OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A firefighting crew's decision to stay and defend its beloved station on California's central coast nearly cost the lives of 14 firefighters who were overrun by flames, according to a report released Friday by an organization that promotes firefighter safety.
Fourteen firefighters deployed emergency shelters on Sept. 8, 2020, as flames from the Dolan Fire overtook them and destroyed the Nacimiento station in the Los Padres National Forest.
Three were hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation and one who suffered the most severe injuries couldn't be interviewed due to his ongoing complications, according to the report by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
The review by a team of firefighting professionals revealed several factors that influenced the crew's decision to remain even as the fire in the rugged mountains above Big Sur raced toward them.
“Nacimiento station was part of a mandatory evacuation area for private homeowners, but the crew was still living at the station. This contributed to the crews’ notion that the station was a safe place to be,” the report said, adding that certain members were determined to save the place they considered home.
The report also noted the lack of defensible space and a formal plan on when to stay or abandon the station. A safety officer's concerns about the station's defensibility against a major wildfire went unheeded.
“There is an entire program dedicated to helping homeowners understand how and where to create defensible space before smoke is in the air so that their homes are better positioned to be saved when fires are actively burning. We have sponsored ad campaign after ad campaign practically begging people to do their part so that firefighters can do their job more safely," the report said.
“If we preach it, we should do it.”
When several people raised concerns about firefighters staying to protect structures, they were ignored because none of them “were above the Captains in the chain of command, and none were people they knew well or held in high regard,” according to the report.
Ultimately, fast-approaching flames surrounded the firefighters and another crew sent to help them. As heat from burning buildings intensified and propane tanks exploded around them, the firefighters deployed their heat shields as a last resort.
One firefighter told the reviewers the heat was so stifling “I felt like all the fluid was being roasted out of me.” Another firefighter who couldn't get his fire shelter from a burning truck said a colleague pulled him into her deployed shelter, thus saving his life.
The fire had been burning for weeks, but it doubled in size the night before the entrapment and scorched a total 195 square miles (505 square kilometers). The fire destroyed several structures and killed nine endangered California condors at a wildlife sanctuary.
A man arrested near the fire's starting point was arrested and charged with arson and illegal marijuana cultivation. Ivan Gomez pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in the case.