Poor communication and unexpected fire conditions probably caused the deaths of two firefighters whose truck plunged off a mountain road during last year's huge wildfire in the mountains above Los Angeles, a government report concluded.
Los Angeles County fire Capt. Tedmund Hall and Firefighter Specialist Arnaldo Quinones died on Aug. 30 while setting backfires in a failed attempt to keep walls of flame from overrunning an inmate firefighting camp in Angeles National Forest.
Their truck plunged 800 feet from the dirt road on Mount Gleason, struck a rock and flipped onto its roof.
The county Fire Department report, prepared with assistance of other agencies, suggests that Hall, who was driving, lost consciousness as he drove through the flames in an attempt to avoid being cut off from escape.
They were the only firefighters to die during the 250-square-mile Station Fire that burned 89 foothill and canyon homes as it became the largest wildfire in county history. The fire began in the national forest but eventually involved many firefighting agencies under unified command.
Retraining to make sure firefighters communicate better with commanders is under way, county Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said Friday.
Armed with detailed weather information and more warning, "we don't think that Ted and Arnie would have been out on that road," Freeman said.
The department also plans to look at its fire camps and determine in advance whether they should be defended or evacuated in the event of a fire instead of leaving the decision to camp supervisors, the chief said.
"Hindsight is always 20/20," he said.
"As firefighters, we always analyze what we've done and we try to learn from it ... this is extremely difficult because we lost two brothers," Freeman said. "Let's do this in their memory so that, hopefully, this never happens again."
The Fire Department report to the county Board of Supervisors on April 22 concluded the deaths of Hall and Quinones might have been prevented had the camp received better warning that changing winds were driving the fire toward Camp 16 with new ferocity.
At the same time, the report praised "cool heads, leadership, split-second decision-making, raw courage and sound execution of orders" for saving 72 other people. Crews fled a burning building and huddled in trucks and under portable shelters as 200-foot-high flames raced through the site. More than a dozen were treated for smoke inhalation, eye injuries and stress.
The 141-page report by county and state investigators said there was a long-standing plan to defend the fire camp and protect crews there, but "something went horribly wrong" because of unexpected conditions.
Camp workers had been watching the fire for two days and thought it would take hours to reach them, the report said.
However, erratic downdrafts drove the fire into a frenzy.
Hall, who was the camp supervisor, and Quinones drove out to set backfires on a road to keep the camp's only evacuation route open, the report said.
A lack of communication with the commanders managing the fire response and the lack of a lookout along the road meant they had no early warning that the fire had moved southeast and cut them off.
They probably worked in 50 mph wind gusts while "smoke would be shading the sun and obscuring local visibility, and the 'freight train' sounds of the approaching fire run would be becoming much louder," the report said.
A firefighter who saw Hall using a flare gun to set backfires radioed him that "you got fire behind you, you got fire below you" and "you got to get out," the report said. He later repeated his warning by yelling at Hall and blowing a whistle, believing Hall understood, the report said.
In a final radio transmission to the camp, Hall urged "keep the road clear," then suddenly swore before the transmission cut off.
On the Net:
Fire report: http://www.fire.lacounty.gov/top_story_images/Camp16SAIR.pdf
Source: AP News