USFS Fire Suppression: Foundational Doctrine
Sen. Maria Cantwell's April, 2005 statement on:
Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions -- (Senate - April 26, 2005)
Ms. CANTWELL (for herself and Mrs. MURRAY):
Ms. CANTWELL. Mr. President, Governor Gregoire has already declared a drought in Washington State and I know my colleagues and I remain very concerned about what appears to be yet another year of devastating drought throughout the West, and the hazards this could pose in terms of increased fire risk and threats to public safety.
But today, I want to focus the majority of my comments on a topic that I have focused on and hope my colleagues will pay close attention to as the 2005 fire season approaches. That's the issue of wildland firefighter safety.
Many of my colleagues are probably aware of the fact that every summer, we send thousands of our constituents--many of them brave young men and women, college students on summer break--into harm's way to protect our Nation's rural communities and public lands. These men and women serve our Nation bravely.
Since 1910, more than 900 wildland firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty. These firefighters represented a mix of Federal and State employees, volunteers and independent contractors. And they lost their lives for an array of reasons. We all realize that fighting fires on our Nation's public lands is an inherently dangerous business. But what we cannot and must not abide are the preventable deaths--losing firefighters because rules were broken, policies ignored and no one was held accountable.
A number of my colleagues will recall that, in 2001, this issue was pushed to the fore in the State of Washington, because of a horrible tragedy. On July 10, 2001, near Winthrop in Okanogan County, in the midst of the second worst drought in the history of our State, the Thirtymile fire burned out of control.
Four courageous young firefighters were killed. Their names: Tom Craven, 30 years old; Karen FitzPatrick, 18; Jessica Johnson, 19; and Devin Weaver, 21.
Sadly, as subsequent investigations revealed, these young men and women did not have to die. In the words of the Forest Service's own report on the Thirtymile fire, the tragedy “could have been prevented.” At that time, I said that I believe we in Congress and management within the firefighting agencies have a responsibility to ensure that no preventable tragedy like Thirtymile fire ever happened again.
I would like to thank my colleague Senator BINGAMAN, the distinguished Ranking Member of the Senate Energy Committee, as well as Senator WYDEN, who was then chair of the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests. In the wake of the Thirtymile fire, they agreed to convene hearings on precisely what went wrong that tragic day. We heard from the grief-stricken families.
In particular, the powerful testimony of Ken Weaver--the father of one of the lost firefighters--put into focus precisely what's at stake when we send these men and women into harm's way.
I can think of no worse tragedy than a parent confronting the loss of a child, especially when that loss could have been prevented by better practices on the part of federal agencies.
At the Senate Energy Committee hearing, we also discussed with experts and the Forest Service itself ways in which we could improve the agency's safety performance. And almost a year to the day after those young people lost their lives, we passed a bill--ensuring an independent review of tragic incidents such as Thirtymile that lead to unnecessary fatalities.
Based on subsequent briefings by the Forest Service, revisions to the agency's training and safety protocols, and what I've heard when I have visited with firefighters over the past 2 years, I do believe the courage of the Thirtymile families to stand up and demand change has had a positive impact on the safety of the young men and women who are preparing to battle blazes as wildland firefighters.
Yet, I'm deeply saddened by the fact that it's clear we haven't done nearly enough. In July 2003--2 years after Thirtymile--two more firefighters perished, this time at the Cramer fire within Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest. Jeff Allen and Shane Heath were killed when the fire burned over an area where they were attempting to construct a landing spot for firefighting helicopters.
After the Thirtymile fire, however, I told the Weavers and the Cravens, the families of Karen FitzPatrick and Jessica Johnson that I believed we owed it to their children to identify the causes and learn from the mistakes that were made in the Okanogan, to make wildland firefighting safer for those who would follow. That is why the findings associated with the Cramer fire simply boggle my mind.
We learned at Thirtymile that all ten of the agencies' Standing Fire Orders and many of the 18 Watch Out Situations--the most basic safety rules--were violated or disregarded. The same thing happened at Cramer, where Heath and Allen lost their lives 2 years later.
After the Thirtymile Fire, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted an investigation and levied against the Forest Service five citations for Serious and Willful violations of safety rules. It was eerie, then, when just in March 2004 OSHA concluded its investigation of Cramer. The result: another five OSHA citations, for Serious, Willful and Repeat violations.
Reading through the list of causal and contributing factors for Cramer and putting them next to those associated with the Thirtymile fire, my colleagues would be struck by the many disturbing similarities. Even more haunting are the parallels between these lists and the factors cited in the investigation of 1994's South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado.
It's been more than a decade since those 14 firefighters lost their lives on Storm King Mountain--and yet, the same mistakes are being made over and over again.
These facts have also been documented by an audit and memorandum issued last September by the Department of Agriculture's Inspector General. The IG found that “accidents on the South Canyon, Thirtymile, and Cramer Fires, all of which involved fatalities, could have been avoided if certain individuals had followed standard safety practices and procedures in place at the time.”
The IG also noted that the Forest Service “has not timely implemented actions to improve its safety programs.” Some 27 of 81 action items identified as a result of the Storm King and Thirtymile Fires--or roughly a third--had not been fully implemented years later. While I know that the IG is monitoring implementation of some of these items, the stark similarities between Storm King, Thirtymile, and Cramer make it seem positively astounding that the Forest Service still finds my bill “not necessary.”
I don't believe that's acceptable. The firefighters we send into harm's way this year--and the ones we've already lost--deserve better.
Training, leadership and management problems have been cited in all of the incidents I've discussed. Frankly, I have believed since the Thirtymile tragedy that the Forest Service has on its hands a cultural problem. What can we do, from the legislative branch, to provide this agency with enough motivation to change? I believe the first step we can take is to equip ourselves with improved oversight tools, so these agencies know that Congress is paying attention. Today I'm re-introducing legislation--the Wildland Firefighter Safety Act of 2005--that would do just that.
I believe this is a modest yet important proposal. It was already passed once by the Senate, as an amendment to the 2003 Healthy Forests legislation. However, I was disappointed that it was not included in the conference version of the bill. But it is absolutely clear to me--particularly in light of OSHA's review of the Cramer Fire--that these provisions are needed now more than ever.
First, the Wildland Firefighter Safety Act of 2005 will require the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to track the funds the agencies expend for firefighter safety and training.
Today, these sums are lumped into the agencies' “wildfire preparedness” account. But as I have discussed with various officials in hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it is difficult for Congress to play its rightful oversight role--ensuring that these programs are funded in times of wildfire emergency, and measuring the agencies' commitment to these programs over time--without a separate break-down of these funds.
Second, it will require the Secretaries to report to Congress annually on the implementation and effectiveness of its safety and training programs.
Congress has the responsibility to ensure needed reforms are implemented. As such, I believe that Congress and the agencies alike would benefit from an annual check-in on these programs. I would also hope that this would serve as a vehicle for an ongoing and healthy dialogue between the Senate and agencies on these issues.
Third, my bill would stipulate that federal contracts with private firefighting crews require training consistent with the training of federal wildland firefighters. It would also direct those agencies to monitor compliance with this requirement.
This is important not just for the private contractor employees' themselves--but for the Federal, State and tribal employees who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them on the fire line.
The Wildland Firefighter Safety Act of 2005 is a modest beginning in addressing the challenges posed by integrating private and federal contract crews--and doing it in a manner that maximizes everyone's safety on the fire line.
I hope my colleagues will support this simple legislation. Ultimately, the safety of our Federal firefighters is a critical component of how well prepared our agencies are to deal with the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
Congress owes it to the families of those brave firefighters we send into harm's way to provide oversight of these safety and training programs.
We owe it to our Federal wildland firefighters, their families and their State partners--and to future wildland firefighters.
My bill will provide this body with the additional tools it needs to do the job.
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