Followup on firefighter’s extraction from fire by helicopter water bucket

Water bucket extraction
Photo from the Facilitated Learning Analysis

I have to admit that when I heard about the firefighter on the Pole Fire in Oregon that was rescued from an advancing wildfire by climbing into a water bucket dangling below a helicopter, I was not 100 percent convinced that it actually happened. After all, most of us have heard the urban legends, totally untrue, about scuba divers being grabbed in water buckets or scooped up into an air tanker as it skims across the ocean, then later they were supposed to have been found dead at the scene of a fire.

But after the first report of the extraction, a team of fire and aviation professionals investigated the incident and recently released a Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA).

We will summarize what led up to the extraction and then will include some text from the FLA:

The helicopter pilot was flying a Bell 205A1 and was dropping water to slow down the spread of the fire under the direction of a ground contact working alone in that area. The pilot was in constant contact with him, both visually and by radio. At first the person on the ground had a safety zone, the black burned area, since the fire behavior was slow with occasional torching of standing trees in an area that had a significant amount of bug-killed timber. But then the fire’s intensity picked up dramatically and the fire started reburning the black, vigorously consuming the fuels that had not burned previously, eliminating the safety zone. The pilot wrote in a SAFECOM: “The downed trees that had not burned were now igniting, and this heat was intense enough that it was actually torching heavily and burning the standing bug killed trees that were already in the black.”

The ground contact kept moving away from the fire but the fire was closing in. The pilot, who was making 5-minute turnaround water drops, frequently gave the ground contact advice about what the fire was doing and where it was, as the fire activity increased.

The text and the photo below are from the FLA; the ground contact is identified as “TFLD”, a Task Force Leader.

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“…The pilot was very concerned with the TFLD’s position. The fire front appeared to move in waves of heat toward his position; the air between the waves was actually “shimmering.” The TFLD had a finger of fire to the southwest, which was within 200 feet of his position, and another finger to the northeast.

The helicopter made one circle around the area and the pilot noticed how rapidly the fire had progressed during that turn. The pilot urged the TFLD to start moving quickly away from the fire as the fire had closed half the distance to his position. The pilot felt that the TFLD was in the center with increasing fire behavior threatening both his south and north escape routes. He remembers using the term “raging.” He attempted to relay this concern, but the TFLD was comfortable with his location and escape routes to the black. The pilot believed that the black was not going to be the help he needed. He felt that the TFLD was going to need to deploy his fire shelter and that he would have to water-drop on the TFLD’s position. As he began pulling away to get water he realized that the fire would be upon the TFLD before he was able to make the trip to the water source and return. He had only moments to act.

The pilot noticed that in front of the TFLD, to the north, was a small opening of shorter, mostly dead lodgepole pine trees. He could hover safely and lower his bucket to the ground. As he hovered and watched the speed of the fire coming toward the TFLD, the pilot said “I’m going to suggest something to you and I hope you do it. I want you to get in the bucket.” The TFLD believed his escape route was open to the southwest and said “no, I’m fine.” The pilot repeated the suggestion with more urgency: “You don’t see what I’m looking at, you need to get in the bucket now.”

When the TFLD turned around, he saw the bucket on the ground. The TFLD replied to the pilot that “you can see better than I, and I am going to trust your judgment,” and entered the bucket, a 230 gallon Bambi design. He is over six feet tall, so it took him a few moments to get into and orient himself to the bucket and locate the correct cables to grab, not wanting to damage or disable the bucket. He managed to keep his radio but left his Pulaski at the pick-up site.

During the bucket transport, the TFLD maintained radio communication with the pilot. The DIVS was monitoring the communications but did not contact the pilot or the TFLD to avoid distracting their attention from the event. Once in the bucket and ready for lift-off the TFLD radioed to the pilot that he was ready and he said “This is a first for me,” describing his ride in a bucket. Once above the tree canopy the pilot asked if the TFLD now saw what he was talking about. The pilot remembers the TFLD’s response as “I see what you’re talking about.” Although the TFLD can’t recall what he may have said, the TFLD did not feel the same sense of urgency the pilot felt.Water bucket extraction, aerial view

The TFLD’s decision to follow the pilot’s request was based on the trust the two had built with each other during previous and current bucket operations, and the pilot’s vantage point to assess fire activity around the ground operation. Although he felt safe with his predetermined escape routes, he deferred to the pilot’s view of the situation. The pilot set him gently down in a meadow about one-half mile away and informed him of the direction of travel back to DP 24. The pilot made a quick look back toward the pick-up area and believed it was engulfed in flame, taking the photo on page 10.”

(end of text from the FLA)

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The FLA discusses the differences in knowlege between the firefighter and the pilot. The firefighter knew little about aviation and the pilot had limited training in wildland fire behavior. The firefighter kept saying to the pilot that he had an escape route into the black, and the pilot told him that he had a better view from the air and the fire was advancing. Finally the firefighter said: “I can’t see what you see; I’m going to defer to your judgment,” and got in the bucket.

Here is one more interesting quote from the FLA:

“A safety zone to the pilot meant a safe place away from the fire – he transported the TFLD to a meadow half a mile into the green; to the TFLD, the more completely burned areas were the safest places he could be.”

As we said when we first wrote about this incident, we’re glad it had a positive result, and congratulate the firefighter and the pilot for thinking outside the box, possibly preventing a disastrous outcome.

 

Thanks go out to Will

Exploding targets, an increasing wildfire problem

Star Exploding Targets, flames
A screen grab from a video endorsed by Cabela’s demonstrating a Star Exploding Target. We added the arrow and the “Flames” text to point out that flames are visible following the explosion.

Originally published October 11, 2012, updated February 6, 2013

Targets that are designed to explode when shot with a rifle have become more popular in recent years, emerging as an increasing threat to our wildlands. The problem is, they sometimes start fires in spite of claims by the manufacturers saying they are safe.

The military has been using them for at least 20 years when training marksmen to hit targets hundreds of yards away, since it can be difficult to see if a target was hit at that distance. When struck with the bullet from a rifle, the explosion and smoke are easily seen and indicate that the shooter hit the target

They are sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, since they are completely inert until two powders are mixed at the site by the target shooter. After they are combined, the compound is illegal to transport. The manufacturers claim that the only way they can be detonated is by striking them with a high-velocity bullet fired from a high-powered center-fire rifle. At least one company has recently started offering targets that will explode when hit with a much less powerful .22 caliber rim-fire rifle.

While the manufacturers claim they can’t start a fire, the screen grab (above) from a video shows flames in the grass just after a target advertised by Cabela’s and manufactured by Star Exploding Targets, explodes. The video is below, however we expect that eventually Cabela’s and Star will remove it from YouTube. The flames are visible three seconds into the video at the bottom left.

In a quick search, we found numerous reports of wildfires having been caused by exploding targets in a 5-month period. The dates below indicate when the information was published.

  • June 17, 2012, Colorado. The Springer Fire in Park County on the Pike National Forest burned 1,045 acres. It was caused by exploding targets.
  • June 13, 2012, Idaho. Four wildfires were caused by shooters using exploding targets up to that date in 2012.
  • June 15, 2012, Washington. A small fire near the mouth of the Grande Ronde River was apparently started by someone shooting at exploding targets.
  • June 16, 2012, Utah. The 300-acre Little Cove fire was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • June 29, 2012, Utah. A fire investigator said eight wildfires in the previous three weeks were caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • July 2, 2012, Nevada. A five-acre fire in Elko was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • August 19, 2012, Oregon. Five shooters were cited for starting a 35-acre fire using Tannerite exploding targets.
  • September 6, 2012, Washington. The Goat Fire burned 7,378 acres 3 miles southwest of Pateros, WA. It was started by exploding targets. Forest Service officials previously said two smaller fires — a 120-acre blaze in Mud Creek Entiat and one on Deadman Hill near Cashmere — may also have been ignited by exploding targets.
  • October 7, 2012, Pennsylvania. Two state Game Commission workers suffered injuries including burns, temporary blindness and hearing damage when an illegal exploding target blew up while the men attempted to put out a fire at a gun range in Pike County.
  • October 11, 2012, California. A 364-acre fire was started by shooters using exploding targets. A news report (see video below) shows two pounds of the explosive being used to blow up a car.
  • October 19, 2012, Utah. Two men have been charged with starting the Dump fire near Saratoga Springs, Utah that burned more than 5,500 acres and cost $2.1 million to put out. About 2,500 people were forced to evacuate. Investigators say the men were shooting June 21 when they hit an explosive target that started the fire in vegetation.
  • October 23, 2012, Nebraska. Three men have been charged with starting a fire by using exploding targets in Nebraska, and starting the Spotted Tail fire that burned 83 acres south of Chadron October 23.

This is a total of 24 fires that were either confirmed or suspected to be caused by exploding targets since the first of June, 2012. And these are just the ones that we were able to find using Google.

In most areas in the western United States exploding targets are illegal to use if there is a law or temporary ban on open fires.

One of the primary manufacturers of the targets is Tannerite. The company has a patent on the devices and has said the fires are caused by other companies infringing on their patent and adding an additional incendiary component in order to produce a more spectacular explosion.

At an online forum for firearms enthusiasts, The Firing Line, some of the posters decry the lack of wisdom of target shooters who start fires with exploding targets. A person using the moniker “g.willikers” wrote:

It seems that we gun owners have two enemies. Those who would deprive us of our gun rights. And those who throw those rights away.

Others on the forum suggested some alternative targets that can produce an impressive display when hit with a bullet, such as:

  • A milk jug filled with water
  • Potatoes
  • Pop can filled with water
  • Fresh cow pie

UPDATE October 12, 2012:

Ken told us about this news report that appeared on television in southern California October 11, 2012, explaining and demonstrating the hazards of these explosive targets. They use two pounds of the explosive to blow up a car, and Chief John Hawkins of CAL FIRE provides his point of view on the problem.

Pilot walks away from helicopter crash in Oregon

A pilot walked away from the crash of a firefighting helicopter Sunday afternoon in Oregon. In fact, he at first declined to be flown from the crash site by another helicopter, saying he preferred to walk out. Eventually he accepted the lift but declined medical treatment.

According to a story in the Mail Tribune, the pilot, identified as Cody Seeger, told a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy: “As he was flying back, it started rattling and losing pressure, and then it went down,” deputy Jeff McGrath said. The Mail Tribune has several photos of the pilot.

The helicopter ended up on its side in a forested area several miles west of Shady Cove, Oregon (map) and from the air it looked fairly intact, with the tail boom still attached. The cockpit area did not look to be badly damaged.

The pilot had been dropping water on a vegetation fire and was heading back to Grants Pass when the accident occurred.

Columbia Basin UH-1H Helicopters
File photo of Columbia Basin UH-1H Helicopters. Photo courtesy of Columbia Basin Helicopters

Mr. Seeger works for Columbia Basin Helicopters with headquarters in Baker City, Oregon. The company owns and operates three single-engine Bell UH-1H (Bell 205) helicopters which they use fire suppression.

Thanks go out to Kelly

Firefighter extracted in helicopter’s bucket as wildfire approached

Last Friday, September 28, a firefighter’s life may have been saved when he was extracted from an approaching fire by climbing into a helicopter’s water bucket.

At least that is what was reported in a SAFECOM that was filed on September 30, 2012. We talked with Tom Lavagnino, the Information Officer on the Type 3 Incident Management Team that on September 29 transitioned onto the fire where this reportedly occurred, replacing a Type 2 team. He said that neither he nor the Incident Commander knew much about it; most of what they know came from reading the SAFECOM. He said during their transition they did not receive any detailed information about the reported incident. However a team of aviation and safety officials are en route to the fire to conduct a Facilitated Learning Analysis. They, of course, will be interviewing the pilot and the person that was reported to have been extracted in the bucket.

For now we are assuming that this is not a joke or an urban legend, like the scuba divers that were supposed to have been grabbed up in helicopter buckets, or scooped into the tank of an air tanker as it skims across the ocean.

The SAFECOM is fairly long, so I’ll summarize the first section. Then you can read the rest below, the part that sounds like it came out of one of the worst movies ever made about wildland fire, Firestorm, starring Howie Long, who should have stuck to his day job as a defensive end in the National Football League, later becoming an analyst for FOX Sports.

We are very glad the person on the ground was rescued, and since it sounds like it was the only option available to keep him from being burned to death, we applaud the actions of the pilot, thinking WAY outside the box, possibly saving a life.

According to the SAFECOM, it happened on the Pole Creek Fire on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. The helicopter pilot was flying a Bell 205A1 and was dropping water to slow down the spread of the fire under the direction of a ground contact working alone in that area. The pilot was in constant contact with him, both visually and by radio. At first the person on the ground had a safety zone, the black burned area, since the fire behavior was slow with occasional torching of standing trees in an area that had a significant amount of bug-killed timber. But then the fire’s intensity picked up dramatically and the fire started reburning the black, vigorously consuming the fuels that had not burned previously, eliminating the safety zone. The pilot wrote: “The downed trees that had not burned were now igniting, and this heat was intense enough that it was actually torching heavily and burning the standing bug killed trees that were already in the black.”

The ground contact kept moving away from the fire but the fire was closing in. The pilot, who was making 5-minute turnaround water drops, frequently gave the ground contact advice about what the fire was doing and where it was, as the fire activity increased.

I’ll let the pilot take it from here:

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“…I then asked my ground contact where he was and was surprised to find that he was still to the west of the torching area. This surprised me since I thought he had already passed the fire to the east, where I felt he should be. I immediately contacted him and circled back to find him. He gave me a mirror flash and I saw that he was within 500 feet of the face of the raging fire. This torching and the black column being generated was hidden from him by the smoke he was in, as well as the standing timber surrounding him.He had a spot finger to the SW, which was within 200 feet of his position, and another finger to the NE.

I urged him to start moving quickly north away from the fire, which he did, and when I circled again the fire was 50 percent closer to his position. The fire was moving in waves of heat toward his position: the air between them was actually shimmering! A 200-300 yard wide wall of trees would instantly ignite, and this in turn was igniting the next row of trees in front of it. My ground contact was centered in this wall, with the fingers on either side. I felt that he was in grave danger.

Water bucket extraction, Pole Creek fire
A photo that was submitted with the SAFECOM.

The fire was moving MUCH faster than he was: there was no way out to the SE or to the NW because he was in the center of a crescent between the two fingers of fire. The fire was moving to him so quickly and it was beginning to even affect the fingers behavior, which started to burn much more intensely. I was very, very concerned that he was in the center of energy. I tried to relay this concern, but he was sure that he was secure since he was in the black. I knew that the black was not going to be the help he needed. I felt that he was going to need to deploy his fire shelter and that I was going to be doing water drop on his position.

I started to pull away to get water but realized that the fire would have been upon him before I was able to make a trip to the lake and back. In front of him, to the north, there was a small opening in the trees and I was able to determine that I could hover into it without damage to the helicopter. I lowered the helicopter until the bucket was on the ground. I hovered and watch the speed he was moving and the speed of the fire coming towards us.

The fire was moving very quickly so I strongly suggested that he climb into the bucket so that I could haul him out. I felt that there were very few options and vigorously urged him. I honestly felt that we had only seconds or a minute before the fire was to the spot. I am sure he could feel the fire, because I could certainly feel the heat. He climbed into the bucket and wrapped his arms around the wires as I slowly lifted the bucket vertical. We were in radio contact during this time.

Once I was sure he was secure in the bucket I flew to the North, perhaps 1/4 mile to an open area where I felt he could walk to safety. I carefully lowered the bucket to the ground and he got out and walked to the trail.

I looked back at the spot where we had lifted out of and it was fully torched. I do not believe there were any other good options. The ground he was on was a carpet of dead bug killed trees, the fire was very intense and I`m not sure that even with a fire shelter deployed that the outcome would have been good. I am glad he had the courage to climb into the bucket and relieved that no harm has come to my ground contract.”

Photos of prescribed fires, Oregon and Florida

St.Vincent Island prescribed fire
St.Vincent Island prescribed fire USFWS photo by Brian Pippin

Today we have photos of prescribed fires in opposite corners of the United States, all are from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projects. The photo above is a prescribed fire on St. Vincent Island in north Florida (map). The entire 12,000-acre island is a USF&WS refuge. Brian Pippin took this photo from a helicopter during the the 1,150-acre burn.

The photos below show prescribed fires in Williamette Valley near Eugene, Oregon. More photos from similar projects can be found on their Facebook page.

USFWS Prescribed fire
Williamette Valley prescribed fire near Eugene, OR. USFWS photo

USFWS Prescribed fire in Williamette Valley

Thanks go out to Brian

Morning briefing, September 28, 2012

Junior firefighter killed while responding to wildfire 

A 17-year old junior firefighter for the Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Department in Delaware was killed while en route to the fire station to respond to a wildfire. According to WBOC, Justin Townsend was a passenger in a vehicle driven by an 18-year old boy on September 27 when due to excessive speed the driver lost control on a curve causing the vehicle to strike a utility pole. Mr. Townsend died at the scene. The driver was treated at a hospital and released.

We extend our sincere condolences to Mr. Townsend’s family and the members of the Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Department.

TNC studies use of prescribed fire to remove red-cedar 

The Nature Conservancy has released a study they conducted on the Niobrara Valley Preserve in Nebraska, looking at red-cedar, an invasive species that can reduce the productivity of grazing land. The trees occupy grassland areas shading out light, falling foliage covers the grasses, and the trees consume significant amounts of water, leading to dryer conditions for grass. Red-cedar also burns intensely, making wildfires more difficult to control.

Nebraska prescribed fire
Prescribed fire in Nebraska to help remove invasive red-cedar. Photo credit: The Nature Conservancy

The study looked at two methods used to remove red-cedar on the property — mechanical removal and prescribed fire. Fire can be useful for removing red-cedar until the trees become large. After that, only mechanical methods are effective, which may include cutting the trees, and then 1) chipping, 2) piling and burning, or 3) scattering them to be burned in a prescribed fire later.

Here are some excerpts from the report.

Red-cedar, a tree that reproduces by seed only, can be destroyed by fire if its growth points at the tip of the twigs are exposed to high temperatures. Cedar infestation will proceed steadily without intervention, and the periodic use of prescribed burning may be a more effective approach compared to periodic mechanical removal. Mechanical removal actually can contribute to spreading the seeds. Importantly, when applied early, burning is a significantly less costly method to eliminate young trees and to prevent re-infestation.

and…

Of more interest to ranchers, in areas where cedar was removed, the desirable plant species for grazers were on average 34% of groundcover compared to 12% in non-cleared areas (+22%) and the undesirable plant species were 13% in cleared areas versus 47% in non-cleared areas (-34%) but all save 3% of the difference in undesirable plant species is from cedar clearing.

Warmer temperatures in California may be leading to more wildfires

The LA Times has an article about how hotter temperatures in California along with “incredibly dry conditions” have resulted in a higher number of wildfires, especially in the northern part of the state. The traditional busiest part of the fire season in southern California is just beginning, when lower live fuel moistures combined with Santa Ana winds can result in very large fires.

Photos of fire in Columbia River Gorge

A wildfire in the Columbia River Gorge near Hood River, Oregon provided Richard Porter with an opportunity to capture some interesting nighttime images of the fire reflected in the waters of the Columbia River. Check them out HERE. Below is a sample.

Fire in Columbia River Gorge
Fire in Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Richard Porter