Report: 27 wildland firefighters killed in China

wildfire killed firefighters china
The deadly wildfire in southwestern China. New China photo.

Early reports are that at least 27 firefighters were killed while fighting a wildfire in China on March 31. The BBC said 30 firefighters died, while the China Xinhau News reported it was 27 firefighters and 3 civilians that perished.

(Update 9:15 a.m. MDT April 2: China’s state new agency Xinhua confirmed Tuesday that 27 firefighters and 3 locals lost their lives.)

From the BBC:

Thirty firefighters have died while tackling a huge forest fire in south-western China, officials say.

Fire crews had been battling the blaze in the mountains of Sichuan province on Sunday when a change in wind direction caused “a huge fireball”, trapping them, the emergency ministry said.

Contact with 30 firefighters was lost. All were confirmed dead on Monday and their bodies were retrieved from the mountain, state TV said.

China Xinhua News had different numbers — 30 killed but 27 of those were firefighters.

An earlier report had the number at 26 firefighters:

The New York Times was not specific about how the numbers broke down:

A forest fire in southwestern China turned deadly over the weekend when winds shifted unexpectedly, trapping firefighters and local officials in a maelstrom. The bodies of 30 people who could not escape were found on Monday, officials announced, even as the fire continued to burn out of control.

Among those who died were the chief of a regional forestry bureau in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, and his deputy, state media reported. The officials had traveled to the scene of the fire, which broke out on Saturday in a remote location at altitudes nearing 13,000 feet, and had not been heard from since.

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

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

Firefighter in Texas killed in helicopter crash

(This article was first published on FireAviation.com)

(UPDATED at 2:16 p.m. MDT March 28, 2019)

The firefighter that died in the Texas helicopter crash on March 27 has been identified by the U.S. Forest Service as Daniel Laird, a Captain on the Tahoe Helitack crew in California. He leaves behind a wife and young daughter.

One source tells us that the other passenger was also a USFS firefighter who was sitting in the front seat when the aircraft went down, but reportedly walked away and was treated and released from a hospital.

Daniel J. Laird firefighter LODD
Daniel J. Laird. Tahoe National Forest photo.

The pilot was also transported to a hospital in stable condition, according to the information reported yesterday by Sergeant Erik Burse with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Below is a letter from the USFS Regional Forester in California:

“You may have already heard from Secretary Perdue and Chief Christiansen that we lost one of our own, Daniel Laird, yesterday, in a helicopter accident while conducting a prescribed burn with our Region 8 partners on the Sam Houston National Forest in Texas. Daniel was 41 years old and leaves behind his wife Heather and daughter Evain.

“Daniel started as a seasonal firefighter on the Tahoe [National Forest] and worked his way up to Helitack Captain. His passion was in aviation, but he was also known for his ability to lead a strike team of engines or a task force of hand crews and heavy equipment. He was a true leader in every sense. He was dedicated to being an instructor and a believer in the apprentice program, where he helped grow people just like himself. Daniel was originally from Graeagle, CA, and committed his working life to the Forest Service. He was extremely knowledgeable about his craft and loved his job. He had an infectious smile, natural physical talent, and his greatest love of all was his family.

“Our Forest Service family is hurting over this tremendous loss. It is an emotional time and Daniel’s loss can impact even the strongest among us. We grieve with Daniel’s immediate family, friends, and community. Please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers. The Region is providing support to the Tahoe and all who need it as they digest this sad news. I will pass more details on arrangements once they become available.

“Please continue to look out for one another and take care of one another.”

Randy Moore
Regional Forester
USFS R5


(UPDATED at 9 a.m. CDT March 28, 2019)

The deceased firefighter was a U.S. Forest Service employee who, along with the other firefighter and the pilot, were on an aerial ignition mission. Their equipment was dropping plastic spheres that burst into flame after hitting the ground, helping to ignite the prescribed fire. No names have been released.


(Originally published at 7:20 p.m. CDT March 27, 2019)

One firefighter was killed in the crash of a helicopter today while working on a prescribed fire in the Sam Houston National Forest about 30 miles southeast of College Station, Texas south of Highway 149.

Sergeant Erik Burse with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the Eurocopter AS350 went down at about 2 p.m. with three people on board, a pilot and two firefighters. One of the firefighters was deceased on scene. The pilot and a second firefighter were transported to a hospital in stable condition after rescuers extracted them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.

map helicopter crash sam houston national forest
Map showing heat in the Sam Houston National Forest detected by a satellite at 2:38 p.m. CDT March 27, 2019. There is a possibility the heat could have been produced by a prescribed fire.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of the firefighter, and we hope for a speedy recovery of the injured personnel.

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

Dozer operator killed on prescribed fire in northwest Florida

The operator was working for a prescribed fire contractor

Gonzalez, Florida prescribed fire Map showing the area around Gonzalez, Florida. The red and yellow dots represent heat detected by a satellite on March 21 and 22, 2019.

A man operating a dozer was killed October 9 while working on a prescribed fire in northwest Florida.

Daryl Bradley Holland, 38, was pronounced dead at the scene of the project that was being conducted east of Gonzalez, Florida about 25 air miles northwest of Eglin Air Force Base, and 12 miles north of Pensacola.

Below is an excerpt from an article at NorthEscambia.com:

“He got off in an attempt to remove a tree or large limb lodged in the tracks,” Maj. Andrew Hobbs said Monday afternoon. “The bulldozer wasn’t all the way out of gear. When it was un-jammed, the bulldozer lurched forward.”

Holland was working for HHH Construction of NWF, which was a subcontractor of Munroe Forest & Wildlife Management on the burn, according to Nathalie Bowers, public information officer for the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority.

The prescribed fire occurred on land administered by the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority (ECUA), a government organization. Their plan, in a March 6 press release, was to conduct the 940-acre burn in the vicinity of the Central Water Reclamation Facility March 7 through March 9.  A “burn-certified contractor” was scheduled to conduct the burn operations as part of ECUA’s management plan for the ecological restoration of forest lands at the site. The property is in the Gonzalez community mostly south of Becks Lake Road, west of the Escambia River.

The map at the top of this article shows heat detected by a satellite in the area described on March 21 and 22.  Heat from the burn operation March 7 through 9 would not show up on the map.

Below is an announcement about the project the ECUA posted on Facebook on March 6.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of Mr. Holland.

ECUA prescribed fire announcement

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

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)