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.

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”.

Five Corsica firefighters entrapped and injured

Above: Two of the fire engines that were entrapped on Corsica. The engine on the left appears to have small water nozzles on the bar that encircles the top of the cab.

During night firefighting operations on the island of Corsica overnight on March 24 and 25 three fire vehicles were entrapped by the fire resulting in five firefighters suffering first and second-degree burns. Some of the firefighters, it is not clear how many, took refuge in one or more of the fire engines that had vehicle protection systems consisting of water nozzles positioned around the truck that could be activated as needed.

Engine protection system

The fire occurred in the French commune of Bastelica in southern Corsica (map). Matthias Fekl, the Minister of the Interior, said Saturday morning:

In the early evening, a group of firefighters found themselves trapped in flames as a result of a change in wind direction. They then took refuge in their vehicles equipped with a self-protection device.

One person is in police custody, suspected of starting the fire.

Three firefighter vehicles were damaged or destroyed in the incident.

damaged fire engines

The fire engine in the above photo appears to be the same one in the photo (on the left) at the top of this article.

Wildland firefighters in Australia have also been using similar engine protection systems for years.

Victoria’s advanced systems for engine crew protection

Above: Country Fire Authority test of engine burnover protection systems. Screen shot from CFA video.

The Aussies are far ahead of wildland firefighting agencies in the United States when it comes to the protection of personnel during fire engine burnovers and rollovers. Since 1977 Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) has been creating, evolving, and improving systems to increase the odds of firefighters on an engine surviving if their position is overrun by fire. These efforts were intensified after two engine burnovers in 1983 and 1998 killed a total of 17 firefighters.

During the last 39 years the vehicles have been hardened in various ways. Examples include internal radiant heat curtains and nozzles positioned around the exterior of the truck that spray water as the fire approaches.

We did a quick search on Wildfire Today for “engine burnover” and were surprised at the number of results. Take a moment and at least look at the titles and brief excerpts. These, of course, are just articles on our website. We make no claim that all engine burnovers are included since we started this website in 2008.

On November 21 the CFA posted a video (below) about their crew protection systems. It covers the history of their efforts and several minutes of video recorded during a test when a fire was ignited that burned over three of their engines to evaluate the effectiveness of the designs. The maximum temperature recorded was 728°C (1,342°F)

Below is a screen shot from the CFA video.

engine burnover protection system
Country Fire Authority test of engine burnover protection systems. Screen shot from the CFA video.

What if — in 2006 the five U.S. Forest Service firefighters that were entrapped and killed on the Esperanza Fire, instead of working on an engine similar to the USFS engine farther down this page, had been assigned to one built to CFA standards. Would they have taken refuge in the engine, pulled down the thermal protection shields and turned on the truck protection water spray instead of attempting to survive the fire outside the engine?

One feature of the CFA engines we noticed was a heavy-duty internal roll bar.

Internal roll bar Country Fire Authority engine
Internal roll bar in a Country Fire Authority engine.

We have written before about the need for U.S. wildland firefighting agencies to improve the survivability of engine crews during rollovers. These accidents involving large fire trucks, especially water tenders, are common.

In our opinion it is disgraceful that the outfits employing thousands of firefighters on engines have not taken this step to provide a safer working environment for their personnel.

The photo below is from one of the 34 articles on Wildfire Today tagged “rollover”.

Engine 492 crash Wyoming
On August 8, 2013 Engine 492 from the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grasslands was involved in a rollover accident on Wyoming State Highway 450 southwest of Newcastle, Wyoming. Three firefighters were injured, one seriously.

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

Report released on entrapment of six firefighters on the Cedar Fire in Arizona

Above: Fire whirl on the Cedar Fire, June 28, 2016, around the time of the entrapment. Screen grab from the video.

A report has been released on the entrapment of six firefighters that occurred on the Cedar Fire south of Show Low, Arizona June 28, 2016.

The firefighters were part of the Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew (NIHC) that remained along with two Type 6 engines and possibly one other crew after the Type 1 Incident Management Team was released the previous day. The assignment of half the crew, nine firefighters, was to “monitor” a part of the southwest side of the fire that had six miles of uncontained fire edge. The other half was working on the southeast side.

Three of the nine personnel on the southwest side served as lookouts while the remaining six were monitoring and checking the fire edge. When a very large fire whirl developed near the six, they realized their escape route was cut off, and took refuge in a previously burned area. The ground fuels had burned, but the canopy was still intact. As the fire approached they deployed their fire shelters, remaining in them for about 30 minutes.

cedar fire entrapment site
The entrapment site at the Cedar Fire.

After the fire whirl subsided, the squad members were able to hike out to staged vehicles. They were transported in three ambulances, medically evaluated, and transported to Summit Hospital in Show Low, Arizona where they were evaluated. Two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and all were released by 10 p.m. that evening.

The report says the personnel deployed and entered the shelters just as they had practiced several times in training, and the devices worked as designed. There were no difficulties, as reported at other entrapments, with the PVC bags becoming soft and difficult to open.

Thankfully there were no serious injuries and the training the firefighters had received paid off.

But there are a number of interesting facts about what occurred before the entrapment

Resources on the fire

On June 27, the day before the entrapment, the Type 1 Incident Management Team issued their final update on the 45,977-acre fire just before they were released later that day. Below is a portion of the document.

cedar fire update

The report claims the Type 1 Team recommended that the number of personnel assigned be reduced on Tuesday June 28 to about 400. But on Monday, June 27 all firefighters except for two Type 6 engines were released. With a 70 percent chance of rain in the weather forecast, on Tuesday the local agency decided to replace the Type 1 Team with a Type 4 Incident Commander, two Type 6 engines, and one or two hand crews. The crew(s) had to be re-mobilized on Tuesday after being released. Some aircraft were also assigned on Tuesday.

Video of the large fire whirl

Weather on Tuesday, the day of entrapment

About 20 minutes before the 2:45 p.m. entrapment the weather at the fire was 95 degrees, 21 percent relative humidity, with a 7 to 10 mph wind out of the south. Although “numerous” people observed dust devils and fire whirls before the large fire whirl formed, there was no discussion about modifying fire suppression tactics. Dust devils can be an indicator of the potential for extreme fire behavior.

cedar fire entrapment
Fire whirl on the Cedar Fire, June 28, 2016. Screen grab from the video.

A few more details released about fire shelter deployment on the Cedar Fire

On Sunday the Bureau of Indian Affairs released a “72-hour report” that contains a few more details about the entrapment of six firefighters and deployment of their fire shelters on the Cedar Fire south of Show Low, Arizona.

The new information includes mentions of a large fire whirl and three lookouts that were posted.

Below is the press release version of the 72-hour report. The formal memo-style document is HERE. They contain approximately the same information.

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“On June 28, a large fire whirl formed near six members of the Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC), entrapping them. In response to the intense heat, flying ash and woody debris, the firefighters deployed their fire shelters.

Throughout the 15 minute event, the crew maintained radio communication with each other and agency personnel. Aviation and safety resources were immediately dispatched to assist the crew.

After the fire whirl passed, the IHC walked out of the fire area and were transported to Summit Healthcare in Show Low, Arizona. Two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and all six firefighters were released from the hospital that evening. After the crew was released, a Critical Incident Stress Management Team was made available to the crew.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs initiated an Interageny Serious Accident Investigation (SAI) that evening. On June 30, the SAI Team members, led by Clark Richins, Team Leader, Bureau of Indian Affairs, reported to Western Region, Fort Apache Agency. Members of the SAI Team include: Chief Investigator, Safety Officer, Personal Protective Equipment Specialist, Long Term Fire Analyst, Hotshot Crew Representative, Public Information Officer, Writer/ Editor, and Regional and National Agency Liaisons.

The investigation will collect evidence, which includes conducting personnel interviews, inspecting equipment and analyzing photographs, weather and voice data. On June 30, the SAI Team completed their interviews of the IHC, which allowed the crew to return home.

According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Terminology Glossary, a fire whirl is a spinning vortex column of ascending hot air and gases rising from a fire and carrying aloft smoke, debris, and flame. Fire whirls may range in size from less than one foot to over 500 feet in diameter and have the intensity of a small tornado.

Prior to the event, the crew was working along the western flank of the uncontained fireline where they had previously been assigned for several days. At 12:00p.m three nearby lookouts observed low intensity surface fire, but by 2:00p.m., as the day got warmer, the fire behavior increased. These lookouts and an additional firefighter scouting the fireline witnessed the large fire whirl.

While managing wildland fires is inherently dangerous, all firefighters are trained to minimize the risk they take on every assignment. In the rare circumstance firefighters are faced with an impending entrapment, they are trained to consider all options to insure the safety of all crew members. This includes deploying fire shelters for protection from smoke, heat, and embers. The Navajo Interageny Hotshot Crew executed their training, which resulted in a successful outcome to a hazardous wildfire anomaly.

As a highly reliable organization, the wildland fire community strives to learn and transfer lessons learned on a continual basis. In the spirit of this culture, the BIA Western Region will provide the Factual Report to the Lessons Learned Center when the Report is finalized.”

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Thanks and a tip of the hat goes out to Jonah.

Update on the condition of the firefighters who deployed fire shelters on the Cedar Fire

(UPDATED at 12:52 p.m. MDT June 30, 2016)

Today the BIA released a “24 Hour Report” about the fire shelter deployment on the Cedar Fire. It provided a few facts that were not previously disclosed by the agency.

The six firefighters deployed their shelters in an area that had already burned, and they were evaluated in the hospital for “smoke inhalation”.

The Serious Accident Investigation Team will be led by Jon Rollins, Chief Investigator for the National Park Service.

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(Originally published at 9:52 p.m. MDT, June 29, 2016)

The Bureau of Indian Affairs provided more information today about the six firefighters on the Cedar Fire south of Show Low, Arizona who on June 28 found themselves in a situation where they had to deploy fire shelters. The firefighters, all from the Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew, walked away from the site and were transported to Summit Healthcare in Show Low where they were treated and released that evening.

A Serious Accident Investigation Team has been formed and will investigate the circumstances surrounding the deployment.

We don’t know why or how the incident occurred, but if recent history holds true, we may never know, thanks to the unintended consequences of Senator Maria Cantwell’s and Representative Doc Hastings’ hastily conceived Public Law 107-203 signed into law in 2002.

But putting aside the unknown details of fire behavior, decisions made on the fireline, and the strategy and tactics being used on the Cedar Fire yesterday, there a few things that we do know.

  • The Type 1 Incident Management Team issued an update titled “Final Cedar Fire Update” on Monday, June 27. It said in part, “While 554 firefighters are working on the fire [Monday] morning, only the Team itself will remain by Tuesday afternoon. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will assume command of the fire at 6 A.M. Tuesday.” That Monday update said the fire received rainfall on Sunday and more rain was expected on Monday.
  • The Type 1 Team turned the fire over to the Fort Apache Agency at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, June 28. There was no mention of a Type 2 or Type 3 Incident Management Team.
  • The Fort Apache Agency posted a fire update on Facebook at 1:05 p.m. on Tuesday, June 28 saying the resources on the fire that day were, “Navajo Hotshots, 3 Type 6 Engines, Fort Apache Fuels Type 2 IA Crew.” And, “Fire Personnel will continue to hold and mop up the fire.” These two crews and three engines probably amounted to a maximum of 50 people, plus miscellaneous overhead. This was down from 554 the previous day, a 91 percent reduction in personnel overnight.
  • Candy Lupe, a Public Information Officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Fort Apache Agency, told Wildfire Today that she was not sure exactly when the incident occurred but estimated it happened around 3 p.m. Arizona time on Tuesday, June 28.
  • The infrared scan of the fire conducted very early Monday morning, June 27, showed “scattered” and “isolated” heat over much of the fire. There was no record of an infrared scan prior to the day shift on Tuesday June 28, but they had been completed every day from June 17 through June 27.

We’re not pointing fingers or attempting to lay blame on anyone. Hopefully the investigation will bring to light some lessons that can be learned.

Carl WilsonThe incident brings to mind the Common Denominators of Fatal and Near-Fatal Fires, developed by Carl Wilson in 1976. Mr. Wilson put two lists together, a four-item list based on his studies of 61 fatal fires, and a five-item list that included an additional 31 near-fatal fires. More information about these lists is in our February 1, 2016 article, Are there 4 or 5 common denominators of fire behavior on fatal fires? Almost all recent wildland fire publications, if they publish the list, only have the four-item list.

These lists are not intended as a quick and easy checklist for investigators, nor are they rules or guidelines that must be followed. They are simply interesting commonalities seen on many fatal and near-fatal fires. Things to think about, not rules that must be adhered to.

Here is the five-item list that includes data from fatal and near-fatal fires:

  1. Most of the incidents occurred on relatively small fires or isolated sectors of larger fires.
  2. Most of the fires were innocent in appearance prior to the “flare-ups” or “blow-ups”. In some cases, the fatalities occurred in the mop-up stage.
  3. Flare-ups occurred in deceptively light fuels.
  4. Fires ran uphill in chimneys, gullies, or on steep slopes.
  5. Suppression tools, such as helicopters or air tankers, can adversely modify fire behavior. (Helicopter and air tanker vortices have been known to cause flare-ups.)”