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Firefighter left with serious burns during Kincade fire remains hospitalized

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Titan Cheatham won’t soon forget the fierce blast of heat from a smoldering tree stump he encountered while battling the Kincade fire last month.

Cheatham — a rookie, wildland firefighter who was one of four injured battling the Kincade fire — had arrived in Sonoma County on Oct. 25, along with 19  other firefighters working with the Ashland, Oregon-based wildland fire and forestry contractor Pacific Oasis Inc., he said. The crew came across the stump two days later, about 100 feet from a large, beige home spared by passing flames, though nearby properties were not so lucky.

“It was hot enough that you just wanted to stay back, even with your fire gear on,” Cheatham, who worked as an arborist for five years prior to becoming a firefighter, said of the burning wood. “The inside of it looked like a volcano.”

Cheatham, 29, used a chain saw to cut a block into the wood, a tactic that would help stop the flames from spreading into the tree’s roots, he said. Cheatham then stepped away, setting the saw down to check his work and clear the area of rocks that might hinder his second attempt. At the request of a supervisor, he also checked the machine’s fuel levels, unscrewing a cap to peek inside the gas chamber before walking back to the red-hot piece of wood.

The first pull start failed to bring the machine back to life. On the second try, the fuel cap popped off.

“I remember looking at (my supervisor) and the fuel sprayed me on my stomach and my legs,” said Cheatham, who was transported to the UC Davis Medical Center’s burn center by helicopter. “As soon as I hit that f---ing throttle, it blew up.”

The injury, which left Cheatham hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns to his legs and stomach as of Friday afternoon, is one of three from the Kincade fire under investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, agency spokesman Frank Polizzi said.

Each injury was reported to Cal-OSHA, as employers are required to do by state law anytime a worker is killed, seriously injured or becomes severely ill from their exposure to a hazardous substance while working. The agency declined to provide the names of the three injured firefighters, citing privacy concerns.

The investigation into Cheatham’s injuries was one of two involving firefighters working for private, out-of-state companies, Polizzi said.

The second involved a firefighter employed by Diamond Wildland Forest Fire Suppression, also based in Oregon, who fell and hit his head on a tree while he was scouting the fire just past noon on Oct. 30. The firefighter was left with a cut to the back of his head, as well as a cut near his eye, Polizzi said.

The man was sent to Stanford Memorial Hospital in San Francisco to be treated for his injuries. Polizzi did not have additional information about his condition and several calls to Diamond Wildland Forest Fire Suppression were not returned by Friday afternoon.

Both the Pacific Oasis Inc. and Diamond Fire teams were requested for the Kincade fire as part of a federal mutual aid agreement, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.

Cheatham’s injury was reported as happening somewhere in Sonoma County, and the injury for the Diamond Wildland Forest Fire Suppression firefighter only included what appeared to be coordinates, Polizzi said.

“It’s not uncommon (during) wildland firefighting, for that information to not be immediately available,” Polizzi said, adding that the agency’s investigators gather additional location information after the initial report.

The third injury involved a 39-year-old firefighter working in a state inmate crew. It happened about 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28 somewhere in Healdsburg, Polizzi said. The man was cutting a fire line on the side of a hill when a dead tree rolled his direction, striking him.

He was taken to the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital with a broken ankle. The Cal-OSHA investigation into that injury will involve both Cal-Fire and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Polizzi said.

Cal Fire learned of a fourth injury — a nickel-sized burn to a firefighter reported on Oct. 27, the same day Cheatham was hurt, McLean said. That injury was not severe enough to be investigated by Cal-OSHA.

A firefighter who deployed his personal fire shelter Oct. 25 to help two residents trapped near Geyserville was also taken to a hospital, McLean said. All three were medically evaluated, but it was determined they were not injured, McLean said.

No deaths were reported during the Kincade fire, which ignited Oct. 23 and would continue to burn for two weeks before it was fully contained at nearly 78,000 acres. It prompted fire officials to request help from thousands of firefighters from across the country when strong winds helped push the fire into the Mayacamas Mountains. The firefighters’ injuries demonstrate the risk they face while battling the large-scale wildfires that have sparked throughout the state in recent years, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.

“The job is a very dangerous job and this goes to show it,” McLean said.

Cal-OSHA investigators assigned to each case will try to determine whether each employee was given the required training and wearing proper safety equipment at the time of their injury, Polizzi said. That can be done through on-site visits, interviews with witnesses and supervisors, and the collection of other relevant employment records.

At the conclusion of each investigation, Cal-OSHA investigators can make safety recommendations to the worker’s employer and issue citations if they find workplace safety violations, Polizzi said. Individual companies or agencies involved can appeal the citations if they choose to, Polizzi added.

“We definitely want to make sure workplaces can be as safe as they can be, so when we respond to these incidents, that’s what we look for,” Polizzi said.

From conversations with Cheatham and other employees at the scene, Stephen Dodds, the president of Pacific Oasis Inc., said it appeared Cheatham followed “all of his protocols” and was wearing the required safety gear at the time he was injured. He got a call about Cheatham’s injury within minutes of it happening, Dodds said.

“I thought, ‘I hope he gets help,’ ” Dodds said. “We work in a very dangerous profession and unfortunately people get hurt. This is probably the worst accident we’ve ever had.”

As for Cheatham, a Klamath Falls, Oregon, resident and the father of three young children, he can’t say with certainty what caused the fuel cap to come off but he’s narrowed it down to two possible scenarios: human error or high compression in the fuel chamber.

He’s leaning toward the latter.

Cheatham underwent skin graft surgery on his left leg, which was the most severely burned part of his body, he said. Doctors expect he’ll need to stay at the hospital for about another week as he undergoes physical therapy to learn how to walk again, Cheatham said. After that, he hopes to recover enough to get back to fighting fires, he said.

“The only thing that I’m focused on is getting my heels on the ground,” Cheatham said. “I’m a tough guy, but it hurts.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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