The following is an excerpt from the “Packer’s Cabin Serious Near Miss” FLA.
On August 18 the task force consisted of TFLD(t) Ted, a fully qualified TFLD (Neal), the DNR engine, two other Type 3 engines, and a Wildland Fire Module. The plan for the day as discussed at the morning briefing was to complete the prep work at Packer’s Cabin and then burn out near the cabin in order to create a burned buffer so when the main fire hit the area it would not burn the cabin. After the cabin preparation was complete there was another briefing to review the plan. The plan was for the Wildland Fire Module to burn the south side of the 1917 road, starting from the main fire edge a little over one mile east of the cabin (burning from East to West), and then burn around the cabin (see FLA Navigation Map).
There was also a dozer line from the Biscuit Fire that ran to the north off of the 1917 road. The plan was to keep the fire east of the dozer line. Fuel models in the vicinity included mature timber (at the start of the burn operation), tall shrubs (wax leaf ceanothus) near the dozer line in the middle, and grass in the meadow around the cabin. Due to the narrow road, Ted and Neal decided that only the DNR engine would follow the burners and catch spots if they started. The other two engines would wait at the cabin in case they were needed. Two of the DNR engine’s five crew members were used as drivers ahead of the burners. In this very steep country with dense foliage and tall trees, there was no good place for a lookout that could see the whole operation. The escape route was to drive down the 1917 road to the southwest and away from the fire. All resources were in favor of the plan and felt that it would succeed.
After a test fire, ignitions began around 10:30 am. Winds were favorable with gusts up to 10 mph blowing downhill and away from the 1917 road. Neal, a highly experienced and highly regarded Type 1 Burn Boss, was in charge of firing operations and Ted was in charge of the holding forces. Around 11:40, as the inversion lifted, the winds shifted to uphill. Larry notified everyone over the radio that the wind had shifted and then he reported the first spot fire across the 1917 road and on the west side of the dozer line. Ted assigned a heavy helicopter to Larry to work the spot and cautioned him to “not get too committed” to the spot fire. Ted wanted them to be mobile so they could easily disengage if fire behavior threatened their safety.
Larry had the helicopter drop several times on the spot. Ted reiterated to Larry to not “over commit to the spot fire.” To keep the engine mobile, Larry didn’t deploy hose, he kept the crew close, and focused on using the helicopter to work the spot fire. Larry said he felt good and they were in a good spot. Then Larry and everyone at the cabin could hear a distinct roar coming up the hill from south of the 1917 road. It was then evident to Larry that their egress to the cabin was cut off by the fire streaming across the 1917 road west of them. The helicopter came in for another drop on the spot fire but could not drop because they could not see it through all the smoke. They dropped on the road ahead of them instead hoping that it would cool the road for the DNR engine to drive out. At 12:30 Larry calmly asked the helicopter if they could see any good deployment sites and the pilot said that “Nothing is adequate for a deployment site. You need to get out.”
At 12:37 Neal radioed Larry and instructed him to drive east down the 1917 road to where the burning operation started because there was a previously burned area that would be safe from the fire. Larry had been on the Twisp River Fire that took the lives of three engine crew members as they tried to drive out of an area when the wind shifted and the fire ran at them. The two year anniversary for the Twisp fatalities was on 8/19, the next day. Larry wanted to make sure that the same result did not happen to the DNR engine. Twisp kept running through his mind, but he did not mention it to his crew members because he did not want them to worry.
Larry acted quickly with the knowledge of where he could safely take his crew. He loaded up his two crew members just as the smoke lifted enough for them to see the road, and they drove through “a tunnel of fire” to make it safely to the area of black to the east. At 12:40 as they drove into the black, Larry radioed that they were safe in the previously burned area, there was no engine damage and no one was injured. Everyone cheered and breathed a sigh of relief that they were safe. Ted said that those “ten minutes felt like two hours.” Larry decided they would stay there for a while and let things cool down.
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