Fire to cause changes at USFS

Fire to cause changes at USFS

25 January 2008

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USA — The U.S. Forest Service has committed itself to correcting a handful of violations federal safety investigators say played an instrumental role in the deaths of five firefighters in the Esperanza Fire.

An informal settlement agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was reached Friday. Officials with both agencies took eight months to hammer out the three-page agreement.

“More than anything, we’re continuing to re-emphasize the current checks we already have in place and renew our call to our employees that the safety checks are there for a reason,” said Forest Service spokesman Jason Kirchner.

The Oct. 26, 2006, blaze burned over the five-man crew of Engine 57, killing 44-year-old Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser of Idyllwild and firefighters Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

An OSHA investigation concluded in July that six safety violations were made before the firefighters died while protecting an unoccupied home in Twin Pines.

The following are changes expected to be in place by March 31 to correct the violations:

Fire officials will “emphasize the importance of timely weather information,” according to the report.

On the first morning of the Esperanza Fire, crews were not briefed on the fire’s status, Santa Ana wind conditions or danger areas before going to fight the blaze.

The Forest Service will review risk-management policies to ensure firefighters are equipped to make rapid decisions in risky situations.

The Engine 57 crew did not follow a commander’s orders to move to a safer area, although it is not known whether the instructions were poorly communicated or misunderstood by firefighters.

Maps showing high-risk locations will be distributed.

Esperanza firefighters did not have maps of the area where they were battling the blaze.

Forest Service officials also plan to incorporate lessons from the Esperanza Fire in the agency’s Serious Accident Investigation procedures and to re-emphasize the “importance of risk management and the priority of life over structure protection,” according to the report.

OSHA officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

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