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

Eastern Oregon fire traps hunters

Two bowhunters in eastern Oregon have been trapped by a fast-moving wildfire. The Parish Cabin Fire, 15 miles northeast of Seneca, forced the evacuation of about two dozen people from campgrounds and dispersed hunting camps Tuesday night. Glenn Palmer, Grant County Sheriff, said the trapped couple had called relatives in the Portland area on Tuesday evening and said they were hiking back out toward their car, which was parked on the south side of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.

“They’re not going to be able to drive out,” Palmer said. “The fire’s cut off their escape route.”

The Oregonian reported that Palmer sent two deputies to the area late Tuesday, but they couldn’t find the couple’s car at the High Lake trailhead. The fire’s burned across area roads, and numerous downed trees in the area have made it inaccessible by ground; the sheriff plans to request a helicopter rescue by the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

View from USFS Supervisor's Office in John Day - Parish Cabin Fire
View from USFS Supervisor’s Office in John Day – Parish Cabin Fire. USFS photo.

The fire’s reported at 4,000 acres this morning; roads in the area are closed. Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team 4 (Incident Commander Brian Watts) has been ordered and will transition this evening with the local Type 3 team.

The Blue Mountain Eagle reported that the Forest Service and Grant County Sheriff’s deputies evacuated Lake Creek Youth Camp, Parish Cabin Campground, and many dispersed campsites in the area.

UPDATE 7:12 p.m. PDT:  The Blue Mountain Eagle in John Day reports that the Portland couple are unaccounted for. The sheriff’s department has been in contact with the family, including the man’s brother, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, California. Messages have been left on the couple’s cellphones.

“They’re skilled hikers, and he has some experience with firefighting,” Sheriff Glenn Palmer said.

He said a note was left on the couple’s vehicle, found parked near the High Lake trailhead on the south side of Strawberry Mountain, asking them to call law enforcement. The fire’s about 2.5 miles from the vehicle.

UPDATE 7:22 p.m. PDT:   KEPR-TV reports that the couple has safely got out of the fire area.

Oregon fires update

The 2,000-acre Barry Point Fire southwest of Lakeview, Oregon, is burning on the Fremont-Winema National Forest and private lands. This morning the fire was transitioned to Oregon Incident Management Team 4 (IC Brian Watts).  On Tuesday the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and Forest Service law enforcement notified residents and others in the area that threats from the fire are severe.

Barry Point Fire, 08/07/12  ~  photo by Fred Way
Barry Point Fire, 08/07/12 ~ photo by Fred Way

The fire’s burning in heavy dead and down fuels on steep, rocky terrain. Strong gusty winds, high temperatures, and extremely heavy brush and timber pushed the fire to the north and northeast.

One of Butler’s DC-7 airtankers dropped on the fire, then returned to the Medford tanker base with a bad tire; crews at the base had noted tire pieces on the runway after the tanker left Medford. The pilot of another plane in the air saw that the tire was damaged, and the tire was changed after the tanker returned to Medford.

The Barry Point Fire is threatening the Dog Mountain Lookout, and several road closures are in effect.

The Holloway Fire is at 100,000 acres with just 5 percent containment, with about half the fire in Oregon and the other half in Nevada. The fire’s spread significantly in the northeast and southeast, but the south flank’s been secured. The fire’s threatening communities, critical infrastructure, critical sage grouse habitat, and other natural and cultural resources between McDermitt and Denio, Nevada.

Holloway Fire on the Oregon/Nevada border
Holloway Fire on the Oregon/Nevada border

Chris Ourada’s Great Basin Incident Management Team 6 said the fire’s starting spot fires when it’s burning sagebrush, and crews reported torching, fire whirls, long runs, and extreme fire behavior. Repeatedly shifting winds on the west side have pushed the fire over firelines. Firefighters are working in 100+ temperatures and single-digit humidity.

West of Cove Palisades State Park, the Geneva 12 Fire is burning in juniper, bitterbrush, sage, and grass. It’s 80 percent contained at 1,337 acres, and will transfer bck to the local unit tomorrow. Full containment is expected by this evening. Crews today will mop up smokes and hot spots within 300 feet of containment lines, and rehab is under way. The fire’s on the Crooked River National Grasslands managed by the Ochoco National Forest, private land, and BLM’s Prineville District. Some resources will be released today.

The Lava Fire is north of Christmas Valley, about 15 miles northeast of Fort Rock. It was ignited by lightning on July 23. Improved burning conditions yesterday allowed crews to build perimeter along part of the lava flow border. The fire’s about 50 percent contained at 21,300 acres; it’s been actively backing, with individual tree torching in juniper, grass, and sage.

Tanker 42 drops on the Lava Fire.  Photo by Kevin Abel, Lakeview BLM
Tanker 42 drops on the Lava Fire. Photo by Kevin Abel, Lakeview BLM

Incident managers plan to continue firing along the perimeter until there is a line around the entire fire, keeping the fire from moving out of the lava flow area. It’s in a wilderness study area managed by the BLM’s Lakeview District. Containment’s predicted for August 15.

Large fires in southeast Oregon

Map of Homestead and Long Draw fires
Map of Miller Homestead, Jacks, and Long Draw fires 7-16-2012. ESRI/NIFC/Wildfire Today (Click to enlarge)

Firefighters are starting to get a handle on the large fires in southeast Oregon and southwest Idaho.

The Long Draw Fire north of McDermitt, Nevada has burned 582,313 acres and is 100 percent contained. A transition to a Type 3 Incident Management Team will take place at 6:00 am on Tuesday, July 17.

The Jacks Fire, on BLM land 21 miles southwest of Bruneau, Idaho, is 90 percent contained at 45,000 acres.

The Miller Homestead Fire west of Frenchglen, Oregon is 70 percent contained after burning 162,765 acres. Here are some photos of the fire:

Miller Homestead fire
Miller Homestead fire, Photo by John Britt
Miller Homestead fire, July 14, 2012
Miller Homestead fire, July 14, 2012. Photo by Devon Jones
Miller Homestead fire
Miller Homestead fire, July 10, 2012. Photo by AJ Swartzlender
Miller Homestead fire retardant drops
Retardant drops on the Miller Homestead fire, July 15, 2012. Photo by Mike Stearly