Followup on firefighter’s extraction from fire by helicopter water bucket

Water bucket extraction
Photo from the Facilitated Learning Analysis

I have to admit that when I heard about the firefighter on the Pole Fire in Oregon that was rescued from an advancing wildfire by climbing into a water bucket dangling below a helicopter, I was not 100 percent convinced that it actually happened. After all, most of us have heard the urban legends, totally untrue, about scuba divers being grabbed in water buckets or scooped up into an air tanker as it skims across the ocean, then later they were supposed to have been found dead at the scene of a fire.

But after the first report of the extraction, a team of fire and aviation professionals investigated the incident and recently released a Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA).

We will summarize what led up to the extraction and then will include some text from the FLA:

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 in a SAFECOM: “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.

The text and the photo below are from the FLA; the ground contact is identified as “TFLD”, a Task Force Leader.


“…The pilot was very concerned with the TFLD’s position. The fire front appeared to move in waves of heat toward his position; the air between the waves was actually “shimmering.” The TFLD had a finger of fire to the southwest, which was within 200 feet of his position, and another finger to the northeast.

The helicopter made one circle around the area and the pilot noticed how rapidly the fire had progressed during that turn. The pilot urged the TFLD to start moving quickly away from the fire as the fire had closed half the distance to his position. The pilot felt that the TFLD was in the center with increasing fire behavior threatening both his south and north escape routes. He remembers using the term “raging.” He attempted to relay this concern, but the TFLD was comfortable with his location and escape routes to the black. The pilot believed that the black was not going to be the help he needed. He felt that the TFLD was going to need to deploy his fire shelter and that he would have to water-drop on the TFLD’s position. As he began pulling away to get water he realized that the fire would be upon the TFLD before he was able to make the trip to the water source and return. He had only moments to act.

The pilot noticed that in front of the TFLD, to the north, was a small opening of shorter, mostly dead lodgepole pine trees. He could hover safely and lower his bucket to the ground. As he hovered and watched the speed of the fire coming toward the TFLD, the pilot said “I’m going to suggest something to you and I hope you do it. I want you to get in the bucket.” The TFLD believed his escape route was open to the southwest and said “no, I’m fine.” The pilot repeated the suggestion with more urgency: “You don’t see what I’m looking at, you need to get in the bucket now.”

When the TFLD turned around, he saw the bucket on the ground. The TFLD replied to the pilot that “you can see better than I, and I am going to trust your judgment,” and entered the bucket, a 230 gallon Bambi design. He is over six feet tall, so it took him a few moments to get into and orient himself to the bucket and locate the correct cables to grab, not wanting to damage or disable the bucket. He managed to keep his radio but left his Pulaski at the pick-up site.

During the bucket transport, the TFLD maintained radio communication with the pilot. The DIVS was monitoring the communications but did not contact the pilot or the TFLD to avoid distracting their attention from the event. Once in the bucket and ready for lift-off the TFLD radioed to the pilot that he was ready and he said “This is a first for me,” describing his ride in a bucket. Once above the tree canopy the pilot asked if the TFLD now saw what he was talking about. The pilot remembers the TFLD’s response as “I see what you’re talking about.” Although the TFLD can’t recall what he may have said, the TFLD did not feel the same sense of urgency the pilot felt.Water bucket extraction, aerial view

The TFLD’s decision to follow the pilot’s request was based on the trust the two had built with each other during previous and current bucket operations, and the pilot’s vantage point to assess fire activity around the ground operation. Although he felt safe with his predetermined escape routes, he deferred to the pilot’s view of the situation. The pilot set him gently down in a meadow about one-half mile away and informed him of the direction of travel back to DP 24. The pilot made a quick look back toward the pick-up area and believed it was engulfed in flame, taking the photo on page 10.”

(end of text from the FLA)


The FLA discusses the differences in knowlege between the firefighter and the pilot. The firefighter knew little about aviation and the pilot had limited training in wildland fire behavior. The firefighter kept saying to the pilot that he had an escape route into the black, and the pilot told him that he had a better view from the air and the fire was advancing. Finally the firefighter said: “I can’t see what you see; I’m going to defer to your judgment,” and got in the bucket.

Here is one more interesting quote from the FLA:

“A safety zone to the pilot meant a safe place away from the fire – he transported the TFLD to a meadow half a mile into the green; to the TFLD, the more completely burned areas were the safest places he could be.”

As we said when we first wrote about this incident, we’re glad it had a positive result, and congratulate the firefighter and the pilot for thinking outside the box, possibly preventing a disastrous outcome.


Thanks go out to Will

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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.

6 thoughts on “Followup on firefighter’s extraction from fire by helicopter water bucket”

  1. This is pretty incredible to read, but I do hope no younger fire fighter reading this report, decides somewhere down the road, that this is a possible worst case option for escape, if they get themselves into a bad spot. One foot in the black and biting off no more than you can chew, in regards to escape routes and safety zones is the basic principle we need to ensure is our primary approach to going direct with active fire. I am glad he lived and I appreciate the out of the box thinking, but it is hard to say from reading this much, whether the TFLD actually still had good E and S (of LCES), or if the pilot made a call that potentially saved his life.

    1. Good points, Tom. And keep in mind, that one foot in the black does not always mean you have one foot in a safety zone. In this incident, the “black” had partially burned just a few hours earlier, and it was re-burning. This is what put the firefighter in danger.

      Firefighters need to carefully scout and evaluate their escape routes and safety zones.

      1. The issue I seem to come back to with this incident is terminology. True life saving Safety Zones are and always will be an area which provides ample space away from any type of danger possibly presented by the Fire environment. True hard black, if being utilized as a safety zone, should not ever be capable of reburning EVER! If hard black could reburn then it isn’t a true safety zone, or HARD black for that matter. This TFLD, even with years of experience, needs to address his belief system about what is & isn’t a safety zone. One point I would like to mention is that the TFLD made a sound call on agreeing with the Pilot’s perception of the situation. This FLA will provide an excellent conversation piece for training new and old Firefighters.

  2. In either case, whether one focuses on the aerial or ground based viewpoint, it shows that LESSONS LEARNED are still possible from “near misses” and folks sharing their stories through FLAs rather than punitive investigations.

    The important thing is that lessons are shared and given equal weight according to both parties that were involved…. and shared with the wildland fire community.

    Each person will take home their individual lesson learned from the story “facilitated” by the FLA team.


  3. What concerns me about this is that the FF has this many years experience and doesnt remember the training about choosing a safety zone. I teach S 130/190 all the time and talk specifically about GOOD black. Good black talks about being able to easily navigate and having a lack of material to reburn.
    I am saving this FLA to talk about in next years fire refresher.
    Bottom line is quick thinking and trust resulted in a positive outcome.


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