National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Grant West RX (California) – October 2, 2004


This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know the outcome. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?

Incident Summary:

A prescribed fire was planned in the Grant Grove Sub District of Kings Canyon National Park. This park had long been known for its active prescribed fire program and, since 1981, had been home to the Arrowhead Hotshots. The unit being burned this day has been burned several times before. The predominant tree in this unit was white fir, a high-risk species, which had suffered a considerable die-off due to a Tussock Moth infestation. The unit had been prepped and hose-lays installed. Numerous snags along the line had been evaluated for firefighter safety and holding concerns. Some hazard trees were cut down or lined. One 146-foot-tall white fir snag 12 feet inside the line was considered sound by experienced firefighters and left standing. Torching brush and short trees during the test burn sent embers into the top of the snag where, within minutes, smoke and then flames were observed. The snag became a hazard as well as a holding concern. It was decided to fall the snag. Advanced Fallers (FAL1) were called over to size-up the tree. Daniel Holmes, an Arrowhead Hotshot, was the swamper. Because of its lean, it was decided to drop it across the line and to move the hose-lay so that it could be suppressed as a spot fire. Holmes and another faller pass under the snag on the fireline as they walk over to assist in moving the hose-lay before they cut the tree. Several firefighters see the top of the snag fall and yell. Holmes and the faller started to run but the falling tree top hit Holmes on the head and he was knocked out. He never regained consciousness.

Daniel Holmes would become the 20th firefighter killed by a snag since 1960.

Discussion Points:

The morning began with a safety briefing and most of the firefighters confirmed that snag hazards were emphasized several times.

  • If you were giving your crew a briefing about hazard trees in your area, what points would you emphasize?

You and your crew are sizing up hazard trees in preparation for a prescribed burn in your area.

  • What are the common high-risk species of trees?
  • Discuss how you will determine the soundness of the trees.
  • What are the common indicators that they have become unhealthy/unsafe?

Knowing when the top of this tree would fall is impossible. The top of the snag had been burning for less than 2 hours. The winds had been light.

  • Would you have considered this tree as hazardous as it really was?
  • Knowing that the top of the tree might eventually fall, what will you do to be ready for it?

Though there were three experienced fallers paying attention to the burning snag during its size-up, once the firefighters transitioned to moving the hose-lay there was not a dedicated lookout assigned for that task.

  • How will you and your crew manage the safety of all firefighters when you are in a similar transition situation?
  • How can you better expect the unexpected after reading about this tragic accident?

Photo of Arrowhead Hotshot Daniel Holmes - 2004, standing in his fire gear with chainsaw over right shoulder, and left hand leaning against a large pine tree.

Arrowhead Hotshot Daniel Holmes - 2004


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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