Dozens of firefighters were nearly entrapped on the Route Fire in Southern California

In a very close call, they all escaped, but two were treated in a hospital burn unit

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Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

On September 11, 2021 dozens of firefighters working on the Route Fire north of Los Angeles suddenly found themselves with fire on all sides of them. Even though it occurred three months ago the story has not been publicly told, until today.

Wildfire Today covered the fire at the time.

Helicopter-based flight crews, hand crews, and several Los Angeles County and US Forest Service engine crews were working on the fire seven miles north of Castaic between Interstate 5 and old highway 99, also known as Golden State Highway. The crews and engines positioned ahead of the fire had been on scene for about 30 minutes looking for the right time and place to engage the fire, which had previously moved west across the 99. Eventually it turned hard north, then east back to the highway behind the crews, with spot fires occurring out ahead. As it neared the highway, flames seen in the videos appeared to be 20 to 40 feet high when they bent over the road as the heavy brush was rapidly consumed.

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021. Looking south.

The fire spread north was undetected by the firefighters on the highway due to topography, and the lookouts became inadequate as the fire grew. Air resources observed the pinching action of the fire, along with fire crews on Interstate 5. As they tried to communicate it was time to leave, a bottleneck occurred. South and north of the crews the highway was four lanes wide, but at that point it was only two lanes wide.

Route Fire map
Route Fire map. USFS.

The two flight crews of approximately 11 persons each had been transported by helicopters, but were obviously on foot after being dropped off. The crew that was the furthest out from the worst of the entrapment was able to load their personnel into LA County engines and escape.

Closer to the roaring flames the other flight crew, on foot, was in imminent danger. Two US Forest Service engines, each staffed with five firefighters, were able to find a way to cram the 11-person flight crew plus two others into the two FS engines, coordinated by Engine Boss Tom Guzman. Seven members of the flight crew climbed into one engine, and the other took four plus an additional two firefighters who were on foot nearby. They had trouble getting the doors to close. There were 23 bodies in the two engines, with seating designed for five each. The last person in one of the engines came in through the driver’s door and was lying across several people on the front seat as the driver found a way to still operate the truck as he navigated through the smoke, avoiding parked or slow-moving fire apparatus on the two-lane highway as his air horn blasted.

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

Many of the flight crewmembers were rookies and kept their tools as they climbed over bodies into the suddenly very cramped cabs. One of them was on his first fire.

A firefighter from the US Forest Service suffered second degree burns to his ears, neck, nose, cheeks, and arm. Another from LA County received a second degree burn to his neck. They were both treated by paramedics on scene, transported to a hospital emergency room, and later to a burn unit, and then released.

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

“The more experienced firefighters were more shaken up than the new guys,” one firefighter told Wildfire Today. “Firefighters on the outside looking in were pretty shaken up, but as best as I can tell I think we are all doing good. I’ve learned that things like this are more common than people realize, but until recent times they haven’t been captured on video, so they were never made known.”

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

Multiple firefighters captured it on videos. Wildfire Today obtained a three-minute version that the US Forest Service distributed internally, below, which tells part of the story of the near miss.

By the next morning the spread of the Route Fire had been stopped at 454 acres thanks to the work of firefighters on the ground and numerous aircraft.

For his actions on the Route Fire, Tom Guzman, who was serving as an Engine Boss, received a “USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region Emergency Response Award”. More details about the award are at the end of the video.

After the interviews that were conducted shortly after the incident the firefighters were told that a “Rapid Lesson Sharing” document would be produced. As of December 11, 2021 it has not appeared.

The still images seen here are from the videos shot by the firefighters.

More information about this incident:  Processing the trauma of a near miss.

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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.

13 thoughts on “Dozens of firefighters were nearly entrapped on the Route Fire in Southern California”

  1. These Incident Management Teams cover up “near misses” or “entrapments” all the time. Unless it somehow gets out to the media, it will often go unreported if they can get away with it. It’s a shame because these are important lessons everyone should be able to learn from. A Highly Reliable Organization should be doing everything they can to share these lessons and get them spread widely to increase firefighter safety. Thanks Bill for writing about this.

  2. It was an initial attack not under IMT.
    The joint agencies embraced a RLS from the onset. Much has been shared across both agencies for learning. From what I understand, both agencies followed the lead from all those directly involved.

  3. Couldn’t say it any better. 2 separate entrapments on Cameron Peak in Colorado. One was a Division who went right out to the line the next day. We talk a big talk, but…enough said.
    Anyone looking into Kruger fire plane crash?

  4. Why didn’t they take their line gear off and drop the McCloud before packing into the vehicle before escaping the fire? Panic?

  5. Why was this incident kept silent for 4 months. That is a travesty The silence needs to be investigated.

  6. Unfortunately these “cover ups” are the new norm. There have been two recent incidents that I will never forget. The Valley fire of 2015 in Lake Co. Ca. And the Ranch Fire of 2019 (date?). I will not go into detail here. News outlets like this one will be invaluable holding agency personnel accountable. Keep up the good work!

  7. Why would these brave young people be put in harm’s way? Humans can’t stop a tornado so why continue to think that these human-caused wildfires could be stopped?

  8. Panic, inexperience. I was driving that truck and from what I know of that handcrew is that it was most of those guys first fire ever. We all question this stuff after the fact, even tho we train to ditch your stuff in this scenario, panic and inexperience was probably the reason.

  9. Sounds like a good enough outcome, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said “that was close”, well, you know. Not knowing the circumstances, in general, put your crews in a position for the highest probability of success, especially if it’s their first season. Anchor and flank and one foot in the black minimizes the close calls.

  10. They’ve been trying to cover this up for years. They’ve been doing it for so long that it has now become status quo.

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