Report released for the fatal Coal Canyon Fire

Coal Canyon fire entrapment report, cover photos
Photos on the cover of the report. A portion of one of the photos was redacted.

The U.S. Forest Service has released the Serious Accident Investigation Report for the Coal Canyon Fire, on which firefighter Trampus Haskvitz of Hot Springs, South Dakota was killed August 11, 2011 in the Black Hills of South Dakota north of Edgemont. In addition to Trampus, two firefighters received serious burns and two others had minor burns. Two firefighters were entrapped in an engine. One, Trampus, remained entrapped and died; the other, K.C. Fees escaped. Austin Whitney who was outside the engine, was transported to a Greeley, Colorado Burn Center. The two firefighters who received minor burns during rescue efforts were treated at local hospitals and released. Mr. Haskvitz and Mr. Whitney both worked for the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division.

Coal Canyon fire entrapment site photo w-graphics
This photo looks down on the entrapment site. The fire spread according to the numbered arrows: along arrow 1 during E 2’s initial escape attempt, arrow 2 as they came around the corner, and arrow 3 during the entrapment itself. The fire remained too hot along paths 1 and 2 for them to escape. Photo by Travis Lunders, taken the day after the accident. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

You can download the report HERE.  You should read the entire report to get a clear understanding of the sequence of events, but here are some of the key points:

About 15 minutes after the first engine crews arrived at the scene of the fire, they said it was about 1.5 acres in size and estimated the flame lengths to be 0 to 3 feet. Their plan was to anchor near the fire’s origin and use direct fireline to pinch off the fire. Their escape route was down the road beyond the fire’s heel.

Coal Canyon fire entrapment 1350
The approximate location of the fire when the initial attack engines arrived, at 1:50 p.m. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

The engines were on a narrow dirt road. The fire was on a slope below them and also on the slope on the opposite side of the drainage. A spot fire occurred above the road, then the main fire spread up the slope to the road and crossed it.

Coal fire entrapment at 3:05 p.m.
The approximate location of the fire and the entrapped engine at 3:05 p.m. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

Other engines were able to leave the area before the worst of the fire hit the road. One engine tried to escape by driving forward but encountered a wall of fire crossing the road. They backed up in the heavy smoke, going less than 80 feet, and hit a cut bank. At that point truck’s engine died and the fire overran their location. Two firefighters, Haskvitz and Fees, were in the truck as it ignited and began to burn. They deployed one fire shelter inside the cab and tried to use it to protect them both, but the other person had difficulty deploying the second shelter in the cab of the truck. A helicopter heard their mayday calls and tried to drop water on the burning engine, but initially the pilot could not see it in the smoke.

Other firefighters made several heroic attempts to rescue the entrapped firefighters but were driven back by the heat. Fees took a deep breath and escaped from the burning engine, but Haskvitz did not make it out of the cab.

The report does not speculate why the truck’s engine stopped running, but it has happened before on fires when vehicles are in very heavy smoke and there is simply not enough oxygen in the air to support combustion of the fuel in the vehicle’s engine.

A third crewmember assigned to the engine was outside it to the rear when the engine with the two people tried to escape by driving away. As it departed a blast of heat hit him and he dropped to the ground with no time to deploy his fire shelter.

Below is an excerpt from the “Analysis and Conclusion” section of the report:

…Up until the accident, the firefighting professionals involved in the Coal Canyon Fire reasoned the risks of engaging and suppressing this fire to be relatively low and the benefits of direct suppression to be worth this low risk. After considerable review of the incident, including the leadership, qualifications, training, interagency cooperation, fuels, weather, the organization, and local policies, the SAI team has concluded that the judgments and decisions of the firefighters involved in the Coal Canyon Fire were appropriate.

Firefighters all performed within the leaders’ intent and scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The team did not find any reckless actions or egregious violations of policy or protocol. In fact, the SAI Team found the actions of the firefighters involved with the Coal Canyon Fire to be fully consistent with local and national policy and meeting the intent of leadership expectations. Many decisions and actions on the Coal Canyon Fire were manifestly heroic, demonstrating the best of wildland fire professionalism.

The report has very little in the way of analysis and recommendations. Later the investigation team intends to produce separate documents focused on learning from this tragedy. Those documents will provide an Expanded Narrative and an in-depth Discussion and Analysis around human variability, risk management and resilience, as well as additional considerations and recommendations.

Wildfire Today covered the fire, the fatality, the severely burned firefighter, and Trampus’ funeral services, which were attended by approximately 1,700 firefighters and other mourners. A procession of over 130 fire department vehicles escorted Trampus to the cemetery. We recorded most of the procession on video.
An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the firefighters that was in the entrapped engine. Wildfire Today regrets the error.

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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.