Wildfire briefing, February 14, 2014

Fire near Wallan
Fire near Wallan
Fire near Wallan, 60 km north of Melbourne. New South Wales RFS photo.

Police investigating 14 suspicious fires in Victoria

Police and fire investigators in Victoria, Australia are looking carefully at 14 fires that occurred over the last week for which arson is suspected. In over 400 fires since Thursday of last week, homes, animals, and crops have been destroyed or killed. A radio and print ad campaign will urge residents to report any suspicious activity to Crime Stoppers.

Wild meteorology terms go mainstream

Melissa Mahony has written an op-ed for livescience.com in which she examines some interesting and sometimes complex scientific weather terms that have crept into the mainstream over the last year or so. Ms. Mahony goes into a little detail about each one, but here is the list… how many are you familiar with?

Doc Hastings, of “Cantwell-Hastings Bill”, to retire

Rep. Doc Hastings
Rep. Doc Hastings

One of the two federal legislators who deserve most of the blame for passing the infamous Cantwell-Hastings Bill, which did irreparable harm to the process of learning lessons after wildfire accidents, is retiring.

The bill was sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell and U.S. Representative Doc Hastings, and became Public Law 107-203 in 2002. It includes this passage:

In the case of each fatality of an officer or employee of the Forest Service that occurs due to wildfire entrapment or burnover, the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture shall conduct an investigation of the fatality. The investigation shall not rely on, and shall be completely independent of, any investigation of the fatality that is conducted by the Forest Service.

The Cantwell-Hastings bill, signed into law in 2002, was a knee-jerk reaction to the fatalities on the Thirtymile fire the previous year. The Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s office had no experience or training in the suppression or investigation of wildland fires. They are much more likely to be investigating violations at a chicken ranch than evaluating fire behavior and tactical decisions at a wildfire. The goal of the Inspector General investigation would be to determine if any crimes were committed, so that a firefighter could be charged and possibly sent to prison.

After the bill was passed, a firefighter on the Thirtymile Fire was charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. Now firefighters have to lawyer-up after an accident and they sometimes do everything they can to avoid talking to investigators. After the 19 fatalities on the Yarnell Hill fire, the U.S. Forest Service prohibited their employees from providing information to one of the investigation teams, a decision that may have been a result of the environment created by Cantwell-Hastings. Lessons are now much more difficult to learn.

The Cantwell-Hastings Bill and Public Law 107-203 need to be repealed, or at least modified to more resemble the investigations that the military conducts following aviation accidents regulated by law,10 U.S.C. 2254(d). More information about this procedure is at Wildfire Today.

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. Google+

2 thoughts on “Wildfire briefing, February 14, 2014”

  1. I knew when that law was passed it was going to create a worse situation than
    it solved. You are very right, Bill.

  2. Knee-jerk politics, even when well intentioned, seldom results in long-term good for the intended audience. We in the wildfire community will likely never know the consequences of this Act, especially the numbers of good firefighters who “passed” on higher level ICS positions in the Operations Section. The loved ones on firefighters that die on the line need help to get through the grieving process before seeking legislation and/or lawsuits to fix their pain: sometimes the cure is worse than the illness!

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