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)

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.

Largest fire in California’s history continues to spread north

The Ranch Fire has burned 295,970 acres east of Ukiah

(Originally published at 12:13 p.m. PDT August 13, 2018.)

A few days ago the 295,970-acre Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California, became the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the state. It blew past the previous record set by last December’s Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara, exceeding it now by about 14,000 acres.

But the fire is not resting on its achievements — in recent days it has been very active on its north side where it has spread practically unfettered one to two miles farther north over the last seven days, approaching Lake Pillsbury.

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

The mapping flight Sunday night did not show any major fire activity on the rest of the fire, or on any of the perimeter of the other fire in the Complex, the River Fire west of Clear Lake.

map mendocino complex fire Ranch fire
The red lines represent the perimeters of the fires at 10 p.m. PDT August 12, 2018. The red shaded areas had intense heat at that time. The white line was the perimeter seven days before. Click to enlarge.

CAL FIRE reports that 147 residences have been destroyed in the two fires and another 1,025 remain threatened.

A very large army of firefighters are still battling the two fires, including 256 fire engines, 58 fire crews, 20 helicopters, 76 dozers, and 79 water tenders, for a total of 3,221 personnel.

CAL FIRE’s information about the Ranch Fire on August 13 included this:

Ranch Fire California
I need to learn how they do that.

Mendocino Complex of Fires grows larger across three counties

Together the two fires, which have not merged, have burned 290,000 acres

(Originally published at 12:39 p.m. PDT August 7, 2018)

The two wildfires that comprise the Mendocino Complex of Fires continue to chew up acres in three counties in northern California — Mendocino, Lake, and Colusa Counties.

The Ranch Fire, north and east of Clear Lake, has been expanding on all sides for the last two days except for the northwest side. Firefighters have slowed the growth near Upper Lake, Nice and Lucerne, but it has kept moving on the southeast side around Indian Valley reservoir and on the northeast side in the remote areas west of Lodoga.

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

The River Fire west of Clear Lake has only spread substantially in recent days on the north side east of Talmage. In spite of reports that the two fires have merged, as of Monday night they were more than two miles apart.

If the size of the two fires are considered together, they have burned 290,692 acres, which would make the complex of two fires, which are managed together, the largest in modern recorded state history. But if added to the list, it would need an asterisk since it is two fires. The Ranch Fire has blackened 241,772 acres, and considered alone it qualifies as the 5th largest in modern California history. To reach the number one position it would have to exceed the 281,893 acres attributed to last December’s Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara. The River Fire has burned 48,920 acres.

map Mendocino complex Fires California wildfires
Map showing the perimeter, in red, of the Mendocino Complex of Fires at 9 p.m. MDT, August 6, 2018. The white line was the perimeter two days before. The red shaded areas represent intense heat. Click to enlarge.

Mendocino Complex burns more than 273,000 acres

(Originally published at 8:12 a.m. PDT August 6, 2018)

The Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California has blackened more than 273,664 acres, becoming the second largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history if the size of the two fires in the “complex” are combined. Since we last reported on the fire two days ago it has grown by 120,000 acres, according to the numbers released by CAL FIRE Monday morning.

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

The Ranch Fire, north of Clear Lake, over the last two days has spread five miles east, one to two miles north, and three miles south. Sunday it spread into the footprint of the Pawnee Fire that in June of this year burned 14,000 acres west and south of Indian Valley Reservoir north of Highway 20.  The blaze is threatening communities on the east shore of Clear Lake, including Nice, Lucerne, Pepperwood, Glenhaven, and Clearlake Oaks.

The other fire that makes up the “complex” is the River Fire west of Clear Lake. About three-quarters of the perimeter has been quiet recently, but it is still moving aggressively north, coming to within less than two miles of merging with the Ranch Fire to the north. The report by one local media outlet that they had already merged was premature.

largest California wildfires fires
The table released by CAL FIRE on August 4, 2018 does not include the Mendocino Complex, since it is still very actively growing.

On the two fires 75 residences have been destroyed and another 9,300 remain threatened.

Resources assigned to the fire include 432 fire engines, 89 water tenders, 15 helicopters, 57 hand crews, and 80 dozers, for a total of 3,781 personnel.

map Mendocino Complex fires
Map showing the perimeter, in red, of the Mendocino Complex of Fires at 7 p.m. MDT, August 5, 2018. The white line was the perimeter two days before. The red shaded areas represent intense heat. Click to enlarge.

Nationwide on wildfires 558 hand crews, 186 helicopters, and 1,907 fire engines are assigned on wildfires, for a total 28,234 personnel including overhead and other firefighting resources.

Australia and New Zealand have sent 138 fire personnel to assist. They are currently deployed in California, Oregon, and Washington.


The Mendocino Complex of Fires grows by 43,000 acres

The Ranch Fire will most likely burn into the Pawnee Fire of June, 2018.

(Originally published at 11:02 a.m. PDT August 3, 2018)

The Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California were extremely active Thursday, adding another 43,000 acres west and east of Clear Lake. Firefighters were again engaged in house to house structure protection as the fire moved through the wildland-urban interface.

The northernmost of the two fires, the Ranch Fire, ran for about 6 miles to the southeast, coming very close to the burn scar from the Pawnee Fire of June, 2018, according to the infrared sensing data from a fixed wing aircraft collected at 11:30 p.m. August 2. The Ranch Fire also grew significantly on the northeast side.

Mendocino complex fires river ranch
Map showing the perimeter, in red, of the Mendocino Complex of Fires at 11:30 p.m. MDT, August 2, 2018. The white line was the perimeter 24 hours before. The red shaded areas represent intense heat. Click to enlarge.

The River Fire west of Clear Lake only showed major growth on its north side, where it moved to the north for up to a mile along an eight-mile long active edge.

Photographer Kent Porter wrote on Twitter (see below) that more evacuations were ordered north of Clear Lake. He said “the firefight was intense in Scotts Valley” Thursday. His photos confirm that statement.

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

Both fires are remaining active throughout the night. On Friday firefighters will prep and construct primary and secondary control lines. Difficult access and hot, dry weather make it difficult to fight fire directly in many areas.

CAL FIRE reports that 41 residences have been destroyed, up from 14 in Thursday’s update. The two fires have burned a total of 153,738 acres — 112,226 on the Ranch Fire and 41,512 on the River Fire, according to the numbers released by CAL FIRE Friday morning. That is a total increase of over 43,000 acres since Thursday.

Kent Porter got some great photos at the fire on Thursday, including one of the 747 Supertanker. Click on the pictures below to see larger versions.