Seven-hour extraction of injured firefighters by helicopter at night

Lesson Learned: “Be willing to turn down an assignment if evacuation of an injured person is not possible in a timely manner.”

Coast Guard Helicopter
From the report.

After one of their helicopters used a hoist to extract two seriously injured firefighters on the Middle Fire in Northern California, the Coast Guard issued a press release that read in part:

…The helicopter crew approached the extraction zone and made a high-altitude, tree-top hoist from 240 feet, the helicopter’s maximum hoist range. The injured firefighters were flown to Weaverville airport and transferred to emergency medical services.

“This rescue was extremely challenging due to the proximity to an active fire, the high elevation and the rugged terrain,” said Lieutenant Commander Derek Schramel, the pilot in command of the mission. “I’m very proud of how our crew worked together with our fire service and law enforcement partners in Trinity County to save these two men.”

The press release failed to mention that the injured firefighters were rescued and then delivered to two medical helicopters at Weaverville more than seven hours after the Coast Guard received the request for the mission.

We wrote about the hoist rescue on September 9, 2019.

Crew member firefighter with broken femur.
From the Rapid Lesson Sharing document.

On September 6, 2019 two firefighters were seriously injured by a rolling rock while working at night on the Middle Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. One firefighter was knocked unconscious for 30 seconds due to a head injury. The rock also hit his neck and shoulder. The other firefighter had a very serious broken femur causing his leg to be twisted about 180 degrees.

(Download the Rapid Lesson Sharing report; 1.6 MB)

During this night shift the only resource on the fire was one contract Type 2 Initial Attack crew. The Crew Boss was the Incident Commander on the fire and had been on the Dutch Creek Fire in 2008 when Andrew Palmer was injured by a falling tree and bled to death. Mr. Palmer remained at the site for two hours while EMTs and fellow firefighters struggled to settle on and carry through a workable plan.

And, on the Iron 44 fire in 2008 the IC had been on the helicopter flight immediately before the crash of the overweight helicopter that killed nine firefighters and flight crew personnel.

The IC was thinking about the delay in extraction and a too heavy helicopter when the Coast Guard helicopter arrived over their fire at 2340 and the pilot said the ship was too heavy to extract personnel at 4,500 feet and would have to loiter to burn off fuel.

After flying for 90 minutes the pilot said the helicopter was still too heavy and would have to return to base to reconfigure. The crew was told that  only one firefighter could be extracted, so they moved the firefighter with the head and shoulder injuries to a different location. When the helicopter was en route back, the pilot told the IC to prepare both patients for extraction—they could take both after all, so the crew carried the second firefighter back to the hoist site.

The helicopter was back on scene sometime after 0300. The two firefighters were extracted and delivered to two waiting medical helicopters at Weaverville at 0350. The patients were flown to “Mercy Hospital” (or Mercy Medical Center in Redding which is about 35 miles from Weaverville).

Here is the time line, according to the Rapid Lesson Sharing report:

2100 — Two firefighters hit by a rock
2107 — The IC requested extraction of the victims by helicopter with hoist
2117 — The Coast Guard was called to request a helicopter
2252 — The Coast Guard accepted the mission
2340 — Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter arrives at the fire. Pilot says the ship is too heavy to hoist, orbits for 90 minutes to burn off fuel, then still too heavy, flies back to reconfigure.
0300 — (approximately, or later), Coast Guard helicopter is back on scene
0350 — Coast Guard helicopter extracts then delivers the two firefighters to two waiting medical helicopters at Weaverville. They were then flown to a hospital or medical center.

The firefighters were lucky that at least there was a Coast Guard helicopter available to take on the mission, even though the injury-to-hospital-time was over seven hours.

To be fair, conducting a hoist rescue at night far from the coast at 4,500 feet above sea level is not a primary mission for the Coast Guard. But fighting fire in every kind of imaginable condition is routine for wildland firefighters. The Coast Guard, judging from this incident, is not prepared that kind of mission, but it is not uncommon for the wildland fire agencies to have to extract injured firefighters at night in remote, rugged terrain.

The U.S. Forest Service does not have in-house capability to use a helicopter to extract injured firefighters at night. Some of their contract helicopters are approved for and have a helitack crew that can perform short-haul operations during daylight hours.

One of the lessons learned that was identified in the report is:

Be willing to turn down an assignment if evacuation of an injured person is not possible in a timely manner.

Below is video of the hoists, shot from the Coast Guard helicopter.

Our opinion:

The federal and state agencies with major wildland fire programs need to develop the day and night capability to extract injured firefighters within one hour. Failure to do so is firefighting malpractice.

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.

12 thoughts on “Seven-hour extraction of injured firefighters by helicopter at night”

  1. Preventing serious injuries and treating them when they occur involves many, many facets, options, tools, and possibilities. I recommended one that if implemented and could save lives. And yes, there are many other issues to be considered but if someone is suffering from a traumatic injury, being extracted within one hour is an important goal that the land management agencies should work toward. These agencies need to admit that they are sending their employees to do dangerous work that involves risk, some of which can be mitigated to a certain degree but not totally eliminated. A professional-quality wildland firefighting agency would have night-flying hoist-capable helicopters available when they have their workers performing dangerous work in remote, barely accessible areas.

    But even if a night-flying helicopter with a hoist and paramedics is sitting at the helibase, sometimes weather can prevent the use of that resource. Backup plans are necessary. And like the headline of the article says: Lesson Learned: “Be willing to turn down an assignment if evacuation of an injured person is not possible in a timely manner.”

    Having day and night aerial extraction capability is not a “magic box”, but it could be one life-saving tool.

    The origin of the one hour goal is not arbitrary as someone above suggested, but it comes from the concept of the Golden Hour, the period of time following a traumatic injury during which there is the highest likelihood that prompt medical and surgical treatment will prevent death. It can be more or less than one hour depending on the nature of the injury.

    We should have learned this lesson after Andrew Palmer bled to death on the Dutch Creek fire in 2008.

  2. We here at Air Rescue Concepts and Air Center Helicopters have been driving this need for a few years. We had a Bell 212 hoist equipped ALS aircraft staffed and trained up. After letters to Congressmen Boise finally put out a RFI about a year and half ago. The biggest issue was performance at altitude. ACHI then offered a NVG capable EC-225 super Puma which easily exceeded the requirements. USFS is still using local agency aircraft which actually against the Pressler law and questionable response times. Basically USFS is rolling the dice with the lives of fire line personnel. Seven hours is ridiculous. I guess lessons were not learned from the Dutch Creek Incident.

  3. Agree with the comments on not relying on aircraft. Just recently on the swan lake fire here on the kenai peninsula, a wasp sting victim in serious condition was not able to receive a fire helicopter or air guard hoist ship due to visibility issues for the aircraft.
    Patient had to be transported off the line using other methods to get to ground vehicle transport.

    Just as in suppression tactics, fireline personnel need to have a backup plan in the event aircraft are not available, limited by conditions, or plain break down.

  4. It will be interesting to see the story that’s published on the Kern County Hoist a couple days later. Day hoist with just over an hour to a trauma center. Great job!!! Realize a lot of factors are in play with hoist missions and you’re one chip light away, or wind or visibility issues away from that Helo not being there. Don’t base your tactics on aircraft. Think of where you can get your injured FF in the time frame of a hoist mission and have a backup plan.

  5. I have to strongly disagree on Wildfire Todays position. It goes directly against the Lesson Learned in this case. 1 hour is an arbitrary number without further explaination and its also jamming every scenario into a magic 1 hr box that may or may not suit every situation. A different approach with better results would be a combo of refusing assignments based on risk, overhead making that no go decision before it ever gets to a crew level, and the fire community as a whole making some serious changes in terms of interpreting what the actual reward part is in the “risk v reward”. So many articles are written about lack of money for fire management i.e. RX burns but the supression side of it is always willing to throw/ risk resources ( insert people here) at some piece of ground that probably needed fire to begin with and really would not have mattered if it tore off another 5,000 or 30,000 acre strip. In summary, prioritizing emergency air assets like those proposed so we can insert people into places they probably shouldnt be is not money or time well spent. Please do continue your good work Mr. Gabbert. Appreciate your time and effort on Wildfire Today.

  6. Hoist and short-haul extraction capability absolves the IC, Operations, Dispatch and Local Unit from having to evaluate and plan for timely resolution of medical emergencies without that capability. Dutch Creek protocol was as much about firefighters in harm’s way, as it was about timely extraction.

    If it is not available in a timely manner, then the firefighters should not be in those areas or conducting missions where their extraction is delayed. So, those in charge need to constantly evaluate if their planned operations are within the guidelines. Since that is usually too restrictive on their “operations as usual” thinking, you will have IC’s and Ops demanding extraction helicopters be available. Then they can do what they have always done, possibly putting more firefighters in harm’s way.

    What if it had been smoky or foggy at 03:00? Availability does not guarantee functionally feasible at any given time. Dutch Creek protocol is about thinking and planning, and extraction aircraft are part of that. But you can fight fire without those aircraft, just not “operations as usual”. Therefore, I respectfully disagree with the last statement of “Our Opinion”, is it leads one to think that we cannot fight fire within the Dutch Creek protocol without extraction aircraft 24/7/all conditions.

    Quoted from end of article:
    “Our opinion:
    The federal and state agencies with major wildland fire programs need to develop the day and night capability to extract injured firefighters within one hour. Failure to do so is firefighting malpractice.”

  7. I don’t know why the CHP is brought into the situations. This is from a article written Verticle magazine about the CHP
    In addition to its airborne law enforcement missions, the CHP’s Valley Division stays busy with SAR and EMS missions — which is why the agency requires its pilots and TFOs to hold medical qualifications. TFO/paramedic Greg Norrgard explained that in most cases, TFO/paramedic candidates must already be paramedics licensed with the state of California.
    As fully equipped Advanced Life Support air rescue helicopters, the CHP H125s carry medical gear similar to that found in ALS ground ambulances, in addition to a limited amount of supplies in portable bags in case a hike to a patient is required. The aircraft also carry an assortment of rescue gear, including a Bauman Bag, screamer suit, and collapsible backboard for conducting hoist rescues. Each helicopter’s Goodrich hoist has a lifting capacity of 500 pounds (226 kilograms) and approximately 160 feet (48 meters) of cable installed.

  8. Unacceptable … Again… Had it been serious, like Andy was.. There could have been fatalities. An hour and thirty five minutes just to accept the mission?

    Agree with the statement that USFS need to provide these capabilities.

    1. Hopefully as Calfire brings online its new generation blackhawks with hoist and night flying capabilities, these type of incidents will be able to be resolved in a much more timely manner.

    2. One must remember that this is not a USCG mission and they have no responsibility to accept the mission in the first place. There is a chain of command that this request needed to go through for approval, hence the perceived delay.

      In California there are several local government agencies with night hoist capability, Kern County, Ventura County, LA County, San Diego FD and in Northern California the Sacramento Metropolitan FD. Recently IMTs have tried to have day and night hoist capability on fires, the problem is with IA fires such as this one, where there is no clear ordering process.

      There are companies out there that provide rescue hoist capabilities, primarily to the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico, they just aren’t interested in CWN contracts, no guarantee of payment relative to the expense.


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