When Lightning Strikes

Have you heard the story about what happened to the two Helitack crewmembers assigned to their less-than-one-acre Kidney Lake Fire last August?

Both firefighters were hit by the same lightning strike.

It might be good to revisit the Kidney Lake Fire Lightning Strike RLS that tells the story of what happened that day. Here’s a key summary of information from that RLS:


At 0818 on August 18, a smoke report is called on top of the ridge over Kidney Lake, Montana by a civilian.

At 0837, the Lookout sees the smoke and a flare-up. The Duty Officer (DO) sends Forestry Technician personnel toward a nearby trailhead and requests a Type 3 Helicopter. The helicopter launches with the pilot, Helicopter Manager (HMGB), and two additional Helitack personnel inside.

At 0855, the helicopter flies over the fire and gives a size-up. Due to the hike-in for ground personnel and a potential helispot to the west of the fire, the DO says if the helicopter can land to put the two Helitack personnel on the ground to access the fire.

At 0904, these two personnel are dropped off: one as the ICT5/EMT and the other as the ICT5 Trainee. They hike to the fire, arriving at 1015. During this time, a Type 2 Helicopter is in support of the fire.

The two Helitack crewmembers–ICT5 and ICT5 Trainee–were put on the ground at this helispot located west of their 0.1-acre fire.

Fire Size-Up

At 1020 the size-up is as follows [summarized]:

“Fire name is Kidney Lake, South of Kidney Lakes, on U.S. Forest Service land . . . Fire behavior is smoldering creeping with no structures threatened. 0.1 acre, winds upslope 1-3 from the North. Fire is in timber, snags, and regen on a north aspect, upper 1/3 of the ridge. No additional resources needed with the best access being our helispot. There is a low risk summary rating and keeping the fire at Type 5.”

Throughout the operational shift that day, the two Helitack members: Cut down snags that are holding heat, obtain the afternoon/evening weather from Dispatch, contain the fire at 1700, cold trail, and are off the fire heading to camp at 2027. They are aware of the possible thunderstorms predicted for the night and next day.

The Kidney Lake Fire was contained at 1700 the first day and controlled at 0904 the next day.

The next morning, the ICT5 Trainee radios to Dispatch at 0605 that: “They are up and will get on the [fire] line soon.” The Lookout can see thunderstorms approaching and makes positive contact with the IC regarding potential imminent weather. The fire is controlled at 0904.

Lightning Strike

At 0943, the following lightning strike communication is broadcast over the Forest repeater by the ICT5 Trainee:

“Both firefighters got struck through the ground. Both firefighters are OK. Moving downhill and taking cover.”

The DO asks for clarification from Dispatch. Dispatch radios the ICT5 Trainee for clarification and receives this reply at 0946:

“Both firefighters felt lightning in their feet and were knocked to the ground. Will get off the fire. Incident happened at HS [helispot]. Can walk down drainage to find a new HS.”

Both Helitack members were close to the helispot when the lightning strike occurred. The area was fairly rocky and had some cliff rock bands. The strike occurred on a rock approximately 10 to 20 feet away from them.

They had found a bigger rock with a crevice for positioning their bodies inside it. One Helitack member was bracing against rocks while sitting in this crevice as the other was walking into the crevice.

The firefighter who was walking could feel the strike through their boots and legs. The firefighter positioned in the nearby crevice felt it through their entire body. The firefighter who was walking was knocked to the ground; the other was briefly dazed.

Helitack Crewmembers Felt Safer Walking Out—Than Waiting for Helicopter

The ICT5 Trainee positively contacts the Lookout to watch for any more storm cells moving their way. At 1022, it’s stated per the DO that the Helitack personnel will walk out.

The Helitack personnel felt safer walking out rather than waiting for a helicopter as it seemed a better option with less risk. The weather was their main concern.

During this time, the Forest Safety Officer has been informed of the situation and is enroute to the trailhead. He walks up the trail a ways and makes contact with the Helitack personnel. Once they return to the trailhead, he drives them to the hospital to be examined.

Related Topics to Explore

  • If all personnel are involved, is there a time for someone not there to take command and make decisions? How ill/hurt do the personnel need to be to take command away?
  • Communication:
    • At the beginning, was this a direct hit, near miss, or something else?
    • Is this urgent or an emergency? What is the difference?
    • Should you prepare an 8-line for yourself and partner if you are both injured?
    • Can you give an honest diagnosis?
    • Cell phone calls vs radio traffic with Dispatch.
    • How quickly is all information being shared?
  • What are lightning protocols? Have they been discussed in medical scenarios, 6 Minutes for Safety, or shared conversations? (Hint: Check out page 21 of your 2018 IRPG.)
  • Maintaining communication with personnel as they hike out to make sure everything is still fine.
  • Medical Response:
    • Should the Type 3 Helicopter tried to come back? What if the storm made it more unsafe?
    • Should there have been calls to a short-haul helicopter or private medical rescue helicopter on availability? Possibly start the spin-up process for them?
    • Should other Forest personnel start to head toward the Helitack personnel? Especially ones medically trained. What if one went down (carrying them out)? Think of the possibility of more personnel on hill with storms cells.
    • What are additional harms of hiking out (nearly two miles)? What are additional harms of staying on the hill waiting for a helicopter?
    • Should an ambulance have been waiting at the trailhead as the Helitack members and Forest Safety Officer came out? Could an ambulance have made it up to the trailhead? Positives about initial checks by medical professionals and possibly ride to hospital under supervision.
  • In the future, when looking at storm cells and fires, when would we pull people off the mountain? Is there a way to avoid this situation while fighting fire aggressively having provided for safety first?
  • Thoughts on staffing fires with 3+ people?
    • Positives with 3+ people: More “horsepower” on the fire = quicker containment timeframes, more personnel available for medical response. (For an actual example of this, see Saddleback Fatality Fire bullet below.)
    • Negatives: More personnel exposed to the hazards (snags, flights, lightning, etc.); more logistical requirements: flights, sling loads, etc. With more folks per fire, fewer fires may be staffed, etc.
    • With regard to medical emergencies in particular, if one person goes down in a 2-person module with a medical, the following responsibilities all fall onto a single individual: the radio traffic, cell phone calls, IC of medical incident, IC of fire, writing down patient info, and performing emergency First-Aid/CPR.
  • For one example where 3 folks on a fire was a critical factor, review the Saddleback Fatality Fire: https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/saddleback-fire-fatality-2013.

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