YAKIMA, Washington, September 26, 2001 (ENS) – U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth today accepted the final investigative report of the Thirtymile Fire in which four firefighters died. He pledged changes in the operations of the Service to help prevent future fire fatalities. “The loss of these four firefighters is a tragedy that we must learn from,” Chief Bosworth said during a morning news conference in Yakima. “We have had experts inside and outside the agency gather facts, review them and make recommendations. From these, I expect to initiate changes in management and policy that will make fighting fires a safer business.” Following private briefings with victims’ families, Chief Bosworth and Deputy Chief Jim Furnish met with media, community leaders and firefighters to review findings of the Thirtymile blaze, which killed four firefighters north of Winthrop, Washington, on the Okanogon-Wenatchee National Forest on July 10. The four people who died are Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver. The fire, an escaped picnic cooking fire, was detected on July 9 and initial suppression activities began that evening. The four firefighters became entrapped the next day when their fire shelter deployment site was burned over by the fire in the Chewuch River Canyon. Bosworth said, “These deaths and injuries affect me very personally. My heart is with their families, friends and co-workers. I will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that everything possible is done to enhance the safety of our firefighters.” Furnish headed a 13-member investigative team including a lead investigator from the private sector with experience investigating nearly 50 fatal accidents. The team established the facts of the fire by conducting 125 interviews with 60 people and by examining physical evidence, weather data, equipment, records and the fatality site. The area was experiencing a long drought, and moisture levels were very low. Temperatures in the canyon were nearly 100 degrees. Although observers noted the approach of the fire, the crew was not prepared for the suddenness with which it arrived. “A rain of burning embers was followed by a rolling wave of tremendous heat, fire, smoke and wind,” the investigative report said.
A separate seven-member Accident Review Board, chaired by Tom Thompson of the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, reviewed the findings and developed recommendations to prevent similar accidents. The review board has recommended that the Forest Service should ensure that fire managers and firefighters are fully aware of the fire situation and have decision making abilities necessary for both managing fire team transitions and in reacting to significant changes in the fire. The Service should develop a program to counter the effects of fatigue, the board said, and should continue to improve firefighters’ personal protective equipment. The board recommended that the Service critically review fire management leadership programs nationally, and strengthen the command and control performance of agency administrators and fire managers. Confusion over whether water could be taken from the Chewuch River was a problem on July 10, and the review board recommends that relationship between the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and fire suppression actions should be clarified. The Service should establish a coherent process that accounts for ESA requirements with respect to the full range of fire suppression activities, the board said.
Bosworth said that while there appeared to be some confusion at the time over whether water could be taken from Chewuch River, ESA regulations do not forbid it and, in fact, a 1995 memorandum by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directs that firefighter safety comes first. Firefighter re-enlists The Service should improve fire program safety management by adopting and aggressively implementing proven components of a comprehensive safety program, the review board urged. Bosworth will announce specific policy and management actions after reviewing the recommendations. Other changes could come after a separate Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration review is completed.