Firefighter deaths lead to plan for better safety

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Forest Service issued an action plan Monday outlining 31 ways to improve firefighter safety and coordination during wildfires.

The plan provides recommendations — at times bureaucratic — to help ensure that firefighters and managers are prepared to avoid, but know how to handle, potentially deadly situations.

The recommendations come in response to the July 10 entrapment of 14 firefighters and two campers in the northcentral Cascades. Firefighters Tom Craven, 30, Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, died there from breathing superheated air.

The action plan focuses on handling fatigue, strengthening fire leadership and accountability, ensuring firefighters can transition through different phases of attacking a wildfire and making certain that firefighters are aware of the situations around them.

"Although firefighting is a dangerous vocation, there are standing orders and preventive measures which can be taken to reduce the likelihood of this tragedy happening again," Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said in a statement.

An agency report last month concluded the deaths were preventable and cited numerous mistakes made by fire managers and leaders. All 10 standard safety rules for firefighting were violated or disregarded during the deadly fire.

Among the recommendations, the action plan calls for agency administrators to review records to ensure firefighters and related personnel follow work-rest rules.

It calls for certain managers to revise a training program to emphasize the need to avoid being trapped and reinforce the best way to use protective gear and fire shelters, which provide some shield from flames.

And the last item directs officials to review and clarify issues involving fire safety and endangered species. Some people involved with the deadly accident have complained that water drops were delayed because of confusion surrounding endangered species regulations.

Separately, Bosworth asked the accident review board earlier this month to re-examine evidence about orders from crew boss Ellreese Daniels, directing his team to deploy their fire shelters.

Last month’s report said the firefighters who deployed their emergency shelters on a rock slope were told repeatedly beforehand to gather on a road rather than the rocks. The four firefighters who died were among six who deployed their shelters on the rock slope.

The re-examination determined that firefighters may not have heard the order or may have thought they were already close to the road.

"Additional review of the facts and witness statements … has uncovered no additional evidence that any firefighters deliberately disobeyed a direct order," said Tom Thompson, the review board’s chairman.

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