NTSB preliminary report on fatal helicopter crash in Arizona does not determine cause

The accident occurred July 7, 2020 on the Polles Fire west of Payson, Arizona

Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman
Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman

On July 7, 2020 a UH-1H helicopter crashed while transporting supplies to firefighters who were spiked out (camping) while working on the Polles Fire about 10 miles west of Payson, Arizona. The only person on board, pilot Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman, 37, of Litchfield Park, Arizona was killed. We send our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Boatman, and to the forestry technicians who were at the fire.

The brief preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) did not mention any obvious causes for the crash, which happened while transporting firefighters’ equipment in an external sling load. Multiple personnel on the ground observed the helicopter flying erratically until finally “it entered a steep nose up attitude and then descended rapidly,” according to the report. Fire personnel saw no signs of fire before the crash and all major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site.

Polles Fire vicinity map
Polles Fire vicinity map

BJ was born on June 8, 1983 in Provo, Utah. He was a third-generation pilot and worked alongside his parents to build their company, Airwest Helicopters of Glendale, Arizona.

3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020
3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020; looking north.

The helicopter, N623PB, serial number 64-13689, was manufactured in 1964. It is a UH-1H registered to Aero Leasing in Glendale, Arizona, the same city where Air West Helicopters is located.

Polles Fire - Payson helicopter crash fatality
Airwest Helicopters photo, N623PB.

In addition to the preliminary report released by the NTSB, a 23-page facilitated learning analysis (FLA) was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.

The FLA is solely devoted to analyzing the response to the accident — the Incident Within an Incident and the actions taken in the following days. It does not address what caused the helicopter to crash. The report found very little to criticize and praised most of the actions that were taken. It goes into quite a bit of detail about how the fire’s Incident Management Team handled the emergency response during the first few hours, as well as organizing over the next several days to care for BJ’s family and the forestry technicians that were witnesses to the crash or were otherwise affected.

Anyone who could in the future find themselves in a similar unfortunate situation would benefit from reading this FLA. Firefighting is dangerous, in the air and on the ground, and others will have to walk this same path.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Below is the text from the narrative portion of the three-page NTSB report. The complete report which will analyze the cause, might be released within the next year.


“On July 7, 2020, about 1213 mountain standard time, a Bell/Garlick UH-1H helicopter, N623PB, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Payson, Arizona. The pilot was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 133 external load flight.

Illustration from the NTSB report
Figure 1: Depiction of helicopter flight path based on witness statements. From the NTSB preliminary report.

“The helicopter was owned by Airwest Helicopters LLC and operated by the United States Forest Service at the time of the accident. According to witnesses, the helicopter was transporting supplies using a long line for a hotshot firefighting crew that were repositioning on the ground. The pilot transported three loads to the new destination uneventfully prior to the accident and had been using an indirect route to the north to avoid a fire area (Figure 1). While transporting the fourth load, witnesses observed the helicopter begin to fly erratically while en route to its destination. During this time, a witness stated that he observed the helicopter enter a high nose-up pitch attitude and the external payload began to swing. The helicopter then displayed irregular movements for several seconds before the external payload settled and the helicopter appeared to stabilize. However, after about 3 seconds, multiple witnesses observed  The witnesses did not observe the helicopter on fire during the accident flight, nor did the pilot report any anomalies over the helicopter crew’s common air-to-ground radio frequency or any other assigned frequencies for the fire.

“The helicopter wreckage came to rest about 0.5 nm north of its drop off destination, oriented on a heading of 074° magnetic and was mostly consumed by postcrash fire. All major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site. The helicopter’s external payload was found 123 ft southeast of the main wreckage.

“The wreckage was retained for further examination.”


Polles Fire
Smoke from the Polles Fire, posted July 6, 2020. InciWeb.

Three found dead at Zogg Fire in northern California

Over 100 structures destroyed

Map of the Zogg Fire
Map of the Zogg Fire. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3 a.m. PDT Sept. 29, 2020. The red line was mapped by a fixed wing aircraft at 1:30 a.m. PDT Sept. 29, 2020.

CAL FIRE reports that the Zogg Fire southwest of Redding, California has killed three people and destroyed 146 structures.

The fire has burned at least 40,317 acres.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Zogg Fire, including the most recent, click here.

Firefighter’s family killed in structure fire

And unrelated, a firefighter died in a vehicle accident while commuting home

Four members of firefighter’s family killed in structure fire

The wife and three children of a wildland firefighter were killed in Washington while he was deployed on a wildfire.

Marcaria Garcia-Martinez, 32, her daughters Luz Garcia-Martinez, 17, and Michelle Garcia-Martinez, 6, and son Luis Garcia-Martinez, 15, died in the early morning  blaze on August 27.  They had just moved and were spending their first night in the single-wide trailer in Benton City, Washington. When sheriff deputies and firefighters arrived the home was almost completely consumed. The radiant heat from the fire was so intense that a nearby trailer also ignited, but deputies were able to rescue the residents of that home. Firefighters put out the fire and found the family members’ bodies while searching the trailer.

Raul Garcia-Santos, Garcia-Martinez’s husband and the children’s father, was assigned to the Palmer Fire in north-central Washington which has burned about 18,000 acres four miles south of the Canadian border. The fire has not been updated on InciWeb since September 30.

Firefighter dies in vehicle accident while commuting home

Sara Madsen. USFS photo.

A firefighter on the Helena Hotshot crew was killed in a vehicle accident in Idaho while commuting home after a fire assignment.

From the U. S. Forest Service, Caribou-Targhee National Forest September 3, 2020:

“Sara Madsen was an incredible person with a vivacious personality and a love for the outdoors. She began working in natural resources in our very own Teton Valley as a Youth Conservation Corp member, later moving into the fire program where she served as a crewmember on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s Centennial Type 2 Initial Attack Hand Crew from 2017 to 2019. 2020 was her first year as part of the Helena Hot Shot crew with the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Our firefighting community is heartbroken over this tragic loss and our condolences go out to Sara’s family, friends and coworkers.”

The Idaho State Police released the following information:

  • “On September 2, 2020, at approximately 12:21 a.m., Idaho State Police investigated a single-vehicle crash on SH32 near milepost 25 south of Ashton, in Fremont County.
  • Sara Madsen, 24, of Tetonia, was driving eastbound on SH32 in a 1999 Ford Ranger when her vehicle went off the right shoulder of the roadway and overturned.
  • Madsen was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from the vehicle. She succumbed to her injuries at the scene. Next of kin has been notified.”

Rest in peace, Sara Madsen, and the family of Raul Garcia-Santos.

A wildfire in China has killed 19 people, including 18 firefighters

One resident also died

firefighters killed china wildfire
Screenshot of firefighters working on a wildfire near Xinhua in China. From a video produced by CTGN, an organization supported by the government of China.

A wildfire in southwest China’s Sichuan province killed 19 people on Monday, including 18 firefighters according to state news agency Xinhua. It started on a farm and pushed by strong winds spread into mountains burning 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) by Monday night. It now directly threatens major facilities in downtown Xichang, including a petroleum storage facility and four schools.

About 690,000 people live in the city, which is about 210 miles southwest of provincial capital Chengdu.

Map fire near Xichang China
Map of the fire near Xichang in China. From the Twitter account of The Paper (Pengpai News 澎湃新闻)

In the tweet below, firefighters appear to be in a precarious location:

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and coworkers of the deceased.

PG&E to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for fatalities in Camp Fire

84 people were killed in the northern California fire in 2018

The Camp Fire, November 8, 2018
The Camp Fire, November 8, 2018 about four hours after it started. NASA (Joshua Stevens) – Landsat 8.

In a rather startling development, Pacific Gas & Electricity is expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the 84 people that were killed during the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California November 8, 2018. The fire also burned 154,000 acres and destroyed more than 18,000 structures.

Below is an excerpt from an article at NBC news:

PG&E has agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of unlawfully causing a fire after it was blamed for the Camp Fire in Northern California, the state’s deadliest in history.

The fire, which burned through the Sierra Nevada foothills for half a month in late 2018, burning through three towns, was sparked by Pacific Gas and Electric Company equipment, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which identified ignition points in Butte County.

The settlement, which the utility reached with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office on March 17, was filed in the Superior Court of California in the county and made public Monday morning by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

It must still be approved by the Butte County Superior Court, as well as the federal bankruptcy court overseeing PG&E’s case. In January of 2019, PG&E filed for chapter 11 protection to, in part, set up a “Fire Victim Trust.”

A PG&E spokesman told NBC News that the utility has reached settlements with victims from 2015, 2017 and 2018 wildfires, totaling about $25.5 billion.

Last May the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released results of their investigation which determined that two points of ignition were found that were caused by failures of PG&E electrical transmission lines. One of the towers was 99 years old.

The company is expected to plead guilty in court on April 24, a date that was moved back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UPDATE October 10, 2020: PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter on June 16, 2020.

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

Analysis of 53 firefighter injuries during tree falling operations

Tree felling injuries
This “word cloud” was generated using the injury descriptors from the 53 incidents included in the analysis. The size of a word indicates its relative frequency. (From the report)

The report on the tree falling incident in which Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Hotshots was killed in 2018 recommended that an analysis of tree falling accidents be conducted “to assist in setting priority actions to reduce similar incidents.”

Captain Hughes died when a 105-foot tall Ponderosa Pine fell in an unexpected direction on the Ferguson Fire on the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park in California.

A Tree Falling Accident Analysis was completed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center at the request of the the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. Their study compares 53 incidents from 2004 to 2019 in which firefighters were injured or killed in the process of falling trees.

Anyone involved in tree falling should read the entire 17-page report, but here are some of their findings:

  • 53% of the time the tree fell in the intended direction.
  • 28% of the time, the tree impacted another tree during its fall—including 2 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 19% of the time, the top broke out and came back—including 2 of the 8 fatalities.
  • Of all the reports that included recommendations, 21% recommended enhancing training related to tree conditions (like rot) and species-specific traits.
  • 19% of the time, the sawyer was working on a hung-up tree— including two of the eight fatalities.
  • 51% of the time, the incident involved a direct helmet strike.
  • Of the reports that include recommendations, 24% recommended research and development related to wildland fire helmets.
  • 42% of the time, the person struck was not cutting—including in 5 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 24% of the reports recommended somehow improving safe work distance and compliance.
  • 40% of the time, the person struck was in the traditional escape route—including in 5 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 79% of the reports recommended improving risk assessment.
  • 13% of the time, the tree strike happened during training— including in 2 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 26% of the reports recommended improving faller training.
  • 21% of the reports recommended enhancing training related to tree conditions (like rot) and species-specific traits.