Report released on burnover of firefighters on Silverado Fire

Two firefighters are still in critical condition in Orange County, California

Silverado Fire spot fires burnover firefighters injured

The two firefighters that suffered very serious injuries while battling the Silverado Fire are still in critical condition, on ventilators, and in induced comas. However, they have survived multiple surgeries and are improving, but they have a long and tough road ahead.

They are members of a 17-person Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) hand crew that was assigned to the fire east of Irvine, California on October 26, 2020 when the fire burned over their location. In addition to the two firefighters still hospitalized, another suffered radiant heat injuries and other firefighters had superficial heat injuries.

The OCFA has released an Informational Summary Report, or Green Sheet, about the incident.

The burnover occurred at about noon during a Red Flag Warning for strong offshore winds, low humidity, and dry fuels. The weather conditions at the time were 60 degrees, 8 percent relative humidity, and winds out of the north-northeast at 16 mph with gusts to 42 mph. The fire was burning in grass and brush, with live fuel moistures for the chamise and sage at or below the critical levels.

Map, Silverado Fire burnover October 26, 2020
Map, Silverado Fire burnover October 26, 2020. OCFA.

Very briefly, the firefighters were along an indirect mid-slope dozer line with fire below and unburned vegetation on both sides. They were firing out below the  line, igniting with drip torches until the wind kept blowing out the flames on the wicks, so they switched to using fusees. Several spot fires occurred on the slope above the dozer line which were suppressed by the crew. Another spot fire which grew rapidly about 80 feet above the line was attacked by eight firefighters with hand tools and three engine crew members with a fire hose.

Shortly thereafter, a second rapidly spreading spot fire started below and upwind of the eleven firefighters. They escaped from the area as best they could back down to the dozer line.

Escape routes Silverado Fire

Five hand crew members were impacted by radiant and convective heat, reporting singed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes while stumbling out of the way of the second spot fire’s path. The remaining three hand crew members, according to the report, “were impacted significantly”.

The two most seriously injured personnel were transported with paramedics in an engine and a hand crew vehicle to Orange County Global Medical Center, arriving at 12:32 p.m. and 12:57 p.m.

There was no mention in the report of fire shelters, either being carried or deployed by the firefighters. We have unconfirmed information that they had fire shelters but there wasn’t enough time to deploy them.

The Silverado Fire burned 12,466 acres and destroyed 5 structures.

In 2007 in Orange County 12 firefighters on the Santiago Fire were entrapped and deployed fire shelters, but there were no serious injuries.

Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.
Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.

Australia’s Royal Commission on bushfires recommends aerial firefighting fleet

Proposes national emergency warning app

Australia Royal Commission
Australia Royal Commission photo

The unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia resulted in the devastating loss of life, property and wildlife across the nation. After the smoke cleared a Royal Commission was directed to work out not only how to prevent the severity of future bushfire seasons, but all natural disasters.

The Chair of the Commission, Mark Binskin, is a former Chief of the Air Force and Chief of the Defense Force. In the foreword to the report he wrote:

There are lessons for us all. Governments, essential service providers, insurers, charities, communities and individuals should consider what steps they must take across all phases of natural disasters to improve national natural disaster arrangements. It is undoubtedly in the national interest to do so.

The findings of the commission are extensive and comprehensive, as are the 80 recommendations in the 594-page report. During the 2019-2020 fire season, Australia experienced a live stress test of their system and identified lessons they learned, many of which can be also be applied to North America and the Mediterranean area where residents have to learn to live with wildfires.

Here are excerpts from the report.


National Emergency Response capability

  • Over 9,800 fire personnel were deployed on bushfires during the 2019-2020 season.
  • National resource sharing arrangements need to be strengthened to support resource sharing in times of crisis. We consider the development of a national register of resources would support situational awareness, and resource sharing, and inform national capability development.
  • We consider that states and territories should update and implement plans to achieve interoperable communication for emergency services. We also recommend expediting efforts to create Public Safety Mobile Broadband to improve communications capabilities for emergency responders.
  • Volunteers make up the majority of the fire and emergency services workforce in Australia. Volunteers need to be supported and enabled to participate in a way that respects the values of volunteerism, and considers the competing demands on their time. Increasing employment protections for fire and emergency services volunteers represents a way to support volunteer participation into the future.
  • Some states and territories use data modeling and forecasting, or are working on planning tools to forecast resource needs. In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) have been working with CSIRO to develop a planning tool to forecast firefighting resources requirements for 2020 and 2050 for all fire regions in Australia based on the Forest Fire Index and two climate change scenarios. State and territory governments should have a structured process to regularly assess the capacity and capability requirements of fire and emergency services, in light of both current and future natural disaster risk.
  • Australian, state and territory governments should consider whether national training for incident management roles would assist to increase numbers of trained personnel and support interstate deployments. These governments should also consider the development of an appropriate base standard of training or competency for roles that would obtain automatic national recognition.
  • Australian, state and territory governments should conduct multi-agency, national-level exercises, not limited to cross-border jurisdictions. These exercises should, at a minimum: (1) assess national capacity, inform capability development and coordination in response to, and recovery from, natural disasters, and (2) use scenarios that stress current capabilities.
  • Fire and emergency service volunteers should not suffer significant financial loss as a result of prolonged periods of volunteering during natural disasters. State and territory governments should continue their work to support and recognize fire and emergency services volunteers, including self-employed volunteers. State and territory governments should continue to support, recognize and incentivize employers who release employees to serve as fire and emergency services volunteers.

Australia volunteer firefighters

Capabilities of national aerial firefighting

  • The Victorian Inspector-General for Emergency Management observed that, “The effectiveness of aerial firefighting resources and the deployment system in Victorian environments has not been extensively evaluated. A greater understanding of how aerial assets can support suppression efforts including first attack would allow Victoria to make more informed requests for aerial firefighting assets and ensure any assets provided are used to their greatest effect.” The governments of ACT, SA and Victoria also told us that they consider further research is required to improve aerial firefighting tactics, products and their effectiveness.
  • Aerial firefighting capabilities vary between the states and territories, with some jurisdictions, such as the ACT, not owning any aircraft. Other jurisdictions own aircraft. For example, NSW owns a fleet consisting of three helicopters and the ‘Marie Bashir’ LAT, and has purchased a further four aircraft (two fixed-wing and two helicopters) which are expected to be available in 2020. [Note from Bill: The LAT is a 737 air tanker recently purchased from Coulson Aviation. The two fixed wing aircraft are Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence jets; the two helicopters are Bell 412s. More info.]
  • There is merit in considering what further benefits could be derived from even greater [interstate] collaboration in the use of available aerial firefighting resources.
  • We heard that the current terms of aircraft service contracts are a disincentive for some Australian-based service providers. The majority of the providers we heard from told us that short contracts and minimal work during the off season make it unviable to invest in expensive aviation equipment. Contracts traditionally engage providers for 84 service days (70 in Tasmania) within the fire season, but we heard that more contracted service days would allow providers to invest in more equipment and offer greater value for money to fire agencies.
  • The Aerial Application Association of Australia also told us that the length of contracts is insufficient to encourage industry to invest in aircraft and creates significant uncertainty in securing long-term finance. The Aerial Application Association of Australia also criticizes the short lead times for developing contract proposals with NAFC.
  • The limited availability of aviation support personnel in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season limited the sharing of personnel between jurisdictions and led to a greater reliance on personnel sourced from overseas.
  • The optimal use of aerial firefighting is in the early stages of a bushfire. For an aircraft to provide effective assistance in the suppression of a bushfire it needs to be rapidly dispatched with minimal travel time and with necessary logistical support systems in place. Victoria, SA and WA each employ ‘pre-determined dispatch’-the purpose of which is to reduce the time for the aircraft to reach the fire -described as a ‘game changing system that should be adopted nationally’.
  • On some occasions during the 2019-2020 bushfire season states and territories were unable to call upon additional aviation services when needed.
  • Aviation services funded, in whole or in part, by the Australian Government should be shared between jurisdictions according to the greatest need.
  • The availability of overseas-based aviation services during Australian fire seasons, particularly LATs, may be reduced by the increasing convergence of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • We also heard that Australian-licensed pilots were not licensed to operate foreign-registered aircraft used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. For example, with the exception of the NSW-owned LAT, none of the LATs used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season were Australian-registered, and therefore Australian-licensed pilots were precluded from operating them.
  • The Australian Federation of Air Pilots told us that it has approximately 5,000 Australia-based members employed as commercial pilots. This suggests Australia may have the potential to recruit and train the necessary expertise to operate firefighting aircraft currently sourced from overseas, including LATs, if such aircraft were owned and registered in Australia.
  • Australian, state, and territory governments should work together to continue to improve Australia’s collective, Australian-based and operated, aerial firefighting capabilities. Though we see merit in the continued use of overseas-based aviation services and air crew in some instances, Australia’s current reliance represents a vulnerability, as demonstrated during the 2019-2020 bushfire season.
  • The development of a modest Australian-based and registered national fleet of VLAT/LAT [Very large Airtanker/Large Air Tanker] aircraft and Type-1 helicopters, jointly funded by the Australian, state and territory governments, will enhance Australia’s bushfire resilience. A standing national fleet would ensure that the states and territories have the necessary resources to call upon during periods of high demand, without the need to reduce the operational capabilities of other jurisdictions. This standing fleet should also include situational awareness and support capabilities which may benefit from a nationally coordinated approach. Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability should be supported by ongoing research and evaluation to inform specific capability needs, and the most effective aerial firefighting strategies.
  • Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability may be supplemented by overseas-based aviation services, where additional capacity is forecast to be required and available.

Australia Air-Crane helicopter fire

Role of Australian Defense Forces

  • Improve understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities.
  • State and territory governments should take steps to ensure that there is better interaction, planning and ongoing understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities and processes by state and territory fire and emergency service agencies and local governments.
  • The ADF has finite capacity and capability. The capacity and capability of the ADF to respond to natural disasters can be affected by its commitment to its priorities, both domestic and international. The ADF should not be seen as a first responder for natural disasters, nor relied on as such.
  • There should be greater representation by the ADF in state, territory and local government exercises, briefings, and planning for natural disasters.
  • State and territory governments should take steps to ensure that there is better interaction, planning and ongoing understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities and processes by state and territory fire and emergency service agencies and local governments.
Evacuees are transported
Evacuees are transported from Mallacoota, Victoria to awaiting ships as part of Operation Bushfire Assist. ADF photo.

Continue reading “Australia’s Royal Commission on bushfires recommends aerial firefighting fleet”

Report released for fatal crash of C-130 air tanker in Australia

September 25, 2020  |  5:23 p.m. MDT

Flight path B134 air tanker crash

This article was first published at Fire Aviation September 24, 2020

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has released an interim report about the January 23, 2020 crash of a C-130, Air Tanker 134, that killed the three crewmembers on board. This follows the preliminary report the agency issued in February, 2020. The aircraft was known as Bomber 134 (B134) in Australia.

“The interim report does not contain findings nor identify safety issues, which will be contained in the final report. However, it does detail the extensive evidence gathered to date, which has helped ATSB investigators develop a detailed picture of this tragic accident’s sequence of events,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood.

Tanker 134 at Medford, Oregon
Tanker 134 (B134) at Medford, Oregon July 27, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.

It was very windy on January 23, with a forecast for the possibility of mountain waves. Before the incident a birddog, similar to a lead plane, and  Bomber 137 (B137), formerly Tanker 138, a Boeing 737 that Coulson sold to New South Wales, was tasked to drop on a fire in the Adaminaby area. Based on the weather the birddog pilot declined the assignment. After B137 made a drop on the fire, the crew reported having experienced uncommanded aircraft rolls up to 45° angle of bank (due to wind) and a windshear warning from the aircraft on‑board systems.

After completing the drop, the B137 crew sent a text message to the birddog pilot indicating that the conditions were “horrible down there. Don’t send anybody and we’re not going back.” They also reported to the Cooma FCC that the conditions were unsuitable for firebombing operations. During B137’s return flight to Richmond, the Richmond air base manager requested that they reload the aircraft in Canberra and return to Adaminaby. The Pilot in Command (PIC) replied that they would not be returning to Adaminaby due to the weather conditions.

B134 was dispatched to the fire at Adaminaby. While they were in route, the PIC of B137 called to inform them of the actual conditions, and that B137 would not be returning to Adaminaby.

After arriving at Adaminaby the PIC of B134 contacted the air operations officer at the Cooma FCC by radio and advised them that it was too smoky and windy to complete a retardant drop at that location. The Cooma air operations officer then provided the crew with the location of the Good Good Fire, about 58 km to the east of Adaminaby, with the objective of conducting structure and property protection near Peak View. Again, there was no birddog operating with the air tanker.

B134 flight path air tanker crash
Flight path overview (in white), including the times and locations of where the crew of B134 was in communication with others. From the report.

Analysis of a witness video confirmed that the aircraft initially established a positive rate of climb and was banking to the left following the retardant drop, the report details. Continue reading “Report released for fatal crash of C-130 air tanker in Australia”

Firefighter’s symptoms trigger COVID-19 protocol

A helitack crewmember had been on the 84 Fire in southwest Colorado

84 Fire San Juan NF
84 Fire. San Juan National Forest photo, May 5, 2020.

The first time that the 11-person Durango, Colorado helitack crew all assembled in the same place they realized they were one person short. That May 7 morning one crewmember had called from home saying they had run a fever overnight. This initiated a response in accordance with the COVID-19 protocols established by the U.S. Forest Service.

A Rapid Lesson Sharing report has been released about how this played out. The information below came from the document.

Since the crew started their wildland fire season 25 days before, they had been following the COVID-19 procedures — the 11-person crew, a “Module as One”, was split into two Squads. One staffs the helicopter from its base of operations with the three-person contract flight crew (Pilot, Mechanic, Fuel Truck Driver). The other half is on call from their places of residence on ordered standby and responds if activated on a delayed response. This schedule switches every seven days, with a day off for each squad every 13 days.

The crew had self-isolated for 14 days prior to working with each other.

On May 5 and 6 five of the crewmembers were on the 84 Fire in southwest Colorado, along with approximately 95 other personnel. The Helicopter Manager flew to the fire with three of the five Helitack crewmembers, while the other two drove in separate vehicles.
84 Fire. San Juan National Forest

Manager+3 is the minimum staffing required for a Type 2 Helicopter and they flew to the fire with the minimum during the COVID-19 conditions. Within the confines of a Type 2 Helicopter, there can be no social distance spacing of 6 feet unless only the pilot is onboard.

They spent two days on the fire, sleeping on the front lawn of a nearby fire station after the first day. At end of shift the next day the five Helitack crewmembers got into the two vehicles that were driven to the fire, two in one vehicle and three in the other. People stayed in the same vehicles throughout and the drivers didn’t change.

The individual that called in May 7 with a fever was one of the five who spent the night on the 84 Fire. That morning 10 of the 11 crewmembers gathered in a physical setting and did an AAR on the 84 Fire. This was the first time they had gathered as crew — it was 25 days after the first onboarding of seasonal employees.

The person with the fever took two COVID-19 tests, on May 8 and 9. The requirement for the agency is that the individual with symptoms must remain at home until three things have happened:

They no longer have a fever (without the use of medicine that reduces fevers); AND other symptoms have improved; AND they have received two negative tests in a row, 24 hours apart.

Both tests results, on May 11, found that the firefighter was negative for COVID-19, however the clinic took another nine days to give the results to the individual, on May 19 — 14 days after reporting that they had a fever.

The crewmember self-isolated at their home while waiting for the test results. They are feeling better and believe they had allergies and cold symptoms.

This crewmember is still in the same pay status as the rest of the crew. A CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 was discussed being filed—but wasn’t. No other crewmembers have reported any symptoms and all appear to be very healthy.

Below are some of the lessons identified in the Rapid Lesson Sharing document:

  • A well-defined notification system should be established so Duty Officers, Line Officers, and various Forest entities are aware of individuals on crews who become sick or ill—to prevent causing a “panic” situation.
  • We shouldn’t hit any panic buttons if someone becomes sick. Rather, we need to take the necessary steps with everyone’s well-being in mind during these heightened times.
  • Symptoms that look like COVID-19 could well be the flu, a cold or seasonal allergies. But as a Supervisor you have to take the “better safe than sorry” approach if adverse health symptoms do arise
  • Expect an employee to be out for at least 7-14 days in self-isolation if they get symptoms and longer if a COVID-19 test comes back positive. It took 14 days from the crewmember’s first symptoms to finding out testing results.
  • Are our Best Practices actually the Best Practices? In an effort to limit people at the Durango Tanker Base we told a mechanic for the helicopter to stay in town. And when ordered for a fire, a minor mechanical issue occurred, and it took 30 minutes for the mechanic to get back to the Tanker Base to deal with it.
  • Forest Leadership needs to reinforce to their Forestry Technician Fire personnel that regardless of being sick or not, they will be paid for their respective crew’s readiness ability as a “Module as One”. This can be as simple as knowing your time will have the approved button clicked.
  • COVID-19 information sharing from the Washington Office to the Regional Office to the Supervisors Office to the District Office is at best a fluid mess of forwarded emails, chain emails, conference calls, and Microsoft Team meetings with unmuted participants and all manner of disturbing background sounds.
  • Information needs to be quality over quantity. We need to flatten the curve on an overabundance of excessive information that nobody doing their real job has time to read.

Questions that need to be addressed and answered:

  • What do we do with employees in government housing who come down with symptoms? For that matter, SW Colorado is high COLA (Cost-of-Living Adjustment). What about employees who share housing with other people and who may become sick? Are we authorized to put these people into a safer hotel situation and on per diem? What about the 1039s who camp in parking lots and elsewhere? What about local AD Tanker Base Employees?
  • Do we have a blank check on Maintaining a Healthy Workforce in terms of funding?
  • Is there a clear crosswalk for Supervisors and for employees about the reality of being exposed to COVID-19 and how well our agency will really support us? CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 OWCP, how’s this going to happen and occur?
  • Honestly, what are we going to do if an employee tests positive? How do we react? How do we respond?

AAR completed for the Lion Fire near Meeker, Colorado

Lion Fire Map Meeker Colorado wildfire
Map showing the approximate location of the Lion Fire 1.5 miles west of Meeker, Colorado. Data from Orora Technologies detected from 2:12 p.m. MDT April 7, to 2:30 a.m. MDT April 8, 2020.

An informal After Action Review has been produced for the Lion Fire that burned about 229 acres west of Meeker, Colorado on April 7. The fire was attacked by the Meeker Volunteer Fire Department, Bureau of Land Management, and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. By the end of the day firefighters had stopped the spread. Investigators determined that it started near a mobile home which was consumed in the fire. Several outbuildings and vehicles were also destroyed, according to Meeker Fire Chief Luke Pelloni.

Below is the ARR, distributed by the Zone Fire Management Officer:


As many of you know we had the Lion Fire last week just west of Meeker involving multiple jurisdictions/agencies.  I was tasked with letting you all know how things went as far as COVID-19 measures and mitigation’s.

We have taken multiple steps in our station to limit and minimize exposure to firefighters as we are entering fire season.  I believe there have been lots of good discussions and decisions made in regards to COVID-19.  However, just like in everything we do the plan looks good on paper until the smoke is flying in the air.  Listed below are some of the lessons learned from on the ground experiences last week.

  1. Social distancing is very tough in stressful situations.  The crew discussed social distancing before leaving for the fire and to try and abide by the guidelines, upon arrival multiple structures/vehicles were burning and instincts to protect life and property take over.
  2. When evacuating public, maintaining distance is difficult when property/landowners are panicked and looking for answers and guidance.
  3. When working with multiple agencies the COVID-19 mitigation measures and messages have varied widely and are hard to enforce or maintain.
  4. Briefings are hard to conduct in the field with large crowds and maintain the appropriate distance that is recommended.  We usually don’t have microphones or platforms in initial attack so harder to hear and voice critical information to multiple crews.
  5. Once dispatched we utilized four vehicles with eight firefighters.  This idea seemed like a good idea until arrival and the parking and safety areas for vehicles was minimal.  It added a bit of cluster you could say to the initial arrival to the incident.
  6. Upon arrival personnel jumped into different trucks and engines to engage on the fire creating more “contaminated” surfaces by different people at different times of the incident.
  7. It is very difficult to keep equipment sanitized throughout an incident (examples: truck radios, hand tools, chainsaws, steering wheels, compartment doors, etc.)
  8. A few individuals did wear masks and experienced a harder time communicating to one another thus decreasing the distance between individuals.  The people who did wear masks seemed to be touching their faces and adjusting masks more.

These are a few of the lessons or experiences that we noticed on our first wildfire of the year.  I think we are taking adequate measures to address issues and potential situations that crews will experience this summer.  I think the list above will be some of the issues or challenges that firefighters will encounter on incidents.  One concern I have is the ability to sanitize and clean work areas.  We have spent an entire day trying to purchase items but our current credit card procedures are making that difficult to achieve.  If anyone has any questions or concerns feel free to give me a shout anytime.  Hope everyone is safe and making it through these interesting times.

End of AAR


Lion Fire
Lion Fire. Photo by Rio Blanco Co Sheriff’s Office April 7, 2020.

Report reveals actions taken after fatal helicopter crash on prescribed fire

One person was killed during aerial ignition operations in Texas March 27, 2019

Helicopter Flight Tracking Daniel Laird firefighter killed

A report has been released about the fatal helicopter crash that occurred on a prescribed fire in Texas, March 27, 2019. One of the passengers, Daniel Laird, was killed. The pilot and the other passenger were injured and transported to a hospital.

Tribute to Daniel Laird

Daniel, was born August 30, 1977 in Yuba City, California, the youngest of four siblings.

Daniel went to school at Grace Christian Academy, then on to Bridge Street School, and graduated from Yuba City High School in 1995. He joined the U.S. Forest Service after high school and worked his way up through the ranks to the position of Helitack Captain on the Tahoe National Forest. Daniel had served 23 years with the Forest Service.

Daniel was an avid fisherman, a staunch supporter of the Sacramento Kings, and a competitive golfer. He was also a Yuba City skateboarding icon. His greatest love and highest priority was always for his family.

Daniel’s complete obituary.

Daniel Laird memorial

Below are excerpts from the 33-page Facilitated Learning Analysis which goes into much more detail than seen here, and includes lessons learned. The excerpts are primarily from the viewpoint of Hailei who was in the front of the Airbus AS350B3 helicopter with Matthew, the pilot. Daniel Laird was in the back operating the Plastic Sphere Dispenser which dropped small spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being ejected from the machine. This was one of the methods used to ignite the prescribed fire that day, in addition to firefighters on the ground carrying hand-held devices.

It is common in reports like this to not use real names, but the document does not specify if they were changed.

The following events, from the time of the Mayday until the injured were transported to the hospital, occurred within a short amount of time, from 1409 to 1517. Those injured were actually receiving professional medical care on scene within 15 minutes of the Mayday. The excerpt begins at about 1408 just before finishing ignition on the prescribed fire.


Mayday – The On-Site Response

Hailei talked to Daniel and told him to get ready to turn off the Plastic Sphere Dispenser machine after they made the next turn. They were about to button the whole thing up. “We had one little piece we needed to do. We were 99.9 percent done. As soon as we made the turn, that’s when everything just stopped, and went silent,” Hailei recalls.

Hailei continues, “I looked at Matthew but I wish I would have looked back at Dan, too.” Matthew was fighting with the controls. She doesn’t remember doing it at the time, but Hailei asked Matthew, “What is happening?” He was busy with the controls. Hailei had the “push-to-talk” in her right hand. She keyed the mic and tried to say: “Kendall, we are going down.” But the only thing they heard on the radio was: “Kendall, we are going d . . .”

Hailei remembers hitting the tops of pine trees and then coming to. She later recalled, “I think I got knocked out. The last thing I remember, I was thinking of my daughter.”

Texas March 27, 2019 helicopter crash aerial ignitions
The March 27, 2019 incident in Texas. Photo by Sgt. Erik Burse/Texas Department of Public Safety.

Hailei said, “We [the helicopter] slid 50 feet down a live pine tree and rolled over onto our right side. I realized I was alive and then the pain hit. I undid my seatbelt and looked at [pilot] Matthew and saw a tree had come through between his leg and across his chest. I remember standing there and realized Matthew was alive because he was talking. He looked like he was hugging the pine tree. His head was laying on the PSD sphere bag. He said, ‘Help me move this bag.’ It seemed like forever to get the bag loose. As his seatbelt was unbuckled he fell out of the seat, but his foot was lodged. I had to crawl back in and twist his foot to get him loose.”

Hailei told Matthew: “We’ve got to go.”

She recalled seeing fire around them. She explained, “I wanted Matthew to get up but he couldn’t. I wanted him to get up so I could help him walk out. I wanted to get the fire shelters. I started thinking where the fire shelters were and started looking but couldn’t get to them.

Hailei continues, “I remember seeing Dan’s legs and thought ‘Please move your foot.’ But that never happened. I knew in my heart, he was gone. I thought about my training and remembered that fire extinguishers on board the aircraft are for people—not the aircraft. So I found the extinguisher and gave it to Matthew and said: ‘I have to go get help.’ The entire scene was very quiet for what had just happened.”

Hailei wanted her phone so she could call for help but couldn’t find it. Matthew was able to reach in the console and hand her his phone and she called FMO John. At that moment, John Kendall [Fire Management Officer on the Sam Houston National Forests] sees a Portland, Oregon phone number calling his phone. He remembered thinking that he didn’t recognize the number and he was trying to limit the time he was on the phone, but for some reason, he answered it.

It was Hailei on Matthew’s phone.

Hailei screamed for John to come get her. Hailei kept saying that she could not get the fire shelters from the helicopter. John told Hailei to move east away from the fire, but Hailei was unsure of where she was. Fire was spreading all around them. She told John, “We can’t get out of here.” Upon hearing this plural pronoun, John surmised that there must be at least two alive.

Right then, Hailei looked down and her phone was lying in the grass in front of her. She quickly hung-up with John and put the pilot’s cell phone in her pocket. She called her boyfriend with her phone and told him: “My helicopter crashed, I think one of my crew members is dead, please call my daughter. I don’t want her to find out about this on social media or the news.”

Hailei ends the call with her boyfriend, calls John back on her phone, and tells him that she could hear the UTV. He told her to hang up and call Robbie because he was closer to her.

She called [prescribed fire crewmember] Robbie from her cell phone. Robbie picked up the call. Hailei told him she heard the UTV drive past her. She told them to turn around, drive back, and pick her up.

Hailei remembers: “I thought I was going to have to walk through fire but a path opened up.” Robbie recalled seeing her through the fire. She was in an unburned pocket within the burn unit. Hailei recalls: “I got to Robbie who picked me up and carried me to the UTV where I had a meltdown. I then asked Robbie to stay with me.”

Prescribed Fire Crew Member, Brody, ran by. Hailei told him to hurry because fire was coming and she pointed toward the crashed helicopter. He headed that way and was first on scene at the helicopter. Then Jack, the firefighter who was serving as trail guard and weather observer, responded quickly. Robbie told him, “You need to grab a hand tool.” Jack grabbed a hand tool from the UTV and headed into the crash site following Brody’s path.

When Brody found the helicopter he saw pilot Matthew on his hands and knees under the ship. He recalled, “I asked if he was okay and he said ‘yes.’ I asked about Daniel, and the pilot didn’t know his condition. I ran around and looked and noticed the position of Daniel’s body and knew he was pinned. I knew the only way to help was to keep fire away. I helped the pilot up. I knew there was likely to be fuel everywhere, so I went out away from there and began to dig line.”

At about 1421, Jack met up with Brody at the helicopter as Brody was putting in a handline. Jack saw that Matthew was up and walking around. Jack asked Matthew if he could walk out. Matthew didn’t exactly answer his question, but explained that he didn’t have a fire shelter. Jack gave Matthew his fire shelter and said: “If we need to evacuate, I will open-up the fire shelter and we will leave together.”

Jack asked Matthew to “Show me the location of the PSD Operator so I can check him for signs of life.” Matthew pointed in the general direction and replied: “I don’t believe he made it.” He also informed,

“You can’t get to him.” Jack walked in that direction and quickly determined that, because of the helicopter’s position, he couldn’t get to Daniel.

Jack started helping Brody finish the handline and they started lighting a backfire with lighters. Jack was working on the fireline while having an ongoing conversation with Matthew.

Robbie started driving—very carefully—Hailei out on the UTV. She asked, “Where are we going? Robbie replied, “I want to get you a little better help.” She said, “Well, you can go a little faster.”

It took them about 10 minutes to get to the ambulance. While on the UTV, Robbie gently told Hailei that once he got her to the ambulance he would need to go back to help at the crash site. However, at 1426,  once they made it out to the ambulance, FMO John told Robbie to stay with Hailei because there were enough people at the scene and he wanted Hailei to know that she was supported.

Robbie gave Hailei a few minutes to calm down. Hailei called her supervisor, Toby, the Helicopter Program Manager, at 1430. He didn’t know the crash had happened and answered in a calm laidback voice, “What’s going on?” Hailei explained that the helicopter went down. She reported that she was fine and Matthew was fine but that she wasn’t sure about Daniel. She then handed the phone to Robbie. Toby asked Robbie about Daniel. Robbie informed that Daniel was still unconscious. Toby cancelled the scheduled post-burn recon for the Davy Crockett burn, had a conversation with his pilot, and both agreed to fly back to the Angelina airport. Toby then began to make his way to the hospital in Conroe.

At around 1507, Sam called Dispatch to say Hailei was in route to the hospital. Hailei recalls that Robbie rode in the front of the ambulance and it made her feel better to know that he was going with her. She also recalls that the Medic in the back of the ambulance also made her feel calm. She said, “I was mad because they cut my favorite pair of Nomex off me. I told them not to cut off my boots but to unlace them and tuck my socks in them! After all I went through, my concern at the time was that I didn’t want to get stuck by a needle. The Medic said, ‘You won’t even know’—and I didn’t. I was so impressed.”

While on the way to the hospital, the Medic was answering Hailei’s phone calls and responding to texts for her. One of these phone calls was from Hailei’s dad. The Medic was able to reassure and calm him about Hailei’s condition.

Honoring Daniel with the Utmost Respect and Dignity

The Montgomery Fire Department stabilized the helicopter with lifts that they had carried in. Based on their experiences, they had packed in quite a bit of stabilizing equipment. But because of the position of the helicopter, they only needed a few pieces of equipment to secure it.

While waiting for the Justice of the Peace to arrive, they decided that they would not remove Daniel until they were able to honor him with the utmost respect and dignity. A member of the Montgomery Fire Department requested an American flag be brought to the scene. At 1622, the Justice of the Peace confirmed that Daniel had expired.

Bob, the Angelina/Sabine Assistant Fire Management Officer (AFMO), recalls pulling up to the scene when everyone was waiting for Daniel to be brought out. He said, “We got in line and Daniel was brought out wrapped in an American flag. It was something to see.”

Surprisingly, Hailei was released within three hours of arriving at the hospital. Evan continued to stay with Matthew until James arrived late that night.

Conclusions

4 Crashes
16 Years
8 Lives Lost

The helicopter crash on March 27 that claimed Daniel Laird’s life has opened up old wounds from previous helicopter crashes, including: the 2003 space shuttle support crash (two fatalities, Charles Krenek and Buzz Miller); the 2005 Sabine National Forest crash (three fatalities, Jon Greeno, Charles Edger, and Jack Gonzalez); and the 2015 De Soto National Forest crash (two fatalities, Steve Cobb and Brandon Ricks).

There have also been numerous helicopter near-misses that have left a lasting impression on those involved. Some qualified personnel on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas no longer want to be included in helicopter operations. These realizations have left employees asking large-scale questions about the nature of their work.

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