Sunday, July 10, 2016

Thirtymile Fire – July 10, 2001 - Washington

Thirtymile fire memorial

Incident Summary
The Chewuch River runs down a deep "V" canyon with 70% to 100% slopes and little elevation change along the canyon floor. The SW to NE orientation of the canyon aligns with afternoon ridge and upcanyon winds. Dead fuel moistures are 10 hour at 3%, 100 hour at 5%, and 1000 hour at 10% (historic lows) and live fuels generally less than 100%. Ladder fuels are abundant on the canyon floor and riparian fuels are dry enough to support surface fire and torching throughout the night of July 9th and into the morning of July 10th. Crown fuels are dense and drought stressed. The temperature reaches 94° F with an RH of 8% along the canyon floor.
  • Local firefighters considered it unusual for green foliage to be burning like it was for this time of year. If you are not familiar with local conditions of a fire you are being dispatched to, what are some quick and effective tools you can use to gain an understanding of that area?
9:26 p.m., July 9th a fire is reported near the road along the Chewuch River. The fire is about five acres with two spots ahead of it. An engine with 3 firefighters arrives just after 11 pm. One engine arrives just before midnight. An IHC arrives at 1:00 am after working another fire all day and having had only 30 minutes of sleep. The engine departs the fire around 1:30 am. A local Type 2 crew is called up just after midnight. A majority of the crew has had only one or two hours of sleep. By 5:30 am July 10th there are seven spots covering about five to six acres. Two spots are about an acre each.
  • Identify and discuss the red flags that “pop-up” during this 8 hour period. If this was your crew, what would you be doing to identify and mitigate them?
At 7:00 am the Type 2 crew gets a briefing at a ranger station prior to heading to the fire and is informed that they will be doing mop-up. They arrive at the fire at 9:00 am. The IHC leaves the fire for rest at 11:00 am. Mid-morning fire intensity increases with more frequent torching and increasingly longer spotting distances. By about noon the crew is experiencing difficulties with the pumps and multiple broken handtools. Just after noon the IC requests additional resources including a helicopter. The IHC returns to the fire around 2:00 pm with less than 3 hours of rest.
  • Though water was readily available, relatively little was applied to the fire during the night and morning. This was largely due to operational problems with pumps and hoses, as well as delays in availability of a helicopter. In this situation, how would you and your crew adapt your tactics and develop your trigger points?
The fire has been burning through hoses and spotting over the line. The IC pulls the crew back to the road and accepts the fact that the fire was lost. At 3:00 pm the Type 2 crew is joined by the IHC at the "safety zone" on the west side of the river. The helicopter makes water drops on small spots on the south edge of the fire until having to refuel. The fire had spread up the east canyon walls and soon after had moved back to the canyon floor with spotting on the west wall of the canyon. At 3:20 pm, the fire is 50 acres, crowning and going to the ridge. At 3:35 pm the fire is 100 acres.

Two engines are ordered and arrive around 3:30 pm neither checking in with the IC nor receiving a tactical briefing. One engine crew radios for help with a spot. One, then eventually all of the squads of the Type II crew are sent to assist the engines with spots along the road. Minutes later the fire is actively spotting and is burning right up to the east side of the road. Some firefighters quickly drive back down the road to their “safety zone" shielding their faces from the intense heat as they pass the fire. 4:03 pm the Thirtymile Fire is forming its own thunderhead. A call is made to the other firefighters to get everyone out of the area. 4:34 pm, as the firefighters attempt to retreat they see a "wall of flames," and quickly turn around and drive up the canyon. 5:00 pm the fire is over 500 acres.
  • Records indicate that firefighters on the Thirtymile Fire had very little sleep prior to their assignments, and mental fatigue affected situational awareness and decision-making. How can you recognize fatigue in yourself and in your crew/team? Discuss what you WILL do about it?
The fire makes a strong up-canyon run. 5:24 pm, roaring, ash and a “fire snowstorm” abruptly overwhelm the area and surprises the crew. Cut off from their only escape route, back down the road, 8 firefighters and 2 civilians deploy on the road and 6 firefighters on the talus slope. 4 firefighters do not survive.
Thirtymile fire progression map
  • 4 of the 6 firefighters that deployed on the talus slope did not survive. Using pages 30-31 in your IRPG, discuss the features of an optimal and survivable deployment site. Practice looking for them on PT hikes, patrolling the fireline, and while prepping prescribed burn units.
Thirtymile map

Digging a Little Deeper
This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know what the outcome will be.
  • What are the conditions? 
  • What are you thinking? 
  • What are YOU doing?

Thirtymile Fire Investigation Report
Staff Ride

This Day in History is a collaborative project between 6 Minutes for Safety and the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
This Day in Wildland Fire History logo

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