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Deadly blaze left many questions

A new book explores how a 2001 fire got out of hand, killing four young firefighters.

August 17, 2007|Shannon Dininny | Associated Press

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Each had developed a very different, yet very real, bond with fire.

Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver were all adventurous souls whose jobs as wildland firefighters allowed them to play outdoors while still imposing the discipline and order they craved.

All four unwittingly became the victims of a single day's many mistakes when a wildfire trapped them on a dead-end road, killing them six years ago. Their personal stories serve as the counterpoint to bureaucratic blunders in John Maclean's new book about the blaze.

But to anyone familiar with Maclean's previous books about fatal fires, "The Thirtymile Fire" reveals yet another example of how a string of seemingly innocent errors can be deadly -- in this case, on a blaze that took a still-unexplained left hook and resulted in the first criminal charges against a wildland firefighter for deaths of comrades on the line.

"What startled me, and eventually entrapped me in the story, was the personalities of the four people who died," Maclean said. "To think you would have four people so interesting . . . and who were together and who were the ones killed -- I found it extraordinary. To me, that's the heart of the story."

An unattended campfire sparked the Thirty Mile fire in north-central Washington's Okanogan National Forest. Initially believed to be a simple mop-up job, the fire exploded, trapping 14 firefighters and two hikers in the Chewuch River Canyon on July 10, 2001.

When it was over, four firefighters were dead: Craven, 30, Weaver, 21, Johnson, 19, and FitzPatrick, 18, all from central Washington.

Maclean, son of acclaimed novelist Norman Maclean, who wrote "A River Runs Through It" and "Young Men and Fire," about Montana's deadly Mann Gulch fire of 1949, traces the four firefighters' reasons for joining the U.S. Forest Service and their deadly last day.

Along the way, he makes comparisons to similar mistakes on the 1994 South Canyon fire in Colorado, chronicled in his previous book, "Fire on the Mountain." That blaze killed 14 firefighters.

An investigation of the Thirty Mile fire found that fire bosses had broken all 10 of the agency's standard safety rules and ignored numerous signs of danger.

No current weather reports were sought out, and those in charge posted no lookout in the late afternoon, when fire activity is greatest. No water was dropped on the blaze for hours. The chain of command was murky.

Maclean names the 11 Forest Service employees who were tagged for discipline after the fire. He also details the actions of the lone firefighter facing criminal charges: 47-year-old Ellreese Daniels, the fire crew boss at the scene.

Late last year, federal prosecutors charged Daniels with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making material false statements, or lying to investigators. If convicted, he could face as much as six years for each manslaughter count alone.

Maclean chronicles Daniels' rise through the firefighting ranks to fire boss. He also details the soft-spoken career Forest Service man's command of the trapped firefighters that day.

Did Daniels fully prepare them for the worst -- a burnover that would require them to deploy their shelters? Did he order the firefighters, who later died after deploying their shelters on a rock scree, to the road, where others deployed their shelters and survived? Did he order a firefighter to open her shelter to the two hikers?

Maclean answers some of the questions, raises still others, but notes that one firefighter is being held accountable for the mistakes of many. He also discusses the many investigations after the blaze -- the first in part blamed the dead firefighters for their fate, raising the ire of the victims' families.

Elton Thomas, a fire management officer, served a one-day suspension after the fire and has since retired from the Forest Service. He called Maclean's book "fair," but said the charges against a single firefighter may not be.

"I wasn't there, and I can't fault a man for what he didn't do," Thomas said. "But I think there was a significant opportunity for lives to have been lost if they had tried to ride out the fire in a different place. The fault lies in not keeping the fire serious. They literally thought they were going to watch this fire burn by them."

Kathie FitzPatrick, Karen's mother, found the book difficult at times to read. She believes it remains the best account of what happened that day, but supports the charges against Daniels.

"It's really hard for me, because I lost Karen in it, but people outside that immediate loss will be truly fascinated by their stories," said FitzPatrick, who has published her own book, a compilation of verses and poetry by mother and daughter that includes photos from the fire.

"Because of the loss of four great shining stars, people will be moved, and I think, the time will be right for people to bring legislation for greater safety," she said.

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