Firefighter killed after being struck by tree limb

Rodney Collett
Photo courtesy of Red Bird VF&R

We regret to pass along the news that a firefighter in Kentucky has been killed while fighting a wildland fire. Rodney Collett served on two departments, the Bell County Volunteer Fire Department in Pineville, Kentucky and the Redbird Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department in Manchester, Kentucky.

On October 29th Firefighter Collett was working with Red Bird VF&R on a wildfire in Clay County when a tree limb fell striking the fire apparatus and Firefighter Collett causing him to suffer head and arm injuries. He was airlifted to Pikeville Medical Center for treatment. Tragically, Firefighter Collett succumbed to his injuries Thursday evening, November 17.

Firefighter Collett was 44 years and is survived by his parents — Ted and Shirley, and his sister — Connie. Funeral arrangements are pending and will be posted on SupportingHeroes.org.

Between 1990 and 2014 18 firefighters were killed by hazardous trees.

Our sincere condolences go out to Firefighter Collett’s family, friends, and co-workers.

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

Entrapments is the fourth leading cause of wildland firefighter fatalities

For the last several days we have been writing about fatalities on wildland fires —  the annual numbers and trends going back to 1910 and some thoughts about how to reduce the number of entrapments (also known as burnovers). Often when we think about these accidents, what automatically comes to mind are the entrapments. When multiple firefighters are killed at the same time it can be etched into our memory banks to a greater extent than when one person is killed in a vehicle rollover or is hit by a falling tree. Much of the nation mourned when 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun and killed by the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013. A fatal heart attack on a fire does not receive nearly as much attention.

When we discuss ways to decrease deaths on fires, for some of us our first thoughts are how to prevent entrapments, myself included. One reason is that it can seem they are preventable. Someone made a decision to be in a certain location at a specific time, and it’s easy to think that if only a different decision had been made those people would still be alive. Of course it is not that simple. Perfect 20/20 hindsight is tempting for the Monday Morning Incident Commander. Who knows — if they had been there with access to the same information they may have made the same series of decisions.

An analysis of the data provided by NIFC for the 440 fatalities from 1990 through 2014 shows that entrapments are the fourth leading cause of fatalities. The top four categories which account for 88 percent are, in decreasing order, medical issues, aircraft accidents, vehicle accidents, and entrapments. The numbers for those four are remarkably similar, ranging from 23 to 21 percent of the total. Number five is hazardous trees at 4 percent followed by the Work Capacity Test, heat illness, and electrocution, all at around 1 percent. A bunch of miscellaneous causes adds up to 4 percent.

NIFC’s data used to separate air tanker crashes from accidents involving other types of aircraft such as lead planes and helicopters. But in recent years they began lumping them all into an “aircraft accident” category, so it is no longer possible to study them separately. This is unfortunate, since the missions are completely different and involve very dissimilar personnel, conflating firefighters who are passengers in the same category as air tankers having one- to seven-person crews — from Single Engine Air Tankers to military MAFFS air tankers.

The bottom line, at least for this quick look at the numbers, is that in addition to trying to mitigate the number of entrapments, we should be spending at least as much time and effort to reduce the numbers of wildland firefighters who die from medical issues and accidents in vehicles and aircraft.

Hotshot seriously injured on Freezeout Ridge Fire

Freezeout Ridge Fire
Freezeout Ridge Fire, September 15, 2014. InciWeb photo.

KTVZ is reporting that a 51-year old member of the Winema Interagency Hotshot Crew was seriously injured by a falling snag while working on the 3,558-acre Freezeout Ridge Fire in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in western Idaho.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…Richard (Wally) Ochoa Jr., 51, a member of the Winema Interagency Hotshot Crew, suffered a fractured skull, two broken arms, a broken jaw, a broken thumb and numerous cuts when he was struck by a snag while brushing fire line on the Freezeout Ridge Fire.

Fortunately, “no significant spine injury occurred,” the Monday evening announcement stated.

Winema IHC crew members and other nearby fire personnel began immediate first aid while others worked to clear an area for a helicopter to take Ochoa to a hospital in Boise. Officials said he was in stable condition in the intensive care unit late Monday, with family and several crew members on hand.

John Kidd, incident commander for the Freezeout Ridge Fire, credited those on scene for their swift actions and reliance on emergency response training and medical evacuation protocols.

“I, along with the members of my staff, am grateful for those who assisted Mr. Ochoa by providing timely and appropriate care,” Kidd said.”The coordination and professional actions of our firefighters, both on the ground and flying overhead, very likely reduced the potential magnitude of his injuries.”

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Steve.

Dangers from above

Black Forest Fire
Black Forest Fire, Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 15, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of the most dangerous things wildland firefighters do is simply being under trees. Frequently firefighters are injured or killed after being hit by limbs or entire trees that fall. And it is not just fallers cutting down trees that are exposed to the hazards. Just last week a visitor in Yellowstone National Park was killed by a falling tree that had been a standing, dead lodgepole pine, fire-killed 26 years earlier during the park’s 1988 fires.

When I was a chain saw operator and faller on the El Cariso Hot Shots, three limbs, all about four feet long and four inches in diameter, fell out of a 36-inch diameter snag I was falling. One hit me square on the top of my aluminum hard hat, putting a sizable dent in it as I was making the final cut. I was stunned for a couple of seconds, but after I collected myself I realized that the swamper had been hit on his back by two of the limbs as he was bent over. It turned out to be a serious injury that affected him for a long time. We were lucky that the limbs were not any larger; it could have been a lot worse.

Just to illustrate the point of the danger faced by firefighters from trees, burning or not, here are some accidents we found with a quick search on Wildfire Today. This is just a partial list.

The U.S. Forest Service has produced a very good video titled “When a Tree Falls: Working Around Danger Trees”.

Serious accidents and fatalities on wildland fires in 2012

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Risk Management Committee compiled a list of the fatalities, entrapments, burn-overs and other life-threatening accidents and injuries associated with wildfires in the United States in calendar year 2012.

The report includes 15 fatalities:

  • Driving: 2
  • Entrapment/Burnover: (none)
  • Medical Emergencies: 6
  • Hazard Tree/Snag: 1
  • Aviation: 6

HERE is a link to the complete report.

(Note: the statistics above were updated with more current data provided by the NWCG.)

One firefighter killed, another injured in Oregon

One firefighter has died and another was injured by a falling snag in the Deschutes National Forest near Sisters, Oregon on Thursday, August 1. The incident occurred on a new lightning-caused fire, named 398, north of Highway 242 near Dugout Lake. The two firefighters were contract personnel working as a tree falling team employed by R&K Water Services out of Bonney Lake, Washington. The names have not been released. The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department is in charge of the accident..

The incident was reported at 9:13 a.m. Thursday, according to Jean Nelson-Dean, a spokesperson for the Deschutes National Forest.

A rappel crew responded in a helicopter to the accident and called for an ambulance. One of the firefighters died at the scene. The other was taken to St. Charles Medical Center in Bend. A water-dropping helicopter wet down the area to make it safer for other firefighters to assist with the incident.

An early morning lightning storm started dozens of wildfires in the Cascade Range of Oregon on Thursday.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families and coworkers of these firefighters.