Report released for entrapment of firefighters on the Valley Fire

Valley fire entrapment site

Entrapment site of firefighters on the Valley Fire. Photo from the CAL FIRE report. (click to enlarge)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has released a report for an entrapment with injuries that occurred on the Valley Fire September 12, 2015. The fire burned 76,000 acres 62 miles north of San Francisco.

Four firefighters from a helitack crew that had arrived at the fire via helicopter were on the ground fighting the fire with hand tools when they were surrounded by the fire during initial attack operations and suffered serious burn injuries. Below is an excerpt from the report.


“…FC1 directed FF3, FF4 and FF5 to get into the goat pen, which was clear to bare mineral soil. While in the goat pen they observed the fire behavior changing. There was an increase in the wind speed, and an increased number of spot fires in the pine needle duff and leaf litter surrounding them. FF3 saw fire sheeting and swirling across the dirt driveway on the northwest side of the goat pen; several pines torched on the west side of the steel garage.

From the location of RES2, FF2 observed increased fire behavior advancing toward Helitack A’s location. FF2 communicated the increased fire behavior using the radio; FC1 acknowledged FF2’s observation.

At approximately 1402 hours, the brush covered slope to their east completely torched into a wall of flame. The wall of flame sent a significant wave of radiant heat through the goat pen and onto the firefighters. They could feel their faces burning from the radiant heat and all four firefighters ran to the fence, climbed over, and ran towards the steel garage. At the steel garage Helitack A started to deploy their fire shelters.

“May-Day” was transmitted from FC1 and was heard over the radio. From the location of a third residence (RES3), FC2 could hear FC1 say over the radio, “Four have deployed their shelters, near a barn on the right flank.” FF4 had difficulty opening the fire shelter case from the Chainsaw Pack; the clear plastic covering of the fire shelter was soft and melted. FF4 had to remove the gloves to tear the plastic away from the aluminum shell of the fire shelter. FF3 couldn’t get the fire shelter out of the case because the clear plastic cover was melted to the white plastic protective sleeve. FF3 looked up and saw FF4 at the north side (D) of the steel garage. FF3 dropped the fire shelter on the ground and ran to FF4’s location. FF3 and FF4 shared FF4’s fire shelter and stayed together in a crouched position. FC1 and FF5 deployed their fire shelters on the east side (A) of the steel garage. The heat in front of the steel garage was too intense so they moved to the north side (D) of the steel garage with FF3 and FF4 where the atmosphere seemed to be cooler.

Helitack A huddled together shielding the heat away from their already burned faces and hands; each of them could see the visible burns to one another’s faces and hands. FC1 continued to use the radio requesting bucket drops from C1 on their deployment location to cool the atmosphere. FF5 attempted to drink the water from the hydration pack but the water from the mouth piece was too hot to drink. While crouched in their fire shelters next to the steel garage, Helitack A suddenly heard explosions coming from inside the now burning structure. As a group, Helitack A moved a safe distance from the structure. Helitack A eventually crouched along the dirt driveway, separating the dirt garden and the goat pen.

From the driveways of RES3 and a fourth residence (RES4), FC2 directed C1 to make bucket drops into Helitack A’s location at the top of the ridge. C1 orbiting above and was unable to get near their location at the top of the ridge due to the thick column of smoke convecting straight up into the atmosphere…”



  • FC1 suffered second and third degree burns to the head, face, ears, neck, back, arms, hands, legs and feet and has had several surgeries. FC1 remains in critical condition and is under the continued care of UCD Burn Center.
  • FF4 suffered first and second degree burns to the face, head, ears, arms and hands and is under the continued care of UCD Medical Center.
  • FF5 suffered first and second degree burns to the face, head, ears, arms, foot and hands and is under the continued care of UCD Medical Center.
  • FF3 suffered first and second degree burns to the face, head, ears, arms and hands and is under the continued care of UCD Medical Center.

The report lists 13 “Safety issues for review and lessons learned”. Here are the first five:

  • Crews must utilize L.C.E.S [lookouts, communications, escape routes, safety zones] when engaged in firefighting operations.
  • ALL Ten Standard Fire Orders MUST be obeyed at ALL TIMES.
  • Personnel MUST wear ALL CAL FIRE APPROVED PPE when engaged in firefighting operation.
  • Modifying Personal Protective Equipment can alter the protective properties.
  • Practice and prepare for shelter deployment in adverse and extreme conditions.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to John.

The Air Force has one firefighting dozer team

Vandenberg dozer

Senior Airmen Ronald Skala and Thomas Williams, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron heavy equipment operators, with a fire dozer, Sept. 21, 2015, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The fire dozer team is on stand-by during wildfire season and during every launch, prepared to contain fires that start and prevent damage to base assets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kyla Gifford.)

The only firefighting dozer team in the U.S. Air Force is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. The 30th Civil Engineer Squadron heavy equipment operators’ fire dozer team consists of approximately ten Airmen and civilian workers. Their job is to support the firefighters by helping to limit damage and contain the spread of wildfires.

“Because of the sheer size of our equipment we can accomplish a lot within seconds,” said Staff Sgt. Mark Robertson,  a heavy equipment operator. “When we go out to a fire, those who have already responded breathe a sigh of relief because we can accomplish a huge amount of work in a short amount of time.”

When a fire breaks out, the base firefighters are the first to respond. When the fire is too difficult to control, the fire dozer team is called to assist.

“We are supporting the fire department, and will get their call if they need us,” said Raymond Boothe, 30th CES equipment supervisor. “We are not sitting around waiting for a call though — we are constantly working all over base, performing our job as heavy equipment operators.”

“Vandenberg is the only base in the Air Force that has a fire dozer team,” said Robertson. “So this is the only place in our career that we are going to get this kind of experience and training.”

Airmen also receive a Red Card certification, which states the holder has the experience and training necessary to fight wildfires. This certification is utilized by both state and federal fire agencies and is useful for civilian jobs across the nation.

Another significant component of the job is supporting the space mission. The fire dozer team is on stand-by during every launch, prepared to contain fires that start and prevent damage to base assets.

San Diego power company wants customers to pay 90% of wildfire costs

San Diego Gas and Electric wants to raise the rates their customers pay in order to cover the costs the utility incurred after the failure of their power lines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires in 2007. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in southern California, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations. The Witch Creek Fire which started near Santa Ysabel burned 197,990 acres.

SDG&E still owes $421 million resulting from legal settlements that were not covered by their insurance. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that on Friday the company asked for permission to have their customers pay 90 percent, or $379 million, of the remaining costs from the fires. The stockholders would pay $42 million.

In the years since the 2007 fires caused by SDG&E’s powerlines, the company has replaced a small percentage of wooden poles with steel poles, stepped up tree trimming programs near power lines, installed over 100 weather monitoring stations, staged private firefighters in areas with extreme fire danger, made a Type 1 helicopter available to firefighters for two years, and initiated a program to proactively shut off power to areas if they feel wind and weather conditions could cause their lines to fail and ignite fires.

The program of turning off power to prevent fires, has been controversial.

From the Times of San Diego in 2014:

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a fierce critic of SDG&E who represents East County communities, asked the utility to shut off electricity only as a last resort.

“I’m deeply concerned about any shutoffs because they pose risks to property and life in an emergency, especially in areas where firefighters need access to well water,” Jacob said. “I urge the utility to cut power only as a last resort and only if there’s an actual system failure that could ignite a wildfire.”

The Laguna Fire, 45 years ago today

Map 1970 Laguna Fire

Map of the 1970 Laguna Fire. USFS.

At 6:15 a.m. PT on September 26, 1970 the Laguna Fire started on Mt. Laguna east of San Diego near the intersection of Kitchen Creek Road and the Sunrise Highway. By the time it was stopped on Oct. 3 1970 it had burned 175,425 acres, killed eight civilians, and destroyed 382 homes. In the first 24 hours the fire burned 30 miles, from Mount Laguna, California into the outskirts of El Cajon and Spring Valley, devastating the communities of Harbison Canyon and Crest. Previously known as the Kitchen Creek Fire and the Boulder Oaks Fire, it was, at its time, the second largest fire in the history of California.

The Laguna fire started from downed power lines during a Santa Ana wind event. Santa Anas are warm, dry winds that characteristically appear in Southern California during autumn and early winter.  They can be typically caused by a pressure differential between a high in the Great Basin and a low in the eastern sub-tropical Pacific.

Richard Raybould, Fire Control Officer on the Descanso District of the Cleveland National Forest, was the first Fire Boss on the fire. Shortly after it started he was told by the Cleveland National Forest dispatcher that due to other large fires burning in southern California at the time, there were no organized crews available. The 40 to 60 mph winds made the use of firefighting aircraft impossible.

By noon the day it started the fire was divided into three Zones, each with a Fire Boss. Zone Fire Bosses included at various times, Richard Raybould, Howard Evans, Lynn Biddison, and Baldwin (unknown first name). The Zones were overseen by a General Headquarters, or GHQ, headed by Myron Lee, the Forest Fire Control Officer for the Cleveland National Forest.

The Laguna Fire and the others that occurred in southern California in September of 1970 led to the development of the Incident Command System (ICS) which morphed into the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

Laguna fire number of firefighters.

The number of firefighters assigned to the Laguna Fire. This is a hand-made chart on graph paper from the official analysis of the fire in 1970. The numbers do not include overhead and “camp and facilitating” personnel.

The day the Laguna fire started I was a crewmember on the El Cariso Hot Shots, and we were mopping up a brush fire near Corona a couple of hours north of the Laguna Fire.. We heard the radio traffic that morning about the new fire and the reports that it was cranking. It was The Big One. And there we were, stuck doing the dreaded mopup on a fire that was pretty much out. For hours we kept poking around trying to find something hot to put out, as we kept hearing more about the fire on Laguna Mountain that was hauling ass. We wanted to be there.

El Cariso Hot Shots

El Cariso Hot Shots at Lake Henshaw, California in 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Finally, late in the afternoon we were dispatched to it. By the time we got to Pine Valley it was after sunset, and for some reason, I, a first-year hot shot, was in the pickup with Ron Campbell, the Superintendent. The two open-top crew carriers were behind us. As we drove into Pine Valley the hills adjacent to the community to the south and east were alive with the orange flames of the fire. The one radio channel we had on the Cleveland National Forest was completely jam-packed with radio traffic. You could not get a word in edgewise. We knew that this was going to be one that we would remember.

We worked on the fire all that night and then pulled several more shifts before we were transferred to the Boulder 2 fire in Cuyamaca State Park, which was a rekindle from the Boulder fire.

The video below Countdown to Calamity, documents the fire siege in southern California that occurred in late September, 1970, including “the fire destined to dwarf all the others”, the Laguna Fire.

Remains found of a fourth person killed in the Valley Fire

fatality valley fire

This NASA image shows in red the areas detected by a satellite has having burned in the 76,000-acre Valley Fire 62 miles north of San Francisco.

On Tuesday the Lake County Sheriff’s office announced that the body of a fourth person killed in the fire was discovered.