New videos: long line extraction, spot fires, and battles lost

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a dozen videos in the last month. They can all be seen on their YouTube Channel, but here are three of them.

The first is a recording of a webinar, in which Brian Potter, a research meteorologist with the USDA Forest Service, presented a summary of the state of science behind spot fires. Spotting is one characteristic of “extreme fire behavior,” capable of short range acceleration of fires as well as producing long-distance spot fires that complicate management efforts. The presentation summarizes current knowledge and tools, as well as knowledge gaps

The next, below, was produced by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and describes our wildland fire fatality history, and the hard lessons learned.

The third one shows an emergency longline extraction on the Freezeout Ridge Fire,
September 21, 2014. For more information about the incident, see the Freezeout Ridge Facilitated Learning Analysis.


South Africa firefighter killed in vehicle accident

From iol Mobile, March 6, 2015:

“Cape Town – A young firefighter from the West Coast District Municipality died on Thursday when the fire truck he drove left the road and plunged down the side of the Dasklip Pass.

Nazeem Davies, 25, from Worcester, was on his way back to the Vredenburg station from the Winterhoek Mountains, near Porterville, where he and his colleagues had helped put out a fire.

West Coast District Municipality spokesman Kallie Willemse said Davies and a colleague, Niklaas Nel, were on their way back to Vreden.

Nel escaped with slight injuries, but the truck hit a large boulder on the way down, which stopped it but crushed the truck to the point where hydraulic jaws had to be used to extricate Davies’ body from the wreck.”

Our sincere condolences go out to the firefighter’s co-workers and family.


Firefighter killed in South Australia

Brian Johnston

CFS volunteer Brian Johnston.

A firefighter was killed December 9 in South Australia. Below is an excerpt from an article at

Country Fire Service volunteer Brian Johnston would have marked 50 years of fighting fires in 2015 — a heroic milestone cut short by a tragic accident Tuesday afternoon.

The 65-year-old, who was a member of the Millicent Brigade and Deputy Group Officer of Wattle Range, was killed when he was hit by a truck while preparing to fight a grass fire at Rendelsham in the state’s Southeast late yesterday afternoon.

Mr Johnston was standing behind the CFS utility he had been driving on the Southern Ports Highway, about 12km northwest of Millicent, and preparing to fight a fire when another truck attending the blaze crashed into him.

Shortly before the crash, at about 4.30pm on Tuesday, CFS fire trucks had been called to a grass fire in the area.

Mr Johnston, who had retired just 12 months ago from an extensive career at the Kimberley Clark mill in Millicent was the second CFS volunteer to be killed this year, after father-of-two Andrew Harrison was killed while fighting a fire at Nantawarra in October.

CFS chief officer Greg Nettleton said the tragedy had happened in low visibility, due to smoke from a the nearby fire Mr Johnston was fighting.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Johnston’s family and co-workers.


Another person pleads guilty to charges related to the Carson helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters

Carson Helicopters Iron 44 firefighters killedToday in federal court in Medford, Oregon, a second person pleaded guilty to charges related to the 2008 crash of a helicopter in northern California that killed nine wildland firefighters.

Steven Metheny, 44, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, pleaded guilty to one count each of filing a false statement and of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud while submitting documents to obtain $20 million in firefighting contracts with the U.S. Forest Service.

In January of 2013, Mr. Metheny was indicted for conspiracy to defraud the United States, plus 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.

The two charges that Mr. Metheny pleaded guilty to today combined have a maximum federal prison sentence of 25 years and fines up to $500,000. U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke set a March 2 sentencing date. According to the plea agreement in this case, the U. S. Attorney’s Office will be seeking an enhancement to Mr. Metheny’s sentence based on the offense involving the reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury.

United States Attorney Amanda Marshall said today:

This is a particularly important case. Submitting false information about helicopter payload capabilities in the bid process both defrauded the Forest Service and created a reckless risk of harm to those who used the information in firefighting operations. This includes those who were relying on the false information when a Carson helicopter crashed near Weaverville, California on August 5, 2008, killing nine and seriously injuring four others.

In September of 2013, Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of the company, pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud and now faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny. Mr. Phillips’ sentencing  is set for February 2.

The crash of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter occurred on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California. Killed were the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured. The helicopter was operated by Carson Helicopters, Inc. of Grants Pass, Oregon.

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.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the U.S. Forest Service when bidding on their firefighting contract. The NTSB estimated that the actual empty weight of the helicopter was 13,845 pounds, while Carson Helicopters stated in their contract proposal that the weight was 12,013 pounds. For the purpose of load calculations on the day of the crash, the pilot assumed the weight to be 12,408 pounds, which was 1,437 pounds less than the actual weight estimated by the NTSB. According to the NTSB, for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot that day, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the firefighters on board.

In Mr. Metheny’s plea agreement there was an admission that the helicopters had not actually been weighed.

In addition, here is an excerpt from the NTSB report:

The altered takeoff (5-minute) power available chart that was provided by Carson Helicopters eliminated a safety margin of 1,200 pounds of emergency reserve power that had been provided for in the load calculations.

The pilot-in-command followed a Carson Helicopters procedure, which was not approved by the helicopter’s manufacturer or the U.S. Forest Service, and used above-minimum specification torque in the load calculations, which exacerbated the error already introduced by the incorrect empty weight and the altered takeoff power available chart, resulting in a further reduction of 800 pounds to the safety margin intended to be included in the load calculations.

The incorrect information—the empty weight and the power available chart—provided by Carson Helicopters and the company procedure of using above-minimum specification torque misled the pilots to believe that the helicopter had the performance capability to hover out of ground effect with the manifested payload when, in fact, it did not.

In March of 2012, a jury in a civil suit 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).

Nina Charlson, the mother of Scott Charlson, said before the guilty plea today, “Justice needs to be served. Metheny is not the only person who did less than quality work.” She contends the U.S. Forest Service should have weighed the helicopter to confirm the information submitted by Carlson Helicopters.


South Australia firefighter killed while fighting vegetation fire

In South Australia a Mt. Templeton Country Fire Service volunteer firefighter, Andrew Harrison, 38, was fighting a fire when he suffered severe burns. He was flown to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in critical condition with severe burns to much of his body and later died.

There are reports that the fire originated from a lentil harvesting operation. CFS chief officer Greg Nettleton said there had been a spate of fires involving lentil harvesting over the past year.

“We will be speaking to the farmer representative bodies to sit down and say how can we work in partnership to reduce the potential for fire during farming operations whatever they may be,’’ he said.

Research by Queensland academic Graeme Quick for Grain Producers SA earlier this year found lentil dust had a lower ignition point than other grain residue.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family of Mr. Harrison.


CAL FIRE air tanker crashes while fighting fire near Yosemite

(UPDATE at 2:22 p.m. PDT, October 8, 2014)

The pilot that was killed in the air tanker crash near Yosemite National Park on Tuesday has been identified as Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, age 62, of San Jose. More information is at Fire Aviation.


(UPDATE at 12:31 a.m. PDT, October 8, 2014)

Tuesday evening emergency personnel were able to access the site of the CAL FIRE air tanker that crashed near Yosemite National Park and determined that the pilot on board had died. The air tanker (Tanker 81) based out of the Hollister Air Attack Base had been fighting the Dog Rock Fire near El Portal at Yosemite National Park when officials lost contact with it late Tuesday afternoon.

The family requested that the agency withhold release of the pilot’s name until all immediate family members can be notified.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family and coworkers.

There is a report that two air tanker pilots witnessed the accident, saying that as the aircraft pushed over a ridge in the steep canyon, descending to the intended retardant drop area, a wing struck an object on the ground.

A civilian on the ground, Don Talend, of West Dundee, Illinois, told the Associated Press that he saw a plane flying low through heavy smoke near a burning ridge when a wing appeared to waggle or flip up.

The Modesto Bee reported:

Kirstie Cari, the owner of El Portal Market, said the plane crashed within sight of her store. She was in the kitchen at the time and didn’t see it, but said witnesses told her the plane came tumbling over the ridge line, cartwheeled and crashed right in front of a big wall of rock.

Cari said the crash lit a second fire in front of the first blaze and brought debris tumbling down onto Highway 140, which was closed east of El Portal at the time of the crash. She said helicopters had worked to suppress it, but the area was still smoldering about 30 minutes later.

Immediately after the crash, CAL FIRE grounded their remaining air tankers, which is standard procedure after a serious accident.

The S-2T air tanker, registration number N449DF, was designated Tanker 81, one of 23 S-2Ts that are maintained and flown by DynCorp for CAL FIRE. The agency also has one spare that is used to fill in as needed when an aircraft is undergoing maintenance. CAL FIRE hires their own pilots for their 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters, but they are also maintained by DynCorp.

The last time a CAL FIRE air tanker crashed was in 2001, when two tankers collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots, Daniel Berlant, spokesperson for CAL FIRE said.

The agency had another plane crash in 2006, when a battalion chief and a pilot were killed in the crash of an air attack plane in Tulare County.

The S-2 first flew in 1952 and the U.S. Navy discontinued the use of them in 1976. They were used for detecting enemy ships and submarines and for dropping torpedoes. The ones currently being used by CAL FIRE were converted from piston to turbine engines between 1999 and 2005. Some media outlets are incorrectly reporting that the Tanker that crashed on Tuesday was built in 2001. That may be the date that it was converted to turbine engines and was given the new model name S-2F3 Turbo Tracker. They are now commonly referred to as S-2T, with the “T” standing for turbine engine.

Wednesday morning the Dog Rock Fire is reported to be 150 acres with no containment. A Type 3 Incident Management Team (IMT) is at the scene, with Mills as Incident Commander during the day and Wills at night. A “short” version of Jeanne Pincha-Tulley’s IMT has been activated. She normally is the Incident Commander of a Type 1 IMT.

The fire, reported at 2:45 Monday afternoon, is north of Highway 140 and is burning uphill toward the north in the direction of the community of Foresta, which has been evacuated. Electrical power has been shut off in the area.

map Dog Rock Fire

Map, showing heat detected on the Dog Rock Fire (the red square) by a satellite at 11:33 p.m. October 7, 2014. The location can be accurate to within a mile. The map also shows the perimeters of two other fires in 2013, the El Portal and Meadow Fires. The 2013 Rim Fire is also shown. (click to enlarge)


(UPDATE at 9:12 p.m. PDT, October 7, 2014)

There is still no news about the condition of the pilot in the crash of the S-2T CAL FIRE air tanker near Yosemite National Park late Tuesday afternoon.

Ken Yager heard a loud boom and took the photo below. The extreme terrain helps to explain why it is taking rescuers hours to reach the site.

S-2T air tanker crash

S-2T air tanker crash. Photo by Ken Yager.

Below is an excerpt from an article at ABC30:

…A California Highway Patrol spokesman, Officer Steven Lewis, said CHP Sgt. Chris Michael witnessed the crash as he was helping to close state Route 140 where it enters the park.

“All the tourists and residents were being turned away,” Lewis said, when Michael reported that he had just witnessed “a bomber collide into the river canyon, the canyon wall, and watched it explode in flames and reported there was plane debris landing in the highway.”

The canyon wall is above the highway and the Merced River, Lewis said.

“It’s almost vertical canyon walls,” Lewis said, “and the road was cut in 100 years ago right along the river. Anything that falls from the top is going to fall right on the roadway.”

There were no reports of any injuries on the ground as a result of debris.

Don Talend, of West Dundee, Illinois, said he may have seen the plane go down. Talend and friends were vacationing at the park when they stopped to snap some photographs of the fire, which was several miles away.

He told The Associated Press by phone that he saw a plane flying low through heavy smoke near a burning ridge when a wing appeared to waggle or flip up.

The plane “disappeared into the smoke and you heard a boom,” he said.

Dog Rock Fire

Dog Rock Fire, 5:31 p.m. PDT, October 7, 2014. Photo by Madison Sites.


(UPDATE at 7:35 p.m. PDT, October 7, 2014)

The Fresno Bee reported that Kari Cobb, spokesperson for Yosemite National Park, said, “We saw it crash. It was witnessed by park staff as well as some community members”.

Ms. Cobb was referring to the air tanker that crashed while fighting the Dog Rock Fire near the park. CAL FIRE announced earlier that they lost contact with an air tanker. At 6:21 p.m. PDT spokesperson Daniel Berlant said the aircraft was an S-2T air tanker.

The condition of the pilot, the only person on board, is not known. Emergency personnel are hiking to the crash site.

The 23 CAL FIRE air tankers, all S-2Ts which carry 1,200 gallons, are maintained and flown by a contractor, DynCorp. However, CAL FIRE hires their own pilots for their 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters.

Yosemite National Park has a web cam pointed in the general direction of the fire.

T-94 and T-95 at RDD 8-7-2014

File photo of two S-2T air tankers, T-94 and T-95, at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.


(Originally published at 5:54 p.m. PDT, October 7, 2014)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said they lost contact with an air tanker that was flying over a wildfire near Yosemite National Park.  The aircraft was assigned to the Dog Rock Fire burning near Yosemite’s Arch Rock. The status of the aircraft and the pilot have not been determined.

CAL FIRE’s announcement was at 5:43 p.m. PDT, October 7. When more information is available, we will update this article.

The Dog Rock Fire began Tuesday afternoon at Dog Rock on the El Portal Road between the park boundary and Arch Rock Entrance Station. The fire was reported around 2:45 p.m. PDT at the last report was approximately 130 acres.

The community of Foresta has been evacuated. El Portal Road is temporarily closed to all through traffic from the park boundary near Yosemite View Lodge from the west and at the junction of the El Portal and Big Oak Flat Roads from the east.

Dog Rock Fire

The Dog Rock Fire, as seen from Turtleback Dome at 6 p.m. PDT, October 7, 2014.