National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Tuolumne Fire (California) – September 12, 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: 

The Tuolumne Fire was reported by a Stanislaus National Forest lookout at 1233 hours. Dispatch initiated a standard response, including the dispatch of a helicopter with helitack crew. At 1259, Air Attack (ATGS) arrived over the fire and reported it to be between 5 and 10 acres, spreading upslope and upcanyon with a steady 3 to 5 mph wind. The fire was burning near the bottom of the Tuolumne River Canyon, just upstream of a major river confluence, at 1,450 feet elevation in light, flashy fuels (predominantly oak leaf litter, light grass, and mixed brush with an oak overstory, consistent with Fuel Model 2).  Fine Dead Fuel Moisture (FDFM) was 4-5% and live fuel moistures were at critical stage. Temperature was 89-94 ºF, relative humidity (RH) 18-24%, and there was no frontal or thunderstorm activity. The canyon is very steep, observed to be 80-120% slope. At approximately 1335, the helitack crew began constructing downhill fireline. Ten minutes later they took emergency action when a sudden wind shift caused the fire to flare-up and overrun their position. Of the seven-person crew, three firefighters suffered minor injuries and one firefighter was killed.

1305 – The helicopter arrived over the fire and dropped the crew on a gravel bar ¾ of a mile downstream of the fire. They hiked from the landing zone (LZ) upcanyon to a dirt road that paralleled the river and walked the road toward the right flank of the fire. The fire was burning both above and below the road. Their helicopter was directed to begin dropping water on the right flank above the road.

A local Division Chief was dispatched to the fire to be the Incident Commander (IC). He drove past the helitack crew to the right flank and observed a slow backing fire, then returned to the location of the helitack crew, which was still hiking. Talking with the helitack captain, he did not identify himself as IC, announce a strategy, or explain specific tactics. He did state that he wanted the crew to find a safe anchor point but the crew understood him to want them to “anchor this fire on the right flank, the road down to the river.”

1335 – The crew arrived at the right flank on the road and looked for access to the river and safe access to the bottom of the fire.

The ATGS and IC decide to continue to use the helicopter on the right flank above the road. The helitack captain heard this exchange on the radio.

ATGS received a radio call about a spot fire and missed discussion about the helitack crew working below the road. (In a post-incident interview, the ATGS stated that he thought the crew was above the road.)

After scouting down the right flank about 70 feet, it was decided to construct indirect fireline downhill for 250 to 300 feet to the river, burning out from the road as they went. Safety zones were identified as down to the river, up to the road, or into the black. All crew members agreed with the plan and informed their helicopter pilot.

An engine was assigned to support the helitack crew. The crew was not notified that the engine was assigned to support them and that it was close by.

1340 – Firefighters located about 30 feet down the line from the road remark that the burn out is pulling in nicely. There was a “flutter” in the wind and the three firefighters closest to the road were told to grab backpack pumps just in case.

1345 – A sudden wind shift caused the fire to flare-up, change direction, and overrun the crew. Thirty seconds later, one crew member was dead. No fire shelters were deployed.

Discussion Points:

  • 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 observed fire behavior?
  • It is common for people to have communication problems. On an incident where these issues can easily compromise anyone’s 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 Air Attack and a helicopter assigned. 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?


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

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