The massive King Fire occurring in Northern California is quickly approaching 90,000 acres and could be one of the largest wildfires of the season according to CAL FIRE. It is headlining most fire service publications across the United States and is a hot topic that can start a discussion at any fire station kitchen table. With draught conditions and high winds continuing across many states, wildland fire season is far from over. This Report of the Week is developed in cooperation with the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) in Tucson, Ariz. The LLC is the wildland community’s source for incident reviews, and lessons learned. The National Firefighter Near Miss Reporting Program is happy to have this partnership. This week’s near miss is taken from a 72-hour report from a wildfire incident where a shelter deployment occurred.
At approximately 1730, a division supervisor, contract dozer and a heavy equipment boss deployed their fire shelters on a fire. The individuals involved were improving the fire line on the far western edge of the fire, approximately 2 miles from the fire front. Fuels in the area consisted of a pine overstory and manzanita surface fuels. Extreme to exceptional drought, at the highest levels on the drought monitor system, existed over nearly all of fire and surrounding area. As construction progressed downslope on the indirect dozer line, outflow from a thunderstorm which had tracked through the area caused a dramatic and large scale pulse in fire behavior. As fire activity increased, the division supervisor drove down to the heavy equipment boss and dozer operator to check their status. The dozer operator was in the process of constructing a predetermined safety zone. The fire quickly traveled a significant distance through heavy timber, impacting the indirect dozer line, and requiring the three firefighters to deploy fire shelters to survive the heat blast and ember shower. The contract dozer operator received non-life threatening burn injuries, and was referred to a burn center for further evaluation.
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Fire shelters are an emergency last resort defense mechanism; however, they have saved over 275 lives in well over 1,100 deployments. First required for federal agencies in 1977 after the Battlement Creek Fire fatalities that occurred the previous year, shelters are now found in structural and wildland agencies alike. Available through private vendors, as well as the state and federal fire cache system, fire shelters are an important part of wildland PPE. In this report, a crew using heavy equipment to construct fire line is well away from the main fire (two miles), but is still forced into their fire shelters when a thunderstorm passes and winds cause erratic and extreme fire behavior to impact their location. The firefighters deployed fire shelters in a predetermined safety zone, and escaped with only minor burns.
- If your department has them, what is the procedure for deploying fire shelters in your organization?
- Discuss situations where you think people would be reluctant to use their fire shelters even though they are needed.
- What system in your area is used to make everyone aware of weather events, including thunderstorms/high winds?
- What impact did having good LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones) play in this incident?
- Discuss the use of safety zones when working on wildland incidents and their use on structural fire incidents.
While we may look at fire shelters as something only wildland crews carry and use, many agencies respond to both structural and wildland fires. Fire shelters can even be deployed in a vehicle to protect crew members in a burnover situation. In this incident, the crews had a predetermined safety zone picked out. Even when working well away from the fire, things can change rapidly. Building an indirect line away from the fire can lull even a seasoned veteran into taking the situation for granted. In fact, this is a common element in many fatality fires. Consistently determining safety zones and escape routes in a dynamic fashion is critical to being prepared when rapid fire progression occurs. Using an ejection seat in a fighter plane is the military equivalent of deploying a shelter. In this situation, you are admitting that you can no longer fix the situation. Fighter pilots are trained not to hesitate, but to make the decision, and act. Make sure your agency trains on its fire shelter deployment protocols. Make sure members are able to deploy their shelters without fear of being judged as “weak”. Weather can play a big role in the outcome of wildland fires, and the latest science is showing its impact in structural fires as well. Have a good relationship with your local National Weather Service office, and develop a system to get notification of significant weather events/changes to the incident commander.