SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – The girlfriend of a local CAL FIRE firefighter who died after a routine training exercise says his death could have been prevented.
For six months, ABC10 News reviewed records that reveal that the state found the former captain who oversaw the training exercise to be incompetent and dishonest during the investigation.
That former captain has since been demoted, but it may only be temporary.
Documents obtained by ABC10 News show that he will be eligible to get his position back. CAL FIRE told ABC10 News that it conducted a thorough investigation into his actions, and it remains committed to the safety of its employees.
"He had been shopping for wedding rings. He said he was going to buy a ring during his second season of firefighting," Ashley Vallario told ABC10 News. She was planning to grow old with Yaro Katkov.
The San Diego couple met in middle school. She always knew he'd become a firefighter since he loved caring for people and protecting the planet.
"[On our dates] he would stop and pick up every piece of trash on the way, and even I would ask, 'C'mon. Can we go?,'" she recalled with a laugh.
ABC10 News first interviewed Vallario last July after she asked for help with getting answers about the 28-year-old's sudden death following a training hike with a captain and another firefighter on a hot day in the rugged mountains of De Luz.
According to a CAL FIRE report, the cause of death was heat exposure, which did not indicate that he had any major underlying health problems.
Vallario said that CAL FIRE told her that the agency did all it could to save him.
She received a copy of the state's incident report known as the Green Sheet. The report revealed new details that raised questions for Vallario.
The Green Sheets says that Katkov did not complete the first hike in time, so the captain had him do it again after taking a 20-minute break. It was 78 degrees out. On the second hike, the report states that the captain noticed that Katkov was "struggling" and that he "took over 20 breaks along the trail."
The document also explains how he was "stumbling and losing his balance," but another firefighter "pushed [Katkov] from behind."
"Once on the ridge, [Katkov] fell forward and sat down," according to the report. Katkov was told to take off his gear and cool down, but the report explains that "as [Katkov's] mental status declined, [the captain] initiated a medical response."
Katkov was airlifted to a hospital, where he died.
"After reading the reports, I realized that not everything that could have been done was done," Vallario tearfully told ABC10 News.
A separate report from Cal/OSHA highlights the multiple citations that were issued. According to Cal/OSHA, CAL FIRE failed in several ways, notably by failing to start emergency response procedures that matched the severity of heat illness symptoms observed by a supervisor.
CAL FIRE was ordered to pay more than $80,000 in penalties, which it did.
ABC10 News requested records from CAL FIRE for information about the former captain, Joe Ekblad. What we got back was revealing.
This station reviewed Ekblad's records with Vallario. Some of the details in those records were never shared with her, she said.
Among the documents was a notice letter to Ekblad of his demotion last May from a fire captain to a firefighter II. The notice shows that Ekblad will become a fire apparatus engineer this coming May. In May of 2022, he'll be eligible for reinstatement to fire captain.
The long list of reported causes for demotion in the notice letter include "incompetency," "inexcusable neglect of duty," and "dishonesty."
"All of those things are not things that happened. They're characteristics. They say who he is as a person," said Vallario.
The notice letter describes pages of accusations of missteps. The letter is addressed to Ekblad and reads in part, "You ignored his erratic behavior and his failure to follow direction, which was yet another indicator his mental state was compromised and yet another flag for you to stop the training hike and implement immediate cooling measures, which you failed to do…Instead, you pushed on."
Another part of the letter reads, "[Katkov] fell back, and when he went to stand up, he staggered backwards, his eyes rolled in the back of his head, he began to shake uncontrollably, and he lost consciousness."
"What I was told from CAL FIRE was that everything that could be done was done," said Vallario.
The letter reports that the captain made false statements during the administrative review by not, in part, acknowledging indications that Katkov was struggling.
Vallario asked, "How can you read those things and feel comfortable ever promoting him again? It's just such a slap in the face."
CAL FIRE denied ABC10 News' repeated requests for a taped virtual interview. The agency did answer some of our questions, including how determined to demote Ekblad.
CAL FIRE told ABC 10News, "CAL FIRE Management made the decision to demote Ekblad rather than terminate him following the same factors that the State Personnel Board (SPB) would use in determining if any discipline imposed on a state employee is warranted. These factors include length of state service, prior progressive discipline, what punishment has been meted out to other employees who committed similar actions and the circumstances surrounding the misconduct."
CAL FIRE told ABC10 News that he had no prior offenses and he's currently not supervising any employees. ABC10 News asked CAL FIRE if Ekblad would provide comment. CAL FIRE wrote to ABC10 News that he is not interested in commenting. Attempts to reach Ekblad outside of CAL FIRE were unsuccessful.
"My entire goal here is just to make sure this never happens again. I don't want another family to ever experience this when it was absolutely preventable," Vallario added.
She has a petition going in the hope of getting the former captain to resign. She also wants the agency to instigate greater safety training procedures.
The following is a complete list of correction that CAL FIRE reportedly made following the Cal/OSHA citations:
According to CAL Fire, "In response to concerns that drinking water at the fire station was not potable, CAL FIRE conducted additional water quality testing and posted the results of those tests to make clear to all fire station personnel that the water at the fire station was safe to drink. CAL FIRE agreed to provide additional training on heat illness prevention and treatment to any firefighters who believed they would benefit from such supplementary training. CAL FIRE agreed to train all firefighters on how to take and monitor their own pulse to combat possible heat illness issues. CAL FIRE is considering 'Candidate Physical Ability Tests' (CPAT) for all firefighters. Because a CPAT requirement would apply to existing firefighters, CAL FIRE is consulting with applicable labor representatives. This consultation is in process. In response to concerns about shade, CAL FIRE identified available equipment that can be used to provide shade where needed. CAL FIRE continues to consult with OSHA on 911 response issues."
Below is a statement that CAL FIRE sent ABC10 News last August:
"The death of Yaroslav Katkov last year was a tragedy that touched our department and community deeply. Our thoughts continue to be with his family, friends, and colleagues for their immeasurable loss; Yaro was loved by many, and he is very much remembered. Following Mr. Katkov's death, CAL FIRE conducted a thorough investigation into the actions of the captain in charge of the training exercise that took Yaro's life. CAL FIRE remains committed to the safety of our employees and the communities in which we serve and will not tolerate any actions that put that at risk."