WASHINGTON

As flames sped through Okanogan National Forest on July 10, ground dispatchers delayed a helicopter water-drop because they were unsure whether siphoning water from the Chewuch River would violate the Endangered Species Act. That afternoon, four firefighters died (HCN, 7/30/01: Tragedy re-ignites wildfire debate).

But an investigative report, released on Sept. 26 by the Forest Service, says the delay was a minor, "influencing" factor in the tragedy. The report found poor management decisions, inadequate safety considerations, failure to deploy fire-protection shelters in appropriate places and environmental conditions to be more important, "causal" factors.

Still, the incident has spurred more controversy over the embattled Endangered Species Act. U.S. Rep. McInnis, R-Colo., wants the law amended to include language from the Wilderness Act which would give firefighters exemption from the law when life or property is threatened. Josh Penry, a spokesperson for McInnis, says the congressman wants an amendment that is "environmentally conscious."

Brock Evans, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, says McInnis' proposal has "nothing to do with firefighting and everything to do with gutting the Endangered Species Act." Evans says the proposed amendment wouldn't change firefighting practices with regard to the act because it already gives priority to human life and property in the case of wildfires. But McInnis' proposal "would become a Christmas tree to hang on all kinds of other amendments," says Evans.

After the fire, the Department of the Interior issued a memorandum clarifying wildfire policy under the Endangered Species Act: "No constraints for protection of endangered species or their habitat will be considered if they place firefighters in danger. Firefighter safety comes first on every fire, every time."