I should have known. I was the one who had grabbed the map trying to figure out exactly where it was going to hit. But so many things were happening it didn’t register that we were standing at the point of impact-in the exact spot I had pinpointed on the map. I knew the fire front was going to hit us hard, but I also knew that the house we were protecting could shelter us for a long time if we got in too deep, an advantage we wouldn’t find in many places on this mountain. But, the full picture, the overhead view that I should have been seeing in my head, pinpointing our location at the top of the that steep draw, in the very worst place we could possibly be during a wind-driven wildfire, never coalesced in my mind-not until that first blast of hot air hit me in the face.
We fought this fire before any of us had been taught the term “WUI” (wildland urban interface) or the current WUI structure defense guidelines. But the Old Fire, which had burned the leeward slope of this same Southern California mountain range just four years before and taken more than 900 hundred homes with it, had already taught us a lot of lessons. Techniques like fire front following and prep and go had not been taught to us in training classes but had evolved organically out of necessity. These techniques had proven to be extremely effective and, more importantly, safer. As urban interface firefighters, we had used every bit of our training and adapted to the crazy situations we found ourselves in during the Old Fire and miraculously survived unscathed. Those lessons would not be easily forgotten.
So, this really wasn’t our first rodeo. And this wasn’t unfamiliar terrain, either. This new fire was burning in one of the neighborhoods we have used for training hikes. But somehow, in the process of trying to save lives, things had happened too fast for our brains to keep up.
Close to Home
The structure defense strategies taught today are extremely effective. Picking the right strategy for the situation you are in and implementing that strategy take training that is regularly reinforced, coordination between units, local knowledge, experience, and a very strong leader. But coordination and strong leadership are difficult to achieve when a first-alarm assignment is faced with a monster fire in its own backyard. The firefighters are way behind the curve and literally fighting to save the lives and property of the very people they see every day at the post office and in the grocery store; it’s their son’s kindergarten teacher or the woman who runs their daughter’s ballet studio.
I am working an extra shift as a firefighter/paramedic at my regular station when our fire starts. Santa Ana winds howl all night long, and shortly before dawn the tones drop for power lines down in the northern part of our district.
I climb out of bed and stumble across the room in the dark. I flip the light switch on and off three times before my sleepy brain realizes we don’t have power. Our giant diesel-powered emergency generator, which was supposed to automatically switch on whenever the station lost power, has failed.
I head downstairs to the engine bay, locate the generator room in the dark, and hit the manual start. The generator fires right up, and I head to the engine to pull on my bunkers. Before I can even slip into them, the generator stalls and the station goes black. I go back to the generator room and pushed the manual start again, this time jogging over to open the bay doors before we lose power again. The door rolls up about a foot, allowing ominously strong winds to rush into the bay carrying leaves and debris, and the power fails yet again.
We finally are en route and are notified that our call has been upgraded to a vegetation fire. Just blocks from the address dispatched, our engineer, Ron, suddenly slams on the brakes, locking up all six wheels. We screech to a stop. I peel myself off the jumpseat and turn around, straining to look out the windshield. A broken power line sways in the wind just inches from the windshield.
We back up and reroute.
Divide and Conquer
As we make the turn onto Edgecliff Drive, the dead-end road that skirts the canyon, we’re greeted by an ominous orange glow building in the thick forest below us. We can see a few of the residents frantically trying to evacuate in the dark, bombarded by relentless wind and trying to keep one eye on the swelling forest fire below them.
There is a brief silence in the cab as we all process what we’re seeing. This is the Big One. Stationed in the most heavily populated national forest in the country, after years of drought and bark beetle infestation, it was just a matter of time. We know what needs to be done.
“We have to start evacuating.”
“I’m going to see if I can get a better look at it.”
“I have to get us turned around so we can get out of here.”
We each state our objectives in rapid fire and without prompting.
The captain heads down a dirt path at the end of the road to try to get a better vantage point. Ron is struggling to get the rig turned around, maneuvering the big beast around cars and people and trees until the engine is facing back out the way we came. I’m working on evacuations.
As we scramble to accomplish all this, the two rookie firefighters who staff our ambulance arrive and join us on the engine.
One of our engineers lives nearby. A few months earlier, I stood on his back deck as he pointed down this very canyon and told me, “If there is ever a fire in Grass Valley Drainage, my house is going to burn down.” Now, not only is there a fire in the drainage, but Santa Ana winds mean that the fire basically has a missile lock on his house.
I dig my cell phone out of my pocket and dial. There’s no answer. I leave a quick message and try his home phone next. Again, no answer; another message.
But he doesn’t need me to warn him. The sound of the wind woke him, and he quickly realized that he smelled smoke. He crawled out of bed and stepped onto his back deck. From there he could already see the fire eating up acreage down in the canyon. By the time I leave those messages, he and his wife have already loaded up their three daughters and their most treasured possessions and evacuated.
On Our Own
Soon, a sixth firefighter, who was to relieve me that morning, joins us. Fortunately, T has some solid wildland experience.
The main part of the fire, completely inaccessible down in the canyon and still building steam, is become more and more unmanageable by the minute. As the sun comes up and the smoke tries to blot it out, we know we are completely outmatched by the weather and the terrain.
Fingers of fire occasionally rush up the canyon walls following creeks and drainages. The aircraft that are usually so essential to putting these fires out are unable to fly because of the wind.
Multiple fires are burning throughout the state. I hear our battalion chief call for more resources. Less than a dozen engines are on scene and that isn’t going to be nearly enough, but he’s told that there’s simply no one left to send. “You guys are on your own for now.” Hearing that causes an eerie feeling to creep over me.
The fire will probably just graze the homes on this street, rushed past them by the wind. But, it will barrel through the neighborhood our engineer and his family have just evacuated like an out-of-control locomotive. It’s time to load up and reposition.
As we drive, I sit crammed into the back seat of a Type 1 engine with three other firefighters. I pull out the map and locate the street we were just on, trying to orient myself. The path of the drainage is marked by a thin blue line to the west of Edgecliff. A smaller fork moves farther west; it is steeper and directly in line with the winds that have been gusting as high as 85 miles per hour. I follow the blue lines south to where they slam into Amador Lane and tiny Windward Road.
As we roll into the neighborhood, the last in a conga line of fire engines, a woman steps out of her home to watch us go by. It’s obvious she has no intention of evacuating. So, we pull to a stop in front of the empty lot between her house and the next. The canyon below is already choked with smoke, obscuring our view.
It takes much longer than it should to convince her to leave. Ron is trying to fix the driver’s window, which has come off the track again and fallen down into the door. By the time the captain has the woman and her things in the car, we’ve prepped the house and pulled a line to the edge of the canyon. That is where I’m standing when the first blast of hot air hits me in the face, hot enough to warn me that the next blast might sear my lungs.
Time to Move
Suddenly, everything pivots and swings into alignment! Now I know exactly where we are! I can see the lines on the topography map as if they are etched onto the street and the homes and the trees. I see the thin blue line of the drainages snake its way up the canyon and dead end at my feet!
I can’t see the fire below me yet. And, oddly, I only hear wind, not the familiar rumble of a forest fire blowing up. People have described that sound as the rumble of a freight train coming. But to me, it has always sounded just like a big earthquake building up, the sound you hear right before everything starts to shake. It’s a sound that makes your adrenaline start to pump. It freezes you for a second. Only on a big fire, this rumble goes on and on-loud and louder. And instead of the ground shaking, a hot wind hits you and embers fly past, as trees explode.
None of that is happening yet, but that rush of heat tells me everything I need to know. I turn to scream for T, but he’s already at my side. “We have to get out of here!” he yells. “We should shelter in the house,” I say, referring to the home we just finished prepping.
“Where’s Cap?” We swing around, searching the smoky air, and find him in the driveway with the radio in his hand. The captain decides we should try to drive to a safer location.
As we drive away with our broken window, so much smoke fills the cab that I can hardly see the three men sitting in the back with me. It chokes us. Our eyes burn. Fire acts like a blowtorch across the road in front of us. I turn and look out the back window as fire rushes up the canyon behind the house and crashes down on the homes across the street like a wave.
Ron is driving blindly forward, through the fire, and then though smoke so thick we can’t even see the pavement. I’m not sure how he manages to keep us on the road.
Cap radios our group supervisor, telling him that our position has been overrun and we’re attempting to drive out. But there is too much radio traffic, and no one answers us.
I think, “This is how it happens. This is how people die and no one is even aware that they’re in trouble.”
And then, we’re through it ....
Ron drives two more blocks before we stop to check the engine and make sure nothing caught fire. We drive around in a cloud of adrenaline. Up one block and down the other. There’s so much burning-and so little we can save.
The Grass Valley Fire burned 174 homes that day, most in the first five hours; 25 others were damaged. The house we prepped on Windward survived.
At 4:32 p.m., a second urban interface fire broke out about 10 miles to the east. It would be a very long week.
It took a few days and a few hours of sleep for us to really grasp how close we came to being a statistic, a sad story. For months, Ron and I would come back to it in the quiet moments, trying to wrap our heads around the reality.
I’ve begun to wonder what more can be done to make WUI firefighting safer, because the human mind can only consciously process so many things at a time. But in a wildfire, the variables are endless! Weather, fuels, and topography all play a role. But, the weather is ever changing. And topography can be really tough to read when you’re standing at ground level, everything is covered in dense vegetation, and you can barely see across the street with all the smoke in the air. Draws only a few inches deep can change the course of a fire front entirely, draws that may be completely hidden by chaparral and duff until after the fire front passes.
As Jason Ramos wrote in his 2015 book Smokejumper, “No matter how competent and conscientious you are on a fire, sometimes bad shit just happens, even to the best of us.” Just ask the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. They were some of the best, and yet ....
So, while training is essential and experience priceless, we will never get to a point where no one ever gets into trouble.
Since poor communication is often the common denominator of disaster, an effective procedure for making rapid notifications when a wildland firefighter has an emergency would help.
If an incident management team is in place, members will have a detailed standard operating procedure for any incident within an incident (IWI) that may arise. But they cannot start that process until command is notified that there is a problem, be it a burnover, a heart attack, or a plane crash.
Brendan McDonough’s book My Lost Brothers recounts the events surrounding the loss of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. In it, he writes that as the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire began to blow up, “Radio problems were cropping up. One air-to-ground frequency went out ... and the remaining channels grew thick with competing voices.” We will never know if that contributed to their deaths.
Some agencies are beginning to issue satellite emergency notification devices (SEND) to wildland firefighters. These devices are often used by backpackers. They can transmit a distress beacon and GPS coordinates even in areas where radios and cell phones don’t work, and they should probably be standard equipment.
And it’s surprising that with all the training and policy changes surrounding Maydays, operational retreats, and rapid intervention crews on structure fires, similar policies have not been adopted in the wildland setting. Why not adapt the training we already have in structural firefighting and apply it to a different situation?
I posed this question to San Bernardino County (CA) Fire Special Operations Battalion Chief Michael Wakoski, who is also incident commander of the United States Forest Service Southern California Incident Management Team 3. His response confirms that it’s past time we did something more to ensure firefighter safety on wildland fires. He said, “I have always wondered why on structure fires there is excellent accountability, but on wildland fires it’s not a priority.”
Could we assign an extra radio frequency to each wildland incident, to use only in case of emergencies? A clear channel monitored by the command staff, including division and group supervisors, branch directors, operations officers, safety officers, and incident commanders?
In a situation like the one my crew and I found ourselves in, that extra frequency could be used for Maydays and emergency traffic. Instead of waiting for radio traffic on the tactical frequency to clear, the crew with the emergency could switch to that open emergency frequency and broadcast a LUNAR report just like they would use on a structure fire, including the following information:
- The LOCATION of the crew experiencing the emergency.
- The UNIT name or identifier.
- The NAME or NUMBER of crew members.
- The ACTIONS they are taking to effect their own rescue.
- Their NEEDS: rescue, water drops, line medics, ambulance, etc.
The command staff would then be able to quickly and efficiently monitor the situation, organize a rescue if needed, and notify other crews working in that area of the dangers. With extremely dry fuel conditions and phenomena such as area ignition already claiming firefighter lives, rapid notifications are imperative.
To further ensure the safety of crews working on large incidents or fast-moving fires, a type of operational retreat could be put into effect when needed, such as when the fire hits a certain trigger point or when a Mayday indicates a rapidly changing or dangerous fire situation. An operation retreat signal for a specific group or division, or even for the entire fire, could be broadcast, notifying all companies to retreat to a predesignated safety zone, deployment zone, area of refuge, or staging area.
Operational retreats give fire crews and incident leadership the opportunity to push the reset button. Just as in structural firefighting where an operational retreat is often followed by a change in tactics, this would give strike team leaders, division supervisors, and incident commanders the opportunity to announce and implement new strategies and tactics.
Using operational retreats on wildland fires would also help to reinforce the importance of establishing lookouts, communications, escape routes, and safety zones (LCES) early in the incident and communicating those important pieces of information to every firefighter on the incident.
The division or group supervisor, branch director, or operations officer could also do roll call, or PAR, for each unit affected by the operational retreat. While doing a roll call at regular intervals on a wildland incident is obviously not practical, it would be helpful for the command staff to have that tool available when things really start going sideways in the urban interface.
While these ideas would by no means solve all of the communication failures or the information overload that plagues urban interface firefighters, they might provide an extra layer of protection on a rough day.
Author’s note: This article is dedicated to the memory of Engineer Ronald Scott Reed (November 17, 1960-August 18, 2011), who was diagnosed with job-related kidney cancer just months after he bravely fought the Grass Valley Fire. We miss you, Ronbo.
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