Officials still investigating cause of death on prescribed fire in South Carolina

Angela (Nicole) Chadwick-Hawkins was killed

Nicole Hawkins
Nicole Hawkins, the wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson’s Directorate of Public Works Environmental Department, sets up an artificial cavity box 20 feet up in a tree at Fort Jackson Nov. 6, 2015 in preparation for a soon-to-be arriving endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. (U.S. Army photo by Jennifer Stride/Released)

Officials from three agencies have not released much information on what caused the death of wildlife biologist Angela (Nicole) Chadwick-Hawkins while she was working on a prescribed fire at Fort Jackson Army Base in South Carolina Wednesday, May 22.

Below is an excerpt from an article published June 11 at The State:

…Three federal agencies investigating her death aren’t saying much about the cause, but information her family has received from the Army and others knowledgeable about the death suggests some kind of equipment malfunction led to the fatality that stunned friends from Alabama to Virginia, family members say.

Chadwick-Hawkins’ son, Dakota Bryant of Myrtle Beach, said fuel was found on her upper body and on equipment she was using that day. A charred all-terrain vehicle sat near her body and a gas cap was missing from a fuel tank, family members said. The Alabama native had been in contact with base officials by radio, just before she died, they said.

“I don’t know definitely that it was an equipment malfunction, but it is likely based on the fact that there was fuel found on her gear,’’ the 24-year-old Bryant said, noting that fuel on her gear “was not normal.’’

She had worked as a civilian at the base since 2007, with much of her time spent in helping to bring back an endangered species, the red-cockaded woodpecker. One of the techniques used to improve the bird’s habitat was the use of prescribed fire.

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

Wildlife biologist dies at prescribed fire at Fort Jackson, South Carolina

Angela (Nicole) Hawkins of Columbia, SC was 45

Nicole Hawkins
Nicole Hawkins, the wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson sets up an artificial cavity box 20 feet up in a tree at the base November 6, 2015 in preparation for a soon-to-be arriving endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. (U.S. Army photo by Jennifer Stride/Released)

A wildlife biologist died at a prescribed fire at Fort Jackson Army Base in South Carolina Wednesday, May 22.  Angela N. Hawkins, 45, of Columbia, who many knew as Nicole, died shortly after noon in a training area where the prescribed fire was taking place. The Army did not release details of the circumstances, or if the death of the mother to two pre-teen sons was directly related to the prescribed fire.

She had worked as a civilian at the base since 2007, with much of her time spent in helping to bring back an endangered species, the red-cockaded woodpecker. One of the techniques used to improve the bird’s habitat was the use of prescribed fire.

The Soldiers, civilians and family members at Fort Jackson are a close-knit family and those who worked with Nicole are deeply saddened. “She will be missed and our thoughts and prayers go out to her family,” said U.S. Army Training Center and Fort Jackson Commander Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle, Jr.

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

Below is an excerpt from an article by Elyssa Vondra (Jackson) last November about Ms. Hawkins’ work at the base:


…The [red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW)] population was officially considered “endangered” in 1970 and won the protection of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Fort Jackson has since made conservation efforts. The Wildlife Branch of the Directorate of Public Works has built up the RCW’s ecosystem.

Nicole Hawkins
Nicole Hawkins, the wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson enters GPS coordinates for a clearly marked tree on the base, designated as a potential home for a newly arriving endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, Nov. 6, 2015. (U.S. Army photo by Jennifer Stride/Released)

This woodpecker’s primary habitat is the longleaf pine ecosystem. Roughly 97% of it has been destroyed in the U.S. by advancements such as settlement, timber harvesting, urbanization and agriculture. Also, 6,801 acres of longleaf pine have been restored at Fort Jackson since 1994.

Installation biologists are using herbicides to convert some slash pine forests to longleaf pine forests and keeping underbrush low to improve the bird’s habitats.

On average, over the past five years, 11,819 acres have been burned on post annually, along with 2,388 thinned.

“It creates a habitat (RCWs) prefer,” said Nicole Hawkins, a wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson. It allows for open park lighting.

One side effect is increased vegetation that RCWs thrive under, she added. Artificial cavities — RCW homes — have also driven up the population count.

Left to their own devices, RCWs can spend as many as ten years making a single cavity. Humans can craft one in 45 minutes.

The Habitat Management Unit at Fort Jackson makes up 26,645 of the installation’s total 51,316 acres, excluding 8,787 for mission requirements. Of them, only 391 total acres, distributed throughout the installation, carry training restrictions related to the species. The acreage is broken down into small sections. Trees with cavities have a 200-foot buffer zone around them where limitations apply.

“That’s very minimal,” Hawkins said. Some training can still take place, provided it doesn’t last more than two hours.

Some installations have been able to entirely remove training restrictions because of population stabilization. Within the next year or two, a review of post policies could potentially allow for change here, too, Hawkins said.

That would benefit the training mission, Morrow said.

With restrictions lifted, “the bird will be invisible to the Soldier, essentially,” Morrow said.

The Army would have more flexibility. For instance, a new range could potentially be built in RCW territory, if necessary.

The 2018 nesting season was the best on the books, according to many measures. There was a 7 percent uptick in active clusters, groups of trees with inhabited cavities, in the past year — from 41 to 44. An increase of just 5 percent was the goal. There were 41 potential breeding groups, RCW gatherings with at least one fertile male and female — an 8 percent rise — among them. Thirty-seven reportedly attempted nesting, 150 eggs were laid — 125 was the former record — and more than 80 hatched. Seventy-two were banded for tracking purposes. At 7-10 days old, some baby birds have uniquely-colored bands placed on their legs. It allows them to be seen with spotting scopes and be individually identified.

This year’s statistics represent record highs.


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

Iron 44 tragedy — former VP of Carson helicopters disputes restitution ordered

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 helicopter crash

Carson helicoptersThe former Vice President of Carson Helicopters is disputing a court order to pay $51 million in restitution related to his role in falsifying documents prior to the crash of a helicopter on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 but he now claims he was not aware of the requirement to pay restitution.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune:

[Metheny] says he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty had he known he’d have to pay a restitution of more than $51 million, according to documents filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Medford.

Metheny claims that his defense lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t have to pay any damages because by June 2013, Carson’s contract “was canceled and never re-bid” and “the resultant cost and subsequent loss would equal zero dollars,” according to an affidavit Metheny typed from Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc and filed in court May 7.

Metheny claims he was “repeatedly promised” ahead of his sentencing that the loss amount would be “zero dollars.”

Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire in 2008. Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

More information about the fraud and the sentencing hearing of Metheny and Phillips.

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

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.

Plane crash kills three while mapping fires in B.C.

A small plane checking a fire that burned last year crashed in British Columbia Saturday May 4 killing three occupants. The pilot of the single engine Cessna 182 and two passengers died in the accident while one passenger survived and is being treated after being flown to a Vancouver hospital by a Joint Rescue Coordination Centre helicopter.

Precision Vectors was under contract to the British Columbia Wildfire Service to use airborne infrared equipment to check fires from 2018 for residual holdover heat that persisted through the winter. Two of the deceased have been identified, both affiliated with the company — Lorne Borgal the CEO and founder of Precision Vectors, and Amir Ilya Sedghi who provided data analysis.

The Transportation Safety Board confirmed that the aircraft went down about 57 miles north of Smithers, B.C.

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

Arkansas firefighter who had heart attack while responding, passes away

Michael Watkins
Michael Watkins. Northeast Lakeside FD photo.

The U.S. Fire Administration has received notice of a firefighter fatality:

Michael Watkins
Driver/Engineer
Northeast Lakeside Fire Department
Mountain Home, Arkansas

On April 21, 2019, Driver/Engineer Michael Watkins was responding to a brush fire when he suffered a heart attack. He was immediately taken to the hospital where he passed away on April 24, 2019 at the age of 75. He had been a firefighter for 5 years.

A celebration of Mr. Watkins’ life will be held May 4 at First United Methodist Church, 605 W 6th St, Mountain Home, Arkansas.

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