Report released for entrapment of firefighters on the Valley Fire

Valley fire entrapment site

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.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to John.

Report released for escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave NP

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015

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.)

Overturned ATV Cold Brook RxDuring 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.

Cold Brook escaped prescribed fire spot fire

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:

    • No injuries.
    • 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.

Wind Cave prescribed fire

Photo taken of the area where the Cold Brook prescribed fire crossed US Highway 385, taken 39 days after the fire.

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota (updated with post-fire photos)
A UTV burned in the escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire
Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire
Senator criticizes Park Service over escaped prescribed fire
Bill introduced to require local approval or collaboration of prescribed fires
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “escaped prescribed fire”
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “prescribed fire”

Report released for short-haul extraction of firefighter with broken leg

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)”. Gregg Creek Short-haulThe 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.

$50 million in claims over escaped prescribed fire reportedly denied

Pautre Fire origin

USFS photo from the report on the escaped prescribed fire, the Pautre Fire, in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Department of Agriculture, in a letter signed by Department Secretary Tom Vilsack, is denying $50 million in claims filed by sixteen ranchers and landowners over a prescribed fire that escaped and burned 10,679 acres in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The “Pasture 3B” prescribed fire was planned to be 210 acres on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

In explaining the denial, Secretary Vilsack said the Forest Service relied on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, that ultimately proved inaccurate.

In February, 2014 the US Forest Service released a report about the fire, called a “Facilitated Learning Analysis. The issues listed by the document included:

  • Improved weather forecasts are needed.
  • Consider additional research on methods to predict effects of drought on fire behavior in grass fuel models.
  • The nearest remote automated weather station (RAWS) is more than 90 miles away.
  • The project was conducted at the critical edge of the prescription.
  • Consider gaming out worst case scenario “what ifs” during the planning process, and discuss with participants during the on-site briefing.
  • There were problems with radio communications [note from Bill: I don’t remember EVER seeing a report like this that did not cite radio communications as being an issue].

California: Report released on Bernardo Fire

Bernardo Fire

Bernardo Fire. Screen grab from live video from NBC7 at about 4 p.m. PDT, May 13, 2014.

The Bernardo Fire that started May 13, 2014 was one of the first in a series of 12 large wildfires that occurred in San Diego County during a 10-day period in mid-May. No homes were destroyed, in spite of the fact that it burned through and adjacent to dense housing developments. This was a testament to the community planning and preparedness that is evident in many areas in California.

A 72-page report has been released on the 1,548-acre fire which identified lessons learned and recommendations for change. Examples include:

  • Outfit five Type 1 engines for immediate deployment during high risk wildland fire days. The engines would have all radios, pagers, MDC, EMS equipment (short narcotics) on board. Storage could possibly be within the Repair Facility.
  • Purchase and make available additional radios and batteries to meet the needs of large-scale incidents.
  • Direct Division/Group Supervisors to identify supply Drop Points and Staging Areas within their geographic divisions and/or functional groups.
  • Increase the number of City fire/rescue medium-lift helicopters to three (3) to insure SDFD’s ability to provide aerial fire suppression and rescue.
  • Request funding to hire additional brush management inspectors. A total of 22 positions are required to conduct annual inspections of the 42,505 private parcels in the wildland/urban interface within the City of San Diego. The Department currently has 6 positions dedicated to these inspections.
  • Train additional Department personnel to fill all IMT, DOC, and EOC positions to a minimum three-deep roster. Consideration should be given to using non-uniformed staff for incident support positions to free uniformed staff for key skills or fire line assignments.
  • Ensure that only one ICP is being utilized. One of the benefits may be that angled drafting tables, large-scale maps, and overlays would be made available by one of the other agencies in UC. Purchase and make available the drafting tables, large scale maps, printers and plotters and install in the CIMU vehicles.
  • Consider including redlines and foam pro systems in future fire engine specifications.
  • Consider assigning water tenders to each strike team and task force.
  • Issue each individual SDPD officer their own vegetation fire PPE so that they are equipped with the necessary safety equipment upon arrival at a vegetation fire.
  • Adoption of Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) as a geospatial communications and collaborations tool should be discussed at a regional level.
  • Provide display processing equipment at the ICP to include hardware and tools necessary to provide a large format, bright, clear picture for collaboration should be determined and purchased. Provide command vehicles both paper backup large format topographical or satellite maps and a digital map display solution. Ideally, a “Google Earth-like” solution on a large format touch screen monitor should be run. NICS provides the basis for this type of map display collaboration and markup. Properly paired with the correct hardware either in command vehicles or support vehicles will allow incident managers better awareness.
  • Consider extending capability to track additional support vehicles (and staff) utilizing existing GPS technology tracking hardware/services.

Investigation report released for Black Forest Fire

Origin of the Black Forest Fire

Origin of the Black Forest Fire

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has released a summary report on the investigation of the Black Forest Fire which started June 11, 2013 near Colorado Springs, Colorado. The fire killed two people and burned 489 houses and 14,280 acres, resulting in $420 million in insured losses.

The investigators eliminated natural causes, such as lightning. That left human-related ignitions.

Below are excerpts from the report:

…Given the known devastation of the fire at that point, an Investigation Team was formed consisting of recognized experts in the area of Wildland fire investigation from agencies including the USDA Forest Service, the Aurora Fire Department, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATFE), the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and others. This team was assisted by surveyors from the El Paso County Public Services Department.

The only clearly established fact was that no natural causes existed and thus the fire was human caused. A potential cause associated with the metal particles can not be ruled out, or positively identified. A potential cause associated with an intentional ignition is not supported by the evidence or circumstances, but can not be completely ruled out. The origin of the fire is in an area that is not readily accessible from a roadway, allowing an easy escape, as is typical in intentionally set Wildland fires. There was no evidence of any other miscellaneous cause such as blasting, fireworks, welding, target shooting, etc.

Upon the completion of the investigation, the entire case was reviewed by the Sheriff’s Office Investigations Division and the District Attorney’s Office to determine if any additional leads remained. It was the determination of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office that there was not sufficient evidence to warrant criminal prosecution at this time. None of the investigation or forensic examination supported any one possibility to the extent needed to pursue criminal charges. Additionally, no additional recommended follow-up work could be identified at this time.

Three other reports have previously been released about the Black Forest Fire:

  1. Report on how the fire was managed on the first day, issued by the Black Forest Fire District Board on February 19, 2014. The complete report can no longer be found on the District’s web site.
  2. A 2,000 page, 345 megabyte report, released March 14, 2014, commissioned by the Black Forest Fire District which evaluated how the fire was managed, including the performance of Fire Chief Bob Harvey during the first hours of the fire. Sheriff Terry Maketa had been extremely critical of the Chief in numerous interviews with the media. The complete report can no longer be found on the District’s web site.
  3. After Action Report, by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, May 15, 2014. We preserved this report on the Wildfire Today web site.