Entrapped on Freeway Fire; Corona Engine 5

The Los Angeles times has the story about the engine crew that was entrapped on the Freeway Fire west of Corona, California. Here is an excerpt:

For the Corona Fire Department, that moment came at 9:23 a.m. Saturday, 22 minutes after the first 911 call reported a small brush fire in the vegetation off the 91 Freeway.

It was a distress call from Engine 5, the first truck to attack the blaze. Using a tactical frequency, the captain of the four-person crew — three men and a woman — cried out to battalion chief Mike Samuels, stationed on the freeway above:

“We’re completely surrounded. Send help.”

From his position, Samuels could see the flames tearing through the brush toward homes, pushed by 20 mph gusts of Santa Ana winds, the fire intensifying as it struck what he called “heavy fuels” — 8-foot-tall patches of oak and chaparral.

“I’ve been in the fire service 21 years, and I’ve never seen a fire move out that fast,” Samuels would say later.

Other trucks were attacking the fire and one of them, Brush One, was heading to protect homes. Samuels decided to divert it to rescue the crew of Engine 5.

As Brush One fought its way through black smoke and heat toward the encircled firefighters, Engine 5 stayed on the radio, awaiting help and using its training to survive. A common tactic in such a situation is for firefighters to “get in the black” — position themselves and their truck in an area that has already burned. To help, Samuels called in helicopter water drops.

The extrication of Engine 5 took 15 to 20 minutes, by Samuels’ estimate, and soon the four crew members were heading to hospitals for treatment of minor burns and smoke inhalation. They were all released that day.

New study: wildland firefighters and smoke

There have been a number of reports about the effects of smoke on firefighters. Now there is a new one by the Institut de recherché Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST).

Here is an excerpt from the report’s abstract:

The substances of greatest concern are carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein, and respirable and inhalable particles. A second group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations, includes benzene, carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides, PAH, ammonia, and furfural. A third group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations again, includes acetaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, methane, methanol, styrene, acetonitrile, propionaldehyde, toluene, methyl bromide, methylethylketone, acetone, methyl chloride, xylenes, phenol, tetrahydrofuran, methyl iodide, and mercury. Data suggests that if wildland firefighters are exposed to 25 ppm of carbon monoxide (below the permissible exposure value), they may be overexposed to formaldehyde, acrolein, PAH (benzo[a]pyrene), and respirable particles.

The U.S. National Fire Protection Association has recently announced that it is proceeding with the development of a new wildland firefighting respiratory protection Standard, but it will be some time still before respirators certified for wildland firefighting will become available.

If administrative controls are unsuccessful in reducing exposures to acceptable levels, wildland firefighters should be provided with air purifying respirators for formaldehyde, respirable particulate matter, organic vapours and acids, acrolein, and PAH. However, wildland firefighters should be cautioned that at high work levels the effectiveness and duration of air purifying cartridges is unknown. There is also a concern that firefighters using air purifying respirators may unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of contaminants not removed by their respirator than they would otherwise. Until a respirator is developed for wildland firefighting that effectively removes carbon monoxide, air purifying respirators should be used in conjunction with a carbon monoxide alarm.

Like “a mosquito through an open door”.

Firefighters, especially new ones, frequently ask if bandannas over the face will protect them from smoke. The answer is hell no.

“Respirable smoke particles, gases, and vapours would pass through a bandanna as readily as a mosquito thorugh an open door.”

Click on the image above to see a larger version.

In fact, even respirators, as inconvenient as they are, will not do the job according to the report.

None of the filtering respirators remove carbon monoxide (CO). All of the currently available respirators have serious shortcomings for use in a wildland fire situation. Even if they were effective, some wildland firefighters are understandably reluctant to accept negative pressure air purifying face masks for use at high work levels for long periods of time.

A full face mask is generally more comfortable than a half-face mask and it provides full eye protection. Full eye protection is necessary the case of contaminants exceeding the threshold limit value where the threshold limit value is based on irritant effects.

Since the contaminants having warning properties such as odour or irritant effects are removed by air purifying respirators, there is a legitimate concern that firefighters wearing such respirators might unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of toxic contaminants not removed by the respirator than they would otherwise. This could easily result in over exposure to carbon monoxide and lead to serious, perhaps deadly, consequences. To avoid this, a carbon monoxide monitor with alarm should be used in conjunction with air purifying respirators used when fighting wildland fires.

So, forget about the bandanna, and throw away that $84 piece of crap Hot Shield mask that is advertised to have the “ benefit of blocking & reducing the inhalation of smoke & ash particulate”. These smoke particulates are so small, that if one were released near the ceiling in a room with calm air, it would take eight hours to fall to the floor.

The sad truth is, in 2008 there is no practical way to protect wildland firefighters from the byproducts of combustion. Maybe the new 8-pound SCBA being developed will lead to something that could benefit wildland firefighters. Using this new technology, perhaps a 15-pound unit would give you an hour’s worth of air? This might help for initial attack, but for the hot shot crew on the line for 16 hours, sorry, you’re out of luck.

Lessons learned from Australian incident

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has “obtained” a copy of the internal report about the 2006 entrapment of 11 New Zealand firefighters on a fire in Victoria, Australia. It appears that the major contributing factor was that the crew was uphill from the fire with unburned fuel below them. We’ve seen this situation before in numerous fatality reports.

What is surprising is that the report does not appear to have been released publicly. I don’t know how the ABC “obtained” a copy of the report; I’ve searched for it online and can’t find it. Maybe this report from a 2006 fire is still in draft and will be released later. But if we don’t release the findings from close calls and fatalities, we will not be able to benefit from the lessons learned.

A spokesman from the United Firefighters Union in Australia, Greg Pargeter, had this to say:

Mr. Pargeter says the union found it difficult to get the report.

“We’ve had to go to New Zealand to obtain a copy,” he said.

“And we would say that the CFA should be open and transparent with its stakeholders, including the United Firefighters Union, so that we can learn from the mistakes that have been made, and hopefully that they’re not repeated.”

Here is the article about the report, from the ABC website.

An internal report has found authorities underestimated the risks posed by a Victorian bushfire that injured a group of New Zealand firefighters in 2006. Eleven fire fighters were injured and forced to run for their lives when they were caught in a flare up near Mansfield in north-east Victoria.

The ABC has obtained a report by Australian and New Zealand fire authorities that criticises the management of the team. It shows they were working on a steep slope with the fire below them and unburnt ground in between.

Former chief fire officer Athol Hodgson says the crew should never have been sent into the area.

“The people in charge of the situation knew the night before, in fact they knew the day before that the fire had crossed Steiner’s Road,” he said.

“They knew there was unburnt country below the road.

“Someone should have reviewed the situation the night before and said ‘no, it’s not on’.”

Mr Hodgson says that breaks one of the most basic rules of firefighting.

“It’s an absolute no everywhere, it doesn’t matter if the fuel is heavy or not,” he said.

“Firefighters around the world have died because they’ve been working uphill of an uncontrolled fire below them.”

However, the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s assistant chief fire officer, Liam Fogarty, says the decisions of the fire authorities did not substantially contribute to the incident.

“Ultimately it was an assessment of local area risks and not quite taking on board the complexity of the environment they were working in,” he said.

HERE is a link to a video news segment about the entrapment and the report.

Wildfire news, November 20, 2008

California: Freeway fire may have been started by exhaust

Investigators are evaluating the possibility that the 30,305 Freeway fire west of Corona may have been started by the catalytic converter on a vehicle. The fire was officially contained on Wednesday. The fire caused minor injuries to 14 firefighters, destroyed 187 residences and damaged 127 others, while four commercial properties were either damaged or destroyed.

Westmont College says its students didn’t start Tea fire

From the LA Times, concerning the fire near Montecito and Santa Barbara, California:

Westmont College, the 1,200-student Christian university that was damaged in last week’s disastrous Tea fire, announced Wednesday that none of its current students were involved in the incident that sparked the blaze. 

On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department said the fire that damaged or destroyed 219 homes was ignited by a group of 10 students who had built a bonfire and abandoned its smoldering remains.

The department, however, did not say which school the suspects attended, raising speculation among some residents that the students attended Westmont.

On Wednesday, college President Gayle D. Beebe responded to the rumors in a written statement.

“On Wednesday afternoon at approximately 2:45 p.m., Drew Sugars, the public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s [Department], officially informed the college that no current Westmont students were present nor in any way involved with this tragic incident,” he wrote.

HERE is a link to an article about the unusual history of Santa Barbara’s Tea Gardens, where the Tea fire started from the abandoned bonfire.

Hawaii fire on Lanai contained

The fire on the island of Lanai is now contained at about 1,000 acres. Yesterday Wildfire Today covered the evacuation of 600 people, some in boats.

San Diego County suing power company for fires

San Diego County is suing San Diego Gas and Electric over the damages caused by the fires of October, 2007. The suit includes damages for the loss of property tax revenue; loss of wildlife habitat; debris removal; and destruction of public buildings.

Three of the most damaging 2007 wildfires – the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires – were started when sparks from arcing SDG&E power lines ignited brush during high winds, two separate state investigations have found.

Arizona: Marteen fire still active


Marteen fire on Squaw Mountain. USFS

This fire northwest of Flagstaff has been burning since August 7. It is a fire use fire, so it’s not being suppressed. Thought dead after the summer monsoons, the fire, 700 acres at that time, sprang back to life on October 15. Now it has burned 10,788 acres. It is expected to continue to burn slowly and creep around as long as conditions remain dry.

Co-pilot flips out, flight attendant helps land airliner

It sounds like a script from a bad movie but it actually happened. While over the Atlantic, flying a Boeing 767 from Toronto to London, a co-pilot with 6,500 hours of flying time had a mental breakdown. He had to be wrestled from the cockpit by a group of flight attendants, restrained, and sedated.

Here is an excerpt from an article at MSNBC:

The pilot concluded that his colleague was now so “belligerent and uncooperative” that he couldn’t do his job.

The report said the pilot summoned several flight attendants to remove the co-pilot from the cockpit, and one flight attendant suffered an injured wrist in the struggle. Doctors from Britain and Canada on board determined that the co-pilot was confused and disoriented.

The report did not mention how the co-pilot was restrained. Departing passengers at the time said his arms and legs had been tied up to keep him under control.

The pilot then asked flight attendants to find out if any passenger was a qualified pilot. When none was found, one stewardess admitted she held a current commercial pilot’s license but said her license for reading cockpit instruments had expired.

“The flight attendant provided useful assistance to the commander, who remarked in a statement to the investigation that she was `not out of place’ while occupying the right-hand seat,” the report said.