Lawsuit alleges CAL FIRE misrepresented death benefits to families of deceased pilots

This article first appeared at Fire Aviation.


Families of firefighting pilots killed in the line of duty in California have filed a lawsuit charging that officials in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) intentionally misinformed them of their entitlement to death benefits.

According to the Sacramento Bee,

They “intentionally misrepresented to the survivors that the only available death benefit they might apply for was those available from” the federal government, the claim states. “Cal Fire executives made these representations knowing them to be false, and at the time they were well aware of the existence of benefits required to be paid under (state law).”

The lawsuit lists 14 pilots that were killed while fighting fires in California. Two of those were employees of DynCorp which has a contract to provide pilots and maintenance for the state’s S-2 air tankers. The other 12 worked for air tanker companies under contract to the U.S. Forest Service…

Read the rest at Fire Aviation.

Report released for fatality on the Frog Fire

Frog Fire fatality site photoThe U.S. Forest Service has released a preliminary report for the fatality of Dave Ruhl on the Frog Fire. Mr. Ruhl went missing the evening of July 30, 2015 while scouting the fire on foot, serving as incident commander during the initial attack in a very remote area of the Modoc National Forest 46 air miles east of Mt. Shasta, California. His body was found about 14 hours later approximately one-quarter mile from where he was last seen.

(Click on the image below, the timeline of the fire, to see a larger version.)

Frog Fire timeline

On August 4 the USFS said the autopsy determined that Mr. Ruhl’s death was attributed to “carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation”.

Not much information is in the report that sheds light on what led to his being entrapped by the fire, or what decisions were made or not made that led Mr. Ruhl to be in that spot at the wrong time. The wind direction did shift, which drove the fire in different directions, possibly resulting in his location becoming compromised.

The report’s narrative ends with this:

Although much will remain unknown about Dave’s decision making and complete route of travel, the final 100 feet of his route were accurately established. It appears he was cut-off and overcome by fire during the period of time that the fire spread shifted dramatically toward the west-southwest. Dave’s fire shelter was not deployed.

This document, called by the USFS a “learning review, preliminary report — narrative”, was released a little over two months after the fatality, a remarkably short amount of time for the agency. ItiPhone texts comes after the USFS was extremely secretive during the first five days after the accident, refusing to divulge if a fire shelter was deployed, where the remains were found, or if the fatality was caused by a burnover, vehicle accident, lightning, or another type of accident.

The report confirms something that could be occurring at many fires — behind the scenes communications via cell phones. The Zone Duty Officer sent two text messages to Mr. Ruhl confirming that he was a TRAINEE Type 3 Incident Commander, and ordering him to clarify that over the radio to the others on the fire. The next text message sent to Mr. Ruhl was, “And I won’t text anymore. Sorry for that.” And finally, an hour and a half later after it became obvious he was missing, “I need you to call or text ASAP, we are very concerned on your status.” The screen shot of those four messages from the Zone Duty Officer’s iPhone did not include any replies from Mr. Ruhl.

Dave Ruhl

Dave Ruhl

The full report can be downloaded (2.1 mb).

All of the above images are from the report.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Dave Ruhl.

Fallen Canadian firefighter receives posthumous medal

A father of three who died fighting a forest fire on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast became the first recipient of the province’s Medal of Good Citizenship.

Premier Christy Clark said Tuesday that 60-year-old John Phare exemplifies the purpose of the new medal, which recognizes commendable contributions to community life.

The contract tree faller died last July while fighting the Old Sechelt Mine blaze.

Clark said Phare was one of thousands of firefighters who displayed courage and sacrifice during this year’s extensive and sometimes life-threatening forest fire season.

Phare’s fiancee, Kimi Hawkes, accepted the medal at a ceremony at the B.C. legislature.

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

President Obama’s remarks at Fallen Firefighters service

obama firefighters service

President Obama at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. Photo credit: NFFF.

On Sunday, October 4, President Obama spoke at the 34th National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The event honored the 84 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2014 and three firefighters who died in previous years.

Below is the text of his remarks:


“Thank you.  Craig, thanks for that introduction, but more importantly, thank you for the outstanding work that you and your team do all across the country every single day.  For those of you who know Craig, you know that he is cool under pressure, no doubt because he got his start — started his career as a firefighter.  I want to thank Congressman Steny Hoyer, Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell, Chief Dennis Compton, and everybody at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation for bringing us together here today.  And most especially, I want to say how honored I am to be with the families of the fallen, and express the gratitude of the nation for the sacrifices that you and your families have made on behalf of others.

Scripture tells us, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”  Employ it in serving one another.  Every single day, across our country, men and women leave their homes and their families so they might save the lives of people that they’ve never met.  They are good stewards — serving their neighbors, their communities, our nation with courage, and fortitude and strength.  We can never repay them fully for their sacrifices.

But today, we gather to honor 87 brave firefighters who gave their lives in service to us all.  Our prayers are with their families, many of whom honor us with their presence today.  You remember them as moms and dads, siblings and spouses, friends and neighbors.  Today, we remember them and salute them as the heroes that they were.

It’s hard to think of a more selfless profession than firefighting.  There’s a reason why firefighting occupies a special place in our imaginations; why little boys and increasingly little girls say, I want to be a fireman, I want to a firefighter.  They understand instinctually that there’s something special about it.  Imagine what it takes to put on that heavy coat, and that helmet, and override the natural human instinct for self-preservation, and run into danger as others are running away; to literally walk through fire knowing that you might never make it out because you’re trying to save people that are strangers.

And yet, the fallen that we honor today would probably have said that they were just ordinary Americans who were doing work they believed in, carrying on a tradition as old as America itself.  There’s a humility that seems to be part of being a firefighter.  From rural communities to inner cities, those we honor today lived a fundamental principle that binds us all as Americans — that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, that we look out for one another, that there’s something bigger than each of us individually that we have to be true to.

We honor men like Michael Garrett of West Virginia.  Mikey, as he was known, started out as a junior firefighter at the age of 16, became an EMT by 18, was on his way to graduating with an associate degree in emergency services.  His mom, Faith, says Mikey was always smiling, always a practical joker — if you turned around, your cell phone would be in the pool.  And he was always the guy you could call on in a pinch.  No matter how busy he was — between school and work and being an EMT instructor himself — he’d be there to help.

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Coroner’s report for Twisp River Fire fatlities

From the Seattle Times:

The three firefighters killed in a wildfire near Twisp, Okanogan County, last week died from smoke inhalation and “thermal injuries,” or burns, Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez said Friday.

The firefighters were driving up a steep gravel road and crashed down a 40-foot embankment, where the fire consumed them. The manner of death was classified as accidental.

Those killed Aug. 19 were Richard Wheeler, 31, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Tom Zbyszewski, 20.

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

Firefighters killed in Twisp River Fire identified

The three U.S. Forest Service firefighters that were overrun by fire and killed on the Twisp River Fire in Washington August 19 have been identified as Tom Zbyszewki, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26 and Richard Wheeler, 31.

Their vehicle crashed while fighting a fire west of Twisp, Washington. Fox News reported “Authorities gave few details, shedding no light, for example, on the crash, other than to say that it was not the accident itself that killed the victims, but the fire.”

On Thursday, after a team of investigators assessed the accident site, the bodies of the three firefighters were removed in separate ambulances and transported from the scene in a procession of fire engines and other emergency vehicles.

Four other firefighters were injured, one very seriously. King5 had additional information about the serious injury:

Daniel Lyon, 25, of Puyallup [Washington], was airlifted to Harborview Wednesday in critical condition. Doctors say he suffered third degree burns to over 50 to 75 percent of his body.

Doctors said he was in the resuscitation phase, receiving a lot of fluids, and doctors were trying to stabilize his condition. If his condition improves, doctors hope to move him to the operation phase, where they will remove some of the burns from his body.

Lyon had only been a firefighter for a few months with the U.S. Forest Service before heading to Central Washington to battle the Okanogan Complex Fire.

Q13 reported that the other three injured firefighters were treated at a hospital and released.

The investigation into the accident is being conducted by a team led by John Phipps who currently serves as Station Director of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado.