Anniversary of three infamous fires

Three infamous fires occurred on July 22:

1977: Bass River fire in the Bass River State Forest in New Jersey. A 2,300 acre fire killed four firefighters from Eagleswood Volunteer fire Department.

1998: The Kareas fire near Athens, Greece. The fire was fanned by a strong “meltemi” wind (north direction) along the west to southwest facing slopes of Ymettus mountain. The fuel in the area was Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) forest.

Firefighters in a number of fire trucks that were on a road that ran parallel to the main fire about 200 m higher saw a new branch and drove back (northwards) trying to escape. The three firefighters in the last truck, probably due to the smoke or due to inexperience in forest firefighting, stopped their truck exactly at the turn of the road in the narrowest point of the canyon. They abandoned it, although they had plenty of water and some safety distance and fled uphill, towards another road that ran parallel to the one they were on until then about 100 m higher.

They were caught by the heat and the smoke in the canyon and perished. One young volunteer firefighter who was with them also died. Their bodies were found at a short distance (about 120 m) from the fire truck, which they had abandoned. The truck received little damage. It is quite probable that if they had stayed in the truck they would have survived. The results of the Fire Service investigation on the incident were never publicly announced.

2003, Cramer Fire, Salmon-Challis National Forest in central Idaho. Two helitack crewmembers from the Indianola helitack crew rappelled into an area in order to build a helispot (H-2) above the fire so that a crew could be flown in to secure the west flank of the fire. The rappell spotter estimated it would take one hour to clear the helispot.

About 5 hours later the two helitack personnel requested to be picked up by helicopter and said “Send them in a hurry.” At that time, however, two helicopters were down, one for 30-hour maintenance and the other for refueling. Fifteen minutes later a helicopter attempted to pick up the crewmen but could not land because of the smoke. The fire burned over the area and the bodies of Jeff Allen and Shane Heath were found 75-100 yards from the helispot. Their fire shelters had not been deployed.

This was the first known wildland fire where a firefighter was under threat of criminal liability for his actions.

More infamous fires can be found in the Infamous World Fires document on our Documents page.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.