Sawyer Down

The following is an excerpt from this report: Felling Injury and Medical Extraction Incident Minerva 5 Fire.

August 4 was the first day the Interagency Hotshot Crew was assigned to Division O. The previous five shifts on the fire had been a combination of direct and indirect fireline construction in steep terrain, heavy fuels, and near record high temperatures. The day’s assignment was to scout a piece of dozer line and conduct a burnout operation. Even though the fire had pushed toward a road system interior to the dozer line being used for the proposed firing operation during the night, fire behavior that morning was minimal.

While scouting the dozer line, a “snag patch” was identified that could be a potential threat to the line. One of the crew’s three squads was assigned to assess and mitigate the snag threat.

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Minerva 5 Fire

The squad (consisting of squad boss, two firefighters and a saw team made up of a FAL2 and FAL2 trainee) worked down the dozer line to the “snag patch” that consisted of five dead red and white fir trees. The trees ranged in diameter from less than 8 inches to over 28 inches. All were in various states of advanced decay with some having broken tops.

As the squad boss went to scout a nearby larger snag patch, the saw team went to work mitigating the snag threat. Working with the fully qualified FAL2 (referred to as Trainer for the remainder of the report), the FAL2 trainee (referred to as Sawyer for the remainder of the report) was operating the chainsaw. This was the Sawyer’s fifth season working as a wildland firefighter and the first with this Interagency Hotshot Crew. The squad boss stated that the Sawyer’s cutting skills had been improving over the season and that he was a careful, methodical sawyer.

The first tree felled was a small, less than 10-inches in diameter, tree which the Sawyer completed with no difficulty. The second tree was an 18-inch diameter red fir with the top broken out. It was located next to a large 40-inch diameter downed log. There were numerous other snags within three to four feet, as well as various sized green trees.

The Trainer noticed the Sawyer had missed connecting the horizontal and sloping cuts while attempting the undercut. It took a few more cuts to complete the undercut. The resulting undercut was half the diameter of the tree, greater than the recommended one-quarter to one-third of the tree diameter. The undercut direction remained as the Sawyer originally desired.

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Minerva 5 Fire

As the Sawyer started the back cut, the tree started to fall. The Trainer saw the top of the falling tree make contact with branches of a tree in the path of the fall. This resulted in the falling tree breaking mid-way up the bole. The break caused the top-half of the tree to fold back toward the Sawyer at the stump. The Sawyer attempted to retreat out of the path of the tree, but was blocked by the 40-inch diameter downed log. The top-half of the tree impacted the Sawyer’s left side, driving him into the downed log.

The Trainer immediately yelled to the Squad Boss, a qualified EMT. The Squad Boss notified the Superintendent by radio and began initial assessment and patient care.

The Superintendent was standing with the Division Supervisor discussing the plan for the day when the medical call came in. The Superintendent immediately notified the Division Supervisor of the medical incident, and then drove additional crew EMTs, medical equipment and rescue gear in the Superintendent’s truck as far down the dozer line as possible. The Division Supervisor jumped into her truck and followed the Crew Superintendent toward the accident site.

The Division Supervisor then assumed the role of Incident Commander for the medical incident and began to implement the incident command team’s incident-within-an-incident plan. The incident-within-an-incident Incident Commander communicated to the Minerva Incident Command Post that there was a medical emergency and began a response, which included ordering the dedicated medevac helicopter (hoist-capable), a life flight helicopter, and a ground ambulance.

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Minerva 5 Fire

Hearing this radio traffic, a nearby Division O engine with paramedics and advanced life support equipment responded to the incident. Two paramedics with advanced life support equipment hiked to the incident and assumed primary patient care. The two medics stabilized the injured firefighter and began patient assessment, starting an intravenous therapy with saline and an EKG.

The injured firefighter was secured to a backboard and carried by the crew up a steep section of dozer line, where he was then loaded onto a UTV for transport up the dozer line. While driving up the dozer line, the UTV became stuck on a dozer berm. The crew unloaded the patient, got the UTV over the dozer berm, carried the patient up a bit further, and then loaded him back onto the UTV headed up to the medivac spot where the incident medevac helicopter was waiting. The injured firefighter was transported by the incident medevac helicopter to the incident helibase and then transferred to a life flight helicopter and flown to Renown Hospital in Reno, Nevada

What does this story mean to you?

(Tell us in the comments section below.)

Also, take a look at this similar incident: Whitewater Hit by Tree Top.


Whitewater Fire Hit by Tree Top


2 thoughts on “Sawyer Down

  1. It’s comforting hearing that the different levels of med staff assumed their correct roles and med flights were dispatched early with no comms breaking down! As for the accident that caused this hole unfolding, as long as saws are put into folks hands, there will be accidents.

  2. It means to me, above all, that one of my fellow sawyers has survived (per 72 hour report) and that the training and skills of the firefighters on the line with him contributed THE critical piece in this by getting him to definitive care in time.

    Having an escape route is critical and required and I believe this sawyer knew that. I believe there’s a reason for the cut being finished on the side that provided no escape. I also believe there’s another way to cut this tree that could have provided for his escape route without changing any other element of the scene.

    As a sawyer and trainer of sawyers I see the following:

    For some very good reason the sawyer chose to finish the back cut from the left side (sawyer’s perspective) which eliminated the only viable escape route, on the right side, assuming the utilized lay was best option.
    *** There are two very common reasons for cutting from this left side during the back cut:
    – Sawyer is using a saw with a half wrap bar and isn’t comfortable with the alternate cutting methods that would allow cutting from other side (thus allowing an escape route).
    – Sawyer’s strong side for cutting puts them on the left side (sawyer’s perspective) when cutting, to the point that the left side is the only side they choose. Again, this eliminated the possibility of using the right side escape route.

    As teachers of up and coming sawyers we need to provide training and guidance so that our sawyers can and will cut from both sides of a tree and can use boring cuts and other techniques to get the job done safely and proficiently.

    So many lives impacted by incidents like this.
    Let’s get the training and experience to our folks (exactly what they were doing here) and also take opportunities like this one to teach the cutting techniques available to mitigate issues like having no escape route.

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