Forest Service still spinning the Thirty Mile Fire

Published September 1, 2002

A year after last July’s deadly Thirty Mile Fire, the U.S. Forest Service’s public relations spin continues.

On July 10, 2001, 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. the team 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 river is home to endangered salmon and trout, and Forest Service officials feared scooping river water might accidentally scoop some fish as well. Forest Service officials debated using Chewuch River water until 2 p.m., when final approval was given.

While Forest Service officials debated, 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, seeking refuge in their fire tents, after flames cornered and then engulfed them in a narrow canyon.

On September 26, 2001, the Forest Service issued a report blaming almost everyone and everything, including the firefighters themselves, for their tragic deaths. Just about the only thing exonerated by the Service was the Endangered Species Act and Forest Service procedures to debate the Act before taking water from rivers.

New memorial keeps spinning

And now the spin continues.

The Forest Service is unveiling a memorial at the site of the Thirty Mile Fire. According to the Forest Service spin, as permanently etched in stone at the site of the memorial, here is what happened:

“On July 10, 2001, high temperatures, low humidity and severe drought conditions caused an abandoned cooking fire ultimately to erupt into a devastating firestorm that swept up the Chewuch River Valley, trapping 14 firefighters and two campers. Four dedicated firefighters perished in a valiant effort to battle the Thirty Mile Fire.”

No mention that the “abandoned cooking fire” was well contained for quite some time before “ultimately erupt[ing] into a devastating firestorm.” No mention of how Forest Service officials debated the fate of river fish while rookie firefighters awaited their long-promised water. No mention of how they died not fighting the fire, but trying to find refuge after their fire-quenching water was a no-show.

“The agency is spending $32,000 to build the memorial,” observed syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin. “It is a cheap investment in bureaucratic propaganda at the expense of the dead. The truth is that the four firefighters perished because of the Forest Service’s gross incompetence.”

“One of the things we’re having trouble with is, the Forest Service is making those kids look like heroes,” said Barbara Weaver, mother of one of the slain firefighters. “Their lives were taken from them. They were not out there trying to save somebody’s life. They were led down a dead-end road and sat there to do nothing—that’s the story.”

Added Kevin Weaver, “I don’t mind them memorializing my son. The problem is half of their motive is to spin this into this heroic-American, flag-waving, died-for-his-country theme, which casts the scrutiny in a completely different direction.”

Although it relentlessly hunts down and publicly imposes decades of prison time on people who start fires that destroy property, the Forest Service has refused to say what discipline will be imposed on the bureaucrats who cost the young firefighters their lives. The Service issued a June 2002 report citing unnamed managers and commanders for ignoring several signs of danger. While stating 11 employees were recommended for disciplinary action, the report failed to name the employees, failed to state what the discipline entailed, and failed to disclose whether managers actually administered the “recommended” discipline.

GAO implicates lawsuits in recent fires

While the Forest Service was covering up its handling of Endangered Species Act concerns in the Thirty Mile Fire, a new General Accounting Office report implicated environmental activist groups for the number and severity of this year’s wildfires.

Last year, activist organizations trumpeted a GAO study indicating lawsuits and other activist challenges to federal forest management programs had little to do with Forest Service backlogs in clearing brush and other fire fuels.

Responding to criticism from Arizona Governor Jane Dee Hull, who said activist groups had been central in obstructing the removal of fuel, Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club brandished a copy of the GAO report and exclaimed, “It would have been good if the governor had gotten her facts straight before spouting off.” The Sierra Club posted Bahr’s quote on its Web site, and the New York Times cited the GAO study as proof that criticisms of the Sierra Club and other activist groups were “absurd.”

However, in a three-page letter to Congress, the GAO has made corrections to last year’s study. It now reports that environmental appeals delayed a full 48 percent of the Forest Service’s fire prevention projects in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.

“For those who have spent the last several weeks downplaying the impact of appeals and litigation on forest management, this report is a bucket of cold water in the face,” said Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colorado). “These numbers are a scathing indictment of the process that governs management of the nation’s forests, and a harsh reminder of just how relentlessly ideological some environmental litigants have become.”

After boldly trumpeting last year’s GAO study, activist groups have begun impugning the GAO’s competency. “This study is about as solid as an Arthur Andersen financial statement,” protested Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies.