Retired Fire Chief killed in Nebraska wildfire

National Incident Management Team mobilized

Updated 8:17 a.m. MDT April 26, 2022

Blackhawk helicopters Road 702 fire Nebraska National Guard
Blackhawk helicopters from the Nebraska National Guard drop water on the Road 702 Fire west of Cambridge. Incident Management Team photo.

Firefighters made good progress Monday on the Road 702 Fire in southwest Nebraska.

Most of the fire impacted grass and crop lands, but there are woody draws which have heavier fuels, especially on Beaver Creek along Highway 89 and near the Republican River south of US 34. Those areas are receiving more attention from firefighters as they are mopping up. Incident Commander Rob Powell said there will be smoke in those draws for a while.

The most recent map produced at 4 p.m. MDT April 25 shows an increase of about 300 acres to bring the total up to 41,448 acres, due to a four mile long finger of fire north of US 34 northeast of Bartley that was not detected during an earlier mapping flight. Fire crews have contained all of the fire north of the highway, including the additional acreage.

The fire started in Kansas on Friday April 22 during a wind event which pushed it north quickly into Nebraska where it continued running. The fire was 27 miles long when firefighters were able to stop it two miles southwest of the Medicine Creek Reservoir.

9:46 a.m. MDT April 25, 2022

Map Road 702 Fire Nebraska
Map of the Road 702 Fire at 1:42 p.m. MDT April 24, 2022.

A retired fire chief died in a Nebraska fire that has burned 41,155 acres in the southwest part of the state. The Road 702 Fire is west of the towns of Cambridge and Wilsonville and has crossed both US 34 and State highway 89. About 1,500 acres of the blaze is in Kansas.

Alyssa Sanders, with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said 66-year-old John P. Trumble, of Arapahoe, was overcome by smoke and fire after his vehicle left the road Friday April 22 during conditions of poor visibility caused by smoke and dust. His body was found early Saturday. He was assisting firefighters by serving as a spotter in Red Willow County.

Road 702 Fire wildfire Nebraska
Road 702 Fire. Nebraska State Patrol drone photo.

Nebraska National Guard has mobilized three helicopters and several support trucks to help battle the fire.

A Type 1 Incident Management Team from the Rocky Mountain Geographic Area led by Incident Commander Dan Dallas assumed command April 24.

Stephanie Shively with the Incident Management Team said Monday morning that the resources on the fire include 9 engines, one 20-person crew, and the 3 National Guard helicopters for a total of about 100 personnel. They have outstanding orders for dozers and another hand crew.

Ms. Shively said the size of the fire has not changed since it was mapped Sunday.

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

Road 702 Fire wildfire Nebraska
Road 702 Fire. Posted April 24, 2022 by Loomis Volunteer Fire & Rescue.
Road 702 Fire wildfire Nebraska
Nebraska Army and Air National Guard firefighters work the edges of a burned area near Hayes Center, Neb., April 24, 2022, to extinguish hot spots and prevent reignition. Photos courtesy of Capt. Joshua Miller.

More photos are below. Continue reading “Retired Fire Chief killed in Nebraska wildfire”

Forest Service releases Eicks Fire smokejumper fatality report

Tim Hart passed away June 2, 2021

Eicks Fire, resources dispatched
Eicks Fire, resources dispatched. (from the report)

On May 24, 2021, Smokejumper Tim Hart was severely injured while parachuting in to the Eicks Fire in southern New Mexico and passed away on June 2. Today the US Forest Service released a “Learning Review — Technical Report”. Until now the only information officially released about the accident was that he suffered a hard landing in rocky terrain at the fire.

The 55-page report gets heavily, necessarily, into smokejumper technical information and jargon, but does a pretty good job of explaining so it is fairly easy for non-jumpers to understand.

The fire was in a very remote area on private land in the boot heel of New Mexico seven miles north of the US-Mexico border. Ground resources on initial attack included a couple of engines that were hours away and eight smokejumpers dispatched from Silver City, NM.

This is how the report describes the moment the hard landing occurred:

With Jumpers 4 and 5 on the ground, attention focused on Tim. He was still 200 yards southeast of the jumpspot and three-quarters of the way up the boulder-strewn ridge south of the bowl. He was flying up drainage 200 to 300 feet above the drainage bottom, hands positioned at quarter-brakes to full run. Those who could see the flight remember him flying in this direction for one to three seconds before the canopy turned 90 degrees to the left towards the center of the drainage. The cause of the 90-degree turn is unknown, as no one witnessed a left toggle input initiating the turn. At approximately 200 feet [above ground level] the canopy increased in speed and “came out of the air super-fast, like he got caught in a burble.” The Jumper in Charge (JIC) turned to Jumper 2, who had a streamer held high as a wind indicator for the other Jumpers, and exclaimed, “Are you seeing this right now?” Tim’s hands were on the toggles, and the JIC thought, “You need to turn, anywhere but where you are on final,” and waited for a turn at the last second. The JIC said he had “never seen an angle of attack on a Ram-Air like that before.” The JIC and Jumper 2, without another word, began running towards where Tim was going to land, calling to him without hearing a response. Tim had landed on the side of the drainage, uphill into “rocks the size of garbage pails.”

Thankfully, four of the seven jumpers assisting Tim were EMTs. He had a head/neck injury, was unconscious, had a weak pulse, and other injuries. The jumpers on the ground called for the trauma bag to be dropped from the jump plane. The EMTs stabilized his head and neck, administered oxygen, and splinted what was described as “secondary injuries.” Within 15 minutes of the patient being ready for transport and the landing zone being established, a medivac helicopter arrived on scene. He was extracted from the site one hour and 15 minutes after the injury.

Tim passed away nine days later.

The report describes how increasingly turbulent winds on the lee side of a ridge resulted in very complex wind patterns at the jump spot. Two subject matter experts, W. Kitto and M. Gerdes, wrote in Appendix D:

The accident pilot flew into an area where the conditions were not only challenging, but most likely intolerable (turbulence in excess of the parachute’s limitations), i.e. any pilot of any skill level on any similar equipment would likely have been unable to prevent a hard landing, due to rotor. Mechanical rotor turbulence alone or combined with thermal turbulence can easily create “unflyable” conditions.

From the report:

“Tim began as a smokejumper rookie in 2016 and was trained on the Forest Service Ram-Air parachute system. He was beginning his sixth season as a smokejumper, with a record of 95 jumps (73 proficiency and 21 fire). In 2021, he was on his third stint as a Silver City, NM, Smokejumper detailer. Tim had two previous fire jumps out of Silver City, one each in 2018 and 2019 on the Gila National Forest. Over that same time period, he had three proficiency jumps out of Silver City, all at the Fort Bayard practice jumpspot, the most recent on May 22, 2021.”

Tim Hart
Tim Hart. USFS photo.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben.

Nebraska Fire Chief killed at a wildland fire

Darren Krull
Darren Krull, Chief of the Elwood Volunteer Fire Department. Nebraska State Patrol photo.

A fire chief was killed in a traffic collision in south-central Nebraska Thursday April 7 at a large wildland fire.

A Ford Expedition, driven by Phelps County Emergency Manager Justin Norris, with passenger Darren Krull, Chief of the Elwood Volunteer Fire Department, was struck head on by a water truck approximately eight miles north of Arapahoe on Highway 283.

The Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) said Chief Krull, 54, of Elwood, was killed at the scene. Norris, 40, of Holdrege, was transported to the hospital in Cambridge with life-threatening injuries. He was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney in stable condition. He was later moved to a hospital in Omaha. Friday morning he was in stable condition.

According to NSP, the driver of the water truck, Andries Van Aswegan, 28, of Arapahoe, was not injured in the crash.

The fire and smoke in the area had created zero-visibility conditions on the roadway at the time of the crash.

wildfire in Nebraska
The wildfire in Nebraska burned about 30,000 acres. Nebraska Emergency Management Agency

The fire, 30 miles long and 5.5 miles wide, burned at least 30,000 acres, 8 homes, and 48 other structures. It started when strong winds blew a tree into a power line.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and co-workers of Chief Krull.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Art, Gerald, Matt, and Tom.

Firefighter fatality on a wildfire north of Lawton, OK

Map King Road Fire
Map showing the location of the King Road Fire.

On Sunday March 20 a firefighter was fatality injured on a fire about 15 miles north of Lawton, Oklahoma. Amy Hawkins, a Public Information Specialist for Comanche County said it occurred at the NE Kings Road and Lake Ellsworth Fire. NE Kings Road is on the west side of Lake Ellsworth approximately 60 air miles southwest of Oklahoma City. Crews were still working at the fire when the information was released around noon on Sunday.

At about 4 p.m. Sunday the fire had burned 190 acres and was being pushed by 20 to 25 mph winds gusting out of the south at 30 mph with humidity of 15 percent. A Red Flag Warning was in effect until 9 p.m..

On Thursday firefighters were battling the 62 Fire that burned a swath about 10 miles long, north of Hwy. 62 and east of Hwy. 183 approximately 23 miles west of Lawton near Indiahoma.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matt.

Helicopter crash kills pilot in Australia

map fire helicopter crash Tasmania
Map showing location of bush fire near Pipers Brook in northeast Tasmania Feb. 14, 2022.

This article was first published at Fire Aviation.

A pilot was killed in Australia February 14 when a helicopter crashed while working on a bush fire southeast of Pipers Brook, Tasmania. The accident was reported to the police and emergency services at about 3:20 p.m. The pilot was the only person on board.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Tasmania Fire Service Acting Deputy Chief Jeff Harper said the northern Tasmanian man was an experienced pilot who had been assisting water-bombing activities as a subcontractor.

Mr. Harper said it was a tragic incident, and that the man had worked on multiple Tasmanian fires in the past.

Firefighting aircraft were grounded after the helicopter crash, and will all be assessed overnight before being deployed again.

The Tasmania Police said the pilot’s next of kin has been notified.

Since it started several days ago the fire has burned 1,660Ha (4,100 acres). Helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, heavy machinery, and firefighters on the ground have been working to control the blaze. A number of forestry plantations have been impacted and one structure has been destroyed.

The ABC reported that the bushfire had resulted from a registered burn that got away from the “very remorseful” owner, and it had been deemed accidental.

The Tasmania Police is asking that anyone with information who may have seen the helicopter near Pipers Brook just before the crash should call Launceston Police on 131444 or report it to Crime Stoppers on 1800333000 or Information can be provided anonymously.

On January 23, 2020 the three crewmembers of an EC-130Q, Air Tanker 134, were killed when the aircraft crashed while working on a fire in New South Wales.

Fire Aviation sends out our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and coworkers of the deceased pilot.

The make and model of the helicopter has not been released.

fire helicopter crash Tasmania

COVID was the leading cause of deaths on wildfires in 2021 according to report

Yet it is is barely mentioned in the annual lessons learned review

Fatalities, wildland fires, 2021
Fatalities, wildland fires, 2021. (The number attributed to vehicle accidents should be 4.)

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) has released their annual review of incidents from last year, 2021.

The 10-page report discusses lessons learned from seven categories of injuries; dozer swamper, entrapment during initial attack, tree strike, entrapment during a burnout operation, crew vehicle rollover, hazard tree removal, and water tender rollover. It also mentioned other injuries — medical, feller-buncher, ATV rollover, drip torch, falling trees, rolling rocks, and dozer.

COVID was the leading cause of deaths on wildland fires in 2021

The LLC report states there were 23 fatalities, Line of Duty Deaths (LODD), connected to wildland fires in 2021. Six of those, 26 percent, were caused by COVID. That word appears twice very briefly in the report — in a chart showing COVID was the leading cause of Line of Duty Deaths on fires, and, in a word cloud showing that “COVID” was the single word mentioned more than any others in LLC incident reports in 2021. Other than that it is missing in the 2021 Incident Review Summary in spite of the six fatalities from the disease. It is not perfectly clear if the four fatalities described as “medical” had any relationship to COVID.

This annual report would have been an excellent opportunity for the LLC to summarize the most important lessons learned from COVID among firefighters over the last year. It could have identified innovative and successful methods for preventing fatalities and life-altering long-COVID, as well as policies that were not effective. It could have included important facts such as how many worker-days were spent in COVID isolation or quarantine on fires, how many firefighters tested positive during their fire and non-fire duties, and how many tested positive and were hospitalized.

If you go to the LLC website, if the database for reports is working and if you can master the search system, a person might find four reports from the summer of 2021 about “clusters” of COVID among hotshot crews, fuels modules, and engine crews. A total of 52 in these four clusters had to be quarantined and 14 tested positive. We summarized them in an August 21, 2021 article. There is no indication that these were the only COVID “clusters” in 2021.

Cameron Peak Fire Colorado smoke
Cameron Peak Fire, from the Estes Park Safeway October 16, 2020. InciWeb.

On the Cameron Peak Fire in 2020 west of Fort Collins, Colorado 76 workers at the fire tested positive for the virus and a total of 273 had to be quarantined at various times over the course of the fire. Two were hospitalized. And this is just at one fire.

I searched the LLC for COVID LODDs, but was disappointed to find there were only very brief boiler-plate firefighter fatality notifications from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). There were no identified lessons learned. I found out last year that in some cases the USFA was not afraid to identify the actual cause if it was COVID, when the federal agencies will sometimes, if they mention a cause at all, will just list it as an “unspecified illness.”

The USFA released the information that Allen Johnson was exposed to COVID-19 on the French Fire in California last year and tested positive along with others. His positive test was on August 24, and he was then placed in isolation at the incident. He was transported to the hospital on Aug. 31, 2021 where he passed away that day. That is not a typo. He died same day he was admitted to the hospital.

Fatality rates for COVID and influenza in the United States

We have all heard people say that COVID is just like the flu, people die from both. According to data from the New York Times retrieved February 9, 2022, 907,500 people in the U.S. have died from COVID, which is about 0.3 percent of the population. With 76,961,143 reported cases, that works out to a fatality rate for the disease of 1.2 percent.

During the 2019-2020 influenza season, the estimated number of deaths in the United States from influenza was approximately 20,000, or 0.06 percent of the population. The estimated number of people in the United States symptomatic of influenza was approximately 20,000,000, which would be a fatality rate for the disease of 0.1 percent. (These influenza statistics are from Wikipedia.)

The United States does a terrible job of accurately tracking COVID testing and fatalities, so these stats should be taken with a grain of salt.

Delays in releasing lessons learned reports

It is taking longer and longer for the US Forest Service to release reports about fatalities and near fatalities.

  • Burnover of 15 firefighters at a fire station on the Dolan Fire: 17 months.
  • Helicopter crash, 1 fatality and 2 serious injuries on a prescribed fire: almost three years.

How is COVID affecting federal firefighters?

I asked the US Forest Service several questions by email about their firefighting forces, including, what percentage of firefighters are vaccinated, how many have been terminated because they are not vaccinated, how many have been hospitalized with COVID, and how many people assigned to fires managed by the FS have tested positive while assigned to the fire and then died from COVID?

The response came from the Forest Service National Press Office. The person who wrote it was not identified. The office refused to disclose any of the numbers requested. “Reporting deaths if an employee dies outside of the workplace is voluntary,” they wrote. “The FS does not track how many employees have been hospitalized.”

Due to a court order, enforcement and disciplinary actions associated with non-compliance with the vaccine mandate for federal employees have been placed on pause. The Department of Justice appealed the preliminary injunction to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it remains in place at this time. The Forest Service said employees who received a proposed suspension were officially notified of the pause. The injunction also pauses the requirement for new employees to provide COVID vaccination documentation prior to onboarding as a condition of employment.

Our take

The Forest Service appears to not be committed enough about workplace safety to even keep track of all of their personnel who are killed due to exposure to COVID while working for the agency. Or if they do keep track, they are lying when they report they don’t have the data. A motive for not caring or for hiding the fatality information is difficult to imagine.

A rational person would think that it is astonishing that Allen Johnson remained in isolation at the incident for eight days after testing positive, and then died the day he was admitted to a hospital. Hopefully an investigation is underway. Lives are at stake. What treatment, if any, did he receive at the fire or in isolation? Was he seen there by a doctor? Has the Medical Unit Leader been interviewed? Where was he isolated — in a tent at the fire, or a motel? What was his condition when he was admitted to the hospital? There were others at the fire who tested positive according to the USFA. What are their stories? I fought fires with Allen, so I would like to know more and how to prevent this from happening to other firefighters. Surely there are many lessons to be learned from this and other COVID-related tragedies.

The Forest Service needs to develop the courage to do the right thing for their people. When a firefighter is entrapped on a fire and injured or killed, a team of at least a half dozen subject matter experts will sometimes, but not always, try to honestly figure out what led to the incident and may develop suggestions for preventing others from suffering the same fate. Why are they scared to do the same for the fire personnel that died from COVID last year? Why are they refusing to be transparent about workplace hazards and their people being hospitalized and killed? What is the upside to the secrecy? What are they afraid of?

Already having severe problems recruiting and retaining employees, this type of uncaring management can only make it worse.

If the Forest Service refuses to conduct and release an honest investigation into the line of duty death of Allen Johnson, the chain of command from the Region 5 Director up through the Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry and the Chief of the Forest Service should be fired.

The charts below cover the 554 fatalities on wildland fires during the 32-year period ending in 2021.

Fatalities wildland fire 1990-2021

Fatalities, wildland fires, 1990 through 2021
Fatalities, wildland fires, 1990 through 2021.