'Indifference' caused deaths

  • Just a hot spot: South Canyon Fire July 2, 1994/David Frey/Glenwood Post


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, How the West's asbestos fires were turned into tinderboxes.

"I didn't like going down in there. I talked to Mackey about it. Not burning too active. I was going by his judgment; his best judgment was to go direct. I thought that was the best way also.

"He said he didn't know who the IC (incident commander) was, him or Blanco. He asked me if I wanted it. I said yes. He just smiled at me and said, 'We'll see what happens.' "

- From a smokejumper's interview with interagency officials after the South Canyon blowup. Don Mackey died in the fire.

Fourteen firefighters were killed near Glenwood Springs, Colo., last summer because the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management demonstrated "plain indifference" to the safety of their employees, according to an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The fire, touched off by a lightning strike on July 2, was one of over 40 that had been ignited in the over 2 million acre, four-county Grand Junction BLM district in the previous two days. Because it was not threatening lives or structures it was given a low priority. Firefighters were not flown in until July 5.

But on the afternoon of July 6, a cold front brought winds as high as 45 miles an hour to the 6,000-foot-high ridge. That, added to overly dry piûon-juniper and Gambel oak growing on steep slopes, combined to "blow up" the fire, out of control. Fourteen of the 49 firefighters at the scene died when they could not outrun the flames or when their portable fire shelters failed to keep them safe (HCN, 8/8/94).

The report by OSHA investigators found that managers within the two federal agencies committed "willful" safety violations. Although they had information that should have alerted them to the extreme danger of the fire, the report says, managers did not communicate the weather forecast or expected fire behavior.

In addition, a fire boss (called an incident commander) was never clearly identified, adequate safety routes were never established, adequate fire lookouts were not used, and construction of the fireline "did not follow established safe practices."

"We conclude that the primary cause leading to the deaths of the 14 firefighters was that no one person was responsible for ensuring the safety of the firefighters," says Joseph Dear, assistant secretary of OSHA.

Were the Forest Service or the BLM private companies, they would have been fined heavily for such violations. But since OSHA does not have the authority to fine other federal agencies the report will serve only as a warning.

BLM director Mike Dombeck and U.S. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas say the OSHA report confirms the findings of their investigation, published in August 1994.

That several-hundred-page Report of the South Canyon Fire Accident Investigation Team, by 10 officials from the Forest Service and BLM, makes harrowing reading. It combines maps of the ever-spreading fire, weather and incident reports, and personal accounts of firefighters who saw walls of fire envelope members of their crew.

The report is available from David Steinke, Forest Service public affairs specialist, Box 25127, 740 Simms St., Lakewood, CO 80225 (303/275-5365). Also available is the October 1994 Report of the Interagency Management Review Team, which includes the team's corrective action plan, designed to avert tragedies like the one near Glenwood Springs.

For a copy of the OSHA citation and report, issued Feb. 8 under the title "Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions," contact Frank Kane, Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Administration, 202/219-8151.

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