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.

"That was a brutal day," said Dr. Thomas Hales, the CDC's co-author of the report in a telephone interview. "It was a 16-hour day, eight hours of which they were doing actual firefighting."

But the men were back at it the next day at 6 a.m., leaving their motel to attend a briefing at a local high school, where they were told to expect hot conditions — a temperature of 105 degrees with humidity as high as 26 percent.

"Swamper duty"

Hamm was constructing a fire line, working "swamper" duty, clearing brush and trees. In addition to wearing the typical wildfire turnout gear and carrying a pack that weighed between 35 and 40 pounds, he was wearing leather chaps for protection and had six quarts of water, a canteen with a gallon of water and two bottles of Gatorade. He worked swamper duty from 9 a.m., to 11:30 a.m., when he requested a different work assignment because of fatigue.

Hales said the complaint of fatigue is one symptom of possible trouble.

In his report for the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, one of Hales' recommendations urges wildland firefighting agencies to strengthen their heat stress programs by addressing the number of hours worked. As part of those programs, the agencies also need to stress to firefighters that hydration alone won't fend off heat-related illnesses and a strict schedule of "re-acclimation" to hot and humid conditions needs to be followed.

Hales, the institute's senior medical epidemiologist, said that in Hamm's case, taking the three-day road trip from Georgia to Texas and spending another two days "resting up" in a motel room before going back out to fight fires didn't help — it hurt.

"He's already in great shape and he's already been in this hot and humid environment. If you take someone out of that for four days, you start to see a decline in their acclimation to those conditions," Hales said.

"He's right on the edge. He's not doing any work, he's not getting back in the field. Some people would mistake that as good — that he is resting up, but he's starting to lose some of that acclimation."

By later in the day, Hamm stumbled and was complaining of being hot and tired. Again, Hale said those are all signals that should have raised alarm, given the extreme environmental conditions.

When Hamm tells a lead crew member he's hot and has a headache, the man responds that he could take a break if needed.

Wrong, emphasized Hales. In his report — co-authored by Tommy Baldwin, a former firefighter — the findings say when environmental conditions reach a certain point because of exertion coupled with heat and humidity, there should be strict adherence to a work and rest schedule.

"The agencies don't give them an option of wearing hard hats or tennis shoes in the field, so you don't give them options of bypassing breaks when you are in a dangerous or extreme heat environment," Hales said.

After Hamm complained to his fellow firefighter, the other man left him to help out others in the field. The report says Hamm was left alone three minutes — an amount of time the man's parents dispute, but regardless it led to Hales' second recommendation:  "Always work in pairs and be in direct communication with crew members."

Use a buddy system

Hale's report says it is unclear if being left alone played any role in the young man's death, but firefighters should always have a buddy system in place to minimize risks.

Hamm's parents remain frustrated with the BLM because they don't believe their questions over their son's death have been answered, and the BLM won't say if anyone was disciplined as a result, citing privacy reasons.

They are hopeful, however, that the report with its range of seven detailed recommendations will help prevent another death.

"We hope that not just the BLM but other agencies take a good, hard look at what happened," Lynnette Hamm said.

Taking those findings to heart is especially critical now that fire season is taking off in Utah and other states in the West. On Thursday night, a wild fire was raging near Stockton in Tooele County, burning several hundred acres.

A "Red Flag" warning also remains in effect until Friday night in the southern portion of Utah because of the extremely hazardous conditions that exist for wildfire potential.

Hales said if there are main policy changes implemented as a result of his findings, it ought to be that wildland firefighting agencies strictly adhere to work-rest guidelines when they are in extreme, environmental conditions. He also recommends agencies use a more thorough way of measuring heat that also includes looking at radiant heat and how much or how little the wind is blowing.

The agencies, he said, do a great job of investigating "near misses" in other lines of work, but not with the near misses of heat-related illnesses.

"They like to point out that there have only been two of these deaths, and that's good," Hales said. "But they've had a lot of near misses."

Hales said BLM records show less severe cases of heat-related illnesses and dehydration have been documented in 255 cases over the past 12 years. And heat-related illnesses are considered "sentinel health events" that are preventable. If they happen, his report says, it is a signal that preventative or therapeutic care may have been inadequate.

"When I look at these cases of health-related illnesses, they are misses and indicate you have a problem here," he said. "They look at it differently, and focus on the two. They don't see the misses, and sooner or later, someone is going down."

On a recent April afternoon, Lynnette and David Hamm visited the site where their son collapsed. They were met by an engine company of volunteer firefighters who wanted to pay tribute to Caleb Hamm and support his family in their efforts to find out why a young, a fit man had to die that day.

Lynnette Hamm is crying. She will later recall how her son was inextricably linked to wild places with grass and trees, streams and mountains. She knows he was comfortable with death — he called it the circle of life — but it is tough on the family left behind.

"We want his story to get out so other lives may be saved. We cannot let his death be in vain," she said.

"When a firefighter says they don't feel well, they need to have that immediate chance for medical treatment. That golden moment. That moment was denied Caleb. It can't be for anyone else."

Contributing: John Hollenhorst

Email: amyjoi@desnews.com
Twitter: amyjoi16

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