Letters from the West

Incident commander loses post after firefighter-rancher confrontation

The incident commander of a team of firefighters who left a line because of their fear of unhappy local landowners has lost his post.

Chris Ourada has been taken off the Great Basin Type 1 Incident Management Team, one of 15 elite units brought in to manage large fires and other national emergencies, such as hurricanes.

Ourada, of Idaho Falls, remains in his post with the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, but will not serve as an incident management team commander. Ourada declined to comment, but in an email obtained by the Statesman confirmed that he lost the post.

“This is going to be hard so I will just say it. Today my Type 1 qualifications were revoked so I will no longer be a part of Great Basin Team 2,” he wrote to colleagues. “If you have questions, you can probably contact your section chiefs and they can fill you in.”

The move came after a regional Forest Service board reviewed his handling of an incident during the Tepee Fire near Riggins in early September.

An unidentified firefighter filed a report on the National Interagency Fire Center’s SAFENET page raising safety concerns. The report was published in the Web magazine Wildfire Today, along with a response from the landowners of Mountain View Elk Ranch on the West Fork of Lake Creek east of Riggins.

The incidents began Sept. 2, when fire behavior was still extreme. It ended four days later, after cooler temperatures and rain reduced the ferocity of the fire that had closed the Salmon River Road for most of the month.

A Hotshot crew had walked off the line after landowners and federal law enforcement officers had faced off with pistols on their hips. Ourada and other fire managers later met with the landowners and agreed to dig a “check line” to keep the fire from burning onto the private land.

But the Hotshots who had originally said they felt threatened by the landowners refused to do the work, despite Ourada’s direct order. Another crew built the line, but one of the original Hotshot members filed the report saying that Ourada had ordered them into an unsafe situation.

The website is a place where firefighters can report safety issues anonymously; firefighters are permitted to decline to fight if they believe their safety is threatened.

Forest Service officials declined specific comment. Sue Stewart, director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service in Ogden, Utah, said that safety is always the top priority for the U.S. Forest Service.

“Professional firefighters review all reports in SAFENET and ensure that appropriate actions are taken to correct any behaviors, systems or communication issues that could put firefighters at risk,” Stewart said. “The Tepee Springs incident was thoroughly reviewed and appropriate actions were taken.”

The Tepee Fire is still burning and flared up last weekend when high winds blew through, burning several hundred acres of public land in the drainage where the incident took place. No more private land burned.