NJFFS Division A Section 2

Life & Death

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Wildfire Fatalities

The Fatal Incident


Fires that overrun personnel and equipment killed 38 firefighters from 1990 to 1998. Burnovers always carry the risk of multiple fatalities when fire conditions are extreme.

Twenty firefighters were killed in two burnover incidents. Six died in 1990 on the Dude Ranch in Arizona and fourteen died on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado in 1994. These fatalities happened during extreme conditions and have been thoroughly investigated and analyzed.

Lessons learned at the expense of these tragedies are:

  • Most burnovers occur during the initial attack or extended initial-attack. Initial small crews or individuals sometimes initiate action without higher level incident management teams, adequate communications, or knowledge of current fire weather.
  • Many burnovers result from fire escaping the initial attack efforts. These escaping fires oftentimes overwhelm the resources of the initial-attack.
  • Many wildland fire fatalities can be directly attributed to failure to follow basic wildland fire strategy and tactics. They are 10 Standard Fire Orders, 18 Situations That Shout "Watch Out" and Guidelines for Downhill Line Construction.
  • Use personal protection equipment. Fire Shelters  should be mandatory!

Click here for a NIOSH Investigation of a Wildland Fire Fatal Incident  (This incident could very well have taken place in Section 2)

Heart Attacks

There is a direct link between physical fitness and cardiac health. Twenty-eight deaths associated with wildland fire operations resulted from heart attacks between 1990 and 1998. You don't need to be on a fireline if you are in poor health.

The U.S. Forest Service suggests that:

  • People having regular checkups and screened  with specially designed physical tests stand a much better chance enduring work on a fireline.
  • Firefighters younger than 40 and who have a peroid of their work day dedicated to physical conditioning are usually best for fireline duty. There are exceptions to this and each firefighter should be individually tested.

Aircraft Accidents

Both fixed wing and rotary aircraft are necessary in the firefighting effort. They are symbols of today's aggressive approach to suppressing forest fires. Unfortunately, they also contribute to fatalities on fire.

A combination of factors resulted in 30 deaths associated with aircraft from 1990 to 1998. A USFS analysis concludes:

  • Many fire operations take place in steep mountainous terrain with limited room to maneuver aircraft if problems arise.
  • Weather conditions are influenced by wildfire. These conditions are most always unfavorable to the performance of a flight.
  • Helicopters are frequently required to hover for long periods of time and operate under 500 feet above ground. This stationary action reduces the likelihood that the aircraft can autorotate to a safe landing if engine problems occur.
  • Rotary wing operations often do work at maximum safe weight levels. Helicopters with suspended buckets may become entangled in trees, snags, or powerlines.

Vehicle Accidents

Twenty five fatalities occurred from 1990 to 1998 in vehicles traveling to the fire, at the fire and while returning from the fire. Here are several reasons why vehicle accidents happen.

  • Volunteers suffer from vehicle accidents in high percentages (72%). This is because they are usually unfamiliar with the vehicle and have infrequent opportunities to operate the equipment.
  • Volunteers are involved with fire in areas where there is more congestion and traffic. They are operating very heavy equipment and are having to deal with excess property that is old and not in optimum condition.
  • Many firefighters disregard safety concerns and ride vehicles on the outside. These individuals are often killed by being thrown off an engine or by being crushed when the engine leaves the road and rolls over them.

Falling Snags

Falling snags result in relatively few deaths. Only one has occurred since 1992. Yet the U.S. Forest Service suggests dead standing trees without leaves or needles in crowns "remain a serious concern".

"The deterioration of forest health in the Western United States has resulted in enormous areas of forested land becoming susceptible to fire." Snags are associated with poor forest health and the combination of fire and snags aggravate an already dangerous situation.

Snags are a direct danger that can injure firefighters by falling with little or no warning. They also influence fire behavior by throwing spot fires far in advance of the main fire. These spot fires can complicate the suppression effort and lead to firefighter entrapment.

Developed from the USFS report Wildland Fire Fatalities in the United States 1990-1998 , March 1999


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