On the fire line

The U.S. Forest Service considers changing its firefighting protocol in the wake of sentencing over handling of the Thirtymile Fire, which claimed the lives of four firefighters.
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The Thirtymile Fire Memorial. (U.S. Forest Service)

The U.S. Forest Service considers changing its firefighting protocol in the wake of sentencing over handling of the Thirtymile Fire, which claimed the lives of four firefighters.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) says it will change its fire-fighting strategies yet again in an effort to reduce the risk of wildland fire deaths. This in the aftermath of a criminal case that ended August 20 in U.S. Federal Court in Spokane with the sentencing of Ellreese Daniels, the first Forest Service crew boss ever to face criminal charges for his actions on a fire line. Daniels was the Forest Service's Incident Commander at the disastrous fire in North Central Washington in 2001, when four young firefighters were killed in what was called the Thirtymile Fire, on the Chewuch River north of Winthrop. He will serve 90 days on work-release time and three years of probation, but no jail time.

According to the Yakima Herald, changes are under way within the Forest Service that would give firefighters on the scene more flexibility in deciding whether to continue attacking a fire. The new approach is said to be modeled on principles of military leadership, emphasizing "doctrine" over rules. The Herald says firefighters will be encouraged to think "dynamically" about their situations, which would seem to mean they're to consider minute by minute their likelihood of getting killed, and act accordingly without orders from superiors.

As late as last spring, Daniels faced charges of involuntary manslaughter and several counts of lying to federal investigators, with a possible 24 years in prison. Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hopkins of Spokane agreed in May to drop the felony counts in return for Daniels pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of making false statements to federal agents. In sentencing Daniels, District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle said he was troubled by the defendant's false statements but did not believe Daniels responsible for the four deaths. Prosecutors had earlier said Daniels failed to direct his crew into a safe area, believing that the fire would burn past them and on up the canyon. Instead it jumped the river, trapping 14 firefighters and two civilians.

The four victims — Karen Fitzpatrick, 18; Jessica Johnson, 19; Devin Weaver, 21; all of Yakima, and Tom Craven of Ellensburg — died in their fire-resistant survival tents on a stony slope a few yards from safer ground along the highway and the river. Daniels insisted that he had ordered them to leave the slope and deploy their tents in a safer area. Federal investigators claimed he did not.

After a disastrous 1994 wild fire season when 34 firefighters were killed nationwide, the USFS announced changes in its fire policy. Firefighter safety was to take priority over the protection of property (it had taken 86 years to reach that seemingly obvious conclusion.) That policy was in force when the Thirtymile Fire exploded, yet the doomed firefighters were sent to the fire line to fight a blaze from which they had been pulled back because of the danger.

A terrifying, hour-by-hour account of the Chewuch Canyon death trap is at the heart of a book by John N. MacLean, The Thirtymile Fire: a Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal, published in 2007. It offers heartbreaking profiles of the four young people who died, and an indictment of the confusing state of command during the events of July 10. MacLean worked from the journal of a firefighter who barely survived, and from government transcripts, tapes of radio transmissions, and interviews with survivors, to provide painfully vivid accounts of the deaths and scorching assessments of the government's own investigations.

Whatever Daniels's limitations as crew boss, his actions coincided with failures at various levels of the Forest Service command structure. Early in the day, crews were on the scene to douse the beginning spot fires with water from the Chewuch River, but their mechanical pumps would run only intermittently. When they finally got the pumps going, their hoses burst. Meanwhile a water-dipping helicopter sat for hours on its pad, twenty minutes away, while the pilot waited to be ordered to the scene. (The Chewuch is home to some trout species of concern, and the Forest Service was reluctant to dip from it without an OK from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. By the time permission was granted and the helicopter took off, the fire was raging up the canyon, far beyond any effect the water drops might have).

A federal report on the Thirtymile Fire says every one of the Forest Service's Ten Standard Firefighting Orders, the so-called "ten commandments" of fire fighting established in 1957, was broken that day on the Chewuch. Among them, such common sense rules as making certain everyone knows a safe escape route. No one told the Thirtymile Fire crews until it was too late that they were on a dead end road with no way out. The chain of command was unclear, and communication with superiors was hit-and-miss throughout the day. No one sent current weather reports that would have warned those in the canyon of the dreadful danger they were in — again, one of the agency's basic firefighting rules for decades.

The Daniels case has shaken the wildfire community like no other incident, according to firefighters posting their thoughts on a Wildland Fire Web site maintained as a sounding board for firefighters all around the country. The comments, from employees of USFS and state fire agencies as well as independent contractors, are thoughtful and emotional, and offer an important insight into the intensity of feelings among those whose lives are at risk daily in the fire season. Overwhelmingly, they seem to believe Daniels should never have been charged. Many insist that the arrest and sentencing — even on the radically reduced charges — will cause experienced firefighters to leave the profession, thus exposing inexperienced crews to even greater danger. The International Association of Wildland Firefighters surveyed more than 3,000 of its members and found that 36 percent said they would make themselves less available for fighting fires, as a result of the charges against Daniels.

Forest Service policy makers will feel relief that the Daniels case had ended with no courtroom replay of one of the worst days in the Service's history. They most likely will follow through in reworking their practical firefighting doctrine. Still, any basic decision to risk lives will respond to the 103-year-old agency's institutional instincts: We fight fires, therefore we are.

In the past few decades, the agency's function as expediter of timber sales and manager of recreational trails and campsites has diminished. USFS has become, as 6th District Congressman Norm Dicks puts it, "the United States Fire Service." Nearly half its budget now goes to suppress fires, including those — as in the Chewuch Canyon — where there was nothing to protect. No buildings, no timber worth saving, nothing to motivate the risk of human life except the human instinct to put out fires.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.