Report released on fatality of Oklahoma grader operator

grader Jack Osben wildfire fatality
The grader that Jack Osben was operating. Photo taken two days after the burnover. From the FLA.

The Wildland fire Lessons Learned Center has released a Facilitated Learning Analysis on the fatality of Jack Osben, the grader operator who was burned over while working on the Shaw Fire in Western Oklahoma April 12, 2018. The tragedy occurred during extreme conditions — extended drought, 100 degrees, 5 percent relative humidity, 45 mph winds, and the fire was burning in thick grass that had not been grazed or hayed in seven to eight years.

The executive summary is below. The entire document can be downloaded (4 MB file).


*Except for Jack Osben, all names are pseudonyms

On April 12th, 2018, 61-year-old Jack Osben, a motor grader operator for Roger Mills County in Oklahoma and volunteer firefighter died as a result of thermal burns while providing initial attack to the Shaw Fire. The wildfire grew to approximately 3,500 acres in a mixture of grass and shrubs during a Red Flag Warning day. The employees of Roger Mills County were in a state of readiness due to a mixture of prolonged drought, extreme heat, and gusting winds that had created extremely dangerous wildfire conditions.

Shaw Fire grader fatality
The Shaw Fire, as seen from a grader approaching the fire. From the FLA.

Jack was performing progressive line construction using a motor grader on the Shaw Fire. While he had been working as a grader operator for a few years, he had limited experience using the grader related to fire suppression activities. Between 1400-1430 hours Jack met up and began working with Alex, a fellow grader operator who had more than two decades of experience fighting fire.

Although they entered the field at different locations, they converged almost immediately. Alex instructed Jack to fall in line behind him to improve the initial grader line. After working together to establish line for about 4,000 feet, Alex lost sight of Jack’s grader in the smoke and flames, which had grown significantly and shifted directions quickly.

Due to the fire’s shift in direction, Alex was forced to abandon his grader. He began to walk toward a nearby road when he spotted Jack, who was also on foot emerging from the smoke. They spoke briefly when they met. Alex observed that Jack had visible burns to his arms and was possibly suffering from smoke inhalation. The reality was that Jack’s injuries were much worse than they appeared. He died as a result of thermal burns either during transit in the ambulance or right after arriving at the hospital.

This accident took place in Western Oklahoma where the tactical use of motor graders for wildland fire line construction is common. Additionally, there is different emphasis on values at risk, namely that firefighters in Western Oklahoma commonly protect grass for cattle grazing. Other regions may rank grass as a low value-at-risk but it is absolutely a consideration for how people in this region fight fire and manage land1.

This is the first Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) to emerge from the State of Oklahoma. In brief, the FLA process is meant to facilitate learning from unintended outcomes by interviewing people who were involved in the event, and sharing a collective story of their experiences. We also offer lessons learned from those involved and with their help, generate recommendations that may be useful for people within and outside of the region.

For many readers, this analysis will serve as an introduction to a different way of fighting fire with some of these methods appearing unconventional. But, in the words of one of the grader operators, “you make do with what you have.” Even if the methods and context are different, this statement ties together the ethos of wildland firefighters everywhere. It is also important to note that the men and women of Roger Mills County are exceptional at what they do and have an impressive record of doing it safely.

Skidgeon on the Cougar Creek Fire

BLM crew of veterans trains National Guardsmen

Cougar Creek Fire Skidgeon
A Soft Track Skidgeon filling a pumpkin water tank on the Cougar Creek Fire, Okanogan-Wenatchee NF, WA, 2018. Photo: Kari Greer, NIFC. Click to enlarge.

I ran across this photo of a Soft Track Skidgeon, and since it is an interesting machine, I wanted to post it. It was on Flickr along with dozens of other photos from the Bureau of Land Management. That album also had pictures of BLM Crew 7 from Lakeview, comprised almost entirely of veterans, training soldiers from the Washington Army National Guard in 2014. This year the crew  earned Interagency Hotshot Crew status.

National Guard wildfire training
More than 250 soldiers from the Washington Army National Guard, 81st Armored Brigade Combat Team, train with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service at the Yakima Training Center, July 25, 2014. BLM was represented by crew No. 7 from Lakeview, which is comprised of military veterans. Photo by Kevin Abel/BLM.
National Guard wildfire training
More than 250 soldiers from the Washington Army National Guard, 81st Armored Brigade Combat Team, train with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service at the Yakima Training Center, July 25, 2014. BLM was represented by crew No. 7 from Lakeview, which is comprised of military veterans. Photo by Kevin Abel/BLM.

In the video below, the National Guardsmen practice fire shelter deployment. It shows the Guardsmen running and then getting into the shelters. Video by Kevin Abel/BLM.

BLM Oregon firefighters train Washington National Guard

Fire prevention mascot in Chile

ForestinThe United States has Smokey Bear for wildfire prevention and Woodsy Owl to promote caring for the environment. Chile has one mascot, Forestín, for both of these activities, and more.

According to Wikipedia:

Forestín is the official mascot of the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) of Chile. It is a coypu (nutria) which can serve as fire brigade (yellow fire resistant jacket and helmet), park ranger (green shirt and quepi) or forester (yellow shirt and green planter), which was designed to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires.

Forestín was introduced to the public in 1976 and since then has evolved.

Forestin

Here are a couple of videos showing Forestín in action.

Why did a 99-year old power line fail, igniting the Camp fire?

Investigators have removed parts of a transmission tower to examine more closely

Investigators are zeroing in on their goal to determine exactly what caused molten aluminum and metal to drop from a 115,000-volt PG&E power line tower at about 6:15 a.m. on November 8 near Poe Dam seven miles east of Paradise, California. A few hours later most of the town had been reduced to ashes as 50 mph winds pushed the wildfire through the community, killing at least 85 people and making thousands homeless.

As reported by an article in the Mercury News, something failed on the tower, causing a power line to get loose and whip around, striking metal which instantly heated, melted, and dropped to the ground igniting the vegetation. It could have been “a tiny O-ring that holds up rows of disc-shaped insulators, or possibly fatigued steel from one of the tower’s arms”, the article explains. The tower was built in 1919 which raises the possibility of worn out parts and metal fatigue. CAL FIRE has removed some pieces from the tower to examine further.

The newspaper also reports that CAL FIRE is investigating a possible second point of ignition below a PG&E lower voltage distribution line that occurred about half an hour after the first failure.

The Camp Fire started 13 months after the disastrous fires that burned in the Napa Valley in October of 2017. There are reports that at least 12 of them were caused by Pacific Gas & Electric power lines.

Everybody has a plan until…

espn announcers While I was watching the Clemson vs. Mississippi State basketball game today on ESPN2 I didn’t expect to hear words of wisdom or a pithy quote. One of the announcers was Chris Spatola, a former basketball player for Army West Point who is also a veteran.  After only 8 minutes into the game MSU had thrown in *tons of three-pointers. As they talked about how Clemson had hoped to limit MSU’s three-pointers, Mr. Spatola said,

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

The other announcer, Jon Sciambi, recognized the quote as being from Mike Tyson who had been asked by a reporter whether he was worried about Evander Holyfield and the fight plan he had bragged about.

After Mr. Spatola did an impression of Mr. Tyson, Mr. Sciambi said, “I am going to enjoy working with Chris Spatola.”

As a Planning Section Chief on Incident Management Teams, of course I appreciate the necessity of planning. And I think Mr. Tyson’s quote while it at first seems crude and simplistic, actually is worth thinking about and can have multiple messages. The most obvious is that yes, you have a plan, but you encounter difficulties and quickly realize that you’re going to need a Plan B. If you prepared for an alternate strategy, you might succeed after all. If not, well, thanks for playing and here is your Participation Trophy.

Another interpretation is that after encountering unexpected problems, you don’t throw in the towel, but you have the guts and perseverance to keep fighting and working through the complications, eventually achieving the goal and overcoming the odds stacked against you.

Helmuth Von Moltkex said:

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Bob Robins told me about a good plan on a wildfire that was poorly briefed and executed. He was in one group of firefighters that was attempting to stop the spread of a fire by burning out along a road, working toward another group that started at the other end. The objective was to burn the vegetation between the road and the fire, removing the fuel. The fire would then be stopped in that area. When the two groups met, they were horrified to find that they had ignited opposite sides of the road, and they suddenly had a lot more fire to deal with.

General Norman Schwarzkopf directed the planning and strategy to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait after they invaded the country in 1990. His plan was based on overwhelming force using strong infantry attacks supported by artillery and armor after bombing the crap out of them from the air for weeks. It worked. The ground fighting in Desert Storm was over within about 100 hours. Not long after, most of the U.S. troops returned home. I have latched on to his strategy when writing about using the concept of overwhelming force for the initial attack of new wildfires. It can often be successful, and then everybody goes home and prepares for the next one, not getting bogged down and tying up resources and taxpayer dollars in a months-long campaign.

Here are some other planning-related quotes. Do you have a favorite, or an example of a plan that worked? Or didn’t?

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
― Abraham Lincoln

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
― Benjamin Franklin

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you don’t know the past, you can’t understand the present and plan properly for the future.”
― Chaim Potok, Davita’s Harp

“I wasn’t planning to lead, I was standing in the back and then everyone turned around.”
― Avery Hiebert

“No matter what the work you are doing, be always ready to drop it. And plan it, so as to be able to leave it.”
― Leo Tolstoy, The Journal of Leo Tolstoy

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
― Yogi Berra


*On December 8 Mississippi State beat Clemson, 82-71. They sank 19 three-point shots (63 percent), led by Lamar Peters who accounted for 9 of them.

Forest Service intends to restore areas in Wyoming with logging, prescribed fire, and building roads

The project would take place in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming

Beaver Creek Fire intensity
Varying burn intensities on the Beaver Creek Fire in the Medicine Bow-Routt NF in Colorado about 1 mile south of the Wyoming state line. The area had large areas of beetle-killed trees. July, 2016. InciWeb.

The U.S. Forest Service has a plan to treat 360,000 acres in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming by logging, thinning, prescribed burning, and building 600 miles of roads. The justification for what they are calling the Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, or LaVA, is to treat areas in the forest with the intention of “restoring forest health”. This area just north of the Colorado/ Wyoming border has been heavily impacted by Mountain Pine Beetles, so it fits the agency’s definition of an unhealthy forest and is considered by the U.S. Forest Service as an undesirable condition.

Landscape Vegetation Analysis project
The areas in the Medicine Bow National Forest north of the Colorado line would be part of the Landscape Vegetation Analysis project.

The Forest Service intends to build 600 miles of roads, clear cut 95,000 acres, selectively cut or commercially thin 165,000 acres, and use prescribed fire, mastication, and hand thinning on 100,000 acres.

Climate change that brought drought and warmer weather has provided a better habitat for the beetles. During normal times their spread is inhibited in the higher elevations by cold winters. Several days with low temperatures of around 35 degrees below zero can knock them back, but if that does not occur the rice-sized insects can come back with a vengeance the next summer.

Beetle-killed trees can be hazardous to firefighters due to the possibility of falling trees and burning snags. And, 5 to 15 years after the outbreak heavy ground fuels make fireline construction difficult. The dead trees can also be problematic near roads, trails, and structures. But a couple of years after the beetle attack and the red needles have been shed, the tree skeletons are less prone to crown fires than green trees. In 2015 University of Colorado Boulder researcher Sarah Hart determined Western U.S. forests killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic are no more at risk to burn than healthy Western forests. Other scientists have found similar results.

Below is an excerpt from the Washington Post:

Not everyone considers the plan a good idea. Some biologists say science doesn’t back up the efficacy of the treatments proposed, particularly logging and the prescribed burns that the Forest Service calls necessary for lodgepole pine to reproduce and more diverse species to take root.

“They say they are going to reduce fuel loads to limit wildfires, and the literature doesn’t support that,” said Daniel B. Tinker, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming, who has studied the region for 23 years. “We’ve had fires this summer that burned through areas that were clear-cut 15 years ago. Those stands weren’t supposed to burn for 100 years.”

Conservation groups also say the Forest Service truncated scientific review in a rush to meet congressional demands for increased timber production on public lands. For now, the proposal does not specify which parcels would be targeted and where those hundreds of miles of road would be built.

In the Washington Post, article Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, was quoted as saying “Certainly, prescribed burning doesn’t pay its way — it’s expensive at around $100,000 per acre.”

If there is a prescribed fire somewhere that actually cost $100,000 an acre, which is very hard to believe, it is definitely an outlier. The costs vary greatly across the country and by vegetation type. They can be as inexpensive as less than a dollar an acre in Oklahoma, but usually run $10 to $250 an acre.

The federal agencies have had to cut back on their prescribed burning programs in recent years due to budget reductions.

The Forest Service expects to make a decision on the Medicine Bow plan in mid-2019.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gary.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.