Monday, July 01, 2013

The opposite of water is fire... thoughts on the deaths of brave wildland firefighters.

As many of our friends know, our son, Gerald, is off fighting wild fires as part of a Coronado National Forest crew in southern Arizona. He and his crew were not anywhere near the tragedy at the Yarnell Hill fire in central Arizona where almost an entire fire crew were wiped out in what appears to be the worst disaster ever to befall wild land fire fighters in the USA. Instead, Gerald was part of a crew fighting the "W 2" fire on the USA-Mexico border about 10 to 15 miles east of Nogales, Arizona.

However, Gerald is part of a crew in which many of the longer-serving members had actually worked with and knew members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shot crew, one of about 85 elite fire crews that are available to fight fires nationwide, and the only crew sponsored by a municipal fire department, the Prescott, Arizona, fire department. These fire fighters had been fighting the Thompson Ridge fire in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico and then the Doce/Dosie fire close to home just west of Prescott before becoming one of the first crews to fight the Yarnell Hill fire north of Wickenburg and southwest of Prescott.

Information about exactly what happened is sketchy and may come in bits and pieces throughout the investigation and fire-fighting period. It appears that local thunderstorms made winds unpredictable, and that winds became strong and gusty. The result seems to have been that the fire changed direction and probably speed of advance, charging into part of the town of Yarnell, destroying buildings, and perhaps entrapping the members of the Granite Mountain crew before the crew could evacuate or prepare to survive the flashover. Terribly much is unknown. And, time is needed for mourning, even though the answers to the questions about what happened might help save lives and prevent future tragedies.

One question to me was about our son's motivation and commitment to the fire fighting and whether that would change in the light of this disaster. It's hard to speak for others, but my guess is that it won't change his interest or resolve. Here's some of our correspondence trying to get a grip and understand all of this:


Gerald and all of his crew are saddened tremendously by the loss of life of their fellow Arizona wildfire fighters, but that isn't likely to make any of them want to quit their jobs.

Two of the three native Californians who perished in the Yarnell Hill fire were the sons of fire captains and wanted nothing more than to emulate their fathers and work with them in the future. Former wildland forest fire fighters tend to remember their years of service fondly, knowing that they did something that not everyone can do, that they got the chance to be authentic heroes, and that their work probably saved lives as well as homes, and wildlife and ecosystems as well as towns.

The fire fighters also enjoyed intense camaraderie from sharing their work and lives with a tight-knit group of people with whom they willingly and necessarily trusted their lives. And, unlike soldiers, who share much of the same tight bonds and camaraderie, there is no moral hesitation or compunction in fighting destructive wild fire unto death to save lives and land.

Although Gerald's described career path is to be a park ranger or similar wildland resource person, and not to spend all his career fighting wildfires, fighting wildland fires is one of the skills that park rangers need to have, along with many other skills. And, many park rangers who focus on administration, resource protection, wildlife, environmental management, emergency medicine, search and rescue, historic protection, interpretation for visitors, and routine park maintenance, still are on call to fight wildfires when their parks, their wildlife and ecosystems, and the public are threatened.

For someone who has the love of wilderness and wildlife and the land deeply ingrained, the urge to preserve the land is a deep calling. I suspect that the horrific deaths, of brave men who were personally known to many of the members of Gerald's crew, will not shake the resolve of Gerald or his crew to do what they are doing. I thing what Gerald is doing is much more serious to him than an "experiment" and believe he has a significant commitment to it.

What I do hope is that ALL of our wildland fire fighters will truly renew and deepen their commitment to the very hard and tragically earned lessons of the past, and commit them and the basic safety precepts to heart, mind, and soul. It is sometimes found, and particularly sad -- and no slur upon the courage, intentions, bravery, or intelligence of the fire crews -- that when there are multiple casualties incurred directly in fighting a fire, that the safety principles are too often found to have been compromised in one way or another and that the lessons of the past have not been transmitted as well as they should. That worsens already horrid tragedy. A "can do" attitude and courage are only admirable when they are coupled with very cool calculation, intelligent following of safety rules, and an immediate willingness to change tactics or disengage when conditions turn unfavorable.

The investigation will have already started, and it may be grossly early to speculate on what happened and why. Time is needed to mourn the horrible loss of so many brave, talented, heroic people. But those of us who know wildland fire fighters, or who spend time in the wilds, or who live or visit in the urban-wildland interface will very strongly want to know what happened, why it happened, what lessons can be learned, and whether anything could have been done to reduce the tragedy. So this is my guessing about where questions MIGHT be asked by investigators and what they might be trying to learn. And, remember, I am not a professional wildland fire fighter, and neither do I play one on televison:

"LCES", the "10 standard orders", and the "18 watchout situations" are safety precautions and ways of thinking taught to all wildland fire fighters. They are likely to be mentioned in the report on the investigation of the many deaths of fire fighters in the Yarnell Hill fire.

Lookouts - Communications - Escape Routes - Safety Zones

10 Standard Orders
Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts. [possible issue]
Know what your fire is doing at all times. [possible issue]
Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire. [possible issue]
Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known. [possible issue]
Post lookouts when there is possible danger.
[possible issue; did crew get timely enough info when thunderstorms were in the area?]
Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively. [We may never know with the crew almost wiped out.]
Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces. [possible issue; loss of communication with the crew has been mentioned]
Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.
Maintain control of your forces at all times.
Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first. [possible issue]

18 Watch-Out Situations
Fire not scouted and sized up. [hard to do with rapidly changing and growing fire]
In country not seen in daylight.
Safety zones and escape routes not identified. [possible issue]
[safety zones may have been inadequate or too distant]
Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior. [possible issue]
Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
Instructions and assignments not clear.
No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors. [possible issue]
Constructing line without safe anchor point. [possible significant issue if fire was able to get around crew]
Building fireline downhill with fire below.
Attempting frontal assault on fire.
[change of fire direction may have turned flank attack into frontal confrontation; did crew realize this in time to attempt to evacuate??]
Unburned fuel between you and the fire. [issue]
Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.
On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
Weather is getting hotter and drier. [possible issue]
Wind increases and/or changes direction. [major issue]
[fire may have very rapidly accelerated in direction of crew, and gusty winds or possibly unburned gases may have prevented successful deployment of emergency shelters as well as denying crews time to reach, improve, or construct safety zones]
Getting frequent spot fires across line.
Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult. [very possible issue]
Taking a nap near the fire line. [not an issue]

For the investigation of the Yarnell Hill disaster, it's a wild guess/speculation that there might be questions about the adequacy of communications, whether the fire crew were fully aware of the impending risk of wind shifts from thunderstorms, about whether they had adequate look-outs and information about the changing fire behavior, about whether they had adequate safety zones and escape routes,about whether they should have prepared or improved safety zones prior to or earlier during handline construction, about whether there was any sort of strong anchor point for their hand line, about whether they should have fired their hand line sooner to strengthen it and provide a "black zone" for potential refuge, about whether the area in which they deployed their emergency shelters was too close to large amounts of combustible materials with the potential to degrade and delaminate shelters or impose excessive convective heat loads on the shelters, and about whether they had any knowledge or warning of changed fire conditions in time to disengage, perhaps drop packs, and find or make a better safety zone.
Perhaps the two big questions are: (1) Did the crew have adequate communications and warning of changing fire behavior, and
(2) did the crew have adequate and accessible safety zones?

On Mon, Jul 1, 2013 at 4:29 PM, Dorothy .... wrote:
Dear Pat and Marie,
Thank you so much for keeping us up-to-date on the Arizona fires. Thank God Gerald was not involved in this incident! But it surely is a good heads-up that the work is very dangerous. This is the worst fire-fighting episode I have every heard of. I really hope this will be Gerald's one experiment with fire-fighting!
With love,

On 7/1/2013 8:33 AM, Marie wrote:
Dear Pat,
Thanks so much for the update. This horrible incident is a reminder of how things can go wrong so quickly, even though it seems that overlapping systems were in place. Our thoughts and prayers are with Gerald for a safe summer and with the families and friends of the firefighters who lost their lives.
We have been hearing out East here about the soaring high temps in the West and Southwest, while we will be experiencing the 90s around the Fourth of July weekend, with thunderstorms happening every day, and saturating humidity making it very uncomfortable. But this is nothing to really complain about compared to the Southwest's unrelenting heat.
Our best to all,
Marie and John

Sent from my iPad

On Jul 1, 2013, at 2:51 AM, Pat Byrnes .... wrote:
We heard from Gerald (text messages and facebook) this evening. Gerald is fine.
His fire is the W2/Washington Peak fire eight miles east of Nogales on the USA - Mexico border, in rugged terrain grass land.

The fire with the horrific loss of fire fighter lives was about 200 miles away in central Arizona, north of Phoenix and Wickenburg and southwest of Prescott, the Yarnell Hill fire. The Granite Mountain hot shots from Prescott were one of the early responding crews. The lighting-caused fire grew rapidly and was blown into the small town of Yarnell, where it burned many homes. Apparently something went very wrong or the fire accelerated very rapidly; it seems the lost crew were in or getting into foil-like shelters when the fire hit them. Normally, fire crews have escape routes and safety zones available, and have people watching out for changes in fire behavior, but for some reason safety steps didn't work in this instance. Perhaps the fire accelerated or switched directions quickly, or the firefighters got caught trying to protect buildings when the fire swept through part of the small town of Yarnell.

If reports are true, this appears to be the worst loss of wildland fire fighters in recorded US history, and the worst loss of emergency responders since 9/11. Many of the more experienced members of Gerald's crew had met and worked with the Granite Mountain hotshots. R.I.P., Vaya con Dios.

Recently, the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been fighting the Thompson Ridge fire in the Jemez; they were quite likely only twenty miles or so away from us during the Seeger family reunion. Apparently, one member of the crew who was over run by the fire may have survived, although grievously burned, and one other member of the crew wasn't at the fire. Prayers for both and all affected. Pat

PS, While we were in Laguna Vista, I spent part of the weekend clearing some low branches from trees to improve fire safety for our cabin -- but there's much more work to do!

On Sun, Jun 30, 2013 at 10:50 PM, Marie ... wrote:
Dear Pat,
We are praying that Gerald was not involved in the forest fires that took the lives of 19 forest fire fighters. Please let us know how he is.
Love, Marie and John

Sent from my iPad
~~~~/)/) /)~~~~~~~~~~~~/)/)~~~~/)~~~~/)~/)~~~~/)~~~~/)~~~~~~~
John MacLean, 2002 interview in Smokejumpers magazine:
"I want the mistakes from the South Canyon Fire to be indelible in the memory of every firefighter on the line and every member of the fire community. It won't happen, but you asked what I want. You get killed fighting fire if you don't do it right. Your sons and daughters die when it isn't done right. What happened on Storm King was not an act of nature; it was a human fuck up, at many levels. Get mad, get alert and never let it happen again. "
Many of those who mourn the loss of fire fighters and wish to help do their part to minimize future risk to wildland firefighters can do their part by making their homes and property more defensible against wildfire.

Unfortunately, the reality is that economic decisions DO affect how aggressively fire crew fight fires, and having to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface that are hard to defend against wildfire DOES put fire crews at risk.

Building homes with more fire-resistant materials, removing overgrown vegetation, pruning trees and shrubs, removing leaf litter and pine needles, removing weeds and other material from near trees, and generally creating "defensible space" around homes near wildland areas, can do much to safe homes and possibly the lives of residents and fire fighters as well.

Yesterday, the President made a speech eulogizing the fallen fire fighters and promising federal assistance. Beyond the usual, there are reasonable efforts we can make as a nation to make our lands safer and more secure and to save the lives of firefighters and residents, protect homes and wilderness, and reduce these horrible and unnecessary losses:

(1) Our fleet of air tankers is aging and shrinking. Aerial support, while not always an option and not without its own hazards, can make fire fighting safer.

(2) Some parts of the government have access to technology that could save fire fighter lives and make wildland fire fighting more efficient. That technology generally hasn't reached fire fighters. If, for example, drones can spy on our own citizens, why can't they or other sensor technologies spy on killer wildfires so that fire bosses have accurate, timely information day and night? Similarly, various forms of satellite-based location, beacon, and communication technology could help crews and fire bosses in areas where radios or conventional cell phones don't work, or in border areas where radio signals may be jammed or interfered with, appropriated by criminals, etc.

(3) The Administration has cut and threatened to grievously cut further the funds used for preventing and mitigating wild fires. With deteriorating conditions in our forests and wildlands and huge inventories of fuels building up to explosive levels, and years of severe drought in the southwest, this is a prescription for death and destruction on an enormous scale. Reverse this!

“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.”
― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Please be safe, whether in wildfire country or afloat on the blue stuff that fire doesn't like.


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