Eight years ago today, in 2012, Anne Veseth was killed while working on the Steep Corner Fire 56 miles northeast of Orofino, Idaho. The fire was on private property and was being managed by the Clearwater‐Potlatch Timber Protective Association (CPTPA). Ms. Veseth, in her second season working as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, was killed when she was struck by a falling 150-foot fire-weakened green cedar tree. The tree fell on its own and was 13 inches in diameter where it struck her.
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 Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest is planning to construct a memorial for Anne Veseth, a firefighter who was killed by a falling tree last year on the Steep Corner Fire northeast of Orofino, Idaho. If the environment assessment and other hurdles are overcome, a two-mile trail will be constructed leading to a vantage point overlooking the area where the fatality occurred. U.S. Forest Service officials are working closely with Ms. Veseth’s family in the design of the memorial.
She was in her second season working as a firefighter for the USFS when she was struck by a falling 150-foot tall fire-weakened green cedar tree. The tree fell on its own and was 13 inches in diameter where it struck her.
The USFS report on the accident did not find anyone at fault. It said the situation “required the presence of firefighters in an area where fire‐weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning.”
The U.S. Forest Service has released their Serious Accident Investigation Report on the fatality of Anne Veseth, which occurred on the Steep Corner Fire 56 miles northeast of Orofino, Idaho August 12, 2012. The fire was on private property and was being managed by the Clearwater‐Potlatch Timber Protective Association (CPTPA). Ms. Veseth, in her second season working as a firefighter for the USFS, was killed when she was struck by a falling 150-foot tall fire-weakened green cedar tree. The tree fell on its own and was 13 inches in diameter where it struck her.
Here is an excerpt from the just-released USFS report:
“Analysis and Conclusion
“The cause of this accident was that a green cedar tree, weakened by fire, fell and struck a firefighter in the head. It fell with a force far greater than the design limits of any hardhat could withstand. This tragedy resulted from the chance alignment of certain conditions: an emergency response to control a wildland fire, which required the presence of firefighters in an area where fire‐weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning. The SAI team concluded that the convergence of these events – in a very specific way and with very specific timing – resulted in a fatal accident. Slight differences in any number of factors could have led to drastically different results.
“Firefighters faced the same choice on this fire as they do on almost every fire: engage the fire and expose firefighters to a certain set of risks in order to control the fire, or don’t engage the fire and don’t control it, knowing that such a decision often poses a wider range of risks to firefighters and the public. Firefighters made the same basic risk decision on the Steep Corner Fire as they do routinely on most fires: to engage the fire and attempt to control it, knowing that firefighters would be exposed to hazards during suppression efforts.
“On the day of the accident, after the implementation of safety mitigation measures, the firefighting professionals involved in the Steep Corner Fire reasoned the risks of engaging and suppressing the fire to be acceptable. After considerable review of the incident, including the leadership, qualifications, interagency cooperation, fuels, weather, incident management organization, and local policies, the SAI Team concluded that the judgments and decisions of the firefighters involved in the Steep Corner Fire were appropriate. Firefighters all performed within the leaders’ intent and scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The team did not find any reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol.
“On August 11, the day before the fatal accident, two Forest Service resources decided to limit their acceptance of risk on the Steep Corner Fire. Both the IHC and the E‐31 crew identified necessary safety mitigations. The IHC chose not to engage. The E‐31 crew disengaged and indicated they would not return to the fire until mitigation measures were implemented.
“C‐PTPA took these events seriously and subsequently addressed the recommended mitigation measures. Personnel became the “adapters” that allowed C‐PTPA and the Forest Service, two organizations with very different natural resource management mandates, to functiontogether. Mitigation measures included ordering more firefighting resources, adding line overhead and a radio repeater, and using contract fallers to fell hazard trees ahead of those digging fireline. The morning of August 12, the E‐31 crew decided to re‐engage when it became clear C‐PTPA was addressing their safety concerns. The IHC was already reassigned to anotherfire and did not return. In general, firefighters expressed their impressions that Saturday was a bad day but Sunday (before the accident) was much better, in terms of organization of the fire and mitigation of the hazards.”
(end of excerpt)
The 38-page report only has two recommendations. One is to introduce the LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones) concept into the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s curriculum for use in disciplines other than fire management. The other is: “Occupational Safety and Health Office should develop a methodology for effectively teaching non‐fire workers the concepts related to hazard tree identification, scouting an area, and determining escape routes and safety zones for overhead hazards”.
Several things about the incident and the report are troubling, but one item in the report stood out (emphasis added):
This tragedy resulted from the chance alignment of certain conditions: an emergency response to control a wildland fire, which required the presence of firefighters in an area where fire‐weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning.
Perhaps it is just an unfortunate choice of words chosen by the primary author which somehow was missed by the large number of people who probably reviewed the report before it was released. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they didn’t really mean to imply that firefighters are REQUIRED to perform an action on a fire simply because the fire is uncontrolled, even “where fire‐weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning”.
Someone might say that trees could fall during suppression action on most timber fires. Right. However on this fire, the large number of falling trees was identified the previous day, when a Hotshot crew refused to be assigned to the fire because of falling trees and many other unmitigated hazards, saying in a SAFENET report filed three days later that they “had huge concerns about the number of snags burning”. An engine crew left the fire for similar reasons that afternoon, but returned the next day after being assured that the hazards had been mitigated.
Firefighters are not REQUIRED to perform a task on a fire if there are known extraordinary hazards that cannot mitigated. We are talking about trees, grass, brush, or houses…. that will all grow back. Firefighters can’t.
The Citation for the CPTPA and the Notice for the USFS were both dated February 7, 2013.
The CPTPA citation was for the following:
Serious violation: For not providing a safe working environment; 8 of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders were violated, and they did not mitigate 11 of the 18 Watch Out Situations. Proposed penalty: $4,900.
Serious violation: employees engaged in wildland firefighting were exposed to being struck by hazard trees while constructing fire line. Proposed penalty: $4,900.
Serious violation: Firefighters constructing direct fire line did not have fire shelters readily available. Firefighters constructing fire line were wearing denim and work pants not rated as fire resistant. Proposed penalty: $4,200.
The U.S. Forest Service Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions was for the following:
Serious Violation: 7 of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders were violated, and they did not mitigate 9 of the 18 Watch Out Situations.
Repeat Violation: employees engaged in wildland firefighting were exposed to being struck by hazard trees while constructing fire line.
If the violations are not contested they must be abated by various dates in March, 2013, and the fine must be paid within 15 working days.
Anne Veseth, a 20-year-old firefighter from Moscow, Idaho, was killed August 12 while working on the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino, Idaho. The U.S. Forest Service firefighter was struck when one tree fell and crashed into another tree, causing it to fall in a domino effect.
On August 11, the day before Veseth was killed, the Flathead Hotshots arrived at the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association (CPTPA) station to work on the Steep Corner Fire. They were briefed, received a radio clone, and showed up at the fire about 2 p.m., where they located the CPTPA incident commander. He briefed them on tactical duties, according to the SAFENET report filed three days later, but “had to be prompted for specifics on everything else.” The hotshot report said there was no direct link to Grangeville dispatch, no information on EMS or weather, and no medical plan besides “call the county.”
The report listed a slew of other heads-up flags on the incident, including no mention of hazards and no direction other than “jump in the middle and work south.” The IC was wearing jeans, and the hotshots immediately noticed several other CPTPA personnel without PPE or shelters.
The Flathead superintendent told the IC that they’d go scout the fire before committing the crew, and the IC told him to head down the burned line through the middle of the fire. The hotshot foreman then briefed the crew, and they established their own LCES and posted the first lookout of the day on the fire. The scouting superintendent radioed back that no one should be sent down the burned line — which was still hot — through the middle of the fire because of snag hazards and previously cut log decks. Continue reading “Safety issues noted one day before Steep Corner Fire fatality”