Report details how ‘wall of flame’ trapped 4 firefighters
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — CalFire division chief Jim Wright was helping his neighbors evacuate shortly after a wildfire started near his Lake County home last month when he heard radio traffic about four firefighters trapped by the fast-moving blaze.
When the firefighters radioed that they were near a barn he recognized, Wright jumped in his pickup truck and with other two other firefighters raced to the scene, driving through smoke and guiding himself by trees on the edges of the road until they reached their colleagues, who had taken refuge in their emergency shelters.
“I hit my air horn and they popped up,” Wright said Monday.
The group loaded the four men into the back of Wright’s pickup truck, covered them with fire shelters to protect them from additional heat and drove them to a waiting helicopter. All four were badly burned.
A report released over the weekend by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection credits Wright and the others with responding to the trapped firefighters’ mayday call. It also raises questions about the injured firefighters’ equipment and training.
The report details the trouble the four faced, how they were rescued, and the serious injuries they suffered. The men were among the first victims of the wildfire that turned into one of the most destructive in California history, destroying more than 1,000 homes, killing four people and growing to more than 100 square miles.
After a helicopter dropped them off, the four firefighters hiked up an access road with the expectation of battling a 20-acre fire, according to the review. But the wind picked up dramatically and unexpectedly, turning the small grass fire into a raging inferno, forcing them to flee to a barren goat pen. A nearby hillside then turned into a “wall of flame,” and the intense heat chased the men from the goat pen to a nearby metal barn.
“They could feel their faces burning from the radiant heat,” the report said.
While crouched under the fireproof shelters they got from their backpacks, one of the firefighters tried to sip some water he had with him but found it too hot to drink.
Thick smoke prevented aircraft from dropping water on the men’s position.
Bill Gabbert, a retired firefighter who operates the website Wildfiretoday.com, noted all four suffered burns to their hands, which he said shouldn’t occur if firefighters keep their protective gloves on.
“Personnel MUST wear ALL CAL FIRE APPROVED (personal protective equipment) when engaged in firefighting operations,” the report concluded.
The review said one of the firefighters removed his gloves to peel off the plastic case that melted to his emergency shelter.
Another firefighter couldn’t use his shelter because the plastic case had fused to the tent. So two firefighters shared one small shelter, and two others used their own shelters until helped arrived.
They did their best to shield the heat “away from their already burned faces and hands,” the report stated.
CalFire said the report was compiled by experts and is intended as a safety and training tool, an aid to preventing future occurrences, and to inform interested parties.
The report suggests fire crews should “practice and prepare for shelter deployment in adverse and extreme conditions.”
CalFire spokesman Dan Berlant called the report a preliminary finding, saying the agency planned a much deeper review of its response to the fire.
Associated Press writer Paul Elias contributed to this story.