USA–– Fire crew members say drug and alcohol abuse, fighting, and even murder threats were just some of the reasons a Forest Service fire crew was grounded over the summer.
Those allegations came to light after a four-month investigation by 17 News.
We received hundreds of pages of previously secret government documents.
17’s Rob Martin broke the first story in June and has been digging ever since.
Rincon, a National Forest Service, Type 2 fire crew based in Kernville, was grounded for months this summer.
Rincon was rife with salacious allegations, including years of drug use on the team. It’s something the Forest Service refused to talk to us about, so we did the story without them.
The Gladiator fire was one of Arizona’s worst fires, ravaging more than 10,000 acres. And, the Rincon hot shots were right in the middle of it.
As they attacked the Gladiator fire last May, they nearly lost their lives when winds changed and the fire started attacking them, so they had to run.
Some of them had to dump all their gear to race away when the winds changed, sending a wall of flames toward them. Terrifying as it was, it’s the sort of thing that happens in the dangerous world of wildfire fighting.
Most crews get right back to work. But, the Rincon crew was benched, ordered back to Kernville, relegated to forest management, and kept away from fighting fires.
No one, including the firefighters, would say why.
The answer is in nearly 500 pages of documents gathered during the investigation.
As the Rincon crew cleaned campgrounds and cut weeds in June, July, and August, a federal investigator examined accusations that had dogged the crew for years.
The copies we obtained under the Freedom of Information Act are redacted, the names blacked out.
They allege drug and alcohol abuse on the job, posting to Facebook while on the fire lines, and even threats of killing a crew member.
The documents describe the accusations in minute detail, but don’t say what action, if any, the Forest Service took.
Several crew members told the investigator, drug abuse among the crew has been going on for years. One statement says two-and-a-half years ago, a member of Rincon was trying to sell drugs at a bar in Kernville.
Another said one crew member ‘was on drugs’ and had been hyped up and crazy the night the Gladiator fire incident happened.
Several others allege the crew used the word ‘Alpaca’ to covertly talk about pot. They say crew members smoked pot and even did it in federal vehicles on the way to the Gladiator fire.
There are also questions about Forest Service Management of the Rincon crew and the Kern River Ranger District.
The crew is supposed to have one superintendent on the team, but that position has been vacant for more than a year.
The report says the team has been working under two captains who do not get along.
The Kern River District Ranger at the time of the incident and investigation was Rick Larson. We repeatedly asked him to comment on the investigation in the months before he left the job, but he declined.
Larson’s retirement was announced during the investigation, and now the district is being led by Al Watson.
Again, we know what the accusations were that grounded the team, but we don’t know what action the Forest Service has taken.
New District Ranger Al Watson told us their investigation is still ongoing.
The Rincon fire crew returned to duty in August and recently went to New York to help with rescues after Hurricane Sandy.