Chief Jim Strain discusses coping with a line of duty death

Trampus Haskvitz was entrapped and killed while fighting the Coal Canyon Fire in 2011.

Trampus Haskvitz

In this video Jim Strain, the Assistant Chief of Operations for the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression, talks about how he and his department coped with the line of duty death of firefighter Trampus Haskvitz.

Mr. Haskvitz was killed while making an initial attack with an engine on a lightning caused fire approximately 9 miles north of Edgemont, South Dakota on August 11, 2011. One firefighter entrapped in the engine with Mr. Haskvitz survived but with serious burns and was admitted to a burn center in Greeley, Colorado. Another was injured while escaping from the engine and was admitted to a hospital in Rapid City, SD. Two others injured in a rescue attempt were treated at local hospitals and released.

The report on the fatality can be found here. All of our articles about the LODD are tagged Coal Canyon Fire.

Trampus Haskvitz golf tournament to benefit the WFF

Trampus Haskvitz
Trampus Haskvitz

On Saturday 144 firefighters, golfers, and other good-hearted people participated in the Second Annual Trampus Haskvitz golf tournament in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The event benefits the Wildland Firefighter Foundation (WFF) which was instrumental in assisting the family of Trampus when he was killed while fighting the Coal Canyon Fire northeast of Edgemont, SD on August 11, 2011. One of the organizers estimated that the proceeds from the entrance fees which will be forwarded to the WFF will be well into five digits.

Trampus Haskvitz Golf Tournament

At the severe risk of leaving out people, some of the folks that should get credit for pulling off this fund-raising event for the second year in a row include the Hot Springs Fire Department, South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire, the Haskvitz family, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and the Black Hills National Forest.

Trampus Haskvitz Golf Tournament
Current and former Directors of the Division of Wildland Fire Suppression in South Dakota, Jay Esperance and Joe Lowe, on the 16th tee.
Trampus Haskvitz Golf Tournament
Pennington County Fire Coordinator Denny Gorton, in a tricked-out golf cart, indicates he is on his way to the 1st tee.

Continue reading “Trampus Haskvitz golf tournament to benefit the WFF”

Report released for the fatal Coal Canyon Fire

Coal Canyon fire entrapment report, cover photos
Photos on the cover of the report. A portion of one of the photos was redacted.

The U.S. Forest Service has released the Serious Accident Investigation Report for the Coal Canyon Fire, on which firefighter Trampus Haskvitz of Hot Springs, South Dakota was killed August 11, 2011 in the Black Hills of South Dakota north of Edgemont. In addition to Trampus, two firefighters received serious burns and two others had minor burns. Two firefighters were entrapped in an engine. One, Trampus, remained entrapped and died; the other, K.C. Fees escaped. Austin Whitney who was outside the engine, was transported to a Greeley, Colorado Burn Center. The two firefighters who received minor burns during rescue efforts were treated at local hospitals and released. Mr. Haskvitz and Mr. Whitney both worked for the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division.

Coal Canyon fire entrapment site photo w-graphics
This photo looks down on the entrapment site. The fire spread according to the numbered arrows: along arrow 1 during E 2’s initial escape attempt, arrow 2 as they came around the corner, and arrow 3 during the entrapment itself. The fire remained too hot along paths 1 and 2 for them to escape. Photo by Travis Lunders, taken the day after the accident. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

You can download the report HERE.  You should read the entire report to get a clear understanding of the sequence of events, but here are some of the key points:

About 15 minutes after the first engine crews arrived at the scene of the fire, they said it was about 1.5 acres in size and estimated the flame lengths to be 0 to 3 feet. Their plan was to anchor near the fire’s origin and use direct fireline to pinch off the fire. Their escape route was down the road beyond the fire’s heel.

Coal Canyon fire entrapment 1350
The approximate location of the fire when the initial attack engines arrived, at 1:50 p.m. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

The engines were on a narrow dirt road. The fire was on a slope below them and also on the slope on the opposite side of the drainage. A spot fire occurred above the road, then the main fire spread up the slope to the road and crossed it.

Coal fire entrapment at 3:05 p.m.
The approximate location of the fire and the entrapped engine at 3:05 p.m. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

Other engines were able to leave the area before the worst of the fire hit the road. One engine tried to escape by driving forward but encountered a wall of fire crossing the road. They backed up in the heavy smoke, going less than 80 feet, and hit a cut bank. At that point truck’s engine died and the fire overran their location. Two firefighters, Haskvitz and Fees, were in the truck as it ignited and began to burn. They deployed one fire shelter inside the cab and tried to use it to protect them both, but the other person had difficulty deploying the second shelter in the cab of the truck. A helicopter heard their mayday calls and tried to drop water on the burning engine, but initially the pilot could not see it in the smoke.

Other firefighters made several heroic attempts to rescue the entrapped firefighters but were driven back by the heat. Fees took a deep breath and escaped from the burning engine, but Haskvitz did not make it out of the cab.

The report does not speculate why the truck’s engine stopped running, but it has happened before on fires when vehicles are in very heavy smoke and there is simply not enough oxygen in the air to support combustion of the fuel in the vehicle’s engine.

A third crewmember assigned to the engine was outside it to the rear when the engine with the two people tried to escape by driving away. As it departed a blast of heat hit him and he dropped to the ground with no time to deploy his fire shelter.

Below is an excerpt from the “Analysis and Conclusion” section of the report:

…Up until the accident, the firefighting professionals involved in the Coal Canyon Fire reasoned the risks of engaging and suppressing this fire to be relatively low and the benefits of direct suppression to be worth this low risk. After considerable review of the incident, including the leadership, qualifications, training, interagency cooperation, fuels, weather, the organization, and local policies, the SAI team has concluded that the judgments and decisions of the firefighters involved in the Coal Canyon Fire were appropriate.

Firefighters all performed within the leaders’ intent and scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The team did not find any reckless actions or egregious violations of policy or protocol. In fact, the SAI Team found the actions of the firefighters involved with the Coal Canyon Fire to be fully consistent with local and national policy and meeting the intent of leadership expectations. Many decisions and actions on the Coal Canyon Fire were manifestly heroic, demonstrating the best of wildland fire professionalism.

The report has very little in the way of analysis and recommendations. Later the investigation team intends to produce separate documents focused on learning from this tragedy. Those documents will provide an Expanded Narrative and an in-depth Discussion and Analysis around human variability, risk management and resilience, as well as additional considerations and recommendations.

Wildfire Today covered the fire, the fatality, the severely burned firefighter, and Trampus’ funeral services, which were attended by approximately 1,700 firefighters and other mourners. A procession of over 130 fire department vehicles escorted Trampus to the cemetery. We recorded most of the procession on video.
An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the firefighters that was in the entrapped engine. Wildfire Today regrets the error.

Fund raiser for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation

WFFThe family that lost their son, Trampus Haskvitz, to a wildfire last year was so impressed with the support they received from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation that they are helping to organize a fund raiser for the organization. Here is a message from them and others asking for us to contribute.


Dear Firefighters,

On August 11, 2011, South Dakota lost a brave Wildland Firefighter in the Coal Canyon Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota.

Trampus S. Haskvitz was a recent graduate of Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota and was in his fifth year of firefighting based out of Hot Springs, SD with the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division as a FFT I ICT 5. He was an Engine Boss when he tragically lost his life saving others from a wildfire.

In his memory and to honor all Wildland Firefighters, his family is planning the First Annual Trampus S. Haskvitz Golf Tournament in Hot Springs, South Dakota on June 2, 2012 to raise funds for the Wildland Firefighters Foundation (WFF) based in Boise, Idaho. All proceeds collected as a result of the golf tournament will go to the WFF.

To make the golf tournament as meaningful and successful for the Wildland Firefighters Foundation as possible, Trampus’ family is respectfully soliciting donations from the fire community. Any merchandise, gift certificates or cash will be gratefully accepted. Cash donations can be sent directly to the 1st Annual Trampus S Haskvitz Golf Tournament at Wells Fargo Bank in Hot Springs SD. Questions or concerns about merchandise and gift certificates, please contact Jim Stevens Chief of the Hot Springs VFD.

The mission of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation is to honor past, present, and future Wildland firefighters. The Foundation helps maintain and grow the national monument established for those who have lost their lives in Wildland fires and to operate a financial fund providing assistance to the families of fallen and injured Wildland firefighters. In addition, the Foundation partners with private and interagency organizations to educate the public about Wildland fires and to promote excellence and safety in firefighting.

Trampus’ family and his firefighting colleagues in Hot Springs would like to thank you in advance for any support you can provide this annual event. It promises to be an exciting and fun weekend in the Black Hills of South Dakota and you can make a very positive impact on the Wildland Firefighting Community with your support.

Compassion Spreads Like Wildfire.


Trampus’ Family: Don, LuJean, Benjamin, Betsy and John Haskvitz

Jim Strain, Assistant Chief of Operations, South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression; Office Phone: 605-393-8114, for any questions or concerns.

Jim Stevens, Chief of the Hot Springs VFD; Cell #: 605-890-2124, for any questions concerning merchandise and gift certificates.

P.S. We will be putting the information to register for the 1st Annual Trampus S Haskvitz Golf Tournament on the internet soon and will inform you of the domain in the near future.

Firefighter entrapped in Coal Canyon fire interviewed

Austin Whitney
Austin Whitney

The Coal Canyon fire in South Dakota left one firefighter dead and another hospitalized with serious burns. Trampus Haskvitz was killed but his crew mate, Austin Whitney, is out of the hospital and recently submitted to an interview on a local television station. The video is HERE, and below is a portion of the transcript:

It’s a nightmare scenario for firefighters: being trapped in a fire with no way out.

“I just thought, ‘I’m never going to see my family again,'” Austin Whitney said.

On the afternoon of August 11, Whitney was battling the Coal Canyon Fire with two other men, KC Fees and Trampus Haskvitz, when the fire overtook them.

“When I looked up and seen nothing but a wall of flame, I tried to make a run for it. I wasn’t thinking straight,” Whitney said.

The fire had gotten below the crew and was racing up the hill towards them.

“Then I realized that it wasn’t worth running and I just dropped to the ground, no time to get to my fire shelter,” Whitney said.

Unprotected on the ground, Whitney believed that his life was over.

“As soon as I got turned around and saw that wall of flame I was like, ‘I’m dying at 22 years old. I’m dead,’ was the only thing I could repeat in my mind. ‘I’m dead,'” Whitney said.

Other articles on Wildfire Today about the Coal Canyon fire.

Update on firefighter burned on the Coal Canyon fire (updated)

(Scroll down to see an update.)

The Rapid City Journal has an article that updates us on the condition of Austin Whitney who was seriously burned on the Coal Canyon fire in southwest South Dakota August 11, 2011. Austin’s partner on the engine crew that was burned over, Trampus Haskvitz, was killed on that fire.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Firefighter Austin Whitney said he will be back at his job with South Dakota Wildland Fire Supression as a seasonal firefighter.

“I’m still a little sore in the arms, but that’s why there’s physical therapy,” Austin, 22, said Wednesday during a telephone interview from the Western States Burn Center at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, Colo. Doctors will tell Austin today if he is ready to head home to Hot Springs and begin the next phase of his recovery.


“The pain was unbearable,” Austin said, when asked about his injuries. Immediately after the incident, all he wanted to do was go home and see his family, he said.

Austin has a lengthy recovery ahead of him. He had four skin grafts Aug. 15 to cover third-degree burns on his left arm and second-degree burns on his right arm and both calves. The largest is about 29 inches along and covers most of his left arm. Skin was grafted on his right elbow and small areas below the elbow, and there are 4-inch by-6-inch grafts on the calf of each leg, his father, Robert Whitney, said.


Austin Whitney said his personal protective fire-resistant clothing “did its job for what I was in.” His leather gloves prevented any significant injuries to his fingers. He had only a couple minor burns on a finger and thumb.

For the next year, Austin will require therapy to flex and stretch the skin grafts. Most of his range of motion has returned, his father said.

“On the elbows, I still need to stretch the skin,” Austin added, noting that the graft areas are still tender. “Everything else, I’m doing just fine.”


Since his hospitalization, Austin has received visits from countless firefighters. His T-shirt and hoodie collection of fire agency logos has grown by 16 pieces.

The cards, flowers and letters made a “big difference” in Austin’s recovery, Robert Whitney said.

The Wildfire Firefighter’s Foundation has assisted the Whitneys with their expenses in Greeley, Robert Whitney said. He suggests that anyone who is interested in supporting firefighters make a donation to the organization.

“It’s an overwhelming deal, that when something like this happens, how the firefighter brotherhood will band together and support the families and friends,” Robert Whitney said.


Austin remembers most of what happened the afternoon of the fire, but there are parts of the incident he cannot talk about because of the investigation.

“I do know that I did get pulled out by a couple Forest Service guys,” Austin said. “They got me into a safety zone after the fire was backing down.”

According to a U.S. Forest Service 72-hour report on the incident that killed Haskvitz, Forest Service, state and volunteer firefighters responded to the fire about 1:30 p.m. in Coal Canyon, 9 miles north of Edgemont.

Firefighters were digging a line around the flank of the fire when they were trapped about 3:10 p.m., when their escape route was overtaken by what the report termed a “rapidly spreading fire.” Haskvitz died in his vehicle, according to the report.

Austin said there wasn’t time for him to deploy his “shake and bake,” the small safety tents wildland firefighters carry.

“I didn’t have time to. I wish I would have,” Austin said.

Austin Whitney has told his father that flames were probably 100 to 200 feet tall coming up the canyon.

“It was just one of those things you just couldn’t avoid,” Austin said. “It’s one of those things that everyone wishes they could have” avoided.

The Forest Service firefighters who pulled Austin Whitney out of the fire have not been identified by fire authorities.

Robert Whitney joins his son in thanking those firefighters.

We hope Austin has a speedy recovery.


UPDATED at 4:40 p.m. MT, August 25, 2011:

Jim Strain of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression tells us that Austin was discharged from the Burn Center in Greeley, CO this afternoon. His plans are to stay overnight in Greeley and visit some local fire departments on Friday morning before returning to his home in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Then with visiting nurses, he will continue home care, including rehab and physical therapy.

This is good news!