Arsonist targets cypress trees in Los Angeles

SYLMAR, CALIFORNIA – Investigators from the Los Angeles Fire Department are seeking the public’s help in identifying the person responsible for igniting at least a dozen fires in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

The intentionally set blazes – involving Italian Cypress trees, took place in Sylmar, California between November 4, 2012 and February 18, 2013 as seen on an interactive map.

Report released on engine accident in northern California

Berry Point Fire engine accident
Berry Point Fire engine accident. Photo from the report.

A Facilitated Learning Analysis has been released for a non-injury accident that occurred in northern California, August 11, 2012. An engine from the Klamath National Forest ended up partially off of a dirt road after a soft shoulder gave way under the rear tires.

Berry Point Fire engine accident
Berry Point Fire engine accident. Photo from the report.

No one was injured and the engine only had very minor damage. Here is an excerpt from the report, picking up after the engine stabilized:

…The captain assessed the scene for safety and ordered the crew to exit the vehicle with most of the crew leaving the vehicle on the uphill side. I then dumped the water out of my tank to prevent possibility of continued rollover due to the soft pack. After the certified mechanic and I did a damage assessment investigation, we found the only damage was the petcock on the bottom of the pump was broken off. We had spares on board since this may happen occasionally on backwoods roads.

Report released for engine burnovers and entrapment on North Pass Fire

E-2 after the burnover
E-2 after the burnover. Photo from the report.

A Facilitated Learning Analysis has been released for the engine burnovers and entrapments that occurred on the North Pass Fire on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California, August 25, 2012.

You can read the entire report (large 3.8MB file), but here is a very brief summary. On August 18,2012, five Type 3 Engines from municipal fire departments in southern California were working as a Type 3 Engine Strike Team with the assignment that day of securing a dozer line. Due to dense vegetation along the dozer line, and a lack of information about their situation, they were surprised when a spot fire caused by a burning tree resulted in a fire that overran their position.

E-2 at the burnover site, before the incident and before turning around
E-2 at the burnover site, before the accident and before turning around. Photo from the report.

The crew from E-2 dismounted to assist with the spot fire, leaving the engine operator to button it up, disconnect hoses, and move it to assist with the spot fire at another location along the dozer line. The fire approached the engine before the operator was able to relocate the engine. He decided to run down the dozer line to escape, telling a hand crew after he reached safety, “F*** my engine burned up…. F*** my engine burned up!” Hand-crew members responded, “It’s fine, it’s fine. You’re alive so it’s fine.”

A second engine was also burned over, according to the report:

At the same time fire is engulfing E-2, E-5 finds their egress cut off by the flames now lying over the dozer line. E-5 was then forced to withdraw to a safe area. Capt. E-5 notifies ST-1C STEN they are remaining at their current location and requests permission to fire out the area around them. ST-1C STEN tells them, “Do what you need to do.” The crew of E-5 pre-treats the area around them using Class A foam, depleting their water supply. E-5 then deploys thermal curtains, and they seek shelter in the apparatus as the fire burns around them.

After the burnovers the strike team was sent to a USFS work station. The Strike Team Leader reported to a Ground Support Unit Leader who escorted them to the Incident Base. After receiving medical evaluations, all personnel were cleared by the Medical Unit and received no injuries.

Below are excerpts from the lessons learned, as shared by the facilitated learning analysis participants:

  • “Try to think more three-dimensionally. I really didn’t see/perceive the layout of the road, the green, or the fire. It would of helped to realize the danger there.”
  • “Maybe a picture from the air.”
  • ”I wish I’d known I had a qualified faller. Don’t know that I would of used them.” [to cut down the tree throwing out burning embers that caused the spot fire.]
  • “Had I perceived the danger, I wish I’d thought twice about the assignment for E-2.”
  • “I will definitely request more 800 MHz radios.”
  • From the Division Supervisor: “It would have been more appropriate to recognize that their (ST-1C) specialties were in other areas of firefighting and take the time to give them a more thorough briefing on the assignment rather than handing them off to be briefed by ST-2C STEN.”
  • “Walking through it afterward, E-2 was in perfect alignment with the draw, but of course you couldn’t see with all of the vegetation.”
  • From Capt. E-1: “Should of used a faller to drop the problem tree in the first place. Use the professionals.”
  • And from the same Capt: “There are all these other resources that we don’t normally deal with, like fallers, inmate crews and dozers. We had resources we could have used, but I just didn’t have the experience to think to ask for them.”

Excerpts of observations from the FLA team members:

  • The participants believe the division was large and complex. Geographically the division stretched over 5 to 7 miles of line.
  • The participants felt complexity and scope of the division complicated communications over the assigned tactical channel. Early on in the shift it was identified that communications were difficult. To mitigate it, ST-1C began using their 800 MHz for intra-crew communications. One difficulty was that not everyone had both radios. Some had the 800 MHz, and some had a VHF radio, but not everyone had both. Every member should have the same type of communication capability.
  • FLA team members and participants acknowledged that utilizing an unassigned tactical frequency on an incident is against several policies & guidelines.

12 Questions for Dave Kohut

Today we have the 11th article of our series in which we ask current and retired leaders in the wildland fire service to answer 12 questions.

We appreciate everyone who is cooperating with this project. Some of their responses may add to the knowledge base of our new firefighters coming up through the ranks. If you would like to nominate someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Below we hear from Dave Kohut. Before he retired as the Fire Chief (Forest Fire Management Officer) on the Sierra National Forest in California he was the District Ranger on the Saugus Ranger District on the Angeles National Forest. From 1994 to 1998 he was the Type 1 Incident Commander on California Interagency Incident Management Team 2.


When you think of an excellent leader in the fire service, who comes to mind first? Why?
This is a tough one! Had a few district rangers (Bill Murphy, Art Carroll and Fred Alberico) I worked for that set up good training plans for me and strongly encouraged to be active in “Fire Control”. The first “fire boss” that comes to mind is Lynn Biddison. He was fire boss on the Sundance Fire in 1967 and I was a Cat Boss. He took an interest in my assignment and personally assisted me in assuring the local forest folks that “2 Californians with 5 dozers were not going to bull-doze the mountains down”. Lynn continued this personal interest throughout his career.

Dave KohutWhat is one piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment as an Incident Commander?
“Remember, your ears and eyes don’t work well if your mouth is always moving”

If someone is planning a prescribed fire, what is one thing that you hope they will pay particular attention to?
Base all the actions on current and expected fire behavior (which is, Know Your Weather, current and predicted!)

One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
Forgetting the basic fundamentals of fire and then making the situation too complicated sometimes with a demand for too much analysis and information.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
How rewarding working in fire and emergency management can be and the thousands of friends I have from that career.

The stupidest mistake you have seen on a fire?
A night shift where one crew was cutting line down a ridge and another crew cutting up the ridge from the bottom planning on meeting. However, they were on different ridges!

Your most memorable fire?
I think I learned and had memories from every fire I was on. Some were awesome such as Black Monday in Yellowstone; some were inspiring such as a quiet smoky spectacular mountain top sunrise on the Hog Fire on the Klamath; and some were heart-wrenching tragedy such as the Elizabeth Fire on the Angeles.

The funniest thing you have seen on a fire?
On a fire on the Tahoe N. F., we had Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt spend two days with the Tahoe Hotshots. The crew sleeping area was on the football field of the local high school. Logistics forgot to get the school to shut off the sprinklers. So about 0200, the crew and the Sec’t were seen running in their skivvies from the “man-made” rainstorm.

The first very large fire you were on?
Fire on the Angeles N.F. in 1962

Your favorite book about fire or firefighting?
The old Fireman’s Guide.

The first job you had within the fire service?
Crewman on “Tanker 22” Mammoth Lakes, Inyo N.F.

What gadgets, electronic or otherwise, can’t you live without?
Hell, I failed “smart phone”. Still trying to master the TI-59 and the Planning Wheel!


Cop killer suspected to be in burning structure in San Bernardino NF

Christopher Dorner, possibly in structure fire
Burning structure in San Bernardino National Forest, possible location of Christopher Dorner

Unless you have been vacationing on the planet Uranus for the last week, you have heard about the massive manhunt for the suspected cop killer, Christopher Dorner in southern California. This afternoon after a car chase and a gunfight, in which two sheriff’s deputies were shot and one killed, he was suspected of hiding out in the cabin in the image above, a screen shot from ABC in Los Angeles. Dozens if not hundreds of rounds were fired to and from the cabin, and after a few hours the structure caught fire, possibly from the use of tear gas canisters.

The cabin is in the San Bernardino National Forest in the Angelus Oaks area in southern California. After the fire erupted, live TV showed fire engines, including at least one U.S. Forest Service vehicle, driving up the highway to that location. We think, but have not yet confirmed, that this link to a Google Map is the location of the structure fire.

The area around the burning structure is mostly, but not totally, covered with snow, so confining the fire to the area should not be difficult, even though it was a while before firefighters were allowed into the area.

Former employees of Carson Helicopters indicted over fatal Iron 44 Fire crash

Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson
Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson

Two former employees of Carson Helicopters are facing 20 years or more in prison for charges related to the crash of a helicopter August 5, 2008 that killed nine people (seven firefighters and two crew members) as it attempted to take off from a remote helispot on the Iron Complex or Iron 44 Fire in northern California.

Last week a federal grand jury in Medford, Oregon indicted Steven Metheny, 42, former Vice President of Carson, and Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of the company, for charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States which could earn them up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Metheny was also indicted in 22 other counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight, and theft from an interstate shipment. In addition to the 20 years for conspiracy to defraud charges, he could get a maximum sentence of 20 years for every mail and wire fraud count, 20 years for each endangering the safety of aircraft in flight count, 10 years for the interstate theft count, and up to five years for each false statement count.

According to the findings of  the National Transportation Safety Board in 2010, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the USFS when bidding on $20 million in firefighting contracts for seven helicopters. As a result, when the helicopter attempted to take off from the helispot on the Iron 44 Fire with firefighters and a flight crew of three, it was over the allowable weight even before the firefighters boarded the ship. The helicopter crashed into some trees and caught fire, just after lifting off.

Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; USFS check pilot Jim Ramage, 63; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The copilot and three other firefighters were seriously injured.

In March of 2012, a jury ordered the manufacturer of the helicopter’s engines, General Electric, to pay $69.7 million to William Coultas (the surviving pilot), his wife, and the estate of Roark Schwanenberg (the pilot who was killed).

After the crash, between September 26 and October 3, 2008, the USFS suspended the contract for some of Carson’s helicopters. On February 18, 2009, the USFS canceled their contract (copy of the contract) with Carson (copy of the termination letter) based on inaccurate claimed weights of the helicopters. The company then surrendered their FAA Certificate which is equivalent to an operating license. After that they received a contract for seven S-61s to fly for the military in Afghanistan as a subcontractor for the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide, which was renamed “Xe”. In February 2010, Sikorsky announced a joint venture with Carson to supply up to 110 modernized S-61T helicopters to the U.S. government, primarily for the State Department.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Oregon is working with the Offices of Inspector General for both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, and the FBI and the IRS in Medford, Oregon in the investigation and prosecution of this case.

Thanks go out to Joseph and Kelly.