Fighting wildfires is a dangerous occupation that requires an ongoing effort to improve safety procedures. When a firefighter gets injured – as happened during the Corta Fire this summer in Elko County – it becomes a learning experience for the entire firefighting community.
The job is one that requires skill, stamina and precise coordination between local, state and federal agencies. When a Jiggs volunteer fire captain was burned as flames swept under his engine, technical specialists from four agencies were brought together under the Bureau of Land Management to review the incident.
The team prepared a “Lessons Learned Review” that analyzed how the injury occurred and made recommendations to help prevent similar incidents in the future.
The southwest side of the Ruby Mountains has been the site of frequent wildfires in recent years, many of them sparked by lightning from dry thunderstorms. It was no surprise when a call came in to the Elko Interagency Dispatch Center the afternoon of Aug. 4 that a fire had started near Harrison Pass. It would be the first of several fire reports as storms blew in from the central part of the state.
A volunteer engine and a water tender were dispatched from the nearest station in Jiggs, about 30 miles south of Elko and Spring Creek. They were joined by a helitack crew that estimated the size of the blaze to be 7-10 acres.
A second volunteer engine was sent out six minutes after the first. When it arrived at the fire, its captain contacted the first engine and advised them to move away from a prominent drainage and onto the flats. But the first engine lost the prime on its pump and when they attempted to roll up the hose to change location, they found that the hose reel was inoperable.
“Increased winds and increased fire activity forced the engine to move location while dragging the deployed hardline,” said the report.
The first engine moved west while the second engine headed south, toward the heel of the fire.
The fire was creeping in 8-10 inch tall crested wheatgrass, 1.5-2 foot tall Sandberg bluegrass and sparse sage, producing 8- to 10-inch flame lengths.
The second engine was about 15 feet from the fire’s edge when its crew member got out and prepared to attack, but there was insufficient pump pressure. The captain got out of the engine and joined the crew member at the rear of the engine to diagnose the loss of pressure.
That’s when the fire’s behavior changed dramatically.
“Flame lengths that were initially reported at 8-10 inches increased to 4-5 feet due to increased and erratic winds,” stated the report.
The blaze spread quickly toward the engine, sweeping underneath it.
The crew member escaped the heat by heading northwest across the fence line, while the captain climbed on top of the engine. He was not wearing standard personal protective equipment consisting of a hard hat, flame-resistant clothing and gloves.
The heat on top of the engine increased and the captain jumped off toward the rear of the engine, then ran through the flames toward the crew member.
The helitack and the other engine were not far away. They saw that one of the truck’s tires was on fire and the helitack made two bucket drops on it but it continued to burn.
The burned captain returned to the engine and continued to fight the fire, using what pump pressure was available to extinguish the burning tire.
He told the other firefighters he was fine but his crew member noticed blistering on his face. A chase truck was requested to pull him off the fire line but it was unavailable. A little more than an hour later, an ambulance arrived.
The captain was transported to the University of Utah Trauma Center in Salt Lake City, where he was treated for second-degree burns and released less than a day later. His crew member sustained minor injuries but continued to fight the fire that evening.
The captain has returned to full duty, according to the Elko County Fire Protection District. His injuries were covered by the county’s workers compensation insurance, which is provided to volunteer firefighters.
The Corta Fire resulted in a significant injury but the outcome could have been worse. “Lessons Learned Reviews” are conducted in an open, non-punitive manner in order to help prevent future “near miss” events as well as potentially more serious incidents.
After reviewing the Corta incident, the team observed that gusty, erratic outflow winds from the thunderstorms produced unexpected fire behavior that contributed to the burnover.
“Fighting fire in light, flashy fuels is a common denominator on fatality fires, and firefighters must stay situationally aware even when experiencing minimal fire behavior,” the report said.
Truck maintenance procedures were not documented on either engine the day of the incident, and “there was no evidence that the pump and flow was operable prior to leaving the VFD station.” There were no labels on pump-panel valves on the engine that was burned over, and the hose rewind on the other engine was “out of service.”
The review said a Medical Incident Report was not initiated because the captain “consistently minimized or was unaware of the extent of his injuries.”
The team issued six recommendations:
1. Define, determine, and implement a protocol of when, where, and under what circumstances PPE (personal protective equipment) must be worn prior to response.
2. Ensure a routine, documented maintenance protocol is in place (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly).
3. Determine equipment check protocol to be completed prior to response.
4. Clearly define what constitutes out-of-service apparatus.
5. Ensure medical response protocols are followed (e.g. EMS protocols, Medical Incident Report, etc.).
6. Ensure valves have proper labels.
No agencies were named or fault assigned, due to the “non-punitive” nature of the review.
Elko County Fire Protection District Administrator Linda Bingaman explained the working relationship between volunteer firefighting agencies and her office, which was created by the county in 2015.
“Each volunteer fire department is incorporated as an entity with their own set of officers,” she told the Elko Daily Free Press. “The County provides the workers compensation insurance for all members, provides the equipment they operate, the insurance for the equipment, fuel and maintenance for the equipment, the stations that they store the equipment in, as well as the utilities for the stations, and personal protective equipment. We provide response zones, guidance as to response, direction on response, and training to ensure compliance with industry standards.”
Bingaman said the district is responsible for the maintenance of fire district apparatus but the VFDs are required to inspect and report maintenance issues that happen outside of when Fire District personnel complete inspections on the apparatus.
“We have two full-time mechanics on staff to work on 73 fire apparatus, one dozer, one transport, and multiple utility vehicles,” she said.
Training is a shared responsibility.
“Elko County Fire District has a Training Officer that will assist with training when a VFD makes a request or when mandated training is required,” Bingaman said. “It is the responsibility of the individual VFDs to set up and conduct training for their service based upon the level of service they provide. The training officer or fire district firefighters can assist with training if requested.
“The training officer coordinates and conducts district-mandated trainings and maintains training records for all firefighters,” she continued. “The training officer also delivers district-wide classes such as Firefighter I, Hazmat Awareness and Operations, Emergency Medical Responder, and basic wildland courses.”
Bingaman was one of the technical specialists on the team that compiled the Corta Fire report, along with representatives of the Nevada Division of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The team leader was a BLM fire management officer from Utah.