Ore. firefighter was killed by green, live tree, investigators say
A warning went out to Pacific Northwest agencies prior to the release of the report on Logan Taylor's death, noting the dangers posed by live trees damaged by fire
By Vickie Aldous
MEDFORD, Ore. — Firefighter Logan Taylor was killed this summer at the Rum Creek Fire site by a green, live tree that may have been weakened by a past fire — a warning that forests have more hidden dangers in today's era of mega-fires.
Standing dead trees, also called snags, left behind by wildfires are an easily recognized, known hazard. But trees that survive fires can suffer less obvious damage that also makes them more likely to fall, according to the Serious Accident Investigation Team that responded after Taylor was killed by the tree on Aug. 18.
After a preliminary investigation, the team issued a safety alert on Aug. 31 about hazardous trees in the Rum Creek Fire. They said live trees still standing near the one that fell on Taylor showed signs of past fire damage. Any added stress, including from a new fire, could cause them to topple.
"The kinds of fire scars visible on surrounding trees illustrate that additional large trees had similar potential of falling even with low or moderate fire behavior," the team said in the written alert.
The team's warning about the danger posed by living trees went out to agencies across the Pacific Northwest. Information also was posted online via the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
At the time, firefighters were still working on the Rum Creek Fire, which was threatening Galice, Merlin and Grants Pass.
The team said it issued the hazard alert prior to the release of its final report so firefighters would be more aware of the dangerous situation. The final report on Taylor's death hasn't been released yet.
The team warned the danger in forests is increasing.
"In the era of 'Mega-Fires,' fire footprints are larger than ever, and salvage is not always an option. This can mean large areas of high snag ratios but also numerous fire-weakened trees that appear green in contrast to all the snags surrounding them. ANY tree in a previous fire scar should be considered possibly hazardous due to the stress that high severity fire can subject them to — opening the way for infections or other diseases to enter (a) scar and weaken the tree," the team said.
In investigating Taylor's death, the team said firefighters weren't doing anything to the tree when it fell. The tree was a green, live Douglas fir that stood about 160 feet tall and measured 39 inches in diameter near its base. The tree was inside the Rum Creek Fire's perimeter when it fell and struck the 25-year-old firefighter from Talent, who was standing outside the perimeter.
Investigators documented two areas of potential weakness along the tree's trunk. Another tree that faced the Douglas fir that fell had an extensive fire scar from a previous blaze and fungi growing on its trunk. Fungi on the outside of a tree can indicate massive interior rot, the team said.
The team said tree strikes are one of the leading causes of wildland firefighter deaths in the line of duty. Of 17 tree strikes in 2021, the majority didn't involve a chainsaw or tree-felling.
Logan was the second wildland firefighter to be killed by a falling tree in Southern Oregon during this year's fire season.
Collin Hagan, 27, of Michigan was struck Aug. 10 while working on the Big Swamp Fire north of Crater Lake.
A final report released Oct. 21 about Hagan's death said he was working in steep terrain in a forested area of green conifers, numerous snags, live trees with previously broken tops and younger hemlock trees with red and green needles that indicated drought stress.
Hagan was killed due to a falling dominoes-type effect involving several trees, the report said.
Before the accident, firefighters observed fire burning inside an old burn scar on a live 96-foot-tall Douglas fir tree. They later told investigators the hazardous tree's base was as hot as a pizza oven so they couldn't cut it down. They hung "Killer Tree" flagging in the area where the tree could fall and told other crew members they weren't going to cut it down, the report said.
The Douglas fir later fell into other trees, leading to the toppling of an almost 11-foot-tall hemlock tree with a partially rotten base. The hemlock struck Hagan so hard that it broke, the report said.
While Hagan was drifting in and out of consciousness, EMTs and firefighters carried him on a stretcher through the forest toward a helicopter extraction point and also provided medical care.
The report said, "Crew members began encouraging Collin, as they could see his condition continuing to fade: 'You got this, Collin! Come on, Collin! You're a tough guy!'"
Hagan was life-flighted out via a short-haul helicopter, followed by a Helitack helicopter. His condition continued to deteriorate during the flight despite care from an EMT and paramedic. When the Helitack helicopter landed at a helibase, medical personnel began CPR. They tried for 22 minutes to revive Hagan, but he had died, the report said.
"After medical care ceased, Collin was draped in a United States flag and transferred into the helicopter air ambulance for transport to the Roseburg Regional Airport, where he was honored upon arrival by local emergency responders. Honor Watch remained until Collin was laid to rest," the report said.
Both the Big Swamp Fire and Rum Creek Fire were caused by lightning strikes.
People working or recreating in the woods should watch for warning signs of dangerous trees:
- Excessive resin, also known as pitch, can indicate disease or insect infestation.
- Tall trees at the edges of a clearing or next to a stand of young trees are more likely to be weakened from wind.
- Look for damaged tops and cracked, loose, hung-up or fire-damaged limbs. Limbs infested with clumps of mistletoe can grow very large and heavy.
- Watch for trunks that are split, scarred or show other signs of damage.
- Look for leaning trees.
- Be aware that roots can be damaged by decay, fungi or fire.
- Watch for trees that have fallen over into other trees and remain precariously hung up in the air.
- Stay out of recently burned areas.
(c)2022 the Mail Tribune (Medford, Ore.)
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