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Political Scapegoats?

by Roy E. Skelton and Terence L. McCabe |

After hearing the news and reading the paper about the Thirtymile Fire incident and the unprecedented punishment of local firefighters, we can no longer keep quiet and watch our fellow firefighters take the blame for a tragic accident. We have fought fire and managed fire for over 30 years. Between us we have 60 years of experience in a very high-risk occupation, which taught us that from time to time a series of events occur that result in a tragedy such as the one last summer. The Forest Service and other wildland fire management agencies do not need policy changes or reforms designed by Congress or other laypersons and non-fire personnel. The policy and safety procedures have been in place for many years, and have been hard-proven over time. Any improvements would require highly experienced wildland firefighters, not grieving, political, or monetarily motivated laypersons. We two highly experienced wildfire firefighters are wondering just what those improvements might be. Today, they are not teaching the crew boss that your people are your ultimate responsibility. All crew bosses and squad bosses are trained that if you can't meet the 10 standard orders and the 18 situations that shout "watch out," you don't go. We're sorry, but the bottom line is: It's the crew leadership that is responsible. If congressman Hastings and congresswoman Cantwell want to point fingers and look for scapegoats, they should look in their own backyard. They took away the budget and made professional firefighters into generalists who take on all jobs that have no financing or jobs that are considered beneath all the other so-called, "specialists/professionals," and still had to maintain their fire expertise. Whatever happened to the National Fire Plan? We know our national forests ramped up their firefighting organization because of the National Fire Plan and folks from Washington, D.C. promised the budget to fund the effort. Because of budget cut backs, fire managers now have to figure out ways of cutting costs and still maintain a safe and efficient workforce. If we look at it that way, then Congress is responsible for all firefighter deaths! Wildland firefighting is a highly dangerous occupation and does not need amateurs like Congress and OSHA interfering. Leave it to the professionals! Many top-level fire managers have very little fire experience. In fact, currently a person could become a crew boss or higher based on two or three fires and some training. In our day, we had to prove our skill by fire. It took about 50 fires to upgrade to the next level. Another problem is that other parts of the agency have not been taught the part of the book that has always taken precedence over the other "manual" procedures and restrictions: wildfire takes precedence over any other resource needs in a time of emergency. To have our local fire personnel blamed for the unfortunate deaths is wrong. To have our local fire personnel punished by a "stand down" and reassigned to non-supervisory positions is appalling. They have not even been told what they did wrong. We are ashamed of today's Forest Service, which is not backing its firefighters under adverse conditions. There was a time when it would. We have worked with the local people in question and support each and every one of them. We would follow them on any fire in any region; they have been there. We know they would not and did not violate any safety policy or procedure that would involve the unfortunate deaths of the young firepersons. Another problem: There has been too much emphasis put on teaching the fire shelter as a safety net. It is not and never has been. Our current day firefighters need to spend more time on avoiding these types of circumstances, not how to deploy a fire shelter. It is not rocket science. Once you have learned how to deploy a fire shelter, you should know how they work for the rest of one's career. We look at it this way: if you pop a shelter then you have made an extremely dangerous mistake. If a firefighter uses a shelter they are in the wrong place. We have never used them in our 30 years of fire experience and neither have the managers and crew bosses implicated of wrong doing at Thirtymile. We do not want to come across as uncaring. As fellow firefighters and parents of firefighters, we also grieve for the young firefighters who died and for their families. However, the fact is—and has always been—that the final responsibility for each and every crewmember lies within the crew itself. We have taught that for the last 30 years, and it remains true today. It cannot be any other way. Do not turn our remaining firefighters into political scapegoats. For that matter, do not allow the current agency administrators to hide behind our firefighters and use them as political scapegoats. We need them. Do you know there are very few qualified fire leaders left in the Methow! The qualified are on stand down. Who wants to fight fire now? ------------------- Roy E. Skelton and Terence L. McCabe, who authored this column, are both retired fire management officers from the Twisp/Winthrop ranger districts.