Sorting the Lumps

As our work on the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary continues, we’ve got some more analysis to share with you.  Read this.  Do the Exercise and give us some feedback.  The final version of the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon!


By Travis Dotson

Graph showing 2017 wildland fire incidents

There it is – the 2017 season boiled down to a few lines and numbers. These are all of the “outcomes” from reports submitted to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. (You can see incidents sorted by “Activity” in last week’s post: “Smokeless Danger“) I made up the categories and sorted them all. For this particular boring graph I tried to simplify everything as much as I could, lumping categories so I had fewer categories (like combining Hit by Tree, Hit by Straw, and Hit by Vehicle).

I’m a lumper…you may be a splitter. I’m ok and your ok (so I’ve heard), but I’ll go into a bit of detail for all you splitters out there. Let’s just go right down the list starting from the “top.”

Exertion – This was almost exclusively made up of Rhabdo and Heat Illness reports (28 out of 31) mostly because there is a specific reporting mechanism (Rhabdo/HRI) for those types of reports. This does not change the fact that the incidents did indeed occur, I just think it’s fair to acknowledge the reporting does seem to follow what we focus on. Nonetheless, HRI and Rhabdo will put you or your crewmembers in the hospital. Plan for it.

Fuel Geyser – Another specific reporting form (Fuel Geyser) helped us get more data on the danger of fuel in your face. So while it’s still happening, it’s fantastic to note that we are seeing significantly fewer injuries associated with the geysers. Is this the result of awareness and education actually working? We would like to think so. Either way, keep pointing that cap away from your vitals when you go to open the tank. Better yet – cover it with a rag, because the geyser remains a distinct possibility.

Entrapment – Big year for entrapments. Heavy equipment got caught the most. They get stumped and they move slow. Fire does not get stumped and it can go from slow to fast very fast. Firing Ops is the other time we often get entrapped – playing with fire is just that. One interesting note, in 2018, of the 20 reports that met the NWCG definition for “Entrapment”, only four chose to describe the event as an entrapment. Why do we avoid that term? (Get busy in the comments y’all.)

Vehicle Accident – Pretty standard. Driving is double-digit danger. We had a few rollovers and a chase truck vs power pole. But what stood out this year was the wheels coming off, or almost coming off. Three different instances of loose lug nuts. Go check your wheels right now (and get serious with those morning PM checks!)

Hit by Stuff – Mostly trees and branches from trees, but also straw from a helicopter. Most of the hit by tree instances involved chainsaw ops, but not always. Those trees will fall on you or throw their big branches at you randomly sometimes. Don’t hang out under them if you don’t need to.

Equipment Damage – Now there’s a broad category. This is usually vehicles being burned. This year there were three of those fire-damaged vehicles plus a couple big rigs (dozer transport and a skidgine) that rolled into trees – super close calls in both instances. Also, one engine’s light bar fell off on the way back to the barn. Check your brakes and the screws on your light bar.

Burn Injury – This bucket always shows up, but this year it wasn’t as full as in previous years. We had multiple instances of folks falling into hot ash, as we do every year. A fire-whirl rolled over an engine on a prescribed fire, someone grabbed a pump exhaust pipe in the dark, and one of those many fuel geyser’s did end up with a fuel ignition/burn injury. There was also one instance of a blown hose spewing hot water resulting in serious burns. In terms of burn injury lessons, this is the one you should read: Temple Fire Burn Injury

Medical Emergency – Super broad category, but it loses its umph when you take out the “exertion” events. What’s left is exactly what you would suspect – cardiac events, seizures, and other unpredictable, high stakes scariness. It might even happen while you are in travel status. Get ready.

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 10.01.26 AM

Uno Peak Boulder Near Miss

Close Call – I didn’t have enough room to call this the “No s#!t there I was” category – but that’s what it is. When you end up cartwheeling over a dozer blade. When you’re driving down the road and your brakes fail. When a boulder rolls between two trucks. That kind of stuff.  Random exists whether we want it to or not.

Chainsaw Cut – This is a super sneaky category. There were only three chainsaw cuts this year, but the significance cannot be overstated. Someone died from a chainsaw cut.

All the cuts were to swampers. And it’s going to happen again. Go slow. Be careful. Respect the spinning chain.

Other – There is always “Other.” This year it was a fall off a ladder during structure prep, hazmat exposure during mop up, and a PT session turned search and rescue. Don’t hate…you could be next.

Ok, there’s all the dirty details you pesky splitters. Please do something with all of this information, at least do this exercise:


Do the exercise.

Exercise!

  • Get with two other firefighters and write down which category above means the most to you.
  • Talk with each other about why the category matters to you.
  • Take turns describing what kind of incident you are most likely to experience based on the numbers and your brand of exposure.
  • Write down three ways to prepare for your bad day.

 


 

Smokeless Danger

At the beginning of each year we summarize and analyze incident reports from the previous year.  Check out these previous summaries.  This year we will post individual topics here as we complete portions of the analysis.  Take a look, engage with the exercises, and give us some feedback.  The complete 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon. 


By Travis Dotson

This is a graph of incidents reported to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. This particular graph separates the incidents by Activity (what were they doing when the incident occurred).

There are lots of interesting things to talk about in this graph, please show it to someone who cares and have a nice little talk about what it means to you both. Maybe even circle up with a few others and do the exercise at the end.

2017_IncidentsActivityPTvsFire

2017 Incidents by Activity Graph

I’m sure we all have plenty to say about the “top 3.” They consist of:

  • Chainsaw Ops
  • Driving
  • Physical Training

These are all things we do on a regular basis. Just these three activity types account for 58% of the total. That means in 2017, whenever a report was created and sent to us, more than half the time it was related to someone running a saw, driving, or doing PT.

Take note that none of these activities require a fire. For many of us these are activities we do every day. That’s telling. It means things we do a lot are things that bite us in the ass.

What am I getting at? It’s pretty simple. The “danger” isn’t necessarily hiding on the fireline, it’s stitched right into your daily activities.

Are the briefings before PT different than the ones before the big burn show on Division Delta? Of course they are. They are different activities. Plus, none of us could tolerate a big deal briefing every day before PT.

Maybe I should reframe it: which operation is more likely to go bad? That, of course, is a loaded question. You can slice and dice the exposure, frequency, risk, danger, possibility, hazard pie all kinds of crazy. You could make this a spicy dish with whatever flavor your over analysis happens to be. You could also use math, but I think you might need other numbers to do that. I don’t have the numbers or the math mojo to tackle it.

But I do know that I don’t think of PT as dangerous. Turns out I’m wrong. Imagine that.

Get together with the people you PT with and do this simple exercise:


Wheel

Exercise (15 minutes) In small groups discuss the following questions:

Is PT really more dangerous than Firing Ops?

What is the danger of NOT doing PT?

Is your medical plan equally good for both operations (PT and Firing Ops)? – Should it be?

That’s all.

Now go PT.


 

Minor Rhabdo Fatal Burns

By Travis Dotson

Look at this word cloud:

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 11.27.40 AM

I collect very simple notes about the types of injuries listed in the reports submitted to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. I took all of the notes from 2017 and used a word cloud generator to make this one. The size of the word is relative to how often it shows up compared to others.

What does it mean?

It means whatever you want it to mean. Just like every one of the reports these words came from, to most of us they end up meaning nothing. Yes, they might evoke some sort of emotion when we first see them. Most of us will quickly move away from that emotion into some sort of analytical sense-making  basically making up reasons for the presence and size of the words.

We don’t know why Rhabdo is so common.

We don’t know why firefighter fatality numbers refuse to change.

We don’t know when one of those words will apply to us.

That is unsettling. But it is.

And off we go to Division Delta.

Please leave a one-word comment regarding the utility of this word cloud thingy. You get a choice between these two words: Useless or Useful.

Your call if you want to say why.

Socks Matter

By Alex Viktora

I used to work for the National Park Service. One of the sweetest things about working for the NPS was the official socks.

That’s right. Socks.

As a member of a wildland fire crew, I rarely had much need to be in official NPS uniform, so my annual uniform allowance was spent on socks. Brown wool socks. If you wear them with shorts, you look like…well…German?

I bought so many of these things, I still have a cache of unopened wool socks in my closet.

As most firefighters can attest, keeping your feet in good shape is super important. The NPS uniform socks—most of which are a milk chocolate-colored wool blend—were awesome socks on the fire line.

I’ve always known this.

But what I just now learned is this: These sock could save me from a serious burn. Come to think of it, they probably already have.

My Leg Had Fire Swirling Around It

In maybe my third season, I was on a prescribed fire somewhere in Utah. I’d been running a torch for days and days during our typical spring burning. I usually carry the torch in my right hand, and so my right pant-leg was, uh, pretty dirty. It wasn’t drenched or dripping, but it was certainly flammable—as I was about to find out.

On this particular shift, I was the guy way up the hill, with torches strung out down the hill below me.

We came to a place where we had to hold-up firing for a bit. For some reason, someone rang me up on the radio. I answered the call. As I did so, I moved maybe 10 feet downhill from the line of fire that I just laid in ponderosa litter. (If you’ve never burned in ponderosa needle litter, you’re missing out. Mmmm….Pondo litter!)

This line of fire backed slowly towards me. And as I yammered away on the radio, the fire inched closer and closer to my right leg.

Suddenly, I looked down. My leg had fire swirling around it.

I thought: “Wait—I’m on fire?” What a bizarre realization!

I put the fire out and I can’t say for sure how it all happened. One thing’s for sure: Putting that fire out took longer than I woulda guessed.

My Nomex turned that telltale yellow/brown. And I had some ‘splanin to do to the boss. My damaged ego was the worst of my injuries. My leg was barely as red as a sunburn.

Did my socks help prevent a serious burn injury? Turns out, they may have.

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Tips on What To Do If Your Pant Leg Catches on Fire

The folks at the National Technology Development Program in Missoula have done some recently released great work to describe what happens when Nomex catches on fire. And it turns out, wool socks could be a key part of avoiding a burn injury.

Check out this new video for some cool tests:

 

Here’s a few specific tips on what to do if you find yourself with your pant leg on fire:


Testing Results and Accident Observations

  • Swatting at burning fuel can increase the fire intensity.
  • Stop, drop and roll does not readily extinguish fuel fires on clothing.
  • Fuel-soaked clothing burns hotter and for a longer duration than clean clothing.
  • Wool-blend socks provide significant protection to the wearer from thermal burn injuries caused by burning drip torch fuel.
  • Pouring water from a readily available water bottle onto the clothing is an effective way to extinguish the fire.
  • Dropping the pants to the ankles removes heat from next to the skin.

Next time you’re shopping for socks, consider some woolies that come up above your boots. Turns out, even the lovely brown ones might save your skin.

Do you have a story like this? Do you own any green Nomex pants that aren’t as green as they used to be?

 

 

Who Mixed the Fuel?

3:1, 1:1, 3:2? What’s the right ratio for burn juice?  If you don’t have an opinion on drip mix you must not be very cool.  The more adamant you are the more likely you are to talk loud about how everyone else does it wrong – no matter the topic.  Wait…what were we talking about?  Oh yeah…drip mix.  Amanda Stamper shares her view on the matter, and gives us a bit of a history lesson as well.


Torch Mix

By Amanda Stamper – Oregon Fire Manager, The Nature Conservancy

A recent podcast about drip torch leg burns got me thinking about drip torch fuel mix ratios. It is no coincidence that I make this association. Last October my pants caught on fire while I was burning gamble oak in New Mexico. After having learned during briefing about how to properly extinguish Nomex on fire by grabbing your pants with a gloved hand and pulling them away from you to extinguish rather than smothering the burning fuel against your skin, and just before my pants combusted, we engaged in lively debate about the proper drip torch mix ratio. And I thought the mix was too cool!

 

Torch

So what is the proper drip torch mix ratio? Does the likelihood of one’s pants catching fire change with different fuel mix ratios? Have you ever wondered how bio-diesel might work in a drip torch? How were burns ignited before the various combustible liquids were at our disposal? These and other questions arise the further one probes.

Ask Ten Fire Managers

Ask ten fire managers from across the country for the ratio of diesel to gasoline in drip torch or slash fuel mix, and you are bound to get at least two if not three or four different answers. Not sure about the ratio of agreement vs disagreement, but suffice to say that drip torch mix ratios depend on the fuels, burning conditions, and perhaps nothing more than past practice of the organization or local area.

Where longevity of combustion is more important than temperature, as in pile burning or broadcast burning for reduction of larger diameter fuels, a higher percentage of diesel may be desired. More diesel than gasoline is perhaps the only cardinal rule when it comes to mix ratio, with somewhere between 3:1 and 4:1 being the most common. The most volatile mixture, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is 3:1, and is recommended for use only in appropriate fuel types (such as grass) during periods of high humidity.

 

A 5:1 fuel mix ratio is reported to have been used on the Saddle Prescribed Fire, where a burn injury associated with pants igniting occurred in 2012. My pants caught fire with the 4:1 ratio being used on the burn in New Mexico, that I had deemed cool given that I had long been using 3:1. Is longer-burning fuel a contributing factor? Does gasoline vaporize more readily and thereby contribute less to pants igniting? More research to this end may be needed.

More on Bio-Diesel

As for bio-diesel, it works just fine with drip torches and has been utilized in both hand pile burn and broadcast burn situations since early 2006. The Medford District BLM has used over 1,200 gallons of bio-diesel in slash mix during prescribed fire operations to date. The mix is made by using 99% bio-diesel and regular unleaded gasoline in a 3:1 slash fuel mixture. Bio-slash fuel burns similar to regular petroleum diesel/gas mix, but with less toxic wick smoke, with more of a cooking oil smell instead of sulfur or diesel fumes. The liquid is also less toxic for personnel and the environment during mixing and handling. The cost when using the “off road” discount is comparable to diesel #2. Bio-diesel has a solvent effect on the slash tanks and drip torches and seems to prevent sediment build up, as well as a slightly higher flashpoint than regular diesel.

Other Firing Devices

Before flammable liquids were being used in wildland fire operations, fire was ignited using materials largely obtained from the same environment being burned. Among the most notable in North America is the fatwood from longleaf pine, from which the fat lighter used for setting the woods on fire is made. The rich and resinous smell of its smoke only adds to the pleasure of burning.

Fire-stick farming refers to the burning practices of Australian Aboriginals to enhance the productivity of the land., Many wooden matches have been struck and tossed by sheep herders on their way down from the mountains to rejuvenate meadows for grazing. Recreational burners everywhere use lighters if that’s all there is.

Would you feel comfortable throwing matches instead of dot firing? What are some other traditional or unconventional firing devices that we could and should be using?

Drip Torch Leg Burns

By Travis Dotson

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 12.26.08 PM

It happens often.  Second and third degree burns on the calf associated with using a drip torch.  Thats all.  Just letting you know.  You are now armed with awareness.

Is that all?  Did the Lessons Learned Center just do it’s job?  Think it will work?

Of course we get leg burns from drip torches!  We’re slinging gasoline around hot stuff right next to our legs…it’s gonna happen.  What’s amazing is how good we are at NOT catching ourselves on fire.  We scramble across crazy complex terrain with stupid heavy packs while carrying an unwieldy hand tool in addition to the 15-pound fire maker with a pig-tail brush catcher – that’s a great recipe for self-ignition!

So if we know that, what can you do to increase the odds of not being the person in the burn unit?

Listen to this 7 minute podcast:

 

Now what?

Talk about it.