USA — Ensuring the safety of those who battle wildland fires has been a higher priority in our area ever since four young firefighters from Central Washington died in the Thirtymile forest fire in July 2001.
We never would have thought legislation seeking to shore up safety training would take six years to make it through the full Senate.
But that’s what happened two weeks ago to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s bill to require a comprehensive review and increased safeguards related to wildland firefighter safety training.
The urgent need to address better training became apparent during the hot, dry summer of 2001, when an inferno swept over a crew of Forest Service firefighters on a dead-end road along the Chewuch River in the Okanogan National Forest north of Winthrop. The fire killed four young firefighters from our area — Tom Craven of Ellensburg and Yakima’s Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver. Investigations into the fire revealed the Forest Service had violated 20 of its 28 safety rules, including a requirement that there be an exit route. The deaths, investigators concluded, could have been prevented.
Last July, two more Washington state firefighters died while battling fires in northern California.
‘Almost eight years after the Thirtymile fire and six months after the deaths of our firefighters helping in California, wildland firefighters still aren’t getting the training they need,” Cantwell said after the Senate vote.
Originally proposed in 2003, the bill, in particular, confronts the issue of contract firefighters who work shoulder to shoulder with the Forest Service crews. In a 2006 report by the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, the Forest Service failed to have a way of verifying the qualifications of contract firefighters. Even more disturbing, one in three contract firefighters who were sampled either did not meet training standards or could not produce the proper records.
Safety on the firelines is of paramount importance. Given the often violent and chaotic behavior of wildland fires, there’s little room for misjudgment. Since 1910, an average of nine wildland firefighters have died on the job each year.
When the Thirtymile tragedy occurred, top Forest Service officials promised the families of the four Central Washington firefighters that their deaths would not be in vain, that the agency would learn from its past mistakes.
We want that promise to be kept.
It’s encouraging to see in Cantwell’s bill that Congress will receive a full accounting of the training that takes place and how well the money is spent to make the safety procedures as thorough as possible.
We certainly hope it doesn’t take another six years for this bill to wend its way through the House. Another wildland fire season will be here in a matter of months, not years.