Electric co-op in Washington reaches settlement to pay $1.1 million for suppression of fire that killed three firefighters

Earlier, power companies agreed to pay the seriously injured lone survivor $5 million

Twisp River Fire map
Photo from the report on the Twisp River Fire.

The Okanogan County Electric Co-op has agreed to a $1.1 million settlement for the suppression costs of the deadly 2015 Twisp River Fire.

U.S. Attorney William D. Hyslop announced that the settlement had been reached with Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, Inc. (“OCEC”) and its insurer, requiring the payment of $1.1 million to the United States in fire suppression costs resulting from the Twisp River Fire that began on August 19, 2015 in north-central Washington.

The $1.1 million recovers a large portion of the U.S. Forest Service’s costs incurred in suppressing the fire. It was part of a larger settlement of claims that were brought separately by other plaintiffs, including U.S. Forest Service firefighter Daniel Lyon and the State of Washington, who sought to recover damages for personal injury and property damage caused by the fire.

The Twisp River Fire ultimately burned approximately 11,200 acres, claimed the lives of three USFS firefighters, and severely injured Mr. Lyon. He suffered third degree burns over nearly 70 percent of his body, but three other firefighters in the same engine died in the vehicle, according to the corner’s report, from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. They were Richard Wheeler, 31; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Tom Zbyszewski, 20. All four were employees of the USFS working on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest out of Twisp, Washington.

The US Attorney claimed the Twisp River Fire ignited due to contact between a tree branch and OCEC’s electrical distribution line. He further claimed OCEC failed to properly maintain a vegetation management plan designed to detect and prevent the tree branch from contacting the distribution line. OCEC denied these allegations.

In January Mr. Lyon reached a settlement with two utility companies, OCEC and Douglas County PUD, just before an appeal of his $100 million civil suit was to be heard before the state Supreme Court. In that settlement the companies agreed to pay $5 million.

From the Wenatchee World, when the $5 million settlement was announced in January:

“I am very grateful that my case calls attention to the plight of injured first responders,” said Lyon, who was burned over most of his body and has undergone more than a dozen surgeries and 100 medical procedures. “I am also grateful my case has reached a settlement so that I can now move on with my life knowing I will have the resources I need for the future.”

Last July, his attorneys, in an appeals brief, argued the Professional Rescue Doctrine that largely bars such claims violates the state constitution, which gives people equal protection under the law and offers the right to seek compensation for damages.

Lyon’s attorneys note that courts in some other states, where the doctrine once held sway, have opted to throw it out.

An attorney for one of the two defendants, in an earlier interview, says the wounds Lyon suffered — however grievous — resulted from risks inherent to the dangerous job of firefighting.

“The law does not allow them (professional first responders) to sue — and there are good policy reasons behind that,” said A. Grant Lingg, who represents the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative. “You don’t want the people who start a fire to be afraid to call the fire department for fear that that an injured first responder will sue them.”

The video below is about the January settlement.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

1961 Higgins Ridge Fire — 20 smokejumpers were rescued by a tiny helicopter

Twelve years after the Mann Gulch Fire disaster

Bell 47 helicopter Forest Service
Bell 47 helicopter. Forest Service photo.

(This article was first published at FireAviation.com)

Twelve years after 13 smokejumpers were killed on the Mann Gulch Fire 13 miles north-northwest of Helena, Montana, 20 jumpers were entrapped on a fire in northern Idaho 83 miles southwest of Missoula, Montana.

It happened August 4, 1961 on the Higgins Ridge Fire in the Nez Perce National Forest after an eight-man crew from Grangeville, Idaho had jumped in the area, followed by 12 men from the Missoula jumper base, the last arriving at 1 p.m. The fire behavior on the two-acre fire was fairly benign until a passing cold front brought a sudden increase in the wind at 4:15 p.m. which resulted in the fire spreading rapidly. The 20 men took refuge in a previously burned area. As the wind increased to 50 mph the supervisors of the two squads, Dave Perry and Fred “Fritz” Wolfrum, instructed the firefighters to remain calm and to clear an area for themselves in the ashes.

Lightning was bursting from the pyrocumulus cloud over the fire as the men in their newly issued orange fire shirts covered their heads with their arms when the fire burned around them. They helped each other swat out the flames on their clothes during the ember shower.

They did not hear it because of the roar of the fire, but they looked up and saw the red skids of a helicopter. It was a Bell 47B-3 that had seating for three people abreast, with the pilot in the middle.

Below is an excerpt from the April, 1994 edition of “The Static Line” published by the National Smokejumper Association:

…The pilot was Rod Snider of the Johnson Flying Service and he had spotted the men and their orange [fire shirts].

Fritz and Snider quickly organized an evacuation plan. Snider had to drop down vertically and take off the same way because of old snags surrounding the jumpers [a maneuver that requires more power than departing from a ridge]. On the first few trips Rod took out two jumpers on each run, having them ride in the cabin. Then, with the helicopter getting hotter, Rod told them he would take four out on each trip. Two rode in the cabin and two hung on to the [cargo trays]. Rod was able to ferry all 20 jumpers to the Freeman Ridge fire camp. Fritz and Tom were among those on the last trip out.

Some of the jumpers were treated at St. Patricks’s Hospital for smoke-burned eyes. Within several days most of the jumpers who had been on the Higgins Ridge Fire were out jumping on more fires.

Rod Snider and James Van Vleck Nat Museum FS History
L to R: Helicopter pilot Rod Snider with James Van Vleck. Photo by the National Museum of Forest Service History, June, 2019.

In June, 2019 a reunion was held in Missoula for the firefighters that were involved in the Higgins Ridge Fire. Eleven of the jumpers gave oral interviews and participated in a panel discussion at the National Museum of Forest Service History (video of the panel). Mr. Snider made the trip and gave his oral history, but unfortunately had to return home the night before the panel discussion due to a family emergency.

Below are excerpts from an article in The Missoulian, August 2, 2019:

“It was hard to find them,” said Snider, 89, a quiet man who received awards for his heroism but shuns the obvious mantle of hero.

“The wind was really cooking in there and you couldn’t see the heliport all the time to get down. I had to come in high and drop down into it when I could see a little break,” Snider said in an oral history interview before he left town.

What made you risk your life to do it? an interviewer in Missoula asked.

“Oh, it had to be done. It had to be done,” Snider replied. “I don’t know. You just can’t leave guys down in the position that they were in.”

His helicopter, a Bell 47G-3 that Snider christened “Red Legs” for its painted landing skids and support legs, was one of the first with a supercharger. But the overload was nonetheless hard on it, he said.

“I felt a little uneasy, because I knew I’d over-boosted everything, But when they gave an inspection later on they couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” Snider said.

The following year Snider received the Pilot of the Year Award from the Helicopter Association of America in Dallas and the Carnegie Medal for Heroism.

In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, Tom Kovalicky, 84, of Grangeville and Stanley, Idaho, successfully nominated Snider for the North American Forest Fire Medal, which was being revived for the first time since 1956. Snider and his wife were flown to New Orleans for the presentation that October. And in 2002 he was inducted into the Museum of Mountain Flying Hall of Fame.

An article about the fire dated February 21, 2003 at the National Smokejumper Association’s website was written by a firefighter who was on the Higgins Ridge Fire a year before he became a smokejumper.

Higgins Ridge Fire
by Gary Shaw

The year was 1961 when cumulus clouds built up every afternoon promising rain, but delivering isolated dry lightning storms. This was the year before I became a smokejumper. It was my second year to work on the Moose Creek District of the Nezperce National Forest. The preceding summer I had spent as a lookout fireman on top of Bailey Mountain. This year I had been working trail crew for a couple of months until the sky erupted at the end of July and left fires all over the district.

My trail partner (Ron) and I had been cutting a trail from the Selway River to Big Rock Mountain and were currently holed up in a cabin there when a helicopter picked us up to transport us to a small fire on Higgins Ridge. We were to meet a crew walking in from Elbow Bend on East Moose Creek. We saw smokejumpers parachute into the fire area on our way to the fire. We landed on the uphill side of the fire, grabbed our shovels and pulaskis and started for the fire. We could see the jumpers’ orange shirts through the smoke.

Before we could get to the fire a large cumulous cloud covered the sun and the wind picked up to 25 or 30 m.p.h. The fire blew up in our faces, and we were forced to retreat back into a large rockslide.

The jumpers weren’t so lucky. They were trapped in the middle of it with no escape route. They dug in, buried their faces in wet bandanas in the dirt, and tried to find air to breath as the fire roared from a manageable 2 acres to a 1280 acre holocaust. It was late evening, and the fire was beautiful to watch. It was crowning, and trees several hundred feet ahead of the fire would begin to tremble and then burst into flame like a fireworks display.

The fire was so hot that canteens of water near the jumpers started exploding. When things looked at their bleakest, the cavalry arrived in the form of Rod Snider(NCSB-51) in a Bell 47G-3B helicopter from Johnson’s Flying Service in Missoula. It was getting dark when he flew into the middle of the fire and started bringing Jumpers out four at a time, which is two more than the maximum the copter was supposed to carry. He had two guys on the seat and two more on the runners. He made five trips into the fire and rescued twenty jumpers. The manifold pressure on the copter engine was 200% above maximum, and when the engine was torn down later, two pistons fell apart. I heard that “Crash” received 20 cases of beer the next week.

My trail partner and I stayed on the fire through mop-up. The other crew arrived without tools, which were to be dropped in by air. Unfortunately, communications left something to be desired. We kept requesting tools and instead received three separate drops of sleeping bags. Each person had a half dozen sleeping bags, but Ron and I were the only ones who had a shovel and pulaski to work on the fire. So we did.

When the tools finally arrived and we got the fire under control, I walked down to the area where the jumpers had been trapped. I found exploded water cans, unexploded gasoline cans (go figure), and a personal gear bag with all their cameras melted together. I could see Minolta, Canon, and Nikon logos on the fused metal and glass. I sent the lot back to Missoula. The fire had been so hot that there were no snags, just pointed stumps and ashes over a foot deep.

I remember two of the rescued jumpers departed the chopper and immediately asked for a cigarette. Now that’s a habit!

I’ve always wondered what that fire looked like from the other side. If anyone reads this that remembers, let me know.

The group that organized the oral history and panel about the Higgins Ridge Fire was organized by the National Museum of Forest Service History. Wildfire Today first wrote about the museum in 2009 five years after they began their effort to raise $10.6 million to build a national museum to commemorate the 100+ year history of the U. S. Forest Service. Their vision began in 1994 when they obtained 36 acres west of the Missoula airport where they hope to build a 30,000 square-foot building.

National Museum of Forest Service History
An architect’s concept of the future National Museum of Forest Service History.

The museum’s fund drive received a significant boost this month when it received a $2 million contribution from the estate of Bill Cannon, a Forest Service retiree.

From the Ravalli Republic:

…Cannon spent most of his Forest Service years in California and Oregon, with an interlude in Hawaii where he was assigned to state and private forestry work. He finished his career in Washington, D.C., where he worked on program planning for the Forest Service’s state and private programs.

Meanwhile, according to a press release announcing his gift, he used his avocation of studying financial markets to become an adept investor.

Cannon became impressed with the National Museum of Forest Service History on a field trip to the site while in Missoula for the 2000 U.S. Forest Service retiree reunion.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Report released for Spring Coulee Fire fatality in Washington

An Assistant Fire Chief died in an entrapment. The fire burned 107 acres in 2019 near Okanogan, Washington.

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington
This is presumably the engine involved in the burnover. Photo from the report.

A facilitated learning analysis has been released for a burnover and entrapment on the Spring Coulee Fire September 1, 2019 near Okanogan, Washington. A month after suffering burns over 60 percent of his body, Assistant Fire Chief Christian Dean Johnson, 55, passed away in a hospital as a result of his injuries.

The events unfolded quickly on September 1. After being reported at about 1600 the Incident Commander sized it up nine minutes later at five to ten acres spreading rapidly in grass and brush.

Wearing his turnout pants, Assistant Chief Johnson loaded into B341 (a 2012 Ford F450 Type 6 Brush Truck) and stowed his turnout jacket on the back of the truck between the cab and a rear-mounted storage compartment. At 1615 the Chief arrived at the fire with another firefighter. Eleven minutes later a MAYDAY was called for the entrapment.

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington

Upon arrival Chief Johnson and the firefighter, identified as the “external firefighter” in the report, began a mobile attack, with the Chief driving the truck and the firefighter operating a nozzle. They were working along an old cat trail from an earlier fire, identified as “Old Fireline” on the aerial photo. Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington

After a few minutes the wind direction shifted from blowing parallel with the cat line, generally south, to southeasterly and aligned with the small swale shown on the aerial photo. This pushed the fire rapidly toward the road and the two firefighters. The Chief yelled at the other firefighter to drop the hose and move.

From the report:

The exterior firefighter didn’t open the passenger door; fire was immediately at his back and had caught the passenger mirror on fire. He ran around to the driver’s side of B341 and climbed on the outside of the truck again. As fire moved under B341, Assistant Chief Johnson attempted to drive B341 away from the area. After traveling five or six feet, B341 “lurched” and then became immobilized. With flames rolling up the exterior firefighter’s legs, visible on the passenger side of the vehicle itself, under the truck and in front of them, both the exterior firefighter and Assistant Chief Johnson exited the vehicle to escape the fire. Assistant Chief Johnson and the exterior firefighter ran toward the old cat trail at slightly different angles. In Assistant Chief Johnson’s path, hidden by vegetation, lay a substantial field of rocks and metal debris (Figure 9). While it is impossible to know for certain, it is thought Assistant Chief Johnson may have become entangled in the debris and was overtaken by fire.

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington
Rocks and debris in the area of the burnover. Note that what is seen in this photo would have been obscured by vegetation prior to the fire. Photo from the report.

The exterior firefighter, with fire surrounding him—and at times reaching up between his legs—was able to escape the advancing fire. The exterior firefighter and the fire reached the road at approximately the same instant.

As it was starved of fuel, the roaring and crackling of the fire quieted and the exterior firefighter from B341 immediately turned around to head back into the black and reestablish contact with Assistant Chief Johnson. The firefighter located Assistant Chief Johnson approximately 150 feet from the exterior of B341. The MAYDAY was called at 1626.

[…]

Just before 1655, the surface winds shifted to a south-southwesterly direction. This pushed a “finger” of fire north of the structures on the eastern flank and increased fire behavior in the area. At approximately 1655, the engine on the eastern flank requested air support as “we are trapped here” and they needed water to continue effective structure protection. A helicopter in the area had already spotted the flare-up and was able to deliver water within seconds of the radio call. At least one additional water drop was completed by a [single engine air tanker].

The report does not specify exactly where the first burnover occurred, but there are clues that it was near the “Swale.”

During the burnover the Chief was not wearing his turnout jacket, which after the incident was still stowed behind the truck’s cab. The report concluded that the lack of personal protective equipment above the waist contributed to the severity of his injuries.

The external firefighter was quoted as saying, “The only reason I am alive is because I had all this [structural] gear on. Without that I wouldn’t have even made it back to the truck.”

The investigation found a low oxygen code recorded in the truck’s electronic system. There was no time associated with the code, so it can’t be determined if it occurred while the vehicle was surrounded by fire or if it was the cause or symptom of the truck being immobilized.

There have been a number of incidents in which firefighting vehicles stalled in very dense smoke.

Personnel involved in the Spring Coulee Fire highlighted six core lessons. These lessons are focused on communications, training, medical pre-positioning and medical evacuation coordination, vehicles, access, and personal protective equipment.

The Epilog is from the report:

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington
Christian Johnson. Photo from the report.

“Christian Johnson, 55, of Okanogan, Washington passed away Wednesday, October 2, 2019 from injuries sustained in the Spring Coulee Fire south of Okanogan. Christian was born in 1963 in Salem, Oregon, to James and Margaret Johnson. He grew up in Salem, graduating from South Salem High School in 1982. Christian began college at Oregon State University, but felt he had a larger calling and joined the Army. Christian served from 1983-1986 in the 82nd Airborne Division where he achieved the rank of Sergeant. After being honorably discharged, Christian continued his duty by joining the Oregon Army National Guard. He then returned to college and graduated from Chemeketa Community College in Salem in 1988 with an A.A. in Building Inspection Technology. Christian accepted a position as a building inspector in Washington for Okanogan County and later transferred as building official and permit administrator to the cities of Oroville, Tonasket, and Okanogan. He also transferred to the Washington National Guard where, along with his Charlie Company of the 1-161 Infantry Regiment, he deployed to Iraq. Christian served from November 2003–April 2005. Upon returning home, Christian retired from the National Guard after a total of 22 years of service. In Okanogan, Christian found another call to duty and in May of 1999, he joined the Okanogan Fire Department where he served as the Assistant Fire Chief and Secretary of the Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department Association.”

May Chief Johnson rest in peace.

Five firefighters in Australia entrapped, with three suffering burns

Two of them were airlifted to a hospital

map fires Australia December 19
The red dots represent heat detected on bushfires by a satellite at 1740Z December 19, 2019. NASA.

In addition to the rollover of a fire truck on December 19 in New South Wales that killed two firefighters and injured three, in a separate incident the same day five firefighters were entrapped by fire, injuring three firefighters. Two males, age 36 and 56, were airlifted to a hospital after suffering face, airway, and other burns.

“Given the serious potential for airway burns, the advice is… they’ll be intubated,” said New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons

A third person, a 28-year-old female, was transported by ground ambulance after suffering smoke inhalation and less severe burns.

Both incidents occurred on the Green Wattle Creek Bushfire in the Lake Burragorang area. The fire is more than 176,000 hectares (435,000 acres) in size and is out of control.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Karl. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Report released on the entrapment of firefighter and two civilians on Kincade Fire

The three people shared one fire shelter as the fire burned around them

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, has released a Green Sheet, or preliminary report, on the October 25, 2019 entrapment of one firefighter and two civilians. It occurred on the Kincade fire northeast of Geyserville, California about 43 hours after the fire started.

In mid-afternoon a Division Supervisor was scouting his division and searching for firefighters who he had been told were not wearing their Nomex wildland fire jackets. He turned his SUV off Pine Flat Road onto Circle 8 Lane, an unpaved road that reaches a dead end 1.5 air miles from Pine Flat Road.

map Kincade Fire entrapment deployment
3-D map showing the approximate location of the entrapment of three people on the Kincade Fire, October 25, 2019.

Later, seeing that the fire intensity had increased and crossed the road behind him, he realized that he was in imminent danger and decided to ride it out near an old cabin. A dozer operator had already cleared a line around the structure as as well as a line from the road downhill to the drainage.

Below is an excerpt from the Green Sheet as well as more maps, photos, and a video. The Division Supervisor is identified as “DIVS1”.

Continue reading “Report released on the entrapment of firefighter and two civilians on Kincade Fire”

Firefighter injured last month passes away in hospital

Christian Johnson, 55, was severely burned on the Spring Coulee Fire in Washington

Christian Johnson
Christian Johnson, Assistant Chief of the Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department.

A firefighter who received second and third degree burns over 60 percent of his body September 1, 2019 while battling the Spring Coulee Fire in Okanogan County, Washington passed away yesterday, October 2, 2019. Christian Dean Johnson, 55, of Okanogan was surrounded by his wife Pam, family, and friends at Harborview Medical Center.

From the GoFundMe page that was created September 3:

Christian has served his country as a sergeant in the Us Army, and was deployed with the Washington State National Guard from November 2003-May 2005 in Baghdad. He retired after 22 years of service and has volunteered for the Okanogan Fire Department for 20 years.

Christian is a selfless man, who is always willing to help those in need, and never ask for anything in return. We are now asking for your help to make this long journey a little easier for him and his family. Any amount of donations are greatly appreciated and will go towards helping his wife (Pam Johnson) with travel, housing, food, etc.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Christian’s family and friends. May he rest in peace.