Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Should I Stay Or Should I Go (verse2)

In an earlier post, I talked about the decisions homeowners face when confronted by an approaching wildfire. As a company officer, I face the same decisions when assigned to or determine the need for structure protection during a wildfire incident.

As a young firefighter, I always assumed that we could attempt to save any structure and that, if things turned really bad, we would be able to protect ourselves in any situation. My career started with an agency that did a lot of wild land interface fire protection. The company that I was assigned to often responded to major fires and did a lot of structure protection. We were an all Paid-Call (PCF) company that did a lot of training, went to a lot of calls, but for the most part, did not have the wisdom that only time, age and experience can provide. PCF means basically that we were a volunteer company that got paid only when we were assigned to a fire. We didn’t get paid to train, staff the engine or respond to other calls such as medical aids, traffic accidents and the like. We were all young, motivated and in my case, invincible.

For me, the first hint that structure protection was not an assignment to be taken lightly occurred before I ever went on a fire call as a firefighter. My engine had responded to a wildfire with three or four members on it. The fire was located at the base of a mountain range about 30 miles from our station. At the time of the event, the fire had been burning for two days, under the influence of a dry, east wind. The high pressure that created the east wind and low humidity had started to weaken and a south-west wind was beginning to develop. The fire was about 90% contained by the morning of the event. The PCF engine was assigned to a task-force, consisting of 4 structural firefighting engines.

They had been assigned to support a firing operation, which is basically using fire to expand an already existing fuel break such as a road or a fire line cut by either a bulldozer or by a hand crew. When the winds shifted, the fire behavior changed and what was a relatively calm section of the fire blew up and became extremely violent.

The firing operation became impossible and the task force had to retreat or be overrun. Their escape route was blocked by flame and they headed for a large open area. As they arrived at the new safety zone, they saw a mobile home with a family standing outside of it. The crew from my station and another engine were told to protect the mobile home, while the other two engines went to the clearing.

What was described in the official investigation as a “ball of fire”, along with hurricane force winds overtook the family, the two engines and the firefighters.

All four members of the family were critically burned. One of the civilians, a six year old boy, was literally ripped from his mother’s arms and carried over 200 feet by the firestorm and accompanying winds. Sadly, he passed away later that night as a result of his injuries.
Four firefighters on the other engine, received minor burns. Their personal protective equipment prevented them from being seriously burned. Fortunately the firefighters from my station were uninjured.

At a training meeting a few weeks later, one of the people that was there, told us about how the “fireball” came down the canyon at them and that there had not been time to get to the family before the firestorm hit. He also told us that he had been in the jump seat flowing water out of a 1 ½” diameter hose line in a fog pattern to protect himself from the intense heat.

Being new, I thought that the above actions were normal, that hunkering down in a jump seat with a charged protection line was a typical act. Fortunately, I have never had to take that action, nor have any of my friends. We now know that this type of extreme fire behavior consists of tornado like vortices of superheated gasses. They are referred to as fire whirls. I have seen them from afar, but not in a place where they could injure anyone.

About two years ago, a friend of mine was dispatched to assist a neighboring department on a large brush fire. My friend is an engineer (driver) on a structural fire engine (TypeI). Their department goes out of town all of the time on these large campaign fires. This time, the fire was growing very rapidly and the requesting agency did not want to wait for strike teams to be formed, so they were requesting individual resources. My friend’s engine met up with an engine from a neighboring city and arrived in the dark, before dawn.

The fire had started in the early morning, around 0200 I think. They were in one of their infamous Santa Ana wind events with 60 mile an hour winds. The fire had started at the bottom of the mountain and had been pushed up a drainage like a jet. Numerous houses and ranches were located at the top of the mountain.

They were assigned to a structure protection group supervisor when they arrived. It is hard to describe the level of chaos that can occur at some of these wildfires, especially during the initial operational period.

The growth rate on this fire was phenomenal. Influenced by wind, topography and fuel, it had the potential to be a real problem. A severe, immediate structure loss potential, including a conference center /resort and very limited access were another set of problems to deal with. Jurisdictional issues, communications and a ton of resources arriving before the command structure can be built were other conditions that presented challenges for the initial command team. The people that manage these huge wildfires are masters of their profession, but these opening hours present challenges that are extremely difficult to overcome.

The structure group supervisor led the two engines into a rural neighborhood and assigned them each a structure. The two engines were kind of close to each other, but could not see each other. As usual, radio communications were difficult at best.

My friend told me that they spotted the engine, came up with a plan, prepped the structure and deployed a couple of hose lines. My friend’s captain told him that he thought the fire was about 20 minutes away when they arrived at the house and started to go to work. They fire was on them in less than 10. My friend also shared with me that he was shocked at the intensity and speed of the fire. The fact that they had underestimated the speed of the fire triggered warning bells in the minds of the entire crew. The captain issued an order to remove the nozzles from the hose lines, leave the hose and get the hell out of dodge.

My engineer friend said that as they left the house, trees and nearby brush was burning from spot fires and a large branch broke off of a tree, nearly hitting the engine as they escaped. Visibility was awful, and they narrowly avoided hitting obstacles as they made their way to safety. They were unable to raise anyone on the radio. It was a scary time for the crew.

They made their way to a planned safe area and found the other engine company already there. They had been assigned a house and had started to set up for the defense. After a few minutes, they decided that they didn’t like what they were seeing and sought refuge in the safety zone. My engineer friend swears that the captain and the engineer on the other engine were actually praying for my friend’s crew, when they got to the safety zone. The other engine had been in the safety zone for a little while before my friend got there and couldn’t believe that my friend’s crew had waited so long to bail. They also were amazed that they made it out without injury or damage.

Within an hour of this event, another group of engines was trying to save some structures within a couple of miles from where my friend was. One of them was overrun by the fire; some fatalities occurred. I am not going to discuss the course of events that occurred with these folks. Know that I am tearing up as I write this; they were just another crew of Joes, trying to keep the wolves from the door.

In this one incident, three engine companies were assigned dangerous missions. Each of the captains made separate decisions as to when they would leave. One went early, one waited until the last minute. Sadly, one waited too long.

It can be argued that the engine companies should have never been assigned to protect these structures in the first place. The life threat was minimal - most of the residents had already fled. Some of the houses were second homes. The fire behavior was extreme. Meteorologic, topographic and climatic influences combined to create the perfect firestorm. A lot was risked, no; a lot was lost to save relatively little.

A municipal fire department in northern California lost a firefighter while fighting a fire in San Diego County a few years back. As a result of this tragedy, they developed an SOP on refusing risk. You can see a draft of it to the rear of this accident report: http://www.wildlandfire2.com/pdf/novatofd_report.pdf

The point of this diatribe is that, ultimately, especially in the chaotic initial operational period, you are on your own. You have to ensure your safety as well as that of your crew. The people above you will likely take some of the blame if things go bad, but that is not going to help you feel better when sitting in the debridement tank, getting your dead skin scrubbed off.

Look at your NWCG pocket guide, especially your 10s and 18s. Set trigger points that will cause you to bail if necessary. Prep your structure, have a plan and know when to say “no thanks”. A guideline on refusing risk from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group can be found here: http://www.cffjac.org/go/jac/training/wildland-firefighter-safety/properly-refusing-risk/

Stay safe and thanks for reading,
Joe, just another Schmoe trying to keep the wolves from the door

ADDENDUM - I found this narrative while researching another story. It is a first hand account of a burnover that occurred in 1977. Chilling reading. It can be found here: http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/The_Fatal_1977_Vandenberg_AFB_Fire.pdf

Thanks again

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