U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth today accepted the final investigative report of the Thirtymile Fire and vowed changes to help prevent future fire fatalities.
“The loss of these four firefighters is a tragedy that we must learn from,” Chief Bosworth said during a morning news conference. “We have had experts inside and outside the agency gather facts, review them and make recommendations. From these, I expect to initiate changes in management and policy that will make fighting fires a safer business.”
Following private briefings with victims’ families, Chief Bosworth and Deputy Chief Jim Furnish met with media, community leaders and firefighters to review findings of the Thirtymile blaze, which killed four firefighters north of Winthrop, Wash., on the Okanogon-Wenatchee National Forest on July 10, 2001. The four are Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver.
Furnish headed a 13-member investigative team including a lead investigator from the private sector with experience investigating nearly 50 fatal accidents. The team established the facts of the fire by conducting 125 interviews with 60 people and by examining physical evidence, weather data, equipment, records and the fatality site. A separate seven-member Accident Review Board, chaired by Tom L. Thompson of the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, reviewed the findings and developed recommendations to prevent similar accidents.
The review board’s recommendations:
- Ensure fire managers and firefighters are fully aware of the fire situation and have decision-making abilities necessary for both managing fire team transitions and in reacting to significant changes in the fire.
- Develop a program to counter the effects of fatigue.
- Strengthen command and control performance of agency administrators and fire managers.
- Critically review fire management leadership programs nationally.
- Improve fire program safety management by adopting and aggressively implementing proven components of a comprehensive safety program.
- Continue to improve firefighters’ personal protective equipment.
- Clarify the relationship between the Endangered Species Act and fire suppression actions to establish a coherent process that accounts for ESA requirements with respect to the full range of fire suppression activities.
Chief Bosworth said that while there appeared to be some confusion at the time over whether water could be taken from Chewuch River, ESA regulations do not forbid it and, in fact, a 1995 memorandum by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directs that firefighter safety comes first.
After reviewing the recommendations, Chief Bosworth said he will announce specific policy and management actions after reviewing the recommendations. Other changes could come after a separate Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration review is completed.
“Make no mistake,” Chief Bosworth said, “these deaths and injuries affect me very personally. My heart is with their families, friends and co-workers. I will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that everything possible is done to enhance the safety of our firefighters.”
For copies of the report and more information, visit the Forest Service website: www.fs.fed.us.