Forest firefighters left high, dry

By Katherine Pfleger

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Confusion about whether the Endangered Species Act allowed water to be taken from a river delayed a water drop on a wildfire that killed four firefighters, sources said. But the amount was described as too small to affect the fatal outcome.

The Forest Service’s report on the deaths last summer in the north-central Cascade Mountains in Washington state is due out Wednesday. But sources with knowledge of the investigation said there was a nearly two-hour delay while Forest Service personnel sought guidance about whether the Fish and Wildlife Service needed to give permission to get water from the Chewuch River, home to several endangered fish.

Later in the day, the fire intensified and a mop-up crew was trapped. Firefighters Tom Craven, 30; Devin Weaver, 21; Jessica Johnson, 19; and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, died.

The Forest Service declined to comment on the investigation until its report is released.

However, the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a helicopter with its 75-gallon bucket could have provided firefighters at most 600 to 900 gallons of water an hour. Two water pumps that were expected to deliver up to 7,200 gallons of water an hour also failed to deliver their full capacity.

The primary source of water was supposed to be those pumps, a point that will be made in the final report, one of the sources said.

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., the chairman of the House Resources forests subcommittee, first alleged that a delay related to the Endangered Species Act may have contributed to the deaths. He raised the issue at a hearing on the fire three weeks after the deaths occurred.

"We are still sorting through the maze," Josh Penry, McInnis’ staff director for the subcommittee, said Monday. "Clearly there was some confusion."

Depending on the investigation’s outcome, Penry said Congress may need to amend the act to clarify that human life comes before endangered species.

The Endangered Species Act doesn’t specifically address firefighter safety. But a 1995 directive from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the act, makes clear life and property come first.

The directive says: "FIREFIGHTER SAFETY COMES FIRST ON EVERY FIRE, EVERY TIME … . NEVER delay the measures needed to protect the lives of fire crews waiting for (endangered species) consultation."

The directive came after safety issues contributed to the deaths of 14 firefighters near Glenwood Springs, Colo., in 1994.

Chris Wood, a top aide to the Forest Service chief during the Clinton administration, said the directive couldn’t be clearer.

"At best, laying the blame for this tragedy on efforts to protect endangered species is a misreading of the law, and at worst it’s a calculated effort to politicize a tragedy," said Wood, now the watershed programs director at Trout Unlimited.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which also is charged with endangered species protection, is stepping up education for its employees, spokesman Brian Gorman said.

"There are folks who would like nothing better than to find that the Endangered Species Act is causing problems that it, in fact, is not," Gorman said.

A Seattle newspaper reported Sunday that critical safety rules were broken the day of the deaths.

The newspaper said several of a list of 10 basic fire orders were violated. They said crew members were not clearly briefed on their assignment; safety zones and escape routes were not defined beforehand; a current weather forecast was not obtained before the crew was deployed; and warning signs of a possible blowup were not heeded.

However, the newspaper also cited the delay in the water drop.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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