Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Thirtymile Fire" portrays grim reality of fighting wildland fires

The Thirtymile Fire: A chronicle of bravery and betrayal 
Author: John N. Maclean
Copyright 2007
New York: Holt Paperbacks
Book Review by Alex Kopelson

You won’t find any white collars here.
Don’t come looking for easy cash.
We fight the fires in your lost canyons,
Faces stained by sweat and ash.
—from  Storm King Angles by Chip Kiger
            The Thirtymile Fire started as an escaped picnic fire on July 9, 2001. It was located in the North Cascades Range of the Okanogan National Forest in central Washington. This fire exceeded one thousand acres before it was contained. Unfortunately four fire fighters were killed: Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson, and Devin Weaver; they were on the Northwest Regular number six Crew. For those of you who don’t know what a “regular crew” is I will give a quick explanation. It is essentially 20-24 people that are thrown together throughout possibly many agencies and departments to create a crew to fight fire when there is a higher need for handcrews. I am going to be reviewing the book written by John N. Maclean and then focusing on discussing lessons learned and standards that have changed in the wildland firefighting world because of this fire.
John N. Maclean
This book was written very well. As was the other books John N. Maclean has written such as Fire on the Mountain and Fire and Ashes. He is a very credible author and although these stories are grim he brings together the positive energy of the firefighters and the important lessons learned to create a book that is worth reading. It is approximately 224 pages including an appendix and notes, the ISBN is 978-0-8050-8330-9, and it cost 15.99 at Barnes and Noble.
This book dives into the personal lives of the four victims and their families. The accounts given from the families are very useful in understanding the victims and it makes it very easy to relate to the family’s struggle and hardship. The introduction is a great example of this. “As Kathie FitzPatrick struggled to bring a bickering home buyer and seller to terms, she stole a glance at her watch. It was almost 5:30 PM, and once again her workday had stretched into evening. Kathie had snatched a personal moment a few hours earlier to place a cell phone call to her eighteen-year-old daughter Karen, who had just become a wildland fire fighter for the Forest Service, much against her mother’s wishes” (Maclean, 2007).This book blends together the official reports with the stories told by the surviving fire fighters creating a very personal and accurate account of what happened on the day of the fatalities. Furthermore this book explains the controversy and recriminations that raged in its aftermath.
The most unsettling part of the book is near the end when Maclean tells the stories when the parents get the calls about their children’s deaths. It got very emotional for me because I could easily relate to what my parents would have felt like if they were to get a call of my death when I was on a fire as I am sure they worried about that often when I was gone.
Overall this book was written very well. The pictures and maps within the book make it more relatable and informative. I would suggest this book to any person.
Lessons Learned
            I think this is the most important section of the book review because the lessons learned from this fire are important because we don’t want to lose more lives due to the same mistakes. The ten Standard Fire Fighting Orders were created in 1957 due to several fatality fires over several decades (Maclean, 2007). These serve as the bedrock safety rules for fighting wildland fires and now everyone going through the basic wildland class must memorize them. Other safety implementations such as LCES and the eighteen Watch Out Situations have been added over time to address situations of concern. The book contains notes from the official report given by the Forest Service and this makes this book very useful in understanding the mistakes made.
All ten Standard Fire Orders were violated or disregarded at one time or another during the course of the incident. The following are some examples of these situations.
  1. Fight fire aggressively but provide for safety first. The tactics implemented provided for aggressive suppression but lacked critical safety procedures, including mandatory escape routes.
  2. Initiate all actions based on current and expected fire behavior. Aggressive attach with over-extended resources continued in spite of onsite indicators of an increased rate of spread, multiple spots, and crown fire.
  3. Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts. Although received by Okanogan Dispatch, no afternoon fire weather forecast was transmitted to the Thirtymile Fire on the Methow Valley District. No Spot Weather Forecast was requested by management or incident commanders.
  4. Ensure that instructions are given and understood. Instructions were given without any direct tie to strategy or tactics at the time of the entrapment. At the deployment site instructions were given and not all were adhered to, but it is unknown whether they were heard or understood by all. Instructions were coming from multiple sources adding to the confusion.
  5. Obtain current information on fire status. Air attack was utilized but due to smoke conditions could not always see the ground. No assigned lookouts were used after 2 PM.
  6. Remain in communication with your crew members, supervisors, and adjoining forces. Although the communication equipment was adequate, the lines of communications on the incident were poor due to lack of plan and poorly established command structure. There was no viable strategy established during the afternoon of the incident.
  7. Determine safety zones and escape routes. After the 3 PM lunch break, the crews were up the canyon during the frontal assault and had no alternative escape route or safety zone identified. They had nowhere to go when their only escape route was cut off.
  8. Establish lookouts in potentially hazardous situations. No lookouts were established during the burning period beyond what could be seen from the road and from air attack, who had limited visibility of the fire due to smoke.
  9. Retain control at all times. Leadership was fragmented and ineffective at all levels during the afternoon of July 10th. Resources were being ordered and directions given by others than the IC. While a suitable deployment site was found and orders were given there was no evidence of strong leadership on the deployment site to implement the orders given.
  10. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Supervisors, managers, and firefighters failed to stay alert and recognize changing conditions.  Fatigue and collateral duties impeded the abilities of key leadership to think clearly and to act decisively to use available time on the shelter deployment site to prepare for the burnover” (Maclean, 2007).
Other lessons learned that affected this incident were lack of sleep. Since then the 2:1 work:rest ratio has been implemented to help offset fatigue. The lessons learned from this fire and written in this book serve an important purpose to keep the fire community safe from fatalities so nothing like this happens again.
Maclean, J. N. (2007). The thirtymile fire. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.

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