North Carolina: firefighter dies in fall from cliff

A North Carolina Forest Service firefighter who fell off a cliff at Big Bradley Falls and died has been identified as Curtis Jessen, the division’s assistant district forester in Asheville. Jessen suffered critical injuries after falling from the Big Bradley Falls near Saluda. Medical personnel pronounced Jessen dead a short time later.

“This is a very sad day for the entire Division of Forest Resources and all of our firefighting partners,” said Wib Owen, the director of the Division of Forest Resources. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Curtis and his family.”

Jessen, 32, was working on the fire when he fell from a cliff. Authorities are investigating the circumstances surrounding Jessen’s fall and the fire.

Jessen began working with the N.C. Division of Forest Resources in February 2002. Since that time he has worked as a forest inventory analysis forester and a service forester before being promoted to assistant district forester.

From BlueRidgeNow

Wildfire news, August 21, 2008

East Slide Rock Ridge fire

I hate the name of that fire. Whatever happened to one-word names of fires?

But aside from the stupid name, the fire use fire is doing stupid things by starting to burn outside the Jarbidge Wilderness Area of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near the Nevada-Idaho line. The fire has been managed as a fire use fire, not being suppressed, for the last two weeks. However, over the last 2 days it grew from 3,296 acres to over 8,000 acres.

Firefighters are using “multiple air tankers” in an attempt to keep it within the wilderness area in northeast Nevada. One five-person squad and a Division Supervisor were assigned to the fire, but four 20-person crews, engines, and dozers have been ordered.

Helicopter lost power before crash

Some initial findings from the National Transportation Safety Board conclude the Sikorsky S-61 that crashed on August 5 lost power to the main rotor as it took off from the helispot. The NTSB said the ship came to rest on its left side before bursting into flames. Nine on board died, including seven firefighters, a USFS check pilot, and one of the pilots.

Update:

KDRV reports:

Investigators say the crash was similar to other Sikorsky S61 helicopter crashes. In four other instances, the helicopters crashed as they were lifting off due to a clutch mechanism failure. The helicopter belonged to Grants Pass-based Carson helicopters. At this point Carson is not grounding any of its choppers. 

The AP has this information:

A fire-damaged voice-data recorder salvaged from the burned aircraft was sent to its British manufacturer, which determined that both the cockpit voice recording and flight data contained on the device were still intact, NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak said. The agency plans to analyze the data in the coming weeks, she said. 

18 structures burn in Swanson Lake fire

The fire is 4 miles southwest of Creston, Washington and has burned 19,000 acres, as well as 1 residence, 2 seasonal cabins, and 15 other buildings.

Update on Bridge Creek fire

This fire use fire in central Oregon that escaped from the Maximum Manageable Area on August 16 and burned onto private land is now 45% contained and has burned 4,902 acres, 2,291 of them on private land. The fire received from .05″ to .15″ of rain.

Ellreese Daniels' sentencing – a perspective from inside the courtroom

We received this from Dick Mangan. It is reprinted with his permission.

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Friends – my day was spent in the Federal Courthouse in Spokane, attending the Sentencing Hearing for Ellreese Daniels.

As most of you are well aware, he was originally charged in December 2006 with 11 felonies; in May 2008, just a few days before the trial, the US Attorney offered a plea agreement of two (2) misdemeanors of making a false statement in an Administrative hearing. Rather than risk a jury trial on 11 felonies, Ellreese agreed.

The Judge sentenced Ellreese to 90 days in a “Work-Release Facility” where he’ll work a job during normal hours and then return to a lock-down center at night. He also gets 3 years probation, and will not be active again in wildfire activities on the line.

Not great by a long shot, but way better than taking a risk that a jury “of his peers” in Spokane would find him innocent of all 11 felony charges. Ellreese keeps his USFS job and future retirement, is NOT a convicted felon, and most importantly, can get on with his life after more than 7 tortured years!

Some Observations:

1. The US Attorney Tom Hopkins allowed family members of the deceased to offer comments: Karen Fitzpatrick’s mother read from a 4-5 page prepared statement, critical of Ellreese and the USFS; Devin Weaver’s father offered 15-20 minutes of emotionally charged off-the-cuff comments, again critical of Ellreese and the USFS; Jessica Johnson’s cousin talked about them growing up together like sisters, and asked the Judge to give Ellreese the maximum sentence possible; and then Tom Craven’s father talked: he said all of his 6 children were USFS firefighters: several have been in California this summer; he respects the USFS and won’t talk bad about the outfit; and said that “Ellreese was not in control of the fire or the wind” and said that Ellreese should “not spend even 1 day in jail for what happened”.

2. Hopkins kept trying to bring all of the manslaughter charges back into the play, even though they had been dropped with his approval;my notes as he talked said “boring beyond belief!”

3. Federal Defender Tina Hunt did an excellent job trying to keep the issue focused;

4. The Judge seemed concerned about Ellreese’s plea of guilty to making false statements during an investigation, and wanted to send a message that the truth is critical in investigations.

5. The Judge said specifically: “the cause of the deaths was NOT yours”‘

6. He also complimented Ellreese for overcoming a less-than-ideal youth, saying he went to Job Corps, got on with the USFS, and “you were there because you worked hard.”

7. Tina talked about the implications of this case to firefighters across the US and around the world.

8. US Attorney Hopkins accused Ellreese of not ordering shelters deployed earlier because ” it’s a sign of weakness” and that he “gambled with his crew” to be sure he had a chance for future fire OT.

9. The USFS was there in uniform supporting Ellreese: Forest Supervisor Becki Heath, Forest FMO Bobbi Scopa, and Deputy Regional Forester Cal Joyner; several Wenatchee folks as well, some on government time and others on their own; a fair mix of retirees as well, all there to support Ellreese and “the cause”

Some personal comments:

1. This should have never taken place: a well-intended US Senator and a Congressman bought off on a flawed bill-of-goods from a constituent, and here we are 6 years after PL 107-203;

2. After 40+ years in wildland fire: “there but the grace of God go I”

3. Ellreese will survive this, somewhat battered but alive and well in the end, with a USFS job and someday a retirement package;

4. In my not-always humble, non-lawyerly Forester opinion, the US Attorney in Spokane Jim McDevitt and his Assistant Tom Hopkins are poster children of what you get when Alberto Gonzales and Monica Goodling apply their “special criteria” to hiring folks for the US Justice Department;

5. Lastly, it is my view that after today, wildland firefighting will never be the same! If any mis-fortune befalls you on the fireline, my only advice is to “Lawyer UP!!”

Ellreese may still need our support, both moral and financial, in the coming months; stay tuned for further details!

Thanks for your ongoing support to date, and stay Safe on the fireline!

Dick Mangan
Blackbull Wildfire Services

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From the Associated Press:

U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle emphasized during the sentencing that Daniels was being punished for the statements, not the deaths.

“I don’t think the cause of these sad, tragic deaths was yours,” he said.

But prosecutor Tom Hopkins, who sought four months in prison and a $1,000 fine, continued to blame Daniels — as did many relatives of those who died.

“Personally, I have a hard time calling that true justice,” said Kathie FitzPatrick, mother of 18-year-old Karen FitzPatrick. “I will never have any grandchildren.”

FitzPatrick said she wore her daughter’s charred wristwatch and a pair of her daughter’s shoes into court.

“If Ellreese Daniels had not been on that fire line, my son would have probably lived,” said Ken Weaver, the father of 21-year-old Devin Weaver.

Daniels, of Lake Wenatchee, did not speak. His public defender, Tina Hunt, said her client was a scapegoat for decisions made by numerous Forest Service supervisors and employees, and that the deaths were the result of a dangerous wildfire that ran amok.

“What Mr. Daniels did up there that day was not the sole cause of those firefighter deaths,” Hunt said. “The person who keeps getting blamed for everything is Ellreese Daniels.”

The other firefighters killed were Tom Craven, 30, and Jessica Johnson, 19. All four were from central Washington.

Craven’s father, Will, said Daniels should not serve any jail time.

“Wind and fire killed the four people on the rocks,” said Craven, who has had six children work as firefighters. “Fighting fires is dangerous.”

Daniels continues to work for the Forest Service, but no longer fights fires.

In addition to the three months of work release, Daniels was sentenced to three years of probation. The judge said he also must complete mental health and alcohol abuse evaluations and any treatment that is needed. He was ordered to abstain from alcohol during the probation period and may not work as a firefighter.

Ellreese Daniels sentenced to 90 days work-release

In a court proceeding today Ellresse Daniels was sentenced to 90 days in a work-release facility and 3 years of probation by judge Fred Van Sickle of the U. S. District Court in Spokane, Washington. He will have to spend his nights locked up for the next 90 days, but can leave to go to work during the day.

Ellreese Daniels, his attorney Tina Hunt, and investigator Thomas Krzyzanek arriving at the sentencing today, August 20.

Ellreese had been initially charged with four counts of manslaughter after members of his crew, Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver were entrapped and killed on the Thirtymile fire on the Okanogan National Forest in Washington state in 2001. The manslaughter charges were reduced to two counts of making false statements to which Ellreese pleaded guilty.

He faced a maximum of six months in prison for the misdemeanor false statement charges after the plea bargain. The Assistant U.S. Attorney, Tom Hopkins, asked for 4 months and Ellreese’s attorney, Tina Hunt, wanted probation.

The judge said he did not believe that Ellreese was responsible for the deaths of the firefighters, but he was troubled by the false statements.

Members of all four of the deceased firefighters spoke at the proceeding. Karen Fitzpatrick’s mother, Kathie, told the judge Ellreese should serve 2 years in prison. The father of Tom Craven, Will Craven, said the job of firefighting is dangerous and Daniels should not serve any time.

Only time will tell if this sentence will make it more or less likely for other firefighters to face similar criminal charges when the unthinkable happens….. as it inevitably will.

Many firefighters felt that charging a firefighter with crimes for unfortunate injuries or deaths while on the job would open a Pandora’s box of firefighters having to constantly look over their shoulder and second guess every decision or lack of a decision that they may make. Many are wondering if they can afford to take on the addition risk and liability of ruining their families lives if they are accused of making a mistake on a fire.

Firefighters are being advised behind the scenes to “lawyer up” immediately after a major accident. They are collecting information how they can avoid saying anything to investigators, afraid that they may wind up in jail. Learning lessons from accidents may become difficult or impossible.

A survey of 3,362 firefighters conducted last year by the International Association of Wildland Fire showed that 36% of the full-time wildland firefighters surveyed would make themselves less available to be assigned to wildland fires as a direct result of these criminal charges being filed.

I was not on the Thirtymile Fire, so all I know is what I read in the report and from talking with some people very close to the situation.

Ellreese may have made some mistakes on the fire… a fire that exhibited extreme fire behavior. Or maybe days or weeks later he had difficulty remembering every detail of those adrenalin-filled minutes when everything went to hell on the Thirtymile fire. When he learned that four members of his crew were killed by the fire.

He and his crew had been on their shift for 24-36 hours with little or no sleep. He met all of the training and experience qualifications. I have to assume that he did the best that he possibly could with all the tools he had at his disposal. He only wanted the best for his crew.

Any firefighter in a supervisory or leadership capacity, wildland or structural, can make mistakes. If they are subject to felony charges, decades in prison, losing their job, their retirement, and their livelihood, and ruining their lives and the lives of their families, many are not going to accept this additional risk.

Thanks to Dick for the late-breaking news.

Gunbarrel fire MMA

Wildfire Today has obtained a copy of the Maximum Manageable Area (MMA) for this fire west of Cody, Wyoming. The MMA is quite large, 416,000 acres, and defines the area in which the incident management team intends to confine the fire. The MMA borders Yellowstone National Park on the west and includes national forest lands on both the north and south sides of highway 20/14/16.

The red area on the map is the existing burned area. Click on the map to see a larger version.

Yesterday, Tuesday, the fire was quite active, developing a large smoke column and chewing up additional acres in the upper Big Creek drainage. A red flag warning is in effect for today for low humidities and strong winds, which should result in another day of significant fire activity. It has now burned 43,066 acres.

Wildfire news, August 20, 2008

Rancher to sue over escaped fire use fire

It was just three days ago that we wrote about fire use fires, which are managed or herded around, rather than completely suppressed. And the following day we wrote about the Bridge Creek fire on the Ochoco National Forest in central Oregon which escaped from the Maximum Manageable Area and burned onto private land. Now one of the land owners whose property burned says he will file a claim against the USFS.

About a fifth of the 5,500-acre Central Oregon cattle ranch owned by the Pape family was burned in the Bridge Creek fire, said Ryan Pape, general manager of Pape Kenworth, part of The Pape Group, the Eugene-based heavy machinery supplier. 

“This happens all the time, of course. You burn up somebody’s fence post or range during a fire and they file a claim,” Tom Knappenberger, regional spokesman for the Forest Service, said.

Last week the Bridge Creek fire south of Mitchell in Wheeler county was among a handful that were being managed for their benefits to forests. It was a first for the Ochoco National Forest.

But Saturday, high temperatures, low humidity and an unusual wind shift pushed the fire out of control. Firefighters then changed strategies and worked to suppress the fire.

“I totally understand and appreciate what they were trying to do, but here was not planning for the worst case scenario, or that planning was limited,” Pape told The Oregonian newspaper.

Pape said fire managers apologized to him and other affected landowners.

“I was impressed by that, but now we also need to focus on how we are going to fix it,” he said.

As of Tuesday the Bridge Creek fire stood at just under 5,000 acres, and it was 35 percent contained.

From KGW.com

Update on Reno helicopter

On May 1 Wildfire Today covered the rotor strike of the helicopter owned by the Washoe County sheriff’s office, near Reno, which was initially reported by the pilot as a bird strike. The main rotor actually struck the ground putting the helicopter, which had just been configured for fire, out of service for months.

Parts have been difficult to obtain, but they expect to have it ready to fight fire again by September 5. The photo shows the helicopter before the accident.

“I wish I would have had it yesterday,” Marty Scheuerman, Reno Fire division chief, said regarding fighting a wildfire that burned six homes in Reno on Monday. 

Fire protection standards

The county supervisors in Butte County, Oroville, California, have adopted fire protection standards that establish the length of time it should take fire engines to reach emergencies, based on population density.

For example, in areas with a population greater than 1,000 people per-square-mile, 90 percent of the time the first engine should arrive within seven minutes after a 9-1-1 call is received. For areas with a population between 500 and 1,000 per square mile, the first engine would arrive within 13 minutes 90 percent of the time. In areas with less than 500 people per square mile, the response time would be 17 minutes or less 90 percent of the time. 

Stewart Gary — a consultant with Citygate Associates of Folsom, the firm hired to formulate the proposal — said the standards would give supervisors a “trip wire or a trigger point” to determine when new construction requires a new fire station. Gary said existing county fire stations are well positioned in and near urban areas to meet the seven-minute standard.

When a subdivision is proposed “out at the end of the 17-minute” limit, then it will be time for the supervisors to consider adding a fire station, he said.

Oroville Supervisor Bill Connelly said the standards could also help rural residents understand the realities of where they choose to live. Connelly said people have to realize that “three, four, five miles down a dirt road from the nearest pavement, 17 minutes from the nearest (fire) station,” may not be the best place to live with a spouse with a heart condition.

Determining live fuel moisture

The Record has an article about the process of collecting live fuel samples and computing fuel moisture. Here is a brief excerpt.

Manzanita leaves and twigs baked in an oven at the Mi-Wok Ranger District headquarters here are helping to predict how big, fast and furious the region’s next major wildfire might be. 

Anna Payne, fuels officer for the Mi-Wok Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest, is one of those who sometimes picks those twigs from a grove at nearby Mount Provo, then weighs them, bakes them and weighs them again to determine their water content. She says the manzanita’s leaves and twigs are less than half water right now. And that’s terrifying news for the folks who fight wildfires.

“Now when we get a spot (fire) in a brush field, we know it … will take off,” Payne said.

Payne and fuels technician Nick Jeros, who usually collects the leaves, are part of an army of hundreds of people nationwide who feed plant moisture data into the National Fire Danger Rating System. That data is collected by one federal computer hub in Kansas City, Mo., and then crunched together with weather and topography numbers at another computer center in Missoula, Mont., to produce forecasts and fire danger maps.

Here are links to live fuel moisture and fire danger ratings.

More attention focused on Fire Use

Still another media outlet weighs in on the issue of full suppression vs. fire use. This time it is an article by Rocky Barker in the Idaho Statesman, on this, the 20th anniversary of Black Saturday in Yellowstone National Park.