LOS ANGELES -- Infighting among fire leaders from multiple agencies during the largest wildfire in California modern history created a tense environment that trickled down to ground troops and might have endangered the lives of firefighters, according to a report released Friday.
The report, compiled by staff from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and the L.A. City Fire Department, focuses on an Aug. 19 incident in which a group of firefighters from L.A. and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection almost died when they became surrounded by flames from the Mendocino Complex fire.
The firefighters were working north of the Snow Mountain Wilderness, attempting to build a fire line to try to keep the Mendocino Complex fire from charging through that portion of the forest and into a creek bed before reaching homes.
At the time, several firefighters on the ground expressed concern that there was no clear plan for how they would build the fire line. The fire's front was drawing nearer, and the majority of the firefighters assigned to the job believed they didn't know what they were supposed to do.
According to the report, L.A. city firefighters had heard that a crew that had turned down an assignment had been punished and assigned to pick up trash and other mundane tasks. As a result, they plowed forward despite their anxieties.
A shift in wind caused the flames to surround the firefighters, forcing them to scramble to safety through the forest.
Daylight suddenly turned into darkness as embers and ash swirled around the crew. Scanning the area for an elusive escape route, the strike team leader thought: "This is how it ends. We are going to be vaporized."
One firefighter was flown to a burn center, and another was taken to a hospital for a dislocated shoulder. The other four were treated for burns to their heads and necks.
The report stated that its goal was, in part, to understand why this near-fatal incident occurred and what can be learned from it. Fire investigators also wanted to understand how the tension among leaders might have contributed to the events leading up to the incident.
By the time of the firefighters' brush with death, the Mendocino Complex fire, which had been burning for almost three weeks, had grown to almost 385,000 acres, about 600 square miles, and firefighters were tired. Just in that day, it had already burned 21,000 acres.