Thirtymile fire in 2001 forced a range of precautions

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The Wenatchee World

WINTHROP — Ten years ago today, four young firefighters died breathing super-heated air inside their emergency shelters north of Winthrop, moments after watching the approaching fire from afar, taking pictures and talking about music.

Other changes since Thirtymile

These are other changes the Forest Service has implemented since four people died in the Thirtymile Fire on July 10, 2001.

• Safety culture. The agency hired consultants and began specific leadership training for fire bosses at every level, including evaluations by their peers in simulated fire events, said Ken Snell, Forest Service fire director for the Pacific Northwest Region.

• New pocket guide. The Forest Service worked with Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration to develop 38 specific safety areas to improve, and developed a pocket guide with requirements for administrators.

• Fuels reduction. The Forest Service has more than doubled the amount of fuels it treats every year in an attempt to reduce the need to fight as many wildfires.

• Science and technology. The agency can better predict when a wildfire may be more dangerous with the use of an early warning system that can point to fires that need particular attention.

• Recognition of risk. The agency more closely evaluates whether wildfires must be fought, and will decide to back off a fire or use natural barriers to contain it when it doesn’t threaten communities. Reducing the number of firefighters and working hours automatically reduces the chance of a fatality.

• New fire shelters. Ken Weaver, whose son, Devin, died in the Thirtymile, said his lawsuit against makers of the emergency fire shelter helped convince the Forest Service to replace its old shelters with newer, safer ones.

The Thirtymile Fire on July 10, 2001, will always be remembered as the inferno that swept up a dead-end road and killed Karen FitzPatrick, 18; Jessica Johnson, 19; Devin Weaver, 21; and Tom Craven, 30. Ten other firefighters and two campers survived the burn-over.

A federal investigation found that U.S. Forest Service fire managers violated all 10 basic safety rules and ignored or disregarded 10 of 18 warning signs for danger before the fire turned deadly.

Now, the Thirtymile Fire is also remembered as the blaze that brought a new era for those in charge of fighting wildfires.

To some, it means that the people who make decisions about fighting wildfires are more accountable for their actions. They now know they can be criminally charged for negligent actions.

To others, it means fire managers now buy liability insurance, call lawyers after fatal fires, and clam up for fire investigations.

The changes are the result of two things.

In 2002 — one year after Thirtymile — Congress passed legislation requiring the Inspector General to review Forest Service fatal fires involving a burn-over.

And in 2006 — five years after the fire — Ellreese Daniels, a crew boss from Lake Wenatchee, was charged in federal court with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. He was the first Forest Service employee ever charged for the deaths of firefighters under his command. Those charges were dismissed in 2009 when he pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators, and served three months on work release.

Ken Weaver, whose son, Devin, died in the fire, said Thirtymile wasn’t the first time Forest Service fire officials ignored their own rules for fighting fires safely. “But for the first time, they saw someone prosecuted for that. I think that was a landmark event,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s as strongly motivating as the fear of retribution.”

Weaver said he doesn’t have anything personal against Daniels, and didn’t want to see him spend decades in prison. He blames the Forest Service for putting an incompetent fire manager in charge. But by charging Daniels, he said, fire commanders will now think twice before breaking their own rules.

Kathie FitzPatrick, whose daughter, Karen, also perished in the fire, sees it differently. “The fact that he was allowed to plea bargain and was let off was just really shocking to me, and I think to a lot of people,” she said.

She said that while fire managers know they can be charged, they also know they may not be fully prosecuted. “As far as safety and not exercising that kind of negligence again, it’s still left up to an honor system. If he had done jail time, and had more of a specific sentence, it might have been more cast in stone,” she said.

Those in the business of fighting fires see negative impacts.

“It’s not something we’re excited about,” Ken Snell, Forest Service fire director for the Pacific Northwest Region, said of the possibility of criminal prosecution. “No firefighter on any given day goes out there with the intention of hurting anyone.”

And as for the independent review by the Inspector General, he said, “I don’t want to say it wasn’t good, but it had an unintended consequence of shutting down or slowing our ability to learn” from fatal fires.

Snell said the agency now examines minor to moderate incidents or close calls to learn what mistakes are being repeated.

Dick Mangen, a retired Forest Service official who analyzes fire fatalities, said he thinks the changes have had a negative impact on firefighting.

“Unfortunately, four people lost their lives. There were obviously mistakes made at a number of different levels,” he said. “But the way it was (before Thirtymile), everybody else gets the benefit of learning from it, because it is free and open and everyone admits it. Now, there’s always the threat that when an investigation or review team comes in, if I tell them something it may be held against me.”

Fire commanders also know that the decisions they make in an instant, without full knowledge of the situation, and a prosecutor has years to pick apart each and every move and decide whether to file criminal charges.

“That has cast a fairly dark shadow over fire operations for a lot of people,” he said, adding, “Many have chosen not to take jobs that would put them in a liability situation anymore.”

John Maclean, author of The Thirtymile Fire published in 2007, said despite his shortcomings, Daniels should never have been prosecuted.

“It was certainly clumsy in its execution, and disastrous in its consequences,” he said. “People left the upper reaches of firefighting in droves, and today, they’re still having trouble filling incident command classes,” he said.

He said the changes won’t make fire managers more accountable.

“Forcing fire managers to obsess about process does not put out fires,” he said, “And having them always looking over their shoulder because they might be charged with felonies that would put them in jail for decades for what may have been a stupid mistake, but was an honest mistake, does nothing for the future of firefighting.”

In the end, Maclean said, the fire’s real legacy will be determined by whether people — especially fire officials — really pay attention to what happened.

“Are there instances where Thirtymile has saved lives? I can’t tell you that, but I suspect there are,” Maclean said.