OSHA revises fine and citation for the Steep Corner Fire fatality

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has agreed to reduce the fine and modify the citation they issued to the organization responsible for fire suppression on the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino, Idaho. Anne Veseth, a 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter from Moscow, Idaho was killed by a falling tree August 12, 2012 while working on the fire. OSHA issued a citation to the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association (CPTPA) along with a “Notification of Penalty”, for fines totaling $14,000. OSHA also issued a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions to the U.S. Forest Service, but without a monetary penalty.

On Thursday CPTPA Chief Fire Warden Howard Weeks signed an agreement with OSHA that reduced the fine to $10,500 and revised the citation. Originally OSHA accused CPTPA of not furnishing a place of employment that was free of “recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees”. OSHA said eight of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 11 of the 18 Watch Out Situations were present and not mitigated in the citation issued to the CPTPA and the Notice issued to the USFS.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Firehouse.com that originally appeared in the Lewiston Tribune:

Idaho Department of Lands spokeswoman Emily Callihan said the original citation would have made it impossible for firefighters to do their jobs.

[…]

Callihan said the 10 and 18 are guidelines and not regulations, and the hazards they cover are present on nearly every fire. But, she said, the OSHA citation, as originally written, would have required firefighters to leave any fire where any of the 10 orders could not be followed or any of the 18 situations were present.

“What OSHA eventually recognized, is by removing firefighters from fires where any of those situations are present would result in not being able to respond with initial attack and keep fires small,” she said. “So it would have resulted in having fires get big and present more of a danger to firefighters and the public in the long run.”

The day before Ms. Veseth was killed, the Flathead Hotshots arrived at the fire. After scouting it and assessing the situation, they concluded it was not safe to work under the conditions that were present. Then they left the fire after talking with the incident commander. Three days later they filed a SAFENET report documenting the unsafe conditions at the fire.

More information at Wildfire Today about the Steep Corner fire and the death of Anne Veseth.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

21 thoughts on “OSHA revises fine and citation for the Steep Corner Fire fatality”

  1. what amazes me in all your “discussion” here is the primary focus on the OSHA findings rather that the Forest Service led SAI. What killed Anne Vesseth was not a fire order or a watch out situation, it was an unmitigated hazard. we (the USFS) are [supposedly] one of the most professional wildland fire organizations around. allowing a crew to work a piece of line (let alone take a break or lunch) when there are still KNOWN unmitigated hazards is not how we do business. the SAI made it a point (or lack there of) to ignore this fact and instead chose to focus on a difference in “fire cultures” between organizations.

    no one should be working any piece of line with unmitigated snags within striking distance of any area crews are expected to work. no one should have been eating a snack while a felling operation was underway. no one but qualified sawyers and a felling boss should have been in that area until the KNOWN hazard’s had been mitigated.

    is firefighting inherently dangerous? sure. but we (the USFS) do our best to analyze risk, recognize hazards, and deal with those hazards in the safest manner possible. if we are working with a cooperator who does not share this manner of doing business, then we disengage. or so we should. in my opinion, the Steep Corner SAI is a disservice to the agency, the mission, and most of all the fatality of Anne Vesseth.

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  2. Maybe a review of our Red Book policy, specifically Chapter 1 Nature of Fire Operations and Principles of Suppression Operations will bring some clarity. This is what I teach my Fire Fighters.

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  3. “where the true learning and info sharing begins”…..well, IF all are truthfull maybe.

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  4. I am saddened to see the same old safety (blame) vs risk management (lessons learned) discussions happening.

    It is obvious that the 10&18 “We don’t bend then, we don’t break them” mentality isn’t working too well.

    After spending a week in Tucson, I am sure the future of wildland fire will get outside of the military themed “standard orders”… AS THE MILITARY DID over 20 years ago… COMMANDERS INTENT (Leaders Intent).

    The SAI process is nearly dead (finally)…The FLA process is where the true learning and info sharing begins

    IMHO

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  5. Same old BS, Pretty simple in my opinion. I respected IHC crew said this is chaos, but they did it any way saying they mitigated it. I have sat for a whole day on crews waiting for fallers to go in and clean hazards up. From what it looks like it would have taken three days in the spot they were at. Timber is money and that is more important than lives i guess.

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    1. Mike said “Timber is money”; and houses are money; and rangeland is money; and community watersheds are money; and big game like deer and elk are money; and visitor days in National Parks or on rafting rivers are money; and so on and so on!
      Yes, most everything that we are tasked to protect from fire in the wildland is worth money to someone, but my firefighter spouse has worth; my firefighter children have worth; my firefighter friends have worth; and firefighters that I have never met, and will never meet have worth. The worth of any one firefighter is worth more than all of the economic benefits of timber, range, watersheds, and tourism.
      Wildland firefighting is a job, pure and simple: it ain’t a job that’s worth dying over!

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  6. Ryan,

    So you think folks on South Canyon weren’t having informed discussions about what that fire was doing? You think that the jumpers and hotshots weren’t chatting among themselves in between tanks and at lunch. You can bet your last dollar they had those discussions. Rest uncomfortably knowing that they asked the same questions that we do today.

    The fire you reference at the end of your remarks is the Sadler Fire. Google it to check it out.

    That report reads like a users guide for how to find cause out of the 10 and 18. Very informative, not because it tells us what actually happened out there that day, but because the investigators are so adept at perfectly seeing what was going to happen to that Type 2 Crew and they use the 10 and 18 like they were never intended to be used: as an investigation tool.

    Hindsight and the 10 and 18: a winning combination!

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  7. @Ryan: You’re thinking of the Sadler incident. It’s documented in Maclean’s book Fire and Ashes.

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  8. Like FF0, I have been thinking about the comments and posts here as well, and trying to view them as a learning opportunity for my young and eager fire mind. Especially as I sit in on one of my last Sundays enjoying coffee (the good kind) and the slowness that will soon come to an end as I start my fire season on April 1.
    I agree wholeheartedly that the career I have chosen to step into is a very hazardous environment that involves much risk just by engaging. I have walked South Canyon, I have been on an incident and very close to a big aviation accident, I know for a fact that I have thought to myself, “Man, if this situation goes in one direction that I don’t expect, there could be serious consequences”. I try to speak my mind (maybe not always to the pleasure of my Supts,but they listen, I’m lucky), I try to engage my crewmembers in conversation about these sorts of things, because it’s easier to voice a concern if there is a group feeling the same way. And I wonder if at accidents like South Canyon, if ONE person engaged in a conversation like that, would the event have even occurred. But all I can do is speculate. Trust me my friend, I never want to be in a situation anything like that. But, in my free time yesterday, I returned to an article written by Paul Gleason in the early 90s called “LCES and other thoughts”… I first read it in my rookie year. I highly recommend it at the begining of EVERY season. In the article, Mr. Gleason refers to all hazards that we face as either subjective or objective, hazards that we create, or hazards that are inevitable in the fire environment. He pulled this from the mountaineering world. He also stated that LUCK, yes luck can not be avoided as a talking point in some of us making it out of some hazardous situations. The hot, dry wind never came up, or predicted fire behavior never materialized, or the spot I took a nap just happened to be a good one. Sometimes, good decision makers just get caught in a bad spot. Which is how my predecessors came up with the 10 and 18s…. And all of the other checklists that we have.
    Here is what I am having trouble grasping… Someone, Flathead IHC, noted and refused risk on this very fire. SO, what is the point of refusing risk if the situation is not going to be mitigated. To me, it clearly wasn’t in this case. Here is what I get from that as an emerging leader (hopefully) in fire. If I refuse the risk that I have been asked to take on, and generally accepted every time I accept a job to return on an IHC. I know WE WILL be sent to the hottest, nastiest, steepest, ugliest piece of fireline there is. If I refuse that assignment, and make it known that I am not going to work that piece of line unless a situation is mitgated. If it is not mitigated, then I just don’t do it. So, if I do that, is someone who isn’t as “heads up” as I like to think I am, and my crew is, am I just deferring an assigment to that resource that may eventually get themselves in a bind? Or maybe get lucky and make it through? So, just through my personallity, I have accepted the responsibility of taking more risk than most, mostly beacuse I am capable of bearing the burden of those assigments better than the average person?? That is message I get from this… that the sytem we have in place to help mitigate the scenarios where a death or serious injury may occur has severely failed. And because I took the burden of being in a “high risk” situation, I am not going to defer that risk to another individual. I forget the fire name in NV, but wasn’t there a burnover incident (maybe fatality) on a firing operation by a Type 2 NPS throw toghether crew that had similar circumstances. A Type 1 resource refused the assignment, but the other crew took on the operation??
    Forgive me if I ramble, but i see this opportunity as a good way for me to learn and voice my concerns over a certain incident. And there are some good people on here that I believe hold some knowledge that I may be able to glean a thing or two from. Thoughts, and I certainly appreciate it.

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    1. Ryan, I believe the fire you are thinking about was the Sadler Fire in I think 1999. Yes, there was a type two crew that got burned over during a firing operation that all the supervisors thought would be a cake walk. The Dalton? and the Smokey Bear? hotshots were asked to do the burnout but had concerns about other areas of the line that should be tended to first. Whether or not it was an official documented turndown I have no idea. Some of the confusion afterwards had to do with just that, was it an actual turn down. All the usual things worked against them, poor commo, over-eagerness, inexperience, and a sense of urgency on a big division while it was getting late in the day with the weather getting hotter and drier and the winds acting squirrely. However, I don’t think most of these red flags were the firefighters fault as we as supervisors have an obligation to know our people’s limitations and experience levels and not put them into a situation they cant handle. Of course we were all taught that as the supervisor who turns down an assignment we have to come up with alternatives, and the assigning supervisor has to inform the next crew of the turn-down. You raise a very good point though. I am not sure I could turn down an assignment and then watch a crew with less experience accept it and walk down the hill to engage. If you feel strongly enough to turn it down what obligation do you have to the crew that accepts it? Are you supposed to voice your opinion again? As you said hopefully someone here will answer the question. From reading the post names, there is a whole lot of experience here!

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    2. Ryan: the fire in Nevada you’re thinking about is the Sadler Complex near Elko, Nevada, in August, 1999. There were no fatalities but six firefighters on an NPS Type 2 crew were treated for injuries. I wrote about the fire and the investigation twice, once for Wildfire magazine in 1999 and again in 2010 for Wildfire Today. The lessons that can be learned from the Sadler Complex are eye-popping and numerous. Here is an excerpt from my 2010 article:

      The sheer number of errors in judgement that were made on that fire were astounding. Never before or since have I been aware of a large fire being run by a Type 1 Incident Management Team where so many poor decisions were made that seriously and adversely affected the safety of firefighters.

      One good thing about the Sadler report is that the investigation team pulled no punches. They pointed out the mistakes that were made, which enabled the learning of lessons. Reports that whitewash the events and decisions that occur on a fatality or serious injury fire coughsteepcornercough do a disservice to the firefighter community and are of little value in preventing similar fatalities.

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  9. This whole discussion about the 10 and 18 is appalling.

    Those here who feel that “we don’t bend ’em, we don’t break ’em” is truly the right way to approach risk management are way off the mark. In addition, those that teach young firefighters that “they’ll be fine” if all they do is follow the 10/18 are missing a much bigger point. What about the 4 common denominators? Downhill line construction? Oh yeah, the safety zone guidelines. And sure, there’s the WUI watch-outs. And then there’s the hazmat checklists. Oh, and lets not forget the risk management process itself.

    Bottom line: the job of firefighting is complex. It’s dangerous. We need to accept that. All the checklists we have are great tools. They’re not rules of engagement. If they were, we’d never engage a fire. Never. If “safety first” was our rule of engagement? We’d never throw jumpers, run folks down ropes, start a chainsaw or even buckle a seat belt. If safety were our goal, we’d lock ourselves in a padded room and apply the appropriate combination of sedative and feeding serum.

    And that’s the rub: the US Forest Service was not created to be safe. It was created to do work. To do a mission. That work is oftentimes filled with risk. We’ll aggressively mitigate that risk. We’ll use the 10 and 18 appropriately, as they were intended to be used- as decision aids, not as rules of engagement.

    When tragedies happen, anyone can go in, with the incredible clarity of hindsight, and see exactly where the dead and injured messed up. Ah yes. And then we can sum it up in a nice, neat little report, and deliver it (in our suites and ties) to the Chief for him to neatly digest. Those in the galleries will say “it’s appalling how they missed the basics!” OSHA can go about their fining business and firefighter can keep doing what they’ve done.

    The real, hard work comes when we try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who where there when the tragedy happened. Go up to Storm King. Go walk the lines on the Dude Fire. See the ground for yourself. You just might realize it could happen to you. And if you have that realization, friend, you just might realize the 10 and 18 aren’t where we should be looking. We should be looking at these incredible tragedies as opportunities to learn about how firefighters and the organizations they work for make decisions.

    And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see that these events are way more complex than 28 items on a few lists.

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    1. I would seriously doubt that the majority of the posters and readers here believe that the ten and eighteen are the be all end all of the fire service. And yes I use hindsight to analyze all of the FLA’s and Fatality Reports that I read. You are absolutely correct that firefighting is a complex job, just look at all of the checklists that you mentioned. What concerns me are the decisions that are made when people don’t factor in risk/benefit in regards to risk management. Outside forces and motives and maybe a willingness to engage a fire out of sheer aggressiveness can cloud the decision making process. As Mr. Mangan, whom I have never met but have a lot of respect for, stated the ten and eighteen are situations, situations that need to be mitigated. The ten and eighteen were too much so we had to further boil it down to LCES for the average firefighter, and even that seems to work only some of the time. It all boils down to the simplest safety tools that work and will be used by not only the folks on the ground that do the dying but the managers as well. As dramatic as it sounds I was told all of the ten and eighteen were written in blood, so yeah, maybe we shouldn’t bend or break them, but be heads up enough to take the steps to mitigate them. Not lock ourselves in a padded room but take another look and not engage for the sake of engagement. I am sorry if I am rambling but I found some of your comments patronizing at the time(I am sure that was not your intent) and have been up all night thinking about it and I am not sure if I have made valid point this whole time! Sorry.

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      1. FF0,

        Great discussion here. You’re not rambling. If you are, who cares? Please forgive my pretentiousness. I’m working on it.

        One of the problems I (and others) have with the 10 Standard Orders is this idea that some agencies can, have, and will continue to use them as a tool to establish “cause” in the event of a tragedy like Steep Corner. (The authors of the Steep Corner SAI DID NOT use the 10/18 to establish “cause.” Kudos to them!)

        In fact, it’s been written that “Causal factors can be classified as “direct,” meaning those that are found to have resulted in the entrapment/burnover. Direct causes may include such items as failure to follow the 10 Standard Fire Orders…” (see page 15 of Investigating Wildland Fire Entrapments, Mangan, 1995)

        So, if we assume that failing to follow the 10 Standard Orders can be the “DIRECT cause” of an entrapment, the inverse must be true: “If you fail to follow the 10 standard orders, you will be involved in a wildland fire entrapment.”

        We all know this isn’t true. Have you ever been on a “successful” wildland fire where 1 or more of the 10 standard orders was impossible to implement? Where do I put a lookout in a place like Florida with no high spots? Where’s my safety zone in Alaskan or Canadian Black Spruce? What are “clear” instructions anyhow? And what does “safety” actually mean? (It might not mean a padded room, sedatives, etc., but what then does it mean?)

        Therefore, while certainly convenient, it’s irresponsible to use the 10 Standard Orders as a checklist for finding cause in the event of an injury or fatality on wildland fire. OSHA initially did that in their Steep Corner findings, and then, based on something, they realized what many of us have that “by removing firefighters from fires where any of those situations are present would result in not being able to respond with initial attack and keep fires small.”

        Did OSHA read what I’ve recently re-read? Did they realize that perhaps the 10 Orders are an impossible set of rules of engagement? Maybe they read Ted Putnum’s 2002 article THE TEN STANDARD FIREFIGHTING ORDERS: CAN ANYONE FOLLOW THEM? Google it for a great discussion on this very topic!

        Finally, I’ll leave with this statement: “Wildland firefighting involves a fundamental dilemma: either you fight the fire or you don’t fight it. Both alternatives involve risks; there is no ‘zero risk’ alternative.” Steep Corner SAI.

        Stay “safe” out there!

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        1. Mr. Utah, thanks for your reply. I guess I failed to grasp the message of your original post. I had never thought of the ten and eighteen as an investigative tool. I guess I got defensive because I have been taught to use them as trigger points, or things to make me take a step back and re-assess the situation my folks and I are in. I like to use them along with the risk management process to make a plan and improve my situational awareness. So I guess we were on different pages.

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    1. To be completely accurate, in this case OSHA was not “talked out of a citation”. As stated in the article they “agreed to reduce the fine and modify the citation”. And in the case of the Esperanza Fire to which you referred. I don’t know that any citations were issued, maybe they were, however, notices of serious violations were.

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  10. “Eight of the ten and eleven of the eighteen”. I had to take a pause after writing that to let to get my mind around it. It is amazing more lives were not lost. As mentioned by others, I think this ruling sends a pretty poor message to, well, everyone! As far as Idaho State Lands goes, Ms. Callihan should have written her comments down and read them a few times out loud before she told us the 10 and 18 are sorta just suggestions. And gosh, not to mention that if we don’t engage folks no matter the risk to life and limb we might loose some crummy trees and our bosses might loose some money on timber sales. Makes me wonder what they would value my life at being only a ENGB(t). The risk management component is HUGE in every class I have taken in the last two years. When I took S-131 I thought “cool, advanced firefighting skills!” Nope, it was advanced risk management skills. Now class, lets all turn to page one in the green section of our IRPG. That little nugget along with the video of Gordon Graham talking about Recognition Prime Decision Making and taking time to think out a situation before engaging firefighters would be how I would start a refresher class for some of these managers. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope it was just a HUGE screw up, but I think it goes back to the Moral Equivalent of War mindset. Man I hope it wasn’t just to save trees(revenue).

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  11. Quite well put, Dick. I’d like to watch you give THAT lecture in person.

    Not long after South Canyon, JWT was speaking to a group in R3 and some dude stood up and claimed that it was impossible to adhere to the 10&18 on every fire. Jack had issued a directive — safety first, on every fire, every time. He asked the guy who was claiming this if he routinely broke ’em on fires, and the guy defiantly said yes. Jack ordered him to hand over his red card, and stipulated that the guy would never get another one.

    oops.

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  12. I was originally appalled by the minimal monetary value issued in the citation, and the seemingly “slap on the wrist” that a timber company received after Ms. Veseth’s death. I am now even more disgusted that the citation’s monetary value has been lowered, with no evident care for Anne’s family, what a slap int he face!! The IDL spokewoman says it is impossible for firefighters to do our jobs in the presence of violations in the 10s and 18s. Being on an IHC myself, I KNOW we work with many of the 10s and 18s present, but we mitigate. And for an IHC to remove themselves, especially such a solid crew such as Flathead, means that something was terribly wrong in my opinion. Ms. Callihan, the purpose of the 10s and 18s is not to stop us from engaging fire, but to make us aware that we need to mitigate when in the presence of these issues, and quite frankly, the CPTPA DID NOT mitigate the hazards present, and the result was someone’s death. There is the real issue. They failed and now a very young woman will not be home to her family ever again. What is the incentive for CPTPA to do anything different in the future?? I know personally, if I ever find myself involved in a fire on CPTPA land, and now IDL Lands, I will think twice, and probably three times before I engage.

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  13. Gee, an exciting new concept that I’ll be able to teach in my RT-130 class on Saturday: “Callihan said the 10 and 18 are guidelines and not regulations.” And then “by removing firefighters from fires where any of those situations are present …..”
    I respectfully disagree with Ms Callihan from the Idaho Department of Lands. First, the 18 are “situations”, not guidelines: “the weather is getting hotter and drier.” This is NOT a guideline, it is a happening that firefighters need to be aware of, and take actions to mitigate the safety risks that come from such a “situation”.
    Similarly, the 10 Standard Fire Orders are NOT “guidelines”, but rather actions that wildland firefighters MUST do to mitigate safety concerns and items that arise in the 18 SSWO. I would ask Ms. Callihan: what part of “keep informed of fire weather conditions and forecasts” is a guideline versus specific direction of an action that must be taken to fight fire safely?
    To claim that it’s OK to ignore and/or violate the 10 SFO and 18 SSWO in order to “keep fires small” is total and unmitigated hogwash in my personal and professional opinion. I believe that the response of OSHA to the Clearwater-Potlatch TPA and the IDL sends a dangerous message to the firefighters in the field. The better message was the one that the Flathead IHC sent to the IC on the fire site, and later in its SafetyGram. As Jerry Williams said a few years back “we don’t bend them, we don’t break them!”

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