Tuolumne Fire - September 12
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 what the outcome will be. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?
The Tuolumne Fire is reported by a Stanislaus lookout at 1233 hours. Dispatch initiates a standard response, including the dispatch of a helicopter with helitack crew. 1259 Air Attack (ATGS) arrives over fire and reports fire to be between 5-10 acres, spreading up-slope and up-canyon with a steady 3-5mph wind. The fire is burning near the bottom of the Tuolumne River Canyon, just upstream of a major river confluence at 1450’ elevation in light, flashy fuels, predominantly oak leaf litter, light grass and mixed brush with an oak overstory consistent with Fuel Model 2. FDFM (Fine Dead Fuel Moisture) is 4-5% and live fuel moistures at critical stage. Temperature is 89-94º F, RH 18-24%, and there is no frontal or thunderstorm activity. The canyon is very steep, observed to be 80-120% slope. At approximately 1335 the helitack crew begins constructing downhill fireline. 10 minutes later they take emergency action when a sudden wind shift that causes a fire flare-up which overruns their position. Of the 7 person crew, 3 firefighters suffer minor injuries and one firefighter is killed.
1305 the helicopter arrives over the fire and drops the crew on a gravel bar 3/4 mile downstream of the fire. They hike from the LZ up-canyon to a dirt road that parallels the river and walk the road toward the right flank of the fire. The fire is burning both above and below the road. Their helicopter is directed to begin dropping water on right flank above the road.
A local Division Chief is dispatched to the fire to be IC and drives past the helitack crew to the right flank. He observes a slow backing fire and returns to the location of the helitack crew, who are still hiking. Talking with the helitack captain, he does not identify himself as IC, announce a strategy or specific tactics. He does state that he wants the crew to find a safe anchor point but the crew understands him to want them to “anchor this fire on the right flank, the road down to the river”.
1335 the crew arrives at the right flank on the road and looks for access to the river and safe access to the bottom of the fire.
ATGS and IC decide to continue to use the helicopter on the right flank above the road. The helitack captain hears this exchange on the radio.
ATGS receives a radio call about a spot fire and misses discussion about helitack crew working below the road. (In a post-incident interview, the ATGS will state that he thought the crew was above the road.)
After scouting down the right flank about 70 feet, it is decided to construct indirect fire line downhill for 250 - 300ft to the river burning out from the road as they go. Safety zones are identified as down to the river, up to the road or into the black. All crew members agree with the plan and inform their helicopter pilot.
An engine is assigned to support the helitack crew. The crew is not notified that the engine was assigned to support them and that it was close by.
1340 firefighters located about 30ft down the line from the road remark that the burn out is pulling in nicely. There is a “flutter” in the wind and the 3 firefighters closest to the road are told to grab backpack pumps just in case.
1345 a sudden wind shift causes the fire to flare-up, change direction, and overrun the crew. 30 seconds later one crew member is dead. No fire shelters are deployed.
- During size-up, what fire behavior did the personnel observe? If you were at a fire in a similar setting, what local terrain features and other factors might lead you to distrust the fire behavior seen?
- It is common for people to have communication problems. On an incident where these issues can easily compromise anyone’s life safety, what are you going to do to minimize communication errors…as a Crew member? Crew boss? Pilot? IC?
- Your crew has been dispatched to this fire. How will you handle the “Lookout” aspect of LCES? It is common to hear that “everyone on the crew is a lookout”. Discuss what each person must do to make this an effective alternative to the “traditional” lookout.
- This fire had an Air Attack and a helicopter. Discuss if and how aerial resources can be used as additional lookouts and sources of information. What are some downfalls to using them in this role?
Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
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