[Editor's Note: Kevin "K.C." Fees, Jr. was trapped in the state engine with Trampus Haskvitz.]
Erratic fire behavior and human nature contributed to the death of wildland firefighter Trampus Haskvitz during the Coal Canyon Fire last August, according to the team assigned to investigate.
Haskvitz, 23, was a seasonal employee with the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression. He was the leader of a three-man crew that included Austin Whitney and Kevin "K.C." Fees, Jr.
There were no surprises in the report, according to Wildland Fire Director Jay Esperance.
“Everything that I read shows there was no human fault,” Esperance said.
Haskvitz died during the initial attack on the Coal Canyon Fire when fire trapped the engine/truck carrying him and Whitney in a narrow canyon on Aug. 11, 2011.
The Serious Accident Investigation into the Buffalo Gap man’s death was conducted by 12 people including representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, the South Dakota Fire Marshal’s office and the National Federation of Federal Employees. Names of the firefighters involved in the incident are redacted from the public version of the report.
According to the report, the “tragedy was the result of the chance conjunction of events, especially lethal erratic local fire behavior and unexpected combinations of normal human variability.
“Many decisions and actions on the Coal Canyon Fire were manifestly heroic, demonstrating the best of wildland fire professionalism,” the report says.
Two unidentified U.S. Forest Service firefighters tried unsuccessfully to reach the trapped men. One was using his fire shelter as a shield when he was overcome by heat and smoke.
Investigators believe that Haskvitz died almost instantly when he took a breath as he was hit with an intense burst of superheated gases and flames.
“The burst of heat missed the driver (Whitney) by only seconds, or he may have been holding his breath as he passed through it,” the report says.
The Coal Canyon Fire was less than an acre in size when it was reported on Aug. 11. Lightning from a storm that moved through the area several days before is believed to have sparked the fire.
A helicopter crew made the first assessment and called for additional units, according to the report. Those crews would ultimately park in another area and hike into the fire.
The state truck carrying Haskvitz, Whitney and Fees and a team of volunteer firefighters was the first on the scene.
Within a couple hours, air and forest fuel temperatures warmed, humidity dropped, and the winds increased giving the fire unexpected strength.
As conditions changed, orders were given to abandon firefighting efforts in the small canyon where first two engines worked along a narrow, twisting road.
The two engines were told to “back out,” according to the report.
But, Haskvitz and Whitney chose to drive ahead on the predetermined escape route. A wall of fire met them around a sharp bend. The pickup stalled when they attempted to back up, and they were trapped, 50 feet from safety.
Whitney, who was on the ground behind the truck, dropped to the ground just before a “burst of heat, fire and smoke curl over the road,” according to the report.
Haskvitz and Fees huddled for a few minutes under a fire shelter inside the vehicle’s cab, before deciding to make a run for safety, the report says.
Fees made it out of the vehicle, but Haskvitz did not.
“It’s human nature to exit the same way you came in,” Esperance said.
That’s one of the valuable lessons that will be taught to firefighters in the future as the report of the Coal Canyon Fire is used as teaching tool, he said.
Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.