VANDENBERG AFB, Calif. - A report just released by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center sheds new light on the life-threatening moments a group of firefighters were confronted with during the Canyon Fire on September 17, 2016 on Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The fire burned more than 12,000 acres and injured two firefighters who were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. Those same firefighters deployed their fire shelters as fire personnel, some in trucks and others on foot, worked towards escaping flames coming over a ridge, with zero visibility at times.
The magnitude of the Canyon Fire prompted the Central Sierra IMT, a Type 2 incident management team, to take over managing operations for the Canyon Fire two days after the fire broke out.
However, "By [4 p.m.] on September 19, the fire had blown up in several areas. This prompted several crews to retreat to their safety zone," according to the report.
"Around [2:45-2:50 p.m.], Helitack crew members noticed two dust devils run across the line from south to north and related this to the Holding Boss. The Division Supervisor...walked out along the ridge that provided the best vantage point down into Honda Canyon. He sees an 'orange glow'," says the report.
The report continues, "The Division Supervisor and the Helitack Crew Boss started jogging back to Division Supervisor's truck as he radioed over TAC, 'All Division Zulu resources pull back to the safety zone.' It took a few minutes for the 20-person Helitack Crew, who had divided into their three 'normal' crews...to be gathered up and for the engine personnel to load -up and to maneuver their engines to head toward the safety zone."
Progress moving to the safety zone was slow due to all the movement and safety considerations that had to be taken into account around all of the fire vehicles.
"The smoke column began to grow and blow smoke across the ridge and through the saddle, engulfing resources to the point 'that we couldn't see five feet in front of us'," the report says. "As the Division Supervisor progressed east toward the safety zone, his truck was hit with a vertical vortices which 'felt like it lifted the truck and slammed it down'. As the Helitack Crew continued their hike out, they began to hike faster."
The 33-page report continues, "Another crew member was having an exceptionally difficult time breathing in the smoke...As the smoke became thicker...he threw his sunglasses and threw his tool and made the decision to pull out his fire shelter. As he finished pulling the plastic tab from around the shelter, another Helitack crewmember hiking out passed by him and told him they were close to the safety zone...[he] left his gear but kept the fire shelter and followed the Helitack crewmember."
The report included an exclusive heart-pounding 18-minute video from fire trucks and helmets of crews that were being overrun by a radical wind driven fire on the air force base.
At one point in the video, personnel from one fire truck can be heard trying to find out where a missing crew member is as they reach the safety zone, "This is Engine 253. It looks like the north side is starting to burn...5-3 is in the safety zone...Does anyone know where Jake is at?...Go-4 253. You got Jake on board? No Sir we do not. Jake walked out in front and said he was going to meet us out here."
"During Engine Captain 253's progress on foot to the safety zone, he noticed that the Helitack Crew's pace picked up and he wasn't able to keep up," states the report. "He began to take deeper breaths 'just swallowing smoke.' Realizing that this was a bad situation...he dropped his tool and his gear and grabbed his shelter."
Just as Engine Captain 253 was about to shelter in place, "He saw people walking by and yelled for help. Two firefighters then assisted Engine Captain 253 into an engine that was still in progress toward the safety zone," the report says. "Upon arrival at the safety zone, Engine Captain 253 began receiving treatment for smoke inhalation."
The report is an incident review rather than an investigation.
Click here to read the full Canyon Fire Entrapment Incident Review.
Watch the compelling video that accompanied the report below: