Wildland Fire Crews to the Rescue

Within two weeks of the Columbia accident, an intense search effort by NASA, the US Forest Service, the Texas Forest Service, the FBI, the National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, local law enforcement officers, and hundreds of volunteers located the remains of Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas.

Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, seven thousand miles away from the pine thickets of East Texas, the US was gearing up for the opening of another war front in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The National Guard was pulled within a few days of the last crew member being located.

The immediate urgency of the search operation was significantly reduced. NASA and the EPA had located and cleared many of the hazardous materials that had fallen to the ground from the shuttle—tanks with hypergolic propellants, pyrotechnic charges, and the like.

And yet, tens of thousands of pieces of debris still remained on the ground in a path more than 250 miles long and 10 miles wide, stretching from near Dallas to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. NASA still had no firm evidence about what had caused the accident; there were still many possible failure scenarios on the fault tree.

The spring “green up” would be coming within a month or two. Once that occurred, the underbrush would become impassable to ground search teams. And it was unreasonable to expect the small towns along the debris corridor to endure the disruption and hardship of supporting  a large number of searchers for a prolonged time. Although there were many volunteers who would gladly have continued working in the search, the NASA and FEMA leaders in Lufkin resolved not to put civilians in harm’s way for what was now a debris salvage operation.

So how could such a huge expanse of land be cleared quickly?

Mark Stanford of the Texas Forest Service and Marc Rounsaville of the US Forest Service made a proposal to NASA and FEMA: Use US Forest Service Incident Management Teams (IMTs) supported by wild land fire crews to run the search. Stanford and Rounsaville had actually proposed this more than a week earlier, but idea hadn’t taken hold. Now, it seemed intriguing.

National IMTs come from all over the United States. They are trained to deal with many types of complex “all-hazard” incidents, ranging from wildfires to hurricanes to the response to the World Trade Center attacks. IMTs deploy as completely self-contained units, with their own logistical support, and can be on site within days. They would be supported by hundreds of fire crews, each composed of twenty able-bodied men and women who were already skilled in the techniques of grid searching. They would only need to be trained in what to look for.

Astronauts Dom Gorie and Jerry Ross, who were helping to manage the debris search for NASA, asked how many people could be brought in. Stanford said he could have 1,000 people on site within a matter of days. Gorie and Ross immediately asked, “How about a thousand more?” Stanford said it could be done. “How about another thousand?” It was possible, but might take a few extra days.

Gorie was impressed. He said, “It was miraculous. I had no idea that anything like this could be generated just for this effort.”

Calculations showed that search lines of people stretched five to ten feet apart were likely to find at least 75 percent of all objects six inches square or larger in the debris field. Ground searchers would cover every square foot of an area three miles on either side of the center line of the debris corridor. Air crews in government-contracted helicopters would search another two miles on each side of the ground search corridor. This would theoretically enable NASA to recover an amazing 95 percent of the debris on the ground.

And the operation could be completed by April 15.

NASA and FEMA gave the approval to get the operation underway by the last week of February, 2003. The Texas Forest Service would manage the overall effort. There would be two months of an all-out push to find and recover the rest of Columbia‘s debris.

Ultimately, nearly 22,000 men and women were involved in this ground search.

We will hear much more about this operation in the coming weeks.

nac-arena
The Nacagoches Rodeo Arena becomes a “tent city” of wild land fire crew searchers.

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

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