How a Utah wildfire almost killed five firefighters in the High Uintas

East Fork Fire became Utah’s largest fire of 2020 even though a ground crew was on it the day it was detected.

(U.S. Forest Service) The East Fork Fire, which started on August 21, 2020, seen from the air.

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Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service sent a small team into Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness for an eight-day trail-building tour, but plans soon changed when the crew discovered a wildfire on the second day.

After firefighters arrived, the wind shifted. The flames exploded into a “fireball” and cut off an escape route.

How a seemingly nonthreatening fire trapped and nearly killed four firefighters and a trail crew leader is the subject of an in-depth analysis released recently by the Forest Service.

The five men were rescued by a helicopter, whose quick-thinking pilot guided the men to a landing spot amid the chaos. Still, the firefighters feared for their lives as they scrambled through the burning forest that afternoon in search of a path to safety.

The near-tragedy underscores the risks wildland firefighters face, especially in a period of unpredictable weather and ultra-dry conditions that now afflict Western forests. It also shows the need to exercise caution and restraint before committing ground crews to fires in remote wilderness settings — even when blazes initially seem unremarkable.

“It’s clear that we put firefighters in danger practically every day they go out there on the fire,” said Kristy Groves, the Ashley National Forest district ranger who manages the land where the fire started. ”This one wasn’t any different. It was just communication and the distance of hike in that made it a little bit more complicated than our normal fires.”

On their first evening in the wilderness, the three members of the trail crew, led by a man identified in the Forest Service report only as Casey, smelled smoke as they prepared to bed down near Rock Creek. They figured it was from one of the many big fires raging across the West at the time or maybe a campfire someone had lit in violation of fire-prevention orders.

They were actually getting the first whiff of what would become the East Fork Fire, the largest in Utah that year. In the morning, they discovered a creeping fire just 10 feet off the trail, a mile or so above Upper Stillwater Reservoir on the Uintas’ south slope.

At that time the flames were just 2 feet high on about 2 acres. But soon the fire would grow to several hundreds acres with flames towering 100 feet in the air after winds changed direction in the afternoon, pushing the fire into more flammable timber, according to the report.

By then, an engine crew accompanied by an incident commander arrived. Soon these four firefighters and Casey, who was not equipped with Nomex clothing or fire safety gear, would be trapped in a creek, desperately looking to save themselves as flames pressed around them. Casey’s trail crew carried a handsaw but no chainsaws because mechanical equipment is not approved for use in designated wilderness, except, of course, to fight fire. And they were there to build trails, not fight fire.

(Todd Adams | The Salt Lake Tribune) On Aug. 21, 2020, five Forest Service firefighters responded to a small fire in the High Uintas’ Rock Creek Canyon. Within a few hours they had to be rescued by helicopter after shifting winds blew the flames into what became known as the East Fork Fire, Utah’s largest of the year.

The fireball

“‘I couldn’t see! I couldn’t breathe! I thought my beard had burned off!’” So begins the report’s narrative, quoting Casey’s words to investigators.

“Casey found himself running through the black to the creek as a wall of flames came at him. His feet burned. Snags fell all around; some not even making a sound before they fell,” wrote investigation leader, Stephaney Kerley, a district ranger from Idaho’s Boise National Forest.

“The black” is a reference to already-burned areas that firefighters are trained to seek out when looking for safety.

Kerley’s report is known as a “facilitated learning analysis,” or FLA, a process the Forest Service conducts after a fire response leads to an unexpected negative outcome or situation. The agency prepared a detailed FLA into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest’s response to the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires of 2018. Like the East Fork Fire, they were triggered by lightning in remote places and days later were blown into a major conflagration that nearly burned into two Utah County foothill communities, scorching more than 100,000 acres.

Utah’s political leaders scolded the Forest Service for not aggressively suppressing those two fires when they were first detected. Two years later, the Forest Service would deploy a small ground crew on a tiny fire near Upper Stillwater Reservoir on Day One. The attack made a difference, yet five people could have lost their lives that day.

“With every fire, we have to evaluate that safety first,” Groves said. “Is it safe to put people in there? Are we putting them under a snag patch? Are we going to end up killing people to put out a little fire or back off to where it’s safe to engage it?”

Lessons learned

The purpose of FLAs is not to assign blame but to use past missteps to improve firefighting tactics. These investigations usually protect the identity of the participants to ensure their cooperation and honesty. Accordingly, Kerley’s sources are identified only by first name: Casey, Jose and Gary are the trail crew members; Brian is the on-scene incident commander; Andrew supervised the initial fire response. Groves is referenced by her title only.

The East Fork Fire was likely triggered during a lightning storm that passed over the Rock Creek drainage on Aug. 16. It wasn’t discovered until Aug. 21 when the trail crew stumbled upon it just inside the High Uintas Wilderness boundary, about three miles up from the trailhead.

The trail crew carried two two-way satellite texting devices, which Casey used to report the fire to the district office in Duchesne. Unlike radios carried by firefighters, these devices’ signals are not impeded by the mountains.

“Casey donned his hard hat and gloves and began walking around the fire gathering intel while he waited for further instructions,” the report said. Soon the trail crew was instructed to hike back to the trailhead, but Casey and Jose remained to keep an eye on the flames.

(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service) This is one of the first aerial photographs shot on Aug. 21, 2020 of what would become the East Fork fire in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness. Lightning ignited the fire near Rock Creek just above Upper Stillwater Reservoir. A Forest Service incident commander photographed the fire at 2:17 p.m. by helicopter shortly after a ground crew arrived to contain what was then a creeping fire on about an acre. Moments later shifting winds would blow up the fire, trapping the four firefighters and the trail builder who discovered the fire and reported it that morning.

They reported at that time the fire was burning on two acres in 19 spots, with flames only 1 to 2 feet high contained between Rock Creek and the trail.

Ordinarily in wilderness fires, forest managers access them by air before sending in ground crews. But because the fire was only three miles from a trailhead and an engine crew happened to be available, forest officials decided to dispatch the four-man team, according to Groves.

That team arrived after two hours of hiking at 1:35 p.m. under Brian’s leadership and began working to contain the fire.

Casey, who had past firefighter training, remained to relay messages between the firefighters and Andrew. Andrew, meanwhile, mustered a helicopter, which he used to tour the area by air. He flew over the fire at 2:17 p.m. and took note of a group of 15 people at the lake who appeared to be preparing to hike up the trail.

“On their way back to the airport, they looked for other people, cattle, and other values at risk but didn’t see anything,” the report said. “Andrew noticed the smoke had shifted to down canyon, but didn’t think too much of it at the time.”

In the creek

By the time he landed back at the airport at 4 p.m., however, Andrew was receiving alarming text messages from Casey.

“It read, ‘Fire is lost, trail cut off.’ They had just been over the fire 20 minutes before and it was staying within the confluence of the river systems,” the report said. “It occurred to him the shift in the smoke that he had noticed was probably a significant wind shift that caused the fire to blow up. The next text he received said, ‘We are in the creek. The flames are at least 100 feet.’”

The flight crew members were fitting the helicopter for water drops, but Andrew stopped them so they could head back out to extract the firefighters. He then called for an air attack on the fire.

“Given the resource shortage,” the report stated, “he had to explain that he had firefighters in the black with no egress and needed the Air Attack IMMEDIATELY.”

The change in wind direction had shifted the fire, pushing it down the canyon and spreading it so fast that the ground crew members were in danger before they had a chance to react. They were confronted by the sight of a “fireball” moving down the hill toward them, the report said.

Casey and the others tried to reach a ridge, where Brian hoped to make radio contact.

“He heard himself screaming, ‘It’s so hot!’ He choked and gagged as he began running through the black yet again, trying to follow Brian to the ridge without tripping,” the report said. Brian’s hope was to call for fuel and chainsaws so the firefighters could cut out a place for a helicopter to land, but the radios still couldn’t make contact with headquarters. They returned to the relative safety of the creek when Casey received a text asking if they could reach a nearby a meadow.

“Negative,” Casey texted back. They had little idea where the meadow was or how to reach it safely. Meanwhile, their situation grew more dire.

Brian instructed the firefighters that if they are overrun by the flames, someone has to share their fire shelter with Casey, who was not equipped with firefighting gear. Casey texted a friend instructions to contact his parents should he not get out.

Run for the meadow

Finally, the helicopter pilot overhead was able to communicate with the men via radio. He provided instructions for reaching the landing spot, but the firefighters would have to run a quarter-mile through unburned timber to get there.

“If the wind shifted again, there would be no way out,” the report warned. “Casey remembers someone saying, ‘I just want to get out of here alive.’ With some coaxing from the helicopter manager, the five made their way to the meadow, where they were airlifted to safety.”

Meanwhile, Gary and Jose escaped by hiking deeper into the wilderness. They warned hikers and equestrians as they went to stay out of Rock Creek, and eventually emerged exhausted from the High Uintas on the Highline Trail at the Mirror Lake Highway, about 20 miles from the fire, according to Groves. Before their long march, Gary had already hiked six miles round trip from the fire to the trailhead and back.

Fire managers wanted to extract the two by helicopter, but the pickup coordinates they texted to Gary were not suitable for landing, adding to his frustrations.

Even though the Forest Service had a crew on-scene on the first day, the East Fork Fire would wind up burning for 3½ months and blacken about 90,000 acres of the Ashley National Forest and neighboring tribal lands.

“Single-tree fires that we happened to get to right away, those are pretty easy. We put out 98% of the fires that we find. But that 2% gets away when you’re in extreme conditions,” Groves said. “Our biggest takeaway is that conditions are changing. We have to plan for the worst-case scenario. With as hot and dry as things are getting, we can expect a lot more extreme fire behavior.”

Editor’s note • Did you participate in the initial attack on the East Fork Fire? The Salt Lake Tribune would like to hear your story. Feel free to contact reporter Brian Maffly at bmaffly@sltrib.com.