Point Fire, 1995
Island Fork Fire, 1999
Point Fire Case Study
Point Fire Accident Investigation
A. Point Fire Overview
D. Supporting Data
- Sequence of Events
- Organization Charts
- Site Investigation
- Fire Behavior Report
- Property Damage Report
- Witness Statements
- Outline of Kuna Wildland Training Provided by BLM
E. Records and Reports
- Preplanned Dispatch
- BLM Radio Transmission Log
- Ada County Dispatch Log
- Fire Incident Status Summary
- Escaped Fire Situation Analysis
- Wildland Fire Entrapment Report
- Technical Analysis of Personal Protective Equipment
- Vehicle Inspection
- Weather Reports
Island Fork Fire Accident Investigation
Point Fire — U.S. District Court Civil Case
Ruling on I.C.'s Decisions - Nov. 10, 1998
• Factual Background
• Legal Analysis
Ruling on BLM Liability - Feb. 19, 1999
• Legal Standards
Ruling on Public Safety Officer Benefits
Colorado Firecamp extends special thanks to Linda Perkins, BLM
Idaho State FOIA Coordinator, for her friendly assistance in gathering
the Point Fire documents. BLM FOIA Letter
FINDINGS OF FACT
AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF IDAHO
DEANNA C. BUTTRAM, et al,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Civil Case No. 96-0324-S-BLW
Civil Case No. 96-0452-S-BLW
Civil Case No. 97-0129-S-BLW
William Buttram and Joshua Oliver lost their lives fighting
a wildfire known as the Point Fire. Their families, the plaintiffs in
this consolidated action, claim that the agency supervising the firefighters,
the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is responsible for the deaths. The
plaintiffs brought suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, challenging
a broad range of decisions made by the BLM. The Court held a court trial
beginning on December 7, 1998, and ending December 15, 1998. The Court
received the final post-trial briefs on January 26, 1999. On the basis
of the evidence and legal argument, the Court finds that the BLM and the
Kuna Rural Fire District (Kuna RFD) both committed negligence that was
the proximate cause of the deaths of Buttram and Oliver. The Court finds
that the Kuna RFD bears 65% of the responsibility and that the BLM bears
35% of the responsibility. The Court's damage award is set forth in detail
at the end of this decision. The findings of fact and conclusions of law
supporting this decision are set out below.
Findings of Fact
Late in the afternoon of July 28, 1995, lightning
sparked a fire in the dry grasses and sagebrush desert land about
16 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho.
The fire was burning on BLM land, and BLM fire crews
The first BLM crew to reach the fire was headed by
David Kerby who, by virtue of being the first crew chief to reach
the fire, was designated as the Incident Commander, the person with
overall responsibility for fighting the fire. Other crews soon followed.
The fire became known as the Point Fire.
Kerby's decisions as Incident Commander (I.C.) would
be guided by BLM fire suppression policies that depended in part on
the fire's location. The Point Fire was burning near the Snake River
Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, a 500,000 acre sanctuary
for the largest concentration of raptors in the world. To protect
the birds, the BLM had made a policy decision years earlier to "aggressively
attack and suppress all wildfires" in this area. That policy
is contained in the BLM's Boise District Fire Management Activity
Plan (FMAP). see footnote #1
The FMAP also played an important role in determining
what resources Kerby had to work with in fighting the fire. The FMAP
includes a Lightning Operations Plan that is triggered when lightning
fires are occurring, and was in effect during the Point Fire.
The Lightning Operations Plan describes the resources
that should be made available for different types of lightning-caused
fires, and provides a guide for rating the severity of the fire. The
rating system--known as the "Burning Index"-- rates fires
on a numerical scale depicting the amount of effort needed to contain
the fire given the time of year, fuel conditions, and other factors.
The Burning Index increases as the days become hotter and the fuel
conditions become more incendiary. The higher the Burning Index number,
the greater the resources that should be made available to fight the
fire. For example, a fire with a Burning Index between 0 and 34, burning
early or late in the fire season, would be rated as a Response Level
I fire, and the FMAP dictates that the "the typical response
would be a single unit or crew and a detection aircraft, if available."
Another section of the FMAP also recommends that two fire engines
be dispatched along with the detection aircraft.
The Point Fire was burning during the summer fire
season, with temperatures near the high 90s. Because of higher-than-normal
spring moisture, cheatgrass growth was especially dense and mature
sagebrush added to the fuel load.
The fire was caused by dry-lightning, and the National
Weather Service in Boise had forecast--both the day before and the
morning of July 28, 1995--that "gusty erratic winds to 55 MPH"
could be "near any thunderstorms."
At noon on July 28, 1995, before the Point Fire began,
the National Weather Service in Boise issued a "Fire Weather
Watch" for dry lightning, and forecast that thunderstorms would
be moving through western Idaho "late this afternoon and tonight."
Given these factors, the Fire Management Specialist
with the BLM, William Casey Jr., gave the Point Fire a Burning Index
of 31, requiring the implementation of a Response Level I.
In fact, the BLM deployed even more resources to the
Point Fire than would be called for in a Response Level I fire with
a Burning Index of 31. The BLM dispatched five engines, a bulldozer,
a tender, and a detection helicopter.
IC David Kerby arrived at the fire at 7:00 p.m.
Upon arriving, IC Kerby examined the fire from the
ground, and then went up in a BLM helicopter to get an aerial view.
Shortly after IC Kerby returned from his helicopter
tour, the Kuna RFD's Fire Chief, Richard W. Cromwell, contacted Kerby
and asked him if he needed any assistance. Kerby responded that he
could use a brush truck and a water tender. Cromwell responded that
he would comply with that request.
A brush truck is a four-wheel drive vehicle designed
to work directly on the fire line of a wildland fire. It carries 1,500
gallons of water, and has nozzles attached to the front bumper that
the driver can operate from inside the vehicle to spray water on the
fire. There is also a hose that can be manually operated at the rear
of the vehicle.
A water tender, on the other hand, is not designed
to attack fires, but is rather a mobile water reservoir. It contains
a larger water tank, about 2,500 gallons, and is typically stationed
away from the fire line to permit the brush trucks to refill their
The Kuna RFD identified their vehicles by number.
The brush trucks were 620 and 622, and the tender was 625.
In response to IC Kerby's request, Kuna RFD Chief
Cromwell radioed Kuna RFD Captain Doyle McPherson and told him to
(1) respond to the Point Fire with two brush trucks and a water tender;
(2) to assume command of the Kuna firefighters who responded; and
(3) to instruct the occupants of the two brush trucks to keep their
McPherson said he would do so, but questioned Cromwell
whether Cromwell also wanted to send Kuna's squad cars. The squad
cars were smaller than the brush trucks, but were also equipped with
water tanks. In an earlier conversation Cromwell told McPherson that
the squad cars should be deployed with the brush trucks to provide
a safety backup. But on this occasion, Cromwell told McPherson not
to deploy the squad cars.
As of July 28, 1995, the chain of command at the Kuna
RFD was, in order of authority, as follows: (1) Chief Cromwell; (2)
Assistant Chief Darwin Taylor; (3) Captain McPherson; and (4) Captain
Under Kuna RFD policies, a firefighter was qualified
to drive a vehicle as soon as he had learned to operate the vehicle.
The typical assignment was two firefighters per vehicle.
The Kuna RFD leadership did not assign certain firefighters to certain
trucks. The pairings were random; the first two fire fighters who
could get in a vehicle were a team, assuming one was qualified to
Bill Buttram and Josh Oliver, both volunteer firefighters,
took truck 620.
Buttram was qualified to drive and he took the driver's
seat while Oliver took the passenger seat. McPherson was also a passenger.
Buttram started as a volunteer fireman with the Kuna
RFD in October of 1994, nine months prior to the Point Fire. Buttram
did not, however, have nine months of experience fighting wildfires
by the time of the Point Fire. The fire season is May through September,
and thus Buttram largely missed the 1994 fire season; the 1995 fire
season was his first wildfire season.
At the time of the Point Fire, Buttram was 31 years
old, and was employed by the Idaho Department of Corrections as a
prison guard earning $28,273 (on an annualized basis).
Oliver started as a volunteer fireman with the Kuna
RFD in October of 1994, and was also experiencing his first wildfire
season when he responded to the Point Fire. He was 18 years old at
the time of the Point Fire.
Before Buttram, Oliver, and McPherson left the station
in truck 620, they heard Chief Cromwell tell them over the radio (1)
that truck 620 should stay together with truck 622, and (2) that when
they arrived at the fire site, they should "switch to channel
16 [the BLM radio channel], and talk to BLM and find out where they
The BLM was communicating by radio over channel 16,
also known as the BLM channel.
Responding in truck 622 were volunteer firefighters
Michael Law and Robert Black. Law had worked as a volunteer fireman
since 1976; Black since 1970.
Responding in the tender truck 625 were Captain Joseph
Stear and Jenny Taylor. Captain Stear had more than a decade of experience
while Taylor had very little experience.
Captain McPherson testified that he would have liked
more experience in truck 620, but he felt that Buttram and Oliver
were qualified and so did not make any truck assignment changes.
The Kuna vehicles reached the Point Fire at about
7:30 p.m. They met together on Swan Falls Road about 1000 feet from
the northeast perimeter of the fire, where Captain McPherson gave
them a briefing.
In the briefing, Captain McPherson repeated Chief
Cromwell's admonitions for 620 and 622 to stay together, and for all
Kuna personnel to take orders from the BLM IC. Captain McPherson told
them to maintain radio contact with the BLM, to stay in safe zones,
to get into the black burned-out areas if there was any trouble, and
to be aware of escape routes.
Captain McPherson then told 620 and 622 to proceed
north on Swan Falls Road and find out what the BLM IC wanted them
Captain McPherson decided to stay with the water tender,
Immediately after 620 and 622 left the initial staging
area, Captain McPherson discovered that tender 625's radio was not
capable of reaching BLM channel 16.
Chief Cromwell was also not monitoring BLM channel
16. see footnote #2
Thus, the only channel that Captain McPherson could
monitor and transmit messages over was the Kuna channel, and the only
channel that Chief Cromwell was monitoring was the Kuna channel.
The radios on 620 and 622 had a scan capability. When
set in a scan mode, the radios automatically switched between BLM's
channel 16 and the Kuna frequency, broadcasting whatever messages
came over those channels, and allowing the occupants of the trucks
to monitor both channels without having to manually operate the radio.
If both channels were broadcasting at the same time, the Kuna frequency
would "step on" BLM's channel 16, so that only the Kuna
broadcast could be heard.
If the radios were not set on scan mode, the occupants
could only hear the single frequency that they had manually chosen.
As 620 and 622 pulled away from the initial staging
area, Captain Stear noticed that 620 had some loose gear on the back
of the truck. He tried to reach 620 on the Kuna channel but 620 did
not respond. This is some evidence that 620's radio was either not
working properly or that 620 had manually selected the BLM channel,
and had not put its radio on scan mode.
620 and 622 proceeded south on Swan Falls Road, and
reached the northeast perimeter of the fire at about 7:30 p.m.
622 then contacted IC Kerby on BLM channel 16 and
asked Kerby what they should do.
IC Kerby directed the Kuna RFD engines to "bump
in behind" a BLM vehicle and work the northern perimeter of the
fire. Another BLM vehicle would bring up the rear, sandwiching the
two Kuna trucks.
The procession of these four vehicles began working
the northern perimeter of the fire.
622 and 620 applied water through the front bumper
nozzles to the flames, and had an immediate effect- the flames diminished
in the area where the trucks were working, and the smoke changed color
indicating that the fire was being suppressed.
After moving a little more than a quarter mile in
a westerly direction along the fire's northern perimeter, IC Kerby
radioed 622 and told them to get closer to the perimeter, and that
they should continue to proceed around the entire perimeter of the
fire. Both trucks complied with those orders.
The trucks moved around the west side of the fire,
and then proceeded east along the fire's southern perimeter.
At about 8:15 p.m., the procession had nearly circumnavigated
the fire's entire perimeter, and had reached the fence at the southeast
corner of the fire.
There, someone from one of the Kuna trucks asked BLM's
Bryan Barney for further directions. Barney radioed IC Kerby who told
them to turn around and return around the fire's perimeter, soaking
it down as they went. The procession complied, turned around, and
started reworking the southern perimeter.
Just after 8:15 p.m., the National Weather Service
called the BLM dispatch office and issued a red flag warning for the
Snake River Valley area, including the area where the Point Fire was
burning, warning of an approaching thunderstorm with accompanying
winds of over 50 m.p.h.
At 8:22 p.m., the BLM dispatch office called IC Kerby
over the BLM channel 16 and told him that a red flag warning had been
issued by the National Weather Service and to expect high winds of
up to 50 m.p.h.
IC Kerby felt that since the red flag warning had
come over the BLM channel 16, all the firefighters had heard it and
there was no need for him to ensure that everyone had heard the warning.
At the time of the red flag warning, 8:22 p.m., 620
and 622 were on the fire's southern perimeter traveling westerly,
about a quarter-mile from the fence where they had turned around.
It is unclear if 620 heard the BLM dispatch's red
flag warning message. The Kuna channel transcript shows that at 8:24
p.m., 620 radioed Captain McPherson on the Kuna channel and said:
"[W]e're basically just doing mop-up. Is it okay for Josh to
get some drive time just doing mop-up?” Captain McPherson said
no, and 620 responded that they were "tucked in behind 622."
If the times on the transcript and BLM dispatch log book are precise,
then just two minutes after the red flag warning was given, Bill Buttram
was obviously unconcerned and asking Captain McPherson to allow an
unqualified beginning fireman to drive. This shows either that (1)
Buttram and Oliver did not hear the red flag warning, or (2) that
they did not appreciate the seriousness of the red flag warning. If,
however, the time on the logs are off by a minute or so, it is possible
that Buttram was calling on the Kuna channel at the same time the
red flag warning was given, in which case Buttram's transmission would
"step on" the red flag warning coming from the BLM channel
16, if 620's radio was in a scan mode. In that case, 620 would not
have heard the red flag warning. If Buttram's transmission “stepped
on” the red flag warning, then 622 should not have heard the
red flag warning either. Although Robert Black in 622 does not remember
getting the red flag warning over their radio, Mike Law does think
it came over the radio, although it is unclear whether he heard the
BLM dispatch warning or a warning at a later time during a conversation
with other employees. See Law deposition at 73. The evidence is inconclusive,
and the Court can therefore not reach any definitive conclusion as
to whether 620 heard the red flag warning.
After the red flag warning given at 8:22 p.m., 620
and 622 continued along the western perimeter.
When they reached the western perimeter, 622 ran out
of the water. Black radioed IC Kerby on the BLM channel and asked
for direction. IC Kerby told him to refill and stand by because a
wind storm was to pass through.
Law testified that immediately after IC Kerby gave
these orders, 620 came on the radio and stated that they still had
water and would stay on the line. However, this testimony was contradicted
by Law’s partner, Black, who testified that it was his impression
that 620 was empty and would be following 622 in to refill. Captain
Stear testified that when he saw 622 at the refill site, Black told
him that 620 was right behind them coming in to refill. The Court
finds Black's testimony most credible because he was the person operating
the radio in 622, and because his account is corroborated. In addition,
Law did not recall any such “we-will-stay-onthe- line”
transmission from 620 in his deposition taken on March 3, 1998. It
was not until he testified at trial, that Law gave that account. For
these reasons, the Court finds that 620 never told 622 that they still
had water and would stay on the fire line.
622 then proceeded east through the black burned-out
area until it turned north just before the fence in order to get to
the fence break that was located at the northeast corner of the fire
Just before 622 reached the fence break, 620 radioed
622 and stated that they were overheating and requested assistance.
At this time, 620 did not appear to be in any distress. 622 responded
that 620 should remove a screen on the front of the vehicle. 620 responded
to the effect that they heard the message and would check the screen.
That is the last radio contact 622 had with 620.
622 proceeded through the fence and onto Swan Falls
Road, stopping by the tender 625 to refill. Tender 625 was located
at this time on Swan Falls Road at the southeast corner of the fire
Black told Captain McPherson and Captain Stear that
620 was right behind them and coming in to refill.
When 620 did not arrive at the refilling site, captain
McPherson started walking north on Swan Falls Road to look for the
truck. When Captain McPherson had reached the middle of the fire’s
eastern perimeter, he saw 620 in the black burnedout area heading
towards him, retracing the route taken by 622. When McPherson first
saw 620, it was about 600 feet away from McPherson, heading for the
northeast perimeter of the fire with the apparent intent to follow
622’s path through the break in the fence.
In a wildfire, any black burned-out area might be
a safety zone depending on how much unburned fuel remains there; a
lack of unburned fuel ensures that the area will not be burned over
a second time. But the black’s function as a safety zone is
also dependant on two other variables: the wind, and the movement
of the firefighters. A high wind will kick up dust and ash in the
black area, obscuring visibility. This poses little danger if the
black contains no unburned fuel and the firefighters are stationary.
However, when the firefighters are moving in the black towards the
perimeter of the fire, beyond which lies unburned fuel in the path
of the high winds, the black is much less of a safety zone. The complete
lack of visibility that accompanies high winds in the black makes
the firefighters prey to disorientation, not a problem while they
are sitting still, but a major concern when they are moving toward
unburned fuels in the path of the winds.
McPherson felt that 620 was just minutes from reaching
the fence break, and the truck was close enough that McPherson could
see passenger Oliver “real well.”
McPherson started walking toward the fence break with
the idea that he would meet up with 620 there.
At this point the winds increased dramatically. Visibility
in the black burnt-out area was reduced to almost nothing as the winds
kicked up the dust and ash.
620, now close to the fence, turned north attempting
to find the fence break. McPherson could hear 620 bouncing and moving
north at a high rate of speed.
Due to a combination of obscured visibility, disorientation,
and panic, 620 overshot the fence break and drove into unburned cheat
grass and sagebrush due north of the fire’s northern perimeter.
The winds revived the fire, pushing it northward at
a furious rate.
620 was still moving northward at a fast rate, but
it was now trying to outrun the fire that was close behind it. After
driving about 1,750 feet from the fire’s northern perimeter,
620 stalled in the middle of unburned cheat grass and sagebrush.
Bill Buttram got on the radio and relayed a frantic
message to Captain McPherson over the Kuna channel: “We’re
on the north line, Doyle, we got fire coming hard, this thing has
Captain McPherson responded inaudibly, and Buttram
said “it’s not going to let us out of here.”
Chief Cromwell then came on the radio and asked 620
to identify its problem.
Buttram responded that “We’re surrounded
by fire.” When asked to repeat his message, Buttram stated “The
truck has been overtaken by fire.”
That was the last radio communication anyone received
Shortly thereafter, 620 was overtaken by the fire.
Bill Buttram and Josh Oliver were found dead in the
front seats of 620.
At that time, 620 was located 713 feet west of Swan
Falls Road and 1,750 feet north of the northern fire perimeter as
it existed just prior to the fire’s blow-up.
About 25 minutes elapsed between the red flag warning
given over the BLM channel at 8:22 p.m. and the high winds that swept
through at 8:46 p.m.
Joshua Oliver’s mother, Darla Reber, was forty-one
at the time of his death and she had a life expectancy at the time
of thirty-two years.
Plaintiff Michael Oliver was Joshua Oliver’s
father. Michael Oliver and Darla Reber divorced when Joshua was eleven
years old. At that time, Michael moved to Illinois and Darla moved
to New Mexico. Michael testified that Darla did not make it difficult
for him to see or talk to Joshua, but nevertheless Michael rarely
even spoke to Joshua during the next seven years. Joshua did come
to live with Michael for a month in Illinois, and there were two other
extended stays. In addition, Michael was always current on his support
Deanna C. Buttram and William Buttram were married
on April 27, 1985, and thereafter resided as husband and wife. When
William Buttram died, Deanna was 31 years old and their son Jeremiah
R. Buttram was one year old.
footnote #1 The FMAP
is the result of a bottom-up process of developing fire management
plans within the BLM. These plans were developed first at the
District level and then consolidated into state-wide plans that
were in turn consolidated into a BLM National Plan. The Boise
District FMAP was completed in July of 1994. It was consolidated
into the BLM's Idaho FMAP, which was completed in January, 1995,
and approved by the BLM in March, 1996. Two other plans relevant
to the Point Fire were the BLM's Lower Snake River Ecosystem
Fire Preparedness Plan, issued in June, 1995, and the South
Canyon Fire Abatement Plan issued in May, 1995. Further guidance
that was available at the time of the Point Fire was contained
in two publications of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group
(NWCG): (1) The Fireline Handbook, a "nuts and bolts"
pocket field guide for firefighting techniques; and (2) The
Wildland Fire Qualifications Subsystem, a set of standards for
training. The NWCG is a collection of federal agencies, including
the BLM, and the National Association of State Foresters.
footnote #2 While
Chief Cromwell's squad car could tune into BLM channel 16, Chief
Cromwell did not use that radio to monitor BLM channel 16 once
he arrived back at the Kuna station house, as this exchange
in his deposition shows:
Question [by Government counsel]:
After you drove away from the fire scene, did you continue to-did
you yourself monitor [BLM] channel 16 on your radio so you could
sort of attempt to keep track of what was going on out there?
Answer [by Chief Cromwell]:
No. When we got back to the fire station at that time, we didn't
have [BLM channel] 16 in our bay station, and we had gotten
out of the truck and went into the station and we were sitting
outside in one of the bay doors watching and listening to conversation
between our trucks. At that time we had no radio on that had
See Deposition of Cromwell at 104, 11. 11-21.