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Report is critical of fire agencies' cooperation during largest wildfire in modern California history

Jaclyn Cosgrove, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Generally in California, an incident management team gets assigned to a large wildfire to create an overall strategy for snuffing out the blaze and to help organize the hundreds of firefighters and equipment coming in. These teams often include veteran firefighters with experience fighting wildfires.

Because of the Mendocino Complex fire's size and intensity, it was determined that two incident management teams were needed, the report noted. This atypical approach created tension among fire leadership because it duplicated jobs. People were confused about who was in charge, and having two management teams added layers of unnecessary bureaucracy, the report said.

This tension and confusion among leadership affected the ground troops, the report notes. Firefighters -- already hesitant to speak out against their leaders' plans -- were made more nervous about speaking out about plans they believed were dangerous or that didn't make sense.

This problem was apparent the day the five LAFD firefighters and one Cal Fire firefighter almost died.

Although several firefighters on the operation safely reached their trucks and escaped, the strike team leader along with four L.A. city firefighters and one Cal Fire firefighter became surrounded by fire.

As ash rained down, they ran through the forest as the fire front bore down on them.

One L.A. firefighter reached for his fire shelter but could feel the fire's heat burning his neck and shoulders. In the report, he recalled thinking: "Screw it!" The firefighter leaped over a debris pile to continue to run through the forest.

But as he jumped, his supplies backpack got snagged on something and he toppled over and dislocated his shoulder. He got up and kept running.

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As the group of firefighters bounded through the forest, spot fires burned all around them. Deer darted past them, just as determined to stay alive.

After several moments of running, the firefighters regrouped. The Cal Fire firefighter pulled out his phone and saw from a map that they were close to a road -- and hopefully an escape route. He radioed for help and was told that firefighters were on their way to find them.

Running away from the fire's front, the group slid down a steep embankment to reach the road, which brought only a brief reprieve from the flames. Flames started igniting around the firefighters before trucks showed up to rescue them. A helicopter flew two of the firefighters to a hospital for medical treatment.

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