Fire crew extracted with minutes to spare

They had to leave behind a helicopter bucket, chainsaw, pump, and a flight helmet which were all consumed by the fire.

Above: The Tok River Fire as the helicopter landed. The helicopter is in the brown grassy area near the bottom of the photo.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a report they call a “Rapid Lesson Sharing” about a close call that happened in Alaska late in the afternoon on July 14, 2016.

The report does not clearly, unequivocally, and in detail describe how and why the wind changed and affected the direction of spread, but there are two clues. The “Event Type” is “Thunderstorm Influence on IA [initial attack]”. And, the “Lessons” section has tips about attacking a fire when thunderstorms are in the area.

In this incident, a helicopter ferried an Incident Commander and three firefighters to a new fire. As they approached and made several orbits over the new start to size it up they noticed a thunderstorm in the general area. The fire was 10 to 15 acres and burning in black spruce with 50 to 75-foot flames at the head. The pilot and the helicopter manager on board selected a “tussock” (a grassy area) as a landing zone.

Below is an excerpt from the report, which you can read in full here.

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“….The decision was made to land the helicopter, unload firefighters and equipment, and prepare the helicopter to begin making bucket drops. With the wind blowing out of the southeast, a tussock near the heel of the fire to the north and east was selected as a Landing Zone.

Tussock Believed to be a Good LZ Location

The Helicopter Manager and Pilot both felt that the tussock was a good location because it was close to the heel of the fire and the proximity of water sources. In addition, the IC felt that the tussock was in a good location and of sufficient size that it could be burned-out to create a safety zone in a worst case scenario.

When the bucket was attached, the helicopter left to begin making water drops on the heel of the fire. The IC began walking across the tussock toward the heel to size-up the fire from the ground and make a plan for containment. As he negotiated the uneven ground of the tussock, travel was slow and difficult. The IC had only gone about 200 feet when he began to feel the heat from the fire. He looked up to see the smoke column rotating and moving in the direction of the tussock area where crew had landed.

The winds had shifted approximately 90 degrees. Now the heel of the fire, which moments before had been burning with low intensity, began actively burning— heading toward the IC and his crew.

The helicopter Pilot had just filled his second bucket. He quickly dropped the water when he noticed the wind shift and flew back to the landing zone.

The IC turned around and headed back toward the Landing Zone. He got about half way back when the helicopter returned to the Landing Zone and turned on the siren to alert the fire crew.

Decision Made to Leave Their Gear and Board the Helicopter

The crew disconnected the bucket and began loading gear back on the helicopter. When the crew began packing the bucket, the Pilot told them to leave it and get on the helicopter.

The smoke column was leaning over the tussock and the pilot was concerned that if the column dropped too close on the ground, he would not have enough visibility to lift off.

The fire crew did not believe that they were in imminent danger and that they had plenty of time to load the rest of the gear before they would be affected by the flaming front. However, there was concern that if they lost visibility they would be stuck in the landing zone.

The decision was made to leave the rest of the gear and get in the Helicopter. After taking off, the helicopter made several revolutions around the area hoping to be able to land again and retrieve their gear. The fire continued burning in the direction of the Landing Zone, growing from approximately 16 acres at 1730 to an estimated 100 acres at 1810. The helicopter bucket, a chainsaw, a pump, and a flight helmet were all eventually consumed by the approaching fire…”

Lessons, Tok River Fire
From the report.

Large helibase sets up in Colville, WA

A group of horses pay no attention to a firing operation going on behind them on Division X of the Okanogan Complex August 25, 2015. Firefighters were using drip torches and incendiary devices (sausages) shot from a verry pistol to burn out the hillside to the west of Spring Coulee Road in Okanogan, WA connecting areas to the north and south that had previously burned to protect homes in the area.
A group of horses pay no attention to a firing operation going on behind them on Division X of the Okanogan Complex August 25, 2015. Firefighters were using drip torches and incendiary devices (sausages) shot from a verry pistol to burn out the hillside to the west of Spring Coulee Road in Okanogan, WA connecting areas to the north and south that had previously burned to protect homes in the area.

Tom Story, who is in Washington documenting some of the wildfire activity, spent time on Monday at the Hopps Helibase near Colville, WA. While in Washington, Tom also spent time with 200 U.S. Army soldiers who were training to assist in the firefighting effort. 

Here is his dispatch from the Hopps Helibase on Aug. 25, 2015.

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Walker’s Area Command, based in Colville, WA, in August of the 2015 fire season, has setup a large helibase on farmland south of town. The property is owned by the Hopps family, thus giving the base it’s name. The facility allows both civilian contract helicopters a base and a location for military ships to stage until needed on the numerous fires in the area.

At Hopps this morning; August 25th, were a pair of Bell 205 A1++, two AStar A350s, one Bell 206 L4 as well as one of Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertols joined by a couple of Blackhawks and a Chinook flying in from their overnight base at Fairchild A.F.B outside of Spokane.

The Federal Aviation Administration is operating a temporary tower at the helibase since up to 20 helicopters are anticipated to be using the base as the fire season continues in northeast Washington.

With the FAA control tower in the background and a Bell 205 A1 ++ in the foreground, a Bell 206 L4 carrying members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, take off for a mission on the Carpenter Road Fire.
With the FAA control tower in the background and a Bell 205 A1 ++ in the foreground, a Bell 206 L4 carrying members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, take off for a mission on the Carpenter Road Fire.
Members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest prepare for a mission to the Carpenter Road Fire near Colville, WA August 25, 2015.
Members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest prepare for a mission to the Carpenter Road Fire near Colville, WA August 25, 2015.
With the FAA control tower in the background, crews prepare helicopters at the Hopps Helibase for the day's missions on large fires around Colville, WA.
With the FAA control tower in the background, crews prepare helicopters at the Hopps Helibase for the day’s missions on large fires around Colville, WA.
An Army Chinook lumbers overhead on final approach for a landing at the Hopps Helibase over a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol.
An Army Chinook lumbers overhead on final approach for a landing at the Hopps Helibase over a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol.

Two killed when helicopter crashes on prescribed fire in Mississippi

Two people were killed and one was injured March 30 when a helicopter crashed while working on a prescribed fire on the Desoto National Forest in southern Mississippi.

More information is at Fire Aviation.

Aerial firefighting on the Black Forest Fire

Blackhawk
Blackhawk, June 12, 2013, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet

The military has been supplying numerous photos and some videos of their firefighting activities on the Black Forest Fire. Helicopters from the Colorado National Guard and Fort Carson as well as C-130 MAFFS air tankers are assisting firefighters on the ground. Here are seven photos of aircraft taken on June 12 by military personnel. The DC-10 is not military, but is working under a contract with the U. S. Forest Service.

Blackhawk dipping
Blackhawk dipping, June 12, 2013, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet
Blackhawk, dipping up to 500 gallons
Blackhawk, dipping up to 500 gallons, June 12, 2013,, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet

Continue reading “Aerial firefighting on the Black Forest Fire”

Extracting an injured firefighter – in 2 hours and 15 minutes

Las Conchas Fire extractionThe Wildfire Lessons Learned Center has released a video documenting the extraction of an injured firefighter from the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in northern New Mexico. Kenny Lovell of the Craig Interagency Hotshots is interviewed in the video and tells his story of being seriously injured, treated, and transported after being hit by a rolling rock. He suffered a broken pelvis, a broken fibula, and a large hematoma.

The title of the video, ROCK! Firefighter Extraction Success Story, describes the incident as a success. It was, in the sense that the Hotshot crew had access to equipment which was transported to the accident scene to treat and package the victim, there were several EMTs on the crew, the Hotshots had drilled for similar incidents, a helicopter with short haul capability was available, and 5 months later Mr. Lovell returned to work on the Hotshot crew. All that is great and the Hotshots and the helitack crew deserve praise for accomplishing what they did with the resources that were available..

Having said that, it is still troubling that 2 hours and 15 minutes elapsed before Mr. Lovell departed the accident scene in a helicopter, and 30 minutes later he arrived at a hospital. On the Deer Park fire in 2010 a firefighter with a broken femur was on the ground for 4 hours and 23 minutes before he was transported in a helicopter. And firefighter Andrew Palmer, who bled to death from a broken femur suffered on a fire in 2008, spent 2 hours and 51 minutes at the accident scene before he was extracted via hoist on a Coast Guard helicopter.

Agencies who place firefighters in remote areas should realize they have the ethical responsibility to supply the training, equipment, and aviation resources to at least begin transporting by air a seriously injured firefighter within an hour. I am surprised that OSHA has not cited the federal agencies for this. Of course getting injured firefighters to an appropriate hospital within the Golden Hour would be ideal, but depending on the distance involved that could be difficult. A helicopter with short haul capability can be helpful, but it is not the quickest or most efficient method for extracting an injured person. It involves several steps, especially, like in this case, when the helicopter responds to the scene without being fully configured for short haul.

Several agencies have helicopters with hoists which can quickly extract and then transport injured personnel from remote locations, including CAL FIRE, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the Coast Guard. If the other federal and state agencies decided to take that step, it would not have to be a trial program with one helicopter like the U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter effort this year, because other agencies have been using hoists (and night vision goggles) for decades,

“The organization is ethically and morally obligated to put an EMS program in place that is supported by the organization, and given the standardized training and equipment to make the program succeed.”

The above is from the 2010 facilitated learning analysis for the Deer Park Fire extraction, quoting a Senior Firefighter/Paramedic on the Sawtooth Helitack Crew.

 

Thanks go out to Brit

A mother’s reaction to the criminal charges against the former Carson Helicopters employees

The mother of one of the firefighters killed in the crash of the Carson-owned helicopter has been following very closely the NTSB and criminal investigations into the crash that killed her son, Scott Charlson, six other firefighters, and two air crew members. Both investigations agreed that Carson Helicopters intentionally falsified documents about the performance of their helicopters which led the U.S. Forest Service and the flight crew to erroneously believe the Sikorsky S-61N could carry the load of firefighters when it attempted to lift off from a helispot on the Iron 44 Fire in northern California in 2008. The helicopter crashed and burned as it struggled to become airborne, killing nine people.

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

Below is the reaction of Scott’s mother, Nina Charlson, to the indictments:

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“I am very thankful the criminal investigation was pursued. While it does not bring our loved ones back or change the heartache and emotional torture surviving firefighters and families have had to endure the past 4 ½ years it does confirm some of the things we have been told since the crash.

Besides the sentences the Federal Government will hand out I would like for these two men, Steve Methany and Levi Phillips to sit before the family and friends (one family at a time) of Shawn Blazer, Scott Charlson, Matt Hammer, David Steele, Caleb Renno, Edrick Gomez, Bryan Rich, Roark Schwanenberg and Jim Ramage and hear how their lives have changed since 7:45 p.m. August 5, 2008. I would like for them to sit before Bill Coultas, Mike Brown, Jon Frohreich and Rick Schroeder and their families and hear how their lives changed that night. I would like them to sit before the firefighters that were on the mountain at the time of the crash and listen how their lives changed that night. I would like for them to sit before Grayback Forestry, US Forest Service, Cal-Fire and the entire firefighter brotherhood and hear what they have to say about that fateful night.

We were told this crash was preventable and predictable on many levels and sadly we have found that to be true. Initially when I was told about the crash – foul play was not what came to my mind. Accidents happen. But this was no accident and it complicates the grief we are experiencing.

Nothing that takes place in the future can bring our loved ones back to us or stop the emotional torment that is present in so many minds at this very moment because of the criminal acts these two men committed over and over again – even after the crash. No remorse – it was all about them, their greed and their life.

Several families of the fallen firefighters have determined to take as many steps as necessary to send a message to anyone in the future who may be driven by greed or glory. We will remind them of the bottom line – Our sons, fathers and husbands lives. We will do whatever it takes to help protect lives and families in the future. In Dec. of 2011 several families of the fallen traveled back to Washington DC to attend a Public Aircraft Forum hosted by the NTSB. There were very powerful worldwide leaders in the Public Aircraft world that were present. We were thanked by many of them for being there because we gave them a visual of what their good or poor decisions can do. It is not easy for us to make these trips financially or emotionally but if we can influence decisions to save future lives we will continue in the honor of our loved ones who paid the ultimate price.”