Running for your life

White Draw Fire, South Dakota
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, July 29, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Last year we told you about a series of articles written by W. Scott Olsen, a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Mr. Olsen described the topic as “the war on wildfires out west, meeting shot-callers and looking at the operation from the inside”. The five articles are very well written, looking at the inside of firefighting from the eyes of an outsider.

He is working on a book that will be out next year and part of it has been published at the Huffington Post. This time he talks to a woman who had a very close call on a fire, having to run, literally, for her life. When the fire suddenly approached the road she and the crew were holding, she ran for hundreds of yards, falling three times. She had a serious burn on her arm and the hairs in her nose were singed indicating she inhaled superheated gasses.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

“I heard radio traffic about the paramedic coming. I smelt my skin burning. I felt a hot spot on my head. I threw my hard hat off and under my bandana was an ember burning my hair. My squad boss dumped a jug of water on my head immediately. I sat down and my knee immediately seized up. I couldn’t move it. The paramedic arrived and ordered a life flight through the helibase.”

Mr. Olsen tells what happened next and how it later affected her career.

The article does not mention anything about fire shelters being used. And the fact that she and presumably other crew members ran hundreds of yards apparently near the fire before they reached a safety zone, points out how reluctant firefighters can be to stop and get into their fire shelters.

After the investigation is complete of the Yarnell Hill Fire incident in which 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died, we may find out how, when, and under what circumstances decisions were made about the use of fire shelters. Preliminary information indicates that some of the firefighters were found in their shelters and others were not, but 19 shelters were deployed.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.

4 thoughts on “Running for your life”

  1. If you want to read a sobering document.

    Note in the comments how often shifting winds contribute to conditions that led to the fatalities.

    I think it was the people who died in the Romero fire of 1971 that kept me out of the Forest Service. My dad knew one of the guys who died and it hit him really hard.

  2. I know it is not right but I always think about the cost of the shelter. We are always told that we should not hesitate to use the shelter if we even remotely feel the need to shelter up. However, the price of the shelter is always brought up at some point, followed by the fact that the cost of a life is immeasurable. Maybe we should never bring up the cost in the first place. I read about firefighters clinging onto a chainsaw while running for it. Are they worried about the cost?

    1. Not only the cost, but the fallout from pulling that shelter out. We all know there will be an investigation, or at least an FLA. Nobody really wants to be the person who causes (for lack of better term) that to happen. Regardless, I believe if you feel you need it, you probably do.


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