U.S. Forest Service adopts Thirtymile Fire Action Plan

Fallout from the tragic deaths of four firefighters killed on July 10 while fighting the Thirtymile Fire in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington state continued as U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth accepted an "Accident Prevention Action Plan" with proposed management and policy changes to improve firefighter safety.

The four firefighters — Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver — were U.S. Forest Service fire suppression personnel who died of "asphyxia due to inhalation of superheated combustion products," according to the USFS. The four were entrapped in a fire shelter they had constructed in the Chewuch River Canyon, about 30 miles north of Winthrop, Wash.

The fire is believed to have been the result of an "escaped picnic cooking fire."

The Accident Prevention Action Plan accepted by Bosworth was based on the Thirtymile Fire Accident Investigation Team's report and the Management Evaluation Report developed by the Thirtymile Fire Board of Review. The review board, chaired by Tom Thompson, deputy chief of the National Forest System, detailed "action items" for each recommendation. Key items include:

  • Emphasizing situational awareness
  • Transitioning from initial to extended attack
  • Addressing chronic fatigue issues
  • Strengthening fire leadership and accountability.

Other changes or recommendations may result when a separate Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration investigation is completed.

"The deaths of these firefighters were preventable," Bosworth said in a statement. "Although firefighting is a dangerous vocation, there are standing orders and preventive measures which can be taken to reduce the likelihood of this tragedy happening again. The Forest Service is committed to doing everything possible to improve the safety of these unsung heroes," he added.

Copies of the Prevention Action Plan may be found on the USFS Web site at http://www.fs.fed.us/fire.

Separately, the Accident Review Board has evaluated witness statements and the Sept. 26, 2001 Fire Accident Investigation Team report to try to understand more clearly what happened during the final moments leading up to the deployment of fire shelters during the Thirtymile Fire.

"Additional review of the facts and witness statements surrounding the Thirtymile fatalities has uncovered no definitive evidence that any firefighters deliberately disobeyed a direct order from the incident commander," said Thompson, chair of the board of review. "It is possible the firefighters either didn't hear the order to come to the road, or if some did hear the directive they believed they were close to the road."

The area in which the fire burned had endured a lengthy drought and area moisture levels in large fuels was very low, according to the USFS. Up-canyon breezes were present on July 10.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in September called for a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management to review the findings of the USFS' Thirtymile Fire Investigation Report.

"The Forest Service report tracks what happened during the Thirtymile fire and identifies several factors that contributed to these tragic deaths, but Congress has a responsibility to the families of the victims to examine those findings, to make sure all of the right questions have been asked and answered, and to ensure appropriate actions are taken to prevent future deaths," said Cantwell in a statement.

"Many of the causal factors identified by the Forest Service point to potential problems of leadership, management and training — problems that should have been corrected following the investigation of the 1994 Storm King fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado," she added.

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