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California wildfire crews forced to take pause after fuel mix-up

One of the largest wildfires of the season was recently raging in far northern Del Norte County, California, when firefighters suddenly began issuing distress calls about mysterious equipment failures.

One of them told the base camp manager that his truck had broken down.

Another reported that his dashboard lights were coming on.

A third said smoke was coming from his vehicle.

In what a veteran fire captain described as a once-in-a-career mistake that nearly paralyzed operations throughout the Smith River Complex Fire, dozens of vehicles were filled with the wrong type of fuel .

At least 82 vehicles were filled with gasoline instead of diesel, or vice versa, forcing authorities to declare a tactical pause that halted operations in the 181-mile fire complex for two hours on September 8. Some firefighters were stuck. on the fire line, and dozens of vehicles had to be towed from the field and serviced.

“We’re looking at a very costly mistake in the future,” said Bill Morse, public information officer for Southwest Area Incident Management Team 2.

An article on Hotshot Wakeup, which first reported the mix-up, described it as a “California nightmare” that could indicate the need for better vetting of service contractors. But Morse said it was a human error that anyone could have made — although it would likely result in costly litigation.

After he started receiving calls, the Gasquet base camp manager inspected the camp’s two fuel tankers, trucks that distribute fuel to firefighting vehicles. The trucks, which typically hold about 4,000 gallons, often have two separate tanks, one for diesel and one for gasoline, Morse said. The director discovered that one of the tenders, which belonged to a contractor, had diesel in its gas tank and gasoline in its diesel tank, Morse said.

The manager notified incident commanders, who declared what is called an incident within an incident. This decision set off a tightly choreographed chain of events in which a representative from each section of the incident management team met in a situation room to tackle the confusion separately from the main fire, said Morse, who was the public information officer assigned to the main fire. band.

The team reviewed the fuel log. The organization has learned that parts of the fire emergency medical response system have been affected, including ambulances and rapid extrication modules that would be needed to rescue and treat firefighters in an emergency, Morse said. It became clear that it was not safe to continue operations because the confusion had compromised authorities’ ability to respond to injured firefighters, he said.

The order for a tactical pause was broadcast on the main radio at 4:07 p.m. The approximately 2,000 firefighters were told to immediately stop what they were doing and, if they were driving, to stop and turn off their vehicles, Morse said.

The team called each fire unit to ask if they were having any problems with their vehicles. About 42 people said yes.

Smoke and flames billow from the Smith River Complex Fire, off the closed U.S. Highway 199, in Gasquet, California, August 16. Confusion in refueling emergency vehicles delayed firefighting efforts.

(Caltrans/Associated Press)

Operations resumed at 6 p.m., when night shifts that were not affected by the fueling confusion took over, Morse said.

“In terms of time and in terms of the impact on our operations, we had a two-hour lunch,” he said.

The break came at as opportune a time as any, he said. The fire, started by lightning on August 15, has burned nearly 86,000 acres and is 19% contained. But no active firefighting has taken place because recent rains have dampened fire behavior, Morse said.

“The work being done was on the indirect fire line – preparing the lines away from the edge of the fire so that when the fire behavior conditions improve enough, we can burn that space between the line and the edge of the fire “, did he declare. .

Once operations were restarted, the team focused on removing stranded firefighters from the fire line, Morse said. They arranged for national emergency rental vehicles to pick them up and bring them back to base camp so they could eat their meals and go to bed. Some chose to leave – or camp there – overnight, he said.

“Very generally, peak teams are self-sufficient,” he said. “They usually refuse a ride.”

The next step was to deal with the disabled vehicles littering the fire. Those belonging to the Forest Service were towed, Morse said. The agency also offered to tow and service vehicles owned by private contractors, but some declined, he said.

A total of 24 vehicles were transported to the Southern Incident Command Post in Crescent City. There, they pumped the fuel tanks into 55-gallon drums and had them removed by a hazardous waste disposal company, he said. Eighteen additional vehicles were driven to the nearest camp.

Once the fuel was unloaded, the vehicles were serviced by Forest Service heavy equipment mechanics, Morse said.

The former wildland firefighter and captain with the Flagstaff Fire Department described the incident as surprising and said it was a first in his 45-year career. At the same time, he says, it’s a good example of how quickly incident management teams can resolve a problem by working together.

“It was going to be a very, very difficult incident,” he said. “Luckily, that really wasn’t the case.”

Los Angeles Times

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