Report released for tree strike fatality on the 2018 Ferguson Fire

Captain Brian Hughes
Captain Brian Hughes. Photo courtesy of Brad Torchia.

The National Park Service has released the Serious Accident Investigation Factual Report for the accident in which Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Hotshots was killed last year. Captain Hughes died when a 105-foot tall Ponderosa Pine fell in an unexpected direction during a hazardous tree felling operation. It happened July 29, 2018 on the Ferguson Fire on the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park in California.

Captain Hughes, number two in the chain of command on the crew, was in charge of the crew at the time since the Superintendent was at the Ferguson Fire Helibase at Mariposa Airport.

You can download the Factual Report and the Corrective Action Plan. Below are excerpts from both.

Excerpt from the Executive Summary:

…Brian returned to California in 2015 and became a captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew. As a captain, Brian was a trusted leader and mentor who led by example, inspiring others to train hard and develop their skills. His crew looked up to him and loved him as a brother.

The Ferguson Fire was reported July 13.


The Arrowhead Hotshots arrived on scene July 16, having spent the previous month and a half working prescribed and wildland fires ranging from one to ten days long. The crew spent the next eight days working alongside other highly experienced hotshot crews to build and prepare a fire containment line for burnout operations designed to burn away the available fuel in a given area and keep the original fire from spreading.

By July 28, the day before the accident, the Ferguson Fire had grown to 53,657 acres and was burning across multiple jurisdictional boundaries. Hughes and IHC-1 Squad Leader were working along the edge of a spot fire on steep, rocky terrain in Division G and identified several hazard snags—dead trees that posed falling and fire risks. One stood out: a 57-inch wide, 105-foot tall ponderosa pine burning approximately 10 feet below its top and producing a steady stream of embers. With winds expected the next day, they agreed the snag posed a significant risk to keeping the fire contained and agreed it needed to come down.

The Arrowhead Hotshots lead sawyer started cutting the tree down on the morning of July 29 with help from Hughes, who temporarily stepped in for the sawyer’s less-experienced swamper. The rest of the crew staged in an area safely uphill.

Hughes and the sawyer intended for the tree to fall uphill into an opening between trees. Instead, the tree fell downhill, hitting the ground approximately 145 degrees from the intended lay. It grazed another standing dead snag as it fell and then rolled and/or bounced farther downhill, coming to rest against other snags and brush.

Hughes and the sawyer had discussed the felling operation in detail. Warnings were issued prior to cutting. They also identified two escape routes in case something went wrong.

As the tree began to fall, the sawyer saw which direction it was going and instinctively ran directly downhill, escaping injury.

Hughes however, had moved about 20 feet downhill before the tree fell and then ran into the primary escape route as the tree started falling and was fatally struck. He was found lying underneath the tree in a space between it and the ground.

Efforts to save Hughes’ life were made on scene by the sawyer, fellow firefighters, and paramedics on the ground and in the air. Despite these efforts, Hughes was pronounced dead as he was being flown to the Mariposa Helibase.

Excerpts (Actions) from the Corrective Action Plan: (The full plan includes responsible parties and due dates)

  • Propose to NWCG that beginning in Fiscal Year 19 the Hazard Tree and Tree Felling Subcommittee (HTTFSC) conduct an evaluation of the “Forest Service Chainsaw, Crosscut Saw and Axe Training-Developing a Thinking Sawyer” course for applicability within the interagency community as an updated NWCG S-212, Wildfire Chain Saws, course. Based on the evaluation NWCG could adopt the course as is or with modifications for S-212 and individual agencies could adopt and use as appropriate.
  • Propose to NWCG that beginning in Fiscal Year 19 the Hazard Tree and Tree Felling Subcommittee conduct an evaluation and gap analysis of tree falling options, felling procedures, training and current best practices and update applicable supervisory operations position training and position task books as appropriate, i.e. Single Resource Boss, Strike Team and Task Force Leader, and Division Supervisor.
  • Propose to NWCG the development of an Advanced Wildland Fire Chain Saws training course beginning in Fiscal Year 19 unless need negated by adoption of “Forest Service Chainsaw, Crosscut Saw, and Axe Training-Developing a Thinking Sawyer” course on interagency basis.
  • Propose to NWCG a Fiscal Year 19 review and revision, if necessary, to FAL3, FAL2, and FAL1 competency and currency evaluation processes managed by NWCG.
  • Propose USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development, in collaboration with the Western States Division of the National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), conduct a study on effects of acute and cumulative fatigue on wildland firefighters and Incident Management personnel to include fatigue mitigation recommendations.
  • Complete assessment of effects of fatigue, stress, and sleep management on wildland firefighters and incident management personnel to include methods to prepare for and mitigate the effects of fatigue, cumulative stress, and traumatic stress.
  • Propose all wildland fire tree and chainsaw related accident reports since 2004 be reviewed, associated recommendations evaluated for redundancy or conflict, and the current implementation status of recommendations to assist in setting priority actions to reduce similar incidents.
  • Evaluate how changing environmental conditions, such as extensive tree mortality in the west, and more extreme wildfires, are being factored into procedural practices and implementation of wildland fire policy, strategies, and tactics by agency administrators and Incident Management Teams.
  • Assess and consider adoption of USDA, Forest Service Risk Informed Trade Off Analysis process incorporating geographically specific information on topography, fuels, and expected weather to inform decision makers during initial response and extended attack of wildfires.

Officials release the cause of the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite

Ferguson Fire
Ferguson Fire. Photo uploaded to InciWeb July 15, 2018.

Fire officials in California have released the cause of the Ferguson Fire that burned 96,901 acres of the Sierra National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park, and state lands. They determined that it was caused by a hot catalytic converter on a vehicle that parked in dry grass at 8:30 p.m. Friday, July 13, along eastbound Highway 140 near the Savage Trading Post.

A vehicle associated with the cause has not been located. However, officials are asking anyone with information to contact the Sierra National Forest at (559) 297-0706.

Catalytic converters are part of the exhaust system on the underside of vehicles and can heat up to 1,200 degrees. After a vehicle has been traveling at speed, under a load, or not working properly the catalytic converter can get even hotter. If it is parked over dry grass, it can ignite a fire.

U.S. Forest Service personnel working on the investigation received assistance from the National Park Service and CAL FIRE.

Two water tender rollovers

One was on the Miles Fire in Oregon and the other was on the Ferguson Fire in California

Two water tenders rolled over while working on wildfires in California and Oregon earlier this month. According to the very brief Rapid Lesson Sharing reports filed with the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, there were no serious injuries. No assumptions were made about the cause of either accident, and road conditions were not mentioned as being an issue.

The first occurred on the Ferguson Fire in California August 10, 2018. The brief report can be downloaded here.

water tender rollover Ferguson Fire California
August 10, 2018 rollover of a water tender on the Ferguson Fire in California. Photo from Rapid Lesson Sharing report.

The other rollover occurred two days later on August 12 on the Miles Fire in Oregon. (brief report)

water tender rollover Miles Fire Oregon
August 12, 2018 rollover of a water tender on the Miles Fire in Oregon. Photo from Rapid Lesson Sharing report.

This is one of 51 articles we have written on Wildfire Today about rollovers of vehicles on wildland fires. They occur far too often.

It is not always possible to point to a single cause of many of these sometimes fatal accidents. But challenges facing drivers of emergency vehicles on wildland fires include visibility due to smoke or dust, long hours leading to fatigue, low standard or inadequately maintained roads, distractions, skills needed to drive a large heavy vehicle, top-heavy vehicles, weights exceeding manufacturer’s GVW rating, and shifting of weight caused by partial loads of water in the tank.

Of the 440 fatalities on wildland fires from 1990 through 2014, 22 percent were related to vehicle accidents.

The Rapid Lesson Sharing report for the accident on the Miles Fire reached this conclusion:

Statistics show that the biggest risk to firefighters today is the mundane task of driving to and from the worksite. Often, the function of driving is accompanied by fatigue from the day’s events and thoughts of what is yet to come.

Water Tender operators are asked to drive large, heavy vehicles in variable conditions repeatedly for multiple operational shifts. Just like line firefighters, these professional drivers must fight fatigue and complacency from the beginning of an assignment to its end.

Flyover tour of Ferguson Fire at Yosemite National Park

Take a simulated flight over the 89,000-acre wildfire

Above: screenshot from the video.

This is a flyover virtual tour of the Ferguson Fire burning in and near Yosemite National Park in California. The red line was the perimeter at 12:15 a.m. PDT August 5, 2018. The red shaded areas were intense heat at that time. The blue line is the location of the huge Rim Fire of 2013. The green line is the boundary between Yosemite National Park and U.S. Forest Service managed land. Recorded by August 5, 2018.

The fire has burned over 89,000 acres in Yosemite National Park, Sierra National Forest, and Stanislaus National Forest. On the north edge it has burned into the footprint of the Rim Fire that blackened 257,000 acres in 2013.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Ferguson Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.)

California fires as seen from the Space Station

Astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted these photos on August 3 of the wildfires in California, apparently taken from the International Space Station. He didn’t specify the date, but presumably they are very recent.

I’m not positive, but I think the photo that has multiple fires includes, from bottom to top (south to north), the Ferguson Fire at Yosemite National Park, the Mendocino Complex east of Ukiah, and the Carr Fire at Redding. The smoke farther north could be the Natchez Fire and blazes in Oregon.  The other photo is most likely the Ferguson Fire.

Click on the images twice to see larger versions.

Ferguson Fire spreads across Highway 41, moves deeper into Yosemite

The fire is well established on the east side of Highway 41 and has crossed Glacier Point Road

(UPDATED at 5:20 a.m. PDT August 4, 2018)

map Ferguson Fire
Map showing the perimeter of the Ferguson Fire at 1:30 a.m. PDT August 4, 2018. The red shaded areas represent intense heat at that time. The blue line at the top is the 2013 Rim Fire. Click to enlarge.

These two maps of the Ferguson Fire at Yosemite National Park in California include the latest perimeter data collected by a fixed wing aircraft at 1:30 a.m. PDT August 4, 2018.

Friday afternoon the fire spotted across two highways running for almost a mile in both places — east of Highway 41 at Glacier Point Road, and across Highway 140 below Foresta. The slop over across 41 was approximately 200 acres at 1:30 a.m. PDT on Saturday. About half of that crossed over Glacier Point Road.

map Ferguson Fire
Map showing the northeast perimeter of the Ferguson Fire at 1:30 a.m. PDT August 4, 2018. The red shaded areas represent intense heat at that time. Click to enlarge.

Below is an excerpt from a Friday evening update by the incident management team:

The Ferguson Fire grew by 3,647 acres throughout the day and was at 77,207 acres as of 6 p.m. Containment is at 41 percent. Firefighters worked throughout the day on a spot fire that jumped the Merced River early this morning and is burning in the Crane Creek drainage southwest of Foresta. Aircraft dropped water and retardant in support of firefighters.

Bulldozers and hand crews built containment lines between the fire and Foresta. Engines and crews remained in Foresta for structure protection. While Yosemite Valley was not in imminent danger, dangerous road conditions, smoke and a loss of power prompted Yosemite National Park officials to evacuate the area until further notice.

Later in the afternoon, another spot fire emerged west of Wawona Road (Highway 41) and began advancing toward Badger Pass. Evacuations were issued along Highway 140 out of concern that shifting winds overnight could bring the fire back into the communities.

On the north side of the fire, crews completed tactical firing along Pilot Ridge on the Mariposa-Tuolumne county line. They will perform firing operations south along the 13 Road as weather allows to fully contain the fire’s northern perimeter.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Ferguson Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.)

(UPDATED at 7:17 p.m. PDT August 3, 2018)

map Ferguson Fire
The satellite heat sensing data from 2:43 p.m. PDT August 3, 2018, represented by the red dots, can be seen in the map above.

The satellite heat sensing data from 2:43 p.m. PDT August 3, 2018, represented by the red dots, can be seen in the map above. It shows heat where the Ferguson Fire, at Yosemite National Park in California, crossed Highway 41 near Glacier Point Road, and Highway 140 south and southeast of Foresta.

We hope to have an updated map Saturday morning. Continue reading “Ferguson Fire spreads across Highway 41, moves deeper into Yosemite”