County employee who died in Shaw Fire became separated as flames shifted, report concludes
In the minutes before he died last April, a Roger Mills County employee became separated from other workers as an intense, fast-moving wildfire grew and shifted around him, a new report concludes.
Jack Osben, 61, died April 12 of injuries he suffered while assisting firefighters to suppress the Shaw Fire, which scorched more than 7,000 acres of western Oklahoma prairie before it was extinguished.
After the fire, co-workers told investigators that Osben, a Roger Mills County employee, was a capable road grader operator. But he had limited experience using a grader to contain wildfire, and he lacked lifesaving protective equipment, according to a report from the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, a group that publishes reports on wildfire response.
About 2 p.m. on April 12, Osben and another grader operator, who is not identified by name in the report, were using road graders to create a firebreak east of the fire. As flames shifted direction, the other operator lost sight of Osben.
Minutes later, the other operator was forced to abandon his grader and flee on foot. While walking toward a nearby road, he spotted Osben and saw that he had visible burns on his arms and may have been suffering from smoke inhalation. Osben told the other grader operator he was OK, but as the two men walked out, Osben fell to the ground twice.
The other man helped Osben to his feet, and the two made their way to a road, where the other man called District 3 Roger Mills County Commissioner Jim Barber and asked him to pick them up. Barber found them within minutes and drove them to an ambulance, which was waiting nearby.
The ambulance immediately took Osben to a hospital, but investigators say he died on the way to the hospital or shortly after arriving. The commissioner drove the other man to the hospital, where he was treated and released.
Reached Tuesday by phone, Barber declined to comment on the report.
The report doesn't indicate whether Osben had been provided with protective brush jackets, pants or gloves. However, it notes that it's common for operators who have been provided that equipment not to wear it while they're responding to a fire. The report also indicates that county employees hadn't been furnished with fire shelters or trained on how to use them.
No incident command had been established to coordinate the response to the fire, according to the report. An incident command would have been able to offer basic briefing information on fire behavior, tactics and safety, investigators wrote.
But Oklahoma state forester Mark Goeller said it's common for an incident command to be established a few days after a wildfire begins, once other agencies have arrived. In the case of the Shaw fire, Osben's death came shortly after the fire sparked, before other agencies were on the scene and an incident command was established.
Following the fire, the State Forestry Services began investing more heavily in fire suppression training for county employees, including road grader operators, Goeller said.