Firefighters Narrowly Escape Tahoe Blaze

Updated: 06-28-2007 04:10:51 PM

Associated Press Writers


When a patchwork of small wildfires exploded into an inferno, two young firefighters had only seconds to react.

The pair had been battling fires near this resort area along the California-Nevada state line when the trees around them burst into flame.

They raced to a meadow, flung open their thin, heat-resistant emergency shelters and waited for the roaring blaze to pass. Nearly an hour went by Tuesday before the U.S. Forest Service knew the pair had survived the searing heat and poisonous gases.

"They were in their tents for 25 minutes wondering if they'd live or die, and most people can't imagine what that would feel like," fire commander Rich Hawkins said.

When faced with a wall of fire and no way out, firefighters are drilled to survive by climbing into an 8-foot shelter that resembles the foil wrapper around a burrito.

"It's a last-ditch measure for survival," Hawkins said.

The names of the two firefighters have not been revealed because the Forest Service is still investigating, a standard procedure since the shelters are reserved for only the most dangerous situations.

The shelters cannot withstand direct flames and must be deployed in textbook fashion to protect occupants.

Firefighters have to find an area as far from fuel as possible, ideally rocky, bare soil. They must throw chain saws or anything that can ignite far away. After unfurling the aluminum-and-fiberglass shields, they hook their hands and feet into straps at the shelter's four corners. Then fire crews lie down and press their faces into the ground where the air is cooler.

At that point, they can only wait until the flames pass, hoping the oxygen holds out.

"When fire goes over you there's a tremendous amount of energy, of heat, flames going over you, and it generates its own wind," Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said. "There may be some smoke creeping in. It's very loud, very hot, very uncomfortable."

Many firefighters caught in similar situations have died, even after expertly deploying the shelters. Those who lived describe panic, unbearable heat and a deafening roar.

"He said it was like being run over by a freight train," said Steve Emhoff, whose son, Jason Emhoff, was badly injured in a 2001 fire in Washington state. Four other firefighters perished inside their shelters during the blaze.

On that day, a group of firefighters got trapped on a dead-end road while trying to put out a blaze that initially was not thought to be dangerous.

The trapped firefighters planned to ride out the blaze, thinking it would miss the spot where they had sought shelter. Instead, the main arm of the fire leaped a canyon, while a second line of flames bore down on them.

Jason Emhoff and others were watching from a rocky embankment next to the road when the terrain exploded all around them. Although they deployed their shelters, heat traveled through the loose rocks as if going up a chimney while they were huddled inside, Steve Emhoff said.

Exposed to temperatures that climbed above 500 degrees, Jason Emhoff suffered burns over 40 percent of his body. He lost some use of his hands because he was forced to grip the sides of the shelter without leather gloves. He eventually returned to the Forest Service to fight fires.

"It's changed his life," Steve Emhoff said of his son, who does not like to discuss his ordeal.

Rebecca Welsh, a member of the same Naches, Wash.-based squad, squeezed two civilian campers into her shelter. Welsh, who was 21 at the time, suffered second-degree burns because she couldn't fit entirely into the crowded tent.

The Tahoe firefighters got trapped Tuesday in an area just southwest of the lake that was also supposed to be safe.

A day earlier, crews had bulldozed fire lines and intentionally ignited the space inside the lines to starve the advancing fire of fuel, Hawkins said.

But one tree, too green to light up, remained. The following day, when the wind picked up, embers from the backfire set the tree ablaze. It started throwing off sparks, which landed beyond the area protected by the fireline, Hawkins said.

A crew of five Forest Service firefighters, including the two men who would become trapped, charged into the area to put out the new flare-ups. But the small fires proliferated, merged, and roared into flames that may have reached 1,400 degrees. The fire drove the team apart, Hawkins said.

Separated from their colleagues, they found a meadow, erected the shelters and crawled inside - all in probably less than 30 seconds, and without losing radio contact with the three firefighters who escaped in a fire engine, Hawkins said.

The metallic structures reflected the heat of timber burning around them, and a good seal with the ground kept enough oxygen inside the tents, he said.

"When we die in a fire, we die long before the flames consume us," Hawkins said. "It's the superheated air that destroys your lung tissue. It's a terrible way to go and it's our greatest fear as firefighters."

Two firefighters finally approached the shelters to say it was safe to get out, prompting a "Yes!" from one of the trapped men, who emerged uninjured, Hawkins said.

"It's a wonderful moment for all firefighters when the people you think might have been lost are found," he said.