An elite federal firefighting team declined to join efforts to douse a deadly northern Idaho wildfire the week of Aug. 13, citing safety concerns on the day before a 20-year-old firefighter was killed.
Anne Veseth, of Moscow, was killed Aug. 12 when she was struck by a falling tree while battling the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino.
The Montana-based Flathead Hotshots team refused to engage the blaze on Aug. 11 after encountering what it described as poor communication among Idaho-based firefighters, some of whom had no protective clothing or shelters. That’s according to a report on SAFENET, an anonymous federal reporting system for wildland firefighters to document their concerns.
That report, dated Aug. 14, describes a chaotic scene, with a “hodge-podge” of firefighters including a crew of Idaho state prison inmates forced to dodge trees and rocks hurtling down a steep mountainside.
The inmate crew “had been chased up the hill several times due to fire below them and big rocks coming down the hill,” according to the Hotshot report. “At this time a huge snag came down above us and started rolling down through the standing trees. The prison (crew boss) commented, ‘That is the sound of the day.'”
The U.S. Forest Service, as well as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are investigating Veseth’s death. She was a Clearwater National Forest firefighter in her second season.
The Hotshot report, while just one account of the Steep Corner Fire, suggests tension between the federal firefighters and members of the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association, a state group under the Idaho Department of Lands formed to fight forest fires in northern Idaho.
On Aug. 11, an incident commander from the protective association was leading efforts on the Steep Corner Fire when the Hotshot team noted its concerns.
“We initiated conversation and told him we would not engage the crew because we have standards and protocols we need to follow,” according to the Hotshot report. “We told him we had a list of safety concerns and mitigations, if he would like to hear them. We read him our list and he said they have a different set of values and do things differently. He asked to keep the list and we tore it from the notebook and gave it to him.”
The Lewiston Tribune initially reported on the Hotshot report Aug. 20.
Howard Weeks, the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association’s chief fire warden, wasn’t at the fire scene Aug. 11.
But he told The Associated Press in an interview Aug. 20 that the Flathead Hotshots made several “good recommendations” about improving safety at the Steep Corner Fire.
Weeks said many of them were put into effect by Aug. 12, before Veseth died.
Asked if more should have been done, Weeks called Veseth’s death “a very unfortunate tragic accident” but said even the most prudent precautions can’t erase all potential dangers when the forest burns.
“When fires transition from this initial attack to the extended attack phase, often there are hazards that need to be mitigated,” said Weeks, who has 35 years of firefighting experience. “We do our best to mitigate what’s possible. All risk that we’re exposed to cannot always be mitigated.”
Jeff Ray, an Idaho Department of Correction spokesman, said Aug. 20 that the crew boss overseeing about 20 state inmates who fought the Steep Corner blaze believes the danger there on Aug. 11 was no different than any previous fire fought by prisoners.
The crew boss did say the blaze was bigger than most involving inmate firefighters, Ray added.
Cindy Lane, a Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest spokeswoman who is also working with the family, said the Veseths had no immediate comment about the SAFENET report, opting instead to wait for investigations’ findings.
Larry Sutton, fire operations risk management specialist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said SAFENET was created about a decade ago.
Reports are posted for public consumption, but also filed to regional administrators with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other agency overseeing fires. It’s designed to identify problems and alert the appropriate people to take corrective action.
“The challenge is it’s often difficult to respond instantly,” Sutton said. “They can be fairly time consuming to do the research … especially when it’s busy all over the place with fires.”