Thirtymile fire, 10 years ago today, and the consequences

Thirtymile Fire
Thirtymile fire, July 10, 2001

Exactly 10 years ago today the Thirtymile fire 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. 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.

After the trainee wildland fire investigator for the OIG finished looking at the Thirtymile fire, on January 30, 2007 Ellreese Daniels, the crew boss of the four firefighters that died, was charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. The charges were later reduced to two counts of making false statements to which Mr. Daniels pleaded guilty on August 20, 2008. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 90 days of work release.

In 2007 the International Association of Wildland Fire conducted a survey of over 3,300 firefighters about the repercussions of a firefighter facing criminal charges following an accident on a fire. Of the full-time employees surveyed, 6% said that because of the possibility of criminal charges they would no longer accept any fire assignments, and 23% said they would not serve as an Incident Commander, the person in charge of all fire suppression activities on a fire. And 23% of the primary-duty firefighters said they would remove some positions for which they were qualified from their Incident Qualifications Card, or “red card. HERE is a summary of their other findings.

The Wenatchee World has an interesting article about the Thirtymile fire. Here is an excerpt that picks up with a discussion about the OIG investigation and the felony charges:

…“It’s not something we’re excited about,” Ken Snell, Forest Service fire director for the Pacific Northwest Region, said of the possibility of criminal prosecution. “No firefighter on any given day goes out there with the intention of hurting anyone.”

And as for the independent review by the Inspector General, he said, “I don’t want to say it wasn’t good, but it had an unintended consequence of shutting down or slowing our ability to learn” from fatal fires.

Snell said the agency now examines minor to moderate incidents or close calls to learn what mistakes are being repeated.

Dick Mangan, a retired Forest Service official who analyzes fire fatalities, said he thinks the changes have had a negative impact on firefighting.

“Unfortunately, four people lost their lives. There were obviously mistakes made at a number of different levels,” he said. “But the way it was (before Thirtymile), everybody else gets the benefit of learning from it, because it is free and open and everyone admits it. Now, there’s always the threat that when an investigation or review team comes in, if I tell them something it may be held against me.”

Fire commanders also know that the decisions they make in an instant, without full knowledge of the situation, and a prosecutor has years to pick apart each and every move and decide whether to file criminal charges.

“That has cast a fairly dark shadow over fire operations for a lot of people,” he said, adding, “Many have chosen not to take jobs that would put them in a liability situation anymore.”

John N. Maclean, author of The Thirtymile Fire published in 2007, said despite his shortcomings, Daniels should never have been prosecuted.

“It was certainly clumsy in its execution, and disastrous in its consequences,” he said. “People left the upper reaches of firefighting in droves, and today, they’re still having trouble filling incident command classes,” he said.

He said the changes won’t make fire managers more accountable.

“Forcing fire managers to obsess about process does not put out fires,” he said, “And having them always looking over their shoulder because they might be charged with felonies that would put them in jail for decades for what may have been a stupid mistake, but was an honest mistake, does nothing for the future of firefighting.”

The Yakima Herald has short bios of the four firefighters who died on the fire.

Shortly after Mr. Daniels was sentenced in 2008, we published the reaction of John N. Maclean, who after writing his book, has become an expert on the Thirtymile fire and the unintended consequences of the OIG investigations.

The Yakima Herald was extremely critical of the U. S. Forest Service and Ellreese Daniels for years leading up to his trial date, but the article they have about the 10-year anniversary shows a much more balanced tone.

Memorial for the four firefighters

The U.S. Forest Service report on the Thirtymile Fire is here. It’s a large 9mb file.


Three U.K. fire officers charged with manslaughter in LODD’s

In the United Kingdom three fire officers have been charged with manslaughter in the line of duty deaths of four firefighters in a structure fire. Firefighters Ian Reid, John Averis, Ashley Stephens and Darren Yates-Badley died while fighting a fire in a vegetable packing warehouse in 2007.

The 2002 Cantwell-Hastings bill has resulted in witch hunts, criminal charges, attorney fees, and jail time for wildland firefighters who make mistakes on the fireline.

The most infamous example was the 2001 Thirtymile fire, after which Ellreese Daniels was charged with 11 felonies related to the deaths of four firefighters who were on his hand crew. He was facing the possibility of decades in prison, but the Assistant U. S. Attorney, perhaps realizing he did not have a winnable case, allowed Daniels to plead guilty to two misdemeanors of making a false statement in an Administrative hearing. Seven years after the fire, he was sentenced to three months of incarceration in a work-release program and three years of probation.

One of the morals of these stories is, if you make decisions on fires, you need professional liability insurance.

(Note: this is the 35th time Wildfire Today has referenced the Thirtymile fire in articles.)


Thanks Dick

Loyola University Prof uses Thirtymile fire as evidence women should not be firefighters

A professor at Loyola University New Orleans has written a ridiculous article published by Psychology Today that uses the tragic Thirtymile fire that killed four wildland firefighters in 2001 as evidence that women should not be firefighters and that the concept of national forests is evil and an example of “socialized land ownership”.

The Thirtymile fire, even before this idiot from Loyola spewed forth this garbage, can provoke a very emotional response from wildland firefigters. Not only did we lose four firefighters (see the names below which include two women), but for the first time a wildland firefighter was charged with felonies for the deaths of people on his crew.

The Cantwell-Hastings law that passed in 2002 was a knee-jerk reaction to these deaths. It requires that every fatality of a U.S. Forest Service employee on a fire be investigated by the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s office, a group of people more comfortable investigating fraud of subsidies at chicken ranches than analyzing wildland fire behavior, tactics, and strategy. Their mission is to determine if anyone should be charged with a crime, not to help identify lessons learned or prevent future fatalities.

Ellreese Daniels, the crew boss of those four firefighters, had been initially charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. The charges were reduced to two counts of making false statements to which Mr. Daniels pleaded guilty on August 20, 2008. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 90 days of work release.

So the idiot Loyola prof digs into these wounds which still seem fresh to firefighters and says women have no place on the fireline:

Nowadays, with our modern dispensations, we place females in the front lines. This is no less than an abomination. Females are far more precious than males. It is not for nothing that farmers keep a few bulls and hundreds of cows. It is due to patriarchy that we owe our very existence as a species. Imagine if our cave men ancestors had sent their women out to hunt and face the lions and tigers when they came a-calling, instead of throwing themselves at these enemies, sacrificing themselves so that mankind could persist.

Spoken like a cave man.

He goes on to say that fewer firefighters would die if we had no public ownership of lands:

When a forest fire consumes private timber, there are individuals who feel it in their bank accounts; this is not the case with socialized land holdings. This means that the incentives are greater, by how much is an empirical matter, for profit making individuals to take greater precautions regarding their property than is true for their public counterparts. If we have learned anything from the fall of the Soviet economic system – and this is a highly debatable point – it is that things work better under private ownership. These four young people will have not died totally in vain if we use their deaths as a rallying cry for privatization of the forest. Perhaps if we succeed in this effort, other lives will be saved.

Thirtymile fire memorial
Thirtymile fire memorial

The four firefighters killed on the Thirtymile fire 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.

A memorial page for the firefighters can be found here. May they rest in peace.

GAO agrees to investigate USFS’s handling of the Station fire

As we reported on August 6, the two California U.S. senators and several local House members signed a letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the management of last year’s Station fire that burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters near Los Angeles.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, has now agreed to investigate the U. S. Forest Service’s decisions and tactics during the early stages of the fire. There has been criticism that their anemic response to the fire, and their failure to fill firefighters’ requests for air tankers on the morning of the second day of the fire, led to the fire growing from a small fire that morning to the largest fire in the history of Los Angeles County — and the deaths of two firefighters from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General is also investigating the Forest Service’s failure to release recordings of telephone calls radio transmissions related to the fire after they were twice requested by the LA Times using the Freedom of Information Act. The probe by the IG could result in criminal charges, much like their investigation of the Thirtymile wildfire led to felony criminal charges resulting in a firefighter being sentenced to 90 days in a work-release facility and 3 years of probation.

Issue of “firefighters charged with manslaughter” discussed at Firehouse Expo has an interesting article that summarizes a presentation by Curt Varone about instances of firefighters being charged with manslaughter while performing their duties. Most of us are familiar with the Thirtymile fire, after which a crew boss was initially charged with felonies for the deaths of four entrapped firefighters, but there have been at least 11 other similar cases according to Varone. Here is an excerpt from the article.

Varone said he has found 12 such cases that have occurred since 2001, not counting intentional acts such as firefighter arson resulting in death. “We’re talking about accidental deaths,” he specified.

Varone noted that this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon, either. For example, a UK firefighter was recently charged for spooking cows during a response, resulting in the trampling death of a farmer. In another example, a UK fire official was indicted over a fire response in which several other firefighters – including his own son – were killed.


Another top discussion involved supervisors being charged with manslaughter as a result of their employees’ death.

Varone recounted the case of Alan G. Baird III of the Lairdsville (N.Y.) Fire Department, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and convicted of criminally negligent homicide after the 2001 training death of a recruit.

He also highlighted the case of the Thirty Mile wildfire, in which four firefighters were killed in Washington in 2001, and their supervisor was charged with involuntary manslaughter in 2006 – partly as a result of the families’ ongoing lobbying.

“It took them five years but they finally got what they what they were looking for,” Varone said. He suggests that while the public tends to think of lawsuits as money-driven, the root of lawsuits like these are rage and grief.

In the end, Varone said there are some take-away lessons to be gleaned from these cases. For one, in the aftermath of such events, public uproar has to be expected. Does it matter what kind of person the responder is or was? Absolutely, Varone said. If they were known to be ethical, that can affect the public perception and outcome.

However, convictions were likelier in cases involving issues such as alcohol, drugs or horseplay.

“Some factors can make a case indefensible,” Varone said.

Thirtymile fire, 9 years ago today

Thirtymile Fire
Thirtymile fire, July 10, 2001

The Thirtymile Fire (or 30 Mile fire) was first discovered during the evening of July 9, 2001. During the afternoon of July 10 high winds developed causing the Thirty Mile Fire in the Chewuch River Valley, north of Winthrop, WA to blow up and grow from approximately 5 acres to over 2500 acres within 2 ½ hours.

That afternoon twenty-one firefighters and two civilians were entrapped in a narrow canyon of the Chewuch River Valley. Fires shelters were deployed in an area surrounded by fire on all sides. Four firefighters were killed and another four firefighters and 2 civilians were injured.

Those killed 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.

Ellreese Daniels, the crew boss of those four firefighters, had been initially charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter after the four members of his crew were entrapped and killed. The charges were reduced to two counts of making false statements to which Mr. Daniels pleaded guilty on August 20, 2008. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 90 days of work release.

This was the first time that a wildland firefighter in the United States had been charged with felonies for decisions that were made on the fire line. It set a precedent and may forever change the profession. Since then, firefighters have been advised to “lawyer up” immediately after a serious accident on a fire. Many are hesitant to speak to investigators for fear of going to prison and ruining their lives and the lives of their families, which makes it difficult to glean any lessons learned from an unfortunate incident.

John N. Maclean wrote an excellent analysis of the charges against Mr. Daniels.

The Cantwell-Hastings bill that was signed into law in 2002 was a knee-jerk reaction to the fatalities on the Thirtymile fire. It required fatalities of U.S. Forest Service personnel on a fire to be investigated by the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s office — an office that had no experience or training in the suppression or investigation of wildland fires. The goal of the IG investigation would be to determine if any crimes were committed, so that a firefighter could be charged and possibly sent to prison. The  “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, House Bill 4488, introduced in January of 2010 primarily to improve the pay of wildland firefighters, would make this situation even worse, expanding the investigation requirement to include the Department of Interior agencies as well as the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture.


On a side note, the Wikipedia entry about the Thirtymile fire is terrible and needs to be revised and fleshed out.