In the world of wildland fire the Thirtymile Fire established a turning point and a cascade of unintended consequences.
On July 10, 2001 the fire in the Chewuch River Valley in Washington took the lives of four U.S. Forest Service firefighters and triggered a series of events and knee-jerk reactions that have been affecting firefighters ever since.
Killed that day were:
Tom L. Craven, 30, Ellensburg, WA
Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18, Yakima, WA
Devin A. Weaver, 21, Yakima, WA
Jessica L. Johnson, 19, Yakima, WA
The tragic event set a precedent for charging a wildland firefighter with felonies for making mistakes during an emergency fire response. After the fire politicians passed a federal law making it mandatory for the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which had no experience in wildland fire, to investigate fatalities of U.S. Forest Service personnel that occurred on a fire to decide if any federal laws were broken by firefighters during the suppression of the fire. In order to avoid being swept up in lawsuits or criminal charges, some firefighters started refusing to participate in fire investigations, purchased professional liability insurance, and at times felt the need to lawyer up. Overnight it became more difficult to unearth lessons to be learned after close calls, injuries, or fatalities on wildland fires.
But it might have been even worse.
The website The Smokey Wire: National Forest News and Views, has an article by Sharon T. Friedman and Jim Furnish that describes how the lead investigator for the Forest Service had to fight off political pressure when the team was preparing to unveil the findings of the investigation.
The piece covers in general how government agencies have to deal with interference from political appointees, then has examples from Former Deputy Chief for National Forest Systems, Jim Furnish.
This subject is especially relevant now, days after leadership in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration failed to resist pressure from politicians, and threw National Weather Service employees under the bus for providing a forecast for a hurricane.
The article from The Smokey Wire is below, used here with permission.
Political Appointees, The Good and the Bad: Guest Post by Jim Furnish. 1. Mt Wilson and Thirtymile Fire
August 29, 2019 by Sharon T. Friedman, Ph.D.
I think it’s important for folks who haven’t worked in the agencies, or with politicals, to hear what the interface between politicals and career civil servants can be like, in terms of the day-to-day management of the agency. For the Forest Service, anyway, pressure by politicals can be less like an assembly line of policy from DC to Ranger District, and more like the Administration punching a pillow, where the pressure dissipates through time and space.
To open the discussion, I asked Jim Furnish, former Deputy Chief of the National Forest System, to share the good and the bad of his experiences with politicals. For those of you who are not Forest Service folks, the chain of command goes like this: the Secretary of Agriculture (now Sonny Perdue) is over the Undersecretary over the Forest Service (now Jim Hubbard, formerly State Forester of Colorado). Those are political folks, and under that is the Chief of the Forest Service (not technically political, that’s a historic discussion in and of itself, but new Administrations of a different color tend to get rid of the old ones, in more or less dramatic ways), and the Deputy Chief for the National Forest System is the next layer down. There are other Deputy Chiefs, e.g. State and Private, that are over state and private programs and Fire, and Research and Development, Administration and International Programs, but the main issues that concern us here (other than fire) are all within the purview of the Deputy Chief for NFS. For example, the Director of Ecosystem Management Coordination (EMC) where litigation, NEPA and Planning are housed, works for that person in DC.