One Death is too many …


I have begun to do some research into this very dangerous job people take on — what works, and what doesn’t. It started with Cal-Fire’s recommendation regarding the Thirtymile Fire in 2001 up in Washington State which took the lives of 4 firefighters. Here, we were very lucky. No one died. No serious injuries were reported. Despite the extreme nature of the fire, and the houses lost, we were lucky.

The USFS conducted a full investigation of the Thirtymile fire, and among those investigating were Jeanne Pincha-Tulley. The report issued was a mind-opener. When I googled the Thirtymile fire, one report that came up had material for inter-agency usage. That of course got me interested. I read all 50 plus pages, plus appendixes, of this report that explained what went wrong, causing the death of these firefighters. So many factors played a roll, but one thing is clear, these men and women do not get enough time to recover. They are on alert for hours, and days at a time, leading to poor choices. Exhaustion can be critical in the decision making process. Command confusion is clearly another, equipment inadequacies or unavailability are another, and of course, underestimating the enemy is always a factor. Also, I just found this on http://www.wildlandfire.com:

“I just read that Judge Van Sickle will sentence Ellreese Daniels on August 18, 2008.”

Ellreese Daniels was the IC, a squad boss, and the first one ever criminally prosecuted for the death of firefighters at a wildfire. If you would really like to understand some of the things these wildland firefighters face, read this report. It can be found here:
http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/safety/investigations/30mile/30mile_report.pdf

Now, I’d like to find the report for the Esparanza fire of 2006 which caused the death of 5 firefighters and share it with you. These reports may open your eyes. In the Thirtymile fire, firefighters were not trying to save structures. They were simply trying to put out a wildfire.

It is easy to criticize the IC on the Basin Complex Fire, and I do think he made mistakes, and my discussions with Cal-Fire bear that out, but if you had lost your personnel, as Dietrich did in the Esparanza fire, would you have played it any differently? When you have thousands of tired men and women out in the field, fighting these fires up-close-and personal, would your decisions have placed lives at risk? Don’t get me wrong, there is still the issue of the mandatory evacuations, and the treatment of those who stayed behind to protect their properties; but these are separate issues.

We were lucky. No one died. Remember that. It is important.

9 thoughts on “One Death is too many …

  1. Last night on the news – 08/06/08 – they had a fire helicopter go down up north with 9 on board. I don’t have all the details, but pray for their finding them.

  2. Pendoodles, I deleted the smilie face, and your comment about it. I have been following the story of the helicopter crash, but haven’t checked this morning (Thursday), yet. 4 were hospitalized with burns, 1 or 2 critical, and 2 in serious condition. The other 9 are missing, and possibly dead, as of last night. Will check for more details.

  3. Kate:
    I applaud your effort into the resarch of what caused the deaths of these firefighters. And now……….more tragedy with the deaths of the 9 in the helicopter crash last night. We got the phone call last night that it wasn’t our Sons in that chopper. Any Mother out there who has a Son fighting fire knows what that feels like. And my heart breaks for the family members who got the other call?? My family has a long history of Firefighters in it. My uncle was the Chief for the San Jose Fire Department. My cousin is currently the Fire Marshall. Jim’s Dad, Uncles & Cousins all fought fires, as has he. It is a very emotional issue. The majority of Fireman do it because they have very kind, caring hearts & want to be of service to their fellow man.

    Going back to the statistics, California is experiencing the worst wildfire crisis in modern state history. On June 21st when the “Lightning Strikes” ocurred there were 1700 wildfires burning in California alone!! An estimated 750,000 acres have burned since then. Resources were stretched so thin that some fires were just left to burn. 3 Men died in those fires, & there were serious injuries as well as moderate. One Fireman lost his eye on the Basin fire. What category does that fall into??

    You had “Hot Shot Crews” jumping into the fire trying to build line. You had Hand Crews trying to build line. You had dozer operators trying to build line………. These guys weren’t just sitting on their hands without anything to do. When the Forest around you hasn’t burned for “50 Years” it doesn’t matter what your doing …………It’s going to Burn!!!

    So, you have to go back to prevention, which I think is what Don McQueen & the Pelican Network were talking about?? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

    I liked Rocky & Geri’s idea of helping each other with property clearance. Maybe we should have more discussion about that??

    Sand Dollar

  4. I hadn’t seen anything more about them finding the 9 people. Thanks for the update.

    Also Kate thanks for the delete. My fingers don’t type so well anymore.

  5. Good postings Kate.
    I can’t come to grips with the death of these nine firefighters in the Trinity Alps.
    Some things are too difficult to get your arms around and fully comprehend.

  6. I was so moved when I read this on the WFF site, I wanted to share it here. In memory of the 9 firefighters lost this week in Trinity Co.

    Here’s a poem from the Greyback Forestry Condolence site by Mr. Gordon Campbell. Mr. Campbell states

    “I am a father of a wildland firefighter currently on the Ramona Helitack crew in the Cleveland Nat’l Forest. Needless to say the recent crash in the Trinity Forest has been weighing heavily upon me. So heavily in fact that I was moved today to compose the following poem. Please feel free to use it in any memorial service that may be planned for the victims of this tragedy.”

    I SAW YOU UP THE MOUNTAIN

    I saw you up the mountain,
    Walking through the haze,
    In sooted turnouts dusty yellow,
    Cast dark against the blaze.
    I’m sure I did. You can’t be missed!
    You are someone I know.
    One I’ll never fail to see,
    Where ever I must go.

    It was where I fought beside you,
    And then cried as you were lost.
    Right there beside the memory,
    Of what our fight has cost.
    I know that’s where I saw you,
    And it’s where I see you still,
    All double-time and courage,
    As we charge another hill.

    I saw you at the base camp
    With your cup, and yes, a joke,
    And the rasping of your laughter,
    Meant to wash away the smoke.
    You were with me in the chow line
    At the table saying grace
    And I prayed like anything
    “Just once, Lord, let me see that face.”

    I saw you up the mountain,
    And I’ll see you there again,
    And in every place they send me,
    Where the fire is, and then,
    I’ll watch the plume rise upward,
    As it lilts from star to star
    Outward past heaven’s wild lands,
    To where you really are.

  7. The poem brought tears to my eyes as well. It is with so much sorrow and loss that we consider the heavy cost the firefighters may pay, with nothing more precious than that of their very lives. I looked at a photo of some firefighters standing in front of a residence on Partington with a WALL of fire coming at them, and was absolutely amazed. I know they’re trained for that, but really, you’ve got to have balls of steel (pardon the expression) to stand your ground in front of that searing, roaring heat, knowing that you could be incinerated in a flash, and that fire would just blaze right over you like you were an insignificant ant. Scary!
    Thank you Kate for your continuing research, countless hours spent, and for your scintillating intellect. You would be amazed at how many of us still routinely read your blog. Love your style, it’s so real, and yet conversational,and you can spell!
    Blessings,
    Lois DeFord

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