Dave’s Job Stories: The Triage at Big Sur (1989)

A triage is carried out at an accident scene with multiple victims. To triage is to select those victims of an accident who have the best chance to live and saving them first, then moving on to those too badly injured to likely survive. The idea is manage effort in the most effective way in a situation where all can’t be saved due to the sheer amount of victims.
When I was in The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) stationed at Mariposa Forestry Fire Station, the most anticipated radio call was to have your assigned fire engine be called to join a Strike Team of other fire engines around the Ranger Unit, sent to fight a major fire elsewhere in the state of California. Strike Teams could be very uneventful – just waiting around in a fire camp or covering somebody else’s fire station, all the time seeing no action. Strike Teams could also be quite the opposite, the most exciting, most dangerous firefighting action ever one would experience.
Sent to a steep terrain fire on the foggy Big Sur coast only to lounge around a fire camp set up at a peaceful luxurious resort, I did not expect to find myself participating in a major triage operation, rushing from body to body checking for signs of life, helping to carry lifeless bodies off a hill.
It all happened after a day of standing around, watching the fire burn up and down this thickly forested mountain above the oceanfront, while playing volleyball and cards in the woods aside a small duck lake. Doing all the actual firefighting work on this fire so far were safety helemeted convict crews in boots and Nomex with tools, and of course the mighty CDF bulldozer operators smashing out fireline. This fire didn’t even have air support due to the marine layer’s fog bank limiting visibility.
As daylight hours grew late on a summer evening after having chow at the fire base, we peacefully watched a “reburn” (where the remaining fuels from where the fire had passed by once already burns again, usually with much more intensity) charge its way up the mountain and die out at the top. We were thinking nothing of it, other than expressing some mild alarm at its ferocity and speed, wondering if anyone up top was standing in its path. Well, apparently that wave of fire going up the hill knocked a few things loose, including a giant rotten oak tree branch under which “convict” fire crews were working. The strike teams were ordered to gather their crews and line up their fire trucks on the main highway, Highway 1.
A firefighter from each team was picked to head up the mountain. I was one who got picked. A tragic scene was unfolding literally just around the hill from where I was called. A huge branch just broke off from a giant Coast Live Oak and bounced its way down a steep hillside, smashing firefighters along the way. Witnesses described seeing safety helmets flying through the air as the heavy branch thudded its way down. Those of us called on to help needed to go up that mountain quickly, with gurneys, and bring the least likely to survive victims down to a hastily set up triage for a last chance at life. They had been getting mouth to mouth resuscitation and their heart pumped to no avail.
So up through a little gulley the fire line that served as the path went to the site of the accident. We pulled one fallen firefighters onto the gurney and headed back downhill and went right back and did it again. Blood-stained Nomex clothing, lifeless bodies.
Another group of victims, these ones alive, were taken into a nearby clearing, possibly one made by the rampaging tree branch itself – for a rescue helicopter transport off the steep hillside to nearby Monterey hospital. By this time it was pitch dark. The helicopter was to land in what barely passed as a landing spot in a clearing on a steep hill. The chopper came in amid a violently swirling wind from its blades, its floodlights shining through tossed about dust and smoke, and with a brief touchdown, the injured survivors were brought up to the chopper and quickly loaded for a ride to the emergency room. I did not get to help loading them and watched from the edge of the clearing.
The days after the tragedy were somewhat demure. Our Strike Team to Monterey County ended with a whimper, just covering some small outlying, sleepy “Forestry Fire Stations” while their crews mopped up that deadly Big Sur fire. Each day we dutifully raised each station’s flags to half mast until it was time for things to return to normal.
The firefighters were convicts serving with the California Conservation Corps as juvenile prisoners convicted on drug, gun or gang-related violations. But we honored them as dead firefighters. When I got back to the fire station in Mariposa, I was surprised to receive from my Fire Sergeant a written commendation praising my service on the mountain that tragic evening.

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