Idaho Governor changes his tune about wildland firefighters

Mustang Complex on the Challis NF in Idaho
Mustang Complex on the Challis NF in Idaho, August 23, 2012, USFS photo.

In 2007 Idaho Governor Butch Otter blasted wildland firefighters for basically following safety procedures too closely, which he and Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo said was the reason the 652,000-acre Murphy Complex fire was not suppressed sooner. Now according to an article in the Idaho Statesman, the Governor supports the current efforts of firefighters after he toured by helicopter some of the fires burning in his state. It is a very interesting article — here is an excerpt:

… [In 2007] Otter had been told by ranchers in the area that the [Murphy Compex] fire, which grew to 652,000 acres before it died out, could have been stopped. Ranchers had lost hundreds of cattle and access to grazing and they were convinced that had they been allowed to use their own bulldozers to cut line in the initial hours of the fire they could have stopped it.

Otter called the rules regulating firefighting “the don’t book,” during the press conference. He said relaxed rules could have allowed crews to stop the fire.

“I think we need to have more flexibility,” he said.

His and Craig’s remarks alienated the firefighting community who were facing fire behavior, they said, like they had never seen before. Conditions went beyond their ability to monitor and was dangerous.

Some recalled when a Salmon area rancher was burned over on his bulldozer when he tried cut a fire line in 2000.

Otter was expressing more than his opinion that day. He was influenced by a set of values that placed putting out fires as author Stephen Pyne described as “the moral equivalent of war.”


But some still cling to those beliefs as demonstrated in the safety report filed by a Montana Hotshot crew leader the day before Veseth died. He and his team saw numerous snags rolling down the steep hills and injuring inmate firefighters. People were fighting the fire without fireproof clothing just like the rancher bulldozer operator in 2000, desparately trying to put out the fire before it got out of control.

“We told him we had a list of safety concerns and mitigations if he would like to hear them,” the Hotshot wrote. “We read him our list and he said they have a different set of values and do things differently.”

Thanks go out to Dick

Featherville waits on a fire

It’s a waiting game in Featherville. Residents of the rural Idaho town east of Boise were told a week ago that the Trinity Ridge Fire would burn into town; the fire’s just 5 percent contained at 95,000 acres, most residents have left, and firefighters are ready.

Crews began burning out around the edge of town last night. “Instead of waiting for the fire to come to them, we are going to attack it and get it out of the way,” firefighter Alan Roberts told the Northwest Cable News. Crews were burning fuels along the northwest ridge and to the west of town, according to the Idaho Statesman, with helicopter operations on the ridge above town and hand crews burning along the western perimeter of Featherville. Crews are in the Featherville/Pine corridor 24 hours a day, working on structure protection and managing the burnout operation.

Installing a PSD Machine (ping pong ball dropper) in a Helicopter Express Bell 407
Installing a PSD machine (ping pong ball dropper) in a Helicopter Express Bell 407. Kari Greer photo.

The Mountain Home News reported that structure protection prep is complete, with over 9 miles of hose and more than 40 pumps in place. Crews have set up water holding tanks throughout the area.

The Trinity Ridge Fire has burned 105,210 acres since it was started on August 3 by a utility vehicle. It has burned four Forest Service cabins and four outbuildings, and suppression costs are now at $15.6 million.

Trinity Ridge locationBecause of the size and complexity of the fire, a second Type 1 team has been added; Quisenberry’s Southern Area team has taken over the northern part of the fire. The southern portion of the fire that’s approaching Featherville will transition from Rich Harvey’s Type 1 team to Beth Lund’s Type 1 team on Saturday.

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.
Continue reading “Safety issues noted one day before Steep Corner Fire fatality”

Firefighters challenged by three large fires in Idaho

Map of Mustang, Halstead, and Trinity fires in Idaho
Map of Mustang, Halstead, and Trinity fires in Idaho, August 19, 2012. (Click to enlarge)

Firefighters are being challenged by many fires in Idaho. Three of the largest are the Mustang, Halstead, and Trinity Ridge fires.

Mustang Fire

The Mustang Complex is 22 miles northwest of Salmon, Idaho, caused by lightning over the weekend of July 28-29. Five of the fires, the Mustang, Broomtail, Roan, Cayuse and East Butte have burned together. The Lost Packer Fire continues to burn and and increase in size. The Complex is about 25 miles northwest of Salmon, Idaho. It was confirmed on Saturday that the Beartrap Lookout was destroyed by the fire.

Carlton Joseph, the Fire Management Officer on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California is the Incident Commander. The complex of fires has burned 89,000 acres and is 6 percent contained. Considering those numbers, it is surprising that only 496 personnel are assigned to the fire. But, firefighting resources are stretched very thin now.

Trinity Ridge Fire

Trinity Ridge fire
Trinity Ridge fire. Photo by Zane Brown

The Trinity Ridge fire forced the evacuation of the Featherville area on Saturday. Firefighters expected the fire, approaching from two different fronts, to reach the community late in the day on Sunday. There was a Red Flag warning in effect Sunday due to possible thunderstorms, complicating things for firefighters. The fire is being managed by Rich Harvey’s incident management team and has burned 88,000 acres since August 3. It is 5 percent contained and is being fought by 1,087 personnel.

Halstead Fire

The Halstead fire, caused by lightning, has burned 92,000 acres since it began three weeks ago, and it is also 5 percent contained. Bob Housman is the Incident Commander of the fire, which is located 18 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho. Assigned to the fire are 488 personnel.

Update on firefighter fatality in Idaho

Ann Veseth
Anne Veseth. Credit: Facebook

The firefighter that was killed by a falling snag on Sunday, August 12 has been identified as Anne Veseth of Moscow, Idaho, a second-year firefighter with the Nez Perce & Clearwater National Forests. She also worked for one year on a U.S. Forest Service trail crew. Ms. Veseth was 20 years old and was attending Lewis and Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho.

According to KLEWTV, she was working toward a Bachelor degree in Business administration after earning an associate degree in Auto Mechanics Technology. She was on the Dean’s List all four semesters.

Her older brother, Brian Veseth, is also a wildland firefighter.

A rosary will be held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1st and Polk, Moscow, Idaho (map) at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, August 17. Full Mass services will be held for Anne on Saturday, August 18, at 11:00 a.m. at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The family asks that all firefighters attending the services wear their yellow shirts and green pants (clean, but used).