USA — The 19 firefighters who died in an Arizona wilderness blaze last summer and two rangers who perished in a North Florida forest fire in 2011 were victims of similar perils: an afternoon eruption of unexpectedly fierce fire and an ensuing communications breakdown.
To prevent a repeat of such tragedies, the Florida Forest Service is equipping its frontline firefighters with GPS units that provide location points on supervisors’ laptops.
The agency thinks the system is the first of its type in the nation. It will give crews, especially those on bulldozers who plow fire lines, a virtual way to see through the “fog and friction” of wildfires.
“It’s a tool in our toolbox to make sure we know where our firefighters are to the best of our ability,” said Sean Gallagher, manager of the service’s Orlando district.
The Yarnell Hill Fire north of Phoenix took the lives of 19 elite crew members called hotshots, resulting in the one of the nation’s highest death tolls for wilderness firefighters.
The Blue Ribbon Fire north of Lake City at the Georgia state line in June 2011 claimed two veteran bulldozer operators, the highest single fire toll for the Florida Forest Service.
Reports from the primary investigations of both fires provide harrowing details of much that went wrong within time frames that spanned only minutes.
In short, the 19 hotshots were hiking across rough country as winds whipped up by a storm sent a wall of flames to meet them.
The two Florida rangers, both operating bulldozers, were killed after one of them reported on his radio that “I’m stumped,” or stuck on a tree stump.
Flames overran both crews so quickly that only some of the Arizona firefighters had time to deploy their personal fire shelters, and neither of the Florida rangers used their foil-coated blankets.
In both incidents, supervisors had only a rough idea of the firefighters’ locations during the final minutes of their lives. The heavy volume of radio calls made communication difficult, and an airborne spotter at the Florida fire had trouble finding crews because of smoke.
Jim Karels, Florida Forest Service director and lead investigator in the Arizona disaster, said the two fires were similar in a key respect.
“When you look at the Blue Ribbon and the Yarnell fires and just about as far back as you want to look in history, the vast majority of these fires are in the late afternoon when there’s real potential for a blowup in the fires,” Karels said.
“That’s when we have to be at our peak, and a lot of times that’s when we’ve been working hard all day and maybe we aren’t watching as closely as we need to be,” he said.
The Yarnell Hill Fire investigation report described events as shrouded in fog and friction, a military term for the chaos of battle.
To cut through the fog and friction, the Florida Forest Service has been rolling out its Asset Tracker System, equipping all of the nearly 400 bulldozers and fire engines statewide with GPS receivers and radio transmitters. System software will be installed in the laptops of nearly 60 supervisors.
Ralph Crawford, assistant chief of forest protection, said the largely home-built system will cost nearly $2 million but won’t have major, ongoing costs because it doesn’t rely on cellphone or Internet service.
Among the first crews equipped with tracking units were those responding to the Blue Ribbon Fire. But the system was still new, and only one of the ill-fated bulldozers had a location transmitter.
Since then, the system has been refined, and its capabilities are becoming more apparent, said John Kern, a deputy chief of field operations.
Every 30 seconds, the units blurt out an electronic warble, confirming that a packet of data containing unit identification, location, speed and direction had been transmitted by a 40-watt radio able to reach supervisor laptops within 2 miles.
The system doesn’t provide a complete picture of a wildfire; the blaze, for example, isn’t outlined on maps depicted on laptop screens.
But Kern said supervisors are learning to correlate the GPS tracking data with their knowledge of tactics used when fighting fires with bulldozers. Supervisors also will know where to direct a helicopter to drop water should trouble occur.
“If one of our guys calls in, ‘I’m stuck and about to be burned over,’ we’ll know where to go,” Kerns said.