Last summer a firefighter received severe burns to his back, both legs, and left arm after a drip torch attached to the pack on his back leaked fuel which ignited. The accident occurred September 9, 2015 on the Perdida Fire managed by the Bureau of Land Management northwest of Taos, New Mexico. The firefighter was one of seven igniters assigned to the fire which had a total of nine personnel.
The individual who was injured had been igniting with a drip torch while he carried an extra one attached to the pack on his back. The torch leaked fuel which caught fire.
…Igniter #1 saw that the victim’s line gear and back of his legs were on fire so he tried to put the fire out with dirt and by patting at the flame with his gloved hand. Igniter #1 told the victim to get on the ground and they both fell together. The victim got back up and ran while trying to get his glove off and then his pack, successfully. The victim then stumbled but regained his footing briefly before falling back to the ground. At this point, Igniters #1 and #3 converged and patted out the fire on the victim’s pants…<
The photos below are from the report.
One of the issues pointed out in the report is a significant delay in requesting a medevac. About 40 minutes elapsed before medevac was requested, and that was for a ground ambulance even though the victim apparently had second and third degree burns. That request was quickly upgraded to transport by helicopter. The report concluded that according to the burn injury protocol a medevac should have been initiated upon the determination of second and third degree burns and the remoteness of the incident.
The medevac pilot was unable to communicate with the personnel on the ground because he could not program the frequency into the helicopter’s radio.
The lat/long was called in to dispatch from the incident scene 23 minutes after the helicopter was requested (about an hour after the accident occurred), and four minutes before it landed at the extrication point.
The report recommended that firefighters should avoid carrying extra drip torches on their packs during ignition operations.
We did not see anything in the report about how fire resistant clothing that has not been washed for an extended period of time may, or may not, cause the clothing to lose some of its resistance to fire. But it did say “PPE [personal protection equipment] should be kept clean and inspected often for damage and fuel contamination”.
When I heard this morning that the Black Hills National Forest was going to conduct a 94-acre prescribed fire today I looked out my window at the snow in my yard. Curious about how they were going to accomplish this I departed on a expedition to answer this question. It being close to lunch time I stopped at the Dew Drop In for a burger and their wonderful homemade fries, and then again at the TurtleTown chocolate shop for, obviously, a bag of chocolate turtles.
Passing near the Crazy Horse mega-sculpture I saw two bald eagles on the ground in a pasture. I pulled over onto a nearby side road hoping to get a photo, but they were pretty skittish and rudely flew away. But I still grabbed a few not very impressive photos.
By the time I made it to the Whaley prescribed fire near Hill City, South Dakota, I was no longer hungry and was ready to see how the the U.S. Forest Service fire folks were going to pull this off.
It turned out that there was almost no snow on the south facing slopes and they were about 75 percent done with ignition when I pulled up. But there was still snow in some of the flat lands and shaded areas, enough to make it pretty easy to find snow fields, in addition to roads, to serve as control lines.
At the Elk Mountain weather station the temperature was in the 40s, the relative humidity in the low 30s, and the sky was partly cloudy. As it turned out, a good day for being out in the woods with a drip torch.
The video at the top of the article includes still photos, video clips, and an interview with Todd Pechota, the Fire Staff Officer for the Black Hills National Forest.
Below is an excerpt from the article at Capital Public Radio about the controversy:
“The US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station won’t let forest ecologist Malcolm North talk about the study he authored in the journal Science.
The agency even unsuccesfully requested that Science editors hold the article or remove North’s name and affiliation from the peer-reviewed study. The paper “Reform Forest Fire Management” says suppressing every fire in overgrown forests is not only expensive but dangerous and ill-advised.
Strong words perhaps, but UC Berkeley Fire Scientist Scott Stephens, who co-authored the paper, says they are not controversial.
“I read the paper many times,” says Stephens. “I just didn’t see something jump, like this would be something that would really cause great problems.”
The study considers ways to make forests less prone to wildfire, by thinning trees in overgrown forests, using controlled burns or allowing natural fires to burn under the right conditions.
US Forest Service policy actually supports those actions, but the authors point out such efforts rarely occur. In the decade ending in 2008, only 0.4 percent of ignitions were allowed to burn as managed wildfires…”
The National Park Service has released a “Facilitated Learning Analysis” (FLA) for the prescribed fire that escaped in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota April 13, 2015. The Cold Brook prescribed fire spotted almost 200 feet across U.S. Highway 385 burning an unplanned 5,420 acres beyond the 1,000 acres planned, all within the boundaries of the park. There were no injuries and no structures or private property burned. (In the interest of full disclosure, for five years the writer of this article was the Fire Management Officer for the NPS’ Northern Great Plains Fire Management Group which includes Wind Cave NP.)
During the suppression action an all terrain vehicle with two people on board overturned. It was destroyed immediately by the approaching fire as the firefighters “jogged side-slope away from the fire until they had sufficient visibility to see their escape route safely into the black.” The line gear belonging to one of the two firefighters was consumed in the fire, since he did not have time to retrieve it from the tipped-over vehicle as the fire bore down.
The 72-hour preliminary report on the incident stated that the FLA would be “due to the NPS Midwest Regional Director by May 29, 2015”. The report that was released through the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center is dated today.
The document, which you can download here (9 Mb), is long (62 pages of small font) and quite thorough. It delves deeply, very deeply, into the on site weather and long term weather records, as expected, and explores in detail the use of ATVs on prescribed burns and wildfires. In addition to discussion of the fire-related aspects of the analysis, the four writers, from the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service, recommended that the “Technology and Development” program develop a wildland fire standard for equipment, configuration and performance of motorized off-highway vehicles.
The report includes a link to a time-lapse video, unlisted on YouTube, which I had not previously seen. Below is, first, a screen grab from the video, which we annotated, and after that the video itself. At 0:30, it goes by very quickly, but you can see the spot fire taking off.
It may just be the time compression of the video, but it appears that the ignition within a few hundred feet of the highway, including the patches of pines, was aggressive. A gust of wind that occurred as a patch of pines were burning intensely laid the smoke down close to the ground just before the spot fire became visible. The firefighters had expected that if there were spot fires on the east side, it would be short range and in grass, easily suppressed. In the video, it appears possible that burning embers could have been lofted from the patches of timber that burned intensely, rather than grass spotting into grass. Embers from heavy fuels and standing trees can travel much farther than from grass.
There are no earth-shaking revelations in the report. As is typical with FLAs, it has a long list of “notable successes”. Here are a few:
The fire remained within the park boundaries.
No structures burned.
Training and experience led to a smooth transition to suppression.
In spite of the escape, they still completed the prescribed fire.
Interagency involvement, response and support for both the prescribed and wildfire side of operations was quick and supportive with no delays.
Knowing that a Red Flag Warning was in the forecast for the next day, they aggressively staffed the night shift in order to pick up the escape, knowing that if they failed it would be difficult to acquire adequate staffing for the next day. They stopped the spread that night, therefore large numbers of resources were not needed the next day.
A sampling of some of the issues identified in the report:
There was pressure from the Chief of Resources in the Park to complete the burn that day.
There was a perceived need to burn on the high end of the prescription in order to achieve the desired level of tree mortality.
There were not enough firefighting resources on the east side of the burn when the escape occurred. More emphasis was placed on the south and west sides near the park boundary, areas with heavier fuels, where they figured escapes were more likely and would have serious consequences if they spread outside the park.
Because of drought, fuels were abnormally dry.
Before the project began, the Burn Plan was amended and approved, reducing the number of personnel required from 52 to 30. On the day of the burn 38 were assigned.
Staffing levels in fire management at Wind Cave NP have suffered reductions, as has most of the NPS, but there has been no reduction in expectations for the accomplishment of prescribed fires in Wind Cave or the other seven parks the Fire Management Officer is responsible for.
The Fire Management Officer reports to eight different park superintendents, all with different expectations, similar burn windows, and priorities for burning.
The eight-foot high bison-proof fence on the western boundary of the park and the burn unit would have required that if firefighters were about to be entrapped by the fire or if there was a spot fire across it, they would have to scale the fence. The location of the fence, and the boundary on that side of the project, was not easy to defend.
Some of the personnel interviewed for the report were disappointed that there was no After Action Review after the escaped fire.
Everyone assigned to the incident was qualified for their positions, except for one person whose Work Capacity Test expired four days before the prescribed fire.
The rollover of the ATV was the second one at the Park in three years. About 13 years ago another ATV caught fire on a prescribed fire in the Park and was destroyed, but did not roll over.
ATV training does not include learning to operate the vehicle on the fireline.
The Ag Pumps used on the ATVs on the incident had been switched out for Mini-strikers which do not provide enough power to be successful during aggressive suppression activities.
We have one criticism of the report, which is otherwise quite good. The maps are difficult to read. This is partially caused by the very dark background satellite image which does not add value but instead makes the maps, at least as they are represented in the .pdf document and viewed on a computer screen, almost useless. They might be more usable if printed, but who prints a 62-page report anymore? Unfortunately, maps are an integral part of documents like this.
One segment of the report that is interesting is that after acknowledging that risk is involved in prescribed fire, the authors wrote, “If you choose not to accept the risk of prescribed fire, then you may be transferring risk” to communities, the public, private lands, natural resources, or a situation that is significantly less manageable than the current situation such as a wildfire.
About four days after the incident South Dakota’s senior Senator, John Thune, sent a very strongly-worded letter to the Secretary of the Interior using phrases like “could easily have been prevented”, “jeopardizing lives and property”, “smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves”, and demanding that reimbursement is made quickly to “private individuals, landowners, and local, county, and state entities who suffered economic losses”. Ready, Fire, Aim.
One of the conclusions identified in the report is:
The ignition of the prescribed fire was within the prescription parameters set forth in the prescribed fire plan, it was not ignited during a fire weather watch or warning and the burn was expected to be completed prior to the next day, April 14th.
The Senator also has introduced a bill that would require “collaboration with state government and local fire officials before a prescribed burn could be started on federal land when fire danger is at certain levels in the area of the prescribed burn”. The report has an entire section, Appendix Five, titled “Interagency Communication and Comment”. Here is an excerpt:
Interagency support for the prescribed fire program at Wind Cave National Park is strong, and the lead interviewer stated she heard “a tremendous amount of support” in the interviews she conducted. It is of note that the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center was one of the first in the nation to fully support not only Federal agencies, but the state of South Dakota as well, beginning in 2003. Since the Center serves as the central ordering point all agencies, communication is streamlined, and resource availability is better known to all the partners.
It was apparent to all Team members that NPS staff has put a great deal of effort into the Interagency working relationships over the years and are considered professional partners.
At about 5:15 p.m. today, July 27, engines from the Hot Springs Volunteer Fire Department responded to and extinguished a grass fire several miles southeast of the town east of US Highway 385 in southwest South Dakota. We were able to grab a few photos as they worked their way around it using nozzles aimed at the fire from the safety and comfort of the passenger seats of the trucks.
The fire burned surprisingly well, considering it has been a very wet spring and summer in the Black Hills. As you can see in the photos, the grass is still pretty green, for late July.
At the initial attack, they called it 10 acres; I’m not sure what the final size was but they stopped it pretty quickly. Mopup was assisted by a thunderstorm that passed over the fire. Speaking of thunderstorms, there was a lot of lightning in the county before (and after) the fire, so that may have been the cause. It started in the middle of a field, not close to any road or structures.