MapsReportsWLF LinksMedia ArticlesMultimediaComments

 

Incident Name: Thirtymile Fire
Date:  07/10/01, 1724 hrs
Personnel: 4 Lives Lost (see below)
Age:  Varies
Agency/Organization:  US Forest Service
Position: Varies

Summary:
Thomas Lee Craven, 30- Firefighter/Wildland Full Time
Devin Andrew Weaver, 21-Firefighter/Wildland Part Time
Jessica Lynn Johnson, 19- Firefighter/Wildland Part Time
Karen Lee FitzPatrick, 18- Firefighter/Wildland Part Time

The Thirtymile Fire began when a picnic cooking fire was abandoned and spread to the surrounding forest. The fire was located in the Chewuch River Canyon, about 30 miles north of Winthrop, Washington. The Northwest Regulars #6, a 21-person Type 2 crew from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, was dispatched to the fire in the early morning hours of July 10, 2001. The crew arrived at the fire at approximately 9:00 a.m. After a safety briefing, the crew went to work at 11:00 a.m. The crews worked until approximately 3:00 p.m. when they stopped to eat, rest, and sharpen their tools. About 4:00 p.m., they responded to a request for help from another crew in the area; two of the three squads were sent to assist.

The fire began to develop quickly, and the decision was made to leave the area. The road to safety was cut off by fire progress. The incident commander selected a site near the river that was rocky and had less vegetation than other areas in the canyon. Although several firefighters congregated above the road to monitor the fire, they were not prepared for the suddenness with which it arrived. Six firefighters, including the four that died, deployed their fire shelters above the road. After the fire passed, it was learned that Squad Boss Craven and Firefighters Fitzpatrick, Johnson, and Weaver had been killed. The cause of death for all four firefighters was asphyxia due to inhalation of superheated products of combustion. Their fellow crewmembers and two civilians survived.

Tom Craven Tom Craven
Devin Weaver Devin Weaver
Jessica Johnson Jessica Johnson
Karen FitzPatrick Karen FitzPatrick
 

The Forest Service conducted a detailed assessment of the incident. The major findings of the report were:

  • The combination of weather and fuel conditions created extraordinary circumstances for fire growth on July 10th.
  • Potential fire behavior was consistently underestimated throughout the incident.
  • In spite of the readily available water, relatively little water was applied to the fire during the initial attack phase. This was largely due to operational problems with pumps and hoses, as well as delays in availability of a Type III helicopter.
  • The fatalities and injuries all occurred during fire shelter deployment. Failure to adequately anticipate the severity and timing of the burnover, and failure to utilize the best location and proper deployment techniques contributed to the fatalities and injuries.
  • Leadership, management, and command and control were all ineffective due to a variety of factors, such as the lack of communications and miscommunications, fatigue, lack of situational awareness, indecisiveness, and confusion about who was in control.
  • Two civilians were involved in the entrapment due to a failure to properly close a potentially hazardous area.
  • All 10 Standard Fire Orders were violated or disregarded at some time during the course of the incident.
  • Ten of the eighteen Watch Out Situations were present or disregarded at some time during the course of the incident.
  • Records indicated that personnel on the Thirtymile Fire had very little sleep prior to their assignments, and mental fatigue affected vigilance and decision-making.
  • District fire management personnel did not assume incident command when the size and complexity of the fire exceeded the capacity of the Northwest Regulars #6.
  • The Northwest Regulars #6 crew commander served both as incident commander and crew boss. Command roles on the Thirtymile Fire were unclear and confusing to those in command of the incident, to the rest of the crew, and to others associated with the fire.
Thirtymile Fire Plume Thirtymile Fire Plume

Horizontal line

Maps

Accident Site (approximate)

JavaScript must be enabled in order for you to use Google Maps.
However, it seems JavaScript is either disabled or not supported by your browser.
To view Google Maps, enable JavaScript by changing your browser options, and then try again.

Return to top

Horizontal line

Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

Return to top
Horizontal line

Wildlandfire.com Links:

Return to top

Horizontal line

Media Articles and Reports.

Haunting scene at firefighters’ last stand
Difference of a few yards determined who survived inferno
From The Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Link to Online Article
By MIKE LEWIS, MARGARET TAUS AND SCOTT SUNDE- SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTERS

Friday, July 13, 2001

ANDREWS CREEK TRAILHEAD -- Red flags mark the spots where the desperate firefighters made a last stand against an inferno that swirled around them. Death was capricious.

The firefighters were split into three groups along Chewuch Road. Some deployed their emergency fire shelters on a sand bar in the adjacent Chewuch Creek, another group on the road itself and the third in the boulders across the road, opposite the creek.

Only the four firefighters in the car-sized boulders died. Paint outlined spots on the rocks where the four didn't get back up after the fire roared through early Tuesday evening. Investigators, who yesterday were picking through the charred road as crews continued to fight several fires, said all three sites were good deployment areas.

"When you go down the road you are unlikely to find a better place than this" to make a stand, said Jim Furnish, the deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service who is heading a team investigating the deaths. Investigators yesterday for the first time allowed reporters into the area where the firefighters perished. Signs of the firefighters' attempts to escape were still visible. Their crumpled fire shelters littered the ground, with half-ax and half-shovel Pulaskis, melted canteens and burned backpacks.

The fire raged so hot that the aluminum from the camper shell of a nearby burned-out Dodge truck remained frozen in melted puddles adjacent to the road where firefighters deployed the shelters -- one-man pup tents made of aluminum and fiberglass fabric. The truck belonged to two backpackers rescued by firefighter Rebecca Welch, who shared her fire shelter with them. Welch, too, survived.

An unattended campfire may have started the deadly blaze. Ron Pugh, a Forest Service special agent, appealed to the public to help find the careless campers believed responsible. He said they walked away from their campfire, leaving "a tragedy waiting to happen." They could be charged with felonies or misdemeanors, depending on what authorities discover. The abandoned campsite had been roped off like a crime scene. Investigators collected unidentified bits of evidence and took tire tread imprints. The fire could have been started as early as July 7, they said.

The fight continues

As the inqiury into the nation's worst forest firefighting tragedy since 1994 got under way in earnest, hundreds of young men and women from across the nation struggled against fires that have burned 11,500 acres north and south of the tiny resort town of Winthrop. They faced trying to contain fires feeding on a country left parchment dry by the worst extended drought since 1977 and further stoked by scorching summer weather.

More than 20 miles north of Winthrop, part of a crew of 500 firefighters was dispatched to the Thirtymile Fire, which has grown to 8,200 acres. Crews had been pulled off the lines in that fire Tuesday after it killed the four firefighters and injured six others.

"My hope is that by (today) sometime, we will be making good progress," incident commander Joe Stutler said. "We're going to hammer it." Late yesterday, the fire remained mostly calm, only spotting up in three places along the south break. Otherwise, it burned predictably. Worrisome evening winds didn't materialize although firefighters feared lightning strikes overnight.

A U.S. Forest Service aircraft was scheduled to make a nighttime flight with infrared sensors to outline the hottest spots. As long as the fire continued to burn north, it wasn't too much of a concern except for a few small rustic cabins. Stutler said crews received a bit of help from the 1994 Thunder Mountain blaze, which burned a wide swath along what is now the Thirtymile Fire's southern and eastern edges, creating an effective fire break.

"This area," he said pointing to the region of the old blaze, "is essentially nuked." Firefighters, he said, will cut lines with maximum safety in mind. Stutler, a former smoke jumper, said it's important for fire managers to be patient with the blaze, not risking too much as long at it burns away from populated areas. The steep Chewuch Canyon at the Thirtymile Fire's heart is "some of the toughest area I've seen to fight a fire."

Twenty miles southwest of Winthrop, more than 600 firefighters were at work at the Libby South Fire, which had consumed 3,300 acres. That blaze, which may have been sparked by a state firetruck, is expected to be contained tomorrow night. That will be good news to the owners of 50 homes that could be in the fire's path.

Up to 500 firefighters from as far away as Alaska and Florida and new aircraft are expected to arrive today at Eight Mile Ranch fire camp, bringing the totals to approximately 1,000 firefighters, 10 helicopters and one airplane.

The U.S. Forest Service is working with the local sheriff to find any remaining backpackers and campers in the Okanogan National Forest and the adjacent Pasayten Wilderness. Yesterday helicopter crews flew trails in the region, looking for stranded backpackers and dropping leaflets warning of the fire danger. The Pasayten Wilderness, one of the largest wilderness areas in the country at more than 530,000 acres, potentially poses a firefighting quandary for crews: Bulldozers and certain heavy equipment isn't allowed in wilderness areas. Stutler said he didn't anticipate any problems.

His main concern, he said, was safety of the crews. That was also the concern in the Libby South Fire. That blaze threatened about 50 homes. Helicopters dropped water on the blaze yesterday and it was reported 50 percent contained. A spokesman with the state Natural Resources Department said one of the department's fire trucks may have started the fire. Trucks were in the area recently to clear a road for fire access.

One of the homes in danger belongs to Jennifer Allen-Tate. Yesterday, she stopped briefly at her house on Smith Canyon Road, an area that was closed to non-residents. "I'm looking at smoke right now," she said. She and her husband, Ross, temporarily moved their Web-design business about four miles away to her parents' home to protect their computer equipment and business records.

Their home purchase also is on hold. They've been living in the house since the end of June, but they can't close the deal until a company agrees to insure it, which won't happen until the fire is out, she said. She comes to the house several times a day to water it down. Judi Olsen fled her home Monday when she was told to leave and could see a wall of fire. "I just panicked. I'd never seen anything like that. It was fierce," Olsen said.

'To our fallen comrades'

Beyond the immediate concerns of fire and homes and weather were the four firefighters killed. Firefighters couldn't help but think of Tom Craven, 30, Karen Fitzpatrick, 18, Devin Weaver, 21, and Jessica Johnson, 19. Even if they didn't know their names, they knew enough.

Investigators have interviewed survivors of the deadly firestorm. Seventeen firefighters lived, as did two campers caught in the roaring blaze. Furnish would not offer details of the investigation. Crews recovered the four bodies late Wednesday on the floor of the canyon. All had sought protection under the special emergency shelters. They died in a narrow canyon with nearly vertical walls.

The firestorm had not only victims but also a hero. Rebecca Welch, a 22-year-old firefighter, shared her one-person shelter with the campers, Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer, as the flames rolled over them. Welch's "unbelievable heroism" saved the Hagemeyers, Furnish said. The firefighter suffered second-degree burns.

Officials said 13 firefighters deployed their shelters, including the four dead and four injured. Someone put a small vase of roses and bluebells inside the ranger's office for the Methow Valley. "To our fallen comrades," someone had written on a card. "We are grieved by the deaths of these four young people," said Furnish. "We do not want this to happen again."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Return to top

Horizontal line

Photos, Videos, & Tributes

Thirtymile Memorial Patch Thirtymile Memorial Patch
First Thirtymile Memorial at the site First Thirtymile Memorial at the site
Thirtymile Memorial near the site Thirtymile Memorial near the site
Plaque at Thirtymile Memorial near the site Plaque at Thirtymile Memorial near the site
 
Thirtymile Memorial in Naches, WA Thirtymile Memorial in Naches, WA
Plaque and Sculpture in Naches, WA Plaque and Sculpture in Naches, WA

Return to top

Contributors to this article: J Benshoof, Mellie, Tom Leuschen, Wildland Firefighter Foundation, Old Fire Guy, Misery Whip, Ron Altig, Ken Snell, John Miller, Rene Vanderhooft, Sammie and so many others.

 

WFF Boots & Wreath logo. Please support the Wildland Firefighter Foundation