Many perils, besides flames, kill wildland firefighters

Many perils, besides flames, kill wildland firefighters

15 May 2012

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USA — Between 1910 and 1996, more than 669 people were killed fighting wildland fires across the U.S.

That was a finding of a review of wildland firefighting casualties by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, an interagency governmental group. Other fatalities have occurred since the report, but it remains the most comprehensive study of wildland firefighting.

Most of the fatalities tallied resulted from fire entrapments, which killed 407 people over the 86-year span.

Aircraft accidents rank second on the list, having killed 88 firefighters, followed by medical problems, which killed 80. Vehicle accidents killed 75, and miscellaneous injuries killed 26.

The grisly list notes each incident going back to the Great Fire of 1910, when “seven large crews were overrun with no access, communication and little equipment available.” The 1910 blowup in Montana and Idaho killed 72 men when strong winds “caused massive firestorms and rapid runs.”

Over the first 40 years, deadly fires were a common occurrence. In 1937, a spot fire on Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest made an uphill run, trapping and killing 15 firefighters at Blackwater Creek.

Six years later, 11 Marines fighting a blaze on California’s Cleveland National Forest were killed when Santa Ana winds caused the Hauser Creek fire to explode.

Six years later, the 1949 fire that Norman Maclean wrote about in his book, “Young Men and Fire,” killed 13 smokejumpers on Montana’s Helena National Forest.

“Smokejumpers jumped into unburned base and fire hooked below them,” the list reports. “Most firefighters failed to use burned area and were overrun.”

In 1953, 15 firefighters were killed on California’s Mendocino National Forest after being trapped on a lunch break while working a spot fire.

Three years later, another 11 firefighters were killed on the Cleveland National Forest. In 1966, 12 firefighters died on the Angeles National Forest.

The last big disaster happened in 1994 on the South Canyon fire in Colorado. Flames as high as 300 feet overran fire crews working a steep slope in Gambel oak.

“Available weather forecasts and expected fire behavior info not provided to firefighters, adequate lookouts not used, escape routes and safety zones inadequate for burning conditions,” the report reads.

“Failing to outrun the flames, 12 firefighters perished, 2 helitack crew members on top of ridge also died trying to outrun the fire.”

Over the years, heart attacks have been a common cause of death on fires, along with crashes of aircraft and trucks, falling snags and electrocutions. In 1961, a firefighter on the Higgins Ridge fire in Utah walked into the main rotor of a helicopter.

The last fire on the list occurred in Montana in 1996 at Colstrip, when a prairie fire changed directions, killing two.

“Three local people fighting fire from a truck with water and hose,” the report says. “Tire went flat, fire changed direction and overtook them as they tried to outrun the blaze.”

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