'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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • DEVELOMENT DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is seeking a qualified Development Director to manage the fundraising success of our growing organization, including the team-driven implementation of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...