USA — A second firefighter has died battling the north state’s wildfires, Klamath National Forest officials announced Saturday.
The unidentified firefighter died Saturday while working on the Panther Fire south of Happy Camp in Siskiyou County. The firefighter’s name will be released by the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department once family members have been notified.
A Forest Service investigation team is due to arrive on the Klamath National Forest by Monday, officials said.
The 250-acre Panther Fire was started by a lightning strike Monday night about 15 miles south of Happy Camp and has since burned toward Ukonom Creek and the Klamath River.
The death of the firefighter in Siskiyou County follows Friday’s death of an 18-year-old National Park Service firefighter in Trinity County.
The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Abigail Kimbell, on a visit to Redding on Saturday was visibly shaken by the death of Andrew Jackson Palmer. She praised his courage and that of other firefighters battling California’s unprecedented wildland fires.
As a U.S. flag hung limp at half-staff outside Shasta-Trinity National Forest headquarters in Redding, Kimbell said Palmer’s death was being felt deeply by those fighting the fires in the north state and elsewhere.
Those firefighters, she said, are like a family and the death of one of their own is difficult for all of them.
“The wildland fire community is a very large organization, but in many ways it resembles a family,” she said. “The loss of any member of the firefighting family has a dramatic effect on all of those who fight fire, who are involved in fire management and who work for the agency. The commitment to society demonstrated by Andrew Palmer — through his dedication and courage — will live on in the hearts and minds of his colleagues all throughout the fire community.”
Although little information has been released as Palmer’s death is investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Forest Service officials, Kimbell said that Palmer, a Port Townsend, Wash., resident, was part of a mop-up and advance crew felling hazardous trees while working on the southwest flank of the Eagle Fire near Junction City.
He was a firefighter with the Olympic National Park based in Port Angeles and was assigned to the Iron Complex of fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Palmer died about 5:10 p.m. Friday while being flown by a U.S. Coast Guard medivac helicopter to Mercy Medical Center in Redding after he was struck by a tree.
Described as a dedicated and energetic firefighter who loved his job, Kimbell said firefighters will be asked to wear black ribbons on their service badges in honor of Palmer and that flags outside Forest Service offices will be flown at half-staff. Flags in all National Park Service areas throughout the six-state Pacific West Region also will fly at half-staff until further notice.
“My heart goes out to his family,” Kimbell said.
Barb Maynes, a spokeswoman with the Olympic National Forest, said Saturday that Palmer, a 2008 graduate of Port Townsend High School, was hired in June as a wildland firefighter and was assigned to an engine crew stationed in Port Angeles.
She said that Palmer’s four-person engine crew was dispatched Tuesday to the Eagle Fire and that Friday was their first day on the fire line.
The rest of Palmer’s crew returned to Olympic National Park earlier Saturday and a critical incident stress management team is scheduled to arrive in the park today to provide support and assistance to the park’s fire crew and staff.
The Trinity County coroner’s office will determine the cause of death, but a spokesman there could not be reached Saturday.
Kimbell, who spoke only briefly with the media Saturday, arrived in Shasta County earlier in the day after being briefed on the wildfire situation by Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore and Shasta-Trinity Supervisor Sharon Heywood and praised firefighters for their work,
“In spite of the extremely difficult terrain, in this part of the world, crews on these fires have done an extraordinary job,” Kimbell said. “The terrain is difficult and unforgiving, which is evident in the tragic loss of Andrew.
“We have made great progress, but much more needs to be done,” she said, noting that there are still 12,000 firefighters continuing to work to suppress fires in California.
Kimbell, as well as U.S. Forest Service spokesman Mike Odle, also addressed criticisms of so-called “burnout” operations to help battle wild land fires.
“Crews are using burnouts and other indirect firefighting techniques because of the inaccessible, rugged terrain and other hazards keeping them from the fire edge,” she said.
Although firefighters would prefer to fight fires directly, Kimbell said, “we must consider firefighter safety in all of our tactical decisions.”
Odle agreed, saying fighting fires in such rugged terrain is dangerous work and that back burns are a necessary tool.
“It’s plain and simple not safe for us” without them, Odle said.
This was Kimbell’s second visit to Northern California and she had planned to take an aerial tour of the fire area to survey the damage.
Her tour, however, was grounded because of smoke from the fires.