When we published our report on the number wildland firefighter fatalities on January 19, we didn’t include the percentages for each category because the numbers got cluttered among the smaller sections on the pie chart. But in order to discuss it, the percentages are helpful, so in spite of the clutter, we revised the graphic — above — as well as the one in the earlier article.
In text form, here are the percentages for general classifications of fatalities from 1990 through 2014:
About forty years ago Carl Wilson, one of the early wildland fire researchers, developed his list of four “Common Denominators of Fire Behavior on Tragedy Fires”, that is, fatal and near-fatal fires.
Relatively small fires or deceptively quiet areas of large fires.
In relatively light fuels, such as grass, herbs, and light brush.
When there is an unexpected shift in wind direction or wind speed.
When fire responds to topographic conditions and runs uphill. Alignment of topography and wind during the burning period should always be considered a trigger point to re-evaluate strategy and tactics.
Our study of the 440 fatalities from 1990 through 2014 shows that entrapments are the fourth leading cause of deaths on wildland fires. The top four categories which account for 88 percent are, in descending 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. Entrapments were at 21 percent.
But as Matt Holmstrom, Superintendent of the Lewis and Clark Interagency Hotshot Crew recently wrote for an article in Wildfire Magazine, Mr. Wilson’s common denominators only address fire behavior.
Mr. Holmstrom explored eight human factors that he believes merit consideration. I’m generously paraphrasing, but here are the areas he mentioned:
Number of years of experience.
Time of day (especially between 2:48 p.m. and 4:42 p.m.)
Poorly defined leadership or organization.
Transition from Initial Attack to Extended Attack.
Earlier close calls or near misses on the same fire.
Using an escape route that is inadequate.
He goes into much detail for each item and cites numerous fires which he said were examples. It is a thought-provoking article. Check it out.
UPDATE January 29, 2016. Larry Sutton authored an article in a 2011 issue of Fire Management Today (pages 13-17) that also explored the Common Denominators of Human Behavior on Tragedy Fires. At the time Mr. Sutton was the fire operations risk management officer for the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
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.
Our piece about trends in wildland firefighter fatalities generated discussion of what the data meant and the fact that there was a great deal of variation from year to year. I wrote a comment below the article that grew larger than I originally expected. Here it is:
With an average of 17 fatalities over the last 25 years the annual numbers will never be smooth or without spikes. If there were more than 30,000 deaths each year, like with motor vehicles and firearms, there would be less relative variation from year to year and it would be much easier to see a trend. The wildfire environment is dynamic and volatile, but human factors may be what most influences the number of fatalities, and that is difficult to measure or predict.
We have seen some interesting discussion, on this article and others, about how to reduce the fatality rate. A large percentage of the fatalities on wildfires are caused by medical issues or accidents in vehicles and helicopters. For example in 2014 there were 10 deaths on fires, but none involved burnovers. But having said that, off the top of my head, here are a few areas that need to be emphasized in order to reduce the number of burnover fatalities:
Realize that firefighter safety is far more important than protecting structures or vegetation. It’s hard to step back and watch homes burn, but it’s far more painful to watch a funeral.
Increase the use of simulation tools such as sand tables and computers to train leaders. Try to make it as realistic as possible, but don’t keep throwing problems at the trainee until they fail. Point out mistakes, but the simulation director needs to avoid getting on a power trip. This occasionally was a problem when we used a simulator with a bank of overhead projectors and a rear-projection screen, a system that was extremely flexible.
Find a way to make crew resource management more effective so that crew members feel empowered. If they see something, SAY something.
The first things every firefighter should consider before committing to a fire suppression effort are escape routes and safety zones. After that, anchor, flank, and keep one foot in the black. Then, escapes routes and safety zones, again and again.
Utilize existing technology that will enable Division Supervisors, Operations Section Chiefs, and Safety Officers to know in real time, 1) where the fire is, and 2) where the firefighters are. The Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. When you think about it, it’s crazy that we sometimes send firefighters into a dangerous environment without knowing these two very basic things. Last month Tom Harbour told me that he was very concerned that, for example, someone in Washington would be accessing the data from thousands of miles away and order that a firefighter move 20 feet to the left. That can be managed. Making the information available to supervisors on the ground can save lives.
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.
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…
The 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.)
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. It 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.