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Friday, July 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thirty Mile Fire continues to burn out of control; thunderstorms spark new blazes

Seattle Times staff reporters

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In the steep, rocky terrain of the Chewuch River Valley north of Winthrop, thunderstorms overnight were a mixed blessing for Washington's deadly Thirty Mile Fire, dumping about a tenth of an inch of rain overnight but sparking several new spot fires in the area.

Seven to 10 small fires were burning today in the Pasayten Wilderness Area to the north. Another spot fire was being attacked in the Twisp River Valley and another on Lucky Jim Bluff in the Methow Valley.

Though the Thirty Mile Fire was slightly dampened from the thundershowers, it continued to burn out of control today in the hot weather - around 80 degrees at noon and climbing.

"This bugger is a sleeping giant waiting to wake up," said fire behavior specialist Chuck Vickery.

Efforts to fight the fire were hampered yesterday by radio-communication problems and concerns about drinking water that had been brought in for crews Wednesday. It tested positive for a form of E. coli and firefighters were told to empty their canteens while more water was brought in.

No one was reported ill from the water, but the water and radio problems "cost us probably half a day," said fire information officer Don Ferguson.

Meanwhile, investigators began piecing together what led to the deaths of four firefighters in the blaze Tuesday.

"We do not want this to happen again," said Jim Furnish, a deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service who is leading the investigative team. "We are grieved at the deaths of these four young people. It is important our agency be held accountable."

The fire has consumed 8,200 acres in the tinder-dry Okanogan National Forest. Fueled by heat and wind, it exploded from a 25-acre blaze into an inferno Tuesday afternoon, trapping a fire team sent in to control it.

Investigators concluded interviews with survivors yesterday afternoon, Furnish said, calling the interviews "extremely productive. Some were quite lengthy - several hours."

It will be weeks before reports are ready, though, he said. "It's like putting together a 14-person jigsaw puzzle."

The four who died had deployed their emergency fire shelters but were engulfed by flames. Four other firefighters and two hikers were injured.

Crews worked yesterday to connect fire lines with hiking trails, roads and natural firebreaks, and officials were optimistic but had no estimates on how soon the fire might be contained.

"We feel good about it," said incident commander Joe Stutler. "We've got plenty of resources coming in and we're going to hammer it. You're not going to be reading about this fire in September."

Temperatures reached into the 90s again yesterday and humidity dropped as the morning gave way to afternoon, frustrating firefighting efforts. By last night, thunderclouds had rolled in, raising fears of lightning strikes.

The blaze is the nation's deadliest forest fire since 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo., in 1994, and the worst in Washington since 1974, when five firefighters were killed in an engine rollover.

The four who died in the Thirty Mile Fire, all from Central Washington, were Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg; Karen FitzPatrick, 18, of Yakima; Devin Weaver, 21, of Yakima; and Jessica Johnson, 19, of Yakima.

Investigators are reviewing the conditions, equipment and communications at the time of the tragedy, as well as the all-important human elements: the firefighters' actions and experience.

Two of the four killed were rookies who had recently graduated from high school in Yakima. In all, eight of the 21-person fire crew were inexperienced, according to Forest Service spokesman Mike Alvarado.

That's twice the recommended ratio, according to a firefighting expert.

A five-member squad should not have more than one rookie on it, said Billy Terry, Forest Service branch chief for fire training in Washington, D.C.

"Very, very, very seldom would you have more than one or two people on a squad at the very basic level," said Terry. He said he was unaware of the ratio of experienced to inexperienced people at the Thirty Mile incident.

"We try not to compromise that" ratio, Terry said. "From a span of control standpoint, if people under you understand what to do, the supervisors have an easier time."

One possible problem was an inadequate escape route, said Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service fire official in Missoula, Mont., who investigated most of the country's recent deadly burns, including Storm King.

"You always want to have an escape route as you go in," Mangan said. "In this case it wasn't an adequate escape route because it didn't work."

Authorities investigated the scene where the firefighters perished late Tuesday and viewed the bodies in place not long after the fire had moved through.

"It wasn't a place you would want to stay long," said Deputy Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan, who has been assigned to investigate the case.

Sloan described a bleak scene _ the area was still hot and smoky, with rocks clattering down the sides of the ravine and charred trees falling. He confirmed that all the dead firefighters had tried to get into their fire shelters before the blaze overran them.

"They were all at least partially covered or had deployed (their shelters)," he said. He said there were 13 shelters deployed in a cluster "probably within 100 feet of one another." Sloan could only wonder why some of the firefighters died while others escaped with minor burns.

"It was very odd, because you'd have one backpack on the ground intact, and just eight or 10 inches away, another that was totally consumed," he said.

The badly burned bodies were removed late Wednesday and transported to Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee, where autopsies will be performed.

Reporters and fire officials yesterday visited the site of the tragedy, a wide point in the forest-service road along the Chewuch River. Three firefighters deployed their shelters on a sandbar in the middle of the shallow river. Others deployed between the road and the river and the third group, including the four who died, pitched their shelters next to the boulders.

"When you go down the road you are unlikely to find a better place than this (to take cover)," said lead investigator Furnish.

Little red flags marked the site where the shelters had been, and paint outlined the spots where firefighters died, fire officials said.

Asked why the firefighters didn't try to save themselves in the river, as one survivor did, Furnish said: "You've got to come up for air and you're going to stick your nose or mouth up and breathe superheated air."

The burned-out hulk of a Dodge Ram pickup truck rested nearby, its camper shell melted into a pool of aluminum. The truck belonged to Bruce and Pauline Hagemeyer, campers who said they were saved by firefighter Rebecca Welch, who shared her one-person shelter with them.

Investigators found a "really poorly constructed campfire ring" yesterday that they believe caused the blaze about 1.5 miles from where the firefighters died, said Forest Service investigator Ron Pugh. Unidentified campers were apparently cooking hot dogs when they walked away, Pugh said. He said the fire may have started as early as Saturday or Sunday.

The Forest Service has set up a hotline seeking tips on any people camping near the Andrews Creek trailhead over the weekend. The phone number is 509-966-4005.

A Boy Scout troop hiking in the Pasayten Wilderness near the fire left the area yesterday, officials said. There may be 20 other hikers in the Pasayten, based on cars parked in the area, but officials don't know for sure because the fire burned the back-country registration boxes, said Jim Weed, Okanogan County manager.

Four helicopters circled the area yesterday, dropping wilderness rangers and weighted banners to warn backpackers to find an alternate route.

Meanwhile, the Libby South Fire, about 20 miles southwest of Winthrop, grew from to 3,300 acres by yesterday afternoon to 3,800 today. About 670 firefighters had been assigned to that fire, which is 48 percent contained. Another fire that had burned 2,500 acres of brush and scattered pines near Grand Coulee Dam was 85 percent contained.

Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Kelleher, Mike Carter, Eric Sorensen and Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

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