Western wildfire fatalities: Crews now have right to question orders

Western wildfire fatalities: Crews now have right to question orders

27 December 2013

published by http://missoulian.com

USA — When the South Canyon fire blew up outside Glenwood Springs on July 6, 1994, killing 14 firefighters, almost all wildfire crews followed a militaristic hierarchy.

They did not question orders; they did as they were told, digging fire line and keeping their heads down.

“The motto was: A little less thinkin’, a little more chinkin’. That’s what we have to overcome,” said Eric Hipke, a South Canyon fire survivor who now works in Boise as a video production specialist for the Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher.

“We’re trying to instill that (right of refusal) in the crews. It’s tough. It’s a human factor.”

A crew boss is busy – ordering lunches, calling for air resources, requisitioning water or chainsaw fuel. So the rookie resting nearby, watching black smoke rise from an unexpected area, needs to tell the boss what he’s seen, Hipke said.

South Canyon is a prime example of the old-style zipped lip.

“We were all uncomfortable with the plan,” Hipke said. Crew members were digging fire line downhill in tall Gambel oak high above the blaze, though wildfires are notorious for racing uphill.

Yet no one questioned the plan.

Today, wildfire crew members are encouraged to question their chiefs and to provide their insights and perspectives. A good crew boss will ensure that his members feel comfortable expressing their concerns, fire managers agree.

That’s one lesson learned from the fire on Storm King Mountain.

Another important change wasn’t fully implemented until after the Thirtymile fire in Washington killed four firefighters in 2001, Hipke noted.

Now, wildfire crews have a mandated 2-1 work-rest ratio. For every 16 hours worked, you get eight hours off.

After a 24-hour shift, you stand down. And assignments are limited to 14 days rather than 21.


Alex Robertson, another South Canyon survivor, now is deputy fire staff officer for a vast swath of Oregon, working for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“Why didn’t people from different places talk to each other?” Robertson asked.

“If it was just smokejumpers,” Hipke said, “we would have discussed it as a group and maybe come up with a plan. But here come the Hotshots, the other crews. And you want to work. People always want to look their best.”

That kind of communication failure has largely been resolved, said Joe Brinkley, manager of Idaho’s McCall Smokejumper Base and a triplet brother of Levi Brinkley, who died in the South Canyon fire.

“Crews are connecting,” Brinkley says. “Our crew works with a lot of different resources a lot of times, and we for sure talk with those resources.”

Robertson notes that the South Canyon crews didn’t ask for more information. They didn’t get it, either.

Meteorologist Chris Cuoco worked long hours to track weather conditions and ensure that firefighters got a red-flag warning for an incoming cold front bringing very high and shifting winds.

A BLM dispatcher failed to forward that warning, which almost certainly would have saved the firefighters’ lives.

Cuoco still works at the National Weather Service station in Grand Junction, Colo., but today he also teaches fire behavior classes to firefighters working to become supervisors. Some “have been supervisors for a long time, and they’re finally taking this class,” he said.

Many folks on Storm King Mountain couldn’t have gotten more information because they didn’t even have radios, Hipke noted.

Today, all crew bosses at least have radios, if not smartphones or iPads, and many crew members carry their own smartphones, say Robertson and others.


The management “structure” on South Canyon was also notably haphazard.

Don Mackey, as the first Missoula smokejumper to leap from the plane, became his crew’s boss. James R. “Butch” Blanco, a local BLM engine foreman, became the incident commander.

But Mackey began making decisions on the fire when it began to grow after Blanco and his crew left the mountain for the night.

Somehow, in the chaos not uncommon on large fires with mixed crews, Blanco and Mackey each came to think he was in charge, reports show. Mackey died trying to save the lives of the Hotshot crew working farther down the mountain.

Robert P. “Pete” Blume was fire management officer for the BLM’s Grand Junction office, and Winslow Robertson was the agency’s No. 2 man there.

“Winslow and I had no idea that Mackey thought he was IC,” said Blume, now semi-retired in Fort Collins, Colo. “We were dealing with Butch Blanco. The jumpers would deal with (Mackey). There was a lack of clarity of who was in charge and no discussion.”

Such managerial confusion continued to arise long after South Canyon.

It resurfaced on the Thirtymile fire and again in 2003 on Idaho’s Cramer fire, where two men were burned on a mountaintop in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

The official report on the Thirtymile fire indicated the leadership and management was “all ineffective,” citing “lack of communication and miscommunication, fatigue, lack of situational awareness, indecisiveness and confusion about who was in control.”

The report on the Cramer fire, where two of Idaho’s helitacks died after repeatedly requesting a helicopter that never came, cited multiple violations of the “10 and 18” – the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watch Out Situations.

But wildfire management finally is orderly and organized, Joe Brinkley said. “There’s no doubt, it’s leaps and bounds beyond where it was.”

An incident commander on a big wildfire today, for example, may appoint someone to oversee logistics, such as care and feeding of the crews; someone to spearhead finances, dealing with contractors’ shift tickets, crew time reports, etc.; and another person on operations, i.e. strategy and tactics, who may set up two divisions of teams, each responding to their respective supervisors.

“It gives you a better handle,” Brinkley said. “Now you only have two division supervisors reporting to operations. So the IC only has to work with operations.”


Plenty of smaller but also important changes were prompted by the South Canyon fire.

Firefighters once were told to never drop their packs, which weigh at least 45 pounds, often more. Now a person fleeing a fire can ditch the pack, though there may not be time to do so.

Crew members also are warned not to take chainsaws and other potentially explosive equipment into fire shelters when they deploy. That reverses the old policy.

Hipke credits some human factors of his own for his survival. He said he’s lucky to have long, strong legs, for example.

Even more significantly, he didn’t personally know the other firefighters trying to work their way up Storm King Mountain that day.

Had he known them, he said, he surely would have stopped to urge them to hurry. Then he would be dead, too. Hipke made it to the ridge only five seconds ahead of the flames.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien