Firefighter killed in Montana by falling tree

(UPDATED at 1:38 MDT July 20, 2017)

Trenton Johnson
Trenton Johnson

A firefighter working for a private company was killed July 19 while working on a wildfire in western Montana. Trenton Johnson 19, was struck by a falling tree while helping to suppress the Florence Fire, a small fire near Florence Lake on the Lolo National Forest northeast of Seeley Lake.

Mr. Johnson, a resident of Missoula, Montana was a member of a Grayback Forestry Inc. 20-person hand crew under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.

Kelli Matthews, a spokesperson for Grayback, said as the crew was getting lined out to begin work on a small fire the top broke out of a burning tree and struck Mr. Johnson. He was taken to the nearest heliport about half mile from the fire where he was airlifted to Saint Patrick Hospital. He was later declared deceased.

Mr. Johnson was a sophomore at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Lolo National Forest Supervisor Tim Garcia issued a statement Thursday saying in part:

This is a heart-wrenching loss of life and Trenton leaves behind many friends and family members who are feeling this profound loss right now. This loss is rippling across the Lolo National Forest this morning and is most keenly felt on the Seeley Lake Ranger District, where Trenton’s sister works as a Forest Service employee.

Between 1990 and 2014 18 firefighters were killed on wildland fires by hazardous trees, which was 4 percent of the 440 firefighter deaths in the stats for that period kept by the National Interagency Fire Center.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Johnson’s family, friends, and coworkers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris and Paula.
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Red Flag Warnings in Idaho and Montana

The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings for areas in Montana and Idaho.

The map was current as of 9 a.m. MDT on Thursday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts.

Detwiler Fire advances 4 miles to the north

(Originally published at 7:30 a.m. PDT July 20, 2017)
(Updated at 7 p.m. PDT July 20, 2017)

CAL FIRE reported Thursday that the Detwiler Fire has destroyed 50 single family residences.

In the photo below Air Tanker 912, a DC-10, makes a retardant drop on the Detwiler Fire.

(Updated at 5:02 p.m. PDT July 20, 2017)

Above: A 3-D map of the Detwiler Fire looking south from Coulterville, CA. The red shaded area was the perimeter at 1 a.m. July 20. 

The Detwiler Fire was very active again Wednesday for the fourth day since it started and moved to within 2 miles of Coulterville, California. It grew by 4 miles on the north side, 3 miles on the south side, and 2 miles on the east. There was much less movement on the west side.

At 1 p.m. on Thursday the fire had spread north beyond the fire perimeter that was mapped at 1 a.m. and was less than 2 miles from Coulterville. It had crossed Crown Lead Road, which is south of Coulterville. The incident management team has a great many firefighting resources making preparations south of the town, including helicopters, hand crews, fire engines, and dozers. Firelines are being built and it is likely that when they are complete air tankers will reinforce those lines. The fire was also active at 1 p.m. Thursday on the northeast side as well as southeast of Catheys Valley on the south side.

Satellite photo Detwiler Fire
Satellite photo showing the Detwiler Fire Thursday afternoon. Click to enlarge.

Southeast of Coulterville the fire is less than a mile from the boundary of the Stanislaus National Forest. A CAL FIRE incident management team has been running the fire but an Interagency Type 1 Incident Management Team has been ordered to report to the fairgrounds at Sonora 22 air miles north of the fire. The assumption probably is that the fire will be in the National Forest in a day or two.

By Thursday morning at 1 a.m. the fire had burned 73,096 acres, an increase of 27,372 acres since the previous mapping flight at 10 p.m. on July 18. (There is some confusion about the acres burned, with some sources reporting the total is 70,096.)

CAL FIRE reports that 45 structures have been destroyed. It is not clear if that number includes outbuildings.

The map of the Detwiler Fire was current at 1 a.m. PDT July 20, 2017

Map Detwiler Fire
Map of the Detwiler Fire. The red line was the perimeter at 1 a.m. PDT July 20. The white line was the perimeter 27 hours earlier. Click to enlarge.

Highways 49 and 140 are both closed in the fire area. CAL FIRE and the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office have more information about evacuations, although CAL FIRE’s information site about this rapidly spreading fire is updated infrequently.

smoke Yosemite visibility
Smoke from the Detwiler Fire is affecting the visibility in Yosemite National Park east of the fire. This was the view of Half Dome at 7:21 a.m. July 20.
El Capitan Yosemite National Park smoke visibility
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park at 7:31 a.m. PDT July 20.

(All articles on Wildfire Today about the Detwiler Fire are tagged “Detwiler Fire” and can be found here, with the most recent at the top.)

Prevention of heat related injuries among wildland firefighters

When we were writing the July 13 article about Frank Anaya, the latest California inmate firefighter that died on a fire, we discovered details about a previous inmate fatality that were shocking. It involved the death of Jimmy Randolph in August of 2012 whose passing was associated with heat stroke. The shocking part was that Mr. Randolph was found unresponsive one morning in the sleeping area on a fire and died in a hospital seven hours later. He had complained of a headache the previous evening and was checked out by the medical unit, but apparently no one was aware of the seriousness of his condition.

Here is an excerpt from a summary of the fatality from

Firefighter Jimmy Randolph was assigned to the Buck Fire as a part of a strike team. At approximately 1800 hours on August 18, 2012, Firefighter Randolph advised a correctional officer that he had a headache. He was escorted to a medical team, evaluated, and given a three-day no-work note. At approximately 0530 hours the next morning, Fire fighter Randolph could not be awakened. He was treated and transported to the Desert Regional Hospital in Palm Springs. With his family by his side., he was pronounced dead at 1230 hours on August 19, 2012. The cause of death was listed as anoxic encephalopathy combined with complications of heat stroke.

Anoxic encephalopathy is a condition where brain tissue is deprived of oxygen and there is global loss of brain function. The longer brain cells lack oxygen, the more damage occurs.

I checked the weather for August 18, 2012 for San Jacinto, California which is in the general vicinity of the Buck Fire, and the high temperature that day was 92 degrees — a temperature commonly found on a large wildfire in the summer.

Today the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group: issued a memo titled, “Wildland Firefighter Heat Related Injury Prevention, Awareness, and Rhabdomyolysis”.

Here’s how it begins:

The wildland firefighter community has experienced an alarming increase in heat related and other physiological injuries in the last few days. Heat related injuries and Rhabdomyolysis are not the same, but can occur at the same time. Extreme weather conditions are predicted to continue across western states for the next week. The National Weather Service is issuing Heat Warnings for the SWCC, GBCC, RMCC, OSCC, and ONCC.

It is a very well-written document about how to prevent, mitigate, and recognize heat related injuries.

Read it, dammit.

You don’t want to wake up dead.

Full Stop.

Updated map of Detwiler Fire near Mariposa, CA — Wednesday afternoon

Above: Map of the Detwiler Fire. The blue line was the perimeter at 10 p.m. PDT July 18. The dots represent heat detected by a satellite, with the red ones being the most recent, from 1:30 p.m. PDT July 19, 2017.

(Originally published at 4:32 p.m. PDT July 19, 2017)

A satellite that overflew the Detwiler Fire at 1:30 p.m. PDT on Wednesday detected heat sources that, if accurate, indicate that in the previous 15 hours since the last fixed wing aircraft mapping flight, the fire spread significantly to the north toward Coulterville and to the south east of Catheys Valley. There was also expansion on the east side, but very little on the west.

The data from this satellite hundreds of miles overhead is not nearly as sensitive and accurate as a dedicated fixed wing mapping aircraft, so this information should be considered tentative until the next conventional mapping flight which will probably occur Wednesday night. The sensors only pick up large heat sources. If it does turn out to be accurate, we’re looking at more than 60,000 acres.

The growth toward the north is consistent with the satellite photograph taken Wednesday afternoon, which shows dense smoke being pushed north.

Detwiler Fire NASA satellite photograph
NASA satellite photograph taken Wednesday afternoon, July 19. The red dots represent heat. Click to enlarge.

(All articles on Wildfire Today about the Detwiler Fire are tagged “Detwiler Fire” and can be found here, with the most recent at the top.)