Forest Service accountability needed, says Sen. Cantwell

By Michelle Partridge

Wenatchee World staff writer

WENATCHEE -5/9/02 - Unhappy with the U.S. Forest Service's response to the deadly Thirtymile Fire near Winthrop, Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced new legislation Tuesday that would require Agriculture and Interior inspectors general to investigate all federal firefighter deaths.

It is Cantwell's latest attempt to reform the response of the Forest Service and the National Park Service to firefighter fatalities. The new bill replaces an amendment Cantwell attached to the nation's farm bill. The amendment was killed last week in an unrelated dispute over timber harvesting.

Cantwell also asked the Forest Service on Tuesday to voluntarily enter into a partnership with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to increase training and safety standards for firefighters.

Cantwell said the Forest Service isn't doing enough to prevent future firefighter deaths.

"In their preparedness plan, they have come up with what looks like recommendations for pushing paper around the Forest Service office," she said in a teleconference from Washington, D.C.

She made her comments following a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on how the federal agency is preparing for the upcoming fire season.

Forest Service officials briefly mentioned the Thirtymile Fire during the hearing.

"Firefighter safety is our highest priority," Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of state and private forestry for the Forest Service, told senators. "This year, however, following the Thirtymile Fire tragedy in July 2001, where four firefighters lost their lives, we have redoubled our efforts."

Cantwell said the Forest Service has completed 21 of the 31 proposed changes in the action plan developed after the Thirtymile Fire. The agency is responsible for investigating itself after firefighter fatalities.

But she said the plan is similar to actions proposed after the 1994 fire in Colorado that killed 14 federal firefighters.

"I feel they are making the same mistakes," Cantwell said. "No one has lost their job over this incident. Without a system where people are accountable, I find it hard to believe the changes they are pushing around will be implemented."

Joe Walsh, a Forest Service spokesman, said it was premature to suggest that no one would be held responsible in the deaths of four firefighters last summer in Washington's Okanogan National Forest.

"There's an investigation going on," he told The Associated Press. "I think folks have to wait until that is completed before drawing a conclusion that no actions were taken."

In Cantwell's bill, inspectors general for both the departments of Agriculture and Interior would investigate the deaths of firefighters in the Forest Service and National Park Service.

An existing federal policy requires that the findings and recommendations of the two inspectors general be promptly carried out within an established time frame, then be monitored by the inspectors to ensure they are implemented, said Cantwell spokeswoman Jennifer Crider.

"What you have now is the Forest Service saying 'Don't worry, we're fixing it.' The inspector general would .... have oversight over whether those things are being fixed," Cantwell said.

The senator questioned whether any of the policy changes the Forest Service promised to make after the Thirtymile Fire will make things safer for firefighters this summer, especially in fires similar to the one near Winthrop.

"In tough (fire) situations, and with people with minimal training, I'm concerned," she said.

But Jim Payne, the Forest Service fire and aviation manager responsible for making sure the changes get put into practice nationwide, said things will be different on the fire line this summer.

"I believe that we've put a tremendous amount of energy into this effort since Thirtymile and have made some major progress," Payne said.

He said fire managers will be armed with better guidelines for risking fire danger, and will carry pocket guides to help them make decisions. Firefighters will also carry updated pocket cards on safety requirements, and will need to go over a checklist of the agency's 10 standard firefighting orders before engaging and re-engaging in fires.

In addition, there will be increased inspections at fires by fire program managers, and incident commanders will be assigned to smaller fires than in the past. New emphasis will be placed on adhering to work-rest cycles.

Firefighters also will get more training on how to avoid entrapments, he said.

"I'm well aware of the changes that are being made, and I believe they can and will make a difference," he said.

Cantwell said the Forest Service is not objective in evaluating itself, and therefore is not making the right changes.

"You have to realize you have a problem first," the senator said. "The Forest Service thinks this is about issuing some letters and memos and reviewing some programs. But it's about creating a different culture within the Forest Service about accountability and that rules really do mean something."

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