Iron 44 Fallen Firefighter Tribute

A tribute to the firefighters who died on the Iron Complex at Helispot 44 will be held on Friday August 15, 2008 at the Lithia Motors Amphitheater on the Jackson County Fairgrounds from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

More information can be found at Grayback Forestry [here].

From the Associated Press [here]:

Officials work to ID remains from helicopter crash

WEAVERVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Authorities on Sunday finished collecting badly burned remains from the crash site of a firefighting helicopter in the Northern California wilderness.

A day earlier, helicopters carrying flag-draped stretchers that bore some of the remains were greeted by an honor guard of firefighters at a nearby airstrip.

Accompanied by a fire engine escort, the stretchers were taken to the Shasta County coroner’s office in Redding. Authorities there would probably have to rely on DNA analysis and dental records to identify the bodies, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Tom Kroll said.

Nine people were killed in the crash.

The helicopter was ferrying 10 firefighters, two pilots and a U.S. Forest Service employee back to base camp Tuesday after crews battled a fire about 215 miles northwest of Sacramento.

The Sikorsky S-61N helicopter had just been refueled when it lifted off from a remote clearing, struck a tree and plummeted into a hillside, according to National Transportation Safety Board officials. The chopper then erupted into flames.

Two of the four men who survived the crash, firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, both of Medford, Ore., were discharged from the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento on Saturday. They suffered facial burns and broken bones.

Brown said Saturday that he couldn’t remember anything about the crash but felt that he was spared because “God had his hand wrapped around me.”

He said he was mourning the loss of friends: “Those guys were brothers to me.”

Pilot William Coultas of Oregon has undergone skin grafting for severe burns. He was in critical condition Sunday, said Martha Alcott, a spokeswoman for UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

The following seven Grayback firefighters lost their lives in the helicopter crash:

Shawn Blazer, 30 from Medford, Ore.
Scott Charleson, 25 from Phoenix, Ore.
Matthew Hammer, 23 from Grants Pass, Ore.
Edrik Gomez, 19, from Ashland, Ore.
Steven Renno, 21, Cave Junction, Ore
Bryan Rich, 29, from Medford, Ore.
David Steele, 19, from Ashland, Ore.

Three Grayback employees survived the crash:

Jonathon Frohreich and Michael Brown were released from UC Davis Medical Center on Sunday August 10. Rick Schroeder, at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, remains in critical condition.

All ten were private sector firefighters employed by Grayback Forestry of Merlin, Oregon. Mike Wheelock, President of Grayback Forestry, issued the following statement Thursday [here]:

August 7, 2008 - 16:24 PST: Statement given earlier today at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California

Good Afternoon, my name is Mike Wheelock and I am the President of Grayback Forestry.

I am visiting with you today as a President but mostly as a brother and a representative to my employee firefighters and their families.

We have been forever affected by the accident that occurred within the Trinity Alps earlier this week.

First of all, I want to thank everyone who has helped to rescue and care for these firefighters.

The responsiveness of all agencies and medical personnel has been tremendous.

I and my team are in the process of contacting all of the affected employees’ families. We appreciate everyone’s support in letting us talk with them before we publicly release the names of their loved ones.

Here is what I can tell you.

This was a tragic accident that resulted in three injured and seven missing firefighters.

Two of the injured are at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and one is at Mercy Medical Center in Redding. The families are with all the injured.

We have almost completed the process of notifying the families of the missing firefighters. I ask and plead with you to let us get through the healing process, including the notification of our families and the care of the injured and our employees.

We mobilized chaplains and incident management teams to help the families. We are also working closely with the US Forest Service and other related agencies to meet the needs of the families and affected employees.

Ten firefighters from our company were part of a 20-person organized crew that was working in steep/remote terrain on the Shasta Trinity National Forest on the Iron/Alps complex.

For four days, prior to the accident, the crew had been successfully and heroically defending a section of critical line that had to be held to avoid serious, long-term problems. The weather had changed and the firefighters were being evacuated off the mountainside. The first 10-person crew was successfully transported to base camp and the helicopter returned for the remaining part of the crew. And then the accident occurred.

Many of our crews are standing down and have returned home. They are experiencing great grief about the missing and those who are injured.

I’d like to say the entire fire community is one big family and all are affected when one is affected. The agencies, contractors and all the support people risk their lives every day fighting these fires. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers during this summer because it is still early in the fire season.

I have just visited with Rick Schroeder who is a patient here at Mercy. He is doing well. He is alert and surrounded by his family and loved ones. He wants to thank everyone who has been caring for him. He’d like some time to heal both mentally and physically and then will consider sharing his story with others.

While many of us are in our safe houses, these firefighters are risking their lives for us every day.
Once again, on behalf of Greyback Forestry and its family of firefighters, thank you for all of the concern and support you have extended to us. Please keep all of the firefighters and their families in your thoughts and prayers.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it was a sick and terrible thing when the Portland Oregonian newspaper this morning ran a front page story [here] blaming private sector contracted firefighters for burgeoning US Forest Service fire suppression costs.

Wildfire contracting costs too high, critics say

Some people question the expenses, quality of training and oversight of private fire crews

YUXING ZHENG and AMY HSUAN, The Oregonian Staff, Tuesday, August 12, 2008

JUNCTION CITY, Calif. — The thick layer of haze hanging over the charcoal mountains of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest glows like a lingering fog at noon. Pervasive smoke and dust seem the only constant about this makeshift city of tents and mobile trailers, home to the 1,100 men and women battling the now 95,000-acre fire known as the Iron and Alps Complex. …

At fires like this one, where eight Oregon men died in a helicopter crash last week, firefighting has become as coordinated and well-equipped as a military deployment, with the private companies taking more of the work once done by public agencies. That, in turn, has strained the U.S. Forest Service’s budget and led to controversy over training and oversight. …

“We call it the ‘fire industrial complex,’ ” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Eugene-based Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology. “It’s growing in terms of amount of dollars and in terms of monopolization dynamics.”

The growth of private companies fighting wildland fires has drawn criticism from opponents who say contractors are not as well-trained to handle wildfires raging uncontrolled for months. Problems in the past with contract workers have revealed that they weren’t trained to deal effectively with the blazes, Ingalsbee said.

“They’re weren’t producing and they weren’t cutting it,” Ingalsbee said. “Training is low-hanging fruit. If a company is going to cut costs, they’re going to cut training.”

In addition, some critics say private firefighting companies have cornered the market and are one reason costs have escalated nationally. The cost of fighting the Iron and Alps Complex fires, to date, is $55.9 million.

The Iron Complex Fires [here] have been burning since June 21st, are now over 96,000 acres, and are approaching $60 million in suppression costs. None of that has anything whatsoever to do with private contract firefighting.

The decision to allow the Iron Complex Fires to expand to specific boundaries was made by USFS officials in June. Private contractors had nothing to do with that decision. Government employees developed the Long Range Fire Implementation Plan with no public input, including no input from private contractors. The decisions of where and when to place firefighting personnel are entirely the purview of USFS officials.

Private contractors can in no way be blamed for those decisions, despite the baseless and despicable accusations made by Yuxing Zheng, Amy Hsuan, and Tim Ingalsbee.

Private firefighters are the most trained and experienced, not the least. Private firefighters take on the most difficult jobs, including fire falling, the cutting of burning snags along firelines, while those trees are aflame.

From Northwest Timberfallers, Inc. of Grants Pass, OR [here]:

Falling hazard trees on wildland fires or emergency incidents is one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. Northwest Timber Fallers knows you need skilled, safety-conscious commercial timber fallers you can count on. We lead the industry in training and certifying our timber fallers for safe, effective performance under emergency conditions.

Our roster of experienced, professional timber fallers is unsurpassed in expert hazard tree falling and snag removal on wildland fire and emergency incidents. NWTF guarantees rapid deployment and a relentless focus on safety.

What the Eugene-based Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE) calls the “fire industrial complex” are in fact the most highly skilled and experienced wildland firefighters in the world. The insult to those firefighters and to those recently fallen is beyond the pale.

For background on Tim Ingalsbee please read “Flames of Dissent” [here].

And ask yourself, do these journalists and spokespeople have a benevolent forest stewardship agenda, or a political agenda of Let It Burn so far removed from stewardship and benevolence that they would disparage firefighters on the eve of the memorial service for fallen heroes?

12 Aug 2008, 8:36pm
by Mike

Service for pilot set for Saturday

A celebration honoring James N. Ramage of Redding is set for 2 p.m. Saturday August 16 at the Redding Convention Center. The 63-year-old U.S. Forest Service helicopter pilot died with eight others last week in the Buckhorn Fire helicopter crash in Trinity County.

The event will celebrate his life and 24-year career as a helicopter pilot and aviation inspector with both the U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The celebration begins at 1:30 p.m. with a procession of fire apparatus at the Redding Convention Center, followed by the 2 p.m. ceremony of invited speakers, a video presentation highlighting his life and career, remarks and comments by his family and friends, and a fly-over tribute of fire-fighting aircraft.

The public is invited to attend. Those wishing to attend are advised to arrive early because of likely traffic congestion and parking limitations.

13 Aug 2008, 2:18pm
by brodie

I am sure glad you went where you did with this article. I agree that contractors are some of the best trained in the business.

I actually applied to work with Greyback a few years ago. I was hired by another company before I heard back, but Greyback only wanted really experienced people, and they would not just take your word for it. They actually called references. If I remember right they had drug testing too. They sure don’t have good luck, tho. The year before I applied they had a van crash and kill some people.

You did a really good job!

Also, what does firefighter training have to do with passengers on a helicopter? I guarantee that the heli-tack guys that briefed them, did the manifest, and were in charge of getting them all of the emergency information they needed before take off were not contractors.

My condolences to the families that were affected by this.

And another thing. Isn’t contracting supposed to be the cheapest way to do this? That is why they do it. They don’t have to pay contractors when they are not working. Hot Shots get 40 hours no matter what.

One more thought. The pilots are usually contractors too. From first hand experience I know that these pilots are the best in the world!! Usually, they are prior military, and do some amazing things with their helicopters. I have a picture of the helmet of one of the helicopter pilots, that says on the back, “Relax, you are riding with the low bidder”.

13 Aug 2008, 3:06pm
by Mike

A while back I had the dubious pleasure of teaching hazard tree identification and removal to fire fallers at a fire school. It was a pleasure because the class was made up of experienced woods workers who were attentive and engaged in my lecture. It was dubious because the students knew more than the lecturer!

The best part was the afternoon field session when we all went out to look at trees and discuss how to fall them. I got a great education that day. The cutters were all pros with buckets of knowledge. It didn’t take much prodding from me to get them to open up. With great expertise and lots of good humor they explained the best cutting methods tree by tree for all the doozie problem trees I had previously located.

Some of the worst accidents on fires happen when regular firefighters attempt to fall trees. Professional cutters with years of experience really do know a ton more about how to do it, and do it safely, than folks who lack that experience. A few hours of training cannot possibly substitute for years of cutting.

Contract firefighters do more than swing a shovel. They are often tasked to the most difficult and dangerous jobs precisely because they have extra expertise that the regular line firefighters lack.

Another example: most of the heavy machinery operation is done by contractors. It might not have been that way decades ago, but it definitely is that way today. Heavy machinery (like dozers) are the most effective fireline construction tools, but it is not cost efficient for the USFS to buy, maintain, and operate heavy machinery for unknown emergency operations only. Contracting that work is less expensive by far.

Oregon is home to thousands of full-time woods workers with expertise and skills that pick-up summer help cannot possibly bring to the firefighting job. We need that professional expertise to fight fires in the safest and most efficient manner. Nobody who is actually involved in wildland firefighting would deny that fact, either.

Only journalists and shady politicians could possibly be confused about it.

13 Aug 2008, 6:13pm
by bear bait

The fire fighters contracted to the Forest Circus work without a net. Lots of training expense, equipment costs, and along comes a light fire season, and contractors go broke. Equipment is sold for dimes on the dollar. That is called risk. It is a risk/reward system, contracting. And there are human resource issues, and the temporary nature of the work. Government cannot possible do it cheaper.

The US military uses contractors to build their equipment. They put out the specs, and ask for bids. The people who build guns and bullets are contractors, and so are the clothing manufacturers. It is a competitive business. So is firefighting.

Look at the bomb resistant trucks in Iraq. South African designed. An American took it on himself to build and improve on the design and it took him 4 years to get the military to try one. Now they are air-freighted to the war zone on the day they pass inspection, with a half dozen companies building them. Private initiative. And the same applies to firefighting. All kinds of equipment and methods have been developed by the contractors to obtain a positive result. The system has served this country well for a long, long time, and any complaints about that system come from ignoramus types who never risked their own dime on a venture, and would expect the government to have all the answers. Sorry. They dont’. Many times they don’t even know the question.

The classic example of private enterprise is the sea plane race sponsored by Lord Beaverbrook prior to WWII. He put up a prize for the fastest sea plane, the winner to be determined by a race. An aeroplane called the Spitifire won the contest. A bright RAF engineer took the floats off it, and that was the aeroplane that won the Battle of Britain. Of course, we would later find out this thing called RADAR was enabling the Brits to position their planes where the German bombers appeared headed, and have the Spitfires and Hurricanes prepositioned, fueled, and armed to fly up at the last minute and wreak havoc. That is another story. But the aeroplane was superb, and the pilots who flew them were too.

Contracting is the way to provide for resources when you need them, and you pay only while they work. You don’t own, maintain, or man the equipment, the contractor does. And those contractors will advance the technology to gain advantage, and profits. There is not a better way.

13 Aug 2008, 8:09pm
by backcut

I once coined a phrase about Forest Service timber programs, but it now seems to apply just as well to their fire shop, too.

“Federal McForestry”

Any young punk off the street MIGHT be right for the job.

Also, Mike is right about professional timber fallers versus Forest Service Qualified Fallers. I did go through the training before they revamped it in the early 90’s. There truly is no substitute for experience. There are some interesting styles amongst those few masters of the Stihl. Those roadside hazard trees are going to be the toughest trees a guy ever falls. Most of them have serious rot in the butt logs and you’re expected to “try” and directionally fall them to the road with a minimum of breakage (nearly impossible!). I’ve administered quite a few roadside hazard tree projects.



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