Helicopter crash, with injuries, starts fire, and rescuers are burned over

In addition to the personnel injured in the helicopter crash, two rescuers became victims

helicopter crash site
An overview of the crash site and the extraction point for the three victims. Photo from the report.

A report has been released for a helicopter crash in a very remote area of Nevada that started a fire, injured two passengers, and resulted in rescuers being burned over. It happened August 18, 2018 about 10 miles north of Battle Mountain.

One of the passengers called 911 on a cell phone at 1357:

We just got into a helicopter crash…three occupants, all of us are alive and managed to get out…started a big fire, fire is burning all around us right now…one of the guys hit his head pretty hard…you’re gonna have to get a helicopter, it’s the only way to get in here.

Adding to the complexity was the fact that several different agencies and organizations had various responsibilities: Lander County Dispatch, Battle Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, local EMS services, a medical helicopter, Elko Interagency Dispatch Center, and Central Nevada Interagency Dispatch Center.

As might be expected the complex communication chain between the victims and the actual emergency responders created some difficulties, including a delay in extracting the three personnel.

The Facilitated Learning Analysis does not speculate what caused the crash of the helicopter that was transporting two biologists on a chukar survey, but it started a fire, which was named Sheep Creek. The biologists and the pilot self-extracted, one of them with what appeared to be a serious head injury, and they all hiked up a steep slope to a flat bench where they awaited a helicopter. About two hours after the 911 call the three were evacuated from the scene by a firefighting helicopter that was on scene, and possibly also a medical helicopter. The report is not clear about this.

helicopter crash site
A closer view of the crash site. Photo from the report.

Meanwhile a volunteer fire department Type 4 engine that had responded in a search and rescue mode toward the crash site found that the condition of the road they were traveling on deteriorated from a 2-track road to a 4×4 trail, and finally ended. At that point the fire was closing in on their location. The rookie firefighter and the Fire Chief got out, and leaving their wildland fire personal protective gear in the truck, began to spray water around the vehicle.

From the report:

Within seconds, the fire was all around Pumper- 2. Both individuals were caught outside of the vehicle while trying to spray water. Neither had on their personal protective equipment (PPE) when the burnover occurred. The Chief stated, “We were in a rescue mission, so we had no PPE on.”

During the burnover, the firefighter jumped off the back of Pumper-2, started to run around the vehicle and then took refuge under Pumper-2. “I was burning and screaming and hunkered down underneath behind the rear tires.” After the burnover, the Chief yelled for the firefighter, whom he could not see anywhere. He eventually located the firefighter under Pumper-2.

After sustaining significant burns, both the Chief and firefighter got back into the vehicle, with the Chief driving, continuing down drainage. The fire was behind them as they continued driving through the black towards the bottom of the drainage. Pumper-2 drove through the bottom of the drainage over the rough terrain until getting stuck. Both individuals got out of the vehicle and proceeded to hike up the steep ridge until they got on top of the ridge to establish communications.

At 1646, Lander County Dispatch received a 911 call from the firefighter, who said he and the Chief had been burned. “We need help.” Dispatch was asking questions to establish a location, but the cell phone was breaking up. The firefighter said, “We might need a helicopter because we are on the ridge…in the black…wearing a red shirt and just uphill right of the engine.”

Suppression resources were actively engaged on the wildland fire during the burnover of the Pumper-2. The Incident Commander of the wildland fire was unaware that Pumper-2 was on the fire until well after the burnover occurred. The dispatch centers did not know the location of Pumper-2.

At 1745 the injured firefighters were located and extracted by the air medical and suppression helicopters to awaiting ground medical resources at Battle Mountain Airport. At about 1900, fixed-wing aircraft flew the injured firefighters to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The FLA points out a number of organizational and human issues that are worthy of consideration. One topic that was not thoroughly addressed in the report was the dispatchers and firefighting personnel at times did not know the exact location of the crash site or the victims, and were not aware that the engine was responding or it’s location following the injuries to the two firefighters.

Even when, eventually, the location of emergency responders will be able to be tracked on an incident, biologists and volunteer firefighters will probably be some of the last personnel to employ this capability on a routine basis.

Fire crew extracted with minutes to spare

They had to leave behind a helicopter bucket, chainsaw, pump, and a flight helmet which were all consumed by the fire.

Above: The Tok River Fire as the helicopter landed. The helicopter is in the brown grassy area near the bottom of the photo.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a report they call a “Rapid Lesson Sharing” about a close call that happened in Alaska late in the afternoon on July 14, 2016.

The report does not clearly, unequivocally, and in detail describe how and why the wind changed and affected the direction of spread, but there are two clues. The “Event Type” is “Thunderstorm Influence on IA [initial attack]”. And, the “Lessons” section has tips about attacking a fire when thunderstorms are in the area.

In this incident, a helicopter ferried an Incident Commander and three firefighters to a new fire. As they approached and made several orbits over the new start to size it up they noticed a thunderstorm in the general area. The fire was 10 to 15 acres and burning in black spruce with 50 to 75-foot flames at the head. The pilot and the helicopter manager on board selected a “tussock” (a grassy area) as a landing zone.

Below is an excerpt from the report, which you can read in full here.

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“….The decision was made to land the helicopter, unload firefighters and equipment, and prepare the helicopter to begin making bucket drops. With the wind blowing out of the southeast, a tussock near the heel of the fire to the north and east was selected as a Landing Zone.

Tussock Believed to be a Good LZ Location

The Helicopter Manager and Pilot both felt that the tussock was a good location because it was close to the heel of the fire and the proximity of water sources. In addition, the IC felt that the tussock was in a good location and of sufficient size that it could be burned-out to create a safety zone in a worst case scenario.

When the bucket was attached, the helicopter left to begin making water drops on the heel of the fire. The IC began walking across the tussock toward the heel to size-up the fire from the ground and make a plan for containment. As he negotiated the uneven ground of the tussock, travel was slow and difficult. The IC had only gone about 200 feet when he began to feel the heat from the fire. He looked up to see the smoke column rotating and moving in the direction of the tussock area where crew had landed.

The winds had shifted approximately 90 degrees. Now the heel of the fire, which moments before had been burning with low intensity, began actively burning— heading toward the IC and his crew.

The helicopter Pilot had just filled his second bucket. He quickly dropped the water when he noticed the wind shift and flew back to the landing zone.

The IC turned around and headed back toward the Landing Zone. He got about half way back when the helicopter returned to the Landing Zone and turned on the siren to alert the fire crew.

Decision Made to Leave Their Gear and Board the Helicopter

The crew disconnected the bucket and began loading gear back on the helicopter. When the crew began packing the bucket, the Pilot told them to leave it and get on the helicopter.

The smoke column was leaning over the tussock and the pilot was concerned that if the column dropped too close on the ground, he would not have enough visibility to lift off.

The fire crew did not believe that they were in imminent danger and that they had plenty of time to load the rest of the gear before they would be affected by the flaming front. However, there was concern that if they lost visibility they would be stuck in the landing zone.

The decision was made to leave the rest of the gear and get in the Helicopter. After taking off, the helicopter made several revolutions around the area hoping to be able to land again and retrieve their gear. The fire continued burning in the direction of the Landing Zone, growing from approximately 16 acres at 1730 to an estimated 100 acres at 1810. The helicopter bucket, a chainsaw, a pump, and a flight helmet were all eventually consumed by the approaching fire…”

Lessons, Tok River Fire
From the report.

Large helibase sets up in Colville, WA

A group of horses pay no attention to a firing operation going on behind them on Division X of the Okanogan Complex August 25, 2015. Firefighters were using drip torches and incendiary devices (sausages) shot from a verry pistol to burn out the hillside to the west of Spring Coulee Road in Okanogan, WA connecting areas to the north and south that had previously burned to protect homes in the area.
A group of horses pay no attention to a firing operation going on behind them on Division X of the Okanogan Complex August 25, 2015. Firefighters were using drip torches and incendiary devices (sausages) shot from a verry pistol to burn out the hillside to the west of Spring Coulee Road in Okanogan, WA connecting areas to the north and south that had previously burned to protect homes in the area.

Tom Story, who is in Washington documenting some of the wildfire activity, spent time on Monday at the Hopps Helibase near Colville, WA. While in Washington, Tom also spent time with 200 U.S. Army soldiers who were training to assist in the firefighting effort. 

Here is his dispatch from the Hopps Helibase on Aug. 25, 2015.

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Walker’s Area Command, based in Colville, WA, in August of the 2015 fire season, has setup a large helibase on farmland south of town. The property is owned by the Hopps family, thus giving the base it’s name. The facility allows both civilian contract helicopters a base and a location for military ships to stage until needed on the numerous fires in the area.

At Hopps this morning; August 25th, were a pair of Bell 205 A1++, two AStar A350s, one Bell 206 L4 as well as one of Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertols joined by a couple of Blackhawks and a Chinook flying in from their overnight base at Fairchild A.F.B outside of Spokane.

The Federal Aviation Administration is operating a temporary tower at the helibase since up to 20 helicopters are anticipated to be using the base as the fire season continues in northeast Washington.

With the FAA control tower in the background and a Bell 205 A1 ++ in the foreground, a Bell 206 L4 carrying members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, take off for a mission on the Carpenter Road Fire.
With the FAA control tower in the background and a Bell 205 A1 ++ in the foreground, a Bell 206 L4 carrying members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, take off for a mission on the Carpenter Road Fire.
Members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest prepare for a mission to the Carpenter Road Fire near Colville, WA August 25, 2015.
Members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest prepare for a mission to the Carpenter Road Fire near Colville, WA August 25, 2015.
An Army Chinook lumbers overhead on final approach for a landing at the Hopps Helibase over a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol.
An Army Chinook lumbers overhead on final approach for a landing at the Hopps Helibase over a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol.

Aerial firefighting on the Black Forest Fire

Blackhawk
Blackhawk, June 12, 2013, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet

The military has been supplying numerous photos and some videos of their firefighting activities on the Black Forest Fire. Helicopters from the Colorado National Guard and Fort Carson as well as C-130 MAFFS air tankers are assisting firefighters on the ground. Here are seven photos of aircraft taken on June 12 by military personnel. The DC-10 is not military, but is working under a contract with the U. S. Forest Service.

Blackhawk dipping
Blackhawk dipping, June 12, 2013, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet
Blackhawk, dipping up to 500 gallons
Blackhawk, dipping up to 500 gallons, June 12, 2013,, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet

Continue reading “Aerial firefighting on the Black Forest Fire”

Extracting an injured firefighter – in 2 hours and 15 minutes

Las Conchas Fire extractionThe Wildfire Lessons Learned Center has released a video documenting the extraction of an injured firefighter from the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in northern New Mexico. Kenny Lovell of the Craig Interagency Hotshots is interviewed in the video and tells his story of being seriously injured, treated, and transported after being hit by a rolling rock. He suffered a broken pelvis, a broken fibula, and a large hematoma.

The title of the video, ROCK! Firefighter Extraction Success Story, describes the incident as a success. It was, in the sense that the Hotshot crew had access to equipment which was transported to the accident scene to treat and package the victim, there were several EMTs on the crew, the Hotshots had drilled for similar incidents, a helicopter with short haul capability was available, and 5 months later Mr. Lovell returned to work on the Hotshot crew. All that is great and the Hotshots and the helitack crew deserve praise for accomplishing what they did with the resources that were available..

Having said that, it is still troubling that 2 hours and 15 minutes elapsed before Mr. Lovell departed the accident scene in a helicopter, and 30 minutes later he arrived at a hospital. On the Deer Park fire in 2010 a firefighter with a broken femur was on the ground for 4 hours and 23 minutes before he was transported in a helicopter. And firefighter Andrew Palmer, who bled to death from a broken femur suffered on a fire in 2008, spent 2 hours and 51 minutes at the accident scene before he was extracted via hoist on a Coast Guard helicopter.

Agencies who place firefighters in remote areas should realize they have the ethical responsibility to supply the training, equipment, and aviation resources to at least begin transporting by air a seriously injured firefighter within an hour. I am surprised that OSHA has not cited the federal agencies for this. Of course getting injured firefighters to an appropriate hospital within the Golden Hour would be ideal, but depending on the distance involved that could be difficult. A helicopter with short haul capability can be helpful, but it is not the quickest or most efficient method for extracting an injured person. It involves several steps, especially, like in this case, when the helicopter responds to the scene without being fully configured for short haul.

Several agencies have helicopters with hoists which can quickly extract and then transport injured personnel from remote locations, including CAL FIRE, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the Coast Guard. If the other federal and state agencies decided to take that step, it would not have to be a trial program with one helicopter like the U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter effort this year, because other agencies have been using hoists (and night vision goggles) for decades,

“The organization is ethically and morally obligated to put an EMS program in place that is supported by the organization, and given the standardized training and equipment to make the program succeed.”

The above is from the 2010 facilitated learning analysis for the Deer Park Fire extraction, quoting a Senior Firefighter/Paramedic on the Sawtooth Helitack Crew.

 

Thanks go out to Brit