USDA Inspector General finds no misconduct in Esperanza fire deaths

Esperanza fire engine 57 This is a big relief, but it’s not over yet. Federal prosecutors have a total of five years to decide they will file criminal charges against firefighters.

Here is an excerpt from an article by Ben Goad in the Press-Enterprise, which has been doing a great job of covering the Esperanza fire:

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A three-year federal probe into the actions of firefighters who battled the deadly 2006 Esperanza fire found no evidence of misconduct.

In a report issued today by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General, investigators concluded that the deaths five U.S. Forest Service firefighters were the result of several factors that combined during the swirling wildfire, which overcame the men of Engine Crew 57 as they fought to save a hillside home.

“In the Esperanza Fire, these included rapid, unexpected fire behavior – propelled by the sudden emergence of fire-related weather phenomena – and the forward location of a (Forest Service) crew,” according to a summary of the report sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Investigators based their findings on interviews with 23 Forest Service firefighters and officials, who fought the blaze alongside Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. However, only one 14 Cal Fire employees contacted by investigators agreed to be interviewed, investigators said.

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

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.

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 Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

Arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler was convicted for setting the fire and is sentenced to die for the crime. (End of Press-Enterprise article.)

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HERE is a link to an AP article on the same topic.

The entire 26-page report from the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is HERE, minus the redactions.

The 7-page Transmittal Letter to the USDA and Congress is HERE. It is pretty interesting reading. The letter reveals that 23 USFS employees were interviewed by the OIG, but 14 of the 15 CalFire employees that the OIG wanted to talk to declined to be interviewed. The only CalFire person that was interviewed was the Branch Director that supervised the area of the fire in which the fatality occurred.

The letter explains that the OIG Special Agents who investigated the fire have taken basic firefighter training (S-130/190) and wildland fire investigation. The Special Agents have also visited one or more fires “to observe firefighting operations”. But even though they are proud of their qualifications to investigate a multiple fatality fire, the names of the Special Agents were redacted from the report.

HERE is a link to an article we wrote on October 23 about the delay in issuing the OIG report. The article generated 12 comments from our readers, including some from author John N. Maclean.

By the way, this is the 20th article Wildfire Today has written about the Esperanza Fire.

UPDATE at 9:44 a.m. Dec. 4

The Press-Enterprise has another article about the investigation report HERE.

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UPDATE November 12, 2013:

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

Dave Nuss, new Manager of NFPA’s Wildland Fire Protection Division

Jim Smalley
Jim Smalley

Jim Smalley, who had been the Manager of the NFPA’s Wildland Fire Protection Division retired in September, 2009 after having served in that position since 1996. He also directed the National Firewise communities Program  from concept to national implementation.

Since his retirement, Jim has been consulting for Smalley Consulting and teaching as an adjunct faculty member at Western Oregon University.

Dave Nuss
Dave Nuss

It was announced recently that Dave Nuss will take the reins of the Wildland Fire Protection Division beginning January 4. Mr. Nuss has been working for the NFPA out of their regional office in Denver.

Congratulations to both Mr. Smalley and Mr. Nuss.

Do you want your smoke now or later?

An organization called Citizens Against Polluted Air (CAPA) has created a web site called PrescribedBurns.com.

The stated purpose of the site is to convince the public that prescribed fires are “deadly” and “the smoke could be killing your children and grandparents”. It says the “smoke emitted from prescribed burns and manged wildfire is unfiltered wood smoke“.

CAPA also has another web site called Bad-Air Arizona, which is  based at a free hosting company. It has some of the same text as the other site, such as stating that “prescribed burn and managed burn smoke is unfiltered wood smoke“. They always underline the “unfiltered wood smoke” as if to emphasize that land mangers are negligent by not installing smoke filters on their wildfires and prescribed fires.

Both web sites claim that wood smoke “kills at least 40,000 adults and children every year”. The site does not provide any documentation for this statistic.

The PrescribedBurns.com internet domain was first registered by the Prescott, Arizona-based group on July 8, 2009. DomainTools.com claims CAPA owns about 100 other internet domains, and that PrescribedBurns.com is for sale. Phone calls and emails to the owner of the web site were not immediately returned.

The web site states that “we” are in the early stages of obtaining legal counsel and preparing litigation against officials of the U. S. Forest Service and the Department of Environmental Quality.

The web site has a solution to prescribed fires:

There is a better way. Unlike fires that kill trees, animals, and people, mechanical methods such as tree thinning and mulching machines remove only unwanted trees and brush grinding them into healthy mulch leaving the forest clean and healthy instead of burned and charred. Mechanical methods are cleaner, safer and properly maintain forest health while protecting the environment from air pollution, but officials argue that prescribed burns are easier, cheaper and increase their budget faster than other methods.

There is no question that wildfires and prescribed fires produce a lot of smoke, and the smoke contains a lot of particulates and chemicals that can be harmful to humans. Wildfire Today has documented that previously (also, HERE). And, some people with respiratory problems can be extremely sensitive to smoke.

But I don’t think it will ever be economically or environmentally feasible to treat all of our forests, grasslands, and brushlands with mechanical methods while banning prescribed fires.

The vegetation will burn eventually, either by management ignited prescribed fires, or by unplanned ignitions. Both produce smoke, but at least with a prescribed fire, the managers have some control over the vegetation conditions, weather, timing, wind direction, and the mixing height.

Postponing the inevitable is not the answer.

Thanks Dick

Another fire caused by a railroad

We have another report of a fire caused by a railroad. From The Latest:

The Superior [Montana] Fire Department responded to a fire along the MRL tracks west of Town on Tuesday morning. Montana Rail Link has a pile of old, creosote impregnated ties piled along the track at Spring Gulch. This pile is approximately 1,000 feet long and several feet high. A train used to grind down the rails had recently passed the area and sparks from the grinding operations apparently ignited the pile. Heavy clouds of black smoke were visible from the interstate.

After knocking down the blaze with water and foam, crews were able to get close enough to remove ties on both sides of the burning section so that the fire did not spread to the entire pile. Approximately 10 air bottles, 20 gallons of foam and 3000 gallons of water were used. MRL personnel provided assistance at the scene and a crew from Superior Ranger District was also on scene. With limited manpower available in Superior on a weekday, Frenchtown Rural Fire District provided a coverage crew for Superior.

Congratulations to the Superior FD for 1) using breathing apparatus while dealing with that nasty creosote smoke, and 2) for building a fireline on both sides of the burning section of ties so that the entire pile did not burn. Too often you hear about huge piles of burning tires, logs, or pallets, when firefighters attempt to put out the fire only with water, when removing some of the fuel ahead of the fire could keep it from spreading. Take it from an old Hot Shot who has removed a lot of fuel with a Pulaski and a chain saw.

Wildfire Today has reported on a lot of fires caused by railroads.

The BBC reports on a nearly “fire proof” house in California

BBC fire-resistant house

It is always interesting to see an outsider’s perception of an issue with which we are very familiar. The British Broadcasting Company has produced a series of short video reports about wildfires in California. One concerns a nearly “fire proof” house, another is about training with CalFire, and a third is about homeowners that have purchased their own firefighting equipment.
It is unusual to hear a reporter with a British accent interviewing a California resident about wildland fires who also has a British accent.

THIS LINK has the three videos (after the one at the top plays, you’ll see two others), plus an article about the year-round fire season in California. As Hayley described in an email:

The article discusses how California may be facing year-round fires due to how dry fuels have become in the off season.  They also discuss the implications of a year-round fire season as they affect the growing wildland-urban interface.

Thanks Hayley

USFS history museum to be built in Missoula

USFS fire lookouts
USFS photo

A non-profit group called National Museum of Forest Service History plans to raise $9 million in public and private funds in order to build a a national museum to commemorate the 100+ year history of the U. S. Forest Service. The group expects to build a 30,000 square-foot building near the airport in Missoula, Montana, perhaps as early as 2012.  Their vision began in 1994 when they obtained 36 acres near the airport and since then have built a road and a parking lot.

Two structures have already been erected on the site. One is a ranger station from the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho that was dismantled and reassembled piece by piece in 2000. The other is a replica of a 1930s era lookout which was built in 2005 on the National Mall in Washington for the 100th anniversary of the Forest Service, then disassembled, moved, and restored at the Missoula museum property.

The U. S. Forest Service has contributed $500,000 towards the museum as part of an agreement that the two organizations first signed in 2003.

The building will have room for more than 40,000 artifacts, with many of them coming from the USFS, including daily diaries of activities that were required for Forest Service employees until the 1960s.

More information