Lead plane and air tanker avoid falling tree branch

Ensalados Fire Vandenberg Air Force Base
File photo of Tanker 103, July 9, 2017. Photo by Vandenberg Fire Department.

This article was first published at Fire Aviation

Yesterday July 9 a lead plane and a large air tanker had a close call while on a retardant dropping sortie on the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park.

There was virtually no wind over the fire most of the day and the area was smoked in causing very poor visibility making it impossible for air tankers to drop on the fire. But by 6 p.m. conditions had improved and at about 6:10 p.m. a lead plane was leading Tanker 103, an MD-87, over a target when they saw a falling tree branch above the lead plane. It fell between the two aircraft, in front of the tanker.

Twitter user Robert, @Rob_on_sisukas, captured an audio recording of the radio conversation. We’re not sure who the lead plane pilot was talking to, but we’ll call it “dispatcher” for now:

LEAD PLANE: Hey I just want to let you know that a branch went right over the top of us, pretty good size, probably 50 feet above us coming down and fell right in between Tanker 103 and myself.

DISPATCHER: OK. Copy. So it’s repeat of yesterday’s (unintelligible) 

LEAD PLANE: That’s exactly what I’m getting at. So if we keep seeing that we might have to knock it off. I don’t want to take a chance on busting a window in an airplane or hurting an aircraft for this. 

DISPATCHER: Absolutely. Keep me updated on this.

When a fire is burning intensely in an unstable atmosphere the convection in the rising smoke column can be powered by a tremendous amount of energy. As air at ground level rushes in to take the place of the rising column, the developing horizontal wind and the fresh oxygen feed the fire, causing an even higher level of intensity. The horizontal and then vertical movement of air can sometimes transport unexpectedly large objects up into the sky. Large columns may rotate as they rise and in extreme cases can actually become a fire tornado. You don’t want to be nearby when that happens. Fire tornados are not to be confused with small dust devils or fire whirls.

What is surprising about the incident yesterday is that the fire was smoked in most of the day, and tankers could not fly until about 6 p.m. I looked at various AlertWildfire cameras a few times and did not see any smoke columns. Maybe the cameras I saw were not able to see all of the fire, but I remember that late in the afternoon fire activity increased at the Sierra Fire Watch camera below, and columns may have developed.

Washburn Fire at 5:24 p.m. July 9, 2022
Washburn Fire at 5:24 p.m. July 9, 2022. Sierra Fire Watch image.

Firefighting aircraft being damaged by debris being lofted into the air over a fire is not unheard of. Here’s part of an article I wrote for Wildfire Today in 2018:

During the large vegetation fires in southern California in 2003 some of the convection columns were so powerful that the windshields on six air tankers were cracked by chunks of debris that were being hurled into the air (page D-6 in 2003 California Governor’s Blue Ribbon Report; huge 20 Mb file). One pilot saw a four by eight sheet of plywood sail past at 1,500 feet.

As of late morning today, July 10, the Washburn Fire has burned about 1,800 acres in Yosemite National Park. About 300 of those acres are in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees, some of them 3,000 years old.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

Processing the trauma of a near miss

Dozens of firefighters had a very close call on the Route Fire

Fire crews on the Route Fire entrapped
Fire crews on the Route Fire, 4:40 p.m. Sept. 11, 2021, five minutes before they were nearly entrapped. Photo by one of the firefighters.

Many of the firefighters on the Route Fire who escaped from what was close to becoming a mass casualty incident on September 11, 2021 no doubt had stress levels that were very high as it was happening, and possibly for days, weeks, or months later.

As we covered in an article on December 11, dozens of firefighters on the fire north of Los Angeles suddenly found themselves on a road with fire on all sides of them. Even though it occurred three months ago the story had not been publicly told, until yesterday. As flames closed in on them, a Captain on a US Forest Service engine took charge and organized an effort for 13 firefighters on foot with no access to their regular transportation, to take refuge in two USFS Type 3 engines, each already carrying their normal complement of 5 firefighters. Almost unbelievably, 7 crammed into one engine and 6 got in another. There were a total of 23 bodies in the two engines. Then with flames on both sides of the road, they drove through smoke to safety. Two firefighters were treated in a hospital burn unit and released.

It could have been much worse. One person thought he was going to die.

“The more experienced firefighters were more shaken up than the new guys,” a 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.”

One person said that as they were becoming entrapped and during the escape from the nearby flames he realized later that he does not have a complete memory of the event, “My memory blacked out from time to time…It’s psychology I don’t fully understand.”

Today I found a reference by Mike Degrosky to an article in the Harvard Business Review written by Diane Musho Hamilton that might shed some light on the topic. Interestingly, at the top of the article is an old photo of a P3 air tanker dropping retardant, even though the word “fire” is not mentioned anywhere in the piece. It starts with describing the two amygdala in the brain which were characterized by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, as the brain’s “smoke detector.” (Which may be the genesis for the photo of the air tanker.) The amygdala’s job is to detect fear and help the body prepare for an emergency response.

Here is an excerpt:

“…When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.

“The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten and jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.

“The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.

“And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”

“In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice.  It is ridiculous.”

The first large fire I was on, with El Cariso Hotshots, we had a near miss in Washington state, and had to escape uphill. It was a long, steep, hike out of a canyon with spot fires igniting around us. At the time I was not too concerned, in part because our Superintendent, Ron Campbell, seemed calm, as did the more experienced crew members. I was a sawyer and when another firefighter asked if I needed relief carrying the saw, I was too proud to give it up, and kept it. If I had known the true gravity of our situation I probably would have accepted his offer. As a rookie, I did not appreciate at the time how dangerous the incident was.

Five years later our Laguna Hotshot crew was directed to walk downhill on a partially completed fireline and extend it further. Two other crews were ahead of us. We only got a fairly short distance down the line when all of us were ordered out. We hiked back up to safety with no problem and later the fire ran uphill. After five years on a hotshot crew I didn’t really think too much about it, since to me it did not fall into the near miss category. It can be fairly routine to pull back when it becomes obvious nothing worthwhile can be accomplished or that it can become unsafe. However several days later after we had returned from the fire, one of the rookies quit, citing the event as the reason.

It can be impossible to predict how rookies or experienced firefighters will react to a terrifying narrow escape. It might be life-altering in a negative way, or something that is dealt with, and put away in the “slide file” of experiences to help make better, more informed decisions down the road.

I hope the firefighters on the Route Fire who were nearly entrapped, and those who witnessed it through smoke from a distance, are able to receive counseling if needed and can process what happened September 11, 2021. It’s the kind of traumatic event that can stick with a person and everyone is impacted differently.

As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to tell his Hill Street Blues cops as they left the briefing to begin their shift, “Hey. Let’s be careful out there.”

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

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.

Backing away from a grass fire

Nebraska State Trooper's dash cam fire
Screengrab from Nebraska State Trooper’s dash cam, March 4, 2021

On March 4 the dash cam in a Nebraska State Trooper’s vehicle recorded  some interesting footage from the shoulder of Interstate 80 near Gothenburg as a wildfire approached.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob.

Dozer rollover on the Trailhead Fire

Above: Dozer rollover at the Trailhead Fire on the Eldorado National Forest in California July 2, 2016. Photo from the report.

A report has been released by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center about a dozer rollover that occurred July 2, 2016 at the Trailhead Fire on the Eldorado National Forest in California. You can read the entire report, but here’s a brief summary.

After getting unstuck from being high centered on a large stump, a dozer operator found himself off the ridge where he was building an indirect fireline, and was on a steep slope. Again he got stuck and was not able to backup, this time due to the slope which in places exceeded an 80 percent incline. At various times he was advised by two Resource Advisors, the Structure Group Supervisor, and the owner of the dozer to stay put. In the meantime another dozer with a winch was en route to assist.

Ignoring the advice, the operator continued down the slope and got into a heated argument with the owner, who then left the area. Determined to get the dozer back up to the ridge top, the operator began building a road and creating pads where he could work to push over trees that were in his way, including a 30-DBH cedar which missed by 50 feet the two Resources Advisors who had to run to get out of the way.

The incident-within-an-incident finally came to an end, at least temporarily, when the dozer rolled over onto its side. The operator escaped with only a scratch, after which the dozer continued to roll over onto its top in the creek bottom.

The report did not include information about how the dozer was eventually extracted, or what repercussions, if any, befell the operator and the contractor.

Smokejumpers on a 1-acre fire get chased by another fire

“We do not have a safety zone, and our escape route is threatened.”

Above: File photo. Smokejumpers at Missoula board a Twin Otter, August 11, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I didn’t know the Bleacher Report covered anything other than sports, but earlier this week they published a lengthy article about smokejumpers unfortunately titled, “Superheroes Are Real”. It is mostly well written by Rachel Monroe and explores rookie training, firefighting, and aspects of waiting at an airport for a fire dispatch.

Much of the story is told from the viewpoint of Erik Vermaas, who had at least one memorable quote:

[Hotshots] walk in single file in fire camp,” says Vermaas, the second-year jumper. “You can just tell smokejumpers are different. They’re not a number. These dudes roll through fire camp and it’s like, Who the f*** is that? You can tell.

Part of the article describes how “last summer” three of them jumped on a fire in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, near the Idaho-Washington-Oregon border and by the fourth day had the one-acre blaze pretty much wrapped up.  The excerpt below picks up on that fourth day:


“…At nine that morning, a pilot flying overhead radioed the crew: You guys know you’ve got a fire-start right next to you? One of the other jumpers volunteered to bushwhack up the ridge to check out what was going on. It was slow going; the jumpers had been working in the thick, 20-foot-high brush that made walking a quarter-mile feel more like walking four. When the scout made it to the top of the ridge, he immediately radioed back: Let’s get out of here.

The fire had crowned—that is, started burning in the tops of the trees. The wind was pushing it toward the jumpers, and it was moving fast. In other circumstances, maybe the jumpers would have radioed for a plane to dump a tanker of retardant on the flames to slow things down, but by around 11 a.m., all those little fires had merged into a big one, and the smoke was so thick the helicopters couldn’t see a damn thing. Vermaas and the other jumper waited anxiously for the scout to fight through the brush back to them. The other jumper with Vermaas, a guy with decades of experience, barked into the radio: We do not have a safety zone, and our escape route is threatened. “That means,” Vermaas explains, “you basically are running out of options.”

Vermaas heard the loud, gunning sound of what he thought was a helicopter; he watched the treetops sway and felt a momentary surge of relief—until he realized that it wasn’t a chopper making that sound, or all that whooshing wind. The danger was the fire itself, ripping its way through the treetops toward them. No plane or rescue vehicle could make it anywhere near them; they’d have to get themselves out of this mess, and fast.

By the time the third crew member showed up, Vermaas says, “it was already f****** go time.” The jumpers ditched their gear—“We made the decision, ‘F*** the gear, f*** everything, leave it, we’re going’”—and made their way through the brush, racing the fire down toward the river. Vermaas tried not to think about what would happen if the fire spotted and caught below them—fire burns fastest uphill, and when it gets going even the most fleet-footed smokejumper doesn’t stand a chance. All three jumpers made it down to a creek and safe haven, but it was close.

Vermaas stood in the creekbed, then watched as the trees swayed with the energy only a fire could create—when wildfires burn hot enough, they can generate their own weather. Half an hour or so more and those flames would’ve burned right over them. Days later, a salvage crew went in to look for the jumpers’ gear. The only remnants they found were metal grills from their jump helmets and six fasteners from their parachutes. Everything else had been reduced to ashes…”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paul.