U.S. Forest Service suspends all prescribed fires in their Northern Region

The stand down follows several recent accidents and burn-related injuries

US Forest Service Regions map

The Regional Forester of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, Leanne Marten, has ordered an immediate pause on all prescribed fires within the region, which encompasses Montana, North Dakota, and Northern Idaho. In an April 19 memo, she described the reason:

In the last week and a half we have had reported four burn injuries of Northern Region employees, two very serious resulting in 3rd degree burns and surgery. Thankfully employees are recovering well.

As I mentioned on our call this morning,  I am directing an immediate pause on all prescribed burns in the Northern Region until further notification from me. Each Forest Supervisor and Director are to immediately have a safety stand down with all employees to have a dialogue and assessment on where people are at and whether we are in the place with everything else going on in the world to safely move forward with this program of work.

Forest Supervisors were directed to report back by April 23 about the results of the discussions and their recommendations going forward.

One of the injuries resulted from the collar popping off a drip torch that was being carried strapped to a Forestry Technician’s pack. All of the fuel spilled onto the person’s legs and quickly ignited.

Here is an excerpt from the Rapid Lesson Sharing document dated April 13, 2021:

US Forest Service Regions map
From the LLC Rapid Lesson Sharing report.

After the test burn for the Clear Creek Aspen Prescribed Fire was completed, blacklining operations began. The Holding Boss, with 17 years of experience, had a drip torch securely strapped to his pack, as is commonly practiced to supplement torches for the ignition crew. (See photo on left.) Fuel was not leaking from the torch.

As blackline operations continued, the brass locking ring and torch assembly simultaneously popped off the drip torch—making a noticeable audible sound. This action caused all the burn fuel to dump out at once, soaking the Holding Boss’ Nomex pants and boots.

This fuel instantaneously combusted, igniting the Holding Boss’ saturated clothing from the waist down.

The Holding Boss immediately dropped to the ground and attempted to roll. However, with his pack still on, he had limited mobility to do so. In addition, the drip torch’s burning tank was still connected to the pack.

These actions combined to ignite additional fuel in close proximity to the Holding Boss.

Difficulty in Suppressing Flames

All resources in the area immediately tried to assist the Holding Boss by trying to smother the flames on his legs with gloved hands. They removed the pack and poured water from their canteens to suppress the flames.

However, with the amount of fuel that was involved, efforts to put the flames out were not immediately effective.

While difficult to estimate, the amount of time it took to suppress the flames is estimated to be from 30 seconds to one minute.

Air Ambulance Extracts Holding Boss

The on-site EMT assessed the Holding Boss. The initial diagnosis included 2nd and 3rd degree burns on both legs.

The immediate extraction of the Holding Boss was done by air ambulance. Within 45 minutes of this burn incident the patient had been loaded into the air ambulance and was en route to the hospital.

Lessons and Follow-Up

  • Despite no indications of leaking, the drip torch locking ring was able to pop off, jettisoning most of the fuel from the tank. Upon initial examination of the drip torch, the locking ring used does not appear to be from the same manufacturer as the rest of the torch
  • The drip torch involved in this incident is being sent to the National Technology and Development Program (NTDP) for further inspection
  • The local unit has started to examine their drip torch inventory to ensure that the components from each torch are from the same manufacturer.

This has Happened Here Before

In the aftermath of this drip torch burn injury incident, via follow-up conversations in this dispatch zone, it has been learned that at least one other locking ring has popped off a drip torch being used during prescribed fire activities this spring.

The 10-second video below shows how this may occur:

Lessons from a Similar Event: Caldwell Fire Burn Injury

A fuel can in the bed of a pickup caught fire. In the process of removing the fuel can from the truck, fuel spilled on a firefighter’s pants and ignited. He climbed out of the truck and attempted to stop, drop, and roll on the pavement to extinguish the flames on his pant leg. Rolling on the pavement didn’t work, so he stood up, stepped to the road shoulder and rolled in the dirt, finally extinguishing the fire.

From this FLA: Actions to Take to Extinguish Burning Fuel on Pants 

“Stop, drop, and roll” does not readily extinguish burning fuel on Flame Resistant  clothing. Additionally, it appears that attempting to swat or pat out burning fuel can increase the fire intensity. There are some actions that can be taken to extinguish burning fuel on Flame Resistant clothing. However, these actions require human performance in very stressful situations.

  1. Unbuckle and remove pants down to ankles or below boots. This reduces flame lengths and removes the heat from next to the skin, allowing the individual to extinguish the flames away from the legs. This method is preferred for large areas of burning fuel on pants.
  2. Use a water bottle to pour on the flames to extinguish the burning fuel.
  3. Drop to knees

Here is a video from the National Technology Development Program showing findings related to fuel igniting on Nomex pants:

(end of Rapid Lesson Sharing report)

Drip torches are carried strapped onto firefighters’ packs in other locations as well.

Packing drip torch pack gear
Drip torch carried strapped to a firefighter’s gear. Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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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.

5 thoughts on “U.S. Forest Service suspends all prescribed fires in their Northern Region”

  1. I have struggled with how to write a response to this unfortunate drip torch incident. My first thought upon reading this article was why was the individual carrying the drip torch attached to the fire pack. Before I continue on, I am sorry for the injuries sustained during this incident and don’t blame the individual but the reasons that occurred allowing drip torches to be carried this way in the first place. I don’t want to sound like the Old Guard or “we used to do it this way” contingent, but I have burned plenty of acres on prescribed fires and miles of line on wildfires carrying two drip torches. We carried the one used for igniting in one hand and a full drip torch and hand tool in the other. Yes it did not feel good, but if there was an issue it was easy to discard everything. I have seen shortcuts by crews doing the simplest things without the understanding if something goes wrong the result could be difficult. How we developed these unsafe practices is beyond me. We never had those issues before and wildfire suppression and rx fire have been going on for years. As a Safety Officer (spent my time as a team Safety and now prefer to be on the line) with my 40th wildfire season this year, I have seen, heard about, and read about numerous accidents/injuries. Unfortunately many (not all) of these injuries have occurred because of lack of attention to detail and various individuals then not being held accountable for their actions. I am sorry to relay the truth but I am sure I am not the only one with these observations. I hope during this stand down and prior to this next wildfire season, the real causes of accidents are discussed and true reflection and action is undertaken to mitigate these problems. Situational awareness and personal responsibility are real, and self and crew reflections are important to reduce the numbers of accidents/injuries/fatalities that occur each season. Taking the extra second of your life to think about what you are doing can have many rewards.

  2. The difficulty with parts interchanging on different manufacture’s torches are real. I was just dealing with it yesterday. I personally think having one style of parts/manufacturer being standardized for torches is way more reasonable than standardized rappel platforms. On the other hand, maybe we could paint the torches purple and put ‘VERY Flammable’ stickers on them. That should do it….

  3. Federal employees working on a prescribed fire are not paid hazard pay, but they are required to carry fire shelters. That logic is difficult to follow.

    Here’s a thought about how to put out the flames when someone’s clothing is soaked with drip torch fuel and is burning. Use that fire shelter. Remove it from the bag, shake it open, then use it to smother the flames. Cover the burning area with it.


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