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Firefighter’s death in Ferguson fire ruled ‘serious accident,’ prompts safety changes

Memorial held for firefighter killed in Ferguson Fire

Hundreds of firefighters, family and friends attended a memorial in Fresno on Saturday for Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew captain Brian Hughes, who was killed by a falling tree at the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park on July 29.
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Hundreds of firefighters, family and friends attended a memorial in Fresno on Saturday for Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew captain Brian Hughes, who was killed by a falling tree at the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park on July 29.

The July 2018 death of an inter-agency captain who was helping fight the Ferguson wildfire was ruled a “serious accident” and sparked an investigation and change in policies for the National Park Service.

Capt. Brian Hughes, 33, of the NPS Arrowhead Hotshot agency, was killed on July 29, 2018, while he and his crew were removing hazardous standing dead trees to prevent the fire near Yosemite National Park from spreading, according to a news release.

Hughes’ death marked the second firefighter death in the Ferguson Fire in Sierra National Forest. Mariposa native Braden Varney, 36, was killed days into the start of the fire on July 14, 2018, after he was found with his bulldozer on sloping terrain near El Portal.

The report released Tuesday by the National Park Service found Hughes and his partner were operating correctly and had been properly trained, according to the agency standards at the time, and recommended new training and procedures be explored.

Hughes and a crew member were cutting down a dead and smoldering 105-foot tall ponderosa pine tree they believed would fall uphill, the release states.

The two crew members tried to make face cuts, back cuts and hammer wedges into the tree but were not sure why it wasn’t falling. So they continued making cuts to the tree until they heard a snap.

Instead of falling where they intended, it fell about 145 degrees to the opposite side, toward the primary escape route, before glancing off another tree and striking Hughes as he was running away in the escape route.

Hughes died as he was being airlifted, the release states.

A hearse delivered the body of Capt. Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots Thursday afternoon. Hughes died Sunday fighting the Ferguson Fire. A memorial service will be held at the Fresno Convention Center Saturday.

According to the investigation report, the tree fell in the wrong direction for two main reasons.

First, the crew may have misinterpreted the lean of the tree, possibly due to the steep slope of the terrain.

Also, because the tree wasn’t budging, the crew continued to cut to about 78 percent of the tree’s supporting wood. The “severe” reduction in the wood increases the likelihood the tree’s fall could change.

The report found that the planning of the fall was done in accordance with standards. But the terrain limited the fireline and operations of the saw.

Also, the crew had completed a 32-hour shift two days before the accident.

As a result of the findings, the National Park Service issued a “corrective action plan” that included these responses:

  • Evaluating and possibly creating a new training course for sawyers who remove hazardous trees.
  • Conduct a study on the effects of fatigue, stress and sleep on wildland firefighters, including recommendations to reduce fatigue.
  • Conduct a review of all similar accident reports since 2004.
  • Find how changing environmental conditions, including increasing severity of wildfires, are being included in updated fire policy and strategies.
  • Assess the way fire strategists are informed of the geography, fuels and weather to make sure they have the best information possible.

“Captain Hughes and his family will always be part of our National Park Service family,” said Woody Smeck, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “The parks and the entire fire community honor the loss of Brian by reading and sharing the lessons learned from the serious accident investigation to help prevent future similar accidents.”

Brian Hughes, a captain of Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots killed in the Ferguson fire, was remembered as "one of the best." Mariposa County sheriff and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks superintendent recall the firefighter.

The Ferguson Fire started the night of July 13 when sparks and superheated pieces of a vehicle catalytic converter contacted dry, roadside vegetation on the Highway 140 shoulder near the Merced River, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire burned 96,901 acres. It was fully contained on Aug. 19, 2018, at a cost of $116.9 million, fire officials said.

The fire killed two people, Hughes and Varney, and injured 19 others. Ten structures also were destroyed.

The burn scar left by the fire also has caused several road closures of Highway 140 — a popular route from Merced to Yosemite — this winter as heavy storms moved through Mariposa County and threatened with road flooding and dangerous driving conditions.

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