On November 18, the day a preliminary report was released for the Twisp River Fire, the firefighter who was severely burned on the incident west of Twisp, Washington left the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Daniel Lyon Jr., 25, one of four people in Engine 642 assigned to the fire on August 19, left the vehicle after it crashed while the crew was trying to drive to a safety zone through a very active part of the fire. He made his way through flames to a road where he was found by another firefighter. The two of them ran down the road until they found an Emergency Medical Technician Paramedic who provided initial treatment before Mr. Lyon was transported by ground ambulance and then a helicopter to the burn unit in Seattle.
The other three firefighters in Engine 642 died in the vehicle, according to the corner’s report, from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. They were Richard Wheeler, 31; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Tom Zbyszewski, 20. All four were employees of the U.S. Forest Service working on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest out of Twisp, Washington.
After spending three months in the hospital and undergoing 11 surgeries, including several skin grafts, Mr. Lyon still has a long road to recovery ahead of him. He suffered third degree burns over nearly 70 percent of his body. The tips of his fingers had to be amputated because his hands were so badly burned, said Dr. Nicole Gibran, director of the burn center, at a news conference on Wednesday.
In addition to the four firefighters in Engine 642, a three-person dozer crew was entrapped when a wind shift caused the fire to spread in their direction. The extreme fire behavior that resulted, forced all fire personnel on the right flank of the fire to seek safety zones — if they could.
As the fire overtook them, the dozer crew initially parked the dozer near a garage and took refuge between the structure and the tractor. When one of them exited the dozer, he left his shelter, thinking he would not need it. Intense heat drove the three of them inside the garage. After the building began burning, they went outside and huddled under two fire shelters on a dirt road.
Below is an excerpt from the preliminary report, from the section about the engine crew’s accident:
…The right side “point of contact” saw Engine 642 driving up to him, so he whistled and swung his hand over his head, indicating they needed to turn around and get out. The “point of contact” yelled, “RTO! [Reverse tool order!],” meaning that all crews needed to follow their escape route back down the road to the safety zone. Engine 642 turned around in the road and was the first engine to head toward the escape route. One of the other 3 engines turned around at the “Y,” and another engine drove up to house 4 to turn around. The fourth engine remained at house 3.
As Engine 642 drove down toward the safety zone, the road was completely obscured by smoke. The engine jolted and dropped down as if a tire had popped. They kept driving downhill, but they had zero visibility, and the engine went off the road. The engine came to a stop, and the surviving firefighter [Mr. Lyon] got out and was immediately engulfed in flames. He went through the flames and made his way to the road…
The document released on November 18 is called an “Interagency Learning Review Status Report”, one of many stages of the Learning Review process that was adopted by the USFS in 2013. It only includes facts, some of them, that have been developed so far in the investigation. It contains no conclusions or recommendations, and does not place blame. It does, however, present some very general “questions to initiate dialogue” related to protecting structures, the use of Type 3 Incident Commanders on a developing fire, communications (as usual in EVERY report), and the use of fire weather forecasts. The narrative in the report is “abridged”, with the full narrative expected to be part of the final report. Eventually a Safety Action Plan with recommendations will released and made available to the public, according to the preliminary report.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology has released a lengthy report on the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado in June, 2012. (It can be downloaded here, but is a large file.)
The 216-page document covers firefighting tactics, how structures ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but does not address to any significant extent the management, planning, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which were some of the largest issues.
The report was put together by five people, Alexander Maranghides, Derek McNamara, Robert Vihnanek, Joseph Restaino, and Carrie Leland.
At least three official reports have been written about the Waldo Canyon Fire, two from the city of Colorado Springs (here and here) and a third from the county sheriff’s office. However one of the most revealing was the result of an independent investigation by a newspaper, the Colorado Springs Independent, which revealed facts that were left out of the government-issued documents, including numerous examples of mismanagement by the city before and during the event.
The fire was first reported the evening of June 22, 2012 on the Pike National Forest. Due at least in part to the anemic response from the U.S. Forest Service, the fire was not located until after noon the following day. No aircraft were requested until firefighters were at the fire, more than 16 hours after the initial report.
However there were only nine large air tankers in the United States on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contracts, down from the 44 we had 10 years before.
The 7-page Executive Summary of this newest report lists 4 primary findings, 37 technical findings, and 13 primary recommendations.
Defensive actions were effective in suppressing burning structures and containing the Waldo Canyon fire.
Pre-fire planning is essential to enabling safe, effective, and rapid deployment of firefighting resources in WUI fires. Effective pre-fire planning requires a better understanding of exposure and vulnerabilities. This is necessary because of the very rapid development of WUI fires.
Current concepts of defensible space do not account for hazards of burning primary structures, hazards presented by embers and the hazards outside of the home ignition zone.
During and/or shortly after an incident, with limited damage assessment resources available, the collection of structure damage data will enable the identification of structure ignition vulnerabilities.
Three of the technical recommendations:
Fire departments should develop, plan, train and practice standard operating procedures for responding to WUI fires in their specific communities. These procedures should result from scientifically mapping a community’s high- and low-risk areas of exposure to both the fire and embers generated during WUI events (as will be possible using the WUI Hazard Scale).
A “response time threshold” for WUI fires should be established for each community. Fire departments have optimal “time-to-response” standards for reaching urban fires. Similar thresholds can, and should be, set for WUI fires.
High-density structure-to-structure spacing in a community should be identified and considered in WUI fire response plans. In the Waldo Canyon fire, the majority of homes destroyed were ignited by fire and embers coming from other nearby residences already on fire. Based on this observation, the researchers concluded that structure spatial arrangements in a community must be a major consideration when planning for WUI fires.
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.
Entrapment site of firefighters on the Valley Fire. Photo from the CAL FIRE report. (click to enlarge)
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has released a report for an entrapment with injuries that occurred on the Valley Fire September 12, 2015. The fire burned 76,000 acres 62 miles north of San Francisco.
Four firefighters from a helitack crew that had arrived at the fire via helicopter were on the ground fighting the fire with hand tools when they were surrounded by the fire during initial attack operations and suffered serious burn injuries. Below is an excerpt from the report.
“…FC1 directed FF3, FF4 and FF5 to get into the goat pen, which was clear to bare mineral soil. While in the goat pen they observed the fire behavior changing. There was an increase in the wind speed, and an increased number of spot fires in the pine needle duff and leaf litter surrounding them. FF3 saw fire sheeting and swirling across the dirt driveway on the northwest side of the goat pen; several pines torched on the west side of the steel garage.
From the location of RES2, FF2 observed increased fire behavior advancing toward Helitack A’s location. FF2 communicated the increased fire behavior using the radio; FC1 acknowledged FF2’s observation.
At approximately 1402 hours, the brush covered slope to their east completely torched into a wall of flame. The wall of flame sent a significant wave of radiant heat through the goat pen and onto the firefighters. They could feel their faces burning from the radiant heat and all four firefighters ran to the fence, climbed over, and ran towards the steel garage. At the steel garage Helitack A started to deploy their fire shelters.
“May-Day” was transmitted from FC1 and was heard over the radio. From the location of a third residence (RES3), FC2 could hear FC1 say over the radio, “Four have deployed their shelters, near a barn on the right flank.” FF4 had difficulty opening the fire shelter case from the Chainsaw Pack; the clear plastic covering of the fire shelter was soft and melted. FF4 had to remove the gloves to tear the plastic away from the aluminum shell of the fire shelter. FF3 couldn’t get the fire shelter out of the case because the clear plastic cover was melted to the white plastic protective sleeve. FF3 looked up and saw FF4 at the north side (D) of the steel garage. FF3 dropped the fire shelter on the ground and ran to FF4’s location. FF3 and FF4 shared FF4’s fire shelter and stayed together in a crouched position. FC1 and FF5 deployed their fire shelters on the east side (A) of the steel garage. The heat in front of the steel garage was too intense so they moved to the north side (D) of the steel garage with FF3 and FF4 where the atmosphere seemed to be cooler.
Helitack A huddled together shielding the heat away from their already burned faces and hands; each of them could see the visible burns to one another’s faces and hands. FC1 continued to use the radio requesting bucket drops from C1 on their deployment location to cool the atmosphere. FF5 attempted to drink the water from the hydration pack but the water from the mouth piece was too hot to drink. While crouched in their fire shelters next to the steel garage, Helitack A suddenly heard explosions coming from inside the now burning structure. As a group, Helitack A moved a safe distance from the structure. Helitack A eventually crouched along the dirt driveway, separating the dirt garden and the goat pen.
From the driveways of RES3 and a fourth residence (RES4), FC2 directed C1 to make bucket drops into Helitack A’s location at the top of the ridge. C1 orbiting above and was unable to get near their location at the top of the ridge due to the thick column of smoke convecting straight up into the atmosphere…”
FC1 suffered second and third degree burns to the head, face, ears, neck, back, arms, hands, legs and feet and has had several surgeries. FC1 remains in critical condition and is under the continued care of UCD Burn Center.
FF4 suffered first and second degree burns to the face, head, ears, arms and hands and is under the continued care of UCD Medical Center.
FF5 suffered first and second degree burns to the face, head, ears, arms, foot and hands and is under the continued care of UCD Medical Center.
FF3 suffered first and second degree burns to the face, head, ears, arms and hands and is under the continued care of UCD Medical Center.”
The report lists 13 “Safety issues for review and lessons learned”. Here are the first five:
“Crews must utilize L.C.E.S [lookouts, communications, escape routes, safety zones] when engaged in firefighting operations.
ALL Ten Standard Fire Orders MUST be obeyed at ALL TIMES.
Personnel MUST wear ALL CAL FIRE APPROVED PPE when engaged in firefighting operation.
Modifying Personal Protective Equipment can alter the protective properties.
Practice and prepare for shelter deployment in adverse and extreme conditions.”
Cold Brook Prescribed Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after it escaped, crossing Highway 385. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)
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.
Photo taken of the area where the Cold Brook prescribed fire crossed US Highway 385, taken 39 days after the fire.
A preliminary report has been released for an accident that involved a firefighter who sustained a broken leg on July 20 and was extracted by short-haul the next day. This occurred on the Gregg Creek Fire in the Willamette National Forest east of Corvallis, Oregon. Earlier, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release with some basic information, but on July 26 the Willamette National Forest, over the signature of Forest Supervisor Tracy Beck, filed a “72-Hour Preliminary Report” approximately 144 hours after the extraction.
Below is the narrative and a photo from the report:
“On July 20th, at approximately 2100 hours a Type Two IA crew was hiking off of the Gregg Creek Fire when a crewmember fell and sustained a lower leg injury. Crew EMT’s assessed the patient using the Medical Incident Report in the IRPG indicating “Priority-YELLOW (serious injury)”. The IC of the fire requested aerial extraction of the injured person though Eugene Interagency Dispatch (EICC). An additional 20 person hand crew, paramedics and overhead were dispatched to the incident to support medical evacuation operations while EICC pursued night time aerial extraction options. Both Oregon Air National Guard and United States Coast Guard were contacted for possible night time aerial extraction.
At 0303 hours on July 21st aerial extraction was attempted by the US Coast Guard without success due to excessive rotor wash creating additional hazards (ember showers and snags falling). Local cooperator Paramedics hiked in and were able to assist with patient care. A short-haul mission was ordered for first light.
At approximately 0830 hours short-haul operations were completed by a National Park Service short-haul capable helicopter which was prepositioned in the area due to fire activity. The patient was transported to a hospital and treated for a broken fibula and associated ankle injuries requiring surgery.”
On July 21, 2015 at Corvallis, Oregon a helicopter would have been permitted to begin flying at 5:18 a.m. PT, which was 30 minutes before sunrise.