Entrapments is the fourth leading cause of wildland firefighter fatalities

Wildland firefighter fatalities 1990-2014

For the last several days we have been writing about fatalities on wildland fires —  the annual numbers and trends going back to 1910 and some thoughts about how to reduce the number of entrapments (also known as burnovers). Often when we think about these accidents, what automatically comes to mind are the entrapments. When multiple firefighters are killed at the same time it can be etched into our memory banks to a greater extent than when one person is killed in a vehicle rollover or is hit by a falling tree. Much of the nation mourned when 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun and killed by the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013. A fatal heart attack on a fire does not receive nearly as much attention.

When we discuss ways to decrease deaths on fires, for some of us our first thoughts are how to prevent entrapments, myself included. One reason is that it can seem they are preventable. Someone made a decision to be in a certain location at a specific time, and it’s easy to think that if only a different decision had been made those people would still be alive. Of course it is not that simple. Perfect 20/20 hindsight is tempting for the Monday Morning Incident Commander. Who knows — if they had been there with access to the same information they may have made the same series of decisions.

An analysis of the data provided by NIFC for the 440 fatalities from 1990 through 2014 shows that entrapments are the fourth leading cause of fatalities. The top four categories which account for 88 percent are, in decreasing order, medical issues, aircraft accidents, vehicle accidents, and entrapments. The numbers for those four are remarkably similar, ranging from 23 to 21 percent of the total. Number five is hazardous trees at 4 percent followed by the Work Capacity Test, heat illness, and electrocution, all at around 1 percent. A bunch of miscellaneous causes adds up to 4 percent.

NIFC’s data used to separate air tanker crashes from accidents involving other types of aircraft such as lead planes and helicopters. But in recent years they began lumping them all into an “aircraft accident” category, so it is no longer possible to study them separately. This is unfortunate, since the missions are completely different and involve very dissimilar personnel, conflating firefighters who are passengers in the same category as air tankers having one- to seven-person crews — from Single Engine Air Tankers to military MAFFS air tankers.

The bottom line, at least for this quick look at the numbers, is that in addition to trying to mitigate the number of entrapments, we should be spending at least as much time and effort to reduce the numbers of wildland firefighters who die from medical issues and accidents in vehicles and aircraft.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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16 thoughts on “Entrapments is the fourth leading cause of wildland firefighter fatalities”

  1. I compiled this same data and exact same graph about 3 years ago when we started instructing medical classes for firefighters and have continued to analysis the data annually since and have also added when these incidents occur and what stage of attack in which they occur. Prevention is the key-how do we stop/limit the amount of fatalities in these 4 main categories? However, an equally important questions is how are we going to respond and provide care for these patients once an incident has happened? All of the main categories, except medical (most likely), can all be MCIs. Our system is built with maybe one “medic” (EMTB, AEMT, or Paramedic, which is another issue) for a whole division, so how are you going to care for more than one patient adequately, let alone an MCI. What happens with 2 patients, 4 patients, an entire module, ect? Lots of work still to go when it comes to training and having the correct ratio of medical response for an Incident within an Incident. We are always so concentrated on prevention of incidents (which is appropriate as well) that where we are failing is the response when something does occur.

  2. Eric,

    In my former line of work we called you a flight surgeon and your efforts were essential for safe flying operations. Maybe there are some very useful parallels from a firefighting organizational standpoint.

  3. Does anyone have any idea where suicide would fit on this graph, if that was a subject we as a firefighting community could, would and should be talking about? I’m guessing its right up there with the other top 4 causes.

    1. The NIFC data lists one suicide, included here in the “other” category. It was in 1996 in California, but the specific location was not identified. I have a vague recollection of one that occurred when the firefighter was off duty near an incident base, possibly in the general vicinity of the Los Padres National Forest. Does anyone have more details?

    2. Is suicide higher in wildland firefighters than the general population? This is a personal choice, unlike dying from a heart attack or getting burned over. Unless the rate of suicide is higher in firefighers, and you can prove some causation, I don’t think it’s a specific concern to be focused on outside of what would occur for assistance in the general public.

      But…

      What about cancer? Long term affects of exposure to smoke and dust? I would be interested to know if there are correlations to firefighters and deaths related to cancer and pulmonary disease, because it would be very easy, I think, to find causation in our work environment.

      1. Eric, nearly all of these fatalities are related to choices, some of them very personal. I get your point about it being a self-inflicted event and I can respect your desire to address other areas and view that it is a bit off-topic. In order to find a correlation one would have to care enough to track it. If no one even bothers to take that simple first step then how would anyone have an informed opinion one way or another on causal links. If the military never tracked it, then what? Wouldn’t you be the slightest bit interested to understand the possible effects on human factors to have a bunch of firefighters (or leaders) who are debating whether to end their life making decisions (or not) on the fireline? We might not have much affect on curbing suicide, but we could learn a whole lot about firefighter psyche and culture in the process. I’m willing to bet that if we spent as much time and money diving deeper into the human elements as we have on fireshelters we could have an equal or greater affect on safety outcomes. I’m playing devils advocate here. You obviously care and have put a bunch of thought into firefighter safety, so please take my thoughts with a grain of salt. Cheers.

    3. Nate I remember hearing somewhere that it was higher, but not sure how factual that was. I know of three from my forest in the last five years which seems like a lot.

      Shooting from the hip, I would be willing to bet that their is a higher occurrence. In general there is a fairly high-level of alcoholism in our field and conditions favorable to PTSD and depression. All are huge factors in risk for suicide. I heard of a psychologist who spoke to this a while back at the national shot conference…

      1. Yeah, I have also heard the suicide rate was 3 times higher among firefighters than the general population, but don’t have a reference to back that up. I do know a few years ago I heard of 5 in one year, 3 were former coworkers that did not know each other. That year was what got me to wondering about it. Its definitely underreported.

  4. Nate,
    National Smokejumper Association President Jim Cherry has identified suicide as an issue he wants to address. At this time, the Association is in the very early stages of exploring this problem.

    1. What if we ADD one more mass casualty? Then entrapments become the number one killer.

      I can think of 4 incidents that would decrease the entrapment deaths by 50%.

      Entrapment avoidance is one area we need to continually train for and ingrain into all firefighters. We need to read and understand what happened in the past to avoid the same mistakes – Dude fire and Yarnell Hill?

  5. Bill – nice job of showing all of the data and it’s implications. I did several studies for the old NWCG Safety & Health Working Team in 1998 and again in 2007 that looked at fatalities and trends from 1990 – 2006. http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdfpubs/pdf07512814/pdf07512814dpi72.pdf. It discussed many of the issues various folks have raised, like the “skewering” of numbers when large fatality events occur like South Canyon, Iron 88 and others. It also breaks out fatalities by geographic areas and organizations. There is also a section that addresses the “near misses” that occur when shelters are deployed, but do not result in fatalities. Imagine if there were no shelters on the “Butte Fire”?
    The best way to improve our wildland fire safety record is to look, in depth, at where our failures lie, and then work to address base causes. The period from 1990-2015 provides us with a good, reliable data set on wildfire fatalities. Now, lets see meaningful mitigation steps proposed and implemented.

  6. I don’t have my copy of the South Canyon Investigation in front of me at the moment but those of you that do, read Dale Longenecker’s comments on an additional Watch Out Situation….

  7. Are wildland firefighter death rates for medical issues and driving higher than the general public? Or are they lower? Same?

    If they are lower, are we doing a good job of physical and driver training? and vice versa? I would assume some of those deaths would have, unfortunately, occurred if people were involved in wildland fire or not.

    Not so for aviation and entrapments. Those are two things very specific to our profession.

    1. Erik, I like where you are tracking, but feel it is perhaps an over simplification. Take driving for instance, we may in fact have the standard death to miles/hours driven ratio of the general public. Does this mean we are doing the best that we can, and don’t have any weak areas? Not at all. We face unique driving conditions with unique equipment and a wide range of driving experience/training. We are in fact exempt from following regulations imposed on the general public, which I’m sure is worth looking closely at. I would hope that we zoomed in a bit more (we do), when looking for trends than simply comparing with national averages.

      I’m not sure I fully understand your perspective of aviation and entrapments being unique to our profession. I’m sure that it is still valuable to compare our aviation accident rates to other industries. I’m also sure that it is valuable to compare entrapment rates between agencies, jurisdictions, regions, and even better, other countries. Perhaps you feel the same or could articulate a bit more on your perspective?

    2. Eric – trying to figure out the “rate” of fatalities on wildland fires compared to the civilian numbers is elusive at best. While we know how many civilians there are in the US (about 330 million), it’s hard to put specific numbers the numbers of “firefighter days” that are spent, and then correlated to deaths. Too many Volunteers, Contractors, multiple State and Local agencies, some days not spent on fire activities, non-fire miles driven, etc. An almost impossible task to compile credible numbers. Same problem with using acres burned per year versus fatalities: this year, lots of Alaskan acres, but no Alaskan fatalities. Should those numbers be spread across the Lower 48? And South Canyon killed 14, but only burned about 2000+ acres. Our “hours flown” on wildfires are easier to compare and analyze, but those hours are significantly different than normal commercial and private types of flight. No easy answers to your question …..!

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