Friday, November 15, 2013

The Last Chase

Carl Young and Tim Samaras
(Photo credit: DCL via Discovery Channel)
The Last Chase
by Rick Connell

In the November 2013 issue of National Geographic, Robert Draper shares an article about Tim Samaras a “storm chaser” who specializes in gathering data and photos of tornadoes, and was a member of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers show.

The article describes Samaras as being “known for evangelizing about safety and for bringing an abundance of caution to his vocation.” (p. 37)  It continues to illustrate that he wouldn’t deploy sensors in front of tornadoes that were rain wrapped or if an escape route could be compromised, and had a history of stopping the chase for safety. Yet, with years of experience, knowledge and a dedication to safety on May 31st of this year he choices cost him, his son and a third chaser their lives.

The article recreates the last 20 minutes of the “known” facts including the recognition by Samaras that they were in a bad place. There was no way for Tim to know/forecast the tornado growing from ½ mile to 2.6 miles wide in a very short time. The parallels to fire incidents such as 1937 Blackwater, 1994 South Canyon, 2012 White Draw, and 2013 Yarnell is obvious.

As ICs and managers what is our role in maintaining situational awareness about weather. The majority of incidents (99%, dare I say) do not have an Incident Meteorologist focused on weather impacts to fire behavior. When the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a weather warning what is their criteria? How far or close is the threat before its impacts are expected? Do we have time to respond?

After the Yarnell fire, it became clear to me that we lack specifically developed actions related to weather impacts to our events. Is it enough to “keep informed on fire weather and conditions” and then “base all actions of current and expected fire behavior.” How well are we accomplishing these tenants of fire?

As an Operations Section Chief on the Western Montana Incident Management Team, I initiated a weather response plan for the incident with sections for operations, incident command post (ICP) and aviation. The plan lays out a warning response, say thunderstorms within 25 miles of the incident, that expects line resources to re-evaluate escape routes and safety zones, camp to “batten down the hatches,” and aviation to evaluate missions and movement of aircraft. 

At the implementation stage, say thunderstorm within 10 miles, line resources move to safety zones, aircraft return to base, etc. We implemented this plan on the Rough Creek fire where we added an “all clear” response. We also came to realize on this incident, where the majority of resources were at a spike camp where morning briefing was held, that the majority of folks in camp were not getting messages. It has been an assumption that sections/units provide a briefing. So we’ve asked those leaders to review the pertinent portions of the incident action plan (IAP) during morning meetings with their sections to increase the awareness of issues related to safety, weather or other topics that pertain to their safety. We’ve shared this plan with IMETs and local NWS forecasters for input.

We will never know why Granite Mountain moved to the ranch or Tim Samaras continued into the path of the tornado but maybe we can use these events to instill an enhanced respect that weather is the game changer that can happen quickly and decisively.

So the question for us as leaders is "what is your severe weather plan?"

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

Read Draper's article "The Last Chance" and watch Tim Samara's story for yourself on the National Geographic website.

Rick Connell is the Forest Fire, Fuels, Aviation & Air Program Manager for the Flathead National Forest. The expressions within this blog are those of the author.

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