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Report on fire deaths shows shift in attitude

by Webmaster |

U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Jack Troyer looked into the eyes of the parents of two dead firefighters Jan. 6 and placed the blame for the deaths on managers of his agency.
"They told us the boys did nothing wrong," said Jodi Heath, mother of 22-year-old Shane Heath.

A report released two weeks ago said Forest Service managers on the fire, in the ranger district office in North Fork and in the supervisor´s office in Salmon all carry responsibility for the deaths of Heath, of Melba and Jeff Allen, 24, of Salmon.

Troyer´s words, welcomed by the families, represented a shift away from a time when the deaths of firefighters were considered unavoidable casualties, like soldiers killed in battle.

This shift was a remarkable contrast to the deadliest fire of the last decade, the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, where 14 firefighters — including McCall smokejumpers Jim Thrash and Roger Roth — were trapped in conditions remarkably similar to those that doomed Heath and Allen. After that fire, the investigation report largely blamed the firefighters for their own deaths. Managers on that fire were given awards.

But since four firefighters were trapped and killed in the Thirtymile fire in Washington in 2001, the call for more accountability on behalf of Forest Service managers has grown. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said each incident must be studied and looked at individually, and he cautioned against an over-reaction that might keep people from seeking fire jobs.

But the University of Idaho graduate who was the son of a forest ranger is turning the rudder on the agency´s culture away from a time when putting out all fires was, as author Stephen Pyne wrote, "the moral equivalent of war." As the decisions on when, where and how to fight fires change, Bosworth is seeking to ensure the safety of firefighters and the public.

"We are going to hold people accountable when they don´t do what they´re supposed to," Bosworth said.

Some critics, especially families of the four lost in the Thirtymile Fire, are skeptical. Kathie FitzPatrick of Yakima lost her 18-year-old daughter, Karen, when the fire cut off her escape route. She died, FitzPatrick said, praying.

The Forest Service disciplined 11 people after her death but no one was fired, and as federal workers, they were shielded from private lawsuits.

"What´s heartbreaking to all of us is we were hoping that no more parents would be getting the news that their young firefighters had died," FitzPatrick said. "Now it happened again."

In the last two decades, the Forest Service orthodoxy that all fires must be put out has been scientifically undermined. The agency´s scientists now recognize that a century of fire suppression has built up fuels across the nation´s 191 million acres of national forest.

Foresters must restore fire to the forest ecosystem, Bosworth said. But with hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses built deep in the hearts of forests, simply allowing fires to burn is no answer.

Even if firefighters jump on every ignition as soon as possible — some years stopping 97 percent of all fires — those that ignite can grow into giant fires that often threaten communities dozens of miles away.

This makes the decision-making of forest managers and fire bosses more complex than ever.