Lessons from fatal California wildfire will be in future training

Lessons from fatalCalifornia wildfire will be in future training

5 June 2007

published by www.mercurynews.com

Riverside, California, USA — The story of fivewildland firefighters who died trying to protect a home in a Southern Californiamountain community will be incorporated into future wildfire training materials,according to a U.S. Forest Service plan released Tuesday.

The internal document, signed by Chief Forester Gail Kimbell and obtained byThe Associated Press, calls for seven changes in agency policy when fightingwildfires, particularly in areas where suburbs and wilderness converge.

The plan follows last month’s investigative report into the deaths of themembers of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57, who perished on Oct. 26,2006, when a 90-foot wall of flame overran them as they protected an unoccupiedvacation home in Twin Pines, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

“The most important thing is the safety of the people who are fightingthese fires. No structure is worth one life,” said Joe Walsh, ForestService spokesman. “Let’s learn from these tragedies.”

Raymond Lee Oyler, a 36-year-old auto mechanic, is charged with starting theblaze. He has pleaded not guilty to five counts of first-degree murder andmultiple counts of arson and using an incendiary device to start fires betweenMay 16 and Oct. 26, 2006.

Last month’s report found that a 2002 state fire map flagged the home as”non-defensible” but indicated that the crew did not have thatinformation when they chose to defend it.

The three-page “action plan” released Tuesday requiresthat up-to-date maps of all areas of high fire risk in California be distributedto firefighters by July 31. It also orders the development of a strategy toidentify high-risk areas where suburban sprawl has encroached on wilderness.

“We know that they didn’t have a current map,” Walsh said of thefirefighters who died. “When you get into development areas … thingschange on a weekly basis as developments go in.”

The earlier investigative report also found that communication problems,failure to fully plan an escape route and pressure to ignore hazards may haveled to the deaths of firefighters.

Five fire engines, including the one overrun by the flames, were using aradio frequency not assigned to the fire, the report said. Also, the crew hadnot completely scouted escape routes or safety zones. The nearest refuge wasabout 1,500 feet from the accident site, the report found.

The plan released Tuesday said that the Forest Service will incorporate themistakes made at the so-called Esperanza Fire into its firefighter training andclassroom case studies by March 2008. The training will include personaltestimony from firefighters who were involved that day and interactivetechnology that can be used in annual firefighter refresher courses.

The agency also said it will review how and when firefighters protect homesin such areas by July 31. Based on that review, guidelines on how to assesswhich homes are worth protecting in these so-called “interface zones”could change, the plan said.

The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is stillinvestigating the Esperanza Fire for any indication of criminal wrongdoing onthe part of fire personnel. The federal Occupational Safety and HealthAdministration is also investigating, said Matt Mathes, Forest Service spokesman.

Firefighters Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; MarkLoutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23, died in the wildfire.

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