Seven-hour extraction of injured firefighters by helicopter at night

Lesson Learned: “Be willing to turn down an assignment if evacuation of an injured person is not possible in a timely manner.”

Coast Guard Helicopter
From the report.

After one of their helicopters used a hoist to extract two seriously injured firefighters on the Middle Fire in Northern California, the Coast Guard issued a press release that read in part:

…The helicopter crew approached the extraction zone and made a high-altitude, tree-top hoist from 240 feet, the helicopter’s maximum hoist range. The injured firefighters were flown to Weaverville airport and transferred to emergency medical services.

“This rescue was extremely challenging due to the proximity to an active fire, the high elevation and the rugged terrain,” said Lieutenant Commander Derek Schramel, the pilot in command of the mission. “I’m very proud of how our crew worked together with our fire service and law enforcement partners in Trinity County to save these two men.”

The press release failed to mention that the injured firefighters were rescued and then delivered to two medical helicopters at Weaverville more than seven hours after the Coast Guard received the request for the mission.

We wrote about the hoist rescue on September 9, 2019.

Crew member firefighter with broken femur.
From the Rapid Lesson Sharing document.

On September 6, 2019 two firefighters were seriously injured by a rolling rock while working at night on the Middle Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. One firefighter was knocked unconscious for 30 seconds due to a head injury. The rock also hit his neck and shoulder. The other firefighter had a very serious broken femur causing his leg to be twisted about 180 degrees.

(Download the Rapid Lesson Sharing report; 1.6 MB)

During this night shift the only resource on the fire was one contract Type 2 Initial Attack crew. The Crew Boss was the Incident Commander on the fire and had been on the Dutch Creek Fire in 2008 when Andrew Palmer was injured by a falling tree and bled to death. Mr. Palmer remained at the site for two hours while EMTs and fellow firefighters struggled to settle on and carry through a workable plan.

And, on the Iron 44 fire in 2008 the IC had been on the helicopter flight immediately before the crash of the overweight helicopter that killed nine firefighters and flight crew personnel.

The IC was thinking about the delay in extraction and a too heavy helicopter when the Coast Guard helicopter arrived over their fire at 2340 and the pilot said the ship was too heavy to extract personnel at 4,500 feet and would have to loiter to burn off fuel.

After flying for 90 minutes the pilot said the helicopter was still too heavy and would have to return to base to reconfigure. The crew was told that  only one firefighter could be extracted, so they moved the firefighter with the head and shoulder injuries to a different location. When the helicopter was en route back, the pilot told the IC to prepare both patients for extraction—they could take both after all, so the crew carried the second firefighter back to the hoist site.

The helicopter was back on scene sometime after 0300. The two firefighters were extracted and delivered to two waiting medical helicopters at Weaverville at 0350. The patients were flown to “Mercy Hospital” (or Mercy Medical Center in Redding which is about 35 miles from Weaverville).

Here is the time line, according to the Rapid Lesson Sharing report:

2100 — Two firefighters hit by a rock
2107 — The IC requested extraction of the victims by helicopter with hoist
2117 — The Coast Guard was called to request a helicopter
2252 — The Coast Guard accepted the mission
2340 — Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter arrives at the fire. Pilot says the ship is too heavy to hoist, orbits for 90 minutes to burn off fuel, then still too heavy, flies back to reconfigure.
0300 — (approximately, or later), Coast Guard helicopter is back on scene
0350 — Coast Guard helicopter extracts then delivers the two firefighters to two waiting medical helicopters at Weaverville. They were then flown to a hospital or medical center.

The firefighters were lucky that at least there was a Coast Guard helicopter available to take on the mission, even though the injury-to-hospital-time was over seven hours.

To be fair, conducting a hoist rescue at night far from the coast at 4,500 feet above sea level is not a primary mission for the Coast Guard. But fighting fire in every kind of imaginable condition is routine for wildland firefighters. The Coast Guard, judging from this incident, is not prepared that kind of mission, but it is not uncommon for the wildland fire agencies to have to extract injured firefighters at night in remote, rugged terrain.

The U.S. Forest Service does not have in-house capability to use a helicopter to extract injured firefighters at night. Some of their contract helicopters are approved for and have a helitack crew that can perform short-haul operations during daylight hours.

One of the lessons learned that was identified in the report is:

Be willing to turn down an assignment if evacuation of an injured person is not possible in a timely manner.

Below is video of the hoists, shot from the Coast Guard helicopter.

Our opinion:

The federal and state agencies with major wildland fire programs need to develop the day and night capability to extract injured firefighters within one hour. Failure to do so is firefighting malpractice.

Coast Guard helicopter uses hoist for night rescue of injured firefighters

It happened September 6 in Northern California

Coast Guard Hoist Rescue firefighters
Screengrab from the video below.

On the night of September 6 a Coast Guard helicopter conducted a hoist rescue of two firefighters that had been injured by a rolling rock while battling the Middle Fire in Northern California on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Press release from the Coast Guard:

The Coast Guard rescued two injured firefighters from a ridge near Canyon Creek in the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area early Friday morning.

At 9:14 p.m. Thursday the U. S. Forest Service requested the Coast Guard’s assistance with the rescue of two injured firefighters. The firefighters had been hit by falling rocks and reportedly sustained serious head, back and leg injuries while working in steep terrain on the Middle Fire.

MH-65 Dolphin helicopter Coast Guard
An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Humboldt Bay. (Coast Guard file photo by Chief Petty Officer Brandyn Hill)

Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay launched an MH-65D Dolphin helicopter crew who flew to the area and located the injured firefighters within 10 yards of the fire line in a clearing that the fire crew on scene had cut in the forest to allow for an extraction. The helicopter crew approached the extraction zone and made a high-altitude, tree-top hoist from 240 feet, the helicopter’s maximum hoist range.

The injured firefighters were flown to Weaverville airport and transferred to emergency medical services.

“This rescue was extremely challenging due to the proximity to an active fire, the high elevation and the rugged terrain,” said Lieutenant Commander Derek Schramel, the pilot in command of the mission. “I’m very proud of how our crew worked together with our fire service and law enforcement partners in Trinity County to save these two men.”

If you’re having trouble viewing the video, you can see it on YouTube. reports that the two firefighters worked for GFP Enterprises, a company that provides contract fire crews. According to Paul Asher, spokesman for the company, “One had a broken femur [on his] right leg. The other one had an injury not as bad to the shoulder area.”

The Middle Fire started September 5 and was listed at 223 acres on September 8, one of 26 fires on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Our Opinion:

These two firefighters were lucky that the Coast Guard helicopter was available for a hoist rescue at night. Too often that is not the case. The federal and state agencies with major wildland fire programs need to develop this capability on their own, either by contracting for it or developing it in-house. Few U.S. Forest Service helicopters can fly at night and very few if any have hoists, although some can perform short-haul operations during daylight hours. CAL FIRE has installed hoists on all of their state-owned helicopters and the new Firehawks they are purchasing will also have hoists and most likely will have have night-flying capability. Kudos to CAL FIRE for setting the example.

A firefighter injured at night in a remote area during the day or night should not have to depend on luck. They deserve to have extraction services by air available within an hour.

The article was edited September 10, 2019 to include the fact that some U.S. Forest Service helicopters can perform short-haul operations during daylight hours.

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

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

CAL FIRE installing hoists on helicopters

Fighting wildland fires can be a dangerous job. One of the most difficult challenges is providing treatment to an injured firefighter during that first “golden hour” if an accident occurs in a remote location.

The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection is taking a step to speed the transfer of a patient from the fireline to a hospital by installing hoist systems on their 11 firefighting helicopters. They recently completed the first round of training on the new systems at the CAL FIRE academy at Ione. Some of the hoists have already been installed and all 11 should be ready to go by the end of the year.

This is a great step in the right direction and may save firefighters’ lives if they suffer an injury during daylight hours.

Currently there are no CAL FIRE or U.S. Forest Service helicopters that can fly at night. The USFS is going to tip toe into night flying operations again next year by contracting for one helicopter with that capability. It is unknown if it will have a hoist.

The USFS was criticized for not taking advantage of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s night flying helicopters during the first night after the Station Fire started near Los Angeles in 2009. The fire was three to four acres at 7 a.m. on the second day, but no helicopters were used the first night. The fire took off at mid-morning on day two and later burned 160,000 acres, killing two firefighters.

There were accusations that the USFS employed a less than aggressive attack on the Station fire in an effort to save money. If that was their strategy, it failed. A GAO review estimated the cost of suppressing the Station Fire to be $93 million, placing it among the most costly fires in the nation’s history. This does not include the costs of rebuilding the 89 homes that burned in the fire which may have been another $15 to $35 million.
Thanks go out to Eric

Injured firefighter rescued by night-flying helicopter

Saturday night, August 11, an injured firefighter was rescued by firefighters on the ground and a night-flying helicopter on the Ramsey fire on the Stanislaus National Forest eight miles east of Dorrington, California. The U.S. Forest Service will not have night-flying ability until one helicopter comes on board with those capabilities in 2013, but thankfully a Firehawk from Los Angeles County Fire Department was dispatched to hoist the firefighter out of an active fire area.

Here is an excerpt from a very interesting article in the Calaveras Enterprise:

…A large opening was made in the trees by a hot shot team to make room for the helicopter evacuation.

“When the helicopter came in for the rescue, the rotor wash was the biggest concern – stoking fires and kicking up ash and (burning) debris,” Jacobus said. “That was probably the biggest hardship for us to contend with.”

The copter first came in at 4:30 a.m. in the dark and dropped a rescuer to brief the ground team on how the helicopter crew wanted the patient packaged.

“They brought the helicopter in a second time for raise and evacuation,” Jacobus said. “We dealt with some pretty extreme rotor wash both times. It’s like being in the beginning part of a hurricane, but instead of blowing air, it’s blowing hot ash and churning sparks at you.”

We have written many times before about how important it is for a seriously injured firefighter to receive appropriate medical treatment in the “golden hour”. Night-flying helicopters can be very useful for slowing fires at night even more effectively than during the day. But they can also save lives, especially if they have hoist capabilities.

The right thing for the wildland fire agencies to do, is to have multiple night-flying capable helicopters, with hoists, if they are going to fight fire at night in remote areas. In addition, they should have hoist-capable helicopters available during daylight hours, if they are going to fight fire in remote areas (which include, what, 75 percent of the wildland fires that the federal agencies fight?). It is a health and safety issue, not a luxury. I am surprised that OSHA has not cited the wildland fire agencies for their failure to provide this capability. And it is not just the U.S. Forest Service that should be under the gun here. Let’s not leave out the National Park Service, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as state agencies.

Andrew Palmer fatality report released

Andrew Palmer, NPS photo

The National Park Service has released the report about the accident in which an NPS firefighter, Andrew Palmer, died. Mr. Palmer was killed during a tree falling incident on the Eagle fire, part of the Iron Complex on the Shasta Trinity National Forest in northern California on July 25, 2008. He was a firefighter at Olympic National Park in Port Angeles, Washington.

Here is a link to the report.

Below is the complete executive summary from the factual report:

Early in the day on July 22, 2008, an engine from Olympic National Park received a resource order to report to the Iron Complex, on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, near Junction City, California. The crew and line supervision at the park were so motivated to see the engine crew obtain an immediate assignment that the NPFMO accepted the resource order despite not being able to contact all crew members who were on their day off. NPFMO tried all day to contact the crew and eventually assembled and dispatched the crew at 2100. Despite a late start and a series of complications enroute to the fire, which included mechanical problems with their engine that lead to the separation of their crew and engine captain, the remaining crew members were encouraged to continue to pursue a line assignment as a falling team. Because Incident Management personnel were equally motivated to find a line assignment for the eager crew, the crew was ultimately given an assignment as a falling module that they were not qualified for and without qualified first or second line supervision. During that assignment the crew cut a tree that was outside their falling qualifications, which resulted in the injury of FC1.

Upon arrival to the Incident Command Post on July 23, EM reported mechanical problems with the engine that required CAPT to drive the vehicle into Redding, California for warranty service. EM-CAPT stayed at ICP and on July 24, were given a logistical assignment in camp. On July 25, while CAPT was attempting to obtain a replacement engine from Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, EM-CAPT were given an assignment as a falling module to Division B on the Eagle Fire. The assignment was to mitigate hazard trees along the fire line, so crews could safely work in the area. At approximately 1350, FC2 called ICP for medical assistance for severely injured FC1. Emergency medical personnel responded and treated the injured FC1 for severe bleeding. Due to heavy smoke conditions requiring Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) capability, primary helicopter resources were unable to respond to FC1’s location. Firefighters carried FC1, by litter, to a location where FC1 was hoisted into a United States Coast Guard Helicopter, at approximately 1630. The USCG helicopter carrying FC1 arrived at Redding Municipal Airport, where FLN, in consultation with a Mercy Hospital Emergency Room Physician, pronounced FC1’s death at 1710. The Coroner later determined the cause of death to be blood loss due to blunt force trauma to FC1’s left leg.

The report includes this statement on the page before the executive summary:

SAIT Disclaimer

Based on all evidence available to the SAIT, we know that FC1 was injured from being struck by a tree during a felling operation. From the time of the accident, until the preparing of this report, no individual member of EM-CAPT could be positively identified, nor excluded from being the sawyer at the time of the accident.

Evidence collected by the SAIT included 54 manual and electronic time-stamped documents. These documents were collected from multiple entities, in three different counties. Comparing documents that logged the same event, the SAIT noted time stamps often varied by 5 to 10 minutes.

“SAIT” is the Serious Accident Investigation Team.

Page 87 of the report includes this information:

Technical Assessment of Accident Site

Due to the lack of eye-witness accounts, a number of key facts are unclear; therefore actual events have been pieced together from interview statements and evidence at scene. FC2 and FC3 are the only surviving witnesses to the accident and they have not granted interviews to the Serious Accident Investigation Team. While it is impossible to determine at this time who actually fell Tree 1, it is possible for experienced observers to read the stump, the lay of the felled tree, and the felling area to determine how the felling of Tree 1 set into motion the sequence of events that lead to FC1 being injured.

On page 5 of the report is a description of the accident:

A decision was made to fall a large ponderosa pine (36.7” at the point of the cut). Downslope from the ponderosa pine was a 54” DBH sugar pine that had an uphill lean and a large cat face on the uphill side. When cut, the ponderosa pine fell downslope toward the sugar pine. It was contact with the sugar pine, or vibration from the ponderosa hitting the ground, that caused a portion of the sugar pine, approximately 120 feet long, to break off and fall upslope, hitting FC1 resulting in severe injuries.

The report includes the information that on August 6, 2008 the Serious Accident Investigation Team (SAIT) gave the case file to a National Park Service Special Agent. On August 7 the SAIT was “disengaged” from the “safety investigation” until further notice.

On January 26, 2009 the Federal Prosecutor issued a “Declination of Criminal Charges related to the death of FC1”. In early March the safety investigation resumed. The SAIT completed their report on May 18, 2009.