Wildfire briefing, December 9, 2013

Hunter to be charged for starting Rim Fire

A hunter is expected to be charged for acts that resulted in starting the Rim Fire, which this summer burned 402 square miles of forest in and near Yosemite National Park in California. Sfgate.com reported that Michael Knowles of the U.S. Attorney’s office has indicated that charges will be filed, but the identity of the person has not been revealed. Fire officials said earlier that a hunter’s illegal campfire was the origin of the blaze.

Reporter remembers writing the story about the South Canyon Fire

A reporter has written an interesting article about what it was like to first hear the news and write the story of the 14 firefighters that were killed on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1994.

Billie Stanton was working in the news room with Jim Kirksey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, when the call came in from reporter Robert (Bob) Kowalski near the fire scene.

…As the fastest typist, I was taking down the victims’ ages and names as Bob carefully recited the spellings. Kirksey was fashioning the story.

But the names kept coming and coming. “Is that it?” I would ask. “No, I have more,” Bob would say.

I’m uncertain now on whose name I began to cry. One of those four beautiful young women from Prineville, Ore., I think — Tammy Bickett or Kathi Beck, Terri Hagen or Bonnie Holtby.

I’d never covered a wildfire; I didn’t even know women were fighting them. But the image of 14 young firefighters trapped by flames was seared into my consciousness.

$225 burial allowances for Mann Gulch Fire victims

I’m not sure if this fact was in Young Men and Fire or not, but the Billings Gazette, in writing about the passing of attorney Louise Replogle Rankin Galt who died last month at age 90, reported that she was involved in a court case related to the Mann Gulch Fire. Obviously litigation following fatal fires is not a recent phenomenon.

Replogle unsuccessfully sued the federal government seeking more than the $225 burial allowances for the families of each of the 13 firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers, killed in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, her niece, Candace Johnson Kruger, of Columbia Falls, recalled.


Thanks go out to Wendy

19 years ago 14 firefighters were killed on the South Canyon Fire

With the recent deaths of 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire, we must remember the deaths of 14 firefighters 19 years ago on the South Canyon fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

On the afternoon of July 6, 1994 the fire spotted across the drainage and beneath firefighters, moving onto steep slopes and into dense, highly flammable Gambel oak. Within seconds, a wall of flame raced up the hill toward the firefighters on the west flank fireline. Failing to outrun the flames, 12 firefighters perished. Two helitack crew members on top of the ridge also died when they tried to outrun the fire to the northwest. The remaining 35 firefighters survived by escaping out the east drainage or by seeking a safety area and deploying their fire shelters. More info here.

The firefighters who lost their lives that day:

  1. Kathi Beck
  2. Tami Bickett
  3. Scott Blecha
  4. Levi Brinkley
  5. Robert Browning
  6. Doug Dunbar
  7. Terri Hagen
  8. Bonnie Holtby
  9. Rob Johnson
  10. Jon Kelso
  11. Don Mackey
  12. Roger Roth
  13. James Thrash
  14. Richard Tyler

If you are over 40 years old, do you remember where you were when you heard about the 14 deaths? I heard about it on a phone call from Steve Creech, the Fire Coordinator for the State of Indiana. After I hung up I thought that can’t be true. In this day and age, we no longer have large groups of firefighters being killed at the same time. We’ve grown and learned beyond that, I told myself, refusing to believe it.

And this past Sunday, I had the same feeling — 19 firefighters dead? That can’t be true. But fark, we have not grown and learned beyond that. We are still fighting fire with sharpened pieces of metal attached to the ends of sticks, under, in many cases, aircraft built for the Korean War. We still put wet stuff on the red stuff. And… dammit, we can still lose 95 percent of a hotshot crew in a matter of minutes… in 2013.

I hope we don’t passively resign ourselves, thinking that this is inevitable.

Dammit guys and gals…. Let’s Be Careful Out There.

“Everyone goes home” – stories from Storm King Mountain

Every wildland firefighter should see this video.

It includes numerous interviews of wildland firefighters who were involved with, or were on scene during the entrapment and deaths of 14 firefighters on the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado.

With criminal charges being thrown around following mistakes made on fires in recent years, it is extraordinary to see firefighters speak so freely about a disaster that occurred on a wildland fire. The people being interviewed deserve a great deal of credit and praise for their participation.

Some of the opportunities for lessons learned include:

  • You are responsible for your own safety.
  • Take care of your fellow firefighters.
  • If you see something, say something.
  • Question decisions if they have the potential to adversely affect your safety.
  • Downhill line construction can be very dangerous.
  • Be a student of fire.
  • Know your fire orders, fire situations, and LCES (lookouts, communications, escape routes, and safety zones).
  • Maintain situational awareness. Trust your instincts and be aware of your surroundings at all times.
  • Leadership and safety start at the ground level.

There were other lessons learned as well. What stood out to you?

None of this is earthshakingly new information. Experienced firefighters have heard it all before, but not necessarily from people who know very intimately WHY it is important.

The more you are exposed to this hard-earned knowledge, especially when it comes from survivors, it may actually stick. And new firefighters can’t hear it enough.

The firefighters who died on the South Canyon fire were:

  • Prineville Hotshots: Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Douglas Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso.
  • Missoula Smokejumper: Don Mackey
  • McCall Smokejumpers: Roger Roth, Jim Thrash.
  • Helitack: Robert Browning, Jr., Richard Tyler.

The video is available at YouTube, and can be downloaded at Everyone Goes Home.

Interviewees South Canyon Fire
A screen grab from the video, showing some of the people featured in interviews.

More information about the South Canyon Fire:

NWCG releases app for South Canyon Staff Ride

South Canyon staff ride app
Screen shot from South Canyon staff ride app

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has released an app for the South Canyon Staff Ride. On July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters lost their lives on the fire 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

As you may know, a staff ride is usually a guided tour at the site of a significant wildfire, with programmed stops and talking points. The objective is to explore lessons learned. The intent of the app, according to “Rob N.”, an Instructional Media Illustrator for NWCG Training who coded the app, is to familiarize and prepare individuals prior to visiting the site.

In using the app, when you touch one of the numbered stand locations on the map, it takes you to a photo of the area along with some text about what happened at that location.

The version that was just released is on the Google Play site and is for Android devices (smart phones and tablets). They expect to develop a version for Apple devices in the near future.

This version is a Beta release and is a little rough around the edges. On my Samsung Galaxy Nexus, running Android 3.0.8, I had trouble getting some of the navigation buttons to respond, and it took me a while to figure out how to get the text to scroll until I found an almost hidden scroll bar. The photos are extremely low resolution, and “Rob” told us that they will be replaced when they move past the Beta version.

The developers hope to receive input and suggestions for improvement from Beta testers. According to the Google Play site, about a half dozen copies have been dowloaded as of May 21. It can cost thousands of dollars to have a professional developer write the code for an app, but this was done in-house in about a week.

We applaud the NWCG, stepping boldly into the future present, developing an app. We’ll reserve judgement on the usefulness of this particular endeavor until it comes out of Beta and is tested by actual users seeking lessons learned.