Carbon Monoxide May Have Disoriented Fallen Novato, California Firefighter

Carbon monoxide may have disoriented Novato firefighter Steven Rucker, who died while battling the fall 2003 Cedar wildfire.


SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Carbon monoxide may have disoriented Novato firefighter Steven Rucker, who died while battling the fall 2003 Cedar wildfire.

A new report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health concluded reduced oxygen in the blood, or hypoxia, would explain why Rucker appeared confused and walked toward flames when he was ordered to retreat to the safety of a house minutes before his death.

More than 3,000 firefighters battled the 273,000-acre wildfire that destroyed over 2,200 houses and killed 15 people. Rucker, 38, died Oct. 29, 2003. He was the only firefighter to die.

The federal report released last week augments a California Department of Forestry report released in May. An autopsy showed that Rucker's blood had a 27 percent concentration of carbon monoxide.

''Profound unconsciousness has been reported with levels less than 20 percent,'' the federal report said.

Hypoxia can cause an altered mental state, the report said.

''Although wildland fires generally do not expose firefighters to high levels of carbon monoxide averaged over an entire work shift, they can expose firefighters to dangerous concentrations for short periods of time during specific activities,'' the report said.

The report said Rucker was exposed to carbon monoxide for about 50 minutes as he ''mopped up'' an area that had been purposely burned. A short time later, he was supervising a ''burn pile'' to reduce the fuel load around the home.

The report recommended that fire agencies consider a carbon monoxide monitoring program for firefighters.