Letters from the West

Five retired firefighters ask and answer the hardest questions about safety

We are approaching the first anniversary of the deaths of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Ariz. The Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun by the fire June 30, repeating a tragedy that has become disturbingly familiar to westerners over the last two decades.

July 6 will mark the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., where 14 firefighters died, including McCall smokejumpers Roger Roth and Jim Thrash. Fire spotted below them on steep grade and they could not outrun it.

The same happened July 19, 2003, to Helitack firefighters Jeff Allen of Salmon and Shane Heath of Melba at the Cramer Fire northwest of Salmon.

There have been many more since, but only after last year has there been a new attitude about firefighting from both the public and the firefighting community itself. Today both recognize that no house, no grove of trees, nothing short of others’ lives is worth as much as a human life.

But no one has yet put this common belief into policy yet. That’s why five retired firefighters — three from the National Park Service, one from the U.S. Forest Service and one who worked with both agencies — have analyzed the deaths of firefighters since 1990. The group, which calls itself Safety Matters, published the report and sent it to the top fire managers at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise Monday.

They found that 61 percent of the fires involved journeyman firefighters, those with the experience and training that should have kept them safe. As they looked closer they found that all 44 firefighters who were killed by entrapment or burnover were fighting fires that were burning in extreme conditions.

Brush and mountainous, steep conditions were a factor in 100 percent of the eight fires, which all had escaped initial attack. In 88 percent an exceptional weather event was involved.

This got the Safety Matters team to examine some tough questions. How many lives were directly saved by efforts of these 44 firefighters? How many structures were directly saved by the efforts of these 44 firefighters?

“We believe none,” they said to both questions in their report.

How many "near misses" occurred during this time?

“We don't know,” they wrote.

Finally: “Why did 44 of the most highly trained and experienced firefighters perish in this manner if firefighter safety is truly our number one priority?”

The five retired firefighters — Dan O’Brien, Barry Hicks, Elizabeth Anderson, Mike Warren and Holly Neill — didn’t want these anniversaries to pass without the nation’s top wildland firefighters asking themselves that same question. They offer some steps that the NIFC leaders can take immediately.

• Do a benefit analysis of the values at risk such as homes, private property and public lands against the risk to firefighter’s lives.

• Develop an independent investigative body for serious accidents and fatalities.

• Require direct involvement of agency administrators and program managers, especially when fires escape initial attack and incident management teams are mobilizing or in transition.

• Establish standardized emergency communications protocol and uniformity in mapping systems.

But in the end they have to build on the shifting attitude of the public and their firefighting corps. When fire conditions are extreme, the only time firefighters should be fighting in extreme conditions is when lives are at stake.

That means a lot more homes are going to be destroyed. That means thousands of acres of forests will burn.

But a few more firefighters will come home and we might shift our efforts to reducing the threat of wildfires instead of just throwing lives and money at them when they arrive.