Information released about entrapment on 2016 Canyon Fire

Dozens of firefighters were entrapped and endured a harrowing escape through very thick smoke and flying embers.

Canyon Fire entrapment

Above: an image from the official report, showing the conditions as firefighters were making their way to the safety zone.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a review of the entrapment of dozens of firefighters that occurred six months ago on the Canyon Fire at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

On September 19, 2016, two days after the fire started, approximately 50+ firefighters were assigned to Division Zulu on the north side of Honda Canyon, about a mile east of the site where four Air Force firefighters were entrapped and killed on the Honda Fire in 1977.

Assigned to the division that day were 8 engines, 4 dozers, 1 water tender, and a 20-person hand crew comprised of 3 helitack crews. All were ordered by the Division Supervisor to take refuge in a safety zone.

Canyon Fire entrapment
3-D map of the Canyon Fire looking east. The red line was the perimeter of the Canyon Fire at 11 p.m. PDT September 20, 2016. The white line was the perimeter at approximately 11 p.m. September 19.

After observing conditions that morning last September the tactic decided on was to fire out the ridge on the north side of Honda Canyon, which runs east and west. The main fire was to the south on the other side of the canyon. The operation was going well until the intensity in the burnout increased dramatically; fire whirls developed and the fire began spreading to the west more quickly than the igniters and holders could keep up with it.

The Division Supervisor ordered, “All Division Zulu resources pull back to the safety zone”. Even though some of the personnel were about 600 to 700 yards from the safety zone, the smoke-obscured visibility occasionally made movement difficult or impossible. At times the engines had to stop when they could not see the ground in front of them. Burning embers, some of them fist-sized, pelted the vehicles and the 20 people in the hand crew that were walking to the safety zone.

In the video below, it appears to have taken about 10 minutes to travel the 600 to 700 yards. The recording shows how harrowing it must have been as day turned to night. At least two firefighters were later transported to a hospital suffering from smoke inhalation injuries.

The video is incredible and at times has on the screen views from three different cameras, apparently time-synced. Pretty impressive editing (by Mark Pieper and Tony Petrilli) for a government-produced video. The maps and annotated still images are also very useful.

Canyon Fire entrapment
A screenshot from the video, at minute 7:39.

Some firefighters, approximately two, removed their fire shelters from their gear. One was fully deployed and another was partially unfolded.

From the report:

When asked: “How scared were you on a scale of 1 to 10?” multiple crew members replied “9” and “10.”

We covered the Canyon Fire as it was burning and thought we were aware of the major developments at the incident, but we did not hear about this entrapment until today, March 27, 2017. Maybe we missed it, but it is possible that the fact that it occurred on a military base influenced an apparent desire to keep it low key, even though a California Type 2 Incident Management Team had assumed command of the fire the morning of the incident and, according to the report, “did start Regional notification regarding the shelter deployment”.

The Incident Commander and the Deputy IC were first notified more than three hours after the entrapment.

In spite of the late release of the information, firefighters can benefit from this lessons learned opportunity and the fact that the preparers of the report conducted it in such a way that there were apparently few if any efforts among those involved to “lawyer up” and shut up fearing litigation or prosecution. Many still and video images were made available and at least enough of the firefighters were willing to talk about what happened to allow a useful report to be completed.

Maybe the way this review was conducted can be a template to reverse the recent trend of investigations that are not as useful as they could be.

Honda Fire Fatalities 1977

On September 21, 2016 a Ventura County Fire Department firefighter was killed in a vehicle accident while responding to the Canyon Fire. Fire Engineer Ryan Osler, a passenger in a water tender, lost his life. The driver of the truck self-extracted and was transported to a local hospital with minor injuries.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Canyon Fire”.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

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