David Ruhl, 38, of Rapid City, died in July while fighting a California wildfire. 

Rapid City firefighter Dave Ruhl apparently was trapped by a sudden shift in the direction of the California wildfire he was scouting in July, according to a newly issued Forest Service report on his death.

The body of Ruhl, 38, was found July 31 at the scene of the Frog Fire in the Modoc National Forest, where he was on a temporary assignment away from his regular duties as an engine captain in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest.

The 15-page preliminary report on his death describes a fire that quadrupled in size within 30 minutes after the arrival of firefighters and then shifted direction. Ruhl was scouting the fire’s west flank when the wind direction changed.

“It appears he was cut-off and overcome by fire during the period of time that the fire spread shifted dramatically toward the west-southwest,” the report says.

The report also notes that Ruhl’s fire shelter was not deployed. A fire shelter is a small, aluminum-based, tent-like apparatus that firefighters can pitch over themselves as a last resort when trapped by a fire.

The report, compiled by an 11-member board, is described as an attempt to “tell the story of events surrounding the death of Dave Ruhl.” The next step will be a “sensemaking phase,” the report says, followed by recommendations from a Learning Review Board and a final report.

Ruth Esperance, the district ranger in the Mystic District where Ruhl was stationed full-time, said in an interview with the Journal that the report was helpful in filling in some details of Ruhl’s death but was painful to examine for Ruhl’s still-grieving colleagues.

“It’s always hard for anybody trying to make sense of it when somebody passes too young in life,” Esperance said.

Fire 'normal' at first

The report says the Frog Fire was sparked by a lightning strike at 5:32 p.m. July 30 and reported at 5:46 p.m. by a lookout in a nearby tower who spotted the smoke. 

The first fire engine arrived 42 minutes later, at 6:28. A local engine captain identified in the report as “Henry” — all names in the report except Ruhl’s are fictitious — assumed the role of incident commander and observed a 1-acre fire with an additional 100-square-feet spot fire. He ordered his crew to begin laying hose.

“It was ‘just a normal fire,’” the report says, quoting Henry.

At 6:38, a helicopter arrived and circled the fire. The helicopter crew “relayed a size-up and the current fire activity to the IC [incident commander] on the ground,” the report says, adding that the helicopter crew estimated the fire to be about 7 acres and moving mostly to the north.

At 6:41, Henry, the incident commander on the ground, reported down drafts from a thunder cell that were creating erratic winds. He estimated the fire size at 2 acres with a quarter-acre spot fire and ordered more resources to the scene.

The second fire engine arrived at 6:48. Those crew members joined with the crew from the first engine to continue laying 800 feet of hose.

Ruhl arrived in a truck at 6:52.

“After parking near the engines, Dave cautioned an engine crewmember to be heads up for the squirrely winds which could push the fire toward the engines,” the report says. “Dave was obviously in a good mood according to those on scene, and energized to be there.”

Complexity level escalates

Henry came back from the eastern flank of the fire to meet with Ruhl at the fire’s “heel.” (A fire's "head" is the point at which the fire is progressing most intensely; the "heel" is opposite of the "head," and thus is the back end of the fire.)

Henry and Ruhl then climbed to a spot with a better view of the fire and saw its growth. Ruhl hiked off to scout the west flank and Henry set out for the east flank.

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At 7:04, Henry informed dispatch that the fire was transitioning from type 5, the least complex level in the Incident Command System, to type 4. Ruhl, who was qualified to command a type 4 incident, took charge of the fire with Henry, who did not have type 4 qualification, as his trainee.

At that point, the report says, “the fire was taking off.” The helicopter had landed to discharge a five-member helitack crew that joined the other firefighters on the ground.

Between 7:17 and 7:23, Ruhl spoke by radio with the helicopter pilot, who was dumping loads of water.

“The pilot never noticed panic in Dave’s voice; he was controlled, calm, and professional,” the report says.

At 7:26, Henry received a radio call from Ruhl, who said “Let’s do it, we’ll tie in at the heel.” Henry, apparently taking that as a signal to upgrade the fire to a type 3 incident, radioed the decision to dispatch. “Transitioning to a Type 3 incident … [Dave] will be IC … [I] am no longer trainee,” the report says, quoting Henry’s call to dispatch.

Confusion ensued, because it was known that Ruhl was not qualified to command a type 3 incident. The report says that during the seven weeks Ruhl worked in the Modoc National Forest, “he clearly articulated his goal” of completing the tasks necessary to qualify as a type 3 commander.

So, when a zone duty officer in the Doublehead Ranger District office heard the radio chatter about transitioning to a type 3 incident with Ruhl as commander, the officer sent this text message to Ruhl: “So you’re tied in with the ICT3 for a trainer? If so, get that over the airways.” Ruhl did not reply.

The helicopter crew superintendent, identified in the report as Casey, was also surprised and “did not think that the amount of resources on scene warranted a type 3 fire,” the report says.

Nevertheless, Casey and Henry waited at the heel of the fire for the "tie in" called for by Ruhl, but Ruhl never arrived.

Wind shifts, fire begins to 'boil'

At 7:30, just four minutes after the last radio chatter by Ruhl, the lookout in the nearby tower radioed to dispatch that the smoke was suddenly drifting south instead of northwest.

“To the firefighters on the ground, the wind shift manifested in erratic winds from all directions and a fire that began to boil,” the report says.

By that point, Ruhl was apparently trapped. Later, a photo with a 7:36 time stamp showed fire overtaking the spot where his body was eventually found.

Along the eastern flank, embers were blowing across the fireline and firefighters were choking on smoke and realizing they could not hold their position. Multiple attempts were made to reach Ruhl on the radio, but there was no response. Back where the engines were parked on a road southwest of the fire, an engine operator saw the fire jump the road.

Firefighters began evacuating while Henry, the original incident commander, and Casey, the helitack crew superintendent, stayed to wait for Ruhl. When the fire came within 30 feet of them, they drove Ruhl’s truck away from the flames.

More engines, crews and other equipment converged on a staging area. Casey continued the search for Ruhl with other searchers until midnight, when the effort was called off because of the fire behavior, nighttime hazards, snags and the potential for injury.

The search resumed at 5 a.m. the next day with a team that included firefighters and sheriff’s deputies who walked grid patterns while yelling Ruhl’s name.

Ruhl’s body was found at 9:17 a.m. that day, July 31, about one-quarter mile west of the spot where he was last seen by Henry.

The report says that while the final 100 feet of Ruhl's route were accurately established, “much will remain unknown about Dave’s decision making and complete route of travel.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills."