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Kates Basin Fatality Report

“How to Operate a Fire Apparatus Mechanic” — by Lt. Bill Dyer



August 11, 2000

U.S. Department of Interior
Bureau of Indian Affairs
Wind River Agency
Fort Washakie, Wyoming


Saturday, August 5, 2000 thru Wednesday, August 9, 2000

Lightning on Saturday, August 5th ignited Kates Basin Fire. On Monday the fire was reported and initial-attacked. National and geographic area activity limited availability of suppression resources. Initial attack was not successful. Consequently, the overall strategy was to either monitor fire spread until it reached a point where the limited resources could be successful or, when resources became available, try a more direct attack. Conversations between the incident (Dave Underwood) and Rocky Mountain MAC group indicated with 10 to 15 engines the fire could be contained within 2 operational periods.

From the ignition source the fire spread generally down slopes to the north and east to the large flat basin drained by Red Canyon Creek (T6N & T7N, R4E). At the base of this slope is an unimproved dirt road extending north from Mexican Pass to Dry Cottonwood Creek (a.k.a. Black Rock Draw Road). This potentially provided Incident Commander (Type 4) Mike Brown a point in the fire environment to contain spread to the east. Values at risk from fire spread beyond this road included a power line (4 to 5 miles away) and the Riverton VOR.

Thursday, August 10, 2000

Thursday the tactics were to burn along Black Rock Draw Road (5 to 7 miles). During the afternoon the fire escaped immediately south of Potato Butte and ran as a long finger to the east. This escape ran in light fuels, under the influence of a strong wind, for approximately 1,000 acres. Light fuels and a decrease in the afternoon winds resulted in moderating fire activity and allowed resources to be effective. By midnight fire spread had been checked. Earlier that afternoon the two Oklahoma Engines (Engines #2 and #10) had arrived and assisted in containing this escape.

From Mexican Pass there is another unimproved dirt road heading in a westerly direction that roughly follows the crest of the Owl Creek Mountains. By 1300 hours suppression efforts had contained fire spread to the east and south in the Mexican Pass area. However, the same winds creating the escape near Potato Butte caused the fire to become established on the east aspect of Mexican Draw.

Between 1700 and 1800 hours members of the Rocky Mountain Area MAC Group called Bob Jacob to recommend taking the IMT2 currently headed toward the North Fork Fire in Colorado. The current situation on the North Fork fire was going well with a IMT3 in place. The group members were concerned that the Kates Basin fire and another local fire (Blondie Pass #2) were getting large, especially with that day’s wind event, and were beyond the ability of the local unit to handle. Additionally, the group members were concerned with firefighter safety since this was the fourth day initial attack resources had been chasing this fire and suspected they had been working long hours. Jacob agreed that the complexity analysis indicated an IMT2 complexity level and agreed to take the team.

By 2400 hours IC Brown had pulled all his resources back, for rest, to the ICP/dip tank site (T7N, R3E, Section 26) except for the Hot Springs County engines (Engine #7 and the Quick-Attack). They remained over night at Mexican Pass.

Friday, August 11, 2000

At 0500 hours the suppression resources got up and, since they were running short of fuel, went to fill-up at Duncan Ranch to the northeast of Potato Butte. During this time breakfast was delivered to the ICP. Between 0830 and 0900 hours IC Brown held a briefing for all resources at the ICP. The general weather was discussed. Oklahoma Engines #2 and #10 were assigned to patrol and mop-up the 1arge escape south of Potato Butte. They were also instructed to be available to assist in the suppression efforts in the Mexican Pass area if support was required.

Hot Springs Fire Chief Marvin Andreen (Unit 15), Engine #7, the Quick-Attack, along with a D-6 dozer and road grader, started Friday morning in the Mexican Pass area. See map, Appendix 3. Dozer operator Jeff Larson (Arapahoe Ranch manager) started the east fireline at 1030 hours and completed it to the top of the rock escarpment in 30 minutes. Approximately 1100 hours the dozer started and completed the west fireline to the road accessing Mexican Pass from the south. By 1200 hours the Hot Springs engines had positioned themselves on the road above the west fireline to burn out the road and down the east fireline to the escarpment. Fire Chief Andreen went down the Mexican Pass access road.

Bob Jacob and Mike Brown made a reconnaissance flight at 1100 hours to inform Jacob on the current situation for the IMT2 transition later that day. Although the fire had escaped the pre-planned containment lines the day before, the prospect of containing the escaped fire look good. Brown return to the Mexican Pass area and Jacob continued on to Riverton to prepare for the transition.

Radio coverage from local mountaintop repeaters was inadequate, so Amos Begay served as a human repeater. Additionally, Begay assisted Brown as driver while Brown directed other suppression resources to their work assignments. From 1130 to 1300 hours Brown also monitored the burn-out operation that Chickasaw Nation Engine #602 and Standing Rock Engine #2 were conducting along the Mexican Pass road. This burn-out was a small-scale operation removing unburned fuels along the Mexican Pass road ½ miles south of the Pass. All of those interviewed indicated that this burn-out did not contribute to the fatal fire spread later that day.

The fire becoming more active toward midday began to burn up to the west fireline and around 1200 hours jumped this line in the rock scab (natural barrier). The Hot Springs firefighters momentarily checked the fire spread only to lose the fireline again. This time approximately 1,000 feet of 1-inch hose was lost. The road grader in the meantime had reinforced the east fireline and placed the check line between the fire and the corner of the east fireline and road.

At 1300 hours the fire activity continued to increase; however, Helicopter 43T was somewhat effective in checking fire spread with bucket work. Around this time Oklahoma Engines #2 and #10 were asked to leave their previous assignment north of Mexican Pass and re-position to support suppression actions in the Mexican Pass area. No single individual (e.g., task force leader) was identified for them to report to.

Critical Decision Gates

Past this point in time there were six critical decision gates that were passed through, each with only a few minutes (in some cases only seconds) in which to make the decisions. Once the decisions were made, they could not be reversed because of the timing of the wind event.

  1. The decision to extend Engine #2 beyond the secure black where Hot Springs Engine #7 was stationed. Upon coming onto the scene, Engine #2 Boss Jim Burnett was told by Engine #7 Boss A.J. Helm of his plans to burn out. This discussion lasted for a few minutes. Engine #2 then pulled ahead on the road toward the east fireline.

  2. The decision to turn Engine #2 around at the east fireline instead of continuing in an easterly along the road. In route to the corner of the road and the east fireline the winds "suddenly" increased resulting in more intense fire behavior. Burnett observed that they could not hold the fire and the decision was made to turn the engine around at this corner heading the vehicle in a westerly direction back toward the Hot Springs engines and the black - their only safety zone.

  3. The decision to back Engine #2 eastward instead of driving forward through the flaming front. After turning around Engine #2 continued to back in an easterly direction instead of driving through the on-coming flaming front. Consequences of driving through the front are unsure: becoming disoriented could have led to the vehicle driving off the road with serious injuries to both Byington and Burnett. However, this decision might have kept Burnett in the vehicle.

  4. The decision to leave the engine cab to start the pump. After turning Engine #2 around they proceeded to back to the east along the road. At some point Burnett left the cab and went to the rear of the engine to start the pump for protection and possibly to help back the engine that was rapidly being engulfed by smoke. The pump ran for 4 to 5 seconds then quit, apparently because of lack of oxygen. Once this occurred the option of returning to the cab was eliminated.

  5. The decision to continue heading east along the road on foot instead of deploying a fire shelter. Because of the rolling nature of the road Burnett possibly thought he could continue along the road to what may have appeared to be a ridge within a few hundred feet. During Burnett’s retreat the Engine #2 Operator Presley Byington radioed Burnett who said he was okay; in fact, Burnett showed concern over Byington's well being.

  6. The decision to out flank the fire instead of continue east on the road. Sometime around 1430 hours Burnett moved off the road to the south in what appears to be an attempt to out flank the fire. By the time Burnett was overrun he had deployed his shelter, apparently as a heat shield.

Tactical LCES application in this situation.

Kates Basin incident points out important differences in applying LCES in operations involving engines and other vehicles. The primary concerns with LCES in vehicle entrapments are the use of vehicles for escape routes and as a safety zone when the vehicle’s occupants are entrapped.

  • Lookout: It is highly likely that a lookout, posted in the area of the entrapment would have been able to share concerns with the fire behavior prior to the entrapment. A lookout knowing difficulties with the fire’s containment might have prevented Engine #2 from continuing on the two-track road above and down wind of the unburned fuel. However, since there was no task force leader, strike team leader, or division supervisor assigned on this critical segment of fire perimeter, a lookout was not established.

  • Communications: Hot Springs engines could not communicate by radio with Engine #2. However, face-to-face communication did occur prior to Engine #2 continuing past the Hot Springs engines. Because of the "suddenness" of the wind event, once Engine #2 left the Hot Springs engines an improvement in communications might have only helped to warn Engine #2 not to turn back to the west.

  • Escape Routes: Escape routes are the paths followed from a firefighter’s current work location to safety zones. In this entrapment there was only one identifiable safety zone with just one escape route to this safety zone. That safety zone was the black where the Hot Springs engines were parked. The escape route was compromised once the fire made its fatal run.

    Vehicles expedite the firefighter in getting to the safety zone. If the vehicle can be operated safely, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be used to get there. One potential concern, of course, is that all firefighters depending on vehicle egress are transported and that the vehicle does not leave anyone behind. This was not the case in this situation. Burnett, having left the vehicle, could not get back into the cab.

  • Safety Zone: Herein lies one of the most critical concerns - does the cab of a vehicle ever afford a reliable safety zone or deployment site? And, if so, what level of fireline intensity makes the vehicle ineffective for either use? There are a number of case studies demonstrating rationale for both leaving and staying with the vehicle. This topic is in need of further research. Ideally, engine operations would follow the same principles as handcrews, that is, locating areas or zones in a fire environment where the engine could retreat and be able to safely let the fire burn past.

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