Report on wildland fire fatalities, 2007-2009

Dick Mangan wrote Technical Reports in 1999 and 2007 about wildland firefighter fatalities. Now he has updated those with a report on fatalities between 2007 and 2009. We owe Dick some thanks, and maybe a beer, for putting this information together.

The entire report is 13 pages, but here are the Observations and Recommendations, reproduced here with Dick’s permission.

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Some Observations and Recommendations

Although this report only looks back at a narrow window of 3 fire seasons, and has less than fifty (50) total fatalities to consider, I believe that there are some important lessons learned and observations that can be made:

First, there was only one (1) burnover fatality in a three (3) year period. The reasons could be better training and awareness, quieter than normal fire seasons (at the National level), or more safety-conscious fire management under critical fire weather/fire behavior conditions. Whatever the cause, this is a significant improvement over the sixty four (64) burnover fatalities that had occurred in the previous seventeen (17) years. Continued emphasis in Entrapment Avoidance in the Annual Fire Refresher training classes is warranted since fire shelter deployments continue to occur.

The number of aircraft accident involving all classes of aircraft (helicopters, SEATs, single engine observation planes and multi-engine air tankers) gives increased emphasis to the most basic question concerning air operations safety: Is this flight really necessary? We must minimize the risks involved in air operations on wildfires by only using those resources when there are no other feasible alternatives: is a spike camp or coyote camp better than transporting crews morning and night by helicopter; is the risk such that heli-mopping is really necessary; will a load of retardant from a SEAT or multi-engine air tanker really slow the fires spread, or is just a “media drop”; and is medical evacuation by air really necessary given the patient’s condition?

Vehicle accidents were one of the top causes of firefighter fatalities in 1990-2006, and continue to be a significant cause in this 3 year period. Heavy smoke conditions contributed to five (5) fatalities: smoke will often be a factor on wildfires, and we must insure that drivers apply the principles of “not over-driving your headlights” in smoke conditions as well. Three (3) individual fatal vehicle accidents killed fire personnel who were returning to their home stations from training or a prescribed burn: one event occurred in mid-afternoon, one occurred at 2000 hours (in darkness), and one did not indicate the time of the accident. Multiple-fatality vehicle accidents in the 1990-2006 period occurred with crews going to or returning from an incident. Continued attention to driving hour limitations, driver fatigue and defensive driving techniques can help reduce these events. The sizes of the vehicles involved in these fatal accidents were light trucks rather than heavier engines or tenders: this may reflect the fact that no special training or licensing (such as a Commercial Drivers License) was required.

Two (2) heavy equipment rollover fatalities are not included in the vehicle accident numbers, but are reminders of the risks of operating such equipment in rugged terrain and on narrow mountain roads.

Heart attacks and other medical conditions continue as a leading cause of firefighter fatalities: ten (10) fatal events occurred, five (5) of them on the fire ground. Of the 10 fatalities, six (6) were volunteer firefighters ranging in age from 45 – 63 years old. An inmate and a 46 year old prison guard also died of medical conditions. The aging workforce, coupled with the national trend towards increased weight and lower fitness levels, make it imperative that a good health screening process is used by all personnel who may be involved in wildfire suppression efforts, regardless of age or affiliation.

Unexpected falling trees and tree felling activities again took three (3) lives in 2007-2009. With the forest health conditions that exist throughout the western States, and the continued need to remove hazardous trees from the fire scene and in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) fringe areas, these deaths may be on an upward trend that requires monitoring and increased emphasis. Hazard tree awareness training should be an on-going part of the Annual Refresher classes.

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Dick Mangan is the owner/president of Blackbull Wildfire Services in Missoula, Montana. He retired in 2000 after 30+ years with the US Forest Service; his last assignment was Program Leader for Fire, Aviation & Residues at the Missoula Technology & Development Center.  He is a qualified Operations Section Chief 1 and Safety Officer 2. He has authored 2 previous Technical Reports on Wildland Firefighter Fatalities in the United States (1999, 2007).

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. Google+

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