Forest Service reassigns 9 involved in deadly fire

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May 20, 2002

Forest Service reassigns 9 involved in deadly fire

By The Associated Press

YAKIMA — The U.S. Forest Service has reassigned nine firefighters and commanders from active fire duty, 10 months after they violated safety guidelines during the fatal Thirty Mile blaze last summer.

The reassignments were made last week after the Forest Service completed an administrative review of the fire, agency spokesman Rex Holloway told the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Still, the Forest Service has refused to talk about who was suspended and why.

"We're not at liberty to discuss it. That's an internal action and that's internal business," said Alan Quan, deputy forest supervisor with the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forest Service in Wenatchee.

The administrative review, begun three months after the fire, was the third federal investigation into the deaths of Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg, and Yakima residents Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18.

The Forest Service concluded last year that fire bosses failed to follow basic safety rules and ignored numerous signs of danger. The four died in their emergency fire shelters July 10 when they were trapped by an inferno with 10 other firefighters and two campers in the Chewuch River canyon in the Okanogan National Forest.

Fire bosses repeatedly underestimated the fire and allowed their only escape route from the dead-end canyon to be cut off, the agency found.

The families of the victims say it shouldn't have taken so long to begin disciplinary action.

"It's like punishing your children," said Jody Gray, Johnson's mother. "You don't wait 10 months to punish your children; the psychological impact is gone."

The nine firefighters and commanders still are employed by the Forest Service but no longer are involved in active firefighting. They could face further punishment, including termination.

"Our human-resources folks have to go through that," Holloway said.

Meanwhile, he said, the nine individuals still can take part in training exercises.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Yakima, have suggested Forest Service tardiness in punishing anyone was evidence that the agency was trying to dodge responsibility.

"If this is a start to having accountability, then this is a good first step," Hastings said.

"It's about time that the Forest Service recognize that mistakes were made and that there must be accountability," said Jed Lewison, Cantwell's spokesman.

Harv Forsgren, the Northwest regional forester based in the agency's Portland office, had authority to take disciplinary action last summer. He is being reassigned to another region.

Ellreese Daniels, the commander in charge of the fire crews at Thirty Mile, requested and was granted a desk job last summer.
 

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