Video of extreme firefighting at the 2018 Ranch Fire

Ranch Fire Clear Lake California
Screenshot from video of the Ranch Fire shot by 564 Fire in 2018.

A photographer who specializes fires shot some incredible video of firefighters dealing with what must have been hundreds of spot fires. In the dry, windy weather they spread immediately after burning embers blown by the wind fell into grassy areas.

It was shot by 564 Fire at the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires that burned near Clear Lake in northern California in July and August of 2018. The total size of the complex, which included the River and Ranch Fires, was 459,123 acres. The video was uploaded to YouTube June 18, 2019.

Mendocino Complex fire Ranch California map
The red line on the map was the perimeter of the Ranch Fire at 9:15 p.m. PDT August 26, 2018. The white line was the perimeter on August 14. The red and yellow dots represent heat detected by a satellite in the 24 hour period ending at 2:31 a.m. PDT August 27, 2018.

Lessons learned after the entrapment on Mendocino Complex of Fires

Six firefighters received burns and other injuries when they had to escape from the fire by running through unburned vegetation

fire wildfires crew carrier damaged burned injuries
Crew carrier that was damaged during burnout operations on the Mendocino Complex of Fires August 19, 2018. Photo from the report.

A facilitated learning analysis (FLA) with dozens of valuable lessons learned was just released about an incident where six firefighters were entrapped on a wildfire and had to run to safety through unburned vegetation. The incident within an incident occurred August 19, 2018 on the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California. Six firefighters received burns and other injuries when the fire crossed a dozer line in multiple locations during burnout operations and cut them off from their planned egress. Some of the firefighters refused treatment, while others were transported to hospitals where they were treated and released.

You can download the entire report here: (large 7MB file).

One thing to keep in mind when you read the lessons learned is that the organizational structure on the fire, which ultimately burned more than 459,000 acres, was very unusual. Two complete Type 1 incident management teams were ordered for the fire due to its enormous size. Normally when there are two teams on a very large fire they divide it into two geographical zones, with each team assuming responsibility for one. Logistically, in this case, there were not enough logistical resources available to support two large incident command posts, so everyone worked out of one base. The two teams were merged into one, which produced duplicates in some overhead positions.

The report was very skillfully designed and written and could be a valuable resource for wildland firefighters.

Below we have a very brief summary from the report of the entrapment, and following that, all of the lessons learned attributed to the personnel who were on the fire, in their own words. We did not include another section from the report that contains analysis from the FLA team.


BRIEF SUMMARY FROM THE REPORT

During burnout operations, a sudden wind shift and explosive fire growth happened and personnel were cut off from their escape routes. Most of the firefighters were able to move back to their vehicles to exit the area. However, six individuals farther down the dozer line were forced to run in front of the advancing flame front, through unburned fuels to a nearby dirt road for approximately one mile before they were picked up and transported for treatment. Five Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters and one CAL FIRE firefighter were injured. Two unoccupied CAL FIRE emergency crew transports parked in the vicinity sustained damage from the fire when it jumped containment lines.


LESSONS LEARNED BY THE PARTICIPANTS

Interviews were conducted with key personnel involved in the entrapment on the Ranch Fire. At the conclusion of each interview, each person was asked what they learned for themselves from this event and what they believe the greater wildland fire community could learn. The following are the subsequent lessons the participants shared with the FLA Team that they believe could benefit others. When possible, these lessons were written in the words of those interviewed, though a few places lesson were edited for clarity. These lessons were broken into four categories: Aviation, Inter- Crew, Fireline, and Overhead.

AVIATION

  • I’m not sure what lessons I learned could apply to the ground. It is not my job to second guess what folks are doing on the ground. My job is to support them and give them our perspective to help them to succeed. They use our input as another tool.
  • Let incoming aircraft know what type of response they are being requested. This is what it would sound like, “Declare an IWI and have them report to Mendo IP (initial point – aviation) for an IWI.”
  • We had an awareness of not taking risks that would incur potential damage or injuries or add more complexity. There is a balance when you are dealing with a life threatening situation that we didn’t make things worse, i.e. compromise ourselves in poor visibility. We ordered additional support to maintain span of control. We immediately ordered up additional support and didn’t try to tackle it ourselves. Didn’t want to be a liability.
  • Declare an IWI when injuries are discovered and follow IWI protocols so communication is clearer. Not declaring this an IWI created a lot of confusion because others did not understand the extent of the injuries or people involved.
  • I knew the voice on the ground so I did not provide decision points or trigger points. I just gave him the facts based upon what he was seeing. If it was someone else, I might have said no to the operation (in reference to when Dep. Branch II was asking about location of the fire for the burnout operation).

INTER-CREW

  • Everybody has a responsibility to run a risk management profile and use Crew Resource Management.
  • Ask questions when something does not make sense to you.
  • Ensure you and your resources are briefed thoroughly and information is flowing. People need to understand the assignment and have buy in.
  • Maintain transparent communication between resources and within your crew.
  • Speak your mind if something does not feel right. Make sure your voice is heard and understood when doing so. Validate subordinates concerns by passing them up the chain of command. If you are asked a question and don’t have an answer, re-evaluate.
  • Trust but verify. You will receive intel from other resources, but validate that information for yourself. Gather your situational awareness.
  • Rely on your experienced personnel within the group, no matter what position they hold.
  • Do not let urgency influence your actions.

FIRELINE

  • Remain vigilant and consider the worst-case scenario. Play the “What if?” in your mind.
  • Take the time to assess the situation and determine if it fits an IWI circumstance. ”I was mad at myself for not following the IWI in the 206.”
  • Good communications are critical. Validate the information you are given. Take time to scout the line. The best thing to do is ask questions for the things that are unknown and communicate with your people frequently.
  • Have the courage to turn down an assignment.
  • Vulnerability and approachability are key traits of a strong leader.
  • There was a perception that refusing an assignment could get you less desirable jobs or reassigned on the fire.
  • Rank adds to the confusion and tension around speaking up.
  • I think the dysfunction and disconnect between commanders intent and what was happening in division and branches was a contributing factor to the very rushed firing operation.
  • The CAL FIRE/Fed rivalry was evident on this fire and I believe it was a detriment to the operational tempo and production.
  • Help your supervisors and use humble inquiry to have a discussion about tactics. Do things make sense? What is the end state?
  • There was no good vantage point for the lookout. Our perception is that a lookout can see the fire but is maybe in a less than desirable location.
  • If you don’t get a good briefing, ask for it. Make sure to receive a thorough briefing from supervisors.
  • I think we need to encourage a culture of voicing concerns in a professional manner. Leadership needs to be approachable. I’ve been a metro firefighter for more than 30 years.
  • I’ve only been in wildland for 6 years, and I’m like born again after doing some structure protection just a few weeks before on another fire (burning out around six homes, we saved five of them). I really believe in that – this highly influenced my decision to accept the assignment. Huge mistake.
  • PPE. We have it for a reason. Wear it all appropriately, in particular shrouds and gloves.

OVERHEAD

  • Who can call for a “Roll Call” to ensure everyone is accounted for? Should it be done at the division or with the Team?
  • Command channel was never cleared. Weather was read over Command during the incident.
  • It was a difficult unified command. We typically go unified with an IC and maybe OPS, but not unified with two whole teams.
  • Trying to meld two Type 1 teams is not advantageous. There are too many voices and it muddies the water. That was happening on this incident. Having Deputy Branches was a side effect of blending two teams together. We had different operational mindsets and they weren’t communicating clearly enough. If we ever have two Type 1 teams again we need to address this more clearly.
  • Don’t get down into the weeds. This is very difficult when there is a Branch and a Deputy Branch. They need to stay up and out of weeds.
  • Don’t use deputy branches. I will fight tooth and nail not to have a Deputy Branch again. Next time I can isolate branches, make them smaller or broken apart.
  • Regardless of how good the plan is, timing is a critical element of the development of the plan. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the plan and fail to reassess the plan. When conditions changed, we needed to reevaluate.
  • I should have spoken up sooner. When I drove up, I should have voiced more that this was not a viable plan.
  • Put too much time in trying to salvage a line that was already lost.
  • I need to ask more questions to get a clearer picture.
  • Make sure everyone has a clear plan. The basics. LCES. Where are we going? Who is in charge? Leaders Intent, even if briefing has to be hasty.
  • Drop points are not safety zones. TRAs are not safety zones or deployment zones.
  • When you have two teams there can be difficulties like one team pushing for one thing and the other team pushing for another. You have to be more vocal. If we make deputy branches, they have to ride in the same vehicle. They cannot divide and conquer tasks because there is confusion about who is in charge.
  • We created a hybrid of the ICS system. The two ICs got along great. Below OPS is where it got muddled. Both teams had some failures when it came to how we were organized and communicated below us. Once we got feedback from the field, we cleaned up and it went better. There are definitely ways to make it work better.
  • I should have come up on Command and at least notified the medical unit there was an IWI. I should have forced myself to help Branch check those boxes. I’ve been thinking how I could have helped. “At all costs you have to address what you feel isn’t safe.”
  • I’m not blaming CAL FIRE or the Forest Service, I’m blaming human nature. We have to let go of what’s on your shoulder [referring to the organization/agency patches].
  • Talk to each other. We have qualifications for a reason. At the end of the day, we have to work together and realize there are good people out there in all agencies. Talk with people to determine their experience levels and comfort in different fuel types, conditions, etc. If someone is a qualified division, they are qualified. Base actions on the complexity of what the fire is going to do instead of I don’t know this guy or trust him so I’m going to just take this on myself.
  • It took too long for the FLA team to get here. Quite honestly, we were talking to you seven days later. Guys were barely at the hospital when I requested a team. Bring someone in to look at this objectively. I’m a little frustrated that it took a while to get here.
  • When we decided to meld the teams, we asked for Agency Administrators and Incident Commanders to get together and have a frank discussion behind closed doors. I believe that should happen more.
  • Letter of delegation is not real. You need closed-door discussions and talk about it. This settled things down a bit. It might be a best practice.
  • I believe that CAL FIRE and Forest Service are going to work together in the future. Anytime we are going to do that we need to work out HOW beforehand. Every time we have worked out something it’s been during a fire and that’s not the time to do that. We need to look at how both sides operate and drill down how it works and whose going to do what, before the fire bell rings. On the dirt, we fight fire, and it shouldn’t be that different on the teams.
  • For me personally, as Operations when I am in the field I try not to be overly involved in tactics so I don’t know all the details of what has already being looked at. If you get too involved you can get things messed up. I should have spoken up sooner. When I drove up I should have voiced more that this was not a viable plan. Looking back, we should have just fired out to protect people. I took for granted that was what was going on.
  • Branch was calm when the separation happened. He handled it well. It was textbook on how to help folks that are cut off and running. He asked for resources and kept his voice calm. Once the message was passed to all resources that we would shelter in place in the saddle we realized it was not the best place for a safety zone. People stayed calm, folks understood what they needed to do, and it allowed Branch to deal with separated folks.
  • Peer support is important. Having CISM there was awesome. They had a couple of therapy dogs. We now want to have a permanent CISM and dog on our team.
  • OPS leadership out there at the time helped people. They had their heads down on the mission and OPS being there may have helped them survive.
  • We recognized radiant burns can be misdiagnosed or dismissed as minor or superficial. Blisters and swelling can occur many hours later. The burns need to be looked at by a specialist and we had to convince the doctor to get referral to a specialist. We also had firefighters refusing treatment. One firefighter that went in had red ears the night before and the next day they looked like cauliflower. We need a universal protocol.

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)

Six firefighters injured escaping from sudden flare up

The six firefighters on the Mendocino Complex of Fires in Northern California had to run for a mile through unburned vegetation when an unexpected wind shift caused explosive fire growth

The following “72-Hour Report” was distributed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center August 28, 2018 for an incident that occurred August 19, 2018 on the Mendocino Complex of Fires in Northern California.


THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION IS PRELIMINARY AND SUBJECT TO CHANGE

Location: Ranch Fire, Mendocino Complex, east of Ukiah, CA
Date of Occurrence: Sunday, August 19, 2018
Local Agency Administrator: Ann Carlson, Mendocino Forest Supervisor
Activity: Wildland Fire Suppression
Number of Injuries: 6
Number of Fatalities: 0
Property Damage: Radios, packs, 2 vehicles with paint blistering.

SUMMARY

On August 19, 2018, six firefighters received injuries when the fire crossed the dozer line in multiple locations and cut them off from their planned egress. At the time of the incident, firefighters were en-gaged in firing operations off a dozer line near the division break between Hotel and Juliet on the Ranch Fire of the Mendocino Complex.

CONDITIONS

Information from RAWS nearby around the time of this incident, showed temperatures at 93.3 Fahren-heit, RH 11.3%, and winds at 6.6 mph with gusts to 13.3 mph.

NARRATIVE

The Mendocino Complex consisted of the Ranch and River fires that started on July 27th. The fires experienced significant growth during the first ten days, growing 30,000 acres on August 3rd, 40,000 acres on August 4th and 50,000 acres on August 5th. Up until August 19th, the fire growth had been steadily moving both south/southeast and north/northeast. Most days experienced warming and drying trends with very poor recoveries and critically low fuel moistures and afternoon relative humidities near single digits. Steep terrain, poor ventilation, fire intensities and long travel times made it difficult to insert crews and utilize aircraft in certain areas of the fire.

On August 19th, the plan for the fire’s northeast flank was to secure dozer line north of DP25 near the division break in Branch II with a firing operation. Resources from other divisions were brought over to help with the operations. These resources included federal and local fire resources and strike teams from the Los Angeles Fire Department and CAL FIRE. After arriving near the drop point, the personnel staged their engines and vehicles, reconfigured, and were split into two modules to support burning operations and hold the line along a Forest Service road and the dozer line.

During the burnout operations, a sudden wind shift and explosive fire growth happened and at about 1733, personnel were cut off from their escape routes. Most of the firefighters were able to move back to their vehicles to exit the area. However, six individuals farther down the dozer line were forced to run in front of the advancing flame front, through unburned fuels to a nearby dirt road for approximately one mile before they were picked up and transported for treatment. Five Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters and one CAL FIRE firefighter were injured. Two unoccupied CAL FIRE emergency crew transports parked in the vicinity sustained damage from the fire when it jumped containment lines.

Injuries include 1st and 2nd degree burns and a dislocated shoulder.

Utah firefighter adopts dog found at California wildfire

Many of us had not heard of Draper City, Utah before their fire department Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett was killed by a falling tree while fighting the Mendocino Complex of Fires in Northern California August 13, 2018. That was, of course, a tragedy, but now the city and department are in the news for a different reason. One of their firefighters found and has adopted a dog they found while fighting the same fire.

After one month the Ranch Fire has burned over 400,000 acres

It is one of four megafires currently burning in the U.S., all larger than 100,000 acres

(Originally published at 9:32 a.m. PDT August 27, 2018)

The Ranch Fire started east of Ukiah, California a month ago on July 27, 2018. About two weeks later it broke the previous record for the largest in California’s recorded history, the 281,893 acres attributed to last December’s Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara. Today CAL FIRE said the Ranch Fire has grown to 402,468 acres, exceeding by 120,575 acres the record set only eight months earlier. The other fire in the Complex is the 49,920-acre River Fire which has not spread for a couple of weeks.

Mendocino Complex fire Ranch California map
The red line on the map was the perimeter of the Ranch Fire at 9:15 p.m. PDT August 26, 2016. The white line was the perimeter on August 14. The red and yellow dots represent heat detected by a satellite in the 24 hour period ending at 2:31 a.m. PDT August 27, 2018. Click to enlarge.

Firefighters are making progress on the Ranch Fire after having backed off on the north and northeast sides to ignite backfires from dirt roads and dozer lines on ridge tops in the Mendocino National Forest. The rest of the fire is looking pretty good, so if this tactic is successful and the weather cooperates it would be a big step toward stopping the spread.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Mendocino Complex of Fires, including the most recent, click HERE.)

A couple of decades ago it was rare for a fire outside of Alaska to exceed the threshold to become what we call a megafire, 100,000 acres. Now we seem to have multiple megafires each year. Presently there are three others that are presently active in the lower 48 states:

  1. Carr, in Northern California: 229,651 acres
  2. South Sugarloaf, in northern Nevada: 200,692 acres
  3. Spring Creek, in southern Colorado: 108,085 acres

Fire seasons are longer. The U.S. Forest Service has abandoned the term, preferring “fire year” instead. The Thomas Fire broke the previous record in December. DECEMBER! Megafires are not supposed to occur in the dead of winter.

Not only do the fires burn vegetation, destroy homes, change the landscape, require evacuations, disrupt lives, and cause massive air pollution problems, they also kill. Just on the megafires in California this year eight people have died, four firefighters, a power company employee, and three other civilians.


The article was revised to correct the number of fatalities on the two megafires in California this year.