Safety meeting topic: taking calculated risks

Firefighters — at your next safety meeting, here is a topic worthy of discussion: taking calculated risks on a fire.

On October 2, 1943 on the Cleveland National Forest east of San Diego 11 people fighting the fire, mostly Marines, were killed on the Hauser Creek Fire.

Below, is the second paragraph from the Recommendations section of the official report on the fatalities. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Hauser Creek Fire

What  do you think about taking “calculated risks”?


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


Three accident reports: two heavy equipment rollovers and a bucking incident


The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has posted three Rapid Lesson Sharing reports. The photos above are from two rollovers of heavy equipment, a forwarder and a hydro ax. Click on the image to see a larger version.

The photo below is from a report on a serious bucking accident in which two people were injured. Both were transported to a hospital, one in an ambulance and the other in a helicopter.

Bucking accidentAs Sgt. Phil Esterhaus said, “Let’s be careful out there.”



Wildfire briefing, August 24, 2014

U.S. Forest Service on hauling firefighters in cargo trucks

We asked the USFS to comment on the California National Guard’s practice of hauling their firefighting troops in the back of cargo trucks, which we wrote about earlier.

National Guard troops In cargo truck

National Guard troops in cargo truck in Yreka, California, August 14, 2014.

A spokesperson for the agency, Mike Ferris, said:

This is not an activity that the Forest Service practices. The California National Guard was deployed on three different incidents in Northern California: Little Deer; Log; and Lodge fires. National Guard resources were ordered and managed by Cal Fire.

When we asked if the USFS was concerned about firefighters being injured if there was a truck rollover or another type of accident, Mr. Ferris said:

Firefighter and public safety are the top priorities in wildfire management. Safety Officers at large fire incidents identify and address known risks and implement mitigations consistent with incident objectives.

We offered the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) an opportunity to weigh in on the issue, but they declined.

Florida motorists warned about wildfire smoke

Smoke from a wildfire has prompted the Florida Highway Patrol to issue a warning for motorists in St. Johns County. The agency issued a Travel Advisory for travel on Interstate 95 south of International Golf Parkway.

Smoke from a wildfire nearby might affect roadways. Visibility may deteriorate quickly due to smoke or fog-type conditions especially during the evening and early morning hours. Motorists should reduce their speed as necessary to avoid a collision, and use their low-beam headlights in order to adapt to the changing weather conditions, according to the highway patrol.

Efforts continue to pass wildfire funding bill

In spite of several failed attempts over the last several months to pass a bill that would fully fund wildfires in a manner similar to other natural disasters, some senators and representatives in Idaho and Oregon have not given up.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Spokesman-Review:

…The House version of the bill has 131 co-sponsors, including Idaho 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The Senate version has 18 co-sponsors including [Idaho Senator Jim] Risch.

In the House, “Some folks are concerned about changing the spending matrix, primarily Paul Ryan, head of the budget committee,” [Idaho Senator Mike Crapo's press secretary Lindsay] Nothern said. “We did go out and get a CBO report that showed it is budget-neutral, because we already spend disaster money on disasters such as this.”

He added, “There is support for it among leadership in both the Senate and the House, on both sides of the aisle.” But on its first attempt at passage, Nothern said, the proposal got lumped in with other issues including the president’s border proposal, and it didn’t pass. “We are hoping for a stand-alone bill, and then the only opposition we have is Ryan.”

The Onion’s parody kills off Smokey Bear

The Onion, a parody website, is “reporting” that the “U.S. Forest Service Kills Off Smokey Bear To Get People Serious About Fire Safety”. The images in the video of the iconic bear being killed may not be suitable for children.


Using “margin” for safety analysis

Fighting wildfires is dangerous, in spite of reports that some firefighters don’t see it that way. In  Matthew Desmond’s book, On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, he quotes one:

If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.

An industry has grown up around on-the-job safety. People with advanced degrees frequently come up with new ways of analyzing conditions in the workplace and how to prevent accidents and fatalities. Some of their products are useful.

A system that is new to us is called “margin”. In an article posted this month on the Wildland Fire Leadership webpage, it is described as: “The influence that conditions have on decisions and actions.”

Below is an excerpt from the article, which included the video above.

Comparing the Swiss Cheese Model (SCM) and Margin is not a direct “apples to apples” comparison. The SCM was introduced to the wildland fire community through the L-380 curriculum and is intended primarily, as an “ innovative framework for thinking about human error…[that] scrutinizes all levels in an organization when looking for the causes of human error” (Mission-Centered Solutions Inc., 2007, p. 55). It was designed to pinpoint the causes of an accident or error by describing the holes in defenses that, when aligned through multiple levels, create an error chain. Margin, is focused on the influence that conditions have on decisions and actions; it does not attempt to describe a linear causal relationship among conditions at various levels, rather it describes the collective influence of these conditions. The focus can then shift from cause to understanding the capacity to cope with uncertainty, error and surprise. SCM is intended to make sense of an accident after it happens, whereas margin, while it can be used in accident analysis, is designed to help users describe the potential for the system to do harm before an accident occurs…


There oughta be a law

National Guard open truck hauling firefighters

California National Guard open truck hauling firefighters on State Highway 3 through Yreka, California, at 6:45 p.m. PDT, August 13, 2014.

(UPDATE: we received a response from the California National Guard. Scroll down.)

I can’t believe we are still hauling wildland firefighters in the open backs of California National Guard cargo trucks. If the truck rolls, all of the firefighters will be ejected, and the truck may roll over on them.

I observed four California National Guard trucks like this one traveling down State Highway 3 in Yreka, California all loaded with firefighters in the back on August 13, 2014, between 6:40 and 6:45 p.m. PDT. They were heading toward the staging area at the fairgrounds.

Can this still be legal in 2014? The U.S. Forest Service did this in the 1970s, not knowing better, but in the 21st Century, this is Third World Country crap.

National Guard open trucks

California National Guard open trucks at the fairgrounds staging area in Yreka, California, August 13, 2014. Some of these hauled firefighters in the back.

Military trucks do roll over. We found a GAO report about one of the predecessors of the truck seen in the photo, the M939 five ton truck, which had a much higher accident and fatality rate than other military vehicles, including the 2.5 ton truck. Between 1987 and 1998 there were 320 accidents in which the truck rolled over, killing 62 people.

In 1998 a newer version of the 2.5 ton truck was restricted to 30 mph because of its record of rolling over.

While it may save money to use cargo trucks to carry firefighters, that is not sufficient justification for putting them in the back of an open truck traveling on highways and narrow dirt roads that lead into forest fires.


We sent a Tweet to the California National Guard, asking about this, and received this reply:

Neither a strap or a tarp are going to provide much rollover protection.


Lesson learned: heat-related illness

Lesson learned, heat related illness

A crewperson on an Angeles National Forest hotshot crew had a close call in June with a heat-related illness. While engaged in strenuous physical activity, the firefighter developed severe cramps and had a temperature two degrees lower than normal. During a five-hour period he or she drank all the water from their 100-ounce Camelback once, and again later after refilling it, plus two Gatorades.

The EMTs on the crew who recognized the serious potential of the person’s condition arranged for transportation to a hospital. It turned out to be a mild case of rhabdomyolysis which, if not caught in time and treated can be fatal. The EMT that accompanied the firefighter to the hospital insisted that tests for rhabdo be done, even though the staff at the hospital had not planned on doing the tests.

The hotshot also had hyponatremia, which is a severe imbalance of water to salt. Drinking large quantities of water without enough fluids with electrolytes can cause hyponatremia.

Congratulations to the hotshot crew and the EMTs for making good decisions during this serious incident.

You can read the entire report here, but below are the Lessons Learned:

  • Know yourself and know each other. Each person must monitor their water and sports drink intake. Supervisors must ensure all crewmembers are getting adequate electrolyte replacement.
  • Recognize fatigue and take action early, before it can lead to a heat-­related illness. This may require taking breaks due to environmental conditions.
  • Do not count on observing classic heat-­‐illness symptoms; patient may not present the symptoms you have been trained to look for.
  • The patient is not the one who decides if he or she goes to the hospital. It is the decision of the first responder, EMT, or higher-­‐ranking individual, due to the nature and/or severity of the injury/illness and/or agency protocol.
  • If employees are treated for heat-­‐related illness, the treating facility should be asked to check for rhabdomyolysis. The patient’s representative must insist that CPK, potassium phosphate, and myoglobin tests are done initially and on the follow up appointment.

In 2007 a California radio station held a contest to see who could win a Wii game console by drinking the most water without going to the bathroom. Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old mother of three, died of hyponatremia after drinking about two gallons of water. A jury found the radio station liable, and awarded her husband $16.5 million.

We have written previously about the “Myth of drinking water”. Some may assume that drinking lots of liquids will prevent heat related illnesses, but that is not always the case. In the article, we quoted Dr. Brent Ruby, who has conducted research in this area. In the quote below he was referring to the 2011 Caleb Hamm fatality on the CR337 Fire in Texas. Mr. Hamm was a member of the Bureau of Land Management’s Bonneville Interagency Hotshot crew.

Dr. Ruby:

I was bothered by the findings of the CR337 fatality report from the investigation team. There are issues within this case that are very similar to a published heat exhaustion case study we published recently (Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 22, 122-125, 2011, In this report, we document drinking behavior, activity patterns, skin and core temperatures in a subject that suffered heat exhaustion and required evacuation. The lessons learned from this research clearly indicate that the best protection against a heat injury is reducing work rate…