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Incident Name:  Fire Truck rollover, Blue River Ranger District, Willamette National Forest
Date: September 4, 1980
Personnel: Ronald David Whitmire
Age: 25
Agency/Organization: US Forest Service
Position: firefighter

Summary: On September 4, 1980, Forest Service firefighter Ron Whitmire was killed when the truck ("Tanker" or engine) he was driving went off a Forest Service road and rolled over east of Blue River, Willamette National Forest, Oregon. The truck came to rest 1,600 feet below. Two other FS firefighters on the crew, although injured, survived the accident. A news article reported the police to say that Whitmire was attempting to change gears, missed the change, ended up in neutral and was unable to brake to a stop on the steep grade.

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USFS Road 3 mi east of Blue River

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • Description of the Accident

    Ronald Whitmire Ronald Whitmire

  • What changed after the accident: Comments from two fire managers who worked on or adjacent to the Blue River Ranger District:
    • Mike Matarrese: There was a review team put together in October of 1980 to review the circumstances. Besides some finger pointing (hindsight bias), the panel recommended engine operators be toured employees (at the time, 102 out of 142 heavy vehicle operators were 1039s). The panel also recommended
      • formal training with air brakes (Ron's vehicle brakes were out of adjustment),
      • road driving with a licensed engine operator - 80 hrs I believe, and
      • split axles.
      • Retarders became mandatory on type 3 & 4 engines. This developed into TRANS 360, which the region requires all drivers of vehicles in excess of 20,000 GVW to complete.
    • Becky May: This was an engine. We called them "Tankers" in those days. I was a GS-5 "Tanker Boss". Tankers carried 3 people and most of them with air brakes were 1000 gallons.
      There was regional policy that changed because of this accident concerning the SOPs for air brake maintenance and daily checks. It may have been National but I can't speak to that for sure. What we were told at the time was the air brakes failed because they hadn't been maintained daily (which none of us did at the time on that forest anyway) and had become out of adjustment. Air brakes should be "bled off" to remove moisture and checked for several other things every day.

      There was no "refresher training" back then, or even AARs by that name. It was up to the individual supervisors to do any of that. And of course we were encouraged to produce, not talk in those days. At the time of my retirement  in January 2005, things had changed quite a bit, with AARs and reviews not only encouraged but required.  I can't help but believe that many accidents have been prevented by this more open culture, although it's hard to prove what doesn't happen because something has changed that reduces risk.

  • USFS Heroes Memorial: Ronald Whitmire

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Contributors to this article: Mike Matarrese, Becky May, one of the survivors of the accident for the lat/lon of the location, Sam Swetland, John Miller, Mellie

 

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