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The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal Paperback – May 27, 2008
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"Pitilessly compelling, the sort of saga devoured in one horrified sitting."―National Geographic Adventure
The Thirtymile Fire in the North Cascade Range near the Canadian border of Washington began as a simple mop-up operation; in a few hours, a series of catastrophic errors led to the entrapment and deaths of four members of the fire crew―two teenage girls and two young men. Each had brought order and meaning to their lives by joining the firefighting world. Then the very flames they pursued turned on them, extinguishing their lives.
Weaving together the astonishing stories told by the fire's witnesses and, later, the victims' family members and the response to the official reports, John N. Maclean creates a riveting account of the deadly Thirtymile Fire and the controversy and recriminations that raged in its aftermath.
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About the Author
- Publisher : Holt Paperbacks; First edition (May 27, 2008)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0805083308
- ISBN-13 : 978-0805083309
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.34 x 0.72 x 7.97 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #204,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Thirtymile fire took place on the Chewuch River on the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest in the Cascades of Washington State in July 2001, and resulted in the deaths of four summer forest service firefighters, Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson, and Devin Weaver. Except for Tom Craven, they were teenagers who signed up to fight fires to earn money for college and get their lives in order, still living at home-- one having just left a relationship to live in the Forest Service barracks. They had little to no field experience fighting fires.
There have been several fatal fires over the past century. The worst previous fire had been the Storm King fire in Colorado in 1996, when 14 smoke jumpers died in a burn over. Command decisions caught them without means of escape. Bad decision making caused the deaths of the four firefighters in the Thirtymile fire from the very beginning.
1. The fire was in an area where it wasn’t threatening anything and wasn’t a priority.
2. It was in a location impossible to fight
a. There was no escape route--dead end road cut them off
b. No adequate locations to shelter in place
c. Steep canyon sides made air drops difficult and escape routes confined to the road
3. Nearby fire drew resources and confused communications.
4. No direction came from management resources, and inadequate assessment of fire as mop-up led to wrong and no decisions.
5. Helicopter called off.
6. Faulty water pumps kept firefighters from getting water from river onto fire early.
7. Fire incident commander was unable to command.
8. Didn’t even know that road was dead end
9. Didn’t know that two civilian campers were in a campground until they suddenly appeared during crisis.
10. Orders never clearly issued and plans never made for what to do to save lives in event of burn over.
11. Troops not gathered together, and nothing done to help campers. They were saved by action of one of the fire fighters.
12. There was a total breakdown of command.
The Forest Service investigation, even with public and political uproar over the Storm King fire, was so sloppy that the conclusions were not accepted, and the report had to be sent back for revisions. The initial conclusions blamed the victims for their own deaths, claiming that they disobeyed direct orders to assemble at the spot the incident commander designated. They refused, and they died. The interviews and witnesses never corroborated any real orders, and the victims were within what was considered the general area. No one remembered Daniels, the commander, issuing any orders or if he did, he was passive and made suggestions. He was considered poor management material and at best wish washy. The main witness, who was badly burned, was interviewed in the hospital while he was heavily drugged. The recording device used did not work and was too far from him to be useful. The redacted testimony was worthless. His later recollections and that of others caused the report conclusions to be altered. The conclusions about the command mistakes—about every mistake that could be made—were emphasized—but there was not enough evidence that the victims were responsible for their own deaths. Still not good enough but better. I do not know what has appended in the intervening years. There was disciplinary action, but the firings were all rescinded, and discipline was eased. That is typical. One person resigned, some demoted or reassigned.
The Esperanza fire in 2006 in the Banning Pass in Southern California killed five Forest Service firefighters. Those circumstances were predictable and involved command mistakes. The firefighters should never have been protecting the structures they were defending and should have been called back. Similar mistakes were made in the early decisions and the changes of commands as were made in earlier fatal fires. A pattern of unpredictable fire behavior, predictable firefighting circumstances, and poor and incorrect command decisions have collided over the years to produce fatal results. Maclean's analysis ties all this together.
The firefighters are the best. The Hotshot crews are amazing. The The command structure makes fateful decisions that have life and death impacts on those beneath them. They are almost never fired or disciplined. Those who do the real work pay for their mistakes. I have watched firefighters and Hotshots in action. They are a wonder to behold. Maclean brings justice to the fallen when few know they ever lived.
Much is owed to the Brave people who do this job and to John Maclean who explained it all in his book without prejudice.