The Salt Fire

Narrator: The Salt Fire started by lightning
on August 25th, 2011 in the mountains of the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho. The
fire season had been slow to arrive due to cool and wet conditions earlier in the summer.
The forest here is a thick, decadent stand of mostly lodgpole pine and subalpine fir.
With high crown density and abundant ladder fuels, the area is mapped as high to extreme
crown fire risk. Add to that, thirty to seventy percent of the lodgepole is dead because of
the mountain pine beetle, and you have the potential for extreme fire behavior.
By the morning of the 29th, the fire has grown to over 1,600 acres. The Type 2 team is already
in place, managing multiple ground and air resources, with more incoming. The main effort
is concentrated on holding the southern part of the fire, Division Alpha and building line
on the western part, Division Zulu. We sat down with some of the firefighters that were there that day, who experienced when time runs out as a fast moving fire takes away their options. Jerran Flinders: The primary ops on the team
had been on, kind of flown that fire from he was out there doing smoke air attack
work and had flown it from its infancy, so he’d kinda of watched it progress and grow and you know, he’s like-it’s not, Greg was really good about, hey I saw this thing start you know, I’ve seen what it’s done every day, there’s a lot of
fuel out there on the ground but it doesn’t really, it’s not making any big runs-it’s
just backing around and skunking around. But I think we all knew the potential was there,
we just- we didn’t know when it was gonna do its thing.
Dan Zajanc: It looked like it was wanting to burn, but not really burning and I remember
talking to you and it was like, because it was really wet, record winter up there and late snow and ya know, it was all a big wet bog and I was like man its just – it’s lookin’ like it wants to do something but it’s not really doing anything. But at the same time,
everyone like I said, has been there and seen fires on that forest ya know, go really really go gigantic, ya know in a short amount of time. Brian Cardoza: It was mostly under burn up to that point, backing off of Moyer Peak, but extreme potential, man. I mean like, a lot of moss, sub-alpine a lot of dead
stuff-just a lot of potential but-hadn’t seen the fire behavior up to that point. Jeff Bass: But I don’t think any of us had underestimated it with as much air that we
had to put in with uh, the engines and the crews on the ground. I don’t think we underestimated
its potential. Brian: Ya, you could, you could look at the
fire at 10 o’clock in the morning it would be one foot flame lengths 360 degrees around
it. So it was having no problem burning, backing. Which is, pretty rare to see that much fire
behavior even though its low intensity, that early in the morning. Jerran: Right, it looked very much like the southeast, where you’ve got like, that continuous leaf litter and a perfect ya know, everything is available-that’s very much like how it
was there. Jeff: Just uh, getting the south flank and
trying to hook the west end, we uh, it was pretty high resistance to control um, with
the retardant and uh a lot of helicopter work along the whole flank and uh, without the
people and the air team-we probably wouldn’t have held anything and that was before the
conditions and the ERC’s were high, I think almost every day. But the condition uh, terrain, wind, ERC and fuel bed didn’t line up like they did late on the 29th. Narrator: The resources assigned to Division Bravo initially are the Idaho City Hotshots,
with one skidgeon, building a contingency saw line along the head of the Woodtick Creek
Drainage, tying it into Road 020, and then plumbing it with the idea of a possible burnout
in the future. Jerran: We were just trying to get something
set up where we could, corral as many as the spots as we could because we knew, like Brian
was saying, we knew there was we knew we had spots right outside of Moyer Meadow and we,
ya know you could look down into Woodtick and see spots so we were trying to get as
many as these corralled as we could and get a good decent line to work off of for later.
Brian: So we looked at going-Dan and I talked about going direct down into Woodtick a few
times on the 28th, and just chose uh pretty much chose not to just because lack of safety
zones and it was super-thick, heavy fuel and just hard to get any Intel into Woodtick at
that point. Jeff: Trying to support an under slung line
and that stuff-I wasn’t, I knew we weren’t gonna get heavies in there, it’s gonna be iffy for SEATS, it’s on the lee side-the general lee, I was happy you weren’t going
down in that hole. Narrator: Most resources are able to drive
to Moyer Meadow and stage, but the switchbacks along the way are too tight to navigate for
a truck with lowboy trailer hauling a dozer for work on the southern and western flanks.
This truck and trailer park at a good, flat spot in the trees and the dozer walks in.
Jerran: Ya know, this is kinda that transition period of uh, initial attack getting ramped
into extended attack with ya know, like we say a lot of resources coming in. And as you
came in the 020 Road and you saw ya know, where things were on the initial attack, uh
you know a few things really stuck out in my mind-which was where we started to make
the uh, parking area here, there was a lowboy transport backed into the trees there with
uh, ya know trees touching it on all sides. I mean it was just stuck in there enough to
get the equipment off and then he was way out here working this south piece ya know,
a long ways away from that. So, ya know immediately you see that-that’s red flag. That like hey-we’re
getting a lot of equipment in here, this piece of equipment is already parked right here,
let’s make this a parking area-a turnaround area-ya know something for when folks are
coming in-they can at least get turned around here, ya know and get out. So when I was kind
of driving around there and, uh first thing in the morning, ya know, drove back this little
road into Sqawboard Meadow, saw that, uh Todd Camm, Dozer Boss from Alaska showed up, I
gave him a briefing. Todd Camm: We’d already been about four hours
into the process of getting in there-they were wanting to make a parking area for those
transports. It was-ya know up on a, up on a ridegtop, it was a lot of dead lodgepole
in it. Kinda sat in a ‘X’ type things with a main road coming into it on one side and
then there were two-tracks going out of the corners of it-ya know, in either direction.
One of them down into Squawboard Meadows and the other one off to the, the southeast I
think it is. Dan: There were a lot of folks coming in,
almost all of them ya know, were coming through this road, heading to other divisions so it
was a lot of kinda, I was-seemed like I was doing a lot of traffic duty too because people
would come up and go, hey where are-we’ve gotta go here, we’ve gottta go there. So it
was a lot of kinda steering people to different places. It was starting to get really busy plus
assorted camp folks coming in dropping off hoses and pumps. It seemed like once that
parking spot started getting made, people just started funneling towards it, ya know I’d come by that parking spot and there would be, ya know a bunch more people where
you’d kinda go man, who are those guys and you’d try to get them lined out because ya
know, you make a parking spot-people are going to start parking there.
Brian: And then at some point, we’re still cutting indirect line, I hear on the radio, I hear somebody ask if it’s a safety zone up there? And I believe the quote was something
like, it’s not a safety zone yet but we’re going to keep pushing it until it is one.
That’s what I heard and then from then, that kinda from that point on, it was a safety
zone. Everybody from Jeff to Ops, to everybody was calling it a safety zone. And not, not
necessarily saying it was a safety zone. Point of reference is-the rigs are parked at the
safety zone, lowboys are at the safety zone, Idaho City Hotshots go up to the safety zone,
ya know just using it like that. Narrator: By mid-afternoon, the RH has fallen
to the mid-teens and the fire behavior increases all around the fire.
Firefighter: Ya dude, it’s spottin’ all the way up there! Jeff: Most of the day, drift smoke from the entire fire is camouflaging Woodtick and Good
Luck. This area started burning later in the day, developed a column. Hence, that was why
Ops, in my mind, took the helicopter recon because I couldn’t determine where the fire
was down there because of the smoke. Dan: What I told Greg and Jerran basically
right before they got in the helicopter, I said hey, get in there and just get a good
solid look. If it is getting close to the bottom of Woodtick or if it has crossed, I
think we should move those lowboys. Jerran: Uh, Greg Birch, myself and Division
Alpha got on the helicopter in Moyer Meadow and uh, first thing we wanted to look at was
the slop that was going on in Division Alpha and uh, talked to the crews on air-to-ground,
told them what they had out there. They had great air support, and started getting ground
personnel in there to get around those spots-it was doable, we could pick it up.
Uh, we continued to fly the fire, look at where it was going, how it was progressing,
uh like Jeff said, this was picking up quite a bit and they didn’t have real good visibility
in there so we were able to get down underneath the smoke, take a look and uh, it was getting
very close to the bottom of Woodtick Creek-very close. So we came up, we flew over, looked
at uh, DP3 uh, talked to the individuals on air-to-ground, talked to DeMasters on Air-to-Ground
who had just come up, who was another one of the Operations Sections Chiefs and told him to keep punching that bigger. Flew back down into Woodtick, took another look at
it, and I think at that time, both of us had-kind of an impending sense of urgency that-ya, we need to start to get those things out of there. Then when we landed, that’s when Greg said, hey we need to go get those lowboys out of there. So I took off and that was kind of
the start of things. Narrator: The fire crosses Woodtick Creek
and runs upslope with the wind to the ridgeline. Jerran: Cruised all the way down, tied into
Cardoza here. At the end of his indirect piece that those guys punched in, said hey- grab a mod, come up here-and I don’t know Brian if I said safety zone or if I said parking
area, I don’t know. But I said.. Brian: Pick up spots, burn the road
Todd: In our quest to make that spot as big as we could make it, that road into Squawboard
Meadows-the two-track, we had pushed that shut at one point. Ya gotta make room for the stuff that you’re pushing-we’d been told earlier that we needed to keep that open but
nobody had put any, kind priority on on when or how. And then it just seemed like, ya know
all of a sudden people start rolling in-next thing I know, I got ya know, rigs all over.
Narrator: The fire spreads into Goodluck Creek. The up valley fire run they were anticipating
is happening, but not in the drainage they expected. At the head of Goodluck, is the parking area. The Ops trainee arrives to confirm the order of moving the lowboys and sees that the road to Squawboard Meadow has debris blocking it. Jerran: So we open that road back up, you got there and I said, there’s a road going out of uh the area where the dozer is working that goes into a giant meadow. If things get
bad, we can get everybody in there. And I said to go drive down and check it out to
make sure we could get those bigger rigs down there.
Brian: And I’m driving down the road and the first thing that popped through my mind is I’m wasting my time-there’s frickin’ nothing out here. I mean it looked-it just looked thick. And then all of a sudden you pop out right about the same time you’re thinking of it and there’s a really nice meadow there. Narrator: At the same time the two-track to Squawboard Meadow is being checked out, the
lowboy evacuation out Road 020 begins. Dan: Then the word came, okay let’s move them. Let’s get them moved. The safety officer had driven the road just a few minutes before
and said, ya know there’s ash on the road but you still got clear air. I looked at the
safety officer and I asked him, hey would you mind leading these guys out? And what I didn’t want to happen is what exactly happened. I, I don’t know who I turned around to talk to, I just wanted the safety officer to just drive the road, just make another good pass and make sure-because he’s in a, a Mitsubishi something. He can skirt, scoot through there. I remember when I turned back around; I could see the Safety Officer headed up the road
and that first lowboy was right on him. And around the corner they were going-and it’s just one of those things where you go uh oh-you didn’t want that.
Jerran: And right about that time when they got down there, Greg Birch had drove down right at that point and said, hey you haven’t sent that lowboy yet have you? And we’re
like ya, we did. Safety Officer called like, twenty seconds later after Greg Birch showed
up and said, yep the fire has crossed the road we can’t get through. Narrator: The hotshot sup returns from Squawboard Meadow and briefs his crew that Squawboard
is the real safety zone here. He then joins the Ops Chief, Ops trainee and and Division
Sup, who are involved with the immediate threat of getting the lowboy back up the road and
out of harm’s way. The dozer is sent to create a quick turnaround
for the lowboy but it is not necessary. As the lowboy driver is already backing up the
road. The Ops Chief then heads towards Moyer Meadow
to block any more resources from coming to the parking area.
Brian: And the wind was pushing the fire kind of away from them but the slope was pushing
it right at them. So it was, it was somewhat head fire coming up the hill at them.
Todd: At that point, it was heavy black smoke; right on top of us-it was coming. And I started
walking up behind the lowboy guiding him hand signals and back up the road to DP3. Pretty
much spun, spun the whole way back up in an 18-wheel truck its, he was going hard trying to get back up that hill. And I’m watching the stuff down below us and I’m wondering if we’re gonna, if we’re gonna get him in there. Like I said, when you see orange down on the timber below us and you start feeling blasts of heat coming up the hillside,
uh got him up there and he got to a certain point, and started spinning and he couldn’t push anymore but he’d pushed far enough in there that he got the truck out of the road. Jeff: The ROS said 80 chains per hour. That was the average; average from the bottom to here was 80. That’s like running 3 miles in, ya know a certain time. Sprint for 5 minutes, walk for the 5-that’s how the fire did. It would go in pulses-moving 100 yards, a wall
of fire 100 yards rapidly. It was a vicious looking thing. Dan: And the plan in my head was, I’ve got all these peoples scattered in this, in this
drop point. And some of them are just coming in and some of them have been here for a little
bit. It looks like for right now-the way the fire is going, we’re gonna be able to back
these lowboys in, get everybody rallied up and then go hey, I don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’ve been told, this is not a safety zone. We’re all gonna go either
to Moyer, which was still in my head the primary place to go-let’s just get this lowboy backed into this drop point, get everybody loaded up and go back to Moyer. Brian on radio: Alright copy, I’ve got everybody here at the safety zone and just trying to figure out about that meadow, I kind of agree with you, it’s going north of us right now. Greg Burch: Ya if it stretches north goes to the north and east of us then we might
be okay in there so keep an eye. Brian: Ya Greg, if we get one wind shift,
itís gonna be here I think we better move the guys out. I’ll head them back to the meadow right now-the meadow uh, the meadow you landed in. Either that or we gotta go to the green meadow right now. But we’ve gotta do something. Greg: Ya I drove up that road if you want to get people coming up the road I think we’ve
got a little bit of time too. Brian: Guys head out, back to the main meadow. Load everybody up, now! Firefighter: Come on, boys. Dan: It seemed like the wind slacked a little bit, or maybe it finally just got aligned
with the terrain. Brian: There was a lot of fire below us coming up the hill. Dan: But all of a sudden, uh that column just,
the column just stood straight up and that’s when the jet engine sound came on and the
sky started going dark, and it was time to just-it was time to go.
Brian-And within seconds, you needed to either drive to Moyer, or you were going to get cut off from the road. That’s how fast it was. So like, just getting on the radio telling
everybody to go to Moyer Meadow and you look down the road and Moyer Meadow was, fire was already across Moyer Meadow- that wasn’t an option. Radio Traffic: Okay, say it again Brian. Brian over radio: We’re sending everybody to the green meadow that I, that I went to. They’re not gonna make it to you right now. Radio: Okay, let’s get to the green meadow and I’ll get all the other trucks turned
around-nobody else has come down. Brian: So now we couldn’t go to China Springs, we couldn’t go to Moyer Meadow and Squawboard Meadow Road was next in line to get cut off
from the fire-is like so-we needed to move now to Squawboard. Dan: And now it’s time to just start grabbing people basically, yelling at them to just follow, pointing at Idaho City’s rigs and yelling at this point to follow those rigs because looking from where I’m seeing, the whole world looked like it was on fire at
this point. Cardoza’s Radio Traffic: I’ve got a whole convoy following me, we’re gonna need the lowboys here in the safety zone but I need
you to get a good spot out there-it might be wet so just get out in the middle.
Brian: All three of us were screaming at everybody, follow the Idaho City Hotshots buggies, follow
the buggies, and follow the buggies. Because in my head I thought we just follow the buggies
right out to the meadow and everybody will be fine. And I had every intention of being
the last one out there with these guys, but you had maybe a minute to make up your mind
to follow the buggies or not, or the road was going to get cut-off. And about half the
rigs followed the buggies initially, then it looked like some people were gonna stay.
And then I left-you guys came in with a couple more folks seconds after that I think.
Dan: Ya, and I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I think the people that
were coming into this, really late, I think had the attitude they were driving in to the
safety zone at that drop point. Jerran: I mean if you were just driving by
at at the glance, coming up from camp, you would have no idea that the road leading out of that parking area went to a giant meadow, because you couldn’t see it through the timber. So I think a lot of people’s perception , lack of Intel , whatever-if you see a dozer working
right there and two lowboys parked, and a bunch of, ya know people standing there talking looking at maps, ya know why wouldn’t you think that that’s where you should go if things get bad, right? Dan: Everyone showed up, literally in just
enough time to have to turn around and run away. But to try to get them to follow you
down this, crazy overgrown tunnel of of timber was, was, it was difficult. And it probably would’ve been for me too, if I didn’t know Brian or Jerran, and somebody didn’t know was yelling at me to go down this road and I had just gotten there, I can see how it would’ve been hard. Jerran: So I was probably fifty yards from
where the dozer finally parked, I watched him crawling off of his vehicle and there
was kind of a mass confusion-vehicles driving down there, I’m still yelling at people.
The fuel truck driver, I just saw a couple of people moving around over there and safety
officer’s vehicle and Todd Camm’s vehicle, was the Dozer Boss and uh, Tony DeMasters
who’s the other ops-those three vehicles. And at that point, I start heading down the
road, I see Tony DeMasters come through, and that’s it. Nobody else is coming. There’s still two other vehicles that haven’t come so I call them on the radio-said they can’t make it. They didn’t see where we went. So I know that they’re in there, I know that they’ve got four people. Jerran over radio: Safety Gerrish, youíre
bringing up the rear. Safety Officer Gerrish: Negative, we couldn’t
get (walked on) Narrator: During all the chaos, the operator
feared that he might hit someone in all the dust and stopped the dozer on the south side
of the opening. Working with a dozer and all the noise, dust and falling trees that entails,
limits your situational awareness to the immediate surroundings. The dozer boss, operator and
lowboy driver didn’t know the details of Squawboard Meadow down that road so they stayed
in the parking area. The safety officer never was aware of the road to Squawboard Meadow
due to it being blocked while he was in the parking area.
Todd: And at some point in there, I resigned myself to the fact that my fate was sealed.
I was gonna be-I didn’t know any place else to go, I was going to have to ride this out
in that open area that we’d bladed open. I pulled my shelter out to the hard case was
uh, ready to open it up if I needed to. That’s when things get kinda sketchy, because
about this time, the safety officer yells at me say hey, go down and get youíre truck.
You can still get down there and get your car. Which hadn’t crossed my mind, and I
look and ya, sure enough, itís cool enough. So I go down and get my car and park somewhat
close to where his is by the dozer. Narrator: Due to the heat and blowing embers,
the dozer operator deploys his shelter for both himself and the lowboy driver, who’s
left his shelter in his truck. As the perimeter closer to the dozer starts burning, they move
to the dozer blade for additional protection. The shelter gets noticed and the rigs drive
over to the dozer and the dozer operator and lowboy driver are told to get in. A part of
the shelter gets caught as the door of the safety officer’s rig is closed. And it rips
away as they drive their 2 SUVs around in the parking area, to avoid areas of heat.
At one point, the dozer boss sees that the front tire of the lowboy transport is on fire,
but the surroundings are too hot at the time to risk putting it out. Between waves of heat
and smoke, they even try to move the dozer away from the perimeter slash piles that are
starting to burn, but the key is broken off in the ignition.
Todd: It’s starting to get hot because the piles around that parking area are all burning.
I’m done getting in and out of the car-we’re gonna sit this out. Ya know, I might move
a couple more places to try and find cooler spots but we’re done messing around trying
to protect equipment. Turned the air conditioning up to ya know, turbo arctic blast and that
car is still starting to get uncomfortable inside from the heat. It’s getting hot enough
to the point that I’m starting to smell the off glass and the plastic in the car. That’s
about the time I’m starting to hear a little bit of radio traffic about that road down
to the Squawboard Meadow that we had opened. There’s still an effort to get us down there
tied in with everyone else. Jerran: They’d told me on the radio that
they had everybody in their vehicles-the safety officer told me that. So we kept talking to
them, we got our vehicles backed down in there, we backed up all the way down there, I honked
my horn, I was talking to the safety officer, we were finally able to talk them through-ya
know I’m like okay, come left 10 feet, okay come left 10 more feet, okay honk your horn,
okay let me honk my horn. Okay, you see me? Alright, straight ahead.
Todd: Gerrish took off and went out, I do remember him calling saying I’m clear and
I shifted that car into gear and bajaed our way through and plunged through that opening.
There was fire on both piles on either side of it and it was really hot.
The thing that was going through my mind is, was where the hell am I going now? Because I don’t know what’s down this road. Is this just leading me back into some other place?
Am I going down a dead end road and I’m gonna get stuck down here? Well the fears of not
knowing where I was going were dispelled. I looked at that wet meadow and okay, well
I kinda wish I’d have known this was down here Narrator: While the four stranded in the parking area, the rest of the personnel reached the
safety of Squawboard Meadow. They prepare to fire off the edge, but it is unnecessary as
air attack directs type 1 helicopters in cooling the road and hitting the flanks to protect
the meadow and get the four out of the parking area. Later, as things cool down somewhat,
various personnel return to the parking area and between waves of choking smoke, retrieve
vehicles left during the evacuation, hotwired the dozer to move it into the center, and
put out spots on the lowboy trailers. The lowboy transport closest to the edge only
suffers some melted plastic, while the one that’s tire caught fire, completely burns.
After dark, all personnel convoy out to China Springs Spike Camp for and After Action Review. Todd: Ya know, I got head down with that dozer doing all that, that stuff and pushing that
that side open, maybe looking at it from the point of view of like I’m making my own safety
zone or place that I can go. But that Salmon-Challis country, that country is notorious for, for
big fire runs when you least expect it. Dan: You’ve got a over-time, over-plan, your
time frames. It’s not like a STEX where you can pick up a lowboy and drive it away. Its
equipment that’s going to take a long time to move, just make sure you’re planning for
that. For me personally, don’t ever miss an opportunity to brief somebody. My plan was to brief everybody all at once. I thought I was going to have that time, then the fire-the
situation switched and I didn’t have that time. And in doing that, I missed probably
little times to just grab individuals. Most of the people knew where they were going,
the few people that didn’t were probably the few people that got stuck. Brian: For me it’s like, don’t call a safety zone a safety zone until its designated a safety zone. Most people driving to it, myself included, pictured that it was a safety zone. And then when you got there, you made your own assessment. To me, it was
obvious that it wasn’t, but it still I was still calling it a safe zone as a point of
reference. Everybody was, um I think that’s probably the bigger, or that’s one of the
biggest contributing factors of people staying. For me what I would do different is when I
pulled up, it was obviously triage and fire, engaging the fire is not an option. I was
there to help these guys get people out of the way and I briefed my crew on Squawboard
Meadows, myself or one of my squad bosses could’ve helped brief the other people. These
guys were pretty busy-everybody was pretty busy and just like Dan said, he wished he
would’ve briefed some of those folks that stayed to follow us. I wish I would’ve had
one of my squad bosses do the same thing because they probably had the most time.
Jerran: Ya know the main thing I think from an Ops perspective, was making sure that everyone
has all the information that they need. I I want to be able to walk up to anybody
on the fireline wherever and say, where’s your safety zone? How long does it take to
get there? Okay, that’s cut off, where are you going now? Ya know what I mean? I think
I probably could’ve done maybe a better job I assumed probably a lot ya know, that I’d
told a few people where Squawboard was and I figured a lot of people knew. And I guess
another point is, uh why are we above ya know, on a mid-slope road or a road that’s near
the top of a ridge in the Salmon breaks at 1600, ya know at the end of August? With incoming
resources, I think at a certain point in time, ya know we’re always anxious to get resources
here, get them plugged in, get them going-ya know, I don’t think it’s wise to be travelling
in hindsight, a road like that, uh with resources that really have no idea of where things are
at, so I think would definitely be more organized and set-up uh, probably uh timeframes and
parameters for uh moving new personnel in and out of an area like that. Jeff: And in general, the trap I think we all fell into, air attack included at least
on my shift, was uh I’ve talked to you about this is a little bit of passive leadership.
Um, when I saw that parking area, I didn’t like it, but I didn’t say anything. We let
a few things go amongst each other and I think it’s just because of mutual respect and it’s
and the uh positive outlook that a lot of us had and the can-do attitude. I think it’s
a little bit of a trap that we fell in. You know we all-I really enjoy getting credit
for a job well done as uh, a firefighter or a fire leadership position and we all do.
Along with that, we must and we have, uh recognize that uh there are times we must address our
errors, or mistakes like you brought up and we all brought up, our oversights and uh,
we must address them like we’re doing here for the upcoming firefighters and other fire
leaders. Otherwise, the leadership trait of trustworthiness will not be given back to

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