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Originally published July 5, 2013 at 4:08 PM | Page modified July 5, 2013 at 11:29 PM

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Thirtymile fire left bitter lessons

Fallout from the inquiry into the deadly 2001 Thirtymile fire north of Winthrop may make it more difficult for federal investigators to discover what went wrong in the Yarnell, Ariz., wildfire that left 19 firefighters dead.

Tribune Washington Bureau

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As investigators swarm the former gold-mining town of Yarnell, Ariz., to examine the decisions leading up to the deaths of 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots, their presence is unlikely to ease tensions among the survivors.

More than a decade ago, a similar blaze whipped through a canyon 20 miles north of Winthrop, Okanogan County. Four firefighters died in circumstances eerily similar to those at Yarnell, killed in their emergency shelters as a fast-moving fire burned over them.

By the time investigators had finished their work, a unit commander was facing federal criminal charges and supervisors in firehouses nationwide found themselves on the hunt for liability insurance. The next time federal investigators began such an inquiry, firefighters started lawyering up.

Nobody seems happy with the outcome of the years-long investigation into that blaze, known as the Thirtymile fire. Firefighters call the investigation a witch hunt that unfairly sought to hold humans accountable for acts of nature, and they have resisted some new rules added after deaths. Politicians and regulators who demanded firefighters change their ways and take greater precautions have been frustrated by what they see as excessive risk-taking and stubbornness.

Safety investigators and prosecutors, using legal tools honed in industrial accidents and airplane crashes, have had difficulty adapting their approach to the different context of a fire line. Pinpointing how or when a detour from textbook operating rules led to a fatality has proved difficult. Winning and keeping the trust of the men and women in the fire camps has proved even harder.

The Thirtymile fire and its aftermath provided a sobering view of how easy it is to make poor decisions amid the real-world demands of battling a wildfire.

The firefighters who headed out to suppress the flames in Chewuch Canyon on July 10, 2001, were not expecting much. The team’s job was to put out small spot fires. Attention was focused on a larger blaze to the south.

A fire-management officer at the Okanogan National Forest called the canyon operation “basically a mop-up show.”

Ellreese Daniels, a crew-boss trainee, led the firefighters across the river to begin digging a fire line. A series of mishaps followed: The pumps did not work properly. Pulaskis, the axes used in fighting wildfires, began to break. Hoses burst.

The weather turned hot. Humidity plunged. Flames began reaching heights of 8 feet, crossing containment lines and torching trees. Dense roots made digging a fire line untenable.

A fire that was estimated at a few acres at midmorning had grown to 50 acres by midafternoon. About 3:30 p.m., the blaze, pushed by strong winds and fueled by dense, dry vegetation on steep slopes, had doubled.

A couple of fresh fire engines arrived to fight spot fires up the canyon. Some of Daniels’ crew headed out to join them. Quickly, the futility of that effort became clear. Everyone was ordered out.

But for Daniels and 13 other firefighters, there was no exit. As Daniels began driving them down the road toward what he thought would be safety, he saw a “wall of flames.” All escape routes had been cut off.

Crew members drove a mile up the canyon to a site where they thought they could wait safely as the fire passed them by. Instead, the fire lurched abruptly toward them.

They scurried to unfold shelters as flames engulfed the site.

Four firefighters who had propped their shelters on a rocky hilltop died. The victims were Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg; Karen FitzPatrick, 18, of Yakima; Jessica Johnson, 19, of Yakima; and Devin Weaver, 21, of Yakima.

The details emerged in a report put together under the direction of Allen Chockie, an investigator hired under contract by the U.S. Forest Service. Chockie found a litany of problems: Standard safety procedures were violated. Risks were not appropriately assessed. Rest rules were disregarded.

“People were very forthcoming with us,” Chockie said. “They were straight up about answering our questions and providing input. ... We wanted to provide a foundation to avoid this situation from happening again.”

What came next surprised Chockie. His report became a foundation for criminal charges against Daniels.

In December 2006, federal prosecutors charged Daniels with involuntary manslaughter. They accused him of not taking proper precautions to protect his team. They also said he had made false statements to investigators.

Colleagues rallied around Daniels, who ultimately pleaded guilty to making false statements and spent 90 days in work release. Manslaughter charges were dropped.

When federal investigators showed up in California to look into the 2006 Esperanza fire, near Cabazon, firefighters refused to talk to investigators without union officials present, and some sought the advice of lawyers.

Firefighters across the country began seeking legal counsel instead of participating in investigations into fatalities, according to congressional testimony in 2007 from Mark Rey, then an undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture who oversaw the Forest Service.

“Many of our firefighters do not want to speak freely,” he said at the time. They were also opting not to take supervisory jobs for fear of being held liable, he said.

Chockie is not surprised. “When I saw what followed after our report, I can understand why people might be much more hesitant or cautious now,” he said. “What they told us came back to them in unexpected ways.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report. Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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