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home : current news : current news June 24, 2016

7/16/2013 12:48:00 PM
Firefighter deaths put focus on safety
By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

As the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed in an Arizona wildfire on June 30 were laid to rest last week, the thoughts of wildland firefighting professionals turned to the fundamental question of firefighter safety.

The issue strikes very close to home for Sisters wildfire firefighting contractor Dave Vitelle, who owns and operates Bear Mountain Fire.

Safety is supposed to be the absolute priority on any fire, Vitelle notes, but safety sometimes comes into competition with firefighters' dedication to fighting a blaze and saving people's homes.

"Often times in the heat of firefighting, all perspective is on getting out and fighting fire, and personal safety comes second," Vitelle told The Nugget.

An investigation is underway to determine what happened to the 19 firefighters lost in the Yarnell Hill Fire. The Arizona Republic reports that preliminary information indicates that, "by the time Prescott firefighters realized they were being enveloped by the Yarnell Hill Fire on Sunday, it was too late to use the escape route they had planned or reach a safety area that had previously been cleared."

Exactly how and why the catastrophe evolved - from the decision-making process to extreme weather factors - will be mapped out in a full investigation now being conducted by a national team of fire experts.

Vitelle says that whatever the combination of factors that led to disaster are determined to be, the adequacy of and adherence to safety protocols will be a consideration.

"It's definitely obvious that some safety policies were violated," he said.

Why and how that came to happen remains to be determined, Vitelle noted. It's not a question of willful disregard of safety. Monday-morning quarterbacking of decisions made in the heat of battle is facile. A catastrophic event is usually the culmination of a series of decisions, any or all of which may be sound at the time.

"There's always a sequence of events and a sequence of decisions that are made," Vitelle said.

The 25-year wildland firefighting veteran emphasizes that in no way is he casting blame on any individual in that observation.

"You don't ever want to blame the victim," he said.

Wildland firefighting is a dangerous trade, conducted in a dynamic and shifting environment. The kind of country where the Yarnell Hill Fire raged is especially dangerous because fire can move so fast through brush and grassland.

"Generally speaking, your fatalities or your near-misses occur in grass or brush fuel types," Vitelle said.

The more unstable the weather, the more dynamic the situation, the more important safety protocols become. Yet there are other pressures. Homes were threatened in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

While homes are supposed to be a distant second to lives and safety in firefighters' thinking, in reality, they feel pressure to catch the fire and save property.

And as more and more people seek homes in the "wildland-urban interface" (which makes up so much of Sisters Country), there's more property to defend.

In a commentary in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, wildland firefighter Peter M. Leschak put the onus of responsibility on property owners to minimize risk:

"Over the past couple decades, increasing numbers of residences in the wildland-urban-interface (WUI) have more often become the focus of wildland fire-suppression efforts. Fires that used to be relatively low-key, or even allowed to burn, are now aggressively attacked in order to save buildings," Leschak wrote.

"The WUI is a dangerous place to work, not least because firefighters tend to take more risks in order to save homes. In 2006, five Forest Service firefighters were killed defending a house from a fire in California. Such operations should not even be necessary. If residents of the WUI took the time and effort to prepare their property for the impingement of wildfire, high-risk defense by fire crews would not be required."

There's inherent risk in the trade, and Vitelle recognizes that strong, aggressive firefighters will sometimes push the envelope - just as an athlete will try to push though an injury or a construction worker might do something risky to get the job done.

"All of us have done unsafe things in the line of work," he said.

For him, the key is for upper-level management to enforce a culture of safety - in practice as well as in philosophy. While safety awareness has grown significantly in recent decades in the fire service, Vitelle thinks more can be done.

"There's a difference in what you preach and what you practice, and we need to practice what we preach at all times," he said. "We speak safety, we talk about it, but operations have a priority of putting the fire out. Some overhead teams are really good at enforcing that safety standard - others, not so much."

He says some upper-level managers have a "no-harm, no-foul" mentality when it comes to near-misses, which Vitelle believes can inculcate a degree of complacency toward the dangers inherent in the work.

Crews get praise for getting a hard assignment done, Vitelle noted. He thinks equal kudos should be given to crews for safe action.

"I'd like to see more public acknowledgement of people who are doing safe things on fire," he said.

Mass casualty events are relatively rare in the fire service - the most recent event on the scale of the Yarnell Hill Fire event was the loss of 14 smokejumpers and hotshots in the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, in 1994. That incident took the lives of several Central Oregon firefighters.

But individual fatalities and near-misses occur with some regularity.

"We have single fatalities all the time," Vitelle said. "We have probably five to 10 every year and you're never going to hear about them."

Fatalities and injuries can't be brought to zero in an inherently risky job. But Vitelle hopes that a hard look at the causes of disaster will yield a commitment from leadership to enforce the highest possible degree of safety with one goal in mind:

"You should bring your people home every night."

Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2013
Article comment by: Duane Ullmann

A comment on your article of the firefighter deaths July 16. Reference was made to property owners preparing their property for the impingement of wildfire. In the late 60's or early 70's the USFS put out a film on structure defensible space in the wildland-urban-interface. It highlighted the aftermath of the Tolegate fire that occurred in Sisters and showed how proper preparation can prevent the loss of structures from a wildland fire.


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