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Lessons learned from Storm King

A Forest Service report expected to be released next week says lessons learned from the deadly Storm King fire near Glenwood Springs have improved firefighter safety in the decade since the blaze.Some Forest Service staffers say the report marks an unprecedented attempt to see if lessons from a tragedy have been put in place years later.The agency contracted with a pair of independent consulting firms to prepare the report based on a series of focus groups conducted among firefighters across the country. One of those contractors was Forest Stewardship Concepts, LTD, of Monte Vista, Colo., owned by Jim Webb, one of the authors of the original investigation into the fire, officially called the South Canyon fire. “A lot of good things have happened, but that’s not a reason to relax,” Webb said. “There’s a lot of things that still need to be done.”The report compares similarities between the South Canyon fire and two major fatal wildfires since then – the 2001 Thirtymile fire in Washington that killed four firefighters and the 2002 Cramer fire in Idaho that killed two firefighters. Investigators pointed to management problems in all three fires.”We suggest some actions that could be taken to resolve issues that all three had in common,” Webb said. Webb wouldn’t talk about the specifics of the report, but said in important ways, firefighters have learned valuable safety lessons.”We point out some room for improvement and identify some things that have not been done yet, and they’re relatively minor in the scheme of things.”Among lingering concerns are the dangers posed by growing numbers of homes in wild areas that are susceptible to fire, he said.The report appears to mirror what many firefighters say: that in the wake of the Storm King fire, firefighters are more safety conscious and more apt to refuse orders they fear could be too dangerous, and that fire managers are more aware of the potential threats that even small blazes may pose.The report is one of two to address firefighter safety expected to be released in coming weeks. The other is an audit of the Forest Service’s national fire safety program by the Office of Inspector General within the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service. The OIG is an investigative arm within federal departments. Its audit is expected to be released in August.This year marks the 10th anniversary of the South Canyon fire, which killed 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs on July 6, 1994. Federal investigations that followed the tragedy say a combination of errors by fire managers and firefighters led to the tragedy. Investigators said the fire should have been attacked earlier when it was smaller, and that communications problems and poor safety precautions contributed to the deaths.High afternoon winds whipped the creeping fire into a wall of flame that ensnared elite hotshot, smokejumper and helitack firefighters as they tired to flee the blaze.”I think people are a lot more safety conscious,” said Tony Johnson, who was part of the Prineville, Ore., hotshot crew on Storm King which lost nine of its crewmembers, including his brother Rob. Johnson is now a smokejumper in the nearby town of Redmond and one of the firefighters who took part in the focus groups.”I think everyone’s more comfortable speaking up and saying what they think,” he said. “Nobody’s really asking you to do something you’re not too comfortable with.”Pete Blume, who oversaw resources for the South Canyon fire from Grand Junction and is now a fire incident commander in the region said he knew a report was being written but hadn’t seen the results.”I didn’t know the outcome but it doesn’t surprise me to say that we did most of what we said we’d do, because it has impacted firefighters everywhere,” he said.Blume said there is still work to be done.”It’s a dangerous profession,” he said. “Hopefuly people will do things consistently, but I hope it (the report) doesn’t go so far as to make the assumption that everything’s perfect. We need to stay vigilant.”Several family members of firefighters killed on the say they hope lessons learned from Storm King will save other firefighters’ lives. “I’ve gotta believe that,” said Ken Brinkley, whose son Levi was among the Prineville Hotshots who were killed. “I don’t want our kids to have died in vain. Something good had to come out of that.”Art Currier, district ranger on the Ochoco National Forest where the Prineville Hotshots are based, said the report is the only one he knows of where the Forest Service has looked 10 years later to see if lessons had been learned.”We can’t forget what went wrong so we can prevent it from going wrong again,” he said.”We can’t forget what went wrong so we can prevent it from going wrong again,” he said.


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