Although firefighting crews are well equipped with radios, critics of the federal firefighting system say emergency communications need to be improved to keep firefighters safe. This crew was at the Cascade Complex, in Idaho in 2007. (Kari Greer/USFS click to enlarge)

Although firefighting crews are well equipped with radios, critics of the federal firefighting system say emergency communications need to be improved to keep firefighters safe. This crew was at the Cascade Complex, in Idaho in 2007. (Kari Greer/USFS click to enlarge)

Retired firefighters; wildland colleagues in danger

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
— July 22, 2014

Five retired federal fire managers are criticizing a national wildfire group for failing to ensure firefighters’ safety by falling short on everything from decision-making to communications and even supplying crews with maps.

A year after the Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 firefighters in Arizona, agencies continue to send men and women into harm’s way without proper justification, protection or guidance, the five say. They began an online forum “Safety Matters” that has become the moniker for their campaign.Firefighter-read.more

Immediate changes are needed to better decide whether firefighters are deployed and to engage experienced supervisors faster when a fire expands, the group said. Top land administrators like National Forest supervisors should be directly involved with and responsible for fires and an independent group akin to the National Transportation Safety Board should investigate fatal incidents.

The critical review of 23 years of fatal burnings of experienced firefighters casts into doubt the nationwide mantra that firefighter safety comes first, co-author Dan O’Brien, a retired smokejumper and National Park Service manager said.

“Everybody makes that statement,” O’Brien said of the safety-first slogan. “In practice, that’s not the case.”

The group submitted its 16-page report to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group in Boise, Idaho, late last month, but has yet to see action. The coordinating group’s chairman, Dan Smith, who represent state forestry associations, disagreed with Safety Matters.

Smith met with other fire officials July 16 to talk about the report in a session he said was closed to the public. He would not be interviewed afterward.

“We cannot comment on the specifics of the report until we have carefully reviewed and analyzed it,” he said in a statement. The document has been referred to a committee “for consideration and response, commensurate with other priority projects.”

Promises, promises …

The deaths of firefighters invariably brings promises of vigilance and vows for improved safety. That happened in Wyoming in 1937 after 15 firefighters were burned to death in the Blackwater Creek Fire west of Cody, perhaps the first modern wildland firefighting disaster to provoke reforms.

“We owe these young men who have given their all … the duty that we shall endeavor to prevent future forest fires; and we shall dedicate our efforts to the end that the risks of fire-fighting be lessened,” Milward Simpson said at a memorial service.

Yet Safety Matters doesn’t see appropriate changes. In the year since Yarnell Hill, no initiatives have been made or announced, creating the impression the system is working, O’Brien said.

His review period starts just before the infamous South Canyon blaze killed 14 on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 1994. At that time, U.S Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas pledged, “to do all in our power to strengthen our management oversight,” John Maclean wrote in “Fire on the Mountain.”

When another crew of firefighters died at Yarnell Hill last year, “it was kind of a launch point for us,” O”Brien said. “If they’re really practicing firefighter safety, Yarnell shouldn’t have happened.”

Safety Matters group found similarities in the 44 burn deaths in eight different fires. In every case, the fire escaped the initial attack. Every death occurred in brushy mountains. In 88 percent of the deaths, fire danger rating was high or extremely high and an “exceptional weather event” like high wind contributed to the incidents.

At the same time, the critics contend, the efforts of the 44 firefighters who died saved no human lives. Nor did they prevent any homes from burning.

A firefighter on the line at the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico in 2011. Officials disagree with a group of retired firefighters that firefighter safety is not always given top priority. (Kari Greer/USFS click to enlarge)

A firefighter on the line at the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico in 2011. Officials disagree with a group of retired firefighters that firefighter safety is not always given top priority. (Kari Greer/USFS click to enlarge)

“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 report asks.

“Yarnell — That was a community where the homes had been evacuated,” said Ray Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics of Montana. “Nineteen firefighters were sent in to defend empty structures. You would think this country would be outraged by that.”

Dangers come early

Making a fast transition to experienced fire managers when a small blaze blows up is one recommendation. Frequently, a less experienced crew launches an initial attack. When that fails, it takes 24 hours to assemble a veteran supervisory team, O’Brien said.

“People are up for 24 hours,” he said of the initial crew. “The fire is moving rapidly. They’re in a handoff period. That’s where these fatalities are occurring.

“When the fire is rapidly accelerating, maybe the thing to do it get everybody off the fire line [and] say ‘We don’t have the resources to do this.’”

Firefighters, many of them young men working overtime hours in seasonal positions with few benefits, may not fully realize the dangers they face. While more women are on crews today firefighters are still “largely a testosterone-driven bunch of 20-year-olds,” O’Brien said.

This is witnessed by the display of Facebook selfies depicting firefighters in front of a wall of flame, he said. “They’re sort of discovering themselves — pushing and defining their limits.”

Such crews need supervision and direction from veteran managers, but that doesn’t always happen, O’Brien said. More federal administrators today come into their jobs without front-line firefighting experience than is traditional and they are more willing to let firefighters in the field make decisions.

“If you delegate your responsibility … to the fire people, if something goes bad, you can say “I felt comfortable with so-and-so making these decisions,” O”Brien said. Post-disaster, “the agency administrator says I’m not to be held accountable — call somebody else up about that.

“There’s got to be some level where you do not delegate your responsibility,” he said.

OSHA has issued citations and fines of $559,000 against the Arizona State Forestry Division in the Yarnell Hill blaze, “some of which are based on that assumption managers could have enhanced firefighter safety,” O’Brien said. “That finding was one of the first that did anything but find firefighters responsible for fatalities,” he said.

The citations are being contested.

While today’s administrators may not have fire-line experience, they also could be challenged by meager budgets. “If somebody cuts your budget by one-third and you still have the same responsibility, how are you going to manage that,” O’Brien said.

Protocol for analyzing fire threats at the administrator’s level doesn’t include a look at potential failures, and it should, Safety Matters said. Constant re-evaluation also is necessary.

“The risk level in fires goes up and down by the minute,” O”Brien said. “Somebody has to look at that and see if it warrants changing your actions.”

“Astounding” that crew didn’t have maps

When the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew from Prescott, Arizona, was facing its final minutes at Yarnell Hill, it radioed its plight. But it couldn’t say exactly where it was because it didn’t have maps.

“It’s astounding, isn’t it,” O’Brien said. “The best that crew could do without a map was say ‘We’re on the south side of the fire.’

“With moments to go, the air attack team was trying to figure out where they were.”

“Could these 19 firefighter fatalities have been safely prevented if the crew had been able to communicate their coordinates earlier?” Safety Matters asked. “This is one question that will continue to haunt the wildland firefighting community.”

Maps should be required, but are not. Further, wildland firefighters use different maps that display location in a variety of ways.

Location can be pinpointed by township, range and section; by Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate; by the Military Grid Reference System; or by longitude and latitude, which itself can be expressed in either decimals or degrees and seconds.

The group also said radio communications need to be significantly improved. There’s no system that confirms whether firefighters have received critical information — like a warning of approaching radical weather change. Nor are there rules banning chatter by the uninvolved during emergencies.

“The wildland firefighting community does not have a formally established procedure for critical emergency communications,” Safety Matters said. “It’s time for wildland firefighting to join the ranks of aviation and other emergency services with professional and standardized emergency communications.”

The upper echelons of the wildfire firefighting community is a closed society, Safety Matters said, and it needs to be permeated. Today, reviews of critical incidents can be undertaken by one of several groups, leading to confusion about who’s in charge or to be believed.

An independent review board akin to the National Transportation Safety Board, which can take as much time as it needs to reach conclusions, should be formed, Safety Matters said.

As more proof the system is in disarray, the critics point to the “10 Standard Firefighting Orders” (Keep informed of fire weather … etc.) and “18 Watchout Situations,” (Fire not scouted and sized up … etc.) Those used to be iron-clad, carved in stone.

“For better or worse, NWCG has taken the position that the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders are now to be considered guidelines and not absolute orders,” Safety Matters said. “No explanation has been issued by NWCG to explain why rules that have been in place for over 50 years are suddenly guidelines.”

Said O’Brien, “It illustrates the point,” that the national firefighting system can promote confusion.

At the national coordinating group in Boise, Smith’s colleagues contend there have been improvements. Fire officials supplied an accounting of “20 years of change in fire management” between Storm King and Yarnell Hill that would dispute the Safety Matters analysis. It covers what managers say is everything from risk assessment to responsibility to improving the professional culture.

“Firefighter and public safety are the top priorities in wildfire management,” Smith said in his statement. “All federal, state, and local agencies and tribes involved in wildfire management are continuously seeking ways to enhance firefighter safety at all levels of our organizations and welcome constructive input.”

Wildland Firefighters(click to enlarge)

Wildland firefighters (USFS — click to enlarge)

RESOURCES:

The Safety Matters report and letter can be found online, which allows comments.

Safety Matters Facebook page, including memorials to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

— Follow Safety Matters on Twitter: @ffsafetymatters  #SafetyMatters

— The National Interagency Fire information Center’s website includes historic information on firefighters’ deaths.

— Check out the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s homepage.

— Click here to read Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire inspection report.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He began working at the Jackson Hole News in 1978, and was editor of the Jackson Hole News and Jackson Hole News&Guide before joining WyoFile. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307) 690-5586. Follow him @AngusThuermer.

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Published on July 22, 2014

  • Brodie Farquhar

    As a journalist with a decade-old Red Card (BLM wildfire fighter certification), I tend to agree with the report by the retired wildfire fighters.
    We’re allowing young crews to put their lives on the line to save property, that in many cases cannot be saved because they’re not defensible. The lack of standard maps and rules for radio communication should be an easy fix. More problematic is the 24-hour handoff period between local/homegrown attack and bringing in pros (who are not always aware of local conditions).
    Ultimately, until the insurance industry cracks down and demands FireWise-level defensability of homes in the woods, then firefighting is just treating the symptoms, rather than the root cause.

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