Fla. Firefighters Died After Tractor Got Stuck

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. --

An investigation into last month's death of two north Florida firefighters found the men were overtaken by the blaze while trying to get a forestry tractor free of a tree stump.

Veteran firefighters Josh Burch, 31, of Lake City and Brett Fulton, 52, of White Springs were killed June 20 when a tractor one of the men was using to plow a containment line around the Blue Ribbon Fire northeast of Jasper in Hamilton County became stuck on a stump.

The two eventually abandoned the tractor but were overcome by smoke and flames.

The report, issued jointly by the Florida Forest Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Georgia Forestry Commission and the state Fire Marshal's Office, found that Fulton drove his tractor more than 200 feet into a dry pond without first cutting a fireline or telling his supervisor what he was doing.

The investigation also noted that firefighters had been working long hours and dealing with equipment problems, and that interference on radio communication channels created some confusion as other firefighters fought to try to save their co-workers, and the two victims failed to use protective fire shelters that were available to them.

According to the incident report, Brett Fulton's tractor got hung up on a stump. Josh Burch brought his tractor over to push his co-worker out, but the fire overtook them before they could get the tractor freed.

Investigators said the emergency shelters -- metallic pop-up tents -- probably would not have saved the two because of the intense heat.

The also report also found that Fulton drove his tractor more than 200 feet into a dry pond without first cutting a fireline or telling his supervisor what he was doing.

"This interagency review of the incident is an important first step to understanding how we can protect our firefighters from threats to their health and well-being," said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose office oversees the forestry personnel.

The report’s recommendations for preventing similar occurrences in the future include:

  • Evaluate strategy and tactics used as fire danger increases.
  • Provide refresher training to firefighters on principles of LCES (lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones) and situational awareness.
  • Review radio frequencies and ensure proper channel and procedures are known and understood.
  • Evaluate benefits of Asset Tracker System and consider installation on all equipment.
  • Evaluate work/rest ratio to ensure proper rest of fire personnel.
  • Evaluate how fire shelters should be carried and stored on equipment.
  • Pursue avenues for increased availability of aviation resources.

State officials said they were reviewing the findings and recommendations of the review team and assessing the needs of the Florida Forest Service.

“We’re considering the recommendations of the review team very seriously, and we’ll work to provide the members of the Florida Forest Service with the training and equipment they need to ensure they’re adequately prepared to fight wildfires,” Putnam said.

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