OKANOGAN, Wash. (AP) - The parents of two firefighters who died
in Washington state's Thirtymile Fire say more precautions need to
be taken to ensure the safety of wildland firefighters.
An investigation by the U.S. Forest Service recently showed many
of the same mistakes that led to the deaths of four Washington
firefighters in 2001 were repeated in a fatal fire in Idaho last
summer.
Such deaths will continue until federal employees can be charged
criminally and sued in civil court for negligence when safety rules
are ignored, said the mother of Karen FitzPatrick, an 18-year-old
firefighter who died at Thirtymile, and Ken Weaver, who lost his
21-year-old son, Devin Weaver.
"This unconditional immunity shield needs to come down,"
Kathie FitzPatrick said. "There are cases where there's criminal
negligence, that's what it comes down to."
Four firefighters died in the Thirtymile fire on July 10, 2001:
FitzPatrick and Weaver; Tom Craven, 30; and Jessica Johnson, 19.
The families of the four fallen firefighters all filed
wrongful-death claims against the U.S. Forest Service last year.
Attorneys for the families said the government did not respond to
those claims, leaving them free to file lawsuits.
An attorney for Craven's widow, Evelyn Craven, said she plans to
file a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Forest Service in federal
court soon.
Devin Weaver's father, Ken Weaver, said he doesn't want to sue
because it would be too expensive. An attorney for the FitzPatrick
and Johnson families said he was still gathering information before
deciding whether to sue.
There was no telephone listing for Evelyn Craven in Ellensburg
and she could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Cramer Fire on Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest last
year was the first fatal wildfire in the United States since
Thirtymile in which more than one person died in a burnover
situation, said Erin O'Connor, a Forest Service spokeswoman in
Ogden, Utah.
As with the Thirtymile Fire, the Forest Service found that 10
standard fire orders designed to protect firefighters were violated
at some point during the firefighting effort. The orders cover such
things as monitoring the weather, basing actions on current and
expected fire behavior, and designating safety zones and escape
routes.
A report on the Cramer Fire blamed its own fire managers for the
July 22 deaths of Jeff Allen, 24, and Shane Heath, 22, who were
overtaken by flames while waiting for a helicopter to retrieve
them.
"I do believe since the Thirtymile Fire and the accident
prevention plan, we as an agency are making great strides
forward," O'Connor said. "But there is always that human element.
There were errors in judgment and decision making" that
contributed to the deaths, she said.
Ed Hollenshead, a Forest Service national fire operations safety
official in Boise, Idaho, said meaningful changes to improve safety
have been made, and more are in the works. Ninety-five percent of a
safety plan that came after Thirtymile is in place, he said.
"We are committed and we are convinced we can get closer and
closer to the point where we won't experience these things again,"
he said. "I know it's small solace to the families, but it's our
commitment."
The parents of the Thirtymile victims, though, said new safety
requirements won't save lives.
"It doesn't matter how hard I try, the line's still growing
behind Devin. That's what's still haunting me," Ken Weaver said.
"The fact that these Cramer kids died makes me feel culpable."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)