Thursday, October 2, 2014

Grant West Prescribed Fire – Hazard Tree Fatality

Daniel Holmes

Grant West Prescribed Fire – Hazard Tree Fatality
October 2, 2004 (10-year anniversary)

Incident Summary: 
October 2nd 2004, a prescribed fire is planned in the Grant Grove Sub District of Kings Canyon National Park. This park has long been known for its active prescribed fire program and since 1981, has been home to the Arrowhead Hotshots. The unit being burned this day has been burned several times before. The predominant tree in this unit is White Fir, a high-risk species, which had suffered a considerable die-off due to a Tussock Moth infestation. The unit has been prepped and hose-lays installed. Numerous snags along the line have been evaluated for firefighter safety and holding concerns. Some hazard trees were cut down or lined. One white fir snag about 146 feet tall and 12 feet inside the line was considered sound by experienced firefighters and is left standing. Torching brush and short trees during the test burn send embers into the top of the snag and within minutes smoke and then flames are observed. The snag has become a hazard and a holding concern and it is decided that it needs to be felled. Class C-fallers are called over to size-up the tree; Daniel Holmes, an Arrowhead Hotshot, is the swamper. Because of its lean, it is decided to drop it across the line and to move the hose-lay so that it can be suppressed as a spot fire. Holmes and another faller pass under the snag on the fireline as they walk over to assist in moving the hose-lay so that they can then cut the tree. Several firefighters see the top of the snag fall and yell. They start to run but the falling tree top hits Holmes on the head and he is knocked out. He never regains consciousness.

To that date, Daniel Holmes would be the 20th firefighter killed by a snag since 1960.

Lessons Learned Discussion Points:
The morning began with a safety briefing and most of the firefighters confirm that snag hazards were emphasized several times.

  • If you were giving your crew a briefing about hazard trees in your area, what will your emphasis points be? 

You and your crew are sizing up hazard trees in preparation for a prescribed burn in your area.

  • What are the common high-risk species of trees there? 
  • Discuss how you will determine the soundness of the trees. 
  • What are the common indicators that they have become unhealthy/unsafe?  

Knowing when the top of this tree would fall is impossible. The top of the snag had only been burning for less than 2 hours. The winds had been light.

  • Would you have considered this tree as hazardous as it really was?
  • Knowing that the top of the tree might eventually fall, what will you do to be ready for it?

Though there were 3 experienced fallers paying attention to the burning snag during its size-up, once the firefighters transitioned to moving the hose-lay there was not a dedicated lookout assigned for that task.

  • How will you and your crew manage the safety of all firefighters when you are in a similar transition situation?
  • How can you better expect the unexpected after reading this tragic accident?

Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website
Hazard Tree Safety website
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