Rest in peace brothers!

By P. SOLOMON BANDA
Associated Press Writer
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - By the time Eric Hipke and the
other firefighters turned to run, the fire on Storm King Mountain
had swept below them and was roaring through shrubs as if they had
been soaked in gasoline.
Glowing orange embers swirled around the desperate men and women
as they scrambled uphill, thick smoke blocking the sun and coloring
the steep slopes an eerie red. Hipke sped past them and scrambled
for the safety of a ridge. He let out a yell as a blast of super
hot air knocked him down, then picked himself up and escaped down a
draw.
Later, as his scorched body was loaded onto a stretcher, Hipke
saw gear from the firefighters he thought were right behind him.
"I looked at that and thought they took a different route," he
recalled. "I said `Thank God, they made it out."'
Hipke was wrong. Ten years ago this Tuesday, 14 of his
colleagues died at Storm King. Nine of them were firefighters from
Oregon's elite Hotshot crew in Prineville, Ore.
Poor tactics, miscommunication and a lack of air support all
contributed to the deaths. But investigators discovered something
else - a firefighting culture that may have prevented those who
died from raising objections and refusing a dangerous assignment.
"Investigators felt that the `can do' attitude did a part,"
said Jim Cook, the training projects coordinator at the National
Fire Operations Safety Office in Boise, Idaho. "That cut to the
chase, because that's a huge part of what we take pride in, doing
the hard jobs."
U.S. wildfire disasters date back more than two centuries and
include tragedies like the 1949 Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont.,
that killed 13, or the Rattlesnake blaze four years later that
claimed 15 firefighters in Southern California. Fire managers
responded with reviews and policy changes in how to fight flames so
powerful they can change the weather and so unpredictable they can
roar back through miles of burned out terrain.
By July 6, 1994, decades of wildfire suppression had forced
firefighters to learn how fire behaves in rough terrain with thick
vegetation acting as seemingly endless fuel. They had hours of
training learning how to avoid getting into trouble where a fire
shelter, a lightweight, silver metallic tent, might be needed.
Yet 12 of 18 warning signs taught to all firefighters were
either ignored or not recognized on Storm King, investigators
found. Eight of 10 standard orders issued to ensure safety were not
followed. The flames came so quickly that only one of the victims
had time to crawl inside a fire shelter to no avail.
What happened here that day?
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The lightning-sparked fire had been burning for three days when
the Hotshot crew from Prineville, Ore., was sent in to dig a fire
line on the flanks of Storm King. The team was young but not
unusually so, ranging from 21-year-old Bonnie Holtby to Terri
Hagen, who was 28.
There had been several offers by members of the public to snuff
out the so-called South Canyon fire early on. They had been
rejected because only federal crews were authorized to fight the
fire, which was now stubbornly marching through the shrub oak and
sending smoke into the sky above Glenwood Springs, five miles away.
The team was below a ridge when crews farther up the mountain
began to see warning signs. The weather changed, winds whipping
flames that now were burning below the group and threatening to
sweep uphill.
The nine-member Hotshot crew turned toward safer ground,
marching along a fire line uphill accompanied by Hipke and three
other smokejumpers. The group paused to consider their options, but
Hipke kept moving. A minute or two later, he was knocked to the
ground.
By then, his 12 colleagues were dead or dying. The flames soon
caught up with two more firefighters trying to reach a helicopter
landing area and killed both, a half-mile from the others. In town,
people were looking at a mushroom cloud that reminded many of an
atomic bomb blast.
"There was no place to go," Bryan Scholz, a crew boss from
Prineville, said hours after his crew died in the flames.
The nine dead from Oregon include Jon Kelso, Kathi Beck, Scott
Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Tami Bickett,
Doug Dunbar and Terri Hagen.
"We kept going up the ridge, and it kept going up the ridge,"
said Scholz.
Thirty-five firefighters on the mountain that day survived.
Hipke recalls one of the most experienced firefighters in the
group, 44-year-old smokejumper Jim Thrash of McCall, Idaho, raising
a warning as the group began cutting oak on the steep slopes.
"He stops and says, `Man, this is not a good idea,"' Hipke
recalled recently as he led a group of firefighters to the site
marked by 14 granite crosses, including one for Thrash.
Waving his badly scarred arms as the firefighters looked on,
Hipke described how the fire line began looking more and more like
a tunnel through shrubs 6 to 12 feet tall.
"We were nervous about it," Hipke said. "The spider senses
started tingling and you're just going, `Oh man, how are we going
to get out of this?"'
But no one complained to supervisors, he said. "We didn't
really go up the ladder with that."
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Cook, who trains firefighters in leadership and decision making,
said many in the group that day had misgivings about the assignment
but really didn't have a procedure to articulate it.
"They all knew they were doing something wrong, but they kept
on working," said Patrick Richardson, an 11-year firefighting
veteran with Castle Rock Fire and Rescue. "It would have taken
somebody incredibly strong to say, `You know what, it's time to
turn around.'
"I can't say I would have been the guy to do it," he said.
Hipke said part of what happened is that no one - veteran or
newbie - wanted to look weak to the others by suggesting they
should step back from the flames.
"You've got to look like you're working," he said. "'You're
going to jump in and then go sit on a ridge?' I guess it's that
sort of thing. It's not good, but it's a human nature kind of
thing."
He laughed sheepishly: "You want to look good for everybody
else."
Getting around that attitude is now stressed in training through
a new type of class developed after the Storm King deaths. The
so-called "L" classes for leadership are intended to shatter the
fire line culture where no one wants to be the first to point out
dangerous situations.
"When I started, you didn't say anything," said Jan Hendrick,
an 18-year veteran who now helps write training manuals for
firefighters. "The culture was that if you said something, you
were showing weakness."
Among the specific changes since the disaster is an added
emphasis on dropping tools and heavy packs when trying to escape a
fire, and making a sturdier fire shelter. Fire managers are also
clarifying so-called safety and deployment zones to give crews a
better chance at survival should things go bad.
Perhaps the biggest change is new training designed to avoid the
same overconfidence that contributed to an experienced and
knowledgeable crew from turning around before the fire started its
run up the mountain.
"Prior to South Canyon, training was almost exclusively
technically oriented," Cook said. "What are good tactics, how
does a fire burn. We considered that to be adequate.
"We're now focusing on human behavior than focusing on just
fire behavior," he said.
Have these lessons truly been learned? The results have been
mixed.
Four firefighters in Washington state in 2001 and two
firefighters in Idaho last year died in circumstances similar to
Storm King. Federal investigators said the Washington fire managers
willfully disregarded employee safety, violated basic safety rules
and ignored or disregarded 10 of the 18 warning signs for danger.
The incident commander in the Idaho fire also violated standard
orders, investigators said.
But at a fire near Republic, Wash., in 2001, a 20-person crew
from Saguache, Colo., raised objections to an assignment deemed too
dangerous.
Chris Dupont and Erik Rodin were among those ordered into a
basin filled with dead trees as a fire burned below them - a clear
sign of danger. "I told the squad boss, `I don't think this is a
good idea,"' said Dupont, who was rookie on that fire. Others in
the crew agreed, including the squad boss. The crew was assigned
another task.
Such disagreements now happen all the time on fires and are
documented only when there is an unresolved conflict, trainers say.
"If anything, you're congratulated for bringing it up because
it makes you aware of dangerous situations," Rodin said.
A 10-year review of changes made in firefighting practices that
was released Friday said most of the recommendations for change
after Storm King have been implemented. The report, prepared for
the Forest Service, said "entrapment fatalities have dropped over
40 percent since" the Glenwood fire. The report said improvements
are still needed, including better management oversight.
For Hipke, describing the lessons of Storm King to young
firefighters has been part of his recovery. As he led a group to
the 14 crosses on the mountain, he said safety somehow took a back
seat that day.
"We were supposed to save our own lives," he said. "Once we
got here, we should have been able to save our own lives."
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On the Net:
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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