Special Santa Fe firefighting group put to test in recent blaze

The four-firefighter Rapid Extraction Module, with paramedics and ropes technicians, is trained to remove and transport injured firefighters using an off-road vehicle


Sami Edge
The Santa Fe New Mexican

Firefighters from the Zigzag Hotshot crew based in Mount Hood, Ore., were fighting the San Antonio wildfire in June on the steep slopes of a rocky hillside in the Valles Caldera National Preserve when they met a near catastrophe.

The elite group was working in tandem with a helicopter that would drop buckets of water on areas engulfed in flames before hand crews would go in, said Capt. Craig Anstine of the city of Santa Fe Fire Department, who also was battling the blaze.

Two of the Hotshots noticed a part of the tree overhead was about to fall, Anstine said. One of them pushed his partner out of the way and tried to get out of the path of the falling debris himself.

To no avail: The branch hit both men, one on the back and another on the helmet.

As soon as a call about the medical emergency came over the radio, the Santa Fe Fire Department’s Rapid Extraction Module kicked into gear.

The team’s response — its first major rescue and extraction operation since its founding in 2016 — helped get the two firefighters out of the Jemez Mountains preserve and checked into a hospital in less than three hours, said Lt. Graham Miller.

“It was amazing,” said Miller, a team leader. “It kind of just solidified that we knew what we were doing, to have all of that come together.”

The Rapid Extraction Module was created to address a gap in emergency services on wildfires, explained Anstine, who is also a team leader. While medics often are stationed at wildfires and ambulances are nearby, he said, it can be difficult and time-consuming to get injured firefighters from the site of an accident to an ambulance — sometimes a trek across miles of rugged terrain impassible by an ambulance or other vehicle.

The four-firefighter Rapid Extraction Module, with paramedics and ropes technicians, is trained to remove and transport injured firefighters using an off-road vehicle; the team provides medical care throughout the process.

To extract the firefighters injured on the San Antonio Fire, the team worked with three Hotshot crews and a city fire engine. Miller estimates there were around 80 firefighters at the scene of the accident.

Paramedics assessed the two injured patients, one with a potentially severe head injury and another who could have seriously injured his spine. Despite the initial assurances of the two Hotshots that they were OK, Anstine said, the response team placed them on backboards for their trip out of the preserve.

“Understand, what happened could have serious ramifications,” Anstine said firefighters explained to the two injured hotshots. “We don’t want something bad to happen.”

The team next had to get the patients to the top of a hill so steep, Anstine said, that someone standing up straight could touch the side of it with their fingertips. The firefighters formed a human chain, passing the patients up the hill like a conveyor belt.

Miller estimates it was about three-quarters of a mile to the top of the hill, where Rapid Extraction Module members used their off-road utility task vehicle to shuttle the patients to a meadow, where medical helicopters landed to take the patients to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.

“The Hotshots and their response, coupled with the REM team, really allowed for a successful evacuation and made this incident a lot less serious than it could have been,” said Jorge Silva-Bañuelos, superintendent of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Without the city’s Rapid Extraction Module, he said, “anything that would have transpired would have taken a lot more time … and when you’re dealing with potential head injuries and other unknowns, those seconds and minutes really count.”

In the end, Silva-Bañuelos said, neither of the Hotshots was seriously injured. Both men were released from the hospital and headed back to Oregon with their crew the morning after the accident.

Wildfire agencies are collaborating on an analysis of the accident and response, he said.

“The best thing is everything turned out good,” Anstine said. “It wasn’t more serious, but it very well could have been.”

The Rapid Extraction Module spent 22 days keeping an eye out for injured firefighters on the San Antonio Fire, according to data from Greg Gallegos, wildland supervisor for the city fire department.

That team and other city crews also helped on the Ute Park Fire, which burned more than 36,000 acres near Cimarron, and the smaller Venado Fire near Jemez Springs. A total of 24 local firefighters also were dispatched to blazes in places like Oregon and Idaho, Gallegos’ data shows.

Members of the Rapid Extraction Module and city firefighters — including Anstine and Miller; paramedics Jerry Sanchez and Ross Haney; and firefighters Jeff Maestas and Brett Gonzales — were recognized for their efforts on the San Antonio Fire during a recent City Council meeting, where Mayor Alan Webber gave them certificates and a “muchas gracias.”

“That’s a true act of heroism in tremendously difficult circumstances,” Webber said at the meeting. “We’re very grateful to you.”

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©2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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