decisions (3-10 days).
• Portable weather stations are a great source of site-specific weather information; need to make sure they are properly maintained, calibrated so the data can be relied on.
In retrospect, a lot of these conclusions seem obvious -- especially the part about checking and double-checking forecasts, since high winds were responsible for whipping what was thought to be a dead conflagration to lethal life. But these reminders are especially vital, given that our comparatively dry winter means we're likely to face many more fires before the seasons turn once more.
Below, see a selection of images from the review, followed by the entire document.
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More from our News archive: "Lower North Fork Fire photo gallery: Symbols of blazes to come?"