Wildland firefighters facing life-threatening situations are taught that a fire shelter is to be used only as a "last resort," but we fail to define "last resort." Further, firefighters are instructed that if they do deploy a fire shelter (their only life-saving device), an investigation will...
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Wildland firefighters facing life-threatening situations are taught that a fire shelter is to be used only as a "last resort," but we fail to define "last resort." Further, firefighters are instructed that if they do deploy a fire shelter (their only life-saving device), an investigation will follow. If the firefighters survive or are not burned, their decision to deploy the shelter is often questioned and they even may be ridiculed by fellow firefighters.
Let us review two fires involving very experienced wildland firefighters. The Glen Allen Fire and Esperanza Fire burnovers involved seven firefighter fatalities and two critically burned firefighters. I will share classroom exercises showing firefighters have been programmed not to open their shelters in time of need. I will then suggest a simple fix in an effort to reprogram firefighters to be proactive when unexpected, intense fire behavior threatens their lives.
Glen Allen Fire
On Aug. 20, 1993, two Los Angeles County, CA, Fire Department (LACO)fire suppression aide (FSA) fly crewmen, Art Ruezga and Chris Herman, were burned to death while fighting the Glen Allen Fire. Critically burned were Gabriel Larios and Chris Barth. They were assigned to Fire Camp 2, a brush initial air attack unit using a helicopter.
At 3:13 P.M., LACO dispatched Engines 11 and 66 to a vehicle fire on Glen Allen Street in the unincorporated Altadena foothill area. At 3:16, Engine 11 requested a first-alarm brush assignment. At 3:17, Engine 11 requested a first-alarm assignment from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). A recently parked car ignited and the fire spread to brush at the base of a steep slope and into the Angeles National Forest (ANF).
The LACO first-alarm brush response was a battalion chief, five Type 1 engines, one Type 4 engine, two fly crews (nine to 10 crewmembers) four ground hand crews (12 to 15 crewmembers, mostly inmate firefighters) one water tender, one D-8 dozer, three medium helicopters and 106 firefighters. In addition, a first-alarm brush response from the USFS included one battalion chief, one assistant chief, five Type 3 engines (five firefighters each), one Type 4 engine, two hot shot crews (21 firefighters each), one medium dozer, one water tender, one medium helicopter and 73 firefighters. With numerous helicopters on a first-alarm initial attack with LACO and USFS, the USFS battalion chief can request two air tankers. Due to low fire intensity that day, no air tankers were requested and their absence had no consequence on the outcome of the fire.
I was honored to be assigned to the investigation team, along with 11 other LACO and USFS personnel. While interviewing the survivors, including the crew supervisor and the two burn victims, we asked each about using their fire shelters. They all stated the burnover happened so fast the use of a fire shelter never crossed their mind. The survivors said they were working in relatively clean air, but within 20 to 30 seconds, their environment changed to zero visibility and/or flame impingement on their bodies.
Two weeks after the burnover, LACO Captain Bill Glendening and I interviewed Gabriel Larios and Chris Barth, who were critically burned, at the Sherman Oaks Burn Center (now the Grossman Burn Center). They stated that as soon as they were released, they wanted to walk the burnover site. Approximately three weeks later, Gabe and I hiked into the burnover site. Out of respect, I refer to the location of a fatal burnover site as hallowed ground. When a burnover victim revisits the hallowed ground, you don't have to ask any questions. They relive their experience in great detail and you must not interrupt them, as you will surely miss very important information. Gabe talked for 30 to 40 minutes before pausing and in that time he made this statement: "If I had been taught to hit the ground when the heat wave hit me, I would not have had my face burned off."