Firefighters got caught in middle of blaze

Firefighters got caught in middle of blaze

13 August 2011

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USA — The firefighters killed and injured Thursday in the Coal Canyon Fire near Edgemont were carrying out an attack on the blaze that puts a premium on forethought and safety consciousness to be done correctly.

Trampus Haskvitz, 23, of Hot Springs was killed. Austin Whitney, 20, of Hot Springs suffered third-degree burns to his hands and neck and is being treated at a burn center in Greeley, Colo. Kevin Fees, 20, also of Hot Springs, was treated and released Thursday at Rapid City Regional Medical Center after suffering burns to his hands and neck.

Two U.S. Forest Service firefighters, not yet publicly named, also were injured, according to Dennis Jaeger, Black Hills National Forest deputy supervisor. Both were treated and released.

The men, with a fire engine, were making an initial attack from a road running across the middle of a slope, said Joe Lowe, head of South Dakota’s Division of Wildland Fire Suppression. Fire was burning on the slope above the road. A weather front recently had passed through the area trailed by strong, erratic winds. The winds picked up embers and carried them below the road, where they ignited dried grass and brush and spread to downed timber.

Fueled by this, the fire burned uphill “with intensity and speed,” Lowe said. It caught the firefighters in the middle. They were forced to deploy emergency fire shelters, and the engine was destroyed, its aluminum hosebed melted by the intense heat.

Lowe said the incident is being investigated by a Forest Service Serious Accident Investigation Team from Washington, D.C., by the state Division of Criminal Investigation and the Fall River sheriff and coroner. Lowe said Friday he did not yet know who deployed the men. At this point, “I’m not assessing blame or looking for it until we have the facts,” he said.

All the firefighters involved in the initial attack were pulled off the fire Thursday night, Lowe said.

“A midslope attack is always a threat,” said John Krebs of Potlatch, Idaho. For 23 years, he was the fire behavior officer on a National Fire Overhead Team. Such teams are the management units that oversee the fight against the largest wildland fires.

The presence of an engine can give firefighters a false sense of power, Krebs said. “When you are in a vehicle you get a sense of security that you don’t have when you are on the ground. You think, ‘With an engine, we can handle this.’ “

The crucial aspect of fighting wildfire, though, is carrying out a proper thought sequence.

“First, you look at fire behavior. Then you look at safety. Then you look at management and control. If you are fighting a fire aggressively before you look at fire behavior, you are out of sequence,” Krebs said. “Know what your fire is doing at all times, and base all your actions on the current and expected behavior of the fire.”

This involves an intense focus on weather conditions at the fire. “In initial attack, you have to have ingrained in your head, ‘I don’t care what the weather prediction is. What is the weather where you’re at?’ ” Krebs said.

Safety concerns such as identifying a retreat route and posting lookouts also need to be observed before attacking a fire, he said.

The Coal Canyon fire, which began with a lightning strike on national forest land, grew to about 400 acres Friday, according to a National Incident Information Center report. It was burning in steep canyons and had made several short runs as flames burned into the crowns of trees.

Rocky Mountain Team C, an interagency fire management team with additional firefighters and equipment, was set to take command of the fire Friday. The Black Hills National Forest Mystic Ranger District was the original crew. About 175 firefighters were on the fire Friday.

“We will send this fire back to hell, where it belongs,” Lowe said. “It has taken one of ours and become very personal.”

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