According to an article in the Idaho Statesman, the leader of the incident management team that was managing the Tepee Springs Fire has been removed from his position about six weeks after reports were filed on a website where firefighters can anonymously provide information about safety issues. Two reports were filed on the SAFENET website (on September 2 and 4, 2015) saying fire crews were ordered by the Incident Commander (IC) to construct fireline in an area agreed to in a meeting between the IC and the landowners who at times wore sidearms when they met with firefighters.
On several occasions while talking to firefighters, the landowners had been very insistent that certain more aggressive tactics should be implemented. Our first article on this issue provoked a lengthy response from a person believed to be one of the landowners, or at least a person very familiar with the details who sympathized with them.
Rocky Barker, a writer for the Idaho Statesman, reported today that IC Chris Ourada, the fire management officer on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeast Idaho, was taken off the Great Basin Type 1 Incident Management team that was assigned to the Tepee Springs Fire east of Riggins, Idaho from August 28 until September 12, 2015.
The latest roster for Great Basin Team 2 updated on October 7, 2015 lists Paul Broyles, who retired in 2008, as the IC. When we viewed the roster on September 27 Chris Ourada was the IC and Mr. Broyles was the Deputy IC. That earlier roster, dated February 2, 2015, has been deleted but can still be viewed on the Way Back Machine. Interestingly, the file name for the current roster is “Ourada_Master.pdf”.
It is very unusual for an Incident Commander to be replaced late in the fire season — on October 7 in this case. More commonly, major changes to a team are made in the winter.
The two SAFENET reports state that hotshot crews had not been constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire near the private land due to numerous conditions that made that particular tactic unsafe, including cliffs in the area, the location made it impossible to extract resources if an injury occurred, no safety zones were available if fire behavior increased again, and the presence of a nearby under-slung mid-slope fireline.
Two hotshot crews refused to take on the risk of the direct fireline assignment. After explaining their rationale to the IC and the safety issues involved, the firefighters were reportedly told by the IC:
I’m the Incident Commander and you will do what you’re [expletive] told.
The official public response to the two SAFENET reports, issued October 5, 2015, said a “…team chartered by the Great Basin Coordinating Group [conducted] a review … and identified specific improvements and corrective actions, which are currently being implemented”.
Jennifer Jones, a national spokesperson about fire issues for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, would not comment on the reported removal of an incident commander, except to refer us to a statement from the Regional Fire Director for the Intermountain Region, Sue Stewart:
Safety is always the top priority for the U.S. Forest Service. Professional firefighters review all reports in SAFENET and ensure that appropriate actions are taken to correct any behaviors, systems or communication issues that could put fire fighters at risk. The Tepee Springs incident was thoroughly reviewed and appropriate actions were taken.
E. Wade Muehlhof, a spokesperson for the Intermountain Region which includes the area where the fire occurred, told us:
The decisions or recommendation made by the review panel are treated like personnel issues and are private.
In 1999 due to many mistakes, errors in judgement, and shear laziness by incident management team members on the Sadler Fire near Elko, Nevada that resulted in several firefighters being overrun by the fire, not only was the IC removed, but the entire team was disbanded. In addition, five members of the Command and General Staff had the fire qualification for their position on the team suspended until they could be recertified. The positions involved included the Incident Commander, the Planning Section Chief, the Safety Officer, and two Operations Section Chiefs.
More information on Wildfire Today:
—Our original article about the issues with the landowners and the incident commander.
—A further look into the landowner/firefighter disagreement in Idaho
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.