Report says firefighters have a ‘passion for safety’
A new Forest Service report finds deaths from firefighters being burned over and entrapped by wildfires have plunged 42 percent since the fire on Storm King Mountain, and that firefighters have a “passion for safety” that didn’t exist before. But the report says unclear policies and inconsistent strategies for dealing with fires near homes still put firefighters at risk.The report also found the Storm King Fire and two fatal fires since then shared common problems that federal agencies need to address.Its release coincides with the 10th anniversary of the fire on Storm King Mountain. Officially called the South Canyon Fire, it resulted in the death of 14 firefighters on July 6, 1994, when winds swelled a fire burning west of Glenwood Springs into a fast-moving wall of flame.The report follows up one by an Interagency Management Review Team published on June 26, 1995, that looked for lessons to be learned to avoid such fatalities.”For the most part, we feel like we’ve had some very good successes,” said Buck Latapie, the Forest Services’ assistant director for fire and aviation.Made public on Friday, the 10-year review found firefighters feel more comfortable about questioning risky situations, weather reports are more reliable, training has improved, hazardous fuels – plants that can be highly flammable – are better understood and firefighting funding has improved.”I think we’re much safer than we were,” Latapie said. “I think that people have the authority within themselves to really question, not just follow orders and do whatever anyone tells them, but (ask) is an assignment safe, and to let people know if they have concerns. They feel comfortable in letting people know.”But, it said, “some concerns still exist, including management, policy and training issues,” and it found “many troubling similarities” between the South Canyon Fire and two in recent years: the 2001 Thirtymile Fire, where four firefighters were killed, and the 2003 Cramer Fire, where two were killed. In all three cases, the authors say, firefighters ignored standard safety checklists, failed to notice when the fires grew in intensity and didn’t change tactics “even when firefighters did pick up on the sometimes not so subtle signals of the worsening situation.”And, they say, all three fires lacked sufficient attention from fire managers.The report made five recommendations:• Improve training for decision-making under stress, including virtual reality exercises and simulations• Reduce redundant policies and safety checklists that become confusing.• Strengthen tactics training for the dangerous time when an initial attack on a fire becomes prolonged, and send crews by early morning, to avoid afternoons when fires often turn more dangerous.• Improve fire training for administrators.• Improve training on safety checklists and study near calamities to learn from fires that aren’t fatal.• Improve interagency cooperation.The authors were most biting about officials’ failure to implement a basic recommendation in the 1995 report: to include fire management experience as part of agency job listings, so offices aren’t left with inexperienced managers at home when more experienced colleagues leave to fight fires. That oversight led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to cite the Forest Service after both Thirtymile and Cramer, they said.”Failure to meet this relatively simple requirement is perhaps the most telling example of bureaucratic inaction,” the authors wrote. “It appears that we were more successful in changing the entire fire management culture than we have been in getting human resource management to implement a requirement.”The report was written by two private consultants, Safe Fire Programs and Forest Stewardship Concepts, a firm run by Jim Webb, a member of the original South Canyon investigation team, now retired in Monte Vista. It followed interviews and focus groups with firefighters and consultation with fire managers, agency administrators and the members of the 1995 review team.They urged more attention to how firefighters perform under high stress and better decision-making training, as well as improving crew cohesion.Meanwhile, they found, some steps taken to improve safety since the three fires were seen as counterproductive. The authors said many firefighters felt officials focused on process over performance, looking more for violations than lessons.And they found that avoiding dangerous nighttime firefighting can lead to more dangerous afternoon firefighting: at Storm King and Cramer, the report said, crews “were placed in the fire’s path and expected to produce instant results. … The cumulative impact of numerous well meaning fixes has proven to be paradoxically counterproductive in some cases.”The report also found inconsistent policies between federal agencies, including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and crews were left with a sometimes bewildering number of safety checklists that were hard to follow on the fire line.The report also found inconsistent policies between federal agencies, including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and crews were left with a sometimes bewildering number of safety checklists that were hard to follow on the fire line.
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