The forest service smokescreen

Posted: Jun 21, 2002 12:00 AM
Terry Barton, a U.S. Forest Service worker, was charged this week with intentionally setting the largest wildfire in Colorado history. It is a black mark on the beleaguered federal agency. But it's not the blackest mark. Last summer, four young firefighters died at the Thirtymile Fire in Washington state's Okanogan National Forest: Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver. Craven, 30, was a father of two and an eight-year veteran with the Naches Ranger District. FitzPatrick, 18, was a newly minted high school grad and had been with the Forest Service for three weeks. Johnson, 19, was a college student who developed a passion for firefighting in high school. Weaver, 21, was an electrical engineering student who had completed firefighter training six weeks earlier. If you believe the government's version of events, as inscribed on a Forest Service memorial to be unveiled next month, here is what happened to the quartet: "On July 10, 2001, high temperatures, low humidity and severe drought conditions caused an abandoned cooking fire to ultimately erupt into a devastating firestorm that swept up the Chewuch River valley, trapping 14 firefighters and 2 campers. Four dedicated firefighters perished in a valiant effort to battle the Thirtymile Fire." The agency is spending $32,000 to build the memorial. It is a cheap investment in bureaucratic propaganda at the expense of the dead. The truth is that the four firefighters perished because of the Forest Service's gross incompetence. And not a single person has been held publicly accountable for the fatal failures. "One of the things we're having trouble with is, the Forest Service is making these kids look like heroes," Devin Weaver's mother, Barbara, told the Wenatchee World this week. "Their lives were taken from them. They were not out there trying to save somebody's life. They were led down a dead-end road and sat there to do nothing -- that's the story." Indeed, the inferno had raged for more than a day; it didn't suddenly "erupt." Trapped firefighters waited for more than nine hours for water to be dropped, while bureaucrats dithered over concerns about endangered species in the water supply. It was too late for Craven, FitzPatrick, Johnson and Weaver, who died in their emergency fire shelters as the fires swept over them. Weaver's father, Ken, said: "I don't mind them memorializing my son. The problem is half of their motive is to spin this into this heroic, American flag waving, died for his country theme, which casts the scrutiny in a completely different direction." The Forest Service's shameless revisionism about the Thirtymile Fire shows that it's still more interested in blowing smokescreens than in clearing them. Last month, the agency released a final report so full of blacked-out redactions that it looked like the authors had used the pages to clean a charcoal grill. Unnamed managers and commanders were faulted for violating 10 of 18 fundamental firefighting signs of danger. They failed to plan adequate escape routes, neglected to take weather readings and gave out faulty equipment. Eleven employees were recommended for disciplinary action based on their abysmal performances during the fire in the Okanogan National Forest. But the agency refused to name any of them, wouldn't reveal what kind of discipline they received and refuses to disclose whether any have been fired. A separate Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation determined the Forest Service willfully disregarded the safety of its workers at the fire. But the findings are useless because the Forest Service is exempt from OSHA enforcement. At least Terry Barton, the accused Forest Service fire-setter, will be held accountable in a court of law on charges of endangering property and lives. The same cannot be said of the Forest Service employees responsible for the totally preventable deaths of Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver. The Forest Service motto reads: "Caring for the land and serving people." By continuing to hide the identities of the bungle-crats who oversaw the deadly Thirtymile Fire, the agency's real mission is clear: Covering up and serving themselves.