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March 24, 2014

Firenado: The Backstory

So, it turns out one of our morons is a paramedic and firefighter and as it happens was the guy who shot the video of a dust devil dragging hundreds of tumbleweeds into a controlled burn in Colorado (I linked it in the headlines over the weekend).

It also turns out he can kill you with fire tornadoes.

Anyway he wrote "Ask the Blog" and sent along this about how it all went down. Apparently there's a lot of embellishments and claims of "out of control mayhem" and whatnot.

Video and his write up (kinda long but chock full of factual facty things) below the fold. He calls himself "Thomas" but I call him "Prometheus, Bringer of Fire and Also Dude Who Can Kill You With Fire Tornadoes".

You got to respect that right there.



I’m honored to be writing here at AoS, and would have never imagined I would have the opportunity to do so. Thanks, Dave!! (Does this make me an official Moron, or am I still an amateur?)

As for the video of the Firenado, it was a sensational catch on a planned prescribed fire. It took place March 14, 2014 at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge just outside of Denver, Colorado. The prescribed fire was planned and supervised by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with other agencies participating, such as the US Forest Service, and several local municipal fire departments that cooperate with the Feds on wild land fire.

Prescribed fire in Colorado is a very sensitive subject. In 2012, the Lower North Fork fire began as a prescribed burn. It was part of a much larger reclamation project for Denver Water with Colorado State Forest Service planning the burns. On March 22nd, a 50 acre unit was burned and a 200 foot perimeter was secured around the burned area. On March 26th, a weather system moved in bringing in hot, dry and windy conditions with gusts over 50 miles per hour. The 4 day smoldering fire was blown over the control lines and the fire became uncontained. The end result was 23 destroyed homes, and three lives were tragically lost.

After this tragedy, a moratorium was placed on all prescribed fire in Colorado while an investigation could determine exactly what happened and how it could be prevented in the future. New rules were drafted in the state regarding prescribed fire and the fire in the video was the first prescribed fire in the state since the new rules went into effect.

There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into creating a prescribed fire burn plan. In essence, A Burn Boss writes a prescription for the conditions needed to safely carry out a fire. Just some of the parameters are temperature, humidity, wind, fuel type, fuel loading within an area, fuel moistures, expected fire behavior, what resources are needed to carry out the burn, etc… There are also parameters as far as distance to any communities, predicted smoke dispersal forecasts, and community notification requirements. Then there are the contingency plans, and contingencies for those. Several of our “simple” prescribed fire plans run over 30 or 40 pages. Only when ALL of the criteria are met, can the prescribed fire proceed.

The fire on the 14th was a 150 acre plan to burn a reclamation area in the refuge. This area had been overgrown for many years, and the plan to burn it had been in place for over 2 years. The unit was mainly grass with a few areas of cottonwood tree stands, animal habitat, several wetlands, a structure, and recreational amenities. The plan was to burn only the grass /weeds, and leave the trees in place for wildlife habitat.

We could not begin laying down fire until after noon, as the smoke dispersal parameters would not be met until then. We don’t want the smoke laying down or drifting low into occupied areas. The entire operation was done very slow and methodical, taking special care when we were putting fire around the structure, the rod and gun blind, and the wildlife habitat. It took between 5 and 6 hours to completely burn the unit.

We were very lucky with our wind throughout the burn. The forecast was for light winds out of the south-southeast pretty much all day. What really happened was a light, steady East wind at 5 to 7 miles per hour with occasional gusts to 10. This was actually better because it allowed us a larger margin of safety around the critical areas, and allowed the fire to carry with the wind exactly where we needed it to go.

The prescribed fire was almost complete when the FIRENADO (!!!!eleventy!!!) video was taken. As we were bringing fire along our control line, a dust devil formed ahead of us. We first saw one, then two, then several tumbleweeds begin to lift. As the dust devil grew, it began to influence our fire. It essentially drew our fire into it and began taking it across our control line. At his point we got out of the way and let it do its thing, as we really can’t engage it. The fire is helping feed the dust devil with energy. The dust devil then took the fire across a small ditch and into an adjacent field of grass. The grass was much shorter and more sparse. Since the fire has less fuel, it has less energy to give the dust devil. This caused the whole thing to dissipate after 4 or 5 minutes.

Once the whole thing ended, we were left with a fire over our control line, which we call a “slop over”. The personnel on the prescribed burn immediately engaged and stopped the slop over at about one acre. The whole “scary” event was completely done and over in about 20 minutes. No one was injured and nothing was threatened by the event. We had plans in place for a slop over and they worked perfectly.

The only remarkable thing about this whole event was that I captured it on video. Dust devils are a very common thing on the plains and on wildland fires. I guess a more interesting thing was the amount of tumbleweeds caught in the dust devil and how close we were to it. As the fire came toward us, we were able to go about 60 or 75 feet from where the video started to a safe area and watch it. There never was any panic, just awe at what we got to witness up close.


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posted by Dave In Texas at 08:15 PM

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