Report: safety rules ignored in fatal fire
YAKIMA, Wash (AP) – Four firefighters were killed in the Thirty Mile fire because basic safety rules weren’t followed, according to a U.S. Forest Service report released Wednesday.
Firefighters and managers failed to follow the most basic safety rules of firefighting in the July 10 deaths, the report says, including identifying escape routes, being aware of weather forecasts and posting lookouts.
At critical times, fire managers and forest personnel also failed to accurately assess fire behavior, the potential for the fire to get out of control and the flammability of the forest, the report said.
”The Thirty Mile fire tragedy could have been prevented,” said Jim Furnish, a Forest Service deputy chief who led the nine-person team investigating the fire.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth told a news conference here that it is too soon to say who or in what way fire managers and supervisors might be held accountable for the mistakes that were made.
Any decisions about discipline likely would be made at the regional level in Portland, Ore.
There was no indication that anyone was willfully derelict, ”but in these situations … it’s very easy to be neglectful,” Furnish said.
The fire in the Okanogan National Forest in the northern Cascade Range killed Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, all of Yakima, and Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg.
In interviews, firefighters and managers have cited a number of mistakes and mishaps that day, from not following safety rules, to ignoring signs of danger, to delays in getting sufficient water to the fire early.
The report said work and rest cycles for fire managers and firefighters were disregarded. That resulted in mental fatigue, which ”significantly degraded the vigilance and decision-making ability of those involved,” the report said.
It criticized the people in charge of the fire scene, saying they made a poor assessment of risk and poor decisions that led to the entrapment of the firefighters.
Investigators also say the Forest Service should have closed the Chewuch River Road to civilians. Two became trapped along with the firefighters because the area was not evacuated, the report said.
”There were missed opportunities for intervention by management personnel on this incident,” the report said. ”Leadership’s failure to respond to concerns and observations by key individuals exacerbated circumstances that led to the entrapment.”
Firefighters didn’t seem to recognize the seriousness of the situation they were in until the fire was right on top of them, Furnish said. Some even took time to snap photographs as the fire was bearing down.
”There was time to prepare for deployment (of emergency fire shelters), however, little preparation occurred,” Furnish said.
In addition, the report said fire safety equipment was improperly used, contributing to injuries. One crew member did not have gloves, other crew members did not wear their gloves, and some gear left close to the emergency fire shelters ignited. Vegetation burned close to and under the shelters.
Weaver, Johnson, FitzPatrick and Craven were among 14 firefighters and two campers trapped on a narrow dead-end road in the Chewuch River Canyon on the national forest when what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill 25-acre fire exploded, breaching cleared fire lines and devouring 2,500 acres of trees in less than three hours.
Six firefighters managed to escape with crew boss trainee Pete Kampen, who drove a van through the flames down the Chewuch River Road. They were the last ones out, and the remaining 14, under supervision of crew boss Ellreese Daniels, a 24-year Forest Service veteran, were caught with no escape.
”They put them down a dead-end road, in front of an out-of-control fire, with (only) hand tools,” Weaver’s father, Ken, said earlier this week.
”They had kids with 21 days’ experience. They’d fought one tiny, little fire before that – their experience in fighting a fire was maybe five days.”
Weaver, FitzPatrick and Johnson were rookies based at the Naches Ranger District. Craven had seven years’ experience.
The four deployed their emergency fire shelters – fiberglass-and-aluminum blankets with four corners to form a tent-like cover – on a steep, rocky slope west of the Chewuch River. The Chelan County coroner said they died from breathing superheated air.
Another firefighter, Jason Emhoff, was severely burned when he ditched his shelter and sprinted from the rocks to a van. Firefighter Thom Taylor suffered less-serious burns when he dashed to the river.
The others deployed their fire shelters on the dirt road. Firefighter Rebecca Welch shared her one-person shelter with the two trapped campers, saving their lives.
The Thirty Mile Fire started as an abandoned campfire about 1.5 miles south of the site where the firefighters died. A search is under way for the person or people who built the crude fire ring to cook hot dogs and then left it, without any apparent attempts to snuff it out.
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