OIG still has not completed investigation into Esperanza fire

Monday will be the third anniversary of the Esperanza fire in which five U. S. Forest Service firefighters died in southern California. Raymond Lee Oyler has been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for setting this fire, but the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has still not completed its investigation.

One of the problems with this is that many people are waiting to hear if the OIG will recommend that criminal charges be filed against firefighters, as happened in two other fires, the Thirtymile and Cramer fires.

The Inspector General, Phyllis Fong, testified before Congress in March that the report would be issued by the end of the month. Now they are saying it will be done by the end of November.

John N. Maclean, the author of “The Thirtymile Fire”, is in southern California right now collecting additional information about the Esperanza fire for a book he is working on. Who knows, his book may be out before the OIG’s report is issued.

The Press Enterprise has an article about the OIG investigation. Here is an excerpt.


… The delays have caused anxiety and frustration for both the firefighters who fought the 43,000-acre blaze and the families of those killed.

“We’re just waiting. We are surprised it has taken so long,” said Vivian Najera, aunt of firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, who was killed in the fire. “All of us have questioned when it is coming out, and we haven’t got any answers. We are anxious to find out what it has to say.”

The investigation is just the third of its kind and was required by a 2002 law mandating the office investigate deaths of federal firefighters killed in burnovers or entrapments.

The five killed in the Esperanza Fire were overrun by flames as they fought to save a lone, unoccupied home near Cabazon.

The two previous investigations led to charges against two fire commanders in the deaths of federal firefighters in Washington state and Idaho. The law was created after the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in Washington state, which killed four firefighters. U.S. Forest Service supervisor Ellreese N. Daniels was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and lying to investigators.

After the 2003 Cramer Fire in Idaho, in which two firefighters died, the U.S. attorney’s office filed charges against that fire’s incident commander, Alan Hackett, who was found to have been negligent in his management of the blaze. However, Cal Fire’s jurisdiction over the Esperanza Fire is a key difference from the previous two cases and one that presented a “unique challenge” to federal investigators,” Fong told members of the House Appropriation Committee during a March 11 briefing. “The fire occurred on non-federal land, and (the Forest Service) was assisting in the suppression effort as part of a cooperative agreement with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, an entity for which OIG has no oversight jurisdiction,” Fong said.


That question of jurisdiction and the relationship between state and federal agencies battling the same blaze is certain to be addressed in the report. The firefighting community, both locally and nationally, has long awaited the investigation’s findings, said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters around the country.

“It’s typical of the agency — typically frustrating,” Judd said. “I can’t for the life of me see why the OIG can’t get this out.”

In the aftermath of the fire, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a joint state-federal task force launched separate investigations of the fire. Not wishing to obstruct the latter, OIG investigators delayed their interviews, Feeney said Thursday.

“This was done to ensure that OIG’s inquiry did not interfere with theirs,” he said. “That decision significantly pushed back the start of OIG’s primary investigative work.”

Both of the earlier inquiries found fire personnel took unnecessary risks.

Killed in the fire were Engine 57 Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jason McKay, 27, of Apple Valley; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley; and Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

Oyler was convicted of five counts of murder for setting the blaze and was sentenced in June to die.

Relatives of the firefighters and others will gather Monday at 11:30 a.m. at the Cabazon Fire Station, 50382 Irene St. in Cabazon, to memorialize the third anniversary of the fire and the deaths of the five men.


UPDATE November 12, 2013:

Esperanza Fire Factual Report, and the USDA Office of Inspector General’s Report on the fire.

OSHA issues "Serious" and "Willfull" violation notices to USFS over rappelling fatality

On July 21, 2009 Thomas Marovich, 20, of Hayward California incurred fatal injuries when he fell while performing routine rappel proficiency skill training at the Backbone fire Helibase in Willow Creek, California. Wildfire Today covered it HERE, HERE, and HERE.

We have not seen an official accident report about the accident, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued violation notices to the U. S. Forest Service related to the incident.

The first one is a “Serious” violation that involves the procedures for the use of the rappel equipment. OSHA provided in the document four specific “abatement methods to correct these hazards”. They involve equipment such as the Bourdon snap hook, a Mallion Rapide Tri-Link, and the HR-2 rappel harness.

The second is a “Willful” violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  OSHA accuses the USFS of failing to provide requested information about the accident. In fact, the USFS stated in writing that they would not comply with OSHA’s request.

Here is an excerpt from the violation notice OSHA sent to the U. S. Forest Service in Eureka, California, on October 2, 2009, about the “Willful” violation:

Excerpt from page 8 of OHSA's notice to the U. S. Forest Service

OSHA apparently concludes that the only way the USFS could be in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Executive Order No. 12196 is if the incident must be “kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy”, but then says it involves neither.

One has to wonder if the recent trend of prosecuting people involved in accidents led to the refusal of the USFS to release the information OSHA requested.

2008 firefighter fatalities

The U. S. Fire Administration has issued their annual report about firefighter fatalities. A sizeable portion of the report deals with wildland firefighters. The cover photo is from the memorial service for the nine firefighters and pilots that died in the Iron 44 fire helicopter crash in northern California.

Here are some excerpts.

Wildland Firefighting Deaths

In 2008, 26 firefighters were killed during activities involving brush, grass, or wildland firefighting. This total includes part-time and seasonal wildland firefighters, full-time wildland firefighters, and municipal or volunteer firefighters whose deaths are related to a wildland fire (Figure 5).

  • Two firefighters died when their brush truck was involved in a noncollision fall due to structural collapse of a bridge they were crossing that had been undermined by fire.
  • One firefighter was killed when the Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) he was piloting crashed.
  • One firefighter died of a heart attack while riding in a grass truck responding to an outdoor fire.
  • One firefighter died of multiple blunt trauma when he was struck by a vehicle entering the scene of a multiple vehicle collision. A contributing cause was heavy smoke from an outdoor fire and fog obscuring vision along the roadway. A sheriff’s deputy was also struck and killed and another deputy was injured in the incident.
  • One firefighter died from a nontraumatic brain hemorrhage several hours after returning with his Strike Team from the scene of a wildland fire.
  • One firefighter died when the medical helicopter he was being transported in collided with another medical helicopter, killing the firefighter and six others. The firefighter had been battling a fire on the north rim of the Grand Canyon National Park when he was bitten by an insect and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. While in the hospital, he suffered anaphylactic shock from the antibiotics being used to treat the insect bite and it became necessary for the firefighter to be flown to a larger medical center.
  • One firefighter assigned the position of lookout on a wildland fire was helping carry hose up a hill when he experienced extreme fatigue and respiratory distress. He was transported to the hospital where he died the following day from a massive heart attack.
  • One firefighter working tree felling operations was struck and injured by a tree. Due to heavy smoke conditions, the firefighter had to be carried a distance before he could be evacuated by a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter. While being transported aboard the helicopter, the firefighter went into cardiac arrest and died.
  • One firefighter, in preparation to assume management responsibility for a wildland fire, was scouting the area of operations when the fire spread quickly and burned over his position.
  • Nine firefighters, including two pilots assigned to the Iron Complex fire, were killed when their helicopter experienced a loss of power to the main rotor during takeoff, and subsequently impacted trees and terrain.
  • One firefighter died from a heart attack a short time after he returned home from fighting lightning-caused wildland fires.
  • One firefighter died from injuries sustained from a fall while scouting a fire in extremely rough terrain and dangerous rock cliffs.
  • One firefighter died from injuries sustained when he fell from a piece of heavy machinery while clearing fire breaks.
  • Three firefighters, two pilots, and the crew chief of an air tanker under contract with the USFS, crashed moments after take-off.
  • One firefighter collapsed and died from a heart attack while supervising a prison firefighting crew.

Thanks Dick

Missing engine part from Iron 44 helicopter crash

One “possibly crucial engine part” from the fatal helicopter crash on the Iron 44 fire last year in northern California that killed nine firefighters and pilots was missing when the crash debris was shipped from Columbia helicopters to the National Transportation Safety Board.

From Aero-News.net:

The wreckage from the aircraft involved in the so-called “Iron 44” incident had been sent to Columbia Helicopters, where NTSB and FAA officials observed while technicians tore down the aircraft’s engines. The NTSB subsequently asked that the engines be shipped to Washington, DC, but a footnote in the 500 page preliminary report indicates  “upon opening the shipping containers, an inventory of the hardware revealed that the following components from the FCU (Fuel Control Unit) Number 1 were not present: Metal position adjusting cover, snap retainer ring, spring retainer cap, spring and bellows.”

The FCU’s control the amount of fuel delivered to the engines.

A review of the video recording of Columbia employees packing the shipping containers shows the parts were not among the items shipped.

KDRV-TV reports that the general council for Columbia Helicopters said, while employees have searched “high and low” for the missing parts, they have been unable to locate them. The company says the FCU’s may not be a focus of the investigation, and therefore may not be important.
Greg Anderson, the attorney for William Coultas, the surviving pilot from the crash, as well as the family of one of those killed in the incident, told the station the omission of the parts from the shipment is “highly suspicious.”



Thanks Kelly

Iron 44 Crash Report

The Carson helicopter that crashed last year on the Iron 44 fire and killed nine firefighters was much heavier than U.S. Forest Service recommendations, according to National Transportation Safety Board reports. The NTSB said the weight was near maximum for vertical takeoff, requiring near-maximum engine power. So instead of climbing up on takeoff, the helicopter went forward, clipping trees before it crashed. Seven contract firefighters, the pilot, and a USFS inspector pilot were killed; four others survived.

On August 5, 2008, the Sikorsky S-61N crashed on takeoff from a remote site in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California. The NTSB is suggesting that Carson Helicopters understated the weight of its aircraft and kept spotty maintenance records; the company’s contract with the USFS was terminated last fall.

The NTSB estimated that the actual empty weight of the helicopter was 13,845 pounds, while Carson Helicopters stated in their contract proposal that the weight was 12,013 pounds. For the purpose of load calculations on the day of the crash, the pilot assumed the weight to be 12,408 pounds, which was 1,437 pounds less than the actual weight estimated by the NTSB.

The Oregonian reports that Carson, on the other hand, accuses investigators of neglecting critical facts in a rush to judgment. They say the NTSB used bad data in calculating the weather’s effect on helicopter performance, and that investigators extrapolated the temperature at 73ºF. at the site. Voice recordings from the co-pilot indicate the temperature was actually 68ºF.

Carson says the NTSB is trying to support a “preconceived conclusion” by using the higher temp in its calculations, and they also argue that the NTSB should have examined whether malfunctioning fuel control units caused the crash.

Killed on the incident were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; pilot Jim Ramage, 63; Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The Wildland Firefighter Foundation has a tribute page online [HERE].

Thanks, Dick

Firefighters’ memorial service streaming live on Internet

The memorial service at Dodger Stadium for the two firefighters killed on the Station Fire, Tedmund Hall and Arnaldo Quinones, is being streamed live on the Internet by the ABC station in Los Angeles. It is also available on Directv on channel 393. The service started at 10 a.m. Pacific Time.

According to the program, speakers will include Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, County Supervisor Don Knabe, County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman and leaders of two firefighter associations.


UPDATE during the service:

The comments from all of the speakers were moving. A couple of quotes from the Vice President, a past chair of the Congressional Fire Service Caucus, were especially memorable:

It’s an awful fraternity to belong to … the fraternity of the fallen. 

All men are created equal. A few become firefighters.


UPDATE after the service:

The LA Times covered the service HERE. Below is an excerpt from their article:

“There is very little we can do today that is going to provide genuine solace,” Biden told the firefighters’ families. But noting the firefighting brotherhood that was in evidence at the ceremony, he promised them that eventually they would “draw strength from this, if not today, tomorrow, next week, next year.”

“We all say things like, ‘We never forget.’ These guys mean it,” he said, gesturing to the firefighters in the crowd. “They will never forget – any time, any problem, under any circumstances, you will have a family bigger than your own to go to.”

The stadium was silent as Biden descended into the visitors’ dugout after his speech. Fire officials could be seen patting him on the back in the dugout; Biden watched the rest of the ceremony there.

Dodger Stadium had taken on a somber tone. Hundreds of red, yellow and green firetrucks cruised under two large American flags hanging from firefighters’ ladders and ringed the stadium. Flags lining the upper deck of the stadium were lowered to half-staff. A speaker’s platform had been set up over home plate, flanked by huge shocks of flowers and stands that were holding the firefighters’ helmets and boots.

“We are blind to the fact that we are all from different agencies,” said U.S. Forest Service Firefighter Anthony Powers, who worked frequently with Hall. “We’re all here for the same reason – to support the families and because we all lost somebody…. It’s like losing a family member.”

After the service, firefighters embraced and many lingered in their seats and watched a slide show of Hall and Quinones on the large screens that typically show highlights, scores and players’ statistics.

“Family is what this is,” Asst. Chief Gary Burden said on the way out. “These guys made the ultimate sacrifice and it touches every one of us to the core.”

A video report from MSNBC:


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