Legacy of a Utah firefighter's death: Heat stroke fatality spurs call for reforms

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

On board a private plane, Lynnette Hamm, mother of firefighter Caleb Hamm, hugs the casket of her son who was a wildland firefighter and part of the elite Bonneville Hot Shots crew based in Salt Lake City. Hamm was in tip-top physical condition, but died of heat stroke on July 7, 2011, on the fire lines in Texas.

Sheryl McLain,

MINERAL WELLS, Texas — If Lynnette Hamm could look into her oldest son's eyes and tell him anything at all, she'd tell him she misses his big bear hugs and, as always, she's proud of him.

Instead, she spends her time dissecting a national report peeling back the circumstances that led to the 2011 death of Caleb Hamm, who was the first Bureau of Land Management wildland firefighter to perish from exertional heat stroke in the agency's 65-year history.

"Fatal exertional heatstroke is extremely rare among wildland firefighters," a summary of the Centers for Disease Control's report said, noting that the Utah man's death was only the second of its kind among all federal agencies tasked with fighting wildland fires.

Hamm's parents believe BLM crews didn't appropriately respond to their son during the July 2011 fire, when he first started showing signs of heat stroke and claim the agency failed to take the necessary precautions to protect him in the first place. They also challenge the timeline in official reports of their son's death, asserting the events just don't add up.

"I don't believe they were truthful, and I believe that even more, especially after I visited the site," Lynnette Hamm said.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said no safety protocols were breached and he disputes any manipulation of the timeline of circumstances that played out in the blistering heat of Texas, where Hamm's Bonneville hot shot crew was sent to battle a raging wildfire.

Although the CDC report said there was a 20-minute delay in notifying local paramedic units of the incident, it concluded the delay did not contribute to Hamm's death because it took 45 minutes to get him up a hill to where he could be taken to the hospital.

The report, however, did note the broadly accepted guidelines that were developed to determine when environmental conditions are too hot to continue sporting or work activities to prevent heat-related illnesses or heat stroke. In Hamm's case, "the environmental conditions during this incident were exceeded," the report said.

So while Lynnette Hamm continues to grieve, taking it "day by day, with tears," her son's death is serving as a springboard of reform, leading to an array of recommendations the BLM is evaluating on a national level to curtail risks in fighting wildfires.

A top official with the agency's Fire and Aviation division has distributed copies of the CDC's report on Hamm's death to all state BLM directors, assistant directors and wildland fire center managers and said each recommendation will be "thoroughly" evaluated.

Fighting fires

The CDC report, released this month, breaks down the series of events that led to Hamm's death on July 7 after he collapsed at the bottom of a rocky hillside.

Hamm, 23 and a resident of Salt Lake City, began his sixth wildfire season last summer on June 23, with a two-day road trip from Utah to Georgia, where he spent four days fighting a fire in hot and humid conditions.

From there, his group spent three days on the road traveling to Texas to fight wildfires. After two nights in a Texas motel, Hamm and his crew worked an 11-hour fire-fighting shift on July 4.

On July 6, his crew was sent to the fire outside of Mineral Wells, Texas, that had burned more than 1,000 acres at that point, destroying one mountain cabin and threatening dozens of other homes.

On that day, the crew had breakfast at 5 a.m., traveled 120 miles to attend a briefing and spent eight hours in the field working suppression. The high temperature was 103 degrees, and while the crew took several short breaks, no formal lunch break occurred.

The firefighters returned to the hotel at 10 p.m., and some of the men later told investigators that during the night, they were hot, nauseated, dizzy and had headaches. According to the report, one of them vomited. Those symptoms are consistent with mild to moderate heat-related illness.

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