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CHAPTER 17 - NAVAJO HOTSHOTS TRAPPED BY WILDFIRE by michael johnson

WHITE MOUNTAINS – It was 15 minutes of misery and fright.

But despite being stalked and trapped by the raging fire whirl as 2016’s Cedar Fire was winding down on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, six members of a Navajo Interagency Hotshot crew managed to walk away relatively unscathed — mostly because of the deployment of their individual foil fire shelters.

A fire whirl is a spinning vortex column of ascending hot air and gases carrying aloft smoke, debris and flame. Anywhere from a foot to 500 feet in diameter, they have the intensity of a 72 mph tornado.

The 20-member Hotshot crew, based at Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation, had been fighting an uncontained portion of the fire on June 28 when six found themselves cut off by the Cedar Fire, which began June 15 south of Show Low. The 46,000-acre fire shut down parts of U.S. 60 and triggered pre-evacuation notices for Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside, Forestdale, Amos Ranch and Hondah, stirring memories of 2002’s Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

Weather

A Southwestern monsoon air mass over the fire was forecast to grow and become more moist, with temperatures in the upper 80s, 25 percent humidity and a 70 percent chance of some “wetting rain.” In fact, clouds amassed over the fire in the late morning and temperatures climbed to 95, with gusty winds from the southwest.

Events of that day

The management of the declining fire on June 28 was downgraded from Type 1 to Type 4 as firefighters stayed off the six-mile, uncontained southwest flank of the Cedar Fire.

That morning, the Navajo Hotshots got one final shift, to help the incoming Type 4 management team.

The Hotshots deployed to the Cottonwood staging area. Half moved off to rehabilitate a fire line on the southeast flank of the fire, while the other half monitored the active flames on the southwest flank.

The 10 Hotshots on the southwest flank walked the fire line, with four posted as lookouts.

According to the BIA’s final investigation report of the incident, the lookouts spotted “several vertical vortices” in the fire area. Between 2:30 and 2:45 p.m., the lookouts saw the “formation of a large fire whirl.” As the whirl developed, the six-person crew recognized their imminent danger. Now cut off by the awakened fire, they moved to a half-acre of previously burned forest, which still had “many tree crowns.”

As the crew entered the burned area, nearby trees began torching. The lookouts called out warnings on the radio. The nearby fire whirl intensified fire behavior in a wide area. The squad “experienced the fire pushing on their position from various locations,” said the report.

Facing a vortex of smoke, ash, heat and embers, the squad leader directed the crew to deploy their fire shelters. The squad boss, according to the report, entered his fire shelter last to ensure the rest of his crew had successfully deployed their shelters.

Two of the firefighters reported deploying their shelters while kneeling because of the windy conditions; others opened their shelters while standing. They described conditions within the shelters as “hot and sweaty,” with air temperatures “feeling like a sauna.” While the winds whipped around them, the firefighters reported the noise as being “great” with the shelter being pushed down upon them. To ensure the greatest volume of air, the firefighters said they had to “push them back up” while holding down the edges.

To compound their hazardous situation, firefighters said they had to battle “many biting black fire beetles” that had entered their shelters to escape the fire. Firefighters reported beetle bites on their necks, wrists and lower legs.

Up close and personal

According to the report, “one firefighter described the event like ‘watching a movie’ and yet he made no move to his shelter. The squad boss noticed the firefighter frozen, which triggered him to give the firefighter emphatic direction. The firefighter snapped back and quickly deployed his shelter.

“As conditions deteriorated, smoke and embers increased and it became darker and hotter,” the report states. “All firefighters had entered their fire shelters, with one of them telling investigators that it was like ‘closing an oven door.’”

During the deployment, the squad boss maintained radio contact with the lookouts and verbal contact with his immediate squad. Once the fire activity had subsided, the lookouts hiked downslope to the deployment area and found the crew relatively unhurt.

Upon learning of the firefighters’ entrapment and shelter deployment, the Fort Apache Agency ordered all firefighters and other resources to back off from the fire and recalled the Type 1 team, which had been attending a closeout meeting in Show Low. The Type 1 team assisted with the emergency response, mobilized first responders and notified the hospital of the Hotshot crew’s impending arrival.

The Show Low Interagency Dispatch Center sent three medivac helicopters, three EMT units and three ground ambulances to the scene. It also rerouted several aircraft and ordered more aircraft to assist with a potential rescue operation.

Close call for a history repeat

As for the six Navajo Hotshot crewmembers, their fire shelter deployment came two days before the three-year anniversary of the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots and claimed more than 100 homes.

“A (Navajo) crew was working near a flare-up on the remaining uncontrolled fire line of the Cedar Fire,” the Bureau of Indian Affairs said in a news release. “It is unknown … what may have caused a sudden change in fire activity; however, a portion of the crew was forced to deploy their fire shelters to protect themselves.”

The six, whose names were not released, were taken to Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center, treated for smoke inhalation and other minor injuries, and later released. Emails sent to the BIA for more information were not answered.

Conclusions and observations

The investigative report concluded that the Hotshots did everything right by posting lookouts, maintaining communications, staying calm and quickly recognizing the danger of the fire whirl.

“The squad was decisive in their actions once entrapped and flawlessly executed their training.

"The fire whirl hazard on June 28 could have had a much more dire outcome had the squad not taken the immediate actions they did," the report states. "Even though the crew was on the 14th day of their tour, no complacency existed, greatly contributing to the positive outcome of this event.”

Spark by Pia Wyer

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