Late one afternoon a week ago, four firefighters battling the Indians Fire in Los Padres National Forest became trapped in a burnover – a sudden, swirling blowup of flame that officials likened to a cyclone.
The force of the fire storm snapped the limbs from oak trees and threw up rocks the size of golf balls, an internal report on the incident said.
The crew of Forest Service Engine 71 saw no way out, even though firefighters typically keep two escape routes in mind when working near fire lines.
But sudden winds in dry weather can change all that in an instant.
When the nightmare ended, one crew member was flown to a hospital burn unit in Santa Clara County. The others were treated locally before they were sent to a burn center in Fresno. They’re all expected to recover from their injuries.
The four were not the only ones caught in sudden flare-ups that week.
Alarmed by what firefighters call a “record number of burnovers” early in the season, the state’s fire agency Cal Fire took the rare step Saturday of issuing a statewide “safety stand down” order to more than 10,000 firefighters.
“This is kind of our red flag,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “It’s something we only do in extreme conditions.”
On June 11, the same day as the Monterey County burnover, three others were seriously hurt in a Placer County brush fire.
Seven minutes after arriving at the scene, flames engulfed the firefighters’ vehicle, Advertisement
according to an incident report. One volunteer firefighter tried to find shelter behind the engine and was burned on the face.
Two Cal Fire firefighters tried to find shelter in the vehicle’s cab, but it was enveloped by flames.
The men ended up having to run straight through the fire to escape. The two are still being treated for serious face and hand burns and are likely to remain at University of California-Davis Medical Center through the week, Berlant said.
The day before, in Sacramento County, an engineer and firefighter climbed to safety inside the cab of their engine as flames approached a mobile home they were trying to save. A Sacramento fire captain was caught in the burnover, suffering third-degree burns to his hands and second-degree burns to his forearms and nose. He was in good condition on Friday after surgery.
Then two Cal Fire employees were injured in a Butte County burnover on June 12 and another suffered from heat exhaustion.
In three days, 10 California firefighters suffered burns on the job, most caused by burnovers, a condition Berlant describes as “anytime a firefighter is entrapped and the escape route is cut off.”
At least a half-dozen others suffered from heat exhaustion, accidents and smoke inhalation last week.
In Monterey County this week, two Forest Service firefighters suffered moderate injuries Monday, Indians Fire spokesman Steve Kliest said.
According to the Associated Press, 52 California firefighters were injured during all of 2007, making this year’s early-season tally alarming to state officials.
The “stand down” order issued on the weekend required all of Cal Fire’s 6,900 permanent and seasonal employees – plus another 5,600 firefighters from other agencies – to stop all work to read and review all safety procedures. Those in emergency situations were allowed to keep working, Berlant said, but they had to review the procedures at their next break.
“It’s an almost immediate ‘Let’s stop what we’re doing,'” said a Cal Fire employee in Monterey County who asked not to be named.
She said she believed the high number of injuries is due more to current weather conditions than to negligence by overstressed fire crews.
Both Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials have declined to discuss what factors may have contributed to the recent rash of accidents, saying they are under investigation.
But one thing that leaves officials worried is that the fires – and injuries – are occurring much earlier in the season than most years.
“In Santa Cruz County, they don’t see fires in June,” Berlant said. “For us to see it this early you have to be extra cautious the rest of the year.”
Fire officials acknowledge that other than exercising extreme vigilance, not a lot can be done to lessen the risks firefighters will face this season, after two winters of drought.