Firefighters faced extreme fire behavior

Firefighters faced extreme fire behavior

13 May 2009

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USA — It’s called a burn over — one of the worst-case scenarios for wildland firefighters.

Extreme fire behavior catches a crew off guard and they have to take refuges in their engines, deploy a fire shelter, or even bust down a front door and wait out the firestorm in a home.

When embers rained down on Mission Canyon neighborhoods as hot sundowners pushed the Jesusita Fire into populated areas, at least five fire crews experienced a burn over, according to a preliminary report from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

“You just don’t have that many firefighters burn over in one incident,” City Fire Capt. Gary Pitney said. “It’s an exceptional number, but it also speaks to the extreme conditions here, the terrain and the winds.”

Three firefighters suffered serious injuries as a result of the firestorm. A Ventura County crew had been assigned to structure protection along Spyglass Ridge Road when the winds shifted at approximately 3:10 p.m., quickly spreading flames down the canyon.

Two firefighters, identified as Capt. Ron Topolinski, 51, and firefighter Robert Lopez, 44, sought shelter in a home but were forced to leave when the structure became fully engulfed.

Fire officials said Capt. Bulger and another battalion chief found them near their fire engine and pulled them to safety. Bulger suffered smoke inhalation, while the other two firefighters sustained burns to exposed areas of their bodies, including their faces and hands.

After being taken to the Grossman Burn Center, two of the three injured firefighters had already been treated and released earlier this week, according to published reports.

While their experience was perhaps the most serious burn over incident on the Jesusita Fire, other firefighters also had to shelter in homes or fire engines during the down-canyon push.

Several crewmembers assigned to two light-duty vehicles had been working in the Holly Road area when the flames forced them to take refuge inside structures, according to the preliminary report.

“The two light-duty vehicles were destroyed by fire,” the report stated. “One minor eye injury was reported. The individual was treated and released at a local hospital.”

Officials also noted that residents on Holly Road who chose to stay despite evacuation orders were escorted from the area following the firefight with no injuries.

Crews stationed in the Palomino Road area, who sheltered in a home until it caught fire, told similar stories of burn over conditions. They managed to return to their engine and escape, according to the report.

A Santa Paula fire engine crew, from a strike team working structure protection in the Tunnel Road area, also had to take refuge in a home but escaped without injuries. Another engine company from Ventura waited out the flames in their engine and had fire shelters prepared but not deployed.

Extreme fire behavior is nearly always the cause of burn over incidents, said Wayne Connor, a division chief with Cal Fire.

“It just becomes unpredictable,” he said. “Hotter than expected, faster than expected.”

During training, he said firefighters focus on situational awareness — knowing where their engine is parked, having it situated for a quick exit and paying attention to the fire’s behavior.

If they are caught in a burn over situation, they have options, Connor said. Some engines are equipped with fire-resistant curtains. Firefighters can also deploy fire shelters or duck into a structure for protection from radiant heat.

“The thing in a nutshell is to keep the heat away from your body,” he said.

After any incidents, fire officials conduct a thorough investigation and run through safety protocol, Connor said, trying to determine what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.

“We want to learn from mistakes,” he said. “We’re not out to flog anybody.”

Pitney said it is often tough for firefighters, who are trained to protect lives and property, to give up the fight and retreat.

“There were probably some situations in Mission Canyon where people shouldn’t have stayed there,” he said. “We’re trained as firefighters, so we want to stay as long as we can.”

Fire personnel are taught from day one to establish safety zones whenever they are working a wildland fire, Pitney said. They should always have an area they can retreat to, preferably an open field with no brush, where they can stand in their regular firefighting equipment and not get burned.

“That’s one of the things that some of the higher-up strike team leaders should look for, and even individual engine companies should have a backup plan,” he said. “The problem with this Mission Canyon area is there aren’t any of those.”

The recommended safety area is four times the length of the flames, Pitney said, meaning a fire burning with 20-foot flame lengths requires a safety zone with a radius of 80 feet. There aren’t many open fields, if any, with that kind of clearance in the tight confines of Mission Canyon.

Among the recommendations for immediate correctives actions submitted with the preliminary incident report — which officials noted is subject to change as the investigation continues — is to ensure that firefighters are fully briefed on current and expected weather conditions and fire behavior, in addition to broadcasting significant changes in the weather.

Pitney said he’s heard that communication was pretty good on the Jesusita Fire, but noted there are always areas to improve.

“As far as learning points, there will be a whole report done,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll be looking to crucify anyone, but they’ll definitely want to come out with some lessons learned.”

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