ESA blamed for firefighter deaths

Published October 1, 2001

An investigation into the July 10 “30-mile fire” in central Washington state has uncovered that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) played a central role in the deaths of four young firefighters combating the blaze.

The U.S. Forest Service initially denied that environmental concerns had anything to do with the July 10 events, but then changed its story after evidence showed a largely contained fire had flared up to an uncontrolled emergency after firefighters were denied necessary water due to concerns over endangered fish living in a local river.

After the fire flared up, the four firefighters were cornered by flames in a narrow canyon and were killed by the flames before permission was finally granted to scoop water from the local river.

Salmon, trout delay water delivery

An elite firefighting crew had initially brought the fire under control and was awaiting the arrival of a promised water delivery helicopter to put a final conclusion to the flames. At 9:00 a.m., the specialists yielded the scene to a green “mop-up” crew of approximately 20 young firefighters. With the fire under control and the final water delivery due within the hour, the situation was deemed safe for the relatively inexperienced crew.

However, the helicopter was delayed several hours while Forest Service officials debated the environmental ramifications of scooping water from the nearby Chewuch River. The Chewuch River contains endangered salmon and trout, and Forest Service officials feared scooping river water might accidentally scoop some fish from the river as well. Forest Service officials debated using Chewuch River water until 2:00 p.m., when final approval was given.

While Forest Service officials delayed the promised water delivery as they debated the environmental impact of using Chewuch River water, the fire gained new life. The first delivery of water arrived at 3:00 p.m., too late to quench the rejuvenated fire. By 5:25 p.m. firefighters Tom Craven, 30, Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen Fitzpatrick, 18, had all died after flames cornered and then engulfed them in a narrow canyon.

Was deference to ESA required?

Forest Service Fire Chief Dale Bosworth attempted to absolve the ESA of any responsibility for the firefighters’ deaths. Bosworth claimed that under standard procedure, firefighters are not constrained by the ESA when facing an emergency.

Jordan St. John, public affairs officer for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association, agreed firefighters are not required to take ESA considerations into account when human life is at risk. St. John suggested the ESA was not to blame, but rather Forest Service dispatchers had misinterpreted Forest Service procedures.

What remains unclear, however, is whether the Forest Service’s standard ESA procedures required deference to ESA factors in a situation like the 30-mile fire, where the blaze had been deemed relatively safe and largely contained. Evidence shows it was deference to the ESA during the relatively safe mop-up phase that allowed the fire to regain its deadly form.

At the time the Forest Service was debating the impact of taking water from the Chewuch River, “there was no threat to life or property, it was a mop up,” concluded Jan Flatten, the environmental officer for the Okanogan and Wenatchee Natural forests. “It was not until the fire blew up [that] it became a threat to life and property.”

U.S. Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colorado) criticized deference to the ESA before the House subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. “If we’re dealing with human life at risk, I don’t give a damn what the Endangered Species Act says,” McInnis told reporters before addressing the subcommittee.

Democrats on the committee in turn blasted what they deemed a “politicization” of the tragedy.

“My best friend”

Ken Weaver, father of fallen firefighter Devin Weaver, said officials have told him privately there is no reason why his son should have died in the fire.

“He was my best friend,” stated Weaver. He recalled how he and his son had recently watched the movie The Patriot, in which a father loses a son. “I turned to him and said ‘I could never do that. I could never lose you.'”

“He trusted them and they weren’t very careful with his life, and that makes me very angry and sad,” stated Devin’s mother, Barbara.

Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund staff attorney Todd True dismissed any role played by the ESA in the firefighters’ deaths. “I don’t think you can blame the Endangered Species Act for what a wildfire does,” True stated.