4 Wildland Firefighters Killed in Washington State

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.

As the fire transitioned from the routine to "blow up" conditions, the 21-person crew began to retreat and to seek escape routes and safety zones. According to Okanogan Deputy Prosecutor Karl Sloan, one of the team investigators, "Fourteen fire shelters were deployed within an area of 100 feet of each other. The fire (relatively small in acreage) blew up and expanded to 2,500 acres in about 21/2 hours."

An Act Of Heroism

As the fire "blew up" and was about to overrun the crew of wildland firefighters and two hikers, Firefighter Rebecca Welch, 22, became what can only be described as a true hero under difficult and intense extreme fire conditions. She shared her aluminized "one-person" fire shelter with the two hikers knowingly exposing herself to high fire temperatures and direct flame impingement.

Welch received burns to her back and side as she successfully protected the hikers from near certain death and from serious burn injuries. Both hikers received minor burns and smoke inhalation. Welch's act of courage saved the lives of the two hikers.

An elite team of fire investigators has begun an in-depth analysis of this deadly fire incident. It will be 1-2 months before an official report is made available to the public. As of July 19, the size of this fire was reported at about 9,300 acres, 889 personnel were on scene with six engines, nine helicopters and fixed-winged air tankers. The cost of extinguishment was at $4.5 million.

Cards of condolences can be sent to: Families of the 4 Fallen Firefighters, Naches Ranger District, 10061 Highway 12, Naches, WA 98937.

Aircraft Accidents

Thirty deaths were associated with wildland firefighting aircraft (fixed-wing and helicopters) from 1990 to 1998. Analysis by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service (USFS) concludes:

  • Many fire operations take place in steep mountainous terrain with limited room to maneuver aircraft if problems arise.
  • Weather conditions are influenced by wildfires. These conditions are most always unfavorable to the performance of a flight.
  • Helicopters are frequently required to hover for long periods of time and operate under 500 feet above ground. This stationary action reduces the likelihood that the aircraft can autorotate to a safe landing if engine problems occur.
  • Rotary-wing operations often do work at maximum safe weight levels. Helicopters with suspended buckets may become entangled in trees, snags or power lines.

All of the Firehouse® staff and I convey our condolences to the families, friends and firefighter colleagues of the four fallen wildland firefighters and Firefighter-Pilot Doug Gilbert.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with 31 years of structural and wildland fire experience. He is a Red Carded qualified Structure Protection Specialist and instructor for wildland/urban interface fire protection. Winston holds a degree in fire science and is a member of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association. He can be contacted via e-mail at dfcwins@adelphia.net or at 781-834-9413.