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”.
The Decker Fire of 1959, where six firefighters were killed near the U.S. Forest Service El Cariso fire station west of Lake Elsinore, California, is unique among fatal fires for several reasons: three members of the El Cariso Hotshots died, they were only a couple of miles from their home base, a U.S. Forest Service District Ranger was killed, and one of the primary factors that caused the extreme fire behavior was a locally well-known and predictable diurnal wind shift caused by the dry lake bed of Lake Elsinore that turned the flames against the firefighters, trapping and overrunning them on the Ortega Highway. In addition, this tragedy was followed seven years later by another, when the El Cariso Hotshots were overrun by flames on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in 1966, killing 12 more.
The official report did a pretty good job of explaining the important facts of August 8, 1959. But more than half a century later, a former firefighter who served on the El Cariso Hotshots from 1963 through 1966 conducted extensive research on what happened that day in 1959 and assembled many details that were not included in the U.S. Forest Service report. Julian Lee, Professor of Biology, Emeritus at The University of Miami (now living in New Mexico), made available to us his 27-page description of the Decker Fire. It is very well written and comprehensive, laying out the details of what occurred during and after the fire, as well as providing some analysis.
Mr. Lee’s sources included interviews and correspondence with individuals who were on the fire, CAL FIRE (CDF) documents, newspaper accounts, many USFS documents, training records, documents from ambulance companies, and verbatim transcripts of testimony given by surviving USFS personnel recorded a few days after the incident.
We thank Mr. Lee for his efforts to produce this valuable report, and for his permission to link to it and to post the excerpt below.
There were three burnovers on the fire, but since there were no radios most of the firefighters did not know about them right away unless they were directly involved.
Here is an account of the first, from Mr. Lee’s account:
“… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway like it wasn’t there.”
While Ferguson was moving his crew out of harm’s way, Will Donaldson, a CDF Tank Truck Driver assigned to San Jacinto Station 26 miles to the northeast, was en route to the fire and listening to radio traffic. An early indication that something exceptional was unfolding on the steep slopes above Elsinore came when he heard a report of “… fire storms, and that something was happening on that fire.”
One of the things happening involved John D. Guthrie, a 25 year old CDF Tanker Foreman and his five man crew. They were one of two units dispatched to the Decker Fire from Old Temecula Station, about 18 miles southeast of the fire. Arriving at around 6:40 p.m., they headed up the Ortega Highway toward the fire, with Guthrie behind the wheel of an International tanker with a 500 gallon capacity. They pulled off at a turn-out at the hair-pin turn (Fig. 2).
Guthrie got out and started down the steep bank to get a better look at the fire burning below. Almost immediately he came scrambling back to the truck, yelling for the men on the back of the truck to get into the cab and to move the truck farther up the road to the protection of the high bank at a nearby road cut. There wasn’t room for Guthrie in the cab; he remained outside, intending to use the tanker’s hose to wet himself down for protection. But suddenly, before they could move the truck, the fire burst upon them.
As the wall of flames engulfed the truck and its occupants, it burned through Guthrie’s hose line, rendering it useless and forcing him to dive under his truck for protection. As CDF tanker foreman Ferguson watched “… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway (near the hair-pin turn) like it wasn’t there.” He didn’t realize that Guthrie and his crew had been engulfed by the flames as the fire roared across the highway. This, the first of three burn-over events suffered by personnel fighting the Decker Fire, occurred at about 6:40 p.m.
Two of Guthrie’s crewmen, Art Shannon age 28, and Larry Mollers age 19, received serious burns to their arms and hands. Three others, Eugene Golden, Montie Campbell, and Jim Miller received lesser injuries, but Guthrie was burned over 85 percent of his body. He and his injured men were loaded into a CDF pick-up truck and driven to Lakeland Village at the base of the mountain.
There Guthrie was transferred to a 1953 Pontiac ambulance belonging to the Sunnymead Volunteer Fire Department. The ambulance driver headed for Hemet Hospital, but within a few miles the engine threw a piston rod. Coasting to a stop, the driver rushed into a nearby bar, explained their situation and asked to use the telephone. Upon hearing of their plight, a patron pushed the keys to his car across the bar and said, “Take my station wagon and put him in.” Guthrie was treated at Hemet Hospital, stabilized, and then transferred to a hospital in Redlands. He was the first firefighter to be critically burned on the Decker Fire.”
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.
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.”