Firefighter extracted in helicopter’s bucket as wildfire approached

Last Friday, September 28, a firefighter’s life may have been saved when he was extracted from an approaching fire by climbing into a helicopter’s water bucket.

At least that is what was reported in a SAFECOM that was filed on September 30, 2012. We talked with Tom Lavagnino, the Information Officer on the Type 3 Incident Management Team that on September 29 transitioned onto the fire where this reportedly occurred, replacing a Type 2 team. He said that neither he nor the Incident Commander knew much about it; most of what they know came from reading the SAFECOM. He said during their transition they did not receive any detailed information about the reported incident. However a team of aviation and safety officials are en route to the fire to conduct a Facilitated Learning Analysis. They, of course, will be interviewing the pilot and the person that was reported to have been extracted in the bucket.

For now we are assuming that this is not a joke or an urban legend, like the scuba divers that were supposed to have been grabbed up in helicopter buckets, or scooped into the tank of an air tanker as it skims across the ocean.

The SAFECOM is fairly long, so I’ll summarize the first section. Then you can read the rest below, the part that sounds like it came out of one of the worst movies ever made about wildland fire, Firestorm, starring Howie Long, who should have stuck to his day job as a defensive end in the National Football League, later becoming an analyst for FOX Sports.

We are very glad the person on the ground was rescued, and since it sounds like it was the only option available to keep him from being burned to death, we applaud the actions of the pilot, thinking WAY outside the box, possibly saving a life.

According to the SAFECOM, it happened on the Pole Creek Fire on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. The helicopter pilot was flying a Bell 205A1 and was dropping water to slow down the spread of the fire under the direction of a ground contact working alone in that area. The pilot was in constant contact with him, both visually and by radio. At first the person on the ground had a safety zone, the black burned area, since the fire behavior was slow with occasional torching of standing trees in an area that had a significant amount of bug-killed timber. But then the fire’s intensity picked up dramatically and the fire started reburning the black, vigorously consuming the fuels that had not burned previously, eliminating the safety zone. The pilot wrote: “The downed trees that had not burned were now igniting, and this heat was intense enough that it was actually torching heavily and burning the standing bug killed trees that were already in the black.”

The ground contact kept moving away from the fire but the fire was closing in. The pilot, who was making 5-minute turnaround water drops, frequently gave the ground contact advice about what the fire was doing and where it was, as the fire activity increased.

I’ll let the pilot take it from here:


“…I then asked my ground contact where he was and was surprised to find that he was still to the west of the torching area. This surprised me since I thought he had already passed the fire to the east, where I felt he should be. I immediately contacted him and circled back to find him. He gave me a mirror flash and I saw that he was within 500 feet of the face of the raging fire. This torching and the black column being generated was hidden from him by the smoke he was in, as well as the standing timber surrounding him.He had a spot finger to the SW, which was within 200 feet of his position, and another finger to the NE.

I urged him to start moving quickly north away from the fire, which he did, and when I circled again the fire was 50 percent closer to his position. The fire was moving in waves of heat toward his position: the air between them was actually shimmering! A 200-300 yard wide wall of trees would instantly ignite, and this in turn was igniting the next row of trees in front of it. My ground contact was centered in this wall, with the fingers on either side. I felt that he was in grave danger.

Water bucket extraction, Pole Creek fire
A photo that was submitted with the SAFECOM.

The fire was moving MUCH faster than he was: there was no way out to the SE or to the NW because he was in the center of a crescent between the two fingers of fire. The fire was moving to him so quickly and it was beginning to even affect the fingers behavior, which started to burn much more intensely. I was very, very concerned that he was in the center of energy. I tried to relay this concern, but he was sure that he was secure since he was in the black. I knew that the black was not going to be the help he needed. I felt that he was going to need to deploy his fire shelter and that I was going to be doing water drop on his position.

I started to pull away to get water but realized that the fire would have been upon him before I was able to make a trip to the lake and back. In front of him, to the north, there was a small opening in the trees and I was able to determine that I could hover into it without damage to the helicopter. I lowered the helicopter until the bucket was on the ground. I hovered and watch the speed he was moving and the speed of the fire coming towards us.

The fire was moving very quickly so I strongly suggested that he climb into the bucket so that I could haul him out. I felt that there were very few options and vigorously urged him. I honestly felt that we had only seconds or a minute before the fire was to the spot. I am sure he could feel the fire, because I could certainly feel the heat. He climbed into the bucket and wrapped his arms around the wires as I slowly lifted the bucket vertical. We were in radio contact during this time.

Once I was sure he was secure in the bucket I flew to the North, perhaps 1/4 mile to an open area where I felt he could walk to safety. I carefully lowered the bucket to the ground and he got out and walked to the trail.

I looked back at the spot where we had lifted out of and it was fully torched. I do not believe there were any other good options. The ground he was on was a carpet of dead bug killed trees, the fire was very intense and I`m not sure that even with a fire shelter deployed that the outcome would have been good. I am glad he had the courage to climb into the bucket and relieved that no harm has come to my ground contract.”

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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.

19 thoughts on “Firefighter extracted in helicopter’s bucket as wildfire approached”

  1. I assume the SAFECOM was vetted and legit… as they are always vetted before being placed on the public “forward facing” site.

    Seems to be a great lessons learned example.

    I look forward to reading either the FLA or whatever other Lessons Learned sharing tool that is used.

  2. That was a good call, against rules and regs but when a life is in danger you got to do whats right

  3. All I can say is wow. I would ask why this person was where he was but not being judgmental at all.

  4. If I were on the ground in a situation like that and couldn’t see what was threatening me, I’d thank god and the helicopter pilot every day for as long as I lived for saving my life.

    If I were in the air in a situation like that and I could see that my guy on the ground was threatened, I’d do whatever I could to save his life and then thank god every day for as long as I lived that I was able to save the guy’s life.

    Screw protocol and the rules. That’s what fire people are all about. Can you spell “GOT YER BACK” ????

  5. Sounds like someone was thinking and not getting caught up in the rules and regs ,And a life was saved because of it.I know they are there for our safety and most of the time they need to be followed , Cutos to the pilot and the ground contact Brave Firefighters.

  6. “In nature, adaptation is important; the plan is not.”
    Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival

  7. Hmmm. Scott, maybe someone as dense as myself needs a little more context for that quote to be meaningful. For example, WHAT plan is not adaptable? On a fire, plans can be modified, tweaked, or completely thrown out.

    Along those lines, here is a quote from Wikipedia, from an article about Helmuth von Moltke the Elder:

    “Moltke’s main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options since only the beginning of a military operation was plannable. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes. His thesis can be summed up by two statements, one famous and one less so, translated into English as “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy,”) and “Strategy is a system of expedients.” “

  8. Yeah, this short quote could easily be misread out of context. Yes, plans and strategies must be in place and practiced, but in nature (like your military strategy example) things can change so drastically and quickly. The ability to recognize the changes, abandon the plan (or standard guidelines/regulations in this case), and adapt by making and executing a new plan on the fly can mean the difference between life and death. In this case, the pilot’s ability to recognize the changes in fire behavior, and his quick choice to do something very unconventional, likely saved the life of the guy on the ground. I’m by no means an expert on the subject… just regurgitating what I’ve read in Gonzales’ book, which I’d highly recommend.

  9. Having worked in the fire suppression field for 13 fire seasons, I am left wondering why there was anyone on the ground in front of a very fast moving, dangerous fire exibiting extreme fire nehavior, and alone at that. I will say the pilot is a hero, but should never have had to risk his life to rescue someone who should not have been there in the first place. This superhero mentality adopted by more and more wildland firefighters needs to be rid of, as these types of attitudes usually lead to incidents such as this one. Pilot =HERO Ground contact=not so much

  10. Matt,

    As someone nearing 30 years on the fireline, I think you should better ask yourself the QUESTION that you so easily asked of others:

    “… why there was anyone on the ground in front of a very fast moving, dangerous fire exibiting extreme fire nehavior”… I left the typos intact within the quote.

    I appreciate that you feel that you are now an “expert” with 18 years experience… Do NOT get so comfortable with your “experience” as to give off an impression that you have nothing to learn from others. We all learn each and every day.

    Let the “new” (actually OLD school) processes of sharing the ACTUAL stories of LESSONS LEARNED happen…. WITHOUT passing judgment upon other PEERS without being in their shoes.


  11. “In nature, adaptation is important; the plan is not.”
    Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival

    That sentence means that adaptation is important and the plan is not important. Or (implied) sticking to the plan is not as important as one’s willingness and ability to adapt the plan.

  12. Well the pilot saw a bad thing and came up with a good unique solution and saved the day with quick thinking and good flying skill. Hopefully he gets the appropriate recogniztion.

    The guy on the ground is very thankful and I’m sure learned a good lesson. Hopefully he turns it into a “lessons learned” presentation to help others advoid the same situation.

    Sometimes despite the best planning, training , experience and safety efforts fire will suddenly turn on us and we will get backed into a bad corner. It will allways be unpredictable and unforgiving.

  13. I’m with MR Morgan on this one

    All the planning in the world can not fit every situation. Anyone who thinks all the IAP’s and “plans” that made , thought up, whatever.

    Better think ….eeeerr …”plan ahead”

  14. “Let the “new” (actually OLD school) processes of sharing the ACTUAL stories of LESSONS LEARNED happen…. WITHOUT passing judgment upon other PEERS without being in their shoes.”

    Not sure i understand your comments to Matt.. From my understanding lesson learned means you learn from the mistakes made.. So there for you must identify the mistakes.. I ask the same question what was the guy doing on the ground with out a good safety zone?

    Now i don’t have 30 years but my 12 years of training and teaching classes tell me that a Safety zone is identified as a zone with which you can be safe from any threat of the fire! In other words there was no safety zone in my opinion and the fire fighter on the ground was putting himself at great risk with out proper ICS in place..

    So I am greatful to learn from this lesson learned that being adaptive and creative can be the difference between life and death.. Good situational awareness from the pilot.. not so much for the guy on the ground it seems..

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