Report released for burnover on the Harris Fire near Joliet, MT

One firefighter was severely burned

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Engine Harris Fire burnover
Engine in Harris Fire burnover — July 16, 2021. From the report.

A Facilitated Learning Analysis has been released for the burnover that occurred July 16, 2021 on the Harris Fire near Joliet, Montana 25 miles northeast of Red Lodge. Dan Steffensen of Red Lodge Fire Rescue who had six years of experience with wildland fire was on a two-person engine crew when very strong winds suddenly shifted. He attempted to reach safety, but was overrun by the fast moving fire and was injured. Due to the severity of his burns, 2nd and 3rd degree on 45 percent of his body, Mr. Steffensen was flown to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City where he was treated for nine weeks.

Mr. Steffensen was operating a nozzle while he and another firefighter who was driving the engine were making a mobile attack on a grass fire. It was burning in pastureland that had not been burned, grazed, or hayed in six years, consisting primarily of dense grass and some sage approximately two feet in height.

In accordance with department common practice, Mr. Steffensen was not wearing his line pack and fire shelter, as neither he nor the driver would ever get past the end of the hardline hose. In that first section, Mr. Steffensen was always in the driver’s direct line of sight, and the three-to four-foot flames “took down easy” and quickly. 

The firefighters did not know that minutes before the burnover the National Weather Service had issued a Significant Weather Advisory for thunderstorms moving in their direction. “Wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph are possible with these storms,” it said. “A gust to 63 mph was reported in Big Timber with this activity.”

When the wind gusts arrived at the fire, increasing from 10 mph to about 55 mph, a helicopter pilot who had been dropping water was forced to jettison the water from his bucket.

Engine Harris Fire burnover

As the wind speed suddenly increased and the direction shifted, Mr. Steffensen and the engine were entrapped by flames. The firefighter driving the engine had no visibility and knowing there was a cliff nearby, stayed in place and let it burn over the engine. He later described it as being “hotter than hell in the cab” for the 20-30 seconds of the burnover. He was not injured.

From the report:

For Dan, those few seconds between when he recognized that they had a problem and when the flame front hit were not enough for him to return to the engine or reach the black. He later said “I’ve been on many fires, [and] I’ve never seen one come out of nowhere so fast. All it took was the wind switch.” Although he was only 15 or so feet from the burned portion of the field that he and Scott had just left, the fire was traveling too fast for him to get there. With no line gear on him, and no time to deploy a shelter even if he had carried it, he was left with just his PPE to protect him from the 20-foot high, fast-moving flame front, which hit him after slamming into the driver’s side of the engine and eddying under to the passenger side.

Below are the Key Takeaways from the report:


Almost every single experienced wildland firefighter reading this analysis will find the series of events recounted here familiar: an initial attack in light, flashy fuels with rapidly changing conditions. It can, therefore, be tempting to write this off as an unavoidable situation in an inherently risky profession. While the FLA team agrees that accepting some level of risk while fighting fire is inevitable, we do believe there are some key lessons for the reader to consider, should they ever find themselves in a similar situation.

1) Remember the importance of PPE and wearing it correctly. Dan’s injuries would have been much worse had he not been wearing his Nomex, a layered shirt, gloves, and a helmet in the appropriate manner.

2) Remaining in your vehicle during a burnover may be the best option in light, flashy fuels. Scott was able to walk away from the Harris Fire that day with no physical injuries. The comparison of the conditions inside and outside of E78 suggest that this was the safest place he could have been in that moment.

We also encourage you to reflect on the following questions, especially as they relate to fast-moving initial attack scenarios:

1) When planning your escape route, how much time do you really have to react? It was repeated throughout this analysis, both from individuals involved in the incident and those not involved, how common it is in our current firefighting environment to operate outside of the black. In this case, however, there were some slightly unusual circumstances, such as the high grassy fuel loads, that contributed to the unintended outcome. Take the time to consider such factors, as well as harder to predict factors such as unexpected wind shifts, when planning an escape route.

2) Is the higher level of risk that comes with missing elements of LCES acceptable to you? If yes, what values must be threatened for you to accept that higher level of risk? When asked, Scott shared that his major lesson learned from the day was, “what were we doing here?” With time to reflect, he regretted entering an unburned area with an inadequate escape route to save a few acres of grass, especially when an alternate suppression strategy may have been as effective at keeping the fire on the plateau.

3) What is the process in your organization for quickly communicating special weather statements and advisories about changing conditions? In this case, the special weather statement was issued only minutes before the thunderstorm impacted wind speed, direction, and fire activity at the scene, and no one on the fire received this information in time to react and reevaluate their tactics.

4) When the forecast restates the same thing every day, how do you ensure that you still account for the potential impacts of extreme weather during initial attack? Even if those on the hill had received the special weather statement in a timely manner, it had been hot and dry with a chance of thunderstorms in the area for weeks. Such repetition during fire season often results in the line of thinking that “nothing bad happened yesterday, so today we should be fine again.” Even for the most experienced firefighters, extreme fire weather should still be of note; in fact, these are often the firefighters that must battle most against complacency to objectively consider the potential risk posed by extreme fire weather.

5) Is your assessment of fuels valid? Just as in timber litter fuel types, there can be significant variations in grass fuels with regards to fuel loading and arrangement. In many areas of the west, grazing lands are enrolled in conservation programs that govern the frequency of grazing, haying, or burning, resulting in significantly higher amounts of fuel on the ground. How do you make sure that your assumptions about fire behavior and spread rates are still valid as you make decisions about tactics?

Engine Harris Fire burnover

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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.

12 thoughts on “Report released for burnover on the Harris Fire near Joliet, MT”

  1. The best answer was the #2 statement about protecting a small patch of green whenever you could easily make the box bigger and safer by consolidating resources and re-engaging from a safer location, maybe a road, natural or man made barrier. The forests and districts I have worked on have a 1 1/2 15 -25 foot line in the front bumpers. We went from rubber 3/4 inch hose lines on our live reels to 1 inch CJRL or hotline hose so we could cut and move quickly if needed. Monitors were a luxury if you had unlimited water but prohibitive by lack of. I would like to stress module staffing of two firefighters as one ff would be engaged in operating the apparatus and the other ff fighting the fire. Light engines of feds usually have 3 ff’s, a cpt, operator and fftr. The captain is your working supervisor with responsibilities of safety, comm, strategy and tactics as well as on ground situational awareness. Also, I grew up with the, “One Foot in The Black” tactic of fighting wildfire and retired at 37 years of service.

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    1. Hi Mervin
      We either ran a line off a bumper or if that wasn’t available off a 2.5-inch discharge on the panel reduced to 1.5-inch. With 3-0 staffing it gave us the luxury of being able to swap out people on the nozzle when they were getting beat up. I trained all my ff’s to drive so the guy on the nozzle would move to driving, the support for would take the nozzle, and I’d take the support. We’d go full circle giving everyone a break as they needed it. I remember when we finally started getting engines that had A/C’s in them I thought I’d gone to heaven. Made life a little easier. I went out with 38 years and nine month. I think we can say we’ve seen lots of changes, mostly for the better.

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    1. Hi Matt
      1.5-inch mobile attack lines that Cal Fire are roughly 15 ft long. Nozzles are adjustable for flow so gpm is controlled by the person on the nozzle. I have to say that when we went to 1.5-inch I hated it. I hated it until I almost got my tail feathers singed on an unexpected wind shift with a decent sized fire whirl. That 1.5-inch line and nozzle quickly became my best friend. Like I said – one doesn’t have to make a big mistake, one or two little ones can be just as deadly. When that happens it’s nice to have the gpm’s available to get ones butt out of the sling

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      1. We attack from the black so I am not worried about needing the extra gpm. And 95% of the time we are riding on the apparatus whether from a designated platform or from the cab.

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        1. Just stay safe brother – it all grows back when the rains hopefully come and none of it’s worth getting hurt over

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  2. Forgot to mention. The trunks and branches of the living confers did not burn. One of which, a 60ft ponderosa pine , stood six foot from the shed in which my pickup was, still had about 6ft of green needles at its top.

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  3. I have no actual experience fighting wildfires but I lost two buildings in the Bootleg Fire of July in Oregon. But I have looked a Wildfire Today’s pictures and videos of the burning of timber and I know what was left at my property that is related to the buildings which burned in the Marshall fire.

    Given wind the needles of any conifer burn very rapidly generate the flame of a huge match which has no trouble igniting the dry wood framing of buildings. And these building fires burn more slowly but hot enough to melt the aluminum block of my pickup, which left a 20+ foot downstream of cooled aluminum.

    A question: We don’t have the technology to mount a nozzle on the truck which can be pointed from the inside of the truck?

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    1. Hi Jerry
      Very good question. Some depts., have tried this and found it overall to not be that efficient. First of all, the best place for an engine to be on a mobile attack is in the black. This has already burned and isn’t going to burn again unless it’s what’s called “dirty black”. This is a mix of burned and I burned fuel. If an engine had a remote nozzle mounted on the bumper the water stream from the nozzle would not just be extinguishing fire but blowing fire edge debris into unburned fuel. This can easily blow burning embers which causes more problems to deal with. When I was on the ground with the nozzle I would be right on the fire edge with one foot in the black and one in the green. I would use the stream from the nozzle to not only extinguish the fire but also blow debris back into the black negating re-kindles. This debris includes small twigs and burning dry cow poop which is rather hard to quickly put out and is notorious for re-kindles. The engine would be safe in the black and being in the black at the fire edge I had a ready means of retreat. Working the fire edge also gave me the advantage of not being ahead of a flame front – i.e., flames ten feet high and twenty feet deep. I was able to knock down the flame front ahead of me with my nozzle on a straight stream setting and then bring my nozzle back down in a narrow fog pattern to take care of the fire on the edge of the black-green. One last comment – it doesn’t take a big mistake to get hurt on a fire. One or two little mistakes can cause the same results.

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      1. Old Captain, we went to the same school because I was taught the same way and that’s how I taught my guys and never got hurt or burned by the Grace of God !

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    2. The BLM Oshkosh super heavies have monitor nozzles that are controlled inside the cab. The Oshkosh trucks replaced the older Tatras. They work well in sagebrush country, and I believe all of them are stationed in the Great Basin/E of the Cascades.

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  4. Cal Fire stopped using hard line/reel lines on mobile attack years ago and went with a policy of mobile attack with 1.5-inch line after several near misses and a few injuries. Hard lines simply do not put out enough water to protect the crew should things go south. Yes!! I know that doing a mobile with 1.5-inch line is a pain but the safety that extra flow provides with a good nozzle far outweighs the ease of hard lines. It’s very easy too, to fall into the trap of “it’s-just-grass”. It may be “just grass” but it can kill you just like brush or timber.

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