11 Forest Service employees involved in fatal fire may lose

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Discipline urged for Forest Service workers

Eleven involved in Thirty Mile fire incident may face loss of job, reprimand

Linda Ashton, Associated Press

5/31/02

YAKIMA _ Eleven U.S. Forest Service employees should be disciplined for their actions during the deadly Thirty Mile fire last summer in the North Cascades, a multiagency review team recommended Thursday.

The proposed punishments range from losing their jobs with the Forest Service to being placed on leave without pay, to a letter of reprimand in their personnel files.

``Wow. You can blow me over with a feather,'' said Ken Weaver of Yakima, whose son, Devin, was one of four firefighters killed last July 10. ``I assumed they would do nothing. I assumed they would do the very minimum. I'm delighted they're doing something that seems like the appropriate action.''

The Forest Service would not identify the 11 employees, and a public posting of the report on the agency Web site has all names blacked out. The agency also would not say how many of the 11 might be fired.

The employees have three weeks to review and respond to the proposed punishments, and the response will be taken into account when a final decision is made.

``The Forest Service takes the safety of its employees and the public seriously, and when rules aren't followed, we must redeem our responsibility and take appropriate personnel actions,'' said Harv Forsgren, the regional forester in Portland.

Earlier this month, the Forest Service suspended from active fire duty several of the people involved in the Thirty Mile fire. While published reports put the number at nine, Forest Service spokesman Rex Holloway said he could not confirm that number nor could he say if the suspended group overlapped with the 11 employees recommended for discipline.

Sonny J. O'Neal, the supervisor for the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests, was in an all-day meeting Thursday and not available for comment. Marti Ames, an agency spokeswoman in Wenatchee, also said she could not comment.

Also killed in the fire on the Okanogan National Forest were Tom Craven of Ellensburg, Jessica Johnson of Yakima and Karen FitzPatrick of Yakima. They were trapped with 10 other firefighters and two campers when the fire blew up in the narrow Chewuch River canyon.

A subsequent Forest Service investigation concluded that fire bosses and managers broke basic safety rules of firefighting and disregarded numerous warning signs of danger.

An investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the Forest Service ``willfully disregarded'' the safety of its employees at the Thirty Mile fire.

``I still very firmly believe that the level of negligence that occurred was criminal,'' Weaver said. ``And I still believe that there should be some sort of investigation and some sort of criminal case brought.''

The multiagency team that recommended the disciplinary action was composed of a Forest Service employee from Montana, a Bureau of Land Management employee from California and a senior investigator from a private investigation team in Maryland. The names of the team members are also blacked out in the public posting of the report and will not be released.

In further reviewing the performance of employees working the Thirty Mile fire, the team found that there were inadequate fire and safety briefings; the potential for extreme fire behavior was not accurately assessed; firefighters disregarded basic safety rules and warning signs; fire tactics were not reassessed once problems arose during the fire, and there was inadequate preparation for deployment of fire shelters.

The four firefighters who died all deployed their emergency shelters on a rocky slope and were killed by breathing superheated air. A fifth firefighter, Jason Emhoff of Yakima, was seriously burned when he abandoned his shelter on the slope and ran to a Forest Service van.
 
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