We Can Correct Years of Flawed Training

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."

I asked Gabe to describe "heat wave." He answered, "I knew the second I was being burned and I knew the second my PPE (personal protective equipment) was being burned." I could understand how he would know he was being burned, but I had to ask him how he knew his PPE was being burned. He explained that the PPE gave off a horrible odor when the direct flame came in contact with it.

Gabe's profound statement, "If I had been taught to hit the ground when the heat wave hit me," should be the key to future training that will save firefighters' lives. To back up this statement, I would like to detail the actions taken by the crew during their emergency escape.

Three crewmembers and the crew supervisor escaped uphill to the trail above the fire and one crewmember stayed on the trail as a lookout. Four crewmembers unable to escape remained in the "chimney" (a very steep and narrow drainage channel). Approximately 60 feet below the trail, Crew Leader FSA Art Ruezga, with 13 years of experience, determined he and the remaining three crewmembers — Barth, Larios and Chris Herman — would not be able to get back up the steep terrain, a 110% slope (a 100% slope is the slope on a right angle). The slope was decomposed granite. Once the six-inch root mass of chaparral was broken, the crew was in a sandbox. Ruezga directed the three members into the burned area, referred to as "the black." Barth led the way, followed closely by Herman and Larios. Ruezga followed to ensure they would all get out.

As they made their way laterally and approximately 10 to 12 feet in "the black," direct flame came up the steep chimney and impacted Barth directly on his face. Barth stopped abruptly. Herman, following close behind, bumped into Barth, knocking him to the ground. Barth decided in a second that it was much cooler on the ground than at the five- to six-foot level. He remained on the ground, cupped his hands around his mouth and sucked air laced with dirt to survive. Barth was critically burned on his face, back, legs and arms. Herman remained standing, inhaled flames, went unconscious and died immediately. He rolled or fell approximately 70 feet and was covered with dirt and rock. It took nearly two hours to find his body.

Larios was the third crewmember in line. He turned uphill and clawed his way on all fours. As he climbed, he watched flame come between his legs and begin to burn his face off, causing third-degree burns to his throat and airway. He continued clawing to get away from the flame and made it up to the trees where FSA Roy Rodriguez came down from the trail and helped Gabe up to the trail. Gabe was airlifted to the burn center in critical condition. The doctors informed Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman that Gabe would not live through the night due to his severe airway burns. However, Gabe did live and is now a firefighter/paramedic on the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Ruezga stayed standing up, inhaled flames, went unconscious and died on the hill before he could be rescued.

During the investigation, Ted Putnam, an expert in survival techniques, said two or three times that this was a survivable fire. At a break, after he said this, I told Ted, "Every time you say this was a survivable fire, I want to smack you." He asked why I would say that. I stated, "Because Art is dead." Putnam then said, "John, the answer to that is the two firefighters in the burn ward at Sherman Oaks Burn Center." One way or another, Barth and Larios got low to the ground and survived.

Esperanza Fire

On Oct. 26, 2006, five USFS firefighters were burned to death on the Esperanza Fire while protecting a rural structure. They were Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, 44; Assistant Fire Engine Operator Jason McKay, 27; Fire Engine Operator Jess McLean, 27; Firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; and Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23.

Two of the firefighters were fatally burned near their engine by a rapid firefront. However, I wish to share the remaining three firefighters' escape routes. One firefighter ran more than 100 feet prior to perishing. The second and third firefighters ran approximately 170 feet before going down. Loutzenhiser died at the scene and Cerda died a few days later in a burn center. (Search "Esperanza Fire" online for an in-depth review of this tragic incident.)

My son, Gary, a 20-year LACO captain training/safety officer, and I walked the burnover site shortly after the incident. We walked the routes of the firefighters who ran a considerable distance. The firefighters' shelters were not deployed nor opened. After deliberating for nearly a year, I tried to understand why the firefighters didn't think of their shelters; instead, they ran while being burned until they dropped. The firefighters also failed to pull the flaps to remove the shelters from their cases.

In researching the various National Wildland Fire Coordination Group (NWCG) documents about fire shelters, it doesn't take long to determine why firefighters fail to deploy their shelters: We have taught firefighters not to use their shelters — by the overuse of the term "deploying a fire shelter is a last resort" plus other negative phrases.

Classroom Exercise

As team leader of the 1996 Calabasas burnover, which involved Glendale and Los Angeles City firefighters, I began teaching a change of tactics while performing structure protection on wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires. In the past few years, my son and I have done extensive WUI training as part of a one-day presentation on structure protection or the 28-hour S-215 WUI Structure Protection Class, a 90-minute survival course.

As part of the survival course, I pick up a fire shelter in the blue carrying case and ask each student to give one instruction they were taught about the shelter and its deployment. Without fail, one of one of the first three students will mention that "deploying a fire shelter is a last resort." Then the students will itemize most of the key points on shelter deployment. In addition, a student will explain how expensive the shelter is. Another will say if you deploy the shelter, you have made a mistake and there will be an investigation. An experienced wildland firefighter will say something like, "First of all, I am never going to put myself or my crew in a position where we will need a fire shelter."

After reviewing teaching points of shelter deployment, I go back to the firefighter who stated, "Deploying a fire shelter is a last resort." I ask the student to define "last resort." In fact, several students are asked to define "last resort" and basically the definition they give is, "they all perish."

In 1977, the USFS required fire shelters to be worn by all personnel on all wildland fires. Firefighters are taught that the deployment of the shelter is a last-resort PPE item, yet we fail to define "last resort." We reaffirm this by thinking or stating that we are never going to put ourselves in a position to need a shelter. Is it any surprise that when firefighters need to grab and remove the shelter that it never crosses their minds?

Correcting a Culture

Let's work on a definition of "last resort." I have studied many wildland fatal fires. Most involved working midslope or above fire and firefighters underestimating fire behavior, resulting in loss of life. Better fire behavior prediction or estimate is the answer. Still, many firefighters will unintentionally continue to underestimate fire behavior.

Would you agree with me that if you or I have to run on a wildland fire, we have made a mistake? Would you also agree that if we have made a mistake, it is that we have underestimated the fire behavior? I am sure you agree. In nearly every wildland fire fatality, the burnover surprised the firefighters with suddenness and intensity, often described as a blow-up or, in some cases, area ignition.

If firefighters are surprised by unexpected intense rapid fire behavior, firefighters may revert to the fight-or-flight-response. Here's an excerpt about the fight-or-flight-response from a document by Neil F. Neimark, MD: "The firefighter has a bodily reaction triggering a response that is hard-wired into our brains and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect us from bodily harm. When the brain responds to the perceived threat it initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical releases that prepares our body for running or fighting. When this part of the brain is activated, a sequence of nerve cell firing occurs and chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our blood stream. The nerve cell firing and chemical release causes the body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes. Our respiratory rate increases, blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and/or fighting. The pupils dilate, our awareness intensifies, our sight sharpens, our impulse quickens and perception of pain diminishes. The firefighter's rational mind is disengaged. Making a clear choice and recognizing those choices is unfeasible."

If the firefighter submits to the flight response, his or her situational awareness circle of inputs, analysis, decision and action is out the window. Any decision not made prior to an unexpected change in fire behavior that may threaten the life of a firefighter is not going to happen.

How Old Is the Problem?

Report of Fire Task Force by A.W. Greeley, dated June 17, 1957, states, "Since 1936 to 1956, there have been 16 tragedy fires on the national forests in which 79 men lost their lives by burning. Such fires occurred in 11 of the 20 years." The report goes on to discuss regions, fuel types and months of occurrences. The report concludes with three common occurrences in all of the fatal fires. The third and most telling is "on all but one of the fires…the fire behavior was not expected by the men who were trapped." Therefore, if at 15 of 16 fatal fires in this period the firefighters were surprised by the sudden unexpected fire behavior, is there any reason to believe that this will not continue? The bottom line of the 1957 report was that a position of fire behavior specialist needed to be created, and it was.

Shelter Training

Here are my recommendations for a firefighter operating on a wildland fire who must make an emergency escape. Perceiving life-threatening fire behavior, you begin to run. Immediately, with the first step of running, reach for your shelter. Remove the shelter as you continue to run toward the pre-designated safety zone. I further recommend that you remove the red tab and the plastic cover (removing the red tab creates a shelter deployment incident requiring an investigation) as you continue to run toward the safety zone, taking notice of any deployment spot along the way.

Most important, when the "heat wave" as described by Gabriel Larios (you know you're being burned or your PPE is being burned), you have one chance for survival and that is to hit the ground at that moment. After hitting the ground, put your shelter over your head to protect your airway, then do your best to place the shelter over the rest of your body. One or two breaths of superheated air above 325 degrees will probably cause irreparable airway burns and unconsciousness, followed by death. These training changes are needed at the federal firefighting agency level, under the umbrella of the NWCG.

Firefighters, you have only one chance for survival if the "heat wave" catches you. Hit the ground immediately — no more running, no getting to the safety zone, no clearing of brush or ground fuels. You must get out of the superheated air.

JP HARRIS is battalion chief (ret.) with the Los Angeles County, CA, Fire Department, where he served for 38 years. For 10 years, he trained crew supervisors and superintendents in firing operations as part of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Prescription Burn Program. Harris also has taught numerous wildland firefighting classes to career and volunteer firefighters and created the five-volume "Wildland Video Series." He can be contacted at jpharris1@sbcglobal.net.