On July 22 of 2002, lightning sparked a fire in Stanza Creek south of Happy Camp. The steep drainage made access to the fire difficult, and the fire grew large quickly in the dry fuel and steep country.
Engine 11 from the Lassen National Forest was dispatched as part of a strike team of fire engines to the Stanza Fire on July 25.
On the night of July 28, while doing a routine patrol on a road on the edge of the fire, Lassen Engine 11 left the road and rolled down a steep embankment into a ravine. Only two of the five crew members survived.
USFS engine and crew of five plunges over 1200 feet down embankment
By Chuck Rehdorf, Pioneer Press, July 31, 2002
HAPPY CAMP — On Sunday morning, thick smoky air and flags flying at half mast at state and federal fire facilities in the area lent an even heavier feeling to the tragic events that occurred in the early morning hours during the Stanza fire fighting operation.
Bryan Harris, public affairs officer for the Klamath National Forest office said, "We don't know what happened exactly, except that the crew was on a burnout operation at about 2:10 a.m. Sunday morning, and their engine went over the bank."
Engine 11 and its crew were assisting in fighting the Stanza fire and were from the Almanor Ranger District of the Lassen National Forest located in Chester.
The dead crew members are identified as Engine Captain Steven Kent Ousted, age 51, of Westwood; fire fighter Heather Jane DePaolo, age 29, of Redding; and fire fighter John Seth Self, age 19 of Susanville.
The two injured fire fighters, 20 year-old Ryan Smith and 19 year-old Alex Glover are both from Susanville. Smith is listed as being in serious condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, and Glover is listed in fair condition.
Harris said the crew was engaged in actively fighting the fire when the accident took place.
"After the engine went over the bank," said Harris, "It rolled over multiple times and came to rest down the ravine from where it went off."
Siskiyou County Sheriff's Sergeant and Search and Rescue Team Coordinator Dave Nicholson, said it appeared the three crew members who were killed had been ejected from the vehicle and their bodies were located at different distances up slope from where the engine finally came to rest. The first victim was ejected from the cab about 600 feet down slope, the second at approximately 925 feet, and the third at somewhere near 1085 feet.
From Nicholson's GPS calculations, the vehicle actually plunged 1220 feet, more than four times the length of a football field.
Nicholson added that from the extent of the damage to the cab of the vehicle, it was a miracle Glover and Smith survived.
Spokesman Bryan Harris said, "From statements made by [Alex] Glover, it appears that after the vehicle came to a stop, he was still strapped in his seat belt in the back seat of the engine. It was the more seriously injured Ryan Smith who came to Glover's aid and pulled him from the wreckage.
A crew of hotshot fire fighters from Kentucky were the first to reach the two survivors who were, according to reports, then loaded onto a firefighting helicopter and flown to a Happy Camp campground, where they were met by the life-flight helicopters from Mercy Medical Center.
The bodies of the victims were later removed by members of the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Team, with the assistance of others on the scene.
The investigation of the accident was initially started by the Major Accident Investigation Team of the CHP, but then federal authorities took over jurisdiction because of the location of the roads and the employing agency of the crew and vehicle. The federal team is currently being assisted by CHP MAIT and other personnel. The Model 61 Type III wildland fire vehicle was completely destroyed.
Lassen National Forest Supervisor Ed Cole said that the accident team will be looking into all aspects of the crash and that qualified personnel had been assigned to each of the crews' families to help with planning memorial services and other needs that might arise.
There were also grief counselors on hand Sunday, and Monday. A "Critical Incident Stress Debriefing" was also scheduled to be held Monday.
Fatal Fire Tragedy..
The Lassen and Klamath National Forests each maintain memorials dedicated to Heather, Steve, and John.
The Lassen National Forest’s memorial is located at what was Engine 11’s duty station at the Almanor Ranger District office in Chester, California.
The memorial on the Klamath National Forest is located at the site of the accident on the 15N03 Road, south of Happy Camp, California.