Electric co-op in Washington reaches settlement to pay $1.1 million for suppression of fire that killed three firefighters

Earlier, power companies agreed to pay the seriously injured lone survivor $5 million

Twisp River Fire map
Photo from the report on the Twisp River Fire.

The Okanogan County Electric Co-op has agreed to a $1.1 million settlement for the suppression costs of the deadly 2015 Twisp River Fire.

U.S. Attorney William D. Hyslop announced that the settlement had been reached with Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, Inc. (“OCEC”) and its insurer, requiring the payment of $1.1 million to the United States in fire suppression costs resulting from the Twisp River Fire that began on August 19, 2015 in north-central Washington.

The $1.1 million recovers a large portion of the U.S. Forest Service’s costs incurred in suppressing the fire. It was part of a larger settlement of claims that were brought separately by other plaintiffs, including U.S. Forest Service firefighter Daniel Lyon and the State of Washington, who sought to recover damages for personal injury and property damage caused by the fire.

The Twisp River Fire ultimately burned approximately 11,200 acres, claimed the lives of three USFS firefighters, and severely injured Mr. Lyon. He suffered third degree burns over nearly 70 percent of his body, but three other firefighters in the same engine died in the vehicle, according to the corner’s report, from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. They were Richard Wheeler, 31; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Tom Zbyszewski, 20. All four were employees of the USFS working on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest out of Twisp, Washington.

The US Attorney claimed the Twisp River Fire ignited due to contact between a tree branch and OCEC’s electrical distribution line. He further claimed OCEC failed to properly maintain a vegetation management plan designed to detect and prevent the tree branch from contacting the distribution line. OCEC denied these allegations.

In January Mr. Lyon reached a settlement with two utility companies, OCEC and Douglas County PUD, just before an appeal of his $100 million civil suit was to be heard before the state Supreme Court. In that settlement the companies agreed to pay $5 million.

From the Wenatchee World, when the $5 million settlement was announced in January:

“I am very grateful that my case calls attention to the plight of injured first responders,” said Lyon, who was burned over most of his body and has undergone more than a dozen surgeries and 100 medical procedures. “I am also grateful my case has reached a settlement so that I can now move on with my life knowing I will have the resources I need for the future.”

Last July, his attorneys, in an appeals brief, argued the Professional Rescue Doctrine that largely bars such claims violates the state constitution, which gives people equal protection under the law and offers the right to seek compensation for damages.

Lyon’s attorneys note that courts in some other states, where the doctrine once held sway, have opted to throw it out.

An attorney for one of the two defendants, in an earlier interview, says the wounds Lyon suffered — however grievous — resulted from risks inherent to the dangerous job of firefighting.

“The law does not allow them (professional first responders) to sue — and there are good policy reasons behind that,” said A. Grant Lingg, who represents the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative. “You don’t want the people who start a fire to be afraid to call the fire department for fear that that an injured first responder will sue them.”

The video below is about the January settlement.

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

Forest Service Northwest region issues COVID-19 protocols for firefighting

“Initial attack should be the highest priority for commitment of resources”

National Park Service fire wildfire firefighters
National Park Service photo.

On April 9 the U.S. Forest Service issued protocols for firefighters in their Pacific Northwest Region, Washington and Oregon, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It only applies to FS personnel in those two states and is intended to be complementary to the Northwest Geographic Response Plan being developed by an Area Command Team.

You can download the entire nine-page document, but we captured some of the highlights:

Before the fire

  • Survey first responders to develop lists of those pre-disposed to respiratory illness and factor this into their assigned roles and tasks on large incidents.
  • Build extra capacity in all of our workforce, but especially supervisors, for managing line of duty deaths (Casualty Assistance Program).
  • Technology:
    • Remote operations, briefings, sensing and surveillance, fuel modeling/sensing; fire behavior modeling/projections.
    • Preparation for those modules that have or potential to have reduced personnel, by identifying collateral duty/overhead personnel and militia prepared to help with staffing engines, IHC’s and hand crews.
    • Operations will prepare with the expectation that resource limitations will occur at all Preparedness Levels.
  • Contracting: MRE’s, medical equipment, PPE, remote sensing, UAS, contract personnel and equipment.

During the Fire

  • Priority: Initial attack should be the highest priority for commitment of resources with the purpose of containing fires during initial attack and preventing long duration fires.
  • Initial attack response should align with direction to limit the risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19. This should involve strategies and tactics that minimize the number of people needed to respond and that reduce the incident duration while not compromising firefighter safety and probability of success. The efforts to reduce overall exposure may require consideration to increased staffing, albeit for less duration.
  • Emphasize containment in order to minimize assignment time, mop-up standards should be evaluated for all incidents and limited to minimize additional fire spread.
    • Make decisions that will minimize the number of responders needed to meet objectives.
    • Consider zone and point protection suppression strategies associated with protection of human life, communities and critical infrastructure when sufficient resources for perimeter control are not available.
    • Weigh the risk of responding in multiple vehicles; driving is still the one of our highest-risk activities.
    • Stock vehicles with disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, soap and physical barrier protection (face shields, masks). Disinfect vehicles and equipment and wash PPE after each response.
    • Do not share PPE, flight helmets, radios or other equipment.
    • Use MREs, freeze dried, single-serve sack or boxed meals instead of food lines. Evaluate drinking water supply options to minimize exposure and handling of water containers.
    • Monitor smoke and Co2 Exposure to firefighters, rotate in and out of smoke if necessary.
    • Consider shorter tours (<14 days), shorter shift lengths. Incorporate additional time into shifts to provide for hygiene, cleaning and additional rest.
  • Remote operations, briefings sensing and surveillance, fuel modeling/sensing; fire behavior modeling/projections.
    • Use technology to communicate using virtual tools.
    • Increase use of UAS and webcams.
    • Plan for increased use of networking capabilities, and areas with limited or not existing network capabilities may need additional services.
  • Camps:
    • When possible, shift operations and logistics from single, large camps to multiple, satellite camps that support the separation of people.
    • Incident Command Teams may utilize hotels where individual rooms allow for separations
    • Briefings should be conducted via radios and/or other virtual tools, to reduce face to face interactions.
    • Expanded medical support (as needed and if possible).
    • Module isolation: (dispersed camping).
    • Two-way isolation: closed camps with security, no leaving camp to travel into community.
    • Define and implement more rigorous cleaning and sanitation protocols.
    • Provide extra hand washing stations if possible.
  • Communication: When possible, shift operations and logistics from single, large camps to multiple, satellite camps that support the separation of people.
    • Incident Command Teams may utilize hotels where individual rooms allow for separations.
    • Briefings should be conducted via radios and/or other virtual tools, to reduce face to face interactions.
    • Expanded medical support (as needed and if possible).
    • Module isolation: (dispersed camping).
    • Two-way isolation: closed camps with security, no leaving camp to travel into community.
    • Define and implement more rigorous cleaning and sanitation protocols.
    • Provide extra handwashing stations if possible.

After the Fire

  • Rest, Recovery and Reassignment: take precautions to limit potential spread of COVID-19. This may include:
    • Continued screening and testing.
    • Module isolation (Fire modules should not report to the office but a designated location that allows for the crew to interact and work without exposing them or other employees. Work should allow for the continued separation of crews as long as they continue to remain available nationally.)
  • Increased employee support (be prepared to provide it virtually)
    • EAP
    • Peer Support
    • Hospital and Family Liaison
  • Tracking: Forward and backward monitoring of all module-to-module, person-to-person and community interactions.
  • Communication: Appraise community of status including quarantines and rehabilitation.
    • Communicating potential exposure.
    • Communicating our limited capacity for response.
    • Community response.
  • AAR Specific to Wildfire Tactics and COVID-19. We need to institutionalize what we learn from the COVID-19 crisis and incorporate that into our enterprise risk management as well as local SOPs.

Incident Management Teams are receiving COVID-19 assignments

Area Command, Type 1, Type 2, and NIMO teams

Coronavirus Response graphic

At least eight interagency Incident Management Teams have been deployed to work on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the teams that usually are assigned on wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, but can adapt to manage many different kinds of planned or unplanned incidents, organized under the Incident Command System.

As we reported earlier, three Area Command Teams were given assignments on March 17 to develop protocols and wildfire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The plan was for the personnel to work remotely, rather than assemble in one location. The teams will be working on plans for the following geographic areas:

  • AC Team 1, Tim Sexton: Southern, Great Basin, & Northern Rockies.
  • AC Team 2, Joe Stutler: Rocky Mountains, Northwest, & Alaska.
  • AC Team 3, Scott Jalbert: Southwest, and both Northern and Southern California.

Two National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams have also received assignments:

Two IMTs were activated in the Northwest Geographic Area:

  • Type 1 NW Team 2, Rob Allen, has been assigned to Washington State Emergency Operations Center, providing complexity analysis, risk assessments and short/long-term planning guidance.
  • Type 2 NW Team 13 , Brian Gales, has been assigned to the Spokane Regional Health District, Washington, assisting with strategic planning and building capacity.

There are reports that other teams have been assigned in Oregon from the State Fire Marshal’s office and the Department of Forestry.

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.

Firefighter injured last month passes away in hospital

Christian Johnson, 55, was severely burned on the Spring Coulee Fire in Washington

Christian Johnson
Christian Johnson, Assistant Chief of the Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department.

A firefighter who received second and third degree burns over 60 percent of his body September 1, 2019 while battling the Spring Coulee Fire in Okanogan County, Washington passed away yesterday, October 2, 2019. Christian Dean Johnson, 55, of Okanogan was surrounded by his wife Pam, family, and friends at Harborview Medical Center.

From the GoFundMe page that was created September 3:

Christian has served his country as a sergeant in the Us Army, and was deployed with the Washington State National Guard from November 2003-May 2005 in Baghdad. He retired after 22 years of service and has volunteered for the Okanogan Fire Department for 20 years.

Christian is a selfless man, who is always willing to help those in need, and never ask for anything in return. We are now asking for your help to make this long journey a little easier for him and his family. Any amount of donations are greatly appreciated and will go towards helping his wife (Pam Johnson) with travel, housing, food, etc.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Christian’s family and friends. May he rest in peace.

Timber thieves foiled by bees ignite 3,300-acre fire

Maple Fire Olympic National Forest
Maple Fire, Olympic National Forest, Washington, August 2018. IMT photo.

Maple trees are so valuable and prized by woodworkers, especially those who manufacture musical instruments, that it is a violation of the law in Washington to transport the wood without a state-issued specialized forest products permit. Armed with a permit that authorized the harvesting of maples from private land, Justin Andrew Wilke and Shawn Edward (Thor) Williams and others camped for several days in the Olympic National Forest scouting for big leaf maple trees with the highly desired figured wood pattern. They identified trees containing figuring by “checking” the trees, that is, using an axe to peel back the bark to expose the pattern of the wood, sometimes doing it at night to avoid detection.

When they found a tree they liked they would fell it with a chain saw, buck it up, and transport the wood to a mill in Tumwater, Washington, presenting the permit and saying it had been harvested with permission from private property. According to the federal grand jury indictment, Wilke and/or Williams made more than 20 trips to the mill between April and August of 2018, collecting more than $13,000 by selling illegally harvested National Forest timber.

The theft was going fine for the two men until they ran into a problem on August 3, 2018 near the Elk Lake Lower Trailhead. Their latest target contained a bee’s nest that made it difficult or impossible to fell the tree. Spraying wasp killer was not effective, so they agreed that Mr. Wilke’s plan to burn them out with gasoline was the next step.

The indictment does not specify if the fire got rid of the bees, but the men were not able to put it out with water bottles. The fire, named “Maple”, ultimately burned 3,300 acres.

Maple Fire Olympic National Forest
Maple Fire, Olympic National Forest, Washington, August 2018. IMT photo.

When a U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer questioned Mr. Wilke on August 4 about the fire and his timber-poaching activity, he told the officer that he had not been cutting timber, did not have a chain saw, and knew nothing about the fire. It turned out that he had concealed his saw to hide it from investigators.

Mr. Wilke and Mr. Williams were charged with multiple felonies related to timber theft and starting the fire. Mr. Williams had previously been in trouble with authorities in Florida for firearms violations.

From the Washington Post, October 1, 2019:

A spokesperson with the U.S. attorney’s office told The Washington Post that Wilke pleaded not guilty during a court appearance on Monday and remains detained. His trial will begin in December. Williams is in state custody in California and will be transported to Washington state to be arraigned, the spokesperson said.

Maple Fire Olympic National Forest
Maple Fire, Olympic National Forest, Washington, August 2018. IMT photo.
Maple Fire Olympic National Forest
Maple Fire, Olympic National Forest, Washington, August 2018. IMT photo.

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