OSHA reveals more about the fatality on the Fort Jackson prescribed fire

Wildfire Today obtained the information through a FOIA request

Nicole Hawkins
Nicole Hawkins, the wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson’s Directorate of Public Works Environmental Department, Wildlife Branch, checked an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and prepared to put him in the hand-made artificial cavity box 20 feet up in a tree at Fort Jackson Nov. 6, 2015. The bird was relocated from Shaw Air Force Base. (U.S. Army file photo by Jennifer Stride/Released)

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Wildfire Today has produced more information about the death of Nicole Hawkins, a wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson in South Carolina who died while working on a prescribed fire at the Army base May 22, 2019. 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 is the use of prescribed fire. She was 45 at the time and the mother of two pre-teen sons.

The FOIA was filed with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), one of five entities investigating the fatality.

OSHA determined that Ms. Hawkins was a member of a six-person squad conducting the prescribed fire that day. The others were from the Department of Defense and contractors from Whitetail Environmental, LLC.

After a 10 a.m. briefing followed by a successful test burn they began ignition at 10:30 a.m. OSHA’s information reports that at that time the skies were fair, the temperature was 90 degrees, and there was a 5 mph wind out of the southeast. At noon a weather station at Congaree, SC about 10 miles to the southeast recorded 91 degrees, 55 percent relative humidity, winds  out of the west at 1 mph gusting to 7 mph, and fuel temperature of 108 degrees.

Ms. Hawkins was operating a Yamaha All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) equipped with a “power torch” made by Hayes Manufacturing. ATV torches are commonly used for igniting prescribed fires and burnouts on  wildfires. They pump a small stream of a diesel/gasoline mixture through a nozzle where it is ignited. The fuel lands on the ground while still burning and ignites vegetation. The NWCG Standards for Ground Ignition Equipment (Feb. 2019) lists Hayes Manufacturing as one of five sources for ATV torches.

ATV torch
File photo. Example of an ATV torch used by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It  may have been manufactured by a different company than the one being used at Fort Jackson. USFWS photo.

Most of the time Ms. Hawkins was paired with another worker. But occasionally on prescribed fires on the base one member would go off out of sight to do something quick and come right back.

Ms. Hawkins said over the radio that she was going to light around one of the red-cockaded woodpecker cavity trees and would be right back. It is not clear what time she said that, but at 11:30 a.m. the others knew she was working on that task and “all were in communication with each other for the next few minutes”, according to the information from OSHA.

At 12:14 p.m. she came on the radio and stated she was heading out of the burn area. One of the other firefighters parked his truck on the route she would be taking to wait for her.

At 12:23 p.m. the  firefighters noticed a column of black smoke which was different from the white smoke normally produced by the prescribed fire. At 12:28 p.m. Ms. Hawkins did not respond to radio calls.

One of the workers found Ms. Hawkins on the ground next to her ATV, which were both on fire. She was presumed dead, according to OSHA. The period in which she last contacted anyone on the radio until the discovery of her body was 13 minutes. The dark smoke was seen 8 minutes after her last communication.

OSHA did not determine what caused the accident. A preliminary  autopsy performed on May 23, 2019 by the Armed Forces Medical  Examiner revealed no signs of trauma other than the injuries sustained from the fire. Their report also stated that they would not determine a cause and manner of death until receiving the toxicology results. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division found no criminal activity associated with the fatality.

The  radios the firefighters carried on chest harnesses had “man down” buttons which when pressed and held for two seconds would notify the Fort Jackson Fire Department that there was an emergency and it would provide the location from an internal GPS receiver. However the “man down” system had been deactivated for several weeks after several false alarms. Following the fatality it was turned back on, an action that was recommended by OSHA.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also investigating the incident. It is likely that they will thoroughly look into the  cause of the fire that engulfed Ms. Hawkins and the ATV, to determine if she was entrapped and overcome by the spread of the prescribed fire, or if there was an incident related to the ATV torch.

OSHA found that the fuel mix used by Fort Jackson personnel that day was 50/50, gasoline/diesel.

In 2002 the National Wildfire Coordinating  Group sent a message to the field after a firefighter was burned when flames erupted after removing the spout assembly from a drip torch that had just been extinguished. It contained approximately 35% gasoline and 65% diesel or 1 gallon of gasoline for every 1.9 gallons of diesel. In the message written by Wesley Throop, a Mechanical Engineer at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center, he stated:

The most volatile mixture authorized by the agency is 1 gallon of gasoline to 3 gallons of diesel. Use of this mixture carries the following warning the agency’s health and safety handbook: “Caution: 1 gallon of gasoline to 3 gallons of diesel fuel produces a very volatile mixture. This mix should be used only in appropriate fuel types and during periods of high humidity.”

The U.S. Fish  & Wildlife service’s Standard Operating Procedure for the Mountain Prairie  Area states: “The correct fuel mixture for the refuge’s ATV mounted torch is 1 part gasoline and 3 parts diesel fuel.”

An article written by Amanda Stamper for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center published on March 14, 2017 also addresses the drip torch fuel mix.

More diesel than gasoline is perhaps the only cardinal rule when it comes to mix ratio, with somewhere between 3:1 and 4:1 [diesel to gas] being the most common.

On October 18 OSHA issued a Notice of Unsafe and Unhealthful Working Conditions to Fort Jackson. It stated that the Army base did not furnish “a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm, in that employees were exposed to burn hazards associated with control burning of forest vegetation.” And, on the day of the fatality Fort Jackson failed to ensure that employees “were protected from fire hazards while igniting or controlling the burn areas.”

OSHA suggested that Fort Jackson develop a mandatory procedure for igniting burns that includes use of a tracking system so that employees could be easily located.

OSHA finds “serious violations” concerning fatality during prescribed fire in South Carolina

The agency stated, the Army did not furnish “a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm”

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)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, found what the agency called “serious violations” after investigating the death of a wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson Army Base in South Carolina.

Angela (Nicole) Chadwick-Hawkins was killed while she was working on a prescribed fire at Fort Jackson May 22, 2019. Little information about the fatality has been released by the Army such as the mechanism of injury or cause of death. Family members have said she was found with fuel on her body near a burned all terrain vehicle that she had been operating.

ATVs are often used on prescribed fires for transportation, to haul supplies, or as a platform for an ignition device.

Eric Lucero, a Public Affairs Specialist with the Department of Labor, said OSHA’s Violation Notice stated that Fort Jackson did not furnish “a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm, in that employees were exposed to burn hazards associated with control burning of forest vegetation.” And, on the day of the fatality Fort Jackson failed to ensure that employees “were protected from fire hazards while igniting or controlling the burn areas.”

OSHA suggested that Fort Jackson develop a mandatory procedure for igniting burns that includes use of a tracking system so that employees could be easily located.

OSHA did not impose a monetary fine on Fort Jackson or the Army but they required that the violations be abated by November 14, 2019. A person outside of OSHA who is familiar with the incident told us the violations have been abated.

In addition to OSHA, at least four other entities have been conducting investigations about the fatality, including:

  1. An internal Fort Jackson inquiry,
  2. Army Criminal Investigations Division (CID). (The CID automatically investigates most fatalities on Army bases, so their involvement does not necessarily mean criminal activity was suspected.)
  3. Army Safety Office, and
  4. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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

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

Alabama firefighter killed while responding to brush fire

Michale Johnston was a member of the Equality Volunteer Fire Department

Michael Johnston Equality Volunteer Fire Department killed
Michael Johnston of the Equality Volunteer Fire Department was killed in a water tender rollover October 18 in Alabama.

Michale Johnston of the Equality Volunteer Fire Department was killed October 18 in a single vehicle rollover while responding to a brush fire. The Coosa County Sheriff’s Office said EMS and Deputies arrived at the scene within minutes and later reported that Mr. Johnson died after the accident.

Mr. Johnston, 45, was driving the 2004 GMC water tender when it overturned at 3:25 p.m. while en route to a fire in the Speed Community south of Rockford, Alabama. He was ejected from the truck in the single-vehicle crash on Coosa County Road 14.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Johnston’s family, friends, and colleagues.

Attempting to redefine the common denominators of tragedy fires

“A Classification of US Wildland Firefighter Entrapments Based on Coincident Fuels, Weather, and Topography”

Above: Figure 1 from the research paper. Distribution of 166 US wildland firefighter entrapments that occurred within CONUS (1981–2017) by time of day (local time) and month of the year.

On October 9, 2019 a document was published that summarized the work of four researchers who sought to find commonalities that led to the entrapments of firefighters on wildland fires. The paper is titled, “A Classification of US Wildland Firefighter Entrapments Based on Coincident Fuels, Weather, and Topography.” Apparently they were hoping to confirm, fine tune, revise, or update the “Common Denominators of Fire Behavior on Tragedy Fires” defined by Carl C. Wilson after the 1976 Battlement Creek Fire where three firefighters were killed near Parachute, Colorado.

Mr. Wilson developed two lists, one with four items and another with five. Here is the five-item list:

  1. Most of the incidents occurred on relatively small fires or isolated sectors of larger fires.
  2. Most of the fires were innocent in appearance prior to the “flare-ups” or “blow-ups”. In some cases, the fatalities occurred in the mop-up stage.
  3. Flare-ups occurred in deceptively light fuels.
  4. Fires ran uphill in chimneys, gullies, or on steep slopes.
  5. Suppression tools, such as helicopters or air tankers, can adversely modify fire behavior. (Helicopter and air tanker vortices have been known to cause flare-ups.)”

The four more recent researchers conducted an analysis of the environmental conditions at the times and locations of 166 firefighter entrapments involving 1,202 people and 117 fatalities that occurred between 1981 and 2017 in the conterminous United States. They identified one characteristic that was common for 91 percent of the entrapments — high fire danger — specifically, when the Energy Release Component and Burning Index are both above their historical 80th percentile.

They also generated an update of the time of day the entrapments occurred as seen in the figure at the top of this article. This has been done before, but it’s worthwhile to get an update. And, this version includes the month.

You can read the entire open access article here. If you’re thinking of quickly skimming it, the 7,000 words and the dozens of abbreviations and acronyms make that a challenge. There is no appendix which lists and defines the abbreviations and acronyms.

The authors of the paper are Wesley G. Page, Patrick H. Freeborn, Bret W. Butler, and W. Matt Jolly.

Below are excerpts from their research:


…Given the findings of this study and previously published firefighter safety guidelines, we have identified a few key practical implications for wildland firefighters:

  1. The fire environment conditions or subsequent fire behavior, particularly rate of spread, at the time of the entrapment does not need to be extreme or unusual for an entrapment to occur; it only needs to be unexpected in the sense that the firefighters involved did not anticipate or could not adapt to the observed fire behavior in enough time to reach an adequate safety zone;
  2. The site and regional-specific environmental conditions at the time and location of the entrapment are important; in other words, the set of environmental conditions common to firefighter entrapments in one region do not necessarily translate to other locations;
  3. As noted by several authors, human factors or human behavior are a critical component of firefighter entrapments, so much so that while an analysis of the common environmental conditions associated with entrapments will yield a better understanding of the conditions that increase the likelihood of an entrapment, it will not produce models or define characteristics that predict where and when entrapments are likely to occur.

[…]

The one characteristic that was common for the majority of entrapments (~91%) was high fire danger. As a general guideline, regardless of location, the data suggest that entrapment potential is highest when the fire danger indices (ERC’ and BI’) are both above their historical 80th percentile. Until recently, spatially-explicit information on fire danger has not been widely available as most firefighters have relied on fire danger information available at specific weather stations, which are often summarized into Pocket Cards [83]. Fortunately, fire danger forecasts across CONUS are now available in a mobile-friendly format (see https://m.wfas.net) that can be displayed spatially for each of the fire danger indices separately or combined into a Severe Fire Danger Index.

[…]

Conclusions

The times and locations where wildland firefighter entrapments occur in the US cover a wide range of conditions. Current firefighter safety guidelines seem to emphasize only a subset of the possible conditions due to a focus on the factors that maximize the potential for extreme fire behavior. While many of these safety guidelines are still intuitively valid, caution should be exercised during relevant firefighter training so as to not ignore or undermine the fact that entrapments and fatalities are possible under a much wider range of conditions.

Despite the wide range of environmental conditions associated with entrapments, we have shown that it is possible to identify unique combinations of environmental variables to define similarities among groups of entrapments, but these will necessarily be context and site specific. For most entrapments, the only common environmental condition was high fire danger, as represented by fire danger indices that have been normalized to represent the historical percentile at a particular location. As such, at large spatial scales, fire danger and its association with fire weather should continue to be monitored and reported to firefighters using both traditional methods (i.e., morning fire weather forecasts) and also newer methods that take advantage of advancements in mobile technology.

Firefighter injured last month passes away in hospital

Christian Johnson, 55, was severely burned on the Spring Coulee Fire in Washington

Christian Johnson
Christian Johnson, Assistant Chief of the Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department.

A firefighter who received second and third degree burns over 60 percent of his body September 1, 2019 while battling the Spring Coulee Fire in Okanogan County, Washington passed away yesterday, October 2, 2019. Christian Dean Johnson, 55, of Okanogan was surrounded by his wife Pam, family, and friends at Harborview Medical Center.

From the GoFundMe page that was created September 3:

Christian has served his country as a sergeant in the Us Army, and was deployed with the Washington State National Guard from November 2003-May 2005 in Baghdad. He retired after 22 years of service and has volunteered for the Okanogan Fire Department for 20 years.

Christian is a selfless man, who is always willing to help those in need, and never ask for anything in return. We are now asking for your help to make this long journey a little easier for him and his family. Any amount of donations are greatly appreciated and will go towards helping his wife (Pam Johnson) with travel, housing, food, etc.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Christian’s family and friends. May he rest in peace.

Autopsy shows CAL FIRE firefighter died of heat exposure

His body temperature was 107.4 degrees

Yaroslav Katkov
Yaroslav Katkov

A CAL FIRE firefighter who died July 28, 2019 in San Diego County died of a heat exposure, reports NBC San Diego.

Yaroslav Katkov, 28, collapsed during his second attempt at a 1.45-mile training hike near the De Luz Fire Station while wearing full gear and carrying 20 to 30 pounds of weights, according to an autopsy.

He was flown in an air ambulance to Temecula Hospital but suffered a two-minute seizure while en route. When he was admitted, his body temperature was 107.4 degrees. Fifteen hours later he was pronounced dead.

CAL FIRE’s preliminary report on the incident, the “Green Sheet”, said the three-person crew began a physical training hike at 8:40 a.m. with the expectation that they would finish within the 30-minute time limit. Mr. Katkov struggled, stopping multiple times, completing the hike in 40 minutes. After a 20-minute break to rehydrate, the Captain had the crew repeat the hike at 9:40 a.m.

NBC San Diego described what occurred on the second hike:

Katkov took more than 20 breaks along the trail which were documented by the captain, the report said. About halfway through the trail, the second firefighter noticed Katkov stumbling and losing his balance. He was told to hike directly behind Katkov and hold onto him so that he didn’t fall off the trail.

As they approached a ridge, the firefighter had to push Katkov’s back to help him get over. Once Katkov did, he fell forward and sat down. Katkov was then told to remove some of his gear so that he could cool down but was unable to, the report said.

More gear was taken off, and water was poured over Katkov’s head. At around 10:38 a.m. when the fire captain noticed Katkov’s mental status declining, he called for an air ambulance rescue.

Cal Fire’s helicopter arrived over Katkov and the crew at approximately 11:19 a.m. and Katkov was hoisted from below, according to the report. About 15 minutes later, the Cal Fire [helicopter] dropped Katkov off at a site where a Mercy air ambulance was waiting to transport Katkov to the hospital.

The second helicopter took off with Katkov inside at around 12:04 p.m., about an hour-and-a-half after the fire captain called for emergency assistance. On the way to the hospital Katkov was unresponsive but breathing, according to the report.

KNTV reported that Mr. Katkov was flown to Temecula Valley Hospital. Google Maps shows it would take an estimated 31 minutes to drive from De Luz Station to Temecula Valley Hospital, part of the time on curvy county roads. Based on that, we can assume it would take no more than 10 minutes for the Mercy air ambulance to arrive at the hospital — at about 12:14 p.m. This was approximately one hour and 36 minutes after the request for extraction by helicopter. Presumably the incident occurred in a remote area inaccessible by ground ambulance. It is likely that the medical crew on the Mercy helicopter began treatment of the patient as soon as he arrived at their location during the 30 minutes before the helicopter took off.

Estimated time line:

10:38 a.m. — Air ambulance rescue requested
11:19 a.m. — CAL FIRE/San Diego Sheriff Dept. helicopter arrives at scene
11:34 a.m. — (Approximate time) The CAL Fire helicopter delivered Mr. Katov to Mercy Air ambulance
12:04 p.m. — Mercy air ambulance departs for Temecula Valley Hospital
12:14 p.m. — (Approximate time) Mercy air ambulance arrives at hospital.

(UPDATE September 28, 2019: here is a link to the CAL FIRE “Green Sheet”.)