Lack of medical care on the firelines endangers firefighters

  • Andy Palmer, was struck by a chunk of a toppled tree during a 2008 California fire.

    palmer family photos courtesy robert palmer
  • When wildland firefighters are injured, medical evacuations -- such as the one pictured, right, during last summer's Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico -- can be difficult.

    Kari Greer

When the three young firefighters first appeared at the Dutch Creek trailhead in California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest, veteran crew boss Tim Bailey felt uneasy. Their green protective chaps were a little too clean, and their chainsaws looked practically unused.

But despite their apparent inexperience, the tree-felling crew from Washington's Olympic National Park was gung-ho, recalls Bailey -- eager to help battle the Eagle Fire, a finger of the Iron Complex, which was started by a 24-hour lightning storm that lit more than 1,000 blazes. "If you've ever dumped a tree, you know what the high is," Bailey says. "When someone gives you an opportunity to go dump trees ... you're all hyped up and ready to go."

The tallest crewmember was Andy Palmer, 6 foot 5 and 240 pounds, just 18 years old with a cherubic face. Palmer and his crewmates were assigned to cut down hazardous trees along a bulldozer path. It was his first time on the fireline. He had grown up in Washington and planned to start college in Montana in the fall. He was looking forward to a summer of good money and great adventure. But before the sun set behind the smoky ridges of the Klamath Mountains, all that would end.

A few hours after Bailey saw the crew head down the path, one of Andy Palmer's crewmates felled a large ponderosa pine. It struck a cat-faced sugar pine, and the top of that tree -- 120 feet long and two feet wide -- broke off, hit the ground and shattered. One hurtling chunk struck Palmer, who was standing 35 feet from the ponderosa's stump, breaking his ribs, fracturing three bones in his left leg and severing his femoral artery. Blood poured from his leg like water from a broken spigot.

Palmer's crewmates quickly applied tourniquets, but the radio communications from the scene lacked urgency and clarity, hampering the effort to get emergency medical care out to the rugged location.

It took at least 45 minutes for the first EMT paramedics to reach the site; they had to take an ambulance on a forest road and then hike the rest of the way. Two helicopter crews refused flight requests, saying the heavy smoke obscured visibility. After more delay, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew accepted the mission, but two hours and 40 minutes had passed before they loaded Palmer into the helicopter basket. En route to the trauma center, three hours and 20 minutes after the accident, the young man died of severe blood loss; his life vanished like a puff of smoke.

Controversy still surrounds the July 25, 2008, accident, including allegations that the crew was "sport-felling" -- cutting trees that didn't need to be cut. But the most disheartening aspect for Andy Palmer's older brother, Robert Palmer, is that -- as he puts it -- "I lost faith in the fire world's ability to help one of their own." Now, Rob Palmer is fighting to reform emergency medical care on the firelines. His proposals could even affect decisions on how, and when, to battle wildfires.

Rob Palmer, 30, is a veteran wildland firefighter; he worked 10 seasons in fire operations for Olympic National Park, becoming a crew boss, a skilled tree faller and an EMT. He also managed the ski patrol at Snoqualmie Pass, east of Seattle, rescuing avalanche and trauma victims for five years. After his brother's death, he sank into a period of reflection.

"Andy was in the magic transition between growing up and being a grownup when he died," Rob Palmer says. "It was a huge, huge hole that was left for me and my entire family."

Rob Palmer researched his brother's accident and found that the nearest hospital was only 10 and a half miles away by road; the trauma center in Redding was less than 60 miles away. He talked with fire experts around the West and issued an eight-page report titled The Palmer Perspective in January 2009. He bluntly described how he'd lost faith in the firefighting agencies, and pointed out that crews on many firelines still lacked  evacuation plans and medical gear beyond basic first-aid kits.

His charges echoed through the top levels of every wildfire agency in the nation. Last April, he gave the keynoteaddress to the hundreds of experts  gathered at the Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Missoula, Mont. He recommended better wildfire training for EMTs, and called for more medical staff and equipment on the firelines, including backboards and neck collars. He also urged the adoption of a "Golden Hour Response" policy, which would require that any severely injured firefighter be delivered to a hospital or trauma center within one hour.

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