Photo from the report: A reenactment of how the firefighter rode in the bucket.

The Pole Creek Fire Bucket Extraction took place in September of 2012–ten years ago from the time of this writing. This was a much talked about event. The incident involved a Task Force Leader (TFLD) who was out scouting and directing bucket drops when fire conditions worsened. The pilot performing the bucket work expressed grave concern about the threat of the TFLD being overrun by fire. The pilot suggested the best option was for the TFLD to get in the bucket for extraction–which they did.

If you have not read this report, or it’s been awhile since you looked at it, it’s worth pulling it back up. There are some great discussion points about numerous topics–including LCES and how we use it.

Here is a short excerpt from the report’s “Lessons” section:

The TFLD confirmed to DIVS that “I’ve got LCES” when both understood that there was no lookout:

  • Does “LCES in place” now serve as short-hand for “I am confident that I’m in a safe situation”?
  • Or does it mean something specific about each element of LCES?

Norms are changing, have changed, and are situational:

  • Years ago, it was common for an experienced single resource to scout fire alone.
  • Today it’s not uncommon to have multiple lookouts on the same hill.
  • The order “Post lookouts when there is possible danger” includes a strong implication that the need for lookouts depends on the situation and risk.

Without a lookout or a partner, TFLD had to rely on his own judgment, experience, and observations:

  • When it became necessary to make time-critical decisions, there was no second set of eyes that he could turn to for backup or confirmation.
  • The pilot, similarly, was on his own. With Air Attack on the ground, there was no second set of eyes in the air, and the pilot had to rely on his own experience, observation, and instincts.
  • The decisions they made were the best they could do without third party support and confirmation.
  • The TFLD said, in the end “I can’t see what you see; I’m going to defer to your judgment,” and got in the bucket.

Those are some great discussion starters for a training session on LCES, scouting, and crew protocol surrounding single-person missions.

It’s important to note there was a similar instance of an aerial extraction in 2021: The Gales Fire Entrapment and Extraction.

Photo from the report: Blue dot indicates the firefighter’s approximate location up drainage from the approaching fire.

In this more recent instance, an Division Supervisor Trainee was out scouting when fire behavior picked up and he was entrapped. A short-haul mission was executed to extract the Division Supervisor Trainee before he was overrun by fire.

The lessons in this FLA report focus on several elements of the short-haul, communication, Incident Within an Incident (IWI) process, relationships, briefing times, and fuel conditions. There is no discussion about scouting and LCES.

One super useful portion of the report talks about the importance of having a strobe:

“All the aviation resources involved believe if Riley had not had a strobe light that they would not have been able to locate him. Strobe lights are an easily obtainable inexpensive safety device, ranging from $30-$50 and available in convenient small sizes.”

“Strobes should be standard issue to everyone.”

– Short-Haul Pilot

In yet another instance from 2020, Field Observers on the Woodward Fire found themselves in a precarious position as fire behavior increased and the sun went down. The Division Supervisor requested a local rescue helicopter from a nearby county to short-haul the firefighters off of the fireline to safety. The entire process, once initiated, was completed in less than an hour.

Photo from the report: The location of the extraction helicopter’s LZ and the two firefighters’ location minutes before the extraction took place.

This extraction was recorded on video by the short-haul team and can be viewed here:

The lessons in this RLS bring up some important discussion points regarding language. Two of the bullets from this report:

  • Constantly revaluate your Situational Awareness and LCES. Recognize the difference between a “travel route” and an “escape route”.
  • The term “Temporary Refuge Area” or “TRA” was used by local responders when discussing this incident. This term is not commonly used in the wildland community. Its use should therefore be avoided to prevent confusion.

Comparing these three incidents, what are some discussion points worth going over with your fellow firefighters?

2 thoughts on “Entrapment/Extraction

  1. I am going to go out on a limb by saying since short haul and “dangling” with EMT FFTR and patient on the end of a rescue hoist and all the risk management that went into that program….this was a early version of pilot and TFLD work together on a solution.

    Risk management SHOULD HAVE started w a two person crew

    A bucket ride seems like an excellent solution for a bunch of “risk managers” who allowed the TFLD to be on their own

  2. The strobe lesson learned is a key one and everyone should invest in an inexpensive strobe!!!

    Additionally, 1 hour extractions are the exception, not the rule. In search and rescue, we talk days or weeks before rescue. In fire, we expect rescues to happen immediately. That is not practical, nor safe for the responding aircrews. We need to have frank conversations about 2-4 hours timelines. It is simply a matter of remoteness and lack of resources. Can we improve that timeline? Yes, but we need more extraction resources before those timelines change.

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