State investigators looking into this year’s disastrous wildfire season found that a contract firefighter’s death in August and near-fatal injuries to an inmate firefighter this month stemmed from aggressive tactics that were intended to save lives and property but went tragically wrong, according to records obtained by The Chronicle.
FirefighterNation: Details on Texas Firefighter Killed in California Wildfire
In the first case, a volunteer firefighter hired on contract from Texas was helping to control a backfire that crews had intentionally set to burn away vegetation at the August Complex fires on Aug. 31. The winds shifted, investigators said, causing flames that towered as high as 75 feet to blow from a creek drainage toward Diana Jones, who backed her truck off a road and into a burning ravine.
In the second case, on Oct. 2 at the Zogg Fire near Redding, a firefighter who was part of a crew of state prison inmates was critically injured when a helicopter dropped water on a smoldering tree, causing it to fall on him and two others, records show.
The incidents underscore the danger that thousands of firefighters are facing as they try to control some of the biggest and most unpredictable blazes in California history amid extremely dry, hot and windy conditions.
As Cal Fire prepares for more dangerous weather starting Sunday, the episodes also raise questions about decisions made by the state agency and its crews, said wildland fire experts who reviewed the reports for The Chronicle.
“Aggressively fighting fires is inherently risky, dangerous duty. As a society, we better make sure it’s worth it trying to stop a fire from reaching the top of a remote, empty mountain,” said Tim Ingalsbee, a former wildland firefighter and executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics & Ecology, which advocates for what it calls scientifically sound fire management.
The investigative reports, obtained through public records requests, describe the two accidents in harrowing detail. While the reports provide an account of missteps that led to the two incidents, they stop short of affixing blame or stating who was responsible.
A Cal Fire spokesman declined to comment on the documents, which include the agency’s findings, the safety concerns raised by the episodes and the lessons learned.
‘Get out of there!’
Jones, 63, had traveled to California to fight the August Complex with her son, a captain who worked with her at the Cresson Volunteer Fire Department in the small town southwest of Fort Worth and owns a company contracted to fight wildfires in Western states in recent years.
She was the boss of Engine 1, a three-person unit assigned to the southern end of the Klamath Mountains, west of Corning — then the northern tip of the fire. She oversaw a driver and firefighter on the truck.
On Aug. 31, Jones’ team was tasked with constructing and protecting fire lines, taking out trees that could threaten containment and setting preemptive backfires along a logging road to burn away fuels, according to the state report.
The first half of the burning operation began that morning. By 11 a.m., the team called in two helicopters for water drops after observing increased fire behavior.
About two hours later, the second half of the burn mission began. The strike crew planned to burn along the 25N09 Road for a little more than a mile to increase the depth of the firebreak on the downhill side of the road and slow the fire’s progression, according to the report.
At about 2:05 p.m., when a spot fire ignited above the road, Jones’ engine, with her in the front passenger seat, backed up to spray water on it. However, the spot fire quickly grew and a supervisor directed dozers to try to corral it, the report said.
“The compounding effects of fuel, weather and topography intensified the fire in the drainage and pulled it up at a critical rate of spread,” Cal Fire said in the report.
Flames began to breach the narrow, 20-foot wide roadway a second time, this time below the road at the drainage elbow, prompting Jones’ driver to move the engine forward. Jones and her crewmate jumped out of the truck and blasted water on the advancing flames, while their supervisor called for help from another engine, which turned around and drove toward the flareup.
“There came a point where there was no wind, and then it just flared up!” a firefighter on Jones’ truck told investigators. “The flames came over the truck, were completely swallowing the road.”
A supervisor on the scene told Cal Fire investigators the flames grew from 8 feet high to 50 and then to 75. At that point, as Jones and her partner doused the fire with water, the two engines faced each other, blocking escape routes for both on the one-lane road, the report said.
At 2:10 p.m., the commander radioed “Get out of there!” to Engine 1. The driver yelled the evacuation order out the window and honked, but Jones and her crewmate could not hear. The driver ran out and told his crew to get into the truck, opening the nozzle of an Engine 1 hose and throwing the hose toward the fire in a desperate attempt to tame the encroaching flames, the report said.
Jones jumped into the driver’s seat and a crewmate yelled for her to “follow me.” The colleague ran toward Engine 2’s headlights, attempting to lead Jones that direction, but Jones instead went in reverse. The crewmate yelled “Stop!” but was knocked to the ground by intense heat.
As the engine’s back-up alarm beeped, signaling the vehicle was in reverse, Jones’ right wheels inched closer to the edge. The commander yelled over the radio: “E1, stop, stop, stop, stop … stop!”
The engine tumbled off the dirt shoulder, the report said, slamming into a tree about 15 feet below.
“Vehicle over side, in the fire,” a commander radioed, asking for air support.
The firefighter in the backseat tried to pull Jones out of the engine, as windows popped and shattered from the heat, but the temperature became too intense. The firefighter exited the driver’s-side rear door and crawled to the road with burns to the legs, arms, hands and face, the report said.
The task force leader put on breathing apparatus to search for Jones and the engine operator, but Jones suffered “fatal thermal injuries due to the engine burn over,” Cal Fire concluded. The report does not indicate whether the preemptive backfire or the larger conflagration ultimately burned Jones.
‘Really pushing the crews’
Mark Grissom, a firefighting veteran of more than two decades who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, reviewed the report on Jones’ death and questioned the decision to light a backfire under those conditions.
Backfires are commonly lit with drip torches and used to burn off brush, starving an oncoming inferno of fuel and creating a buffer of defensible space. But they carry significant risk and must be planned carefully.
“With the current and expected weather they should not have put fire on the ground,” Grissom said. “You don’t want to put fire on the ground in the afternoon when the fire has been spotting a third of a mile.”
Spotting describes when a fire spits embers and molten projectiles ahead of the main blaze.
The location of the road, carved midslope into the mountain, made it a dangerous position, Grissom and Ingalsbee said, because fire, especially when driven by afternoon upslope winds, tends to spread quickly uphill.
Ingalsbee said Cal Fire photos appear to show that the grade had been logged, leaving dangerous conditions — combustible, low-to-the-ground vegetation, with no canopy to keep temperatures cool and moisture levels up.
“You’re kind of asking for it. It doesn’t seem to be prudent. You’re really pushing the crews to get that firing operation in,” he said. “The fire’s really going to want to spread to the top of that slope.”
Jones had joined the Cresson volunteers five years ago after her husband died and she moved closer to her two sons. She had worked as a hairdresser and in logistics in the Middle East, said Ron Becker, chief of the small Texas fire department.
“She took to it aggressively and very well,” said Becker, adding she got her license as an emergency medical technician and certification in wildfire fighting. “I would never suggest to you that she didn’t know what she was doing and I’d never suggest that she wasn’t totally capable of what she was doing.”
The report found a number of safety issues for review, suggesting the benefit of taking a tactical pause and re-evaluating strategy when fire behavior changes. State investigators discussed the appropriate placement of fire equipment during assignments and the need to double check decisions to light backfires.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Diana Jones,” Cal Fire posted on social media after the accident. “We send our sympathies to the family during this difficult time.”
‘Tree!’ warning not heard
The second incident the state investigated, at the Zogg Fire near Redding on Oct. 2, occurred when a crew of inmate firefighters traversed down a steep grade to extinguish hot spots and clean up a burned landscape after flames tore through.
The inmate team was working on Division Y, the northwest section of the fire. At 3:30 p.m., the report on the incident states, the Cal Fire captain in charge of the crew requested a Skycrane helicopter to drop water in the area due to concern over heavy fuels.
The twin-engine helicopters generally make drops from lower altitudes because they release water from their belly instead of a low-hanging bucket. The drops are heavy and the increased rotor wash can blast ground crews. The strike team moved to the opposite side of the drainage during the drops before returning to mop up the soaked area, the report said.
The crew then called in another helicopter drop onto a large burning tree across from the drainage. After identifying the tree, the helicopter circled and the inmate crew cleared the area downstream — except for four firefighters and their captain who were across the drainage and upslope from the target tree, according to the report.
The helicopter dropped half its load on the tree, circled around and dumped the rest at about 4:30 p.m. The second fire captain saw the tree start to fall and yelled, “Tree!” But the noise of the helicopter and the water drop drowned out the warning, investigators said.
The helicopter pilot also observed the tree go down, announcing, “Tree falling, tree falling” over the radio. The fire captain, too, saw the tree falling toward him and the group of men.
The captain “grabbed two of the inmate firefighters, pulling them out of the way of the falling tree,” the report said.
Both fire captains on scene ran to the injured inmates. They found the most seriously injured under the tree. A second firefighter, shielded by an oak tree stand, was struck by pieces of the falling tree.
The captain announced an emergency and requested two helicopters to hoist the inmates out of the remote area. A third nearby fire captain, trained as a paramedic, helped with treatment. The third inmate was just grazed and treated at the scene for minor cuts and bruises, the report said.
The two inmates were flown to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, the most severely injured arriving within 45 minutes of the accident, the report said. He suffered critical injuries to his head, neck and back and remains in serious condition at an inpatient rehabilitation center, according to a state corrections spokesman.
The other firefighter, who suffered neck and back pain, was released from a hospital and has since been paroled. The incident raises questions about safety during air drops, said Grissom. He said calling in a helicopter to douse a smoldering tree might be overkill.
“If you’re mopping up with a helicopter there’s no urgency to dump water on the ground,” he said. “If you do it, you should have plenty of time to find the biggest tree and determine just how far away you need to be.”
Ingalsbee said the accident “points to the need of managing fires with patience. Putting out a smoldering, dead tree with an air drop — I’m just not sure it’s worth it.”
Two years earlier in California, Matthew Burchett, a battalion chief from Utah’s biggest fire agency, was killed when thousands of gallons of retardant released by a Boeing 747 air tanker knocked an 87-foot-tall Douglas fir onto him.
Burchett, 42, had been battling the massive Mendocino Complex on Aug. 13, 2018 in Lake County when the plane released the slurry above him, despite safety protocols recommending that fire personnel retreat from drop zones. Three other firefighters at the scene were injured by falling debris.
Burchett’s wife sued Cal Fire last year over the incident.
Ingalsbee said a combination of factors likely brought the Zogg Fire tree down.
“I think people underestimate the prop wash,” he said of the propellers on heavy-lift Skycrane helicopters. “It’s like a microburst of wind coming right to the ground. And you have the added weight of water, plus the wind, and the tree is likely already unstable.”
The Cal Fire investigators said in their report that supervisors must make sure firefighters are aware of pending water and retardant drops, that fire personnel must maintain situational awareness, and that target areas should be cleared.
After a second serious incident in two years, Cal Fire stressed in its report, “Aerial drops are inherently hazardous. Caution should be used when working in areas with aircraft operations.”
©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle
Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfchronicle.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.