Tree-Cutting Error May Have Caused Firefighter Death During Ferguson Fire: Report
A firefighter who was struck and killed by a falling tree during a California wildfire last year had finished a 32-hour shift two days earlier and may have misjudged which way the tree would fall when cut, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Park Service.
The report on the accident that killed Capt. Brian Hughes recommends reviewing and updating park service training for cutting trees and also urges a look into ways of preparing for and combatting the effects of stress and fatigue on wildland firefighters.
The action plan also recommends evaluating changes in procedures to deal with more extreme wildfires in the West and more dead trees, caused by climate changes.
Hughes, 34, was a member of the park service Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew battling the Ferguson fire, which engulfed the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park last July.
According to the report, Hughes and another crewmember were cutting down a dead, burned 105-foot-tall (32-meter) ponderosa pine. The tree was still smoldering near its top, producing “a steady stream of embers” that expected winds might blow into flame.
Working in steep, rocky terrain, a sawyer and Hughes determined how to cut the tree to make it fall safely uphill. Instead, the tree fell downhill, grazed another tree and crushed Hughes.
He died while being flown to a helicopter base.
Accident investigators found that safety procedures had been followed.
“Hughes and the sawyer had discussed the felling operation in detail. Warnings were issued prior to cutting. They also identified two escape routes in case something went wrong,” the report said.
However, the report said that the way the tree was leaning may have been misinterpreted, perhaps because the crew members checked it out visually rather than using a plumb bob or other implement and because the steep angle of the slope may have thrown off their interpretation. A back cut intended to ensure the tree fell the right way also might have been off, the report said.
Investigators concluded that the hotshot crew had complied with work and rest guidelines. But the report also noted that the crew had spent eight days building a fire containment line to keep the blaze from spreading, including a 32-hour stretch that ended on the morning of July 27.
“Captain Hughes and his family will always be part of our National Park Service family,” Woody Smeck, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks where the hotshot crew is based, said in a statement. “The parks and the entire fire community honor the loss of Brian by reading and sharing the lessons learned from the serious accident investigation to help prevent future similar accidents.”