4 Wildland Firefighters Killed in Washington State

Robert M. Winston reports on a wildland fire that suddenly “blew up,” costing four firefighters their lives.


July 10, 2001 - it happened again, this time in Washington State's North Cascades. Twenty-one wildland firefighters were working on a relatively small vegetation fire when the winds increased suddenly, causing the fire to "blow up" and overrun the crew. Because of the intensity of the "blow up...


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July 10, 2001 - it happened again, this time in Washington State's North Cascades. Twenty-one wildland firefighters were working on a relatively small vegetation fire when the winds increased suddenly, causing the fire to "blow up" and overrun the crew.

Because of the intensity of the "blow up," dry conditions and steep terrain, the crew had little to no chance of escaping without injuries and deaths. Four U.S.D.A. Forest Service firefighters died:

  • Crew Chief Tom L. Craven, 30.
  • Firefighter Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18.
  • Firefighter Jessica L. Johnson, 19.
  • Firefighter Devin A. Weaver, 21.

Two hikers in the same area were saved from serious injury or death by one of the crewmembers as she shared her fire shelter (an aluminized "pup tent" designed for one person) with them. The firefighter received burns to her back as she protected the two hikers from flames and searing heat.

This fire was the worst line-of-duty-death incident to occur to the wildland firefighting community since the Storm King Mountain Fire in Colorado July 6, 1994, when 14 wildland firefighters died after being overrun by fire that "blew up" because of sudden high winds.

Also on July 10, Firefighter/Pilot Doug Gilbert of Visalia, CA, was dropping fire retardant on a 500-acre grass fire in the north central region of Idaho just south of the Salmon River. For reasons undetermined as of this writing, this experienced pilot's fixed-winged aircraft suddenly crashed and took his life in the line of duty.

The "Thirty Mile Fire"

The "Thirty Mile Fire," named for a landmark near its suspected point of origin, was located on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near the Chewuch River.

According to Ron Pugh, a member of the fire investigation team, "This fire reportedly began as a result of human carelessness from a poorly constructed and unattended campfire located approximately 11/2 miles from where the team of wildland firefighters were overrun by the fire."

In addition to an increase in the wind speed and an increase in ambient temperatures, the fire entered a steep narrow canyon that increased the fire's intensity and rate of spread. The fire was located in rugged terrain and this added to the difficulties of escape confronting the firefighters and a couple who were hiking in the same location. The victims had little to no chance of escaping from the blow-torch effect of the fire.

Several other wildland fires were burning within 25 miles of the Thirty Mile Fire. This area of Washington State was in a drought and little precipitation had fallen in two years. Some rain was received several days after the tragedy took place and greatly assisted firefighters with the control, containment and final extinguishment of this deadly human-caused fire.

Preliminary Findings

Deputy Chief James R. Furnish of the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, the investigation team leader issued the following preliminary findings:

  1. Fourteen of the 21 members of a wildland firefighting crew were trapped after attempting to extinguish a spot fire adjacent to a road ahead of an uncontrolled fire.
  2. The initial crew assignment was reinforcement for the purpose of completing containment lines and mop up.
  3. The fire transitioned to active fire behavior during the early afternoon.
  4. After entrapment, the crew took a position on a suitable deployment site.
  5. The crew had adequate time to prepare and deploy shelters. Two civilians shared a shelter with one of the crew.
  6. Ten Forest Service personnel and two civilians survived; four Forest Service personnel died.
  7. One survivor had serious burns and several others had minor burns.
  8. Preliminary autopsy reports show the cause of death was the inhalation of superheated air.
  9. Radio communication was not a contributing factor.
  10. No significant weather event contributed to the entrapment.
  11. The fire was located in a steep canyon, with a variety of fuel conditions and loading (mixed conifer and riparian).
  12. Energy-release components were approaching maximum levels for this time of the year.
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