Two Missouri firefighters entrapped and injured in grass fire

Fort Osage Fire Protection District
Fort Osage Fire Protection District

Friday afternoon a fire that started in an outbuilding near Buckner, Missouri had spread to several acres when a brush truck operated by the Fort Osage Fire Protection District became surrounded by heavy smoke.

The crew left the truck and attempted to escape from the area, announcing “May Day” on the radio. Other crews immediately came to their aid but two of the personnel on the brush truck were injured, and the truck was destroyed.

One of the firefighters was released from the hospital Friday night and the other remains in serious condition.

The fire ultimately grew to 15 acres and destroyed several small outbuildings before being brought under control at 4:05 p.m. Friday. Multiple homes were endangered but were saved by firefighters.

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

Two firefighters seriously injured while battling grass fire near Sinton, Texas

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They were transported by helicopter to hospitals

Sinton Texas fire map

Two firefighters and two local residents were injured at a grass fire Tuesday afternoon southwest of Sinton, Texas. The firefighters were taken by helicopter to hospitals in Corpus Christi and San Antonio.

The blaze burned 385 acres off FM 1945 west of Love’s Truck Stop.

Sinton Texas fire
Sinton FD engine. Photo courtesy of Oscar Rivera, San Patricio County Sheriff. March 15, 2022.

San Patricio County Sheriff Oscar Rivera said, “The crew was trapped in the blaze and their fire truck burned to the ground.”

Sinton Texas fire engine burned
Sinton FD engine. Photo courtesy of Oscar Rivera, San Patricio County Sheriff. March 15, 2022.
Sinton Texas fire
Sinton, Texas fire. Photo courtesy of Oscar Rivera, San Patricio County Sheriff. March 15, 2022.

At 3 p.m. on Tuesday a weather station near Mathis recorded 85 degrees, 37 percent relative humidity, and 9 mph winds gusting out of the south at 24 mph.

Fire Marshall Steven Loving said another fire in the area was started by a lawnmower as a resident was mowing his yard.

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

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.

Orange County’s Silverado Fire similar to 2007 Santiago Fire

The two Southern California fires had comparable footprints after burning for two days, and there are other similarities

Silverado and Santiago Fires
Silverado and Santiago Fires

There are similarities between the Silverado Fire that has been burning since Monday in Orange County, California, and the Santiago Fire of 2007.

  • They started near the intersection of Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads.
  • They both started in late October, the 21st and 26th.
  • After spreading for two days, their footprints were similar.
  • They burned with a Santa Ana wind during drought conditions.
  • Firefighters were entrapped on both fires. Two suffered serious burns and are still hospitalized from the Silverado Fire. On the Santiago Fire twelve had to deploy fire shelters for protection from the flames, but there were no injuries.

While the Santiago Fire was burning there were nine other ongoing major fires which set up a competition for firefighting resources. The spread of this year’s Silverado Fire was essentially stopped after two days, but in 2007 there were not enough hand crews, engines, air tankers, and helicopters to keep it from crossing Santiago Canyon Road on day three when the wind shifted to come out of the west. After that, it got into steeper slopes with heavier vegetation in the Cleveland National Forest, and eventually burned twice as much as the Silverado Fire, 28,517 acres (as of Oct. 29, 2020) vs. 13,390 acres.

Santiago Fire, October, 2007
Santiago Fire, October, 2007. From the After Action Report.
Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.
Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.

The causes appear to be very different. An arsonist used an accelerant to start the Santiago Fire in two places. In spite of an Investigation Task force consisting of 160 persons from the Orange County Fire Authority, FBI, ATF, and the Sheriff’s Department, and a $250,000 reward, an arrest was never made.

Southern California Edison said it is investigating whether electrical equipment may have caused the Silverado fire. The company reported to the state Public Utilities Commission that a “lashing wire” attached to a third-party telecommunications line may have struck a primary conductor.

The 136-page After Action Report for the Santiago Fire is available on Orange County’s website.

Crew on North Complex in California overrun by fire deploys fire shelters

And, an update on the shelter deployment at the Dolan Fire

Map of the North Complex, Claremont & Bear Fires
Map of the North Complex, Claremont & Bear Fires 11:12 a.m. PDT Sept 11, 2020.

A firefighting hand crew was overrun by the fire they were fighting September 9 and had to deploy their fire shelters. It happened on the Claremont/Bear Fire, two merged blazes that are part of the North Complex.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection explained that the fire  became unpredictable due to erratic weather and dry fuel conditions. The agency said the personnel were “virtually unharmed except for two minor injuries.” The incident is under review.

Fire Shelter Test
Fire Shelter Tests in Canada, June, 2015.

Fire shelters are small foldable pup tent-like fire resistant devices that a wildland firefighter can unfold and climb into if there is no option for escaping from an approaching inferno. The shelters can resist radiant heat, and if the person inside can seal the edges under their body, convective heat as well, but there are limits. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.

The North Complex has burned 252,534 acres east of Oroville, California. Approximately 1,000 structures have been destroyed and 10 civilians have been killed. Resources assigned include 73 hand crews, 18 helicopters, 254 fire engines, 76 dozers, and 98 water tenders for a total of 3,108 personnel.

On September 5, three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman, Montana were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters when their safety became compromised by the proximity of the blaze, fire officials said.

September 8 on the Dolan Fire south of Big Sur, California, another crew of firefighters was entrapped and deployed their fire shelters. Updated information from the U.S. Forest Service is slightly different from what was originally released shortly after the incident. Andrew Madsen, an information officer for the fire, explained that of the 14 that were entrapped, three were flown to Community Regional Hospital in Fresno. One was initially in critical condition and the other two were in serious condition. As of today, September 11, the two that were serious have been released, and the critically injured individual is much better and is expected to be released in a day or two. Mr. Madsen said some of the other 11 members of the crew had “smoke inhalation” issues, but were evaluated at the scene and are OK. The crew was attempting to protect the Forest Service’s Nacimiento Fire station as the blaze approached.

Nacimiento Station
Nacimiento Station, satellite photo, September 7, 2018.

Update: September 20, 2020:

North Complex burnover
North Complex burnover

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