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