Joseph Berto - Inventor, Horseman, Pilot

Joseph Berto rescued his firefighter colleague with a helicopter bucket. On September 28, 2112,  I performed a helicopter extraction using a Bambi bucket to lift a firefighter from an area that subsequently torched.  There has been quite a bit of interest in the story.  I thought I would post some photos of the area, as well as the original narrative that I wrote within minutes of landing.  I'll also include links to the FLA that was initiated because of this action and some of the news coverage.  I am grateful to the firefighter for trusting my view and climbing into the bucket.  Although the drama centered on the bucket extraction, I feel that the initial decision by the firefighter to leave the "black" area that is typically considered a "safety zone" is the life saving event, because that area completely torched within minutes of his departure.  This USFS report had this to say about my actions and the action of the firefighter, I appreciate for their insight.

VI. Commendations

Decisive Action

  1. "The pilot & firefighter (TFLD) for quick thinking, decisive actions and a collaborative effort that resulted in a positive outcome. The method of extraction was unorthodox and creative, though not a use of equipment that we recommend becomes commonplace."



The photos above were taken just after I placed the firefighter in the meadow shown in the lower right portion of the photos.  What was interesting for me is to see the comparisons between these during and after photos, almost like being able to clear the smoke. Note the torched area that the firefighter was hiking through when I first saw him (F).  Next to him was the area (B) that was burning so intensely and had me concerned for his safety.  This is where I had been making my water drops on the line of trees, which apparently did not burn.  After he left the initial spot, the fire went through my water drops and immediately torched the spot (F) where he had been standing.  It is also easy to see why I did not think he could go to the sides since (A) and (C) were burning.  While it may be clear now that he might have been able to stand his ground once he got to the spot that I lifted him out, it was not so clear in the initial seconds.  There was no way for me to know that the fire wouldn't continue to burn aggressively toward him like it was already doing where I first saw him standing.  
Without something for scale, it is not so obvious is just how large this burning area is.  The trees in the photos are 150 to 100 feet tall.  If you look very carefully in During-the-Fire photo, down in the meadow marked drop off, you can see the footprints of the firefighter walking away from the spot where I placed him in the bucket.  You can just see him at the end of the trail, and see how insignificant a human size is compared to the fire.  You can imagine how I felt, looking down at him in front of the wall of flames, and why I felt he was in grave danger.

After I landed I wrote the narrative of the incident that is below, which was subsequently filed as a Safecom.  I am grateful for my supervisor, Eric Bush, for encouraging this timely reporting.  This Safecom was picked up by the news media, some of the links ( there were dozens more) are here:

Immediately the USFS started their investigation, a procedure called an FLA, short for Facilitated Learning Analysis.  Here is the link:

It is 26 pages, but is highly detailed on how the incident occurred and what lessons could be learned from it.  Perhaps the most important part is the field visit report:

The FLA team visited the site of the incident to validate the stories of the pilot and (firefighter) TFLD. The extraction site was located with the TFLDs tool still in place and green vegetation present with no fire impacts.

The re-burn area the pilot described was also located and showed intense fire behavior that validated his description of the fire behavior that occurred September 28th.

The team noted that something unknown changed fire behavior: wind, terrain, fuel bed profile, etc., which stopped the fire front movement towards the extraction site. Had that change in conditions supporting fire behavior not occurred, the extraction site may have been impacted by fire. The FLA team concluded that both stories from the pilot (the concern that fire behavior would impact the TFLD) and the TFLD (his escape route and safety zone was available and appropriate) were plausible. Their joint decision making with the information they had at that time, led them to a reasonable, if unusual, action.

From the standpoint of the FLA process, it matters much less who was technically "right" about the risk to the TFLD on the ground. Nobody went out that day looking to take (or give) a ride in a bucket. The people involved based their decisions on what they could see, filtered through their experience and training. Our task is to learn from their experiences. We dont want a bucket extraction to be seen in any way as a normal or desirable escape strategy, but we do want pilots and firefighters on the ground to act decisively and creatively to protect their safety, as these two did.


Additional media followed and I was identified as the pilot:

On September 28 I was flying a Bell 205A1++ helicopter, N58HJ, performing bucket work in Division Alpha along the NE to SW edge of the Pole Creek fire. I started at around 11:00 and had 2:20 worth of fuel.  I made ground contact with the firefighter at 11:15.  He was walking along the fire line, which stretched approximately 3 miles.  The fire was not intense, and was mostly skunking along the underbrush with occasional torching into the numerous bug-killed trees.  The winds were light and as he walked along he pointed out areas to drop water on.  The Yapoah dip was very close by and I was able to make 5 minute turns to the fire.  Visibility was good and the work was actually going pretty well.  Each time there was a flare up, I did a drop on the spot and left a wet line around the snag and then just let it burn.  Many times during the next hour I contacted the firefighter to assure where he was, the fire line was very long and as he walked toward the center of it I became a bit concerned because he was so far from the ends of the fire.  As a rappel pilot, when we are doing a size up before dropping the rapellers, we always establish an escape route. He was so far from the ends that had no escape route around the ends of the fire.  The fire was backing slowly into the wind and appeared that he could keep moving North as he walked West and stay away from it.  In addition he could easily move into the black as it was not heavily burning.  My concern was the carpet of downed bug killed trees that were inside the black, because the ones that did ignite burned very hot.

Towards the end of the first hour, a fire location spot approximately one third of the way from the anchor point began to behave differently.  The downed trees that had not burned were now igniting, and this heat was intense enough that it was actually torching heavily and burning the standing bug killed trees that were already in the black.  So there were two fire edges, one was the skunking along the brush up to the edge of the black, the other was this second torching edge about 200 yards behind it. During this time the firefighter reached the SW edge, which was as far as he wanted to go.  He had me do some spot drops on that end, but I commented that there was a section about 1/3 back that was a lot more active and he suggest I keep working on that and he started his walk back to DP 24. For the next 30 minutes I mainly concentrated in cooling this down and each time after a drop it would relight.

I continued to monitor his position along the edge and by using his orange tarp I was able to know exactly where he was.  Ten minutes later he told me that the winds had shifted and picked up in intensity.  I had also noticed this and agreed with him.  After the wind shift, the torching section became much more active and I continued to work on it.  I told firefighter that I had 30 minutes of fuel and suggested that he call up another helicopter to use buckets to cover the time while I was gone to refuel.  He made this call and we discussed the time I was not going to be able to cool the fire.  I continued to work on the torching section, and contacted him to let him know of the different behavior, mainly that there was the second fire line that was burning behind the first fire line, actually re-burning the black area, and with much more intensity.  I think I used the term raging.  I checked my fuel again and made sure that there would be a helicopter on scene to cover him as he walked out. I made two more drops into the torching area, but it was now burning with such intensity that and I was not having much effect.  I then asked the firefighter where he was and was surprised to find that he was still to the West of the torching area.  This surprised me since I thought he had already passed the fire to the East, where I felt he should be.  I immediately contacted him and circled back to find him.  He gave me a mirror flash and I and saw that he was within 500 feet of the face of the raging fire.  This torching and the black column being generated was hidden from him by the smoke he was in, as well as the standing timber surrounding him.  He had a spot finger to the SW, which was within 200 feet of his position, and another finger to the NE.  I urged him to start moving quickly North away from the fire, which he did, and when I circled again the fire was 50% closer to his position.  The fire was moving in waves of heat toward his position, the air between them was actually shimmering!  A 200-300 yard wide wall of trees would instantly ignite, and this in turn was igniting the next row of trees in front of it.  The firefighter was centered in this wall, with the fingers on either side.  I felt that he was in grave danger.  The fire was moving MUCH faster than he was, there was no way out to the SE or to the NW because he was in the center of a crescent between the two fingers of fire.  The fire was moving to him so quickly and it was beginning to even effect the fingers behavior, which started to burn much more intensely.  I was very, very concerned that he was in the center of energy.  I tried to relay this concern, but he was sure that he was secure since he was in the black.  I knew that the black was not going to be the help he needed.  I felt that he was going to need to deploy his fire shelter and that I was going to be doing water drop on his position.  I started to pull away to get water but realized that the fire would have been upon him before I was able to make a trip to the lake and back.  In front of him, to the North, there was a small opening in the trees and I was able to determine that I could hover into it without damage to the helicopter.  I lowered the helicopter until the bucket was on the ground.  I hovered and watch the speed he was moving and the speed of the fire coming towards us.  The fire was moving very quickly so I strongly suggested that he climb into the bucket so that I could haul him out.  I felt that there were very few options and vigorously urged him.  I honestly felt that we had only seconds or minutes before the fire was to the spot.  I am sure he could feel the fire, because I could certainly feel the heat.  He climbed into the bucket and wrapped his arms around the wires as I slowly lifted the bucket vertical.  We were in radio contact during this time.  Once I was sure he was secure in the bucket I flew to the North, perhaps mile to an open areas where I felt he could walk to safety.  I carefully lowered the bucket to the ground and he got out and walked to the trail.  I looked back the spot where we had lifted out of and it was fully torched.  I do not believe there were any other good options.   The ground he was on was a carpet of dead bug killed trees, the fire was very intense and Im not sure that even with a fire shelter deployed that the outcome would have been good.  I am glad he had the courage to climb into the bucket and relieved that no harm has come to the firefighter.


One final photo showing the burned area from a different viewpoint,

(B) is the area I was making water drops to where the burning was becoming extreme.

(D) is where the firefighter was standing.  It burned shortly after he left and was at position (I) when I decided it was necessary to suggest to him the bucket extration.

Although the pick up area did not burn intensely, it was not possible to predict the future fire behavior during the extraction.   





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