Safety issues noted one day before Steep Corner Fire fatality

Anne Veseth, a 20-year-old firefighter from Moscow, Idaho, was killed August 12 while working on the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino, Idaho. The U.S. Forest Service firefighter was struck when one tree fell and crashed into another tree, causing it to fall in a domino effect.

On August 11, the day before Veseth was killed, the Flathead Hotshots arrived at the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association (CPTPA) station to work on the Steep Corner Fire. They were briefed, received a radio clone, and showed up at the fire about 2 p.m., where they located the CPTPA incident commander. He briefed them on tactical duties, according to the SAFENET report filed three days later, but “had to be prompted for specifics on everything else.” The hotshot report said there was no direct link to Grangeville dispatch, no information on EMS or weather, and no medical plan besides “call the county.”

The report listed a slew of other heads-up flags on the incident, including no mention of hazards and no direction other than “jump in the middle and work south.” The IC was wearing jeans, and the hotshots immediately noticed several other CPTPA personnel without PPE or shelters.

The Flathead superintendent told the IC that they’d go scout the fire before committing the crew, and the IC told him to head down the burned line through the middle of the fire. The hotshot foreman then briefed the crew, and they established their own LCES and posted the first lookout of the day on the fire. The scouting superintendent radioed back that no one should be sent down the burned line — which was still hot — through the middle of the fire because of snag hazards and previously cut log decks.

The hotshot superintendent said there were multiple cedar snags burning, and the fire was a lot more active than the IC’s briefing had indicated. The crew foreman then scouted the north line and met up with the superintendent, and they both tied in with a CPTPA person. They told him there were numerous hazards and snag-safety issues; he agreed, but told the hotshots that the tactic was to skip sections of the line with snag problems. The hotshots asked him for a contact for the crew that was out there working from north to south, but he didn’t have a contact — it was “just a hodge-podge crew.”

The hotshots noted that after a helicopter drop, people were asking each other, “Are you okay?” Their report notes that “the people directing the helicopter drops had no or little experience utilizing helicopters and were having the helicopters drop water without clearing the line of personnel.”

The hotshots said they “had huge concerns about the number of snags burning,” along with the size of the snags and the number of them that had already come down. “Hiking was extremely difficult due to the amount of dead and down, along with the steepness of the slope.” They’d already decided that they’d not be engaging on the fire until after the hazards were mitigated.

“We tied into another section of skipped line that was actively moving downhill. Another person standing close by was not wearing Nomex pants,” the report says. “We commented to him about the snag hazards, skipping sections of line tactics, active fire moving downhill, and the possibility of fire hooking the made-up crew. We then told him to call a helicopter to drop on the skipped sections line where no personnel were working, to halt fire spread and reduce chances of fire moving and hooking the crew. He did not respond.”

So the hotshot supe and foreman tied in with the hodge-podge crew and found “a bunch of CPTPA folks with no PPE and running saws without chaps,” along with an engine crew from the North Fork Ranger District of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. The hotshots spoke with the engine boss and told him of their concerns with snags, tactics, and other safety issues. He said he didn’t know who was in charge, whether the IC was really the IC, and what his plan was. He also told the hotshots that he was  “trying to help these guys out and keep his guys safe.”

“At this point, everyone on the fire seemed to be task-focused and mission-driven,” said the hotshots. “The only objective was to complete the handline. No one had an eye on the big picture or seemed to be in control or in charge.”

They told the engine boss that the situation was extremely unsafe. They said they weren’t going to engage, and that as USFS employees, “we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.” The engine boss agreed and said that snags and communications had been an issue all day.

The hotshots then told a CPTPA staffer about the safety issues and said that a helicopter should be put onto the line sections that had been skipped. His response? “We are just doing the best we can with what we got.” He asked the hotshot supe and foreman to put their crew on the skipped sections, but they replied that they were not bringing the crew down there. They repeated to him that the line breaks should be hit with water drops from the helicopter.

They then headed south to the lower corner of the fire, where they “found it burning actively in a drainage filled with heavy dead and down and a receptive bed of fine fuel underneath. At this point we could see the prison crew digging line downhill into this drainage with fire below them.”

They then repeated to the CPTPA staffer that he should get a helicopter drop on this area. He didn’t.

“We hustled up the line and tied into the prison crew overhead and informed them of what was going on below them. This didn’t seem to concern them. Their concern was the falling snags and rolling rocks coming down the hill.”

The prison crewboss told the hotshots that they’d been chased up the hill several times by fire below them, and they’d encountered troubles with big rocks coming down the hill. “At this time a huge snag came down above us and started rolling down through the standing trees,” said the two hotshots. The prison crewboss commented, “That is the sound of the day.”

The hotshots called the CPTPA staffer again and told him to get helicopter drops on the fire below the prison crew because it was hooking them. They got no response. As they headed up the hill, someone called to get clear, because bucket drops were coming in. The fire was still moving uphill and into more dead and down fuels, and one of the hotshots contacted air attack and requested a bucket drop on the heat. Air attack offered two helicopters, and the hotshot began working them.

About this time, another member of the hotshot crew met up with the Forest Service engine boss as he and his crew were headed uphill to get off the fireline. The engine boss told him that he’d talked to the CPTPA staffer about the lack of LCES, the snag hazards, and medevac spots — and he was also told, “We’re doing the best we can with what we have.” The engine crew hiked off the line.

The hotshot directing the helicopter drops told air attack to keep up the drops, and the two hotshots again encountered the prison crew, along with more CPTPA personnel with no PPE, no Nomex, and no shelters. The prison crew members said they were slow because they had some injured members on the crew.

“We made our way to the road on top of the fire out of harm’s way,” said the hotshots. They sat down and wrote out a list of 10 & 18 violations, safety concerns, and solutions to mitigate them. They then walked over to where the IC was with a group of CPTPA personnel, and they told the IC they wouldn’t engage the crew “because we have standards and protocols we need to follow.” The IC told them he’d just have to send them home.

The hotshots told him they had a list of safety concerns, and they read him the list. He responded that he was working with “a different set of values” and that “we do things differently.” He asked for the list and they gave it to him.

The hotshots then left the fire, drove back to the CPTPA station, and called dispatch.

According to the SAFENET report, this was the hotshots’ list of safety concerns on the Steep Corner Fire, along with their suggestions for mitigating the hazards.

  • Unmitigated Watchouts: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 17
  • Violated Standards: 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10
  • No LCES
  • Lack of command structure: No one seemed in control.
  • Snags
  • Gravity hazards
  • Total reliance on air resources
  • Poor communications
  • Mixed crews with no leadership
  • Using the wrong kind and type of resources for the job

Solutions:

  • Unified Command USFS/CPTPA T3 Org with DIVS’s and OPS
  • Pro Saws with FELB
  • More T1 Crews
Share

19 thoughts on “Safety issues noted one day before Steep Corner Fire fatality

  1. Great write-up, Kelly. And, excellent work, Flathead Hot Shots, in being accountable for your own safety when no one else was. And now that this has been brought to light, what happened the next day is now even more tragic and unforgettable.

    • Kudos to the Flathead Hotshots for doing what Hotshots do. So why did Anne Veseth have to die for these safety concerns to come to light? Where is management’s accountability? We are our brother’s keeper.

      God speed Anne and prayers to her family.

  2. Wow this is ridiculous it is a wonder there wasn’t more fatalities on this fire although it is very tragic that there was one to me this needs to have a lot more done about the lack of LCES 10 standard fire orders and the 18 watch outs I applaud the hot shots for keeping their people safe it’s a shame to see an agency who doesn’t care about these rules and orders that people have died in order for them to become our foundation of all fire engagement

    • The Flathead ‘shots DID THE RIGHT THING, times ten. Safety officers across the West are shuddering. Godspeed Little Anne …

  3. Obviously the mitigations wre not in place or sufficient the next day…where was the oversight from higher ups….where?????? NO feds should have returned until a complete turnaround and mitigation measures were completed….sad, sad deal….

  4. Great job, we have policies and protocols for good reason, and those reasons are tied directly to injuries and fatalities. Thanks for making sure this story was told. I admire this crew’s dedication, integrity and proffesionalism. The cost of controlling this incident was too high.

  5. Regarding the SAFENET, what is the protocol in following up on the concerns that were identified?
    Anyone know?

  6. Tragic doesn’t even begin to explain this situation. As a manager, I have personnel out on assignments and it makes me stop and think,”have I given them all the tools they need”.
    Good job Flathead Shots!!

  7. Sad. When reading this I thought I was back in WV in the mid-90s where I saw much the same.

  8. I hope the said “IC” from CPTPA, who said he was working with “a different set of values” and that “we do things differently,” is having trouble sleeping at night. I expect litigation on behalf of Ms. Veseth will fix some attitudes (and practices). Sadly, too late.

    • Agree wholeheartedly, John, but you know what? It’s NEVER too late to fix safety issues. The CPTPA website was overloaded today. Guess why. I hope those who can will hold them accountable.

      While I do not agree with “the new theme” of charging incident commanders with negligence for “shit happens” on a fire, I do think that in THIS case, at least one person oughta be held accountable.

      • Agreed, Kelly: it’s never-ever too late to address safety issues, and only diligence on everybody’s part can make sure those at risk are safe. My point was regarding Ms. Veseth – it is horribly tragic that it was too late for *her*, in spite of the Flatheat IHC’s diligence and warnings to the IC.

        To be clear Hank (below): I do NOT advocate litigation to punish or “fix” the IC or his agency. However, “I expect” a lawsuit (or even criminal charges?) will most likely be filed – that seems the norm in our society (as Kelly says, “the new theme” regarding negligence).

  9. I echo the comments regarding the heads-up approach the Flathead Shots took in this instance. Unfortunately, I don’t agree with John N’s comment regarding litigation. As a engine operator and squad boss for 10 years in wildland fire (4 with a public operator similar to CPTPA, and 6 with the USFS), I was always saddened to see families sue the USFS or other agencies over fatalities. We were always trained that it was OUR responsibility to make sure we were in a safe (as you can get) situation. We were trained to question orders that violated the 10, or raised unmitigated concerns with the 18. It’s tragic that this young woman gave her life on a fire where overhead was as bass-ackwards as they come, but she was out there doing a job that she darn well knew was dangerous, and should have taken the steps necessary to protect herself and those around her. Should people be fired? Sure. Pensions surrendered? Sure. Should CPTPA practices be put under the microscope, and sweeping changes made? Sure, but suing these public fire entities for millions of dollars doesn’t bring back your kid/spouse, and isn’t the right way, in my mind, of “fixing” these problems with the fire system. Interagency fire fighting (not to mention interagency IMT2 and IMT1 overhead teams) is always going to be plagued with a lack of true standards for safety.

  10. Thanks for having this article Bill. My engine was just released from the Steep Corner. It was probably one of the steepest fires I’ve worked and we experienced more hazard trees than I’ve ever seen. I hope that, rather than pointing fingers at the CPTPA, angencies and other firefighters can encourage, train, and help them adopt some more “modern” protocals. The CPTPA is comprised of locals, most of whom are loggers, who are passionate about their land and their timber. Between all the different agencies, contractors, and agendas that are on the fire line, WE NEED TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WORK BETTER TOGETHER for a safer and more succesful environment. Thanks

  11. This story is from 30 or more years ago. When the wild fire business and lumber was good ol boys. That was it . can do,,shut up and dig. “my trees and way of life are more important than human life.
    I hold accountable the neighbors of this “CPTPA”. this scenario should have been seen by the Fire fighting agencies next to CPTPA before this ignition. These neighbors should have insured that the CPTPA and its people as cooperaters/ were on board with finding the hazards, risks and having a safe action plan framed before this event started, with how we do busines. The area that burned and the tree that fell have been that way for a while and was certainly not a suprise.

  12. This was not a accident,this was negligence. Accidents are unplanned events…this situation, and the tragedy that followed the next day, was clearly “visible” to the Flathead IHC Sup. ,as he refused the assignment for his crew. Good for him. I really dont blame the IC …its those people that would put him in charge of other peoples well being that should be held accountable……clearly this person was not trained/skilled in the art of wildland firefighting and his/her superiors should have known that. This is very dangerous business on typical years, never mind when conditions/indices around ID and other states had been beyond extreme.

Comments are closed.