Report: Many errors in Waterfall fire
October 20, 2004
RENO – Inadequate briefings, radio problems, “freelancing” supervisors and confusion over who was in charge led to 21 firefighters being trapped and two people burned by a Nevada wildfire, a report said Wednesday.
Firefighters and their supervisors broke a number of rules in the initial attack on the Waterfall fire that destroyed 17 homes and burned nearly 8,000 acres near Carson City in July, an interagency investigation found.
The most serious breach of policy on the narrow canyon road where a fire engine operator and a television reporter were burned July 14 was a violation of the first rule of firefighting.
“Safety was not the first priority,” according to the accident investigation team and a board of review convened by the Nevada Division of Forestry, Carson City Fire Department and U.S. Forest Service.
The danger could have been minimized if fire crews and their bosses had followed standard procedures before the wind-whipped blaze raced through a canyon, the report said. Firefighters were forced to scramble for safety as pine trees exploded into flames along Kings Canyon Road.
Personnel on the road “were not advised about the buildup of fire activity south of their location nor the fire front spreading toward them,” the investigation determined.
Recommended Stories For You
The danger multiplied because vehicles had been parked improperly in the road – some facing the wrong direction, others without keys in the ignition for a fast getaway, as is standard.
The injured firefighter was burned when a crew was trapped as the blaze leapfrogged its position and destroyed a fire engine. Reporter John Tyson of KOLO-TV in Reno, who attempted to walk away from the area, suffered minor burns on his hands and face.
Though neither was seriously injured, an investigation is required in any burnover.
Among the key findings in the report issued Wednesday:
– Fire briefings were inconsistent and in some cases incomplete
– Communication was not maintained with supervisors and adjoining forces
– Radio frequencies were overloaded
– Several firefighters assigned didn’t know who the incident commanders were
– Firefighters were at the site without full protective gear during the burnover
– Unassigned firefighters and administrators, news reporters and civilians were on Kings Canyon Road without approval and/or escorts
– Firefighters and supervisors recognized safety hazards with congestion on the road, yet took no effective action
The report notes that the evacuation of hundreds of residents went smoothly and no residents were harmed in the fire that burned on the edge of Carson City and destroyed more homes than any Nevada wildfire in two decades.
The fire, which burned for a week, was started by an illegal campfire.
Among other things, the review board recommended federal, state and local fire agencies in Nevada and California reach an “immediate short-term agreement for a single incident commander” in responding to such fires.
“Some unassigned ‘freelancing’ fire management supervisors entered the fire and started giving tactical direction and assignments to resources without the knowledge or approval of operations overhead,” the investigative team’s report said.
“These actions created confusion among firefighters about who was in charge. … (and) may have contributed to untimely delays for disengagement.”
The board also called for a review of all firefighters involved to determine their training and qualifications and to consider decertification of any who responded to the fire without required protective equipment.
The board report urged the Sierra Front Interagency Fire agencies to review past problems with burnovers under their jurisdiction, including three incidents in recent years.
State and federal officials said they would move quickly to adopt the recommendations.
“The Forest Service is committed to working with our wildland fire partners to make changes in the way we fight wildfires, improve safety and prevent accidents,” said Bob Vaught, supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest,
Peter Anderson, Nevada’s state forester and fire warden, praised the review process.
“Obviously, we are going to have more fires and we need to be prepared,” he said. “I just thank God nobody else was hurt and the few injuries we had were very minor.
“It’s very difficult to fight fire in a subdivision,” he said. He agreed officials should have done a better job of restricting access to the road.
“I wouldn’t single out the media. We had landowners on their riding lawnmowers, all sorts of different folks.”