LA City engine crews survive entrapment

Two engine crews from Los Angeles City Fire Department had a very close call on the Sesnon fire Monday morning. From the LA Times:

In an instant, flames surround L.A. fire crew

The captain of the trapped engine company faces life-and-death decisions as erratic winds fan canyon blaze. ‘The fire exploded and started raining embers . . . It was incredible,’ he says.

By Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 15, 2008

It was one of those moments firefighters fear most.

Los Angeles Fire Capt. Scott Gould was riding inside Engine 228 as it maneuvered along a winding canyon above Porter Ranch. He was talking on the radio with Capt. Richard Brunson, who was just ahead in Engine 8.

Commanding the first two units to arrive at the Sesnon fire Monday morning, the captains were coordinating their assault on the wind-whipped blaze. What had been a half-acre fire only a few minutes earlier was now 20 acres and growing.

As Brunson reached the flames along Limekiln Canyon, Gould could see that a spot fire had broken out several hundred yards below. If the new fire got going, he recalled thinking, Brunson would be trapped. Gould and his crew pulled a hose from their engine and began trying to knock down the blaze.

In what seemed like only an instant, the two captains later recalled, flames were everywhere.

“The fire exploded and started raining embers all around that canyon,” Gould said Tuesday. “It was incredible. All the ridge lines were going up in flames.”

Brunson, meanwhile, faced another wall of fire, fanned by winds in excess of 30 mph. He decided to try pulling back a couple miles down the road, where he and his crew could join other units to protect structures and help with evacuations.

“We went into defensive mode,” he said.

But as he headed down the canyon, he saw that flames were beginning to devour brush all around Gould and his crew. Brunson jumped out of his engine and ran toward Gould.

“Drop your hose and leave!” he recalled shouting. “Get the hell out of here!”

Brunson’s engine led the way down the road as Gould and his crew jumped in the cab of their truck. But it was too late. It was as if incendiary bombs were exploding everywhere, Gould said.

“It just started spotting all around,” he said of the flames.

Gould weighed his options and knew they weren’t good. “Engine 228 is trapped,” he barked into his radio. “We’re surrounded.”

Firefighter Paul Clark, who was with Gould, said that the flames were on both sides of the road.

“It was safer to stay where we were,” he said.

Looking at his map book, Gould radioed in his coordinates and asked for a “priority” water drop. He and his three-man crew hunkered down in the cab of their engine as flames raced around them.

The smoke was so thick the crew could see only a few feet in front of them, and the water-dropping helicopter overhead couldn’t see them either.

“Can you spot the copter so we can get a drop on you?” Gould recalled the dispatcher asking.

For the next 15 minutes, Gould and his crew kept shifting their fire engine into small areas that were partially burned — offering a bit of protection — as the wind fanned the flames back and forth across the canyon.

“We were lucky because of the winds,” Clark said. “It didn’t light everything off at the same time.”

In the end, Gould said, it was the erratic winds that allowed his crew to escape.

They received word from the helicopter that the road was clear. He and his men made it out and spent the rest of the day fighting the Sesnon fire.
Photo by Louie

Injured firefighters tell others about the lessons learned

An excerpt from the Bismark Tribune, North Dakota

“Apr 13, 2008
Associated Press Writer

As if the scarred flesh over a third of his body weren’t enough, Mark Keller got a tattoo to mark the day he and two other volunteer firefighters were burned while battling a grass fire in central North Dakota.

“It’s just a reminder to myself that I made it out alive,” said Keller, who is marking the third anniversary of the blaze that also injured firefighters Geremy Olson and James Meyer near Wilton, north of Bismarck.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, spokeswoman Jennifer Smith says 111 firefighters have died battling wildfires between 2003 and 2006, the most recent numbers available. The group does not keep injury statistics.

Those who survived the blazes, like Keller, Olson and Meyer, use their scars to teach others.

Keller’s tattoo above his right ankle depicts a fire department logo capped with flames, along with his name and those of his burned buddies. The tattoo, like his surgeries, is unfinished.

“I’ll add smoke to it later,” said Keller, 36, who also is a Burleigh County deputy.

The 2005 grass fire that injured Keller blackened a 6-mile-long swath near Wilton. It was traced to a pile of trees that had been smoldering undetected for nearly a month.

Meyer had been hired to burn the tree piles on his neighbor’s farm. He said he torched the dozen or so massive tree piles when the ground was covered with snow in March. When the ground dried out a month later, embers from the still-burning woodpile ignited grass, and the fire spread, he said.

The firefighters were hurt after the wind-driven fire engulfed them and the heat from the blaze sucked oxygen out of the air, killing the engine in the fire truck in which they were riding.

“I tried starting it three or four times and it wouldn’t kick over,” Keller recalled. “From there, it just got hotter and hotter and hotter. My brain told me to flee.”

Fire officials estimated that heat from the blaze topped 2,000 degrees – near the melting point of steel.

Keller was on fire when other firefighters rescued him, dousing him with water. He was the only one of the three who was not wearing full bunker gear – and he was the most seriously injured, suffering second- and third-degree burns to about 30 percent of his body.”

Additional details

Facing very large medical bills, Mark Keller sued the owner of the land where the fire started from the brush piles. After investigations, consultations with a wildland fire expert in a neighboring state, and negotiations, the lawsuit was settled out of court on January 18, 2007.