Report released on fatality of Oklahoma grader operator

grader Jack Osben wildfire fatality
The grader that Jack Osben was operating. Photo taken two days after the burnover. From the FLA.

The Wildland fire Lessons Learned Center has released a Facilitated Learning Analysis on the fatality of Jack Osben, the grader operator who was burned over while working on the Shaw Fire in Western Oklahoma April 12, 2018. The tragedy occurred during extreme conditions — extended drought, 100 degrees, 5 percent relative humidity, 45 mph winds, and the fire was burning in thick grass that had not been grazed or hayed in seven to eight years.

The executive summary is below. The entire document can be downloaded (4 MB file).


*Except for Jack Osben, all names are pseudonyms

On April 12th, 2018, 61-year-old Jack Osben, a motor grader operator for Roger Mills County in Oklahoma and volunteer firefighter died as a result of thermal burns while providing initial attack to the Shaw Fire. The wildfire grew to approximately 3,500 acres in a mixture of grass and shrubs during a Red Flag Warning day. The employees of Roger Mills County were in a state of readiness due to a mixture of prolonged drought, extreme heat, and gusting winds that had created extremely dangerous wildfire conditions.

Shaw Fire grader fatality
The Shaw Fire, as seen from a grader approaching the fire. From the FLA.

Jack was performing progressive line construction using a motor grader on the Shaw Fire. While he had been working as a grader operator for a few years, he had limited experience using the grader related to fire suppression activities. Between 1400-1430 hours Jack met up and began working with Alex, a fellow grader operator who had more than two decades of experience fighting fire.

Although they entered the field at different locations, they converged almost immediately. Alex instructed Jack to fall in line behind him to improve the initial grader line. After working together to establish line for about 4,000 feet, Alex lost sight of Jack’s grader in the smoke and flames, which had grown significantly and shifted directions quickly.

Due to the fire’s shift in direction, Alex was forced to abandon his grader. He began to walk toward a nearby road when he spotted Jack, who was also on foot emerging from the smoke. They spoke briefly when they met. Alex observed that Jack had visible burns to his arms and was possibly suffering from smoke inhalation. The reality was that Jack’s injuries were much worse than they appeared. He died as a result of thermal burns either during transit in the ambulance or right after arriving at the hospital.

This accident took place in Western Oklahoma where the tactical use of motor graders for wildland fire line construction is common. Additionally, there is different emphasis on values at risk, namely that firefighters in Western Oklahoma commonly protect grass for cattle grazing. Other regions may rank grass as a low value-at-risk but it is absolutely a consideration for how people in this region fight fire and manage land1.

This is the first Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) to emerge from the State of Oklahoma. In brief, the FLA process is meant to facilitate learning from unintended outcomes by interviewing people who were involved in the event, and sharing a collective story of their experiences. We also offer lessons learned from those involved and with their help, generate recommendations that may be useful for people within and outside of the region.

For many readers, this analysis will serve as an introduction to a different way of fighting fire with some of these methods appearing unconventional. But, in the words of one of the grader operators, “you make do with what you have.” Even if the methods and context are different, this statement ties together the ethos of wildland firefighters everywhere. It is also important to note that the men and women of Roger Mills County are exceptional at what they do and have an impressive record of doing it safely.

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. Google+

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