Reviews of Pagami Creek Fire, and FLA for canoe entrapments

The U.S. Forest Service has released two additional reports about last year’s Pagami Creek Fire which was managed, rather than suppressed, for 25 days, until it ran 16 miles on September 12, eventually consuming over 92,000 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. We also remind you of the facilitated learning analysis of the eight USFS employees caught out in front of the fire in canoes.

Policy review

The objective of one of the reviews was to determine if the major decisions made by the incident management teams and the staff of the Superior National Forest were consistent with official USFS policy. The review was conducted by one person, Tom Zimmerman, a program manager for the USFS’ Wildland Fire Management Research, Development, and Application Program in Boise. Mr. Zimmerman analyzed the decisions and compared them with 21 policy statements, manuals, directives, and Forest level planning documents. He concluded that the decisions “appear consistent with all levels of policy and process direction”.

Decisions review

There was another review, “looking at decisions made by line officers and Incident Management teams based on the Delegation of Authority from the Forest Supervisor”. The individuals involved in this review were Jim Thomas, Fire and Emergency Operation Specialist for the Eastern Region of the USFS, and Jim Bertelsen, a Superior NF employee acting in his capacity as President of local NFFE Union 2138. This review also found no fault with how the fire was managed, saying no information was overlooked that would have predicted the unprecedented movement of the fire on September 12.

While we don’t dispute the qualifications of Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Thomas, a person has to wonder if these internal reviews, each conducted basically by one person, would have reached different conclusions had they been completed by a panel of neutral subject matter experts.

Entrapment and near-miss facilitated learning analysis

Pagami fire shelters
Deployed fire shelters on the Pagami fire. USFS photo from the facilitated learning analysis.

In addition to those two reviews, released earlier was an excellent facilitated learning analysis (FLA) of the near misses and entrapments of eight USFS employees who were caught out in front of the rapidly spreading fire in canoes while they were trying to evacuate the recreating public from the area. At one point when they were fleeing the fire, the smoke was so thick they could not see the fronts of their canoes. Two people left a canoe and took refuge in the cold water, deploying a single fire shelter over their heads as they floated, suspended by their life jackets. Two others were flown out at the last minute by a float plane when it somehow found a hole in the smoke and was able to find them and land on the lake. Four people, after paddling furiously in the strong winds, dense smoke, and darkness, unable to find a fire shelter deployment site on the heavily forested islands, finally found a small, one-eighth acre barren island where they climbed inside their shelters as they were being pounded with burning embers.

The very well done FLA is a must read. Someone should make a movie about this.


Thanks go out to Dick

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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.

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