Tags: Wildfire | Probe | Raises | Questions

Wildfire Probe Raises Questions

Monday, 03 September 2001 12:00 AM

While the final report will not be released for a few weeks, the Seattle Times reported Sunday that some wildfire experts, including current Forest Service employees, believe the investigation process is outdated and can sometimes fail to correct problems that could prove fatal on the fire lines.

"If you don't know what went wrong, you have no way to fix it," declared Ted Putnam, a former smokejumper who became an expert on "burnovers," such as the one on July 10 that killed the four firefighters who frantically tried to take cover in fire shelters as flames swept over them.

Putnam, who earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, said he purposefully toned down his reports because he believed the Forest Service would make necessary changes internally.

"They keep telling you in investigations that unless there is clear proof of something dangerous to us, delete it because we might get sued," he told the Times.

A major lingering question in the Thirty Mile Fire deaths was whether concerns for endangered species in a nearby river slowed the response of firefighting helicopters, and whether or not such a delay contributed to the sudden, fatal spread of the fire.

There was no indication as to what the Forest Service investigation revealed about what role that requirements of the Endangered Species Act may have played in the deaths, however, critics suggested to the Times that the agency's 100-year-old authority to conduct its own investigations rather than submitting to outside scrutiny naturally raises potential questions - fair or not - about its credibility.

"Right from the beginning," Arizona State University historian Stephen Pyne said, "the agency has been allowed to act as its own jury and judge itself."

Forest Service officials denied there were problems with the investigation process, and said there were too few fatalities to justify a permanent outside agency to investigate wildfire casualties.

"Our safety record has kept us from having a stand-alone body for investigation," Forest Service spokesman George Lennon told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, firefighters Sunday continued attacking 19 large fires around the West as holiday campers were warned to be extremely careful with campfires and other flames that could ignite dry brush.

The 43,3000-acre Moose Fire burning in Montana's Flathead National Forest and neighboring Glacier National Park continued to burn briskly in the rigged, heavily-timbered woods.

In Idaho, the Snow Shoe Fire topped 17,000 acres; the fire began July 20 and was not expected to be contained until Sept. 20.

An arson fire near Hayfork in Northern California was 60-percent contained at 720 acres Sunday due in large part to the presence of a sizable force of firefighters who were mopping up a nearby blaze that had forced the brief evacuation of the town of Weaverville.

"We were very lucky to have all the firefighters and all those assets available from the Weaverville fire," Hayfork resident David Hodghead told the Redding Record Searchlight. "The equipment and manpower brought to play was tremendous. That was the reason we did not lose the town."

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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While the final report will not be released for a few weeks, the Seattle Times reported Sunday that some wildfire experts, including current Forest Service employees, believe the investigation process is outdated and can sometimes fail to correct problems that could prove...
Wildfire,Probe,Raises,Questions
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2001-00-03
Monday, 03 September 2001 12:00 AM
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