Report: Firefighter killed on August Complex was assisting with backfiring operation

The firefighter was the engine boss on a contract engine from Texas working on the fire in Northern California

August Complex Fatality
Leslie Johnson / Cal Fire / San Francisco Chronicle

Additional information now available about the circumstances in which a firefighter was killed August 31 on the August Complex of fires in northern California reveals that the tragedy occurred during a  backfiring operation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported details about the fatality after receiving documents from CAL FIRE obtained through a public records request.

Diana Jones Cresson Volunteer Fire Department, Texas
Diana Jones (Photo by Cresson Volunteer Fire Department)

Diana Jones, 63, from Cresson, Texas, was the engine boss of a three-person contract engine crew that was assigned to the fire on the Mendocino National Forest. Along with supervisors and at least one other engine they were on a 20-foot wide logging road igniting and holding a mid-slope backfire below the road.

view of accident site
Google Earth 3-D view of accident site

When a spot fire occurred above the road at 2:15 p.m., Jones’ crew applied water on the fire. The spot fire continued to grow and then the fire in the drainage below the road intensified. The supervisor ordered the crew to “Get out of there!” but Jones could not hear the command. The driver got out of the engine to tell her that they had to leave, and then picked up a nozzle to knock down the flames.

At that time Jones got in the driver’s seat in order to move the truck  but another engine farther up the road had turned around to come back to help. With the narrow dirt road then blocked by the second engine in the front and two other vehicles to the rear, the driver, still dismounted, told her to follow him or her toward the second engine.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

As the engine’s back-up alarm beeped, signaling the vehicle was in reverse, Jones’ right wheels inched closer to the edge. The commander yelled over the radio: “E1, stop, stop, stop, stop … stop!”

The engine tumbled off the dirt shoulder, the report said, slamming into a tree about 15 feet below.

“Vehicle over side, in the fire,” a commander radioed, asking for air support.

The firefighter in the backseat tried to pull Jones out of the engine, as windows popped and shattered from the heat, but the temperature became too intense. The firefighter exited the driver’s-side rear door and crawled to the road with burns to the legs, arms, hands and face, the report said.

The task force leader put on breathing apparatus to search for Jones and the engine operator, but Jones suffered “fatal thermal injuries due to the engine burn over,” Cal Fire concluded. The report does not indicate whether the preemptive backfire or the larger conflagration ultimately burned Jones.

The Chronicle’s article had a little background information about Jones:

Jones had joined the Cresson volunteers five years ago after her husband died and she moved closer to her two sons. She had worked as a hairdresser and in logistics in the Middle East, said Ron Becker, chief of the small Texas fire department.

“She took to it aggressively and very well,” said Becker, adding she got her license as an emergency medical technician and certification in wildfire fighting. “I would never suggest to you that she didn’t know what she was doing and I’d never suggest that she wasn’t totally capable of what she was doing.”

August Complex Fatality
Leslie Johnson / Cal Fire / San Francisco Chronicle

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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.

8 thoughts on “Report: Firefighter killed on August Complex was assisting with backfiring operation”

  1. What an insane place to try to hold a burn with ERC’s and fuel moistures greater than 97th percentile!!!! A desperate Hail Mary tactic that was utterly doomed to fail.

  2. I have heard a lot of criticism of regional FS engine academies having overly aggressive driving courses that don’t fit for what our job asks of us. I don’t really have a clear picture of all the factors at play here, but I can share from experience that going through an engine academy made me a substantially better driver. Capable of backing up in tight quarters with accuracy, and if necessary, urgency.

    Rumor has it, the FS is going to require all new CDL drivers to go through a professional commercial driving school. We sure do have a lot of accidents with our contractors. Maybe we should set some safety/training standards for them too?

  3. “The San Francisco Chronicle reported details about the fatality after receiving documents from CAL FIRE obtained through a public records request.” Disturbing that this would be published BEFORE the official report! If I was family I would be pissed!!!

  4. Perhaps it is too close to the tragedy to comment for some, but doing so hardly constitutes disrespect, but suggesting the contrary . . .

    The main thing is to learn–up and down the chain of command–without insinuating any blame.

    Bob’s points are well-taken. “Final” reports are often biased coverups.

    I’m a country boy, and in taking my USFS driver’s license test, the examiner asked me to turn around on such a road. I backed uphill and into the bank. He said he would have failed me had I done otherwise. I came out of Texas too, and had fought crop fires; no mountains. Had I not had lots of backcountry experience in the mountains, I might have made a mistake–I still do; to err is human. The rule on one-lane roads is that the downhill traffic backs up. It isn’t always honored in the observance.

    There’s a lot to learn from this case, including the positioning of the rigs with respect to each other.

    I hope the final report will be posted and that we will learn a lot from that.

    In grief from this and other such tragic accidents,
    Yr. Ob’t. Sv’t.,

  5. Bill, I believe that contract engine was owned by K& L Farms located in the Lagrande area of NE Oregon.
    I conducted an S-230 class in Milton Free water this
    his past fire season attends by FF’s from them. Good company
    Regarding tactics…yes forces in alignment plus hot slope.
    I have found best way to deal with spot fires under these circumstances is to quickly hit it with big water from the road and then follow-up in normal manner. Pre plumbed bumper monitor. Or at least coiled and ready 1 1\2. Not a hardline job.

  6. Let’s see.
    Firing a mid-slope road,
    a hot slope,
    in a chimney,
    in the afternoon,
    wind aligned,
    out of area crew…
    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Bob, you nailed it. Having witnessed the Calabasas Entrapment in 1996, the similarities are troubling.
      Just download from
      Stay safe


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