Report released for Spring Coulee Fire fatality in Washington

An Assistant Fire Chief died in an entrapment. The fire burned 107 acres in 2019 near Okanogan, Washington.

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington
This is presumably the engine involved in the burnover. Photo from the report.

A facilitated learning analysis has been released for a burnover and entrapment on the Spring Coulee Fire September 1, 2019 near Okanogan, Washington. A month after suffering burns over 60 percent of his body, Assistant Fire Chief Christian Dean Johnson, 55, passed away in a hospital as a result of his injuries.

The events unfolded quickly on September 1. After being reported at about 1600 the Incident Commander sized it up nine minutes later at five to ten acres spreading rapidly in grass and brush.

Wearing his turnout pants, Assistant Chief Johnson loaded into B341 (a 2012 Ford F450 Type 6 Brush Truck) and stowed his turnout jacket on the back of the truck between the cab and a rear-mounted storage compartment. At 1615 the Chief arrived at the fire with another firefighter. Eleven minutes later a MAYDAY was called for the entrapment.

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington

Upon arrival Chief Johnson and the firefighter, identified as the “external firefighter” in the report, began a mobile attack, with the Chief driving the truck and the firefighter operating a nozzle. They were working along an old cat trail from an earlier fire, identified as “Old Fireline” on the aerial photo. Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington

After a few minutes the wind direction shifted from blowing parallel with the cat line, generally south, to southeasterly and aligned with the small swale shown on the aerial photo. This pushed the fire rapidly toward the road and the two firefighters. The Chief yelled at the other firefighter to drop the hose and move.

From the report:

The exterior firefighter didn’t open the passenger door; fire was immediately at his back and had caught the passenger mirror on fire. He ran around to the driver’s side of B341 and climbed on the outside of the truck again. As fire moved under B341, Assistant Chief Johnson attempted to drive B341 away from the area. After traveling five or six feet, B341 “lurched” and then became immobilized. With flames rolling up the exterior firefighter’s legs, visible on the passenger side of the vehicle itself, under the truck and in front of them, both the exterior firefighter and Assistant Chief Johnson exited the vehicle to escape the fire. Assistant Chief Johnson and the exterior firefighter ran toward the old cat trail at slightly different angles. In Assistant Chief Johnson’s path, hidden by vegetation, lay a substantial field of rocks and metal debris (Figure 9). While it is impossible to know for certain, it is thought Assistant Chief Johnson may have become entangled in the debris and was overtaken by fire.

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington
Rocks and debris in the area of the burnover. Note that what is seen in this photo would have been obscured by vegetation prior to the fire. Photo from the report.

The exterior firefighter, with fire surrounding him—and at times reaching up between his legs—was able to escape the advancing fire. The exterior firefighter and the fire reached the road at approximately the same instant.

As it was starved of fuel, the roaring and crackling of the fire quieted and the exterior firefighter from B341 immediately turned around to head back into the black and reestablish contact with Assistant Chief Johnson. The firefighter located Assistant Chief Johnson approximately 150 feet from the exterior of B341. The MAYDAY was called at 1626.


Just before 1655, the surface winds shifted to a south-southwesterly direction. This pushed a “finger” of fire north of the structures on the eastern flank and increased fire behavior in the area. At approximately 1655, the engine on the eastern flank requested air support as “we are trapped here” and they needed water to continue effective structure protection. A helicopter in the area had already spotted the flare-up and was able to deliver water within seconds of the radio call. At least one additional water drop was completed by a [single engine air tanker].

The report does not specify exactly where the first burnover occurred, but there are clues that it was near the “Swale.”

During the burnover the Chief was not wearing his turnout jacket, which after the incident was still stowed behind the truck’s cab. The report concluded that the lack of personal protective equipment above the waist contributed to the severity of his injuries.

The external firefighter was quoted as saying, “The only reason I am alive is because I had all this [structural] gear on. Without that I wouldn’t have even made it back to the truck.”

The investigation found a low oxygen code recorded in the truck’s electronic system. There was no time associated with the code, so it can’t be determined if it occurred while the vehicle was surrounded by fire or if it was the cause or symptom of the truck being immobilized.

There have been a number of incidents in which firefighting vehicles stalled in very dense smoke.

Personnel involved in the Spring Coulee Fire highlighted six core lessons. These lessons are focused on communications, training, medical pre-positioning and medical evacuation coordination, vehicles, access, and personal protective equipment.

The Epilog is from the report:

Grand Coulee Fire LODD Washington
Christian Johnson. Photo from the report.

“Christian Johnson, 55, of Okanogan, Washington passed away Wednesday, October 2, 2019 from injuries sustained in the Spring Coulee Fire south of Okanogan. Christian was born in 1963 in Salem, Oregon, to James and Margaret Johnson. He grew up in Salem, graduating from South Salem High School in 1982. Christian began college at Oregon State University, but felt he had a larger calling and joined the Army. Christian served from 1983-1986 in the 82nd Airborne Division where he achieved the rank of Sergeant. After being honorably discharged, Christian continued his duty by joining the Oregon Army National Guard. He then returned to college and graduated from Chemeketa Community College in Salem in 1988 with an A.A. in Building Inspection Technology. Christian accepted a position as a building inspector in Washington for Okanogan County and later transferred as building official and permit administrator to the cities of Oroville, Tonasket, and Okanogan. He also transferred to the Washington National Guard where, along with his Charlie Company of the 1-161 Infantry Regiment, he deployed to Iraq. Christian served from November 2003–April 2005. Upon returning home, Christian retired from the National Guard after a total of 22 years of service. In Okanogan, Christian found another call to duty and in May of 1999, he joined the Okanogan Fire Department where he served as the Assistant Fire Chief and Secretary of the Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department Association.”

May Chief Johnson rest in peace.

Report released for the fatal Coal Canyon Fire

Coal Canyon fire entrapment report, cover photos
Photos on the cover of the report. A portion of one of the photos was redacted.

The U.S. Forest Service has released the Serious Accident Investigation Report for the Coal Canyon Fire, on which firefighter Trampus Haskvitz of Hot Springs, South Dakota was killed August 11, 2011 in the Black Hills of South Dakota north of Edgemont. In addition to Trampus, two firefighters received serious burns and two others had minor burns. Two firefighters were entrapped in an engine. One, Trampus, remained entrapped and died; the other, K.C. Fees escaped. Austin Whitney who was outside the engine, was transported to a Greeley, Colorado Burn Center. The two firefighters who received minor burns during rescue efforts were treated at local hospitals and released. Mr. Haskvitz and Mr. Whitney both worked for the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division.

Coal Canyon fire entrapment site photo w-graphics
This photo looks down on the entrapment site. The fire spread according to the numbered arrows: along arrow 1 during E 2’s initial escape attempt, arrow 2 as they came around the corner, and arrow 3 during the entrapment itself. The fire remained too hot along paths 1 and 2 for them to escape. Photo by Travis Lunders, taken the day after the accident. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

You can download the report HERE.  You should read the entire report to get a clear understanding of the sequence of events, but here are some of the key points:

About 15 minutes after the first engine crews arrived at the scene of the fire, they said it was about 1.5 acres in size and estimated the flame lengths to be 0 to 3 feet. Their plan was to anchor near the fire’s origin and use direct fireline to pinch off the fire. Their escape route was down the road beyond the fire’s heel.

Coal Canyon fire entrapment 1350
The approximate location of the fire when the initial attack engines arrived, at 1:50 p.m. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

The engines were on a narrow dirt road. The fire was on a slope below them and also on the slope on the opposite side of the drainage. A spot fire occurred above the road, then the main fire spread up the slope to the road and crossed it.

Coal fire entrapment at 3:05 p.m.
The approximate location of the fire and the entrapped engine at 3:05 p.m. The image is from the Google Earth version of the report.

Other engines were able to leave the area before the worst of the fire hit the road. One engine tried to escape by driving forward but encountered a wall of fire crossing the road. They backed up in the heavy smoke, going less than 80 feet, and hit a cut bank. At that point truck’s engine died and the fire overran their location. Two firefighters, Haskvitz and Fees, were in the truck as it ignited and began to burn. They deployed one fire shelter inside the cab and tried to use it to protect them both, but the other person had difficulty deploying the second shelter in the cab of the truck. A helicopter heard their mayday calls and tried to drop water on the burning engine, but initially the pilot could not see it in the smoke.

Other firefighters made several heroic attempts to rescue the entrapped firefighters but were driven back by the heat. Fees took a deep breath and escaped from the burning engine, but Haskvitz did not make it out of the cab.

The report does not speculate why the truck’s engine stopped running, but it has happened before on fires when vehicles are in very heavy smoke and there is simply not enough oxygen in the air to support combustion of the fuel in the vehicle’s engine.

A third crewmember assigned to the engine was outside it to the rear when the engine with the two people tried to escape by driving away. As it departed a blast of heat hit him and he dropped to the ground with no time to deploy his fire shelter.

Below is an excerpt from the “Analysis and Conclusion” section of the report:

…Up until the accident, the firefighting professionals involved in the Coal Canyon Fire reasoned the risks of engaging and suppressing this fire to be relatively low and the benefits of direct suppression to be worth this low risk. After considerable review of the incident, including the leadership, qualifications, training, interagency cooperation, fuels, weather, the organization, and local policies, the SAI team has concluded that the judgments and decisions of the firefighters involved in the Coal Canyon Fire were appropriate.

Firefighters all performed within the leaders’ intent and scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The team did not find any reckless actions or egregious violations of policy or protocol. In fact, the SAI Team found the actions of the firefighters involved with the Coal Canyon Fire to be fully consistent with local and national policy and meeting the intent of leadership expectations. Many decisions and actions on the Coal Canyon Fire were manifestly heroic, demonstrating the best of wildland fire professionalism.

The report has very little in the way of analysis and recommendations. Later the investigation team intends to produce separate documents focused on learning from this tragedy. Those documents will provide an Expanded Narrative and an in-depth Discussion and Analysis around human variability, risk management and resilience, as well as additional considerations and recommendations.

Wildfire Today covered the fire, the fatality, the severely burned firefighter, and Trampus’ funeral services, which were attended by approximately 1,700 firefighters and other mourners. A procession of over 130 fire department vehicles escorted Trampus to the cemetery. We recorded most of the procession on video.
An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the firefighters that was in the entrapped engine. Wildfire Today regrets the error.

Kansas brush truck burns in fire

Photo by Chief Steve Moody

Strong winds in Stafford County, Kansas pushed a grass and corn stubble fire across the county line into Pratt County on November 3. In addition to the 700 acres that burned, the fire also entrapped and burned a Stafford County brush truck.

The Pratt Tribune reports that “smoke suffocated the carburetor” causing the engine to stall. The firefighters on the truck escaped unharmed into the black, or previously burned area, but the truck was not as fortunate.

This is not the first time that a fire truck has stopped running due to insufficient oxygen while being operated in dense smoke. We are glad that the firefighters are OK.

Injured firefighters tell others about the lessons learned

An excerpt from the Bismark Tribune, North Dakota

“Apr 13, 2008
Associated Press Writer

As if the scarred flesh over a third of his body weren’t enough, Mark Keller got a tattoo to mark the day he and two other volunteer firefighters were burned while battling a grass fire in central North Dakota.

“It’s just a reminder to myself that I made it out alive,” said Keller, who is marking the third anniversary of the blaze that also injured firefighters Geremy Olson and James Meyer near Wilton, north of Bismarck.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, spokeswoman Jennifer Smith says 111 firefighters have died battling wildfires between 2003 and 2006, the most recent numbers available. The group does not keep injury statistics.

Those who survived the blazes, like Keller, Olson and Meyer, use their scars to teach others.

Keller’s tattoo above his right ankle depicts a fire department logo capped with flames, along with his name and those of his burned buddies. The tattoo, like his surgeries, is unfinished.

“I’ll add smoke to it later,” said Keller, 36, who also is a Burleigh County deputy.

The 2005 grass fire that injured Keller blackened a 6-mile-long swath near Wilton. It was traced to a pile of trees that had been smoldering undetected for nearly a month.

Meyer had been hired to burn the tree piles on his neighbor’s farm. He said he torched the dozen or so massive tree piles when the ground was covered with snow in March. When the ground dried out a month later, embers from the still-burning woodpile ignited grass, and the fire spread, he said.

The firefighters were hurt after the wind-driven fire engulfed them and the heat from the blaze sucked oxygen out of the air, killing the engine in the fire truck in which they were riding.

“I tried starting it three or four times and it wouldn’t kick over,” Keller recalled. “From there, it just got hotter and hotter and hotter. My brain told me to flee.”

Fire officials estimated that heat from the blaze topped 2,000 degrees – near the melting point of steel.

Keller was on fire when other firefighters rescued him, dousing him with water. He was the only one of the three who was not wearing full bunker gear – and he was the most seriously injured, suffering second- and third-degree burns to about 30 percent of his body.”

Additional details

Facing very large medical bills, Mark Keller sued the owner of the land where the fire started from the brush piles. After investigations, consultations with a wildland fire expert in a neighboring state, and negotiations, the lawsuit was settled out of court on January 18, 2007.