Report released on fatality of Oklahoma grader operator

grader Jack Osben wildfire fatality
The grader that Jack Osben was operating. Photo taken two days after the burnover. From the FLA.

The Wildland fire Lessons Learned Center has released a Facilitated Learning Analysis on the fatality of Jack Osben, the grader operator who was burned over while working on the Shaw Fire in Western Oklahoma April 12, 2018. The tragedy occurred during extreme conditions — extended drought, 100 degrees, 5 percent relative humidity, 45 mph winds, and the fire was burning in thick grass that had not been grazed or hayed in seven to eight years.

The executive summary is below. The entire document can be downloaded (4 MB file).


*Except for Jack Osben, all names are pseudonyms

On April 12th, 2018, 61-year-old Jack Osben, a motor grader operator for Roger Mills County in Oklahoma and volunteer firefighter died as a result of thermal burns while providing initial attack to the Shaw Fire. The wildfire grew to approximately 3,500 acres in a mixture of grass and shrubs during a Red Flag Warning day. The employees of Roger Mills County were in a state of readiness due to a mixture of prolonged drought, extreme heat, and gusting winds that had created extremely dangerous wildfire conditions.

Shaw Fire grader fatality
The Shaw Fire, as seen from a grader approaching the fire. From the FLA.

Jack was performing progressive line construction using a motor grader on the Shaw Fire. While he had been working as a grader operator for a few years, he had limited experience using the grader related to fire suppression activities. Between 1400-1430 hours Jack met up and began working with Alex, a fellow grader operator who had more than two decades of experience fighting fire.

Although they entered the field at different locations, they converged almost immediately. Alex instructed Jack to fall in line behind him to improve the initial grader line. After working together to establish line for about 4,000 feet, Alex lost sight of Jack’s grader in the smoke and flames, which had grown significantly and shifted directions quickly.

Due to the fire’s shift in direction, Alex was forced to abandon his grader. He began to walk toward a nearby road when he spotted Jack, who was also on foot emerging from the smoke. They spoke briefly when they met. Alex observed that Jack had visible burns to his arms and was possibly suffering from smoke inhalation. The reality was that Jack’s injuries were much worse than they appeared. He died as a result of thermal burns either during transit in the ambulance or right after arriving at the hospital.

This accident took place in Western Oklahoma where the tactical use of motor graders for wildland fire line construction is common. Additionally, there is different emphasis on values at risk, namely that firefighters in Western Oklahoma commonly protect grass for cattle grazing. Other regions may rank grass as a low value-at-risk but it is absolutely a consideration for how people in this region fight fire and manage land1.

This is the first Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) to emerge from the State of Oklahoma. In brief, the FLA process is meant to facilitate learning from unintended outcomes by interviewing people who were involved in the event, and sharing a collective story of their experiences. We also offer lessons learned from those involved and with their help, generate recommendations that may be useful for people within and outside of the region.

For many readers, this analysis will serve as an introduction to a different way of fighting fire with some of these methods appearing unconventional. But, in the words of one of the grader operators, “you make do with what you have.” Even if the methods and context are different, this statement ties together the ethos of wildland firefighters everywhere. It is also important to note that the men and women of Roger Mills County are exceptional at what they do and have an impressive record of doing it safely.

Pilot killed while working on wildfire in South Africa

(This article first appeared on Fire Aviation)

Nico Heyns
Nico Heyns. Photo by Christopher Scott.

A helicopter pilot died in a crash October 23 while helping firefighters extinguish a wildfire in South Africa.

Nico Heyns, 65, was flying a Huey owned by Kishuga Aviation that was under contract to the firefighting agency Working On Fire.

The accident occurred the Vermaaklikheid area, about 40km from Riversdale, around 9:50 a.m.

Mr. Heyns was supposed to be off duty that day but interrupted his leave to help with the fire. The cause of the crash has not been determined.

Police spokesperson Captain Malcolm Pojie said, “Police had to arrange for the speedy removal of the body to save it from the fire that was engulfing the area.”

Mr. Heyns, a veteran pilot with more than 20 years experience, formerly owned Heyns Helicopter Service and was well known in the aviation community.

Our sincere condolences go out to his family, friends, and co-workers.

Report released about firefighter fatality — trees were broken off during retardant drop

 Draper City, Utah Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett was killed when a low drop uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him

Diagram fatality air tanker drop Green Sheet
Diagram from the Green Sheet.

(Originally published on FireAviation, September 14, 2018. Updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has released what they call a “Green Sheet” report about the fatality and injuries that were caused by falling tree debris resulting from an air tanker’s retardant drop. The accident occurred on the Ranch Fire which was part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California. The report was uploaded to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center on September 13, 2018 exactly one month after the August 13 accident.

A firefighter from Utah, Draper City Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, was killed when a low drop uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him. Three other firefighters had different assortments of injuries from sheered-off trees and limbs, including broken ribs, deep muscle contusions, ligament damage to extremities, scratches, and abrasions.

747 supertanker palmer fire
File photo: The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission.

Standard procedure is for firefighters to leave an area before an air tanker drops. The report said the personnel on that Division were told twice that day to not be under drops — once in a morning Division break-out briefing, and again on the radio before the fatal drop and three others from large air tankers were made in the area. It was not confirmed that all supervisors heard the order on the radio to evacuate the drop area.

One of the “Incidental Issues / Lessons Learned” in the report mentioned that some firefighters like to record video of air tanker drops:

Fireline personnel have used their cell phones to video the aerial retardant drops. The focus on recording the retardant drops on video may distract firefighters. This activity may impair their ability to recognize the hazards and take appropriate evasive action possibly reducing or eliminating injuries.

The air tanker that made the drop was T-944, a 747-400 that can carry up to 19,200 gallons. Instead of a more conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery system, the aircraft has pressurized equipment that forces the retardant out of the tanks using compressed air. This is similar to the MAFFS air tankers. When a drop is made from the recommended height the retardant hits the ground as a mist, falling vertically, rather than the larger droplets you see with a gravity tank.

In this case, according to the report, the drop was made from approximately 100 feet above the tree tops. The report stated:

The Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) identified the drop path to the VLAT by use of a smoke trail. The VLAT initiated the retardant drop as identified by the smoke trail. Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the VLAT pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path. This rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site.

When a drop is made from a very low altitude with any air tanker, the retardant is still moving forward almost as fast as the aircraft, as seen in this drop. If it is still moving forward there will be “shadows” that are free of retardant on the back side of vegetation, reducing the effectiveness of the drop. From a proper height retardant will gradually slow from air resistance, move in an arc and ideally will be falling gently straight down before it hits the ground. Another example of a low drop was on the Liberty Fire in Southern California in 2017 that dislodged dozens of ceramic roofing tiles on a residence and blew out several windows allowing a great deal of retardant to enter the home.

We reached out with some questions to Global Supertanker, the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, and they gave us this statement:

We’re heartbroken for the families, friends and colleagues of Chief Burchett and the other brave firefighters who were injured during their recent work on the Mendocino Complex Fire. As proud members of the wildland firefighting community, we, too, have lost a brother.

On August 13, 2018, Global SuperTanker Services, LLC acted within procedural and operational parameters. The subject drop was initiated at the location requested by the Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) after Global SuperTanker Services, LLC was advised that the line was clear.

The former President and CEO of the company, Jim Wheeler, no longer works there as of September 1, 2018. The company is owned by Alterna Capital Partners LLC, of Wilton, Conn.

(Updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018 to include the statement from Global Supertanker that we received at 7:35 p.m. MDT September 14, 2018)

Dozer operator killed in vehicle accident in California

He was driving to the North Fire on I-80

Tuesday morning September 11 at about 5:45 a.m., Antonio (Tony) Flores 37, an employee of Kent Siller Trucking, was involved in a fatal vehicle accident on Interstate 80 near Blue Canyon, California between Sacramento and Reno. Mr. Flores was assigned to the North Fire as a private contractor operating a bulldozer. He was driving to the incident command post at the Blue Canyon Airport.

Incident Commander Curtis Coots said that the personnel working on the North Fire are deeply saddened by the death of a fellow firefighter. “This has been an extremely tough fire season for our firefighters both physically and emotionally”, Mr. coots said.

Mr. Flores is survived by his wife of 18 years and four children, ranging in ages from 9 to 16 years old. He is a lifelong resident of the Yuba City area.

He has worked for Kent Siller Trucking for more than 20 years as a master mechanic and heavy equipment operator.

The cause of the accident is under investigation by the California Highway Patrol and the Placer County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office.

Since it started September 3 the North Fire has burned 1,120 acres nine miles northeast of Alta, Calif. It has not grown in the last 24 hours and will transition back to the local unit today, September 12.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Flores’ family, friends, and co-workers.

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

Pneumonia and other hazards on the fireline

White Draw Fire, South Dakota
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June, 2012.

(UPDATED at 4:24 p.m. PDT September 5, 2018)

The U.S. Fire Administration has designated the death of Erick Aarseth a line of duty death (LODD). The agency posted a notice on their web site that indicates Mr. Aarseth was released from the Horns Mountain Fire at 6 p.m. on August 27. The next day he was found unconscious in his apartment.

From the US Fire Administration:

“Firefighter II Eric Aarseth worked the Horns Mountain Fire in Washington on August 27 and was released at 6:00 p.m.  On August 28, Aarseth was found unresponsive at his home in Oregon. Reports indicate that Aarseth developed pneumonia which became septic. Aarseth was treated at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield, Oregon, but was taken off life support on September 3 after suffering irreversible damage to his organs. Aarseth passed away early the following morning on September 4.

“Incident Location: Horns Mountain Fire near Northport, Washington (U.S. National Grid: 11U MQ 42732 18414 (DD: 48.916, -117.782))

“Department information
Miller Timber Services
PO Box 638
24745 Alsea Hwy.
Philomath, Oregon 97370

“Chief: President Lee Miller”


(Originally published at 12:59 p.m. PDT September 4, 2018)

Yesterday, September 3, 20-year-old Eric Aarseth passed away after he was found unconscious the day after he returned from a fire assignment.

His family said he returned home from the fire Monday August 27 and the next day was found unconscious in his apartment suffering from pneumonia. He was taken to a hospital but never woke up. KGW8 reported that he had vomited, obstructed his airway and developed sepsis. When it was discovered he was brain dead the family made the difficult decision to turn off the life support. He passed away Monday September 3.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that the incubation period of pneumococcal pneumonia is about 1 to 3 days. This makes it possible, or even likely, that Mr. Arseth was exposed to the conditions that led to the disease while still on the fire assignment or in travel status.  This could be a line of duty death, an LODD.

Mr. Aarseth was a member of a contractor’s hand crew fighting the Horns Mountain Fire in southern Washington. In July their crew was on the Garner Complex of Fires in southern Oregon.

Working on a hand crew is very hard work. It often means inadequate sleep, nutrition, and hygiene. An ongoing study of smokejumpers found that over the course of a season they lost muscle mass, added fat, their weight remained about the same, and often had impaired reaction time. A study we wrote about in February found firefighters’ exposure to smoke increases their disease risk. Depending on the type of work performed and the number of years of exposure, the increased risk can be 22 to 39 percent.

Wildland firefighters have enough to worry about from the fire itself, avoiding dangerous situations that could lead to being overrun by the fire, hit by a falling tree or rock, cut by a chain saw, exposed to toxic smoke, or being in a vehicle or helicopter accident. Trying to prevent something you can’t see that apparently can kill you in a matter of hours or days, like sepsis and pneumonia, is scarier than all of the above.

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

Oregon firefighter dies after returning from a fire

20-year-old Eric Aarseth passed away Monday, September 3, 2018.

Below is an excerpt from an article at KEZI.com posted September 3, 2018:


Springfield, Ore. — A Eugene wildland firefighter has died after he suffered irreversible brain damage after contracting pneumonia, which became septic.

The family of 20-year-old Eric Aarseth tells ABC News just a day after he came home last Monday [August 27] he was found unconscious in his apartment. Eric was taken to PeaceHealth Riverbend Hospital in Springfield. Eric’s family said they’ve made the difficult choice to take him off life support.

Kellie Mathews, a spokesperson for Miller Timber services, tells KEZI 9 Eric passed away Monday afternoon [September 3, 2018].

Eric worked for Miller Timber Service. Mathews said this was Eric’s first year as a firefighter and he battled the Garner Complex Fire in southern Oregon and the Horns Mountain Fire in Washington.

“We’re heartbroken for the family and friends of our firefighter, Eric Aarseth,” said Lee Miller, President of Miller Timber Services in a statement. “It’s devastating to lose any member of our team and Eric seemed to have found his passion and purpose on the fire line.”

“We take our responsibility to our firefighters seriously and I’m confident we did our best for Eric,” Miller said. “In order to ensure we continue to take good care of our employees, we plan to review our training and support materials, fire line resources, and protocols.”

(end of excerpt)


We send our sincere condolences to the friends, family, and co-workers of Mr. Aarseth.