Are Changes in Wildland Firefighting Coming Amid Deadly Season?

Aug. 14--Fires near Anderson Ranch Reservoir were jumping roads and fire lines two-bulldozer- blades wide the night of Aug. 8, driven by winds so strong they were putting out firefighter's blowtorches.

The local, state and federal crews who quickly jumped on the eight fires started by lightning already had caught a 3,000-acre fire and put out two 100-acre fires before the weather and erratic fire behavior forced managers to pull their crews off.

"It became evident really quick that they were spreading into each other and we weren't going to be able to hold them," said Andy Delmas, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management's Boise District.

Such decisions still bring grumbling from local firefighters and residents whose homes and rangeland lie in front of the blazes. Even federal firefighters who know the dangers don't give up easily.

"Firefighters don't want to say no," Delmas said. "They don't like to see structures burn. They don't like to see habitat destroyed."

So far this year, 26 firefighters have died battling wildland fires, including 19 members of an Arizona hotshot crew in June fighting a fire in country similar to the mixed range, brush and forestland that has burned around the Idaho communities of Pine and Mayville since last week. Bulldozer operator Dennis Long of Clarkston, Wash., died from an apparent heart attack in July while fighting a fire near Kamiah.

The deaths, said Delmas, "puts an extra emphasis on safety."

Since these fires are in a mix of rangeland and forest, they have grown faster and forced firefighters to make quicker decisions about how to fight them.

DIFFERENT VALUES

A year ago this week, Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth, a 20-year-old from Moscow, died after she was struck by a falling tree investigators said no one could have seen coming while battling the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino. But the day before, a Forest Service hotshot team had refused to engage the blaze when it found firefighters working under the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association -- a cooperative loosely tied to the Idaho Department of Lands -- wearing blue jeans and violating many safety rules.

When the hotshots confronted the association's incident commander, he listened to their advice, then said "they have a different set of values and do things differently," the hotshot leader said in a report filed later.

Those differences include a more aggressive approach to fighting fires that agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have evolved away from after hotter, drier conditions that make fires more dangerous and unpredictable.

A series of firefighting deaths since 1994 and the recognition that fire has a place on forest ecosystems also has federal wildland fire managers focusing on saving lives and property instead of trees.

But the state and the protective associations were still tied to the tradition going back a century in which loggers and others in the forest became firefighters -- trained or not, equipped or not -- when fires broke out.

Retired Nez Perce National Forest Fire Manager Dave Poncin, of Grangeville, said the Clearwater association is very good at initial attack and takes the resource-protection approach the Forest Service had from the 1950s into the 1980s.

"It is my opinion (Clearwater) is what we all were 30 years ago," Poncin said.

REFORM AFTER DEATH

Veseth's death prompted the usual after-incident reports, with an official Forest Service investigation team concluding that "the judgments and decisions of the firefighters ... were appropriate." But the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration cited and fined the association for operating an unsafe working environment, specifically by allowing firefighters to fight blazes without fire resistant clothing and shelters, for poor communications and placing firefighters at risk.

The report said firefighters had been violating many of the 10 Standard Fire Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations, standards that have been developed over the years to help firefighters and their managers protect them. These rules, including identifying escape routes and safety zones, help firefighters reduce -- but not eliminate -- risks.

The incident became a wake-up call for the association and the Idaho Department of Lands.

What started as an after-action review of the Steep Creek fire turned into an examination of the relationship between the Department of Lands and the Idaho timber protective associations as well as all of their safety policies, said David Groeschl, the Department of Lands' chief forester.

The group that examined the policies included the U.S. Forest Service, and it looked at ways to strengthen the relationships between organizations that have very different missions.

The Clearwater-Potlatch Protective Association and the Southern Idaho Timber Protective Association provide fire protection on private lands with their own crews and trucks. The crews also do forest thinning and other forestry work; in the past, they often did not wear the hot, fire-resistant clothing when they did mostly initial attacks on small fires in well-thinned lands.

Idaho Department of Lands foresters also fight fires, and they had been lax in wearing the special yellow-and-green clothing that firefighters wear when they initially arrive to fight fires.

After the review, the Department of Lands made sure everyone followed the rules and developed clearer lines of responsibility and communication between it and the protective associations, said Groeschl. Now, all people fighting fires must have protective clothing and fire shelters.

"It's really making sure everybody is following the same standards," Groeschl said.

The state's reforms may be making a difference. Members of the Clearwater Association fire crew were called to a fire near Kamiah in July and told to build a fire line down a ridge with a fire burning below, its new fire warden said.

That's a risky place for crews and basically the same conditions that prompted the hotshot crew to refuse to join the Steep Creek fire in 2012. This time, the Clearwater crew refused, Young said. The commanders redirected the crews to areas that were safe.

"I was really proud of them," Young said. "These folks have been fighting fire for a long time and they know not to put themselves in harm's way."

LEARNING FROM PAST FATALITIES

In 1994, the deaths of 14 firefighters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., caused the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to reassess when it puts firefighters in front of fires.

In 2001, the Thirtymile Fire killed four U.S. Forest Service firefighters near Winthrop, Wash., resulting in criminal charges against Incident Commander Ellreese Daniels for negligent homicide. Daniels pleaded guilty to false statements -- a misdemeanor -- and was sentenced to probation. But the criminal charges placed a chill on other fire managers facing reviews, making them both more cautious and less open.

In 2003, firefighters Jeff Allen and Shane Heath were overtaken by fire in the Cramer Fire northwest of Salmon due to poor judgments by a host of forest managers and numerous safety standard violations. The incident commander on that fire was fired by the Forest Service and later placed on 18 months federal probation under an agreement with the U.S. attorney.

Forest Service Northern Region Deputy Forester Tom Schmidt in Missoula has been examining how the lessons-learned safety training is affecting firefighting across Idaho and Montana.

"I'm seeing fire decisions being made like 'Is this worth the risk to put in this line, or (should we) go somewhere else?' " Schmidt said.

Fire managers try to do everything to minimize the risk, but they can't predict everything, Schmidt said.

"This is a very dangerous profession," he said.

NEW PARTNERSHIPS

In 2007, ranchers complained to Idaho leaders that federal firefighters were holding them back from fighting the fires burning millions of acres of rangeland across southern Idaho. They said the agencies' rules were preventing them from saving their rangeland and important habitat.

In 2012, ranchers in Mountain Home formed Idaho's first Rangeland Fire Protection Association to assist the Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Lands in fighting range fires in one of the most fire-prone areas of the state.

"We told them if you are going to fight fire, do it safely," the BLM's Delmas said.

So far, it's been a success.

"They have put out some fires before the BLM arrived," state lands fire chief Groeschl said.

The ranchers were among the firefighters who responded to the blazes Aug. 8. Many still question tactical decisions -- such as where to burn back-fires on the range or build fire lines to protect homes. But now they follow the safety rules they once scorned.

"When they are part of the organization, they understand," Delmas said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

Copyright 2013 - The Idaho Statesman

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