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Point Fire, 1995
Island Fork Fire, 1999

Point Fire Case Study

Point Fire Accident Investigation

A. Point Fire Overview

B. Investigation

C. Recommendations

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

F. Glossary


Island Fork Fire Accident Investigation


Island Fork Fire, NIOSH Report

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
Findings of Fact
 • Legal Standards
 • Analysis

Ruling on Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB)


Surviving Fire Entrapments


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





Civil Case No. 96-0324-S-BLW
(Consolidated with)
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 BLM responded with a motion for partial summary judgment, asserting that some of those decisions were immune from challenge because they were discretionary in nature, and hence protected by the discretionary function exception to the FTCA. The BLM's motion was argued on November 6,1998, and is now at issue. The Court finds that some of the BLM's decisions were so influenced by social, political, and economic concern that they fall within the discretionary function exception; the bulk of the challenged decisions, however, do not fall into that category. Therefore the Court shall grant in part and deny in part the motion for partial summary judgment. The Court's reasoning is set out below.

Factual Background

On 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 responded. The first 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. That 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 rated as a Response Level I is a fire early or late in the fire season that has a Burning Index rating from 0 to 34. For this type of fire, the FMAP states that “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 weather reports for that day contained a fire watch warning because of the continuing threat of thunderstorms and strong gusty winds.

Given these factors, the Fire Management Specialist with the BLM, William Casey Jr., testified in his Declaration that the Burning Index for the Point Fire was 31, requiring the implementation of a Response Level I. Casey pointed out that the BLM responded with greater resources than would be called for by the FMAP for a Level I response because the BLM initially dispatched five engines, a bulldozer, a tender, and a detection helicopter. David Kerby arrived at the fire at 7:00 p.m. A few minutes later, the Kuna Rural Fire District's (RFD) Fire Chief, Richard W. Cromwell, contacted Kerby and asked him if he needed any assistance. Kerby responded that he could use a brush truck ( see footnote #2 ) and a water tender. Immediately, the Kuna RFD dispatched two brush trucks and a water tender. One of the brush trucks, Kuna Engine 620, had decedents William Buttram and Joshua Oliver on board. Buttram and Oliver were inexperienced, having only a year-and-a-half of firefighting experience between them.

The Kuna RFD engines arrived at the fire about 7:30 p.m. By this time, Kerby had viewed the fire from a helicopter, and returned to the site to direct the suppression efforts. He directed the Kuna RFD engines to "bump in behind" the BLM engines working the northern perimeter of the fire. Kerby Deposition at 66, Il. 16-17. Kerby felt at this time that these engines would ''just basically [be doing] mop up, putting any little flare-ups that might come out.” Id. at 20-22.

About an hour after the Kuna RFD engines arrived and started work on the fire, the BLM's dispatch office reported to Kerby a “red flag warning” for dry lightning and strong winds up to 50 miles per hour. At the time Kerby received this report, he felt that the fire was no longer spreading as the perimeter had been wet down and the fire was continuing to burn out in the middle. One of the two Kuna RFD engines called Kerby on the radio at that point, notifying Kerby that they were out of water and asking for instructions. Kerby told them to “to refill and stand by because there were expected high winds in the area.” Kerby Deposition at 102, Il. 10-11.

Kuna RFD Engine 622 went to refill, but it was not accompanied by Engine 620, containing Buttram and Oliver. Instead, Engine 620 drove north of the fire on a two-track dirt road. After traveling about 1,900 feet along this road, Engine 620 turned off the road to the east and drove cross-country, through heavy sagebrush, first east and then north-northeast. When Engine 620 was about 2,000 feet due north of the Point Fire's northern perimeter, it stalled in an area surrounded by unburned sagebrush and grasses. About 25 minutes had elapsed since the red flag warning.

At the same time, a thunderstorm created strong winds blowing to the north. The winds pushed the fire at a furious rate. Within just 4 minutes, the fire had encompassed Engine 620, killing its occupants.

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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 statewide 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 A brush truck is a four-wheel drive vehicle capable of hauling water and spraying it onto the fire.

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