Forest Service report betrays fallen heroes

Published December 1, 2001

The past few months have taught us all the true meaning of the word “hero.”

Coming face-to-face with the very real possibility of death, firefighters and rescue workers have risked their lives–and many have given their lives–on the chance they might help others live. Although the firefighters in New York sacrificed the most, firefighters from all over the country volunteered to risk their lives in order to help others.

It is in the context of such undeniable heroism that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service has perpetrated one of the most shameful acts in recent memory.

Forest Service covers its tail

On September 26, as firefighters from all over the country continued to risk their lives combing through the unstable and still-smoking rubble in New York City, the Forest Service issued a CYT (Cover Your Tail) whitewashing of the facts behind the July 10 Thirtymile Fire that killed four young firefighters.

As we reported in the October issue, abundant evidence showed that a “mop up” fire erupted into a deadly inferno only after firefighters were denied water by Forest Service officials weighing the Endangered Species Act implications of drawing water from a local river. But the CYT report glossed over the lack of promised water, instead blaming the firefighters themselves for their own deaths. The issuance of such an inaccurate and callous report is positively shameful.

According to published reports describing the incident, 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 a.m. it yielded the scene to a novice “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.

But the helicopter was delayed several hours while Forest Service officials debated the environmental ramifications of scooping water from the nearby Chewuch River. The Chewuch is home to 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 p.m., when final approval was given.

While Forest Service officials delayed the promised water delivery, the fire gained new life. The first delivery of water arrived around 3 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.

Blaming the victims

The September 26 CYT report began with a 900-word Summary recounting the “facts” of the incident. It failed even to mention the water delay, or the fact the fire had not regained its deadly form until long after the mop-up crew had expected its water delivery.

Following the Summary, the report detailed 14 Significant Causal Factors resulting in the firefighters’ deaths. According to the report, “A causal factor is any behavior or omission that starts or sustains an accident or occurrence.” Among the 14 Significant Causal Factors, the firefighters were repeatedly singled out for criticism. While omitting entirely any reference to the water delay that allowed the fire to erupt again, the Causal Factors chastised the dead firefighters for the following:

  • “Given the rapidly increasing fire intensity and changing fire situation, adequate consideration was not given to identifying escape routes and safety zones.”
  • “Site selection for the deployment of the shelters above the road contributed to the four fatalities . . .”
  • “The improper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) contributed to injuries. Three people occupied one shelter. This exceeded the design capacity (although providing shelter protection of the two civilians was appropriate and justified by the emergency). One crewmember and two civilians did not have gloves; other crewmembers did not wear their gloves. Some of the line gear that was left close to the shelters ignited . . .”

The text of the report went out of its way to point out that “Some [firefighters] were taking photographs” of the fire.

Taking photographs of a mop-up fire while the blaze is contained and the crew biding its time waiting for an imminent delivery of promised water hardly seems careless. Nevertheless, the Forest Service has forever etched in the public consciousness the image of careless firefighters causing their own deaths by snapping Polaroids of an advancing blaze. Those who gave their lives fighting this fire deserve better.

Forest Service must do the right thing

Whatever the Endangered Species Act and Forest Service policies may say regarding the use of river water in fighting wildfires, the fact remains that four young firefighters lost their lives because necessary, promised, and expected water was delayed several hours while government officials agonized over how their actions might affect fish.

It is time for the Forest Service to do justice by these fallen heroes and place the blame where it clearly and properly belongs.