Thirtymile fire, 9 years ago today

Thirtymile Fire

Thirtymile fire, July 10, 2001

The Thirtymile Fire (or 30 Mile fire) was first discovered during the evening of July 9, 2001. During the afternoon of July 10 high winds developed causing the Thirty Mile Fire in the Chewuch River Valley, north of Winthrop, WA to blow up and grow from approximately 5 acres to over 2500 acres within 2 ½ hours.

That afternoon twenty-one firefighters and two civilians were entrapped in a narrow canyon of the Chewuch River Valley. Fires shelters were deployed in an area surrounded by fire on all sides. Four firefighters were killed and another four firefighters and 2 civilians were injured.

Those killed were:

Tom L. Craven, 30, Ellensburg, WA;
Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18, Yakima, WA;
Devin A. Weaver, 21, Yakima, WA;
Jessica L. Johnson, 19, Yakima, WA.

Ellreese Daniels, the crew boss of those four firefighters, had been initially charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter after the four members of his crew were entrapped and killed. The charges were reduced to two counts of making false statements to which Mr. Daniels pleaded guilty on August 20, 2008. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 90 days of work release.

This was the first time that a wildland firefighter in the United States had been charged with felonies for decisions that were made on the fire line. It set a precedent and may forever change the profession. Since then, firefighters have been advised to “lawyer up” immediately after a serious accident on a fire. Many are hesitant to speak to investigators for fear of going to prison and ruining their lives and the lives of their families, which makes it difficult to glean any lessons learned from an unfortunate incident.

John N. Maclean wrote an excellent analysis of the charges against Mr. Daniels.

The Cantwell-Hastings bill that was signed into law in 2002 was a knee-jerk reaction to the fatalities on the Thirtymile fire. It required fatalities of U.S. Forest Service personnel on a fire to be investigated by the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s office — an office that had no experience or training in the suppression or investigation of wildland fires. The goal of the IG investigation would be to determine if any crimes were committed, so that a firefighter could be charged and possibly sent to prison. The  “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, House Bill 4488, introduced in January of 2010 primarily to improve the pay of wildland firefighters, would make this situation even worse, expanding the investigation requirement to include the Department of Interior agencies as well as the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture.

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On a side note, the Wikipedia entry about the Thirtymile fire is terrible and needs to be revised and fleshed out.

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

2 thoughts on “Thirtymile fire, 9 years ago today

  1. It’s a real shame that the important Lessons Learned on Thirtymile have been often overlooked because of all the attention paid to PL 107-203 and the criminalization of actions/decisions made on the fireline. While the loss of 4 firefighters is tragic, the lasting memory of Thirtymile will be it’s legacy of Liabilty for fire personnel in the 21st Century. We can never turn back the clock to earlier and simpler times, so the new message is to carry Personal Liability Insurance (PLI) and if things go wrong, “Lawyer Up”.

    • Dick is very correct on this.

      In my last few years with the NPS I strongly encouraged Fire/EMS/Law Enforcement staff to buy the liability insurance. When I last checked the agency would pay half of it.

      I found in several instances where supervisiors would not back up employees or change their stories about orders or instructions given.

      One the best lines I got from a supervisior was. “Do whatever you think is right, I will back you up as long as nothing goes wrong, if it does you are on your own”.

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