Gun-shy about fighting wildfires

Gun-shyabout fighting wildfires

21 February 2007

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Yakima,WA,USA — In asurvey released Tuesday, 60 percent of the full-time wildland firefightersresponding said they would retire or otherwise cut back their fire managementroles for the upcoming fire season.

The two largest groups said they would either make themselves less availablefor fire assignments (36 percent) or decline to serve as incident commanders (23percent.)

The Internet-based poll was one of the first concrete signs of the falloutfrom federal prosecutors’ unprecedented decision last year to criminally chargea U.S. Forest Service incident commander for his role in the deaths of fourCentral Washington firefighters in 2001 at the Thirtymile forest fire.

But nearly 40 percent of the full-time respondents said the prosecution wouldhave no effect on their willingness to oversee fires.

“There’s a lot of dedicated people out there who would say that fire istheir life. They feel a certain amount of loyalty to their employer. We honorthem for that,” said executive director Bill Gabbert of the InternationalAssociation of Wildland Fire, one of the nation’s leading firefighting lobbygroups.

More than 3,300 firefighters responded to the survey, conducted between Jan.28 and Feb. 15. Gabbert described that as a significant number “which tendsto indicate how important these issues are to the wildland firefighters outthere in the field.”

Forest Service officials previously said they had heard only anecdotalreports that incident commanders, the primary supervisors in charge of managinga fire, were leaning toward backing out of the job, seen as more of a risk sincethe criminal charges. Classes for new incident commanders are still filling up,officials said.

Whether the survey numbers hold true will likely be seen this spring when theForest Service and other federal fire agencies print their annual round of”red cards,” which list each firefighter’s qualifications.

Poll coordinators did not predict a margin of error, but said they had noindication that anybody had tried to manipulate the results. The survey wasdesigned to take results only once from responding computers.

The Forest Service, the largest of the five federal agencies which manage thecountry’s wildland fires, estimates that it has 10,000 employees dedicated tofirefighting and another 15,000 with part-time fire duties.

The agency’s fire management officials in Washington, D.C., could not bereached for reaction to the survey Tuesday afternoon.

In an interview last week, a top Forest Service official said the agency isworking with its lawyers to try to offer employees guidance on the potential forcriminal liability.

The discussion has been hampered by the lack of case law on the topic, saidMarc Rounsaville, the deputy director for fire and aviation management.

In a related move, Forest Service officials hope to issue new guidelines onincident management, perhaps as early as this summer. Under development for thelast couple of years, the guidelines focus more attention on making sure thatdecisions are guided by general safety principles rather than bogging downsupervisors in a specific checklist of rules.

But Rounsaville said the Forest Service was not pushing to eliminate criminalcharges for decisions made on the fireline.

Contrary to comments by some firefighters, Rounsaville said it would havebeen inappropriate for the Forest Service to lobby against the federalprosecutors’ decision to charge Ellreese Daniels, who faces trial on fourcharges of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of lying to investigatorsin connection with the Thirty-mile deaths.

“We don’t expect immunity, nor does that make much sense when you thinkabout it in a pragmatic fashion. That avenue for criminal investigation andprosecution always needs to be available,” Rounsaville said.

The year after Thirtymile, Congress passed a law requiring an independentinvestigation of all firefighter fatalities caused when crews are overtaken byflames.

The laws under which Daniels was charged existed well before that, but theinspector general’s new wildland fire unit played a key role in compiling theinformation used against him.

Gabbert, the IAWF executive director, said the association doesn’t object towildland deaths being investigated. But Gabbert said the inspector general lacksthe specialized fire expertise needed to conduct a credible investigation. TheForest Service and other agencies have built up that experience over severaldecades, he said.

A separate firefighter lobbying organization, the Federal Wildland FireService Association, has said it is trying to find lawmakers who are willing toclarify the intent of the law. An update on those efforts was not availableTuesday.

The Forest Service is looking into developing a system that would separatecriminal investigations from safety reviews in order to allow employees tofreely pass on lessons learned, Rounsaville said.

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