USA — With one of three investigations into October’s fatal Esperanza Fire due to be complete soon, the firefighting community is vigorously debating the effect of criminal allegations against commanders on two previous fires.
Five U.S. Forest Service firefighters assigned to Engine 57 based near Idyllwild died after being overrun by a fierce wall of flames Oct. 26 as they protected a home near Twin Pines, south of Cabazon.
Engineers Jason McKay, Jess McLean and firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera died at the scene. Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser died a few hours later, and firefighter Pablo Cerda succumbed to his injuries Oct. 31.
After the fire, some firefighters were hesitant at first to talk to investigators, though they ultimately did.
Many were worried because an incident commander on a 2003 wildfire in Idaho, called the Cramer Fire, served 18 months of federal probation after two firefighters were killed.
On the morning of July 22, 2003, Jeff Allen, 24, and Shane Heath, 22, were lowered by rope at 9:43 a.m. from a helicopter to a ridge to clear trees for a helipad. By 3 p.m. they realized the fire was approaching and they called for a helicopter, but it couldn’t land because of smoke.
They made their final plea for help at 3:24 p.m. and were overrun by flames a few minutes later.
The commander served probation as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.
And then, on Dec. 19 last year, nearly two months after the Esperanza Fire, an 11-count complaint was filed by federal prosecutors against Ellreese Daniels, the crew boss of a team from which four young firefighters died in a burnover in Washington state on July 10, 2001.
That fire, called the Thirtymile Fire, led to a 2002 law requiring an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General anytime a Forest Service firefighter dies in a fire.
The complaint against Daniels includes four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of lying to investigators. A grand jury will decide whether to indict Daniels, who could face more than 50 years in prison.
That sent the Internet message boards buzzing and fire commanders talking.
“In our profession, we all have to be accountable,” said Casey Judd, business manager of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. “Does poor judgment rise to criminal behavior? This case sets a huge precedent.”
The concern is that veteran commanders will step out of leadership roles if they have to worry about going to prison if one of their people gets hurt. Another worry is that commanders might be gun-shy about sending crews into harm’s way.
Perhaps the worst consequence would be if firefighters and commanders decline to be candid after an incident, upsetting the long tradition of trying to learn from each fatality, several fire officials said.
One of the federal attorneys on the Thirtymile case said concerns by fire commanders that they could face prosecution are overblown.
“We’re not charging the guy for an accident,” said Tom Rice, an assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane, Wash. “He was grossly negligent. … But for his reckless disregard for their safety, they would not have died.”
Four died when they climbed into their fire shelters on a scree slope up from the road and were asphyxiated by superheated gases.
Daniels claims he called on them to come down from the slope before the firestorm hit, but witnesses contradict that version, Rice said.
Investigative reports on both Cramer and Thirtymile were harshly critical of the leadership, saying the unbreakable tenets of firefighting were violated.
The investigation into the Esperanza Fire tragedy by the Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection will be released in the coming weeks, Al Matecko, spokesman for the Esperanza Safety Investigation Team, said by phone from Portland, Ore.
That report will simply be a factual account of what happened and why.
There is also an investigation being conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which could issue citations, and a third by the inspector general.
One thing that’s different about the Esperanza Fire is that an arson suspect is in custody facing murder charges.
Raymond Lee Oyler, a suspect in other arson-caused fires in the same area, is in a Riverside County jail awaiting trial.
Although there have been anecdotes nationally, it’s not clear if the Forest Service is seeing fire commanders giving up their roles, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
“It may be that duty and dedication outweigh any concerns when we get down to battling flames,” she said.