WILDLAND FIRE IS INHERENTLY DANGEROUS; NO MORE PURPLE RIBBONS


Ten Standard Fire Orders 

  1. Fight fire aggressively, but provide for safety first.
  2. Initiate all actions based on current and expected fire behavior.
  3. Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts.
  4. Ensure instructions are given and understood.
  5. Obtain current information on fire status.
  6. Remain in communication with crew members, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
  7. Determine safety zones and escape routes.
  8. Establish lookouts in potentially hazardous situations.
  9. Retain control at all times.
  10. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. 

Eighteen watch-out situations 

  1. Fire not scouted and sized up.
  2. In country not seen in daylight.
  3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.
  4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
  5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
  6. Instructions and assignments not clear.
  7. No communications link with crewmembers/supervisors.
  8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.
  9. Building fireline downhill with fire below.
  10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.
  11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
  12. Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.
  13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
  14. Weather is getting hotter and drier.
  15. Wind increases or is changing direction.
  16. Getting frequent spot fires across the line.
  17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zone difficult.
  18. Taking a nap near the fireline.

I’m going to be a Monday morning quarterback, but on the other hand, accidents and their investigation interest me, for we must learn from them. Commercial aviation has done so to a remarkable extent; medicine has not.

1949: Mann Gulch fire.  Thirteen died when the fire blew up due to strong winds.  From the time trouble was recognized until the men were dead was 11 minutes.  Those who died did so running uphill.  They died from asphyxiation or burns.  The fire was not affecting houses or civilian lives.  We had a culture from the 1910 fire, where 87 died, that all fires were to be put out before 10 a.m. the next day.  Ironically, this has created many problems we face today.

1994: South Canyon fire, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.  In early July, a lightning strike started it.  Because some residents complained about smoke, a decision was made to fight the fire, which was not endangering any structures or lives, and was 5 acres when a decision was made to attack it, despite its being one of the lowest priority fires in Colorado at the time, where there were at least 35 fires burning, and resources were stretched.  When the fire was initially scouted, the difficulty and the risk were noted, and recommendations were made not to fight it in that particular area.  Catastrophes occur when there are major errors, but they also occur when there is a concatenation of smaller errors.  This fire was an example of the latter.  It was attacked because a person complained of the smoke–an inadequate reason.  Had the fire grown, it might well have been clearly inaccessible to attack in the place where the people who attacked it subsequently died.  It might have been fought differently.  I do wonder whether those who complained about the smoke ever wondered whether they were culpable.

Fourteen people died, including most of the Prineville, Oregon hotshot crew, when they descended a hill, in this worrisome area, in thick growth to build fire lines. Several members thought this maneuver was dangerous, because they had unburned fuel, extremely volatile fuel,  between them and a fire they couldn’t see (Watch out #9). Nobody spoke up, except some smokejumpers elsewhere on the fire, who did not think what they were asked to do was a good idea.  Eight of the ten major rules for fire fighters, 12 of 18 Watch Out guidelines were eventually compromised or violated.

A dry cold front came through that afternoon, predicted, but the information wasn’t relayed to the firefighters.  At 1520 hours, concerns were raised, and some left the area.  At 1600 hours, all left, but sawyers were still carrying their saws, and many were walking.  Twenty minutes later, they were dead, shelters not deployed.  Not only can fire move faster than we can run (this one moved 14 mph), superheated gases and radiant heat can kill people at a great distance, and winds can knock them over.  On Mann Gulch, winds lifted a survivor up and down three times.  The idea that fire suddenly erupts and people die with no warning is not true.  Fire does suddenly erupt, but usually there are hints.  There were such hints at South Canyon.  There were draws, and there was wind, an ideal situation for fire spread, and one that had been previously noted.  Many firefighters didn’t appreciate the severity of the situation until it was too late, for the safety zones were too far away and uphill.

The recommendations after South Canyon were hoped to make fire fighting safer.  They didn’t.

Thirty Mile Fire, Washington State, 2001.  Four fire fighters died after deploying their shelters in a rock field when a small fire earlier in the day suddenly exploded, overwhelming the crew. The problem was many small errors–virtually no sleep the night before (impairs judgment equivalent to being legally drunk), going suddenly to a fire that they hadn’t planned on, faulty equipment, slow start, and pulling in the lookout.  At the lunch spot, not a safety zone, two spot fires were noted up a dead end road (which had not been previously appreciated when the group arrived at the fire), and tankers were sent to the spots.  At this point, the hauntingly sad video given by survivors stops, and the listener is told to put himself in the position of the fireboss, rather than knowing what happened later.  The fireboss sent more help to the spot fires, had no lookout to look at what the main fire was doing, and ultimately, the whole group was cut off from escaping from the lunch site the other way.  Instead, they went up the dead end road (which also had civilians present) to what appeared to be a safe area, with a stream to the east, a rock slide with no growth (but fuel between the rocks), and the road.

Thirty minutes before the fire overwhelmed the crew, many were taking pictures of themselves, not looking for safe spots or beginning shelter deployment, not knowing this would be the last picture of them alive.

Shelter deployment means that people were in an area they should not have been in.  They were too far from the safety zone.  That happens.  Shelters are a last ditch effort to save oneself.  Had everybody deployed on the road, they would have all survived.  But some deployed on the rocks.  They died of asphyxiation.  Many at the time were not adequately trained to deal with shelters, which one must be able to get in either standing or lying.  Several wore fusees and backpacks into the shelter; fusees burn at 375 degrees and can ignite if in contact with the shelter itself.  Some lost gloves, which were in retrospect available and nearby, and others left backpacks too close to the shelter, where they burned, adding fire near the shelter.  I don’t know what I would do if I were in that situation.  I haven’t been trained; all of these people were.  Many deploying shelters do so when there is a great deal of wind from the fire, sometimes ripping the shelter from a person’s hand. When I saw this haunting video, I said to myself, “When the tanker on the downwind spot fire radioed that they needed additional help, that is when I would have pulled out.  Everything is going wrong on this day, and we need to regroup.”

We get back to the basic part of fire fighting.  It is dangerous, and everybody who fights fire knows that.  My experience is nearly nil, only having driven a water tanker on a controlled burn in 1995.  The culture had been not to question orders, and there is a degree of pride in being able to handle adversity.  Nobody likes to lose a fire, nobody wants to say that they couldn’t attack it.  Nobody wants to see houses destroyed.

What I don’t remember about 1994, although I could be wrong, was that we didn’t refer to the fallen firefighters as heroes.  They were professionals, and they were sadly victims. The fire should have been allowed to burn, nobody should have been deployed in any area that was unsafe, regardless of the risk to property and especially not because somebody complained about the smoke.  And that brings me to 19 years later, a lot closer to home.

2013:  Arizona.  Nineteen firefighters die fighting the Yarnell Hill fire.  We don’t know many details yet.  A lookout was posted, and he radioed that the winds had shifted and he was leaving.  We’ve heard he did all the right things, but I know nothing yet of whether his messages were received, or what else was said or not said.  Shelters were deployed, unlike Storm King, so there was more time for the firefighters to realize they were in trouble.  There wasn’t much time, but the early reports saying “nothing could have been done, the fire was on them in seconds” may not be accurate.  I don’t yet know.  More than one report is comparing the Yarnell Hill fire with the South Canyon fire.  Both were initially small, both were in difficult terrain with extreme drought, and both were handled by hotshots.  Both had a major, predictable wind event, both had unburned fuel between the firefighters and the main fire, and both led to disasters.

I suspect by the end of August, most of the investigation will be completed.  Lack of a meteorologist will be one issue, I suspect, or at least under appreciation of what the winds would be.  Working in dense fuels with fire nearby, not seen, will likely be another.  An adequate escape route will be another.  Beyond that, I would not speculate further except to unequivocally state, this was NOT an Act of God.  That statement to me is a copout, an excuse for not trying to understand circumstances that people should understand, and a way to sweep the matter under a rug.  Unfortunately, the mistakes made will be publicized, likely inflaming many communities as much as the fire did.  But mistakes were made.  Thunderstorm downdrafts, erratic winds, Venturi effects, plentiful dry fuel, and a burning fire are all understandable.  Whether we can predict what they will do is another matter, and evidence is beginning to mount that our modeling of fire behavior is inadequate due to increased size of fires because of suppression, climate change allowing bark beetles to survive winters, and more houses in the wildland-urban interface.  Ability to recognize danger and to speak up is part of firefighter training.  If we cannot adequately predict the worst case scenario, and plan for it, then we have no business sending people into harm’s way, except to save lives, not property.  Worst case scenario planning is why firefighters are required to have safety zones and exits to them, both hopefully plural.

Just as Challenger repeated 17 years later with Columbia, almost to the day, with many of the same cultural problems still persisting in NASA, so did South Canyon repeat 19 years later with Yarnell Hill, almost to the day.  I suspect, like NASA, there are still cultural problems in the firefighting community.  Hopefully, the investigation will uncover these issues, and the wildland firefighting community will address exactly how we will approach fires, what we will do, and what simply will not be tolerated.  Whether one wishes to call the men heroes dying doing what they loved is a matter of choice.  I call the men tragic victims who died, not one of whom expected to that day in Yavapai County.  I don’t call dying doing what I loved great.  If I love doing something, dying is not the outcome I want. But that is a my opinion.  We didn’t learn from Mann Gulch in 1949; 45 and 52  years later we had South Canyon and 30 Mile fires respectively.  We didn’t learn enough from them, and 12 years after 30 Mile we had Yarnell Hill.

To the Watch Out situations, I would add:

19. Size of fire does not matter.  Small fires can kill you.

20. Always be aware that you may have only 10 minutes to live, should things turn sour. Act accordingly.

My prediction:  another catastrophe will recur.  My hope:  It won’t.

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