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SALT LAKE CITY — A memorial in the woods honors a Salt Lake City hero who gave his life fighting a wildfire. But now, his family has returned to the Lone Star state with questions for the man's Salt Lake City bosses.
Caleb Hamm was a wildland firefighter, 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.
Hamm lived in Salt Lake City, but his parents reside in Idaho. They've visited the scene of the tragedy twice, but they say they are not getting straight answers about their son's death.
A few miles from Mineral Wells, Hamm's parents and his aunt paid their respects at a memorial, put in place by a property owner, with a flag contributed by local volunteer firefighters.
"It means to me that … they cared, and they recognized that he was here to help save their land," said Lynnette Hamm, Caleb's mother.
A second memorial was created by Martin Buzbee, a city official from Mineral Wells who acts as the GIS mapping coordinator. He and the local firefighters supporting the Hamm family suspect the Bureau of Land Management has not told the whole story because agency errors played a role in Hamm's death.
It means to me that … they cared, and they recognized that he was here to help save their land.
"There's a lot of us that believe that," Buzbee said.
An independent report supports some of their concerns, but it does not attribute Hamm's death to any error.
On the day Hamm died, the temperature soared to 105 degrees. Hamm asked to be placed in a less strenuous role because of fatigue. He was put to work on a cold fire line at the bottom of a steep, wooded hill.
"They were cold trailing, going around checking for hot spots," Lynnette Hamm described.
"But the terrain and the temperature — the environment — is what was making the job so tough," Buzbee added.
Somewhere in the area, Hamm's crew leader noticed him stumble. They exchanged a few brief words, which Hamm's father said should have been a tip-off.
" ‘You OK?' 'Yeah, I'm fine, I'm just hot and have a headache.' Ding, ding, ding, that's the first warning of heat exhaustion or heat stroke," Caleb's father David Hamm described.
The crew leader suggested Hamm take a break and then left to assist another squad.
"When there's only two people together, you never leave one behind," David Hamm said.
The BLM said the severity of Hamm's condition was not evident. And the crew leader said he was only gone for about three minutes. The Hamms, who have hiked up and down the terrain in question, believe BLM employees were coached later by their bosses to give a false timetable.
The BLM said "we are not aware" of any coaching and there is "no evidence" of a longer delay. But the family believes Hamm was left much longer and his colleagues had to extensively search for him when they returned.
"I believe that's the main issue, is that he was left alone," Buzbee said.
When they found Hamm lying unconscious, his colleagues jumped into action, trying to get him to a hospital. They carried him on a stretcher, cutting a path up the steep hill through the woods to a helicopter pickup point.
"As they were trying to work up the hill to get him out, they cannot continue CPR because they had to work to get his body out," Lynnette Hamm said.
"They said they were performing like a human chain where they just passed him from one person to the other up the hill," Sheryl McLain, Hamm's aunt, said.
"And they put him in the back of a truck, where they were working on him — down this line — to Drop Point Twenty," added Buzbee.
Paramedics and flight nurse could have brought advanced life support down to him and started working on him down here, on the way up the hill.
Drop Point Twenty was a pre-designed helicopter pickup point. Buzbee was mapping the fire that day and monitoring the radio traffic.
"I kept waiting and waiting for a medevac helicopter to be flown in and take care of the patient," Buzbee said.
The medical helicopter and ambulance were parked just a few miles away. They were supposed to be called in according to the BLM's own emergency plan, but the BLM was trying to use its own helicopter.
"They were reconfiguring a helicopter from the fire: from dropping water with a bucket, taking the bucket off and to try to medevac the patient in," Buzbee described.
Eventually, the BLM did call in the civilian helicopter and ambulance. Official reports said the delay was 20 minutes; however, Buzbee believes it was more like 45 minutes.
Hamm was taken by ambulance from Drop Point Twenty and pronounced dead at the hospital. The incident was investigated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH concluded the 20 minute delay did not contribute to Hamm's death. But Buzbee believes if the BLM had called the medical helicopter to the top of the hill immediately, it might have made all the difference.
"Paramedics and flight nurse could have brought advanced life support down to him and started working on him down here, on the way up the hill," Buzbee said.
But the NIOSH report concluded that advanced life support would not have cooled Hamm's body rapidly enough. For some reason, his body had severely overheated internally to 108 degrees. What he needed, NIOSH said, was immersion in ice water.
It is not clear that anything could have saved Hamm's life that day, but his loved ones are hoping that some lessons were learned in Texas to save other lives in the future.
NIOSH issued detailed recommendations following Hamm's death. They urge wildfire agencies to use so-called Wet Bulb Globe Thermometers to determine when heat and moisture are getting dangerous. Additionally, firefighters should get additional monitoring for heat stress
When emergencies occur, NIOSH recommends local medical crews should be called promptly. Firefighters are also asked to work in pairs or stay in contact at all times.
The BLM Utah office denied our repeated requests for an interview and a chance to talk to people who were at the scene. Instead, they issued a written statement.