15 firefighters on Dolan Fire became entrapped by the fire and deployed fire shelters

One injury is critical and another is serious, the U.S. Forest Service reported

September 8, 2020  |  5:05 p.m. PDT

Map of the Dolan Fire
Map of the Dolan Fire. The red line was the perimeter at 2 a.m. PDT September 8, 2020. The white line was the perimeter about 26 hours earlier. Red shading represents intense heat when the fire was mapped.

Fifteen firefighters attempting to prevent a structure from burning in a California wildfire were entrapped and overrun by the fire, the U.S. Forest Service announced today.

Two firefighters were injured, one critically and the other seriously, the release said. Both patients were transported by Life Flight to Community Regional Hospital in Fresno.

(Update September 11, 2020: New information from the U.S. Forest Service is slightly different from what was originally released shortly after the incident. Those new details are in an article published Sept. 11 about another crew that had to deploy fire shelters.)

It occurred at the Dolan Fire at about 8:31 a.m., September 8, 26 air miles southeast of Big Sur.

The firefighters deployed the fire shelters they carry for this type of situation.

The Forest Service said the incident occurred while the personnel were defending the Nacimiento Station from the approaching fire.

The release from the Forest Service implied more than two of the 15 personnel may have been injured to some degree. Here is an excerpt:

A shelter deployment involving fifteen firefighters from the Dolan Fire occurred approximately at 0831 on Tuesday, Sept 8, 2020, in the vicinity of Nacimiento Station. These dedicated firefighters received injuries including burns and smoke inhalation while defending the Nacimiento Station on Dolan Fire on the Los Padres National Forest in California. Nacimiento Station was destroyed.

When a fixed wing aircraft mapped the Dolan Fire at 2 a.m. PDT September 8 about six hours before the incident, the fire was 74,591 acres, more than twice the size mapped the previous night when it was 36,213 acres. The heat sensing equipment detected intense heat at the fire’s edge at 2 a.m., 0.7 miles northwest of Nacimiento Station.

Fire shelters are small foldable pup tent-like fire resistant devices that a wildland firefighter can unfold and climb into if there is no option for escaping from an approaching inferno. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.

Three days before, on September 5, three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman, Montana were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters when their safety became compromised by the proximity of the blaze, fire officials said.

Nacimiento Station
Nacimiento Station, satellite photo, September 7, 2018.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Al and Tom.

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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.

37 thoughts on “15 firefighters on Dolan Fire became entrapped by the fire and deployed fire shelters”

  1. This is the first I have read or heard about “fire shelters”. They seem like an excellent piece of equipment for every fire fighter to have. Why are some fire fighters saved in these shelters and why do some die? Is it lack of training regarding the appropriate use of the “fire shelters”? Or is it the degree of the intensity of heat?

    1. Shelter training is not an issue I believe. Being in harms way is the key to many burn overs. There are many reasons for this to happen based on the ones I have either seen or reviewed on site. Training experience and other dynamics all can play a role. Bottom line is that a shelter is a tool with limitations and not a fix all. All opinions are my own.

      1. I would question the opinions of a ranger, especially in today’s Forest Service. Truth is many “Line Officers” these days have little or zero experience of firefighting or should I say “Land Management as a Forestry Technician”

        Los Padres NF. Largest area of Federal Lands in the state with the least amount of Resources per acre in the state of CA. Lack of federal funding and proper representation by a rangers boss a forest supervisor.. (again typically literally zero firefighting experience) but in charge of all resources.. of course the forest service has fire chiefs who work under these “Line Officers”

        Training and experience. Hmmmm maybe It is a problem with retention.. The agencies have Failed for that past 40 plus years to properly represent their “fire workforce” properly. In the multiple disciplines such as Pay, job classification, and quality of life.. This false representation has driven some of the most experienced and qualified firefighters the agency had and spent an undisclosed amount of money (millions) on to train and qualify to leave only to find work with local government fire departments who actually are compensated for the sacrifices they make year after year.. this is no way a rant but the hard ugly truth.. This causes a ripple effect with agencies promoting individuals before they are in fact ready to lead people into these extremely hazardous and inherently dangerous environments.. over contracted and mismanagement of funds trying to protect a business model that was developed in the 1980’s.
        My prayers go out to those individuals, their families and Co workers .. Regional Foresters In Vallejo will again play a political roll in this aftermath, and fire management in Washington will again try to explain how these unfortunate outcomes of tragedy can be avoided.. The support system is broken, the leadership is fractured just as our government is.. These men and women will again be viewed and spoke of as firefighters however their title will remain Forestry Technician.. it’s time to change that.. do what’s right.. do it now.. recognition for these individuals and everyone that has come before them..

        The men, women and their families deserve it.. They are Wildland Firefighters they should be compensated for the risks they “manage” every year..

        Why do I speak of these things.. because I did the job as a Hotshot in R5 Southern Ca. For 17 years, Left the agency as a captain. A milestone in some people minds. For me it was a privilege but the only reason I did the job for so long was the people I worked with on the fire line.. overworked and under paid. I Left for my family and because I grew tired of an agency who no longer gave two craps about it’s people.. their well being, but likes to put on a show when someone gets seriously injured or killed in the line of duty..

        I’d love for someone to question my reasons for leaving. It’s simple my family did their time, and it was time for me to give back to them for supporting my time with the Hotshots. I miss it everyday but I still find a way to give back.. God bless those individuals and their families and this trying time.. Hey ranger Maybe try showing some compassion to the situation as you have just validated your motives and lack of Compassion for this delicate situation…

        Fire shelters may save your life, but are also a tool for salvage for an investigation.. be safe my friends that are still out there getting after it and come home..

        1. Sorry if you confused my name for what I do. My father and grandfather worked on the Angeles and I was named Ranger. I am a firefighter and started on a crew. Worked my way up to be Deputy IC And IC of the Los Padres IMT and am familiar with the fire area having been there on a number of campaign fires. Last assignment there was as an OSC of a Type 1 IMT. Just saying this so you won’t think that my comments came from a place of no experience as you indicated. Over 40 years of Wildland firefighting and 17 years on IMTs in Operations and Command.
          I agree that agency has retention issues in some areas and is the best local job in some parts of the country. It is all relative to where you are. I was an OSC on the Angora fire where we had a deployment. The pay disparity between agencies was listed as a reason for the deployment in the report. It didn’t cause them to get far away from safety in my opinion in Angora.

          1. Ranger,
            I’m so glad that you rebutted that comment to your “original” opinion, and shed some clarity as to your “real” understanding of this particular issue, and based on you “actual” experience with these tools. I have been privileged to work under your direction on several of the larger conflagrations that have become the norm in California. And I found your competency level to be right up there, with many of the other Region 5 legends that I was so blessed to work under, during my years on the LPHS Crew in the 80’s. Just saying!

            1. Thank you for the kind words! One thing I learned is that we are always students of fire. We either learn or get schooled. I think Jim Smith on the LP reinforced that to us a lot. This year is schooling many folks. Stay safe and stay well.

        2. Amen, 14 members of my family served, some an incident, some a decade like myself. There is no financial security for most of the workforce, nor the mental help needed once those people are discarded. And we are discarded.

    2. The intent of fire shelters are they are to be used as last resort. While trained on how to deploy and select the best place to deploy the emphasis in training is to not get into a situation where the fire fighter has to use the shelter. The emphasis is to maintain situation awareness and to always have an escape route to a safety zone, a place where the use of shelters is not needed. Not knowing the situation that led to the requirement to deploy or the location of where they deployed I will say that looking at the picture of the Nacimiento Station I would not select that as a deployment site. From the indications of the injury the users of the shelters were pushing the design envelop of the shelters.

    3. It really depends on the heat, what fuel, as in tree types and brush, they are in and how slow or fast the fire is burning. Juniper trees and dense sage brush are high in oils therefore they burn hotter than say an oak tree.

    4. Those shelters have been around for years. They are called “shake and bake” by many firefighters. It is a very serious situation should the shake and bakes have to be deployed as the men/women must, must be positioned in a very intricate way, ie no air holes, tight around/under, etc. BUT, think this …. the fire is RAGING, MOANING AND COMING FAST WITH WINDS IN FRONT OF IT AND MANY OF THOSE FIREFIGHTERS ARE NOT SEASONED, IE YOUNG KIDS AGE 18 OR SO … THE FIREFIGHTER may want to run after they are under their “safety.” Or …. they want to lift the safety device, just to take a peak – even though the ground is still very hot and there is still little air “out there.” If they aren’t positioned correctly in their safety, well lungs become burned, etc. In addition, the fire may be so hot that the shake is of little use. God, dear god, I pray for those firefighters and their families.

    5. Its due to the intensity of the heat. Fore shelters offer limited protection. They are effective against radiant heat only and smoke to a limited extent. They are ineffective against conductive and convective heat. To illustrate this a thin piece of paper will protect against radiant heat. but will ignite immediately if place againt flame or hot object.

    6. Dear Anna Dinkins,

      To answer your question: The reasons that the fire shelters only work for some wild land firefighters is mainly due to the DURABILITY of the shelter and the INTENSITY of the fire. The best example of the fire shelters not working in the field are the deaths of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished fighting the Yarnell (Arizona) Fire. From information that I’ve researched, this was because the fire was simply way too hot the shelters to repel the heat and the shelters those 19 hotshots used at the time had not been updated in about ten years I believe.

      Also, wildland firefighting is way more unpredictable than any structure fire because a wildfire easily and immensely affect by WEATHER, the main component being WIND. So as unfortunate as it is, there is NO precise way of knowing if your shelter is going to work as there are too many factors that can alter the outcome. BUT, to leave this message of a positive note, since the implementation of the fire shelters into service, they have saved many lives of wildland firefighters that would’ve perished if they didn’t have the shelters.

      -Ryan Peterson

    7. the shelters protect from radient heat mostly, direct flame will cook you in this bag, you must use them in an area that heas been ground cleared of fuels. they are an absolute last resort. Also they make it easier to locate bodies in the tragic event of death.

    8. These have been in service for decades, these are better depicted like aluminum foil around a baked potato, they can be deployed by a well trained firefighter under 30 seconds, they are light weight and carried in a pouch. Firefighters prep a site around them removing flammable materials including grass, a few years ago the hotshot crew from Prescott Arizona known as the granite mountain hotshots perished in theirs, firefighters suffer from burns including their lungs from breathing in super heated air….

    9. Anna , I am so sorry to tell you that these ‘fire shelters’ are commonly called ‘shake and bakes’. They are aboutthe size of a XLG sleeping bag and made of reflective heat resistant material. The shelter is in a small pouch hooked into the individual equipment rig a fire fighter wears. In that moment when in the entire landscape in on fire, and the very air is so hot that it will ignite anything it touches, a fire fighter’s last hope to survive is the fire shelter. The hope is the fire is moving so fast that it sweeps over the fire fighter as he or she lays face down on the ground inside the shelter ( or bag) holding it closed and sealed against the super heated air.

    10. The shelters only protect from convective heat. If heat or flames are directly on them, the shelters will melt.

    11. I did a basic firefighter training class in 2016 and they told us that basically these shelters were “better than nothing”. They are a last ditch piece of equipment to save your life if everything fails and you cannot escape. The message was – you will be injured, but this can help (but is not guaranteed to) save your life. My takeaway was that you never EVER want to have to use your fire shelter.

    12. Generally, fire shelters are effective with radiant heat but when they come in contact with an actual flame they can
      disintegrate. They are effective for short periods of time. Deployment takes just a few seconds. Yes, effectiveness depends on how hot the fire is burning and whether the shelters come in contact with flame.

  2. What strikes me as odd in this picture is the agency which advocates strongly for defensible space does not practice what it preaches. Kudos and well wishes to the crew members who took on a seemingly impossible task. We are hoping for a speedy recovery!

    1. Jim Kelly – I am not an expert but I agree with you about defensible space. My heart goes out to our first responders.

    2. I was looking at the aerial view picture of the station and thinking the same thing. Why is the USFS asking these firefighters to defend an indefensible space and why isn’t the USFS practicing what it preaches. They should have had green defensible space surrounding those facilities.

    3. I saw that too Jim. I think there will be a lot of questions asked and accountability demanded after this. There was no reason to risk life to defend a small fire station, and no reason it should have been tucked into the trees like that.

  3. My prayers go to all our firefighters and their families… all of them are truly ‘Heroes “

  4. Jim: I agree. Looking at the site from Google Earth, the trees and underbrush are right on top of this station. I hope these firefighters recover quickly.

  5. False sense of security perhaps, life saving in some situations..if you have to crawl inside of one you’re in dire straits. Certainly a last ditch effort and in no way to be considered a life saving device.

  6. Ryan Peterson: Do you think brand-new fire shelters would have made a difference for the Granite Mountain Hotshots? I doubt they would. They were surrounded by unburned fuel.

  7. I have the fire shelter my boy died in.
    He was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots that died on 6/30/13.
    I offered the shelter to many agencies for analysis on how a fire shelter holds up in a real world burn over, I got crickets….
    (Except for Mr Jim Roth owner of Storm King fire shelters)
    I know each deployment is different and there are many factors that come into play on survivability.
    I feel the shelter is like a parachute,
    You hope you never need it but if you do need it you want the best one you can get.
    May the crew heal quickly both physically and mentally.
    Joe Woyjeck
    Los Angeles County Fire Captain (Ret.)
    Father of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot Kevin Woyjeck.

    1. Dear Joe, I am so sorry to hear of the tragic loss of your son.
      Everyone who reads your post will be suddenly reminded that all these people fighting the wildfires are someone’s son, daughter, husband, wife – someones family. A son whose has chosen to be in the greatest of harms way to protect the rest of us .
      God bless your family.

    2. Mr Woyjeck-

      Well said. Did you take the shelter direct to retired Dr Ted Putnam at anytime since 2013 for his personal and professional analysis?

      NWCG profiles him as such:
      Ted holds a Ph.D. in
      Experimental Psychology from the University of Montana. He majored in Learning
      Psychology, and minored in Decision Theory, Mathematics and Statistics.
      Ted started his Forest Service career in 1963, and spent his first 3 years on the Kooskia
      Ranger District of the Clearwater National Forest. Ted went on to become a Smokejumper for
      11 years, three of those years as a Supervisory Smokejumper. In 1976, Ted combined his
      education and his fire experience as he began working for the fire technology and
      development wing of the U.S. Forest Service at the Missoula Technology and Development
      Center (MTDC).
      As a Fire Equipment Specialist at MTDC, Ted developed firefighter’s protective clothing, fire
      shelters, and training materials. While at MTDC, Ted served as a subject matter expert
      concurrently for two standards-setting committees of the National Fire Protection Associations
      regarding protective clothing and equipment. Ted applied his technical knowledge of fire
      operations and equipment and his extensive understanding of psychology and behavior
      resulting in training materials such as Your Fire Shelter.

      I highly recommend that type of visit with Dr Ted Putnam. I trust him. He is a good man.

      Sorry for your loss. Thank you for being the inspiration you continue to be to us all and especially to Donut’s life. You are aces!

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