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DEADLY WILDFIRE: AN UNPREDICTABLE FOE

Dark reminder of fire's deadly unpredictability

Questions are raised about how best to fight blazes when conditions change so quickly.

October 27, 2006|Hector Becerra, Megan Garvey and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

The five U.S. Forest Service firefighters had decades of experience between them.

Still, they were overrun by the Esperanza fire within seconds Thursday, with too little time to seek cover or flee.

The deaths of four men and the critical injuries to the sole survivor served as a stark reminder that fire can be unpredictable -- and fatal -- even for those trained to anticipate its behavior.

As with deadly fires that preceded it, the tragedy that hit the Idyllwild-based crew is already raising new questions about how such blazes are fought when conditions easily fuel and change a fire's direction.

The winds, said Pat Boss, acting spokesman for the Forest Service, "came out of nowhere."

Boss said members of Crew 57 had parked their engine and were ready to defend homes north of Twin Pines with their hoses when flames shot up a hill from the south. A nearby Forest Service crew watched as it happened, but could do nothing to save their colleagues.

Initial reports were that the men had been overrun by the fire while in their engine. Later in the day, officials at the scene said the firefighters were outside their vehicle, apparently caught with too little time to flee or take cover when the fire shifted.

"This could be something they just didn't anticipate at all," said Shankar Mahalingam, chairman of UC Riverside's mechanical engineering department, whose research focuses on fire behavior. "My guess is they did follow procedures and something out of the ordinary happened, and they were surrounded in all directions because of the shifting winds."

Outrunning a fire fed by ample fuel is nearly impossible, Mahalingam said.

"Even if you were an athlete running fast, the fire would probably catch up to you, especially if the terrain was uphill and the winds were blowing uphill," Mahalingam said.

The deaths Thursday brought a rush of memories to retired Glendale firefighter William Jensen, who narrowly escaped while battling a massive 1996 fire in the Calabasas-Malibu area. Like the men who were killed and injured Thursday, Jensen, a 28-year veteran at the time, was caught by flames that flew uphill before he could flee.

"It was 500 yards away from us, and as fast as you can snap your fingers it was 200 feet all around us," he recalled Thursday. "It was like falling into hell. It was right there, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was with two other firefighters up on the hill, and in an instant, I didn't know where the other two were. There were solid flames around."

Jensen, now 62, was burned over 70% of his body and spent more than three months in the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital.

"You're trying to get away, to run to safety, and you run out of air, you run out of time," he said, adding that the superheated air kills most people before the flames burn them.

Wildfire disasters in the United States date back more than two centuries. Historically, poor tactics, miscommunication, a lack of air support and a firefighting culture that promoted bravery at considerable risk contributed to large-scale deaths of trained firefighters. A fatal 1956 fire in the Cleveland National Forest near San Diego County killed 12 firefighters and prompted congressional hearings and the writing of 10 new firefighting rules.

Those initial rules have been rewritten and added to, and such deaths have been closely studied in recent decades.

Still, investigations after other fatal fires since have found mistakes are still made. The investigation into the deaths of 14 elite smoke jumpers and Hotshot crew members in Colorado's 1994 Storm King blaze found that eight of the 10 Standard Firefighting Rules had been disregarded. In that fire, the flames came so quickly that only one of the victims had time to crawl inside a fire shelter. Even he did not survive.

David Mangan, a former Forest Service fire protection expert and private consultant, said wildland firefighters are taught to plan for the worst.

"You always have to have an escape route and preferably two. You look for a safety zone nearby," Mangan said.

Mike Warren, who retired from the National Park Service after 38 years as a firefighter, said "so much depends on how the fire that hit you is behaving at the moment."

"In this case, an obvious escape route or safety zone was probably insufficient for the fire behavior they were seeing," Warren said.

"Sometimes, particularly when people's structures are involved, firefighters put themselves a little more at risk," he said. "They push the envelope a little bit further because they feel they're protecting someone's home, somebody's building or some person."

In Thursday's incident, officials said the firefighters didn't have a chance to deploy the fireproof shelters they carry for emergencies. The winds were blowing too hard.

"You feel the enemy," said Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins, at an intense news conference Thursday afternoon. "The enemy blows in our faces right now. It's the Santa Ana wind."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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