Embers In The Safety Zone

This is an excerpt from the Rice Ridge Fire Hahn Cabin Entrapment FLA.

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Two New Firefighters Take Over Point Protection Operations

On September 11, this crew swap occurs via helicopter and the new pair of firefighters take over protection of the Hahn Cabin. These two firefighters, one Single Resource Boss (SRB) and one Firefighter Type 2 (FFT2), transitioned with the other two firefighters who had been at Hahn Cabin the previous 13 days to continue Point Protection operations.

Prior to this insertion, both incoming firefighters had a satellite phone call with the outgoing firefighters. During the call, a brief operations update and a discussion of supply needs occurred.

Although the incoming firefighters flew to the cabin and attempted an aerial reconnaissance of the cabin and adjacent area, visibility was poor, adding to the less-than-ideal flight conditions due to smoke and wind (Red Flag conditions).

Because these conditions precluded the helicopter from shutting down, cargo and backhaul was swapped out quickly while the incoming and outgoing firefighters engaged in a short face-to-face briefing.

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Map of fire edge and cabin area.

Identifying Escape Routes and Safety Zones

Upon arrival at the cabin, the two incoming firefighters’ first task was to scout out Escape Routes and Safety Zones. They located two Safety Zones. One Safety Zone was in the black, with minimal snags, about a 25-minute walk west of the cabin but required an escape route through unburned vegetation. The second Safety Zone was a gravel bar situated to the north along Youngs Creek, located approximately 0.5 miles (a 7-minute walk) from the cabin.

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Path to gravel bar

The SRB believed that the fire would impact the cabin site during the course of the next few days and therefore wanted to ensure Safety Zones and Escape Routes were identified. Once their Escape Routes and Safety Zones were established, the two firefighters set to work replacing parts, repairing the water handling system, and test-firing the pumps.

In conjunction with ensuring the function of the water handling system, the two also scouted to the south, trying to establish a vantage point from which they could observe fire activity.

They spent the rest of their first day monitoring fire activity and working on projects at the cabin, in which they stayed overnight.

Fire Activity Increases

The next day, September 12, the firefighters moved between the cabin and the gravel bar, monitoring the progress of the fire. This day was another Red Flag Day and fire activity was increasing as the morning turned into afternoon. (While the previous day had also been a Red Flag Day, the fire that day hadn’t made significant expansion.)

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Photos from gravel bar

With the increase in fire behavior it became difficult for the personnel on Jumbo Mountain Lookout to serve as their lookout. In fact, given the direction of fire spread, the firefighters at the cabin were alternatively moving throughout the day between the cabin and the gravel bar to get eyes on Jumbo Mountain Lookout as well as the fire activity.

At this same time, from their location on the gravel bar, the two firefighters observed that the fire had spread closer to the southern Hahn Cabin area. They then headed back to the cabin to start the pumps and fire out around the cabin.

It was approximately 1800 when the firefighters at Hahn Cabin reported they would be starting pumps, firing and moving to the gravel bar. Once at the cabin, the FFT2 secured the cabin, set out the SRB’s overnight gear, grabbed FFT2’s own overnight gear and hurriedly headed for the gravel bar.

The SRB remained at the cabin to start the pumps, firing a few tactical fire strips north of the cabin. After that, the SRB snatched his overnight gear and started down the path for the gravel bar.

While exiting the area, the SRB noticed the fire was burning about 20 yards to the west into the timber.

The SRB was moving at a fast pace toward the gravel bar, noting that the main fire was paralleling him and there was group torching to the west. This observation caused the SRB to contemplate dropping his gear to expedite his retreat. However, he opted to just continue to the gravel bar without disposing of his drip torch and overnight gear.

Fire Progresses Around Gravel Bar – Enveloping Firefighters in Smoke and Ember Wash

The SRB arrived at the gravel bar approximately ten minutes behind the FFT2 after starting the pump and completing firing operations. The SRB noticed that the FFT2 had their fire shelter out of their pack, still in the plastic container, holding it in their arms. The SRB and the FFT2 settled in at the gravel bar and made a satellite call back to the local unit to let them know that they had completed their work and had retreated to the gravel bar.

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Photo from Jumbo Mountain Lookout

The two firefighters planned to spend the night on the gravel bar and had their overnight gear to do so.

Over the next 3-4 hours the fire would progress around the gravel bar. The fire burned in pulses. Each pulse of fire growth enveloped the firefighters in more smoke and more ember wash.

Decision Made to Deploy Fire Shelter

At approximately 2000 hours, during the second pulse of smoke and embers, the pair made the decision to deploy FFT2’s fire shelter. Both firefighters then climbed into this single shelter to provide protection from the smoke and embers that were encompassing them.

For the most part, the two stayed inside the deployed shelter until 2130. Occasionally the SRB lifted the edge of the shelter to survey the fire behavior. By this time, the fire activity near the gravel bar and cabin had subsided. However, the pair felt the safest option was not to return to the cabin due to snag hazards and areas of unburned fuel between the gravel bar and the cabin.

At 2230, the firefighters pulled out their overnight gear and spent the night on the gravel bar.

Why do we carry Fire Shelters?

(tell us in the comments)

Please read the full report here: Rice Ridge Fire Hahn Cabin Entrapment FLA.

9 thoughts on “Embers In The Safety Zone

  1. We carry fire shelters as a last ditch effort to preserve life when all other options have been exhausted. Entrapment and shelter deployment aren’t supposed to be Plan A, or Plan B…

  2. A fire shelter should be considered as another item of PPE — to insist it is only to be used as “a last resort”, as is indicated in the manual, sends the wrong message. People have hesitated to deploy shelters simply to avoid injury because we’ve made shelter use such a big deal — the implication being that if you deploy you are tacitly acknowledging that you screwed up. That should not be our attitude, In 2011, 4 firefighters at the Pagami Fire in the BWCA wilderness in Minnesota wisely deployed on a small island to get better air, prevent minor burns, and reduce tremendous stress. They would not have perished or suffered serious injury without a deployment, but it was a smart action. Why not use all the PPE you have? The decision at Rice Ridge was also smart. Yes, a shelter can be a last resort, but that should not be our only message.

  3. Thank you Peter for your input. Well reasoned.

    The implication of the official review that follows a deployment has become very ominous. While the two firefighters would have survived without the use of a shelter, it made their situation more comfortable and avoided burns from embers.

    I have never been in a place where I faced that decision, but looking back that has been more luck than skill. I would need to go through a similar experience before I could condemn that action.

  4. It seems like everything went according to plan. They were there to provide point protection in an area that was going to burn. They did their jobs and retreated to what we have to assume was the best place to ride out the burn, perhaps it was a little hotter than they expected.
    The fire shelter itself invokes such a feeling of awe and fear among our community that simply opening one guarantees an investigation. The single use aspect of this tool precludes the idea of using whenever things get hot but the idea that these two needed to sit in hot smoke and try not to get burnt by embers falling all over them seems foolish.
    We carry fire shelters to save our lives in an emergency, obviously. Misuse or premature opening of a shelter means it wont be available tomorrow and at $300 a pop, the cost of replacement is hefty. The automatic investigation serves a purpose in making sure we recognize mistakes that may have led up to a deployment. The fact that this article was written and and sent out about a non injury incident that went according to plan shows that we view it’s use as almost taboo

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, dialogue is so important for learning and we value your contribution.

      This blog post is merely an excerpt from the actual incident report. We highly encourage everyone to read the actual incident review (Rice Ridge Entrapment – link provided at beginning and end of main body post).
      The report covers way more than just the shelter element of this situation and probes some of the very concerns you express. Here are several quotes:
      “The focus for this Facilitated Learning Analysis is learning, so what were the multiple factors affecting the margin for safety for those firefighters assigned to Hahn Cabin? First, let’s think about their mission, which was: Protect Hahn Cabin.”
      “You should not hesitate to use your shelter to protect yourself. Do not worry about the cost of the fire shelter—your safety is always the highest priority.”

      Take a look at the report and tell us what you think.
      Thank you again for contributing – we look forward to future comments as well!

  5. I agree with Peter’s statement that the fire shelter is another piece of PPE. After reading the above account I cannot find fault in the actions of the SRB or the FFT2. When I first trained we were taught to give the shelter some kind of holy status and to use it only if it was for our last resort survival, I also legally fought fire in denim jeans for a while. I advise people to value the shelter as a potential life saver, but don’t limit it’s utility. If you work in an organization where the cost of a shelter is worth more than your health and safety, you should consider a move. Here are 3 examples of non traditional uses for shelters that we include in our training. 1) Using shelter as heat shield to escape or change positions. If you read case studies you will find that is is not uncommon. 2) Using shelters while seeking refuge inside vehicle or structure to insulate heat coming through windows. This is discussed in S-215. 3) Using a shelter as a makeshift gurney to move a patient. Discussed in WFR training.

  6. “When in doubt, get it out” then use it if you need to, not because you have to. At the end of the day everyone goes home. “Do not let the excitement of the moment overcome your ability to act decisively and think clearly”.

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