National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Sadler Fire (Nevada) – August 9, 1999


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:

On August 5, 1999, a dry lightning storm passed through northern Nevada, igniting numerous fires. Due to a wet winter and spring, the fuels were abnormally heavy. Now, deep into summer, these fuels are measuring less than 80% live fuel moisture. Normal fire suppression tactics have not been effective on previous fires, particularly direct attack and burning operations during the heat of the day. The weather and fire behavior forecasts predicted extreme burning conditions. The same day as the lightning storm, a Type 2 crew—the Golden Gate 3 (GNP3)—was assembled in California. This crew consisted of 21 members, 17 of them Firefighter Type 2 (FFT2), from fuels and suppression modules as well as non-fire and overhead positions from various home units. The following day, they were dispatched to the Sadler Complex south of Elko, Nevada. For the next two days, they worked on the fireline. On day 3, August 9, while conducting a burnout operation, six firefighters from the GNP3 crew were entrapped by wildfire.

0600 – Briefing started unannounced, and several crews and overhead missed some and/or all of it. Briefing placed little emphasis on a red flag warning that had been issued for high winds, low relative humidity (RH), and unstable atmospheric conditions. The Incident Action Plan (IAP) forecast called for extreme fire behavior with high rates of spread, south winds increasing in afternoon, minimum RH 6 - 12%, Haines Index of 6, maximum temperatures of 85 - 91 °F, and a Fine Dead Fuel Moisture (FDFM) of 3%. However, there were not enough IAPs for everyone, including the GNP3 Crew Boss and a Division Supervisor (DIVS). Extreme fire behavior was discussed at the GNP3 crew briefing and characterized as “normal.”

0900 – GNP3 was assigned to support two interagency hotshot crews (IHCs). The crews were asked to burnout from Big Safety Zone to the northwest and the dozer line to Black Safety Zone. The dozer line was about ½ mile north of the head of the fire.

1100 – After a recon, the IHC superintendents refused to accept the burnout assignment until the line south of Big Safety Zone was secure. The DIVS and the two IHCs leave to do the other burnout. GNP3 wait.

1300 – GNP3 accepted the assignment to burn out across the head of the fire from Black Safety Zone east to the Y.

1400 – Ignition was delayed due to unfavorable winds. Overhead felt if they “didn’t attempt a burn, the fire would get away.” The plan was changed to burnout from the east to the west instead — the very plan the IHCs refused.

1430 Due to concerns regarding GPN3’s lack of experience and fitness, only three members and the Crew Boss were used for the firing operation.

1500 – This squad began firing from the Y, without an anchor point, supported by an engine. The fireline behind them was unsecured. Due to hills, no one on the burnout squad could see the main fire. There were no aircraft to assist as lookout. Because of occasional wind shifts, the igniters must walk very fast and occasionally trot to keep ahead of their fire. They were unable to use the black as a safety zone. For the burning conditions, safety zones along the dozer line were too small and too far apart.

1515 Back behind the firing squad, the engine was very busy picking up multiple spot fires and slopovers. The Engine Boss radioed to stop ignition. There was no response. The same tactical channel was also being used by the other burnout and was overloaded with traffic.

1530 Halfway through the 1.3-mile burnout, two more GNP3 members joined the firing squad.

1540 Overhead watching the burnout saw the main fire become visible and take off down the hill toward the squad. They attempted to warn the squad but were unable to make radio contact. Shortly after, the main fire became visible to the squad as it crested the ridge to the south. It was described as a “river of fire” as it made a run at the dozer line and the crew at speeds in excess of 300 chains per hour with 15-foot flame lengths.

The engine was cut off from the squad and they retreated to a safety zone. The order to run was given to the firing squad. Tools and gear were dropped on the way to the safety zone, almost 600 feet. away. Several crew members unsuccessfully attempted to deploy their fire shelters.

Crew members received 1st and 2nd degree burns and smoke inhalation. An injured crew member, an EMT  suffering from smoke inhalation, was asked to provide first aid for the others.

Discussion Points:

  • What are your responsibilities if you are asking another resource to take an assignment that was previously turned down?
  • The burnout was a potentially dangerous assignment. What will you do to size up your resource’s capabilities and experience and assign them to appropriate tasks?
  • As a crew/crew member, you have a responsibility to look after your own safety, which includes the right to accept or reject an assignment. Using the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461 have everyone discuss how to properly refuse risk.
  • Discuss how you and your crew would apply LCES throughout the day on this incident.


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

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