BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service committed serious,
willful and repeated safety violations when battling the Cramer
Fire last summer, U.S. Labor Department inspectors said Thursday.
Two firefighters, Jeff Allen, 24, of Salmon, and Shane Heath,
22, of Melba, died July 22 fighting the 5,614-acre fire in the
Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors claimed
the Forest Service violated all 10 basic safety standards listed
under the Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation
Operations.
Those standards include such commonsense rules as "know what
your fire is doing at all times," "maintain prompt communications
with your forces" and "think clearly."
Additionally, OSHA found, instructions to crew members were
unclear and escape routes were not identified. Fire managers also
failed to get the weather report the day the men were killed and
did not know that stronger winds were expected for the afternoon.
Intermountain Regional Forester Jack Troyer said the OSHA
investigation reached many of the same conclusions as a Forest
Service review investigation in released in January. That
investigation blamed fire managers for mistakes that led to the
deaths.
"Since the Cramer tragedy, the Forest Service has begun taking
actions agency-wide to further reduce the risks of fighting
fires," Troyer said in a prepared statement. "These actions are
part of a national accident prevention plan based on the
recommendations of an agency Board of Review."
A separate safety plan will be developed in response to the five
notices of violations from OSHA, Troyer said. Corrective action on
the OSHA violations must be taken by April 21, according to the
report.
As the Cramer fire shifted and grew on July 21 and July 22, 2003
- the day before and the day of the firefighters' deaths - the
Forest Service failed to increase firefighter support or properly
analyze the blaze, according to the report.
District rangers were not adequately trained and equipment was
not adequately maintained, OSHA said.
Allen and Heath died after they rappelled onto a ridge to clear
a helicopter landing pad. They called at least twice for a
helicopter to pick them up when the fire advanced in their
direction. But when one was finally sent, it was too smoky to find
the two.
Salmon-Challis supervisor Bill Wood, who took over the position
two months ago and was not working in Idaho during the Cramer Fire,
said he does not have a good explanation of why so many safety
violations occurred that day. But, he said, fire managers must be
well-trained to avoid simple mistakes during the excitement of a
wildfire.
"If you don't make a conscious effort to stop and click through
those rules in your mind, you can get caught up in the moment and
that's when accidents are going to happen," Wood said. "It's
really important that we take seriously the findings of all the
investigations and ensure that it never happens again."
He said incident commanders will now be certified before they
manage a fire to ensure that only well-trained, qualified
commanders are directing fire crews.
Wood also is reorganizing forest offices, which he said would
streamline the process for dispatching additional resources to
firefighters and provide better oversight for firefighting
decisions.
"Safety is absolutely our highest priority, and I want every
firefighter to understand that and to act on it," Troyer said.
"We need to get to the point where safety principles pervade every
aspect of firefighting. We owe it to Jeff and Shane, their families
and friends."

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