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)

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.

A sportswriter looks at the job of wildland firefighters

wildfire flames
Photo by Bill Gabbert

I write about wildland firefighting through the lens of having done the job in California and other regions for several decades. So it is interesting to read how it is perceived by a highly respected author whose specialty is entirely different.

Peter King has covered sports for almost 40 years and has been named National Sportswriter of the Year three times. Every week he publishes a lengthly article analyzing  professional football in depth. When he wrote for Sports Illustrated the column was named Monday Morning Quarterback, but after his recent move to NBC Sports it was retitled Football Morning in America.

Mr. King probably does not know that wildland firefighters have been called “tactical athletes”, but in his August 20 column he briefly digressed to mention wildland firefighting and honor a firefighter who was killed by a falling tree on the Mendocino Complex of Fires in Northern California:

“…These are my other thoughts of the week:

“a. Story of the Week: Lizzie Johnson and Sarah Ravani of the San Francisco Chronicle on something too many of us not in the West don’t pay enough attention to—the amazing sacrifices fire fighters make to try to keep huge swaths of the western states from burning down.

“b. Thank you for your sacrifice, Matthew Burchett. Six fire fighters killed in California in this year alone.

“c. Via the fine reporting of Johnson and Ravani, this is how incident commander Sean Cavanaugh, on the front line of the fire, began his morning briefing the next day:

“Hey good morning,” Kavanaugh said at the group briefing. “As many of you are aware, last night we had a tragic incident affect one of our fellow firefighters. A lot of folks were affected by it, and a lot of folks will continue to be affected by it. So I want to start this meeting with a moment of silence.”

“For 22 seconds, no one spoke.

“d. Chills.”

(end of excerpt)

UPDATE: shortly after writing this article I replied to one of Mr. King’s tweets, saying, “Thank you for mentioning wildland firefighters in your Aug 20 FMIA column. Did you know that they have been called “tactical athletes”?  Within minutes he replied back.

Fire department says Verizon’s throttling of data hampered suppression of California’s largest fire in history

The data rate for a command and control unit was reduced to 1/200th of the previous speed

cell phone towerVerizon’s throttling of data rates used by a fire department that subscribed to one of the company’s “unlimited” plans hampered the firefighters’ command and control at the fire.

While battling the Mendocino Complex, which has become the largest wildfire in the recorded history of California, the Santa Clara Fire Department deployed OES Incident Support Unit 5262, a command and control resource. Its primary function is to track, organize, and prioritize routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed. OES 5262 relies heavily on the internet to do near-real-time resource tracking.

This unit and other resources in Santa Clara County use web-based applications that rely on high-bandwidth, latency-sensitive exchanges of information with the public and to provide crucial public safety services.

While fighting the fire the County discovered the Verizon data connection for OES 5262 was being throttled. Data rates had been reduced to 1/200th, or less, than the previous speeds. Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in a court filing that the “reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively”. The County has signed on to a legal effort to overturn the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Despite having paid for what it thought was an unlimited data plan, the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District saw its data flow “throttled” down to 1/200th of its usual speed as it fought the complex — now the biggest wildfire in state history — because Verizon officials said it had exceeded its plan limit, district Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote. This primarily hampered a specialized vehicle the department depends on to coordinate its machinery and staff in such emergencies, and Bowden said that put his battalions at risk.

Without full-speed service for the high-tech command and communications rig, which goes by the arcane name of OES 5262, Bowden wrote, “resources could be deployed to the wrong fire, the wrong part of a fire, or fail to be deployed at all. Even small delays in response translate into devastating effect, including loss of property, and, in some cases, loss of life.

One of the fire captains complained to Verizon that the command and control unit had been so hobbled that “it has no meaningful functionality”.

The battle with the fire morphed into a battle with Verizon as fire department personnel fought with the company about restoring their “unlimited” data rate. Eventually after getting various sections in Verizon and the Fire District involved, the cell phone plan in OES 5262 was upgraded to a more expensive plan that had more capability.

In the last couple of years all four major cell phone providers have advertised “unlimited” data plans. All of them ARE LIMITED in various ways, so it is inconceivable how the Federal Trade Commission lets them get away with false and misleading advertising.

An article published by C|NET on August 9 does a good job of comparing “unlimited” plans offered by Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. Of the 10 plans described, all except one have data limits, while the one that does not, limits speed used on hotspots to only 3G. Everyone is now used to 4G speeds or the even faster LTE. 5G, with much higher data rates, is just around the corner. The companies disguise how speeds will be greatly reduced after a data limit is obtained, by using words like “prioritize your data”, “deprioritized”, or just blatantly saying “customer may temporarily experience reduced speeds on these line(s) during times of network congestion”. It likely that during an emergency that affects a large number of citizens, “network congestion” will occur.

We have written many times about the “Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting Safety”, knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters. Depending on how these systems are configured they could rely on data delivered through the internet. If that data stream is throttled to 1/200th, is cut off, or becomes unreliable, the safety of firefighters and the public could be threatened.

The intentionally misleading use of the term “unlimited” by the four cell phone carriers is part of the problem here. The FCC and the Federal Trade Commission should do their job and stop this practice.

Firefighter fatality on Mendocino Complex of Fires

(UPDATED at 3:02 p.m. PDT August 14, 2018)

Matthew Burchett
Matthew Burchett. Photo: Draper City FD

Draper City, Utah has identified the firefighter that was killed August 13 on the Mendocino Complex as Draper Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett. He leaves behind his wife and their 6-year-old son.

Below is a press release that the city issued today.

Press Release 8/14/2018 from Draper City.

1020 East Pioneer Rd.
Draper, UT 84020

Media Release

August 14, 2018

Draper Battalion Chief Dies Fighting Mendocino Fire

DRAPER, Utah. – It is with tremendous sadness that we announce the tragic loss of one of our own. Last night while fighting the Mendocino Complex Wildfire in California, Draper Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett lost his life in the line of duty. Draper deployed five fire fighters to California on August 2nd, and the team has worked tirelessly to protect lives and property. The entire community of Draper is grieving our loss.

Chief Burchett came to Draper City Fire Department in May of this year. Prior to working for Draper, he worked for Unified Fire Authority for the past 20 years. Chief Burchett had extensive experience in wildland and structure fire. Chief Burchett leaves behind a wife and a young son. He was 42 years old.

This is not only a loss for our Draper Fire Department, but a loss for all fire departments in the Nation.

We appreciate all the heartfelt support from the Draper Community, Cal Fire, the State of Utah, and our family of firefighters from across the nation.

At this time, we ask for some privacy for Chief Burchett’s family as they process this tragedy.

In the coming days we will have information about funeral plans, a donation fund for Matt’s family and more details as they become available.

Another release issued by Draper City on August 14 included a statement from the Fire Chief:

Draper City’s Fire Chief Clint Smith is out of the country and he has given us his statement about this tragic event.

“Draper City Fire Department has no words to describe the depth of sorrow we are feeling upon learning of the death of Battalion Chief Matt Burchett while assisting with the devastating California Wildfires. Matt is a true hero who has given the ultimate sacrifice while serving others. Matt is a strong leader and experienced wildland firefighter who always put the safety and needs of his subordinates first, but most of all, Matt was a devoted husband and loving father. His family was his world. We are grateful to those fellow firefighters that were with Matt and for the immediate aid they were able to render. We pray for all firefighters, friend and family affected by this tragic loss. This event has rocked our small department to its very core but we will work to honor Matt’s legacy and sacrifice and care for his family.”

(UPDATED at 8:22 a.m. PDT August 14, 2018)

Officials on the Mendocino Complex of Fires reported Monday night that a Utah firefighter who was working on the incident was killed in an accident. No other details or the identity of the person has been released.

Fact finding is ongoing and notification of next of kin is in progress.

We send out our sincere condolences to the firefighter’s friends, family, and co-workers.

The sender of the tweet below is in Draper City, Utah.

It has been a tragic summer in California. Five other agency employees or contractors have died in the line of duty in the last month while working on wildfires in the state:

-Andrew Jason Brake, a heavy equipment mechanic, died August 9 on the Carr Fire.
–Don Ray Smith, contract dozer operator, of Pollock Pines, CA, on the Carr Fire July 26.
–Redding fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke, Fire Inspector for the Redding, CA Fire department, on the Carr Fire July 26.
–Brian Hughes, Captain on National Park Service Arrowhead Hotshots, Ferguson Fire, July 29.
–Braden Varney, CAL FIRE Heavy Fire Equipment Operator, July 14, Ferguson Fire.

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