Sunday, September 23, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rules broken to fatal effect in July 10 wildfire

Seattle Times staff reporters

In the hours and minutes before a July wildfire trapped 14 firefighters, killing four of them in a pinched valley in north-central Washington, fire crews and their leaders broke critical safety rules and did not heed clear warning signs that the aggressive blaze had grown too perilous to fight.

On Wednesday, the federal government is expected to release results of an investigation into what went wrong July 10 along the Chewuch River in the Okanogan National Forest.

The investigation will be scrutinized. The fire service has been criticized for the way it investigates itself, with even members of the fire community questioning whether federal wildland fire agencies have learned from similar tragedies.

Forest Service officials have declined to discuss the report before its release.

But Seattle Times interviews with Forest Service firefighters who battled the Thirty Mile fire point to a chain of mishaps and mistakes that possibly began the night before and then multiplied on a griddle-hot afternoon in a canyon choked with drought-cured wood.

As the afternoon progressed, the errors and their consequences worsened with the flames. Several firefighters weren't told the Forest Service road they traveled was a dead end.

And in the day's deciding moment, crews were sent up the road to battle fires thrown from the main blaze — itself a warning sign of a fire's liveliness — despite a cardinal rule that firefighters always have two escape routes.

Several minutes later, the crews' only way out was cut off by voracious flames.

One firefighter trapped that day returned Sept. 11 to where Tom Craven, 30; Karen FitzPatrick, 18; Devin Weaver, 21; and Jessica Johnson, 19, fought fire and died.

Squad boss Thom Taylor, 30, trod the forest's matchstick remnants, ticking off the fateful decisions leaders had made: decisions he and others didn't question.

He kicked at a new shoot, lime-green against the charred ground, evidence that nature already was reclaiming itself.

"What in this drainage was worth four people losing their lives?" Taylor asked. "Nothing."

Runaway campfire

On the night of July 9, a runaway campfire was sighted along the Chewuch River Valley 30 miles north of Winthrop, Okanogan County.

The Entiat Hotshots, an elite crew of firefighters, worked the blaze overnight. Pumper trucks at the scene were sent home, unused. In the morning, a crew of 21 firefighters, mostly seasonal employees and several rookies, arrived to spell the Hotshots.

When the crews got to work, their progress was plagued by problems. Pulaskis broke. A water pump malfunctioned and the repair kit lacked a needed wrench. Dispatchers waited two hours before sending a water-dropping helicopter to the fire.

The day quickly grew hot and the fire, becalmed by night, grew restive. A message to rouse the Hotshots sleeping two miles away went undelivered temporarily; the Hotshots did not return until roughly 90 minutes after they were requested.

By midafternoon the blaze breached fire lines. The crews retreated to the riverside road to eat lunch and rest, and watched flames race up the 3,000-foot southeast wall of the canyon.

The assistant fire-management officer of the Methow Valley Ranger District, Barry George, arrived and asked the group, led by 24-year Forest Service veteran Ellreese Daniels and crew-boss trainee Pete Kampen, to keep the fire from crossing the road and torching the canyon's northwest wall.

"I did not feel that that was an unreasonable request at all," said Harry Dunn, an engine foreman, referring to George's request. "We were not at the head of the fire at that time," Dunn said. "The head of the fire was on the east slope."

Soon Dunn, who was working up the road, reported "spot" fires threatening to cross the road a few hundred yards up the canyon. The resting firefighters were ordered into action.

At this point, said several people at the scene, critical rules were broken.

'Ten Standard Fire Orders'

In the world of wildland firefighting, safety tactics are distilled to a list of 10 commandments, "Ten Standard Fire Orders." Crew leaders are responsible for their firefighters' safety, and each firefighter is supposed to know and obey those safety rules, and to speak up with any concerns.

Not all firefighters on July 10 had enough information to comprehend their situation. And still others did not speak up when they could have.

Among the fire orders firefighters said were violated:

• "Ensure that instructions are given and understood." Members of the crew sent up the road to tackle the spot fires were not briefed about the strategy that afternoon, said several firefighters. "We were just told to get in the van, we're going to check spot fires," said Matthew Rutman, a rookie firefighter.

"When we got up there, we never got briefed by the IC (Incident Commander)," added Tim Schmekel, whose Methow Valley Ranger District engine crew had arrived at the fire that afternoon.

"Determine safety zones and escape routes." Before fighting the spot fires, leaders did not announce new "safety zones" where firefighters could retreat and not be harmed by flames, said several firefighters. Multiple escape routes, or the paths that lead to the safety zones, were not established on the dead-end road. Some firefighters did not know that the road was a dead-end until after they were trapped.

"We even made a joke of it: 'Where's our escape routes? Where's the safety zones?' said Schmekel, an assistant foreman and five-season veteran. "Why didn't we say anything?"

While his group was awaiting instructions, Andy Floyd, an assistant engine foreman who also worked the fire that afternoon, pulled out a card listing the fire orders and caution signs.

"I said, 'Funny, we don't have safety zones and escape routes identified. Should we do something about this?' " Floyd, who has fought fires for eight seasons, recalled saying.

But, "the fire was not doing a whole lot. It was burning up the other side of the valley, away from us," he said. "Dave (Laughman, an engine foreman) and I just kind of exchanged glances, and kind of gave a little shrug.

"And that was about it."

• "Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts." Although the weather July 10 was expected to be like the previous day — extremely hot and dry, with drought conditions — the fire crew did not get an updated forecast that morning, Kampen said in an interview after the fire.

Later that day the Hotshot crew took weather readings, but information about the near-record temperatures and single-digit relative humidity was not well-distributed, according to some firefighters.

Such information would have reminded leaders that conditions were ripe for a "blow-up," an extraordinary increase in fire size.

• "Initiate all action based on current and expected fire behavior." In interviews, some firefighters on the scene, including some of the day's leaders, said the fire was moving away from them but then unexpectedly lashed back through green shrubbery and thick trees as part of a blow-up.

But there were "all sorts of warning signs" that a big fire could erupt on July 10, said Mark Finney, a Forest Service research forester familiar with the behavior of the Thirty Mile fire that day.

Dry, tightly packed spruce and fir grew along the valley and up its walls. Firefighters are taught to beware of fires in such steep places because flames surging up one side can leap to the other.

• Another problem was unrelated to the crews and the fire orders. Just after noon, Kampen asked dispatchers to send a waiting helicopter to dump buckets of water on the fire. Dispatchers delayed for two hours in the erroneous assumption that water could not be pulled from a river containing threatened fish without permission, the Forest Service said.

In an interview after the fire, Daniels, who oversaw Kampen, said, "I think if we'd had the water when we'd asked for it, none of this would have happened."

• Another decision may not have been a mistake, yet haunts some firefighters.

The night the fire was discovered, local Forest Service engines responded with two pumps and nearly a mile of hose. The superintendent of the Hotshots, Marshall Brown, sent the engines home.

The Hotshots leader told the engine crews to go home because some members had worked all day, it was dark, and they were to be on call the next day, firefighters said.

"We could have really taken most of the fight out of the fire with what we had there," said Floyd. As the pumper trucks returned home, the crew was frustrated to hear the Hotshots ask dispatchers for hoses and pumps to be delivered the next morning.

Repeated attempts to reach Brown and his crew for this story were unsuccessful.

Brown's decision was not a mistake, some firefighters said. But several said it reflected how the Thirty Mile fire never got the respect or attention it deserved, in large part because officials were distracted by an out-of-control, 1,000-acre fire south of Winthrop pressing toward 50 homes.

From the beginning, "This fire was saying, 'Don't mess with me,' " said Schmekel. But "everyone was so focused on the Libby South fire that Thirty Mile was nothing but a campfire to them."

• Along with the fire orders, firefighters are taught 18 warning signs that can augur danger. In interviews, several firefighters acknowledged as many as half of those 18 were present that afternoon. Among them: spot fires jumping the fire line; unclear instructions and assignments; firefighters could not clearly observe the main fire; and unburned fuels separated firefighters from the main fire.

Several firefighters also said that though conditions concerned them, they were loath to speak up because they felt uncomfortable doing so, or because they trusted their leaders, who seemed comfortable.

"I'll be honest with you, I was pretty scared. But when I saw Barry (George) there, and Marshall (Brown) there, and air attack above, that kind of dropped away," said Floyd. Gabe Jasso, another supervisor, was monitoring the fire from a plane above.

Now, their quiet haunts some of them.

"I'm just as at fault as Ellreese (Daniels) and Pete (Kampen) and Barry," said Taylor. As a squad boss on July 10, Taylor was in charge of about a half-dozen younger firefighters within the 21-person crew. "I failed to do a lot of things after lunch," he admitted. "I put my trust in other folks."

Daniels, the fire's commander after lunch who was Kampen's trainer, did not return calls seeking additional comment about the day's decisions. Kampen said, "Sitting in an air-conditioned office after the fact, you can make all kinds of judgments.

"In the heat of the moment you make the best decisions you can."

Flames cross the road

Fourteen firefighters became trapped when the flames charged across the road and blocked their exit.

The trapped group found a wide spot along the road, bordered by a rock slope and the river. In an interview after the fire, Daniels said he thought the oncoming flames would bypass them. Others said they suspected a burnover was likely, but the group did not prepare for the worst.

The crew had time, Taylor said, to clear large timber that could endanger them if flames approached. But he said Daniels told him it was unnecessary.

Several people watched the oncoming fire from rocks adjacent to the road and were caught off-guard when the blast hit. Though a basic manual for firefighters, "Know Your Fire Shelter," instructs firefighters to deploy shelters close together, the firefighters on the rocks ran farther up the slope and deployed their shelters.

Four of six firefighters caught on the rock slope above the road perished. All who deployed on the road survived.

The report "should be critical, and changes should happen," Kampen said. "Four people died; something went wrong. And it wasn't one thing. Many things went wrong, and it all adds up" to a tragedy, he said.

Chris Solomon can be reached at 206-515-5646 or Craig Welch can be reached at 206-464-2093.


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