Bulldozer Operator's Death During Idaho Wildfire Sparks Changes

July 22--An investigative report on the death of the bulldozer operator in North Idaho said his heart attack was not caused by his firefighting effort.

But the brother of Dennis Long of Clarkston, Wash., said the heat, stress and frustration of operating an uninspected bulldozer that overheated on a steep mountain slope between Greer and Kamiah was more than his brother's heart could take.

"If he hadn't been on that Cat at 6 p.m. on the fire line, he wouldn't have had a heart attack," said Pat Long, a retired logger, sheet metal worker and fishing guide from Clarkston.

Dennis Long died fighting the Pardee Fire soon after it was sparked by lightning July 8, 2013, on the east side of the Clearwater River, eight miles northwest of Kamiah. The fire grew to 300 acres before it was contained a week later.

The multiagency team that investigated Long's death was headed by E. Lynn Burkett, a Bureau of Land Management district manager from Lakeview, Ore. The team found that the bulldozer had not been inspected and had a missing gas cap, a broken exhaust system and other problems. But the report also concluded that neither the lack of an inspection nor the fact that fire bosses allowed the 65-year-old Long onto the fire with the damaged bulldozer led to his death.

Firefighting is a complicated enterprise and decisions often have to be made quickly. The state and federal governments have their own full-time and part-time fire crews. But they do contract with private companies for firefighting as well as for heavy equipment, catering and other services. And when a fire grows rapidly or professional crews aren't available, the state can end up hiring loggers working in the area or almost anyone else who owns heavy equipment, water trucks or other needed equipment.

Since Long's death, the Idaho Department of Lands has made some changes. Officials have increased the training around and the requirements for vehicle inspections. But neither Idaho nor federal fire officials require contractors to meet the fitness requirements that heavy equipment operators who are employees of the federal government must meet.

In addition to better inspection training, Idaho will now pull on-scene loggers -- who start fighting fire with heavy equipment before state firefighters arrive -- off the line for inspection once fire crews arrive. Once it's clear the loggers' clothing and equipment meet state minimum standards, they will be allowed back on the line, said Idaho State Forester David Groeschel.

A Forest Service watchdog group says the hodgepodge of state and federal regulations are not good for workers or taxpayers.

If fitness tests aren't required for everyone on a fire, asks Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, "Why do we have the pack test at all for anyone?"

THE PACK TEST

State, federal and local wildland firefighters are required to pass the "pack test," during which they must carry a 45-pound pack 3 miles in 45 minutes. The federal government also requires its employees who operate heavy equipment on initial fire attack -- the kind of role Long was performing for the state -- to pass a moderate-level pack test: Carrying a 25-pound pack 2 miles in 30 minutes.

When Long died, Idaho Department of Land officials initially reported that he was in his 50s. The investigation report does not address the misreported age, nor does it discuss the lack of a fitness requirement for contractors.

Groeschel said that since the federal government doesn't require heavy equipment contractors to pass fitness or age requirements, the state would face liability and other issues if it did.

"If they are a contracted resource, we are not qualified to determine physical fitness," Groeschel said.

VOLUNTEERING TO FIGHT

Last July, Dennis Long was at the state Lands Department office in Kamiah purchasing a timber sale for a local logging company he was working with when he overheard that a fire was burning. He offered the bulldozer for hire on behalf of the company.

The fire warden agreed orally, telling Long he needed the vehicle identification number before he could issue a contract. Long went to Orofino, where the bulldozer was in the shop, and returned with the number. He was given fire-resistant clothing and told where to meet the heavy equipment boss, according to the investigation report from which this account is drawn.

No one inspected the bulldozer -- which is supposed to be standard practice for all agencies -- and the state boss who saw it did not question its condition. The investigative report said "visible hazards would have found the dozer unserviceable." But the report determined that the hazards and the lack of inspection were "non-finding to the accident" -- jargon for concluding it did not contribute to Long's death.

When Long arrived at the fire, he was wearing a work shirt, jeans and loafers instead of the required protective clothing and heavy boots. The report noted that he wasn't wearing the required clothing, but concluded his attire was not a factor in his death. The report said nothing about why the fire boss didn't question Long about not wearing the right clothing.

Once at the fire line, Long cut a road with the bulldozer to an area above the fire and then cleared a flat area as a safety zone on the ridge.

He then cleared a fire line, removing brush and other burnable material down the ridge to an area of downed trees that the boss identified as the stopping point. He told Long to return to a safety zone above, but Long continued -- against the boss's advice -- 400 feet down the steep, rugged slope, stopping when the terrain became too steep, the report said.

Then, according to the report, "a low-intensity fire burns through light, flashy fuels crossing over and around the dozer line and burning into a corner of the windfall." Long began "terracing" -- or building switchbacks for himself with the bulldozer -- in an attempt to get the dozer back up the hill. But the machine overheated, so he stopped to let the engine cool in summer heat that reached 95 degrees.

The boss told Long to serve as a lookout while he was working his way up the slope to the safety zone. But when the boss didn't hear the bulldozer's engine, he walked down the slope and found Long slumped over and unconscious. He performed CPR until medically trained firefighters and air ambulance medics took over, but those efforts were not successful at reviving Long.

An autopsy conducted by the Idaho County Coroner's Office found that Long died of severe coronary artery disease.

LEADING KILLER OF FIREFIGHTERS

Long's brother, Pat, who worked with him in the woods, said his brother was a typical 65-year-old with no known serious health issues.

"He was as healthy as any of the heavy equipment operators I knew," said Pat Long, 64.

His brother also had a sense of responsibility, he said, and would not abandon a bulldozer on a hill at the edge of a fire.

"I'll bet my life with the heat and the physical stress and the frustration, it was more than his heart could take," Pat Long said.

Stahl, the Forest Service watchdog, is just as skeptical of the report's conclusions.

"The fatality report says, essentially, he would have died sitting in his rocking chair on the porch that day," Stahl said.

Since 1987, heart attacks, strokes and heat exhaustion have been the leading cause of death among firefighters, which includes equipment operators such as Long. Of the 449 firefighter deaths, 111 -- or 25 percent -- were caused by health problems.

Dick Mangan, a retired Forest Service fire safety expert, said 12 to 15 of those fatalities actually came while firefighters were taking the pack test. Firefighters are carefully screened before testing to ensure they don't have existing health problems.

Deaths during the testing is one reason why federal officials don't require contract heavy equipment operators to meet the fitness standards that federal employees who operate the same equipment must meet. Many other federal firefighting staff who work away from fire lines do not have to meet the fitness standards, either.

"We always encourage people, if you don't need to take the pack test, don't take it," Mangan said.

But Stahl said simply requiring heavy equipment contractors to undergo the same health screening as state and federal firefighters would save lives and reduce lawsuits and other state and federal costs.

"These are tax dollars used to fight these fires, and we are expected to use our tax dollars wisely," Stahl said. "Killing firefighters is not the way to do it."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

Copyright 2014 - The Idaho Statesman

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