Three firefighters injured by water drop from helicopter

Occurred on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico

Updated at 5:25 p.m. PDT June 7, 2022

A “72-hour preliminary report” dated June 6, 2022 shed a little additional light on the May 29 incident in which three firefighters were injured when struck by water dropped from a helicopter on the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico.

It adds that the hotshot crew was not injured directly by the water, but were knocked onto boulders by the force of the drop.

They were hit by the water “while they were crossing a steep rocky piece of ground, consisting of 2 to 3 foot diameter boulders. Three crewmembers were injured by falling in the rocks as a result of being impacted by the water drop” from a Type 1 helicopter.

The most seriously injured firefighter, who had multiple surgeries to repair facial fractures and a broken kneecap, was released from the hospital over the weekend and will be traveling home over the next several days, accompanied by family members and his crew supervisor.

A Facilitative Learning Analysis will be conducted “to share learning from unintended outcomes and to reduce the probability of future occurrences of similar events.”

3:08 p.m. PDT June 1, 2022

helicopter drop spot fire
File photo of a helicopter dropping water in support of a hand crew that was attacking a spot fire at the Wildomar Fire in Southern California at 4:24 p.m. October 26, 2017. Screen grab from KTLA live video.

Three firefighters were injured, one seriously, May 29, 2022 while working on the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire in Northern New Mexico.

According to a 24-hour preliminary report dated today June 1, the Bureau of Land Management Vale Interagency Hotshot Crew was holding a section of fire line when a large Type 1 helicopter “missed the identified drop area” while attempting to drop water on the fire edge. The last of the load landed on several crew members, three of which  were transported to a hospital in Santa Fe, NM, two by ground vehicle and the third by an agency helicopter.

One of them with severe injuries was later transferred to a hospital in Albuquerque where he has received multiple surgeries, one to repair skull fractures to the face, and the other to repair a broken knee cap. The employee is still in the hospital, accompanied by family and his crew supervisor. 

The other two firefighters received injuries described as minor; they were treated and released.

Other than the specifications of the helicopter qualifying it as a Type 1 ship, no other description was given in the report. Type 1 helicopters can carry between 700 and 3,000 gallons, ranging from the 700-gallon K-MAX to a 3,000-gallon Chinook.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico started from two separate escaped prescribed fires which merged into one. It has burned more than 315,000 acres 20 to 47 miles east and northeast of Santa Fe.

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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.

44 thoughts on “Three firefighters injured by water drop from helicopter”

  1. Perhaps worth noting, Bill, that the “section of line” the hotshots were “holding” is within a federal wilderness area.

    1. I wonder why that’s worth noting, Andy? Are you saying it would have been better to have let the fire burn in that area?

      1. Certainly, instead of just “making it go away” like was the plan on the Cramer Fire in 03. You end up putting kore people at risk doing stupid sh** like that.

      1. “On Sunday, May 29, 2022, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Vale Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) was working on holding a section of Fireline IN THE WILDERNESS on the south zone of the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire on the Santa Fe National Forest. The Vale IHC was working with two other IHCs, all being supported by type 1 helicopters providing water drops along the fire’s edge. During one of the water drops, the tail-end of the drop struck several members of the Vale IHC while they were crossing a steep, rocky piece of ground, consisting of 2 to 3ft diameter boulders. Three crewmembers were injured by falling in the rocks as a result of being impacted by the water drop.”

        1. Doesn’t mean it’s correct. They were not within any federally recognized wilderness area.

          Coordinates of the incident location : 35° 38.185′ N, 105°31.870′ W

  2. “Missed the identified drop area” puts the onus on the pilots dropping water from a bucket suspended 100 feet below the ship, while either attempting to hold hover or performing a trailing drop, while at altitudes and speeds that push the boundaries of performance for both man and machine.

    What happened to getting well clear of the target area? It’s a lot easier for crews on the ground to move out of the drop zone – they specify the area and have ample time (even if the turnaround from the dip site is close) to move.

    This incident is awful for everyone involved, but placing this incident in the lap of the pilot(s) seems premature at best.

    1. Can’t tell you how many times a ground contact has called the line clear and then in the middle of a drop you spot personnel in the drop zone. Not saying that happened here, but this is very challenging work for everyone involved.

    2. That is correct. Assigning blame helps no one and will not save the men. Let’s focus on making improvements or improve safety. Learn from it.

  3. Doubtful the helicopter came in unannounced due to noise and possible blade slap. 1980s and 1990s firefighting told us to maintain SA and an occasional lookup would have been part of that SA..

    Keeping ones head on a swivel was the “cry” of the day

    1980s and 1990s also told us to clear the line for either water drops or retardant delivery

    Where was the IHC Supt through all of this?

    Pretty interesting chain of events

  4. Nobody and i mean nobody wakes up and says “i’m going to work today and i’m gonna create a bad outcome or worse.” No Gov’t agency wakes up and says “we have to ignite these prescribed fires so they can escape.” Absolutely ZERO pilots wake up and say “I’m gonna go to work today and drop my load on the troops.” Quarterbacks need to go away – this aint football. This once again is peoples lives we are talking about. Let’s try something different for FY22. How about we aim all thoughts, energy, prayers, & the Force towards our injured troops and their worried families and peers? Could be there are others who witnessed, responded & transported the victims who are also in need of positivity and our well wishes… Just a thought for the peanut gallery from the peanut gallery…

  5. I hope OWCP gets their act together and provides all the support he needs. Failure to promptly pay his medical bills will not be acceptable.

  6. Dang.. get better bros.. all you posers victim blaming are a bunch of fakes or poser “80s and 90s SA was the name of the game eh? So was bumpin coke in the back of the buggy . Every old salty hotshot has at least a half dozen stories about catching a full salvo to the dome a quarter mile off the line .. sh*t happens people (pilots) make mistakes , my guess is these dudes were WELL clear of the line . So instead of talking sh*t let’s donate a bunch of money To the WFF because we know the feds ain’t gunna help em ..

    1. Posers in the 1980s and 1990s?
      Fire fighting didn’t just start when many of u were a twinkle in yur daddy’s eye.
      Many of today’s FFTR can’t get get over their bug bad selves when a few of us here..fought fire before many of you.

      Old salts apparently have thicker skins. Sooo defensive today’s FFTR…name callin

      Your guess is just like the rest of us….a guess.

  7. These are first reported accidents during the 2 months fighting this fire. It has been a challenge with high winds, no precipitation for 2 + months, rugged terrain with steep mountains for openers.

    When big machines are interjected with manual labor, it is not surprising to have some injuries. Unfortunately, one firefighter has serious life threatening injuries. Water holds lots of weight. Large quantities of water can damage geology items, so a human can be really injured by a sudden heavy wall falling on them.

  8. Could easily happen to anyone out there doing the work. Get well soon guys. Pulling for everyone involved. ✊

  9. To those who are commenting on this article:

    As a former Hotshot and current aerial firefighter, I hope that those who have been affected by this situation, on both sides of the bucket, fully recover.

    For those who have not laced up a pair of whites for another shift, or pulled up on the collective, please chose your words wisely. Accidents happen, and there’s only so much the human can see coming. Unfortunately we have to catch things in the rear view mirror. This was probably one of those times.

    As for those who have walked in those boots, hauled up those ridge lines, or strapped themselves into a helicopter and delivered support to personnel on the ground: Keep it up! Have a good summer, and stay safe.

    Your work matters.

  10. I am content to wait for the investigation to conclude and read the final report before criticizing. Especially since the only information is the few details in the initial news brief (which is often in error and incomplete anyway).

  11. It sounds like they are all going to fully recover! That is the great news!! I just hope that they were trying to hold fire line, and not Helimopping…..

  12. DH is 100 percent, no firefighter causes something like that on purpose, grace be upon all of our heroic men and women risking life and limb out there for us, know that you are loved and appreciated so much!

  13. This incident sounds like what surfers go through in more difficult situations –
    stuck on a rock in the impact zone, and several cubic yards of water drops directly on you.

    The good news – they’re not underwater.

    The bad news – the background landscape contains active flames.

  14. Hope for a speedy recovery to all. And my heart goes out to the flight crew of the helicopter as well. It’s rough business in rough air. Good AAR with pilots and crew superintendents would work toward the elimination of these accidents

  15. Hope for full recovery and good support system for them. For all the arm chair qb’s I would say STFU.

    1. Peeps with prior experience are arm chair QBs, eh

      Plenty of here weren’t there BUT we were taught keep one head on a swivel….theres a reason for all these YouTube and safety briefs…but I know it’s haaaaard for 2022 firefighters to learn from their peers.

      Once again, callin folks armchair QB rates pretty high on two accounts…inability to learn from previous mistakes

      How many time have u folks accusing many here of armchairs QBing slept through those briefs about being in the area of retardant drops and buckets and how to mitigate those issues, hmmmmm?

      1. Shazammm when you clinging to the side of a MTN side with 60 degree pitch being clear is relative. If you can’t emphasize with this poor kids situation then you’ve never been tasked with strobing in smokes on the side of a steep hillside where you can’t even keep a foothold let-alone walk 50’ in between drops. Crews live in the grey area bro, chance is a big part of our job.. Also if you don’t realize your preaching to the former chair of the hotshot committee I doubt you have much experience on crews. Hope it never happens to you salty bro’

      2. You have a good point. Often in our morning briefing the staff tend to tune most things out especially safety. Over the yrs this has just got worse and worse.

    2. Hump, you’re right. These arm chair QBs talk a big game. But if they went out on the fire line right now, they’d be looking like Rich Gannon in the Super Bowl; throwing pick sixes all night.

  16. It really is a perverse situation all the way around. The USFS lit this whole thing (Calf and Hermits). They burn down 600 homes and destroy an entire watershed where one can scarcely afford to lose one and ruin thousands of lives. Then they have they their own FF’s committed to it for months trying to “make it go away” and now some GS4 BLM Shots get effed up trying to contain the FS’s unmitigated disaster. Now, OWCP will deny their claims for months and months while they start having bills show up at their houses demanding payment and get sent to collections. Eventually, OWCP might “decide” these are claims worth paying but that won’t be before their credit is smoked. Meanwhile, they are screwed because they will be on light duty aka “Base 8’s” and go further broke in the midst of fire season when they absolutely need to make copious amounts of OT to stay above poverty line.

    I’ll donate to their Go Fund Me because the FS and OWCP sure as hell doesn’t have their backs beyond assigning a “hospital liaison”.

    To make matters worse the poor pilot, who definitely didn’t want this to happen, has to live with it the rest of his/her career.

    What a terrible and absurd goat rope this business is.

  17. Watch out #19
    Death from above.

    Don’t ever underestimate the damage a bucket drop, retardant drop, cargo drop can do.
    Clear the area, who ever is on the radio with air resources needs to control their drop zone and make sure it’s clear..
    It’s just like a felling operation……
    control your cutting area, ain’t gonna tip a tree if you have people in your immediate area.
    Best wishes for those impacted by this IWI

  18. Yes this is all extremely elementary stuff they teach in fire kindergarten but accidents happen. Resist the urge to oversimplify.

    My comment was more to the comprehensive overview of the situation at large.

  19. I have a profound respect for all the men and women who are first responders, including those fighting forest fires. They need our prayers and support in an imperfect world where dangers lurk. Lord, please help them make good decisions and keep them safe. Help them maintain a spirit of camaraderie.

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