Report released on Pagami Creek fire canoe overturn incident

File photo of canoe and float plane
File photo of canoe and floatplane. USFS photo

On October 16, 2011 during the Pagami Creek Fire on the Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota an incident occurred that resulted in a motorized canoe being swamped in the middle of a large lake. As a result, three firefighters were totally immersed in cold water and exposed to hypothermic conditions for approximately 25 minutes until they were rescued by floatplane.

It occurred when a Division Supervisor and a Task Force leader were being ferried out to meet a Beaver (deHavilland) floatplane that was going to extract them.

Here is an excerpt from the facilitated learning analysis about the incident:

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From the campsite, the main body of the lake lay approximately 150 feet beyond a rock reef that shielded the immediate shoreline from the direct influence of the main body of the lake. After reaching the rock reef the waves began spilling over the bow of the canoe. The direction of the wind and the waves made turning around dangerous so the boat continued on. As they continued the boat encountered a series of swells that poured over the bow and the boat began to rapidly fill with water. The crew made attempts to bail the water and toss packs over the side to prevent capsizing but to no avail. The boat operator attempted to call for help on the radio but was uncertain if the transmission was heard. The boat eventually capsized and rolled immersing all three members totally in the water.

In water the crew members talked to each other and made the decision not to swim to shore because of the long distance. They tried to climb onto the canoe but couldn’t because it rolled with each wave.

The canoe stern (with the outboard motor) sank beneath the surface but the bow remained afloat. The crew members huddled together in the water and hung onto the bow of the canoe and one of the crew members hung onto one of the canoe packs that was floating. They continued to talk to each other to assess their condition and waited for help.

The LaGrande Hot Shots working on Fishdance Lake (Map 1) to the south heard a radio transmission about an overturned canoe on Alice Lake (not sure if this report came from the DIVS(t) or the EMT at the campsite). The hot shot crew called Air Attack for assistance. Air Attack, approximately 5 minutes away from Alice Lake, quickly responded to the scene. When they arrived they circled the lake and spotted the overturned canoe and crew members in the water. Air Attack contacted the Beaver floatplane that was waiting on the lake for the crew pick-up and alerted him to the situation.

The Beaver started up and took off, circled the lake and located the crew. The Beaver floatplane was able to land and taxi to the crew in the water and started retrieving the crew. With all three crew members safely onboard the Beaver flew back to the seaplane base.

Upon arrival at the seaplane base all crew members were evaluated for their medical condition. Two crew members were sent to the local hospital and treated for hypothermia. All crew members were released in a relatively short period of time.

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Canoe training for firefighters on the Pagami Creek fire
Canoe training for firefighters on the Pagami Creek fire. Photo by Luke Macho

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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. Google+

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