Criminal charges make wildfire supervisors reluctant to serve |

Criminal charges make wildfire supervisors reluctant to serve

Associated Press Writer
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) ” A survey of wildland firefighters indicates many are reluctant to volunteer for supervisory jobs after an incident commander was criminally charged in the deaths of four firefighters in Washington state.

But a spokeswoman for federal firefighting agencies said Wednesday there has been no decline in the numbers of firefighters signing up to lead management teams.

Ellreese Daniels, a former U.S. Forest Service incident commander, was charged in federal court here last month with involuntary manslaughter and lying to investigators stemming from the deaths of four firefighters in the Thirtymile Fire in Okanogan County in July 2001.

Responding to concerns that the federal charges would make wildfire incident commanders more reluctant to serve if their decisions could lead to a prison sentence, the International Association of Wildland Fires conducted an online survey of its members Jan. 28-Feb. 15.

The nonprofit firefighter lobbying organization based in Hot Springs, S.D., released results of the survey with 3,362 responses on Tuesday.

The survey indicates 36 percent of full-time firefighters said they plan to make themselves less available for fire assignments, while 23 percent said they would not take assignments as an incident commander. Another 6 percent said they don’t plan to take any fire assignments until the criminal liability issue is resolved.

But a plurality, 39 percent, said the charges against Daniels would have no effect on their plans.

Results of surveys of part-time firefighters were similar.

IAWF President Chuck Bushey of Billings, Mont., said his organization will provide the results to land management agencies and other fire organizations “so that they can determine if they need to mitigate any adverse impacts that may be identified.”

Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said a nationwide system that logs firefighters’ availability has not seen an appreciable decline. Each year, firefighters are issued red cards that indicate their level of training.

“So far, we have not seen a decline in number of folks participating in incident management teams. We haven’t seen an increase of applicants turning in their red cards,” she said. “When the fire bell rings this western fire season, we’ll probably have a more concrete indication. Our folks in firefighting generally rise to the occasion and consider it their duty.”

Daniels, 46, of Leavenworth, is scheduled to stand trial in March on four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

Lawyers for the Forest Service and other federal firefighting agencies are trying to develop a system that would separate safety reviews of fires from criminal investigations so employees would not fear repercussions from discussing lessons learned, Davis said.

In light of the charges against Daniels, federal wildfire agencies are stressing leadership skills and decision-making in courses potential incident commanders are taking across the country, Davis said.

“A lot of our fire folks in leadership positions have liability insurance. It’s a personal decision, but something that’s getting more attention,” she said. “We have said repeatedly that if the incident commander is paying attention to situational awareness, escape routes and safety zones and can justify the actions taken, the agency would stand behind them.”

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