RENO, Nev. — A safety team is recommending improvements in communications and training in the wake of a state wildlife helicopter crash that sparked a Nevada wildfire that severely burned two volunteer firefighters trying to rescue the crash victims.
The joint state-U.S. interagency team reviewing the Aug. 18 fire north of Battle Mountain said Friday the rescue was hampered by the complexity of the response to the multi-jurisdictional incident.
It cites the failure to establish a unified command to oversee divergent radio frequencies and lack of standards for volunteer firefighters' use of emergency protective gear.
Part of the difficulty stemmed from the fact the crash, fire and rescue were treated as separate incidents with separate organizational structures, according to the Facilitated Learning Analysis Team.
"This influenced the capacity for communications, accountability and command," the report said.
Battle Mountain volunteer fire chief Brad Negro and rookie firefighter Damon Spring suffered second- and third-degree burns.
Among the findings:
• Neither Negro nor Spring was wearing personal protective equipment when the engine burned over. "We were in a rescue mission, so we had no PPE on," Negro explained.
• The fire incident commander was unaware the engine was at the fire until well after the burn-over occurred.
• The dispatch centers didn't know the engine's location.
• County resources have only line-of-sight frequencies in mobile radios without access to state or federal command frequencies.
Even though the crash was just 10 miles northeast of Battle Mountain in Lander County, it was jurisdictionally within the Elko Interagency Fire Dispatch Center. The Elko center oversaw the fire, while Lander County had jurisdiction for the search and rescue mission.
"The resources committed to the fire did not know the county resources were responding … and not aware that Pumper 2 was near the fire until after the fire happened," the report said.
If a firefighting helicopter crashed, Elko would have jurisdiction over both.
Typically, a "unified command" is established when county resources respond to fires along with state and federal resources, the report said, adding "unified command seems to mean different things to different groups."
"That is why we believe it is important to establish standards for how the county and state/federal resources define and operate a unified command."
The report noted the firefighters had fire shelters and full gear in the back of the truck when trapped outside. Volunteer firefighters "do not appear to have uniform, written safety or training standards."
State, county and federal officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The fire burned 93 square miles of rangeland over 12 days south of the Idaho line.
The helicopter that crashed is often used for fires, but was on contract to the Nevada Department of Wildlife when the pilot and two biologists surveying game birds went down.
Two were hurt. The third called 911 at 1:57 p.m.
"A big fire is burning all around us right now. … One of the guys hit his head pretty hard," he said.
The firefighters couldn't find the helicopter and began encountering fire activity when they heard a radio transmission from Lander County at 4:02 p.m. that the crash victims had been rescued.
As the fire approached, they got out and started spraying water but within seconds, were surrounded by flames and sought refuge beneath the truck.
"I was burning and screaming and hunkered down underneath," Negro said. After the burn-over, they drove off before getting stuck, exiting the vehicle and hiking up a steep ridge to establish communications.
"We need help," Negro told a 911 Lander County dispatcher at 4:46 p.m.
At 5:28 p.m., the initial incident commander assumed command of the crash and burn-over.
By 5:53 p.m., the injured firefighters were flown to Battle Mountain Airport, and later to a burn center in Salt Lake City.
The review team included officials for the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Nevada Division of Forestry, Elko County Fire Protection District and Provo Fire and Rescue in Utah.