Date: July 16, 2001
Subject: Investigators Pinpoint Preliminary Findings in Fire Deaths
Contact: Ron DeHart, 509/997-2131
Several preliminary findings have been identified by the federal team investigating the July 10 deaths of four U.S. Forest Service employees in the Thirtymile Fire north of Winthrop, Washington.
The investigation focuses on the initial hours of the fire, which trapped and overran 14 firefighters and two civilians in a steep, narrow canyon along the Chewuck River in the Okanogan National Forest. In addition to the fatalities, four other crew members and the two civilians were injured.
The investigation team, headed by Jim Furnish, Deputy Chief of the National Forest System, USDA Forest Service, has determined a number of initial findings which will aid in the teams development of recommendations to improve wildland firefighting safety.
14 members of the 21-person fire crew were trapped after attempting to extinguish a spot fire adjacent to a road ahead of an uncontrolled fire. The other seven crew members were working as a separate squad in a nearby area. 14 shelters were deployed, one of them sheltering one fire crew member and the two civilians. Ten crew members and the two civilians survived. Six of them, including the two civilians, were injured.
Four members of the fire crew deployed shelters about 100 feet upslope from the road, another deployed at an unknown distance upslope from them. Remaining crew members and the two civilians deployed shelters on the road.
After the initial deployment some of the group relocated to the river. The civilians vehicle was destroyed by fire. The Forest Service vehicle sustained damage, but was driveable.
There was no significant wind or frontal weather event associated with the dramatic change in fire behavior. The prolonged drought, high temperatures and low humidity combined with the very dry forest fuels to create an explosive, high intensity fire. Other preliminary factual findings:
The initial crew assignment was reinforcement for completing containment lines and mop-up The fire increased to active behavior during the early afternoon of July 10
After realizing entrapment was imminent, the crew took position in a suitable deployment area The crew had adequate time to prepare and deploy shelters Preliminary autopsy reports show cause of death was inhalation of superheated air
Radio communication was not a contributing factor The fire was located in a steep canyon, with a variety of fuel conditions and fuel loadings (mixed conifer and riparian) The energy release component was approaching maximum levels for this time of year The investigation team began its work on July 12. The initial findings are based on investigations of the accident area and interviews with surviving fire crew members and others associated with the crews fire suppression activities on July 9 and 10, according to Furnish. Additional findings will be developed to fully understand the entrapment and shelter deployment.
The investigation team hopes to complete its interview and information-gathering phase later this week, with the analysis and assessment steps expected to result in a draft report and recommendations in early August.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- News Release Wenatchee and Okanogan National Forests 215 Melody Lane......Wenatchee, WA 98801.........509-662-4335
Date: Wednesday, July 11, 2001
Thirty Mile Fire Fatality Report
The Thirty Mile Fire was first discovered during the evening of July 9. An unattended camp fire is the suspected cause. During the afternoon of July 11, 2001, high winds developed causing the Thirty Mile Fire in the Chewuch River Valley, north of Winthrop, WA to blow up and grow from approximately 5 acres to over 2500 acres within 2 ½ hours.
21 firefighters and 2 civilians were entrapped in a narrow canyon of the Chewuch River Valley. Fires shelters were deployed in an area surrounded by fire on all sides. Four firefighters were killed and another four firefighters and 2 civilians were injured. Most of the injured are either in satisfactory condition or have been treated and released with one exception. One firefighter was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA and is listed as serious and stable.
"This is a great tragedy and loss that is felt by all firefighters and agency employees everywhere," said Sonny J. O'Neal Forest Service Supervisor of the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests. "Firefighters are a family and any time a firefighter is killed, grief is felt by all."
A national investigation team will visit the site today to determine the cause of the tragedy and to look for lessons that can improve firefighter safety everywhere.
A national Type I incident management team is assembling today to assume responsibility for suppression of the Thirty Mile Fire.
Families of firefighters killed and injured have been notified. All firefighters entrapped were members of a combined crew from the Naches Ranger District and the Lake Wenatchee and Leavenworth Ranger District of the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests.
Tom L. Craven, 30, Ellensburg, WA;
Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18, Yakima, WA;
Devin A. Weaver, 21, Yakima, WA;
Jessica L. Johnson, 19, Yakima, WA.
Those injured are:
Jason W. Emhoff, 21, Yakima, WA, who was transported to Harborview Medical Center and is currently listed as serious and stable;
Thomas R. Taylor, 31, Leavenworth, WA, to be released from Brewster Hospital this morning;
Scott Sherzinger, 24, Selah, WA treated and released;
Rebecca Welch, 22, Naches, WA, treated and released.
Because of the remoteness of the entrapment site, and the need for an investigation, it will not be possible to recover the bodies until today.
Today, the Thirty Mile Fire is being monitored as a strategy is being developed for its suppression. The exact size will not be known until mapping is completed. The new incident management team will determine numbers of firefighters and types of equipment needed to suppress the fire.
I wrote the Chairman of the House Resources Committee at that time to express my disgust. I'll post the letter and his response if I can find the darn thing on my hard disk.