Tree Trauma

By Travis Dotson

“Hit by Tree” events are a difficult topic. We have had a series of tragedies in recent years. We’ve endured eight fatalities in the last four years.

We’ve had one hotshot die in “Hit by Tree” incidents each summer for the past three years.

Each instance is heartbreaking. These events are sometimes difficult to process because there is often a feeling of inevitability around the issue of wildland firefighters being struck by trees.

How do we make these events matter?


Eight “Hit by Tree” Fatalities in four years.

Not every time a firefighter gets hit by a tree results in death. In 2018 we received reports of 16 non-fatal incidents. Each instance is terrifying.

How do we make these events matter?


“The butt end of the tree hit the faller as it jumped backwards off the stump and swung uphill almost 25 feet.”
Taylor Creek RLS



San Antonio Fire FLA

From the FLA:

The limb struck Joel on the left side of the hard hat at an “angle smearing the hard hat off his head.” The branch also hit Memo hard on the back, knocking him to the ground.

The story here is a description of several hotshot crews engaged in direct attack on a fire in extreme terrain with numerous snags, and steep slopes with rocks rolling down the hill like a bowling alley.

Why were they exposed to such risk? Why were they even there? What happened? Did someone mess up cutting a tree? Did someone walk under a bucket drop? Did they lose situational awareness?

What do we learn when there is no glaring mistake made?
No “Human Error” that caused the accident?

After a thorough review of this incident, the FLA team has come to a potentially confounding conclusion: That in the case of the San Antonio Fire accident, Line Officers, IMT members and on the ground firefighters did just about everything right.

But wait, firefighters got hurt really bad…WHY?

During a chainsaw training session, a Fire Captain who is an Advanced Faller (C-Faller) Cadre Member was struck by a grounded tree limb that was under tension. The Fire Captain remained unconscious with agonal respirations as they completed an assessment of his injuries. The Fire Captain suffered significant injuries to his head, neck and chest that required hospitalization.

Exercise (30 minutes)

Study the events above.

Identify what has the most meaning for you.

Write down a few notes on WHY your selection has meaning.

Compare your answers with others.

Discuss these Questions:

What makes an event have meaning for us individually?

What makes an event NOT have meaning?

2 thoughts on “Tree Trauma

  1. All these events have meaning to me but I can feel myself becoming numb as the years go by. One of the biggest lessons I have learned from these events is the acknowledgement that in an environment as dynamic and complex as wildland fire, there is only so much we can control. I admit I struggle with the uncomfortable reality that even if we do everything right, someone may still get seriously injured or killed.
    A wise colleague of mine once said to me “You want to reduce your risk of a tree strike? Don’t be a target.”
    Simple, true, and potentially life saving but not always possible in wildland fire.
    We will be lucky to endure years without fatalities. When we engage in the wildland fire environment the stakes are high. We owe it to those we have lost and those yet to come to never accept this risk blindly.
    Know the hazards you face, know why you’re there, and know that it can happen to you.

  2. Brian Hughes was a good man that I was able to help come into the world of wildland fire fighting. He was trained by some of the best in the ways of a sawyer. Our faller crew used to remind each other often that there was always a tree out there that was waiting for you, with your name on it. It was waiting to take you and all your skillful ego down hard. Maybe tomorrow, next week or any certain day, that tree can be taken by your ability. But today for whatever reason it has the upper hand and awaits to do you harm. The instinct of a smart sawyer will recognize this tree on this day and knows to walk away and live to saw again.

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