THE THIRTYMILE FIRE AND STORM KING:
The BeginningsOne July morning in Montana, I was preparing for a day of interviewing for a documentary film about the 1994 South Canyon Fire. When I picked up a copy of the Missoulian newspaper to read with breakfast, I was startled to see virtually the same headline from seven years earlier, almost to the day: Wildland Firefighters Killed in Blowup. The earlier time was July 6, 1994, the day of the South Canyon Fire, when flames blew up below a fire crew on Storm King Mountain in Colorado and outraced fourteen firefighters clambering along a precipitous slope. In the intervening years, those fourteen deaths had become an icon of wildland fire, a caution to future generations to avoid high risk in situations where little of value was at stake.
This time, four firefighters were killed in a remote canyon in north central Washington when the Thirtymile Fire blew up and trapped them - on July 10, 2001. The History Channel crew and I were planning that morning to interview Bob and Nadine Mackey, the parents of Don Mackey, the smokejumper in charge who was one of the fourteen killed on the earlier fire on Storm King Mountain.
We drove to the Mackey home in the Bitterroot Valley, taking along a copy of the newspaper. When we showed it to Bob and Nadine, there were no tears - just a hard realization that a new generation of families would bear a familiar burden of sorrow. "I know exactly what those families are going through," Nadine said. And then she added, "Are you going to write about this one, too, John?" I put the question aside at the time - I was working on another book, Fire and Ashes, and thought I had about run myself dry on the subject of fatal fires.
A few months later, however, Jody Gray, the mother of a teenaged girl, Jessica Johnson, who was one of the four killed on the Thirtymile Fire, contacted me. She had read Fire on the Mountain, she said, and found that the similarities between the South Canyon and Thirtymile fires "brought an eerie chill to my soul." When she described one of the parallels in detail, I felt the same way.
"The Forest Service tried to blame the four for their own deaths," she wrote. The true cause of the fatalities, she said, was a series of management errors. Forest Service supervisors had put an inexperienced crew in front of a raging inferno, and then had done too little to prepare for what became a fatal entrapment. Jody's daughter Jessica had been halfway through reading Fire on the Mountain at the time, and had assured her mother that the safety lessons learned would keep her safe. Instead, Jody said, fire supervisors had broken "all of the safety rules the Forest Service promised to follow after the 14 firefighters died in Colorado."
Would I come and write about the Thirtymile Fire, she asked?
It was autumn when I made my way to the site of the fire in the North Cascade Range, up near the Canadian border. By then, I had enlisted the help of Eric Hipke, a smokejumper who was badly burned on the South Canyon Fire and who had spent much of his life in the North Cascades. Eric's knowledge of the region and familiarity with people involved in the Thirtymile Fire opened many a door and cemented many a new relationship. He and I talked with key survivors, several of whom had not talked with outsiders before, and took several of them back to walk the ground where the fire had burned.
If I have learned one lesson about how to investigate a fatal fire, it is this: interview survivors in depth and with a recording device, and then have them relate the same story again while going over the ground, more than once if possible. Telling details emerge; contradictions get ironed out; the ground takes on the shape of a narrative and begins itself to tell the tale.
We also visited Yakima and spent time with surviving family members, in particular Jody Gray and another of the mothers, Kathie FitzPatrick, whose eighteen-year-old daughter Karen was killed. Jody and Kathie had gone to great lengths to gather material about the fire and to make contacts on our behalf with other sources. Though the Forest Service was intensely criticized for the way it handled the fire and its aftermath, officials from Chief Dale Bosworth and Regional Forester Linda Goodman on down to people at the district level proved responsive and helpful in piecing together the story. Serious errors had been made, without doubt. But no one had intended tragedy to strike; no one had sought or condoned a bad ending.
After that first swing through Washington, I was hooked on the story. The four victims of the fire each had an exceptional personal story. And every one had a special bond with fire. Joining the fire world had brought meaning and order to their lives, though in vastly different ways. And then fire had taken a perverse twist, never to be fully explained, and claimed the very lives that it had enhanced and made more meaningful.
The Thirtymile Fire left behind three lingering mysteries.
Why hadn't the lessons of Storm King Mountain prevented this tragedy?
Why had an arm of the fire split off at the last moment and turned on the firefighters in such a bizarre - and fatal - fashion?
And was the Forest Service justified in blaming the four firefighters for their own deaths?
Book digs deep into Thirtymile Fire
Shannon Dininny, The Associated PressYAKIMA - Each had developed a very different, yet very real, bond with fire.
Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver were all adventurous souls whose jobs as wildland firefighters allowed them to play outdoors while still imposing the discipline and order they craved.
All four unwittingly became the victims of a single day's many mistakes when a wildfire trapped them on a dead-end road, killing them six years ago. Their personal stories serve as the counterpoint to bureaucratic blunders in John Maclean's new book about the blaze.
But to anyone familiar with Maclean's previous books about fatal fires, The Thirtymile Fire reveals yet another example of how a string of seemingly innocent errors can be deadly - in this case, on a blaze that took a still-unexplained left hook and resulted in the first criminal charges against a wildland firefighter for deaths of comrades on the line.
"What startled me, and eventually entrapped me in the story, were the personalities of the four people who died," Maclean told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview. "To think you would have four people so interesting ... and who were together and who were the ones killed, I found it extraordinary. To me, that's the heart of the story."
An unattended campfire sparked the Thirtymile Fire in north-central Washington's Okanogan National Forest. Initially believed to be a simple mop-up job, the fire exploded, trapping 14 firefighters and two hikers in the Chewuch River Canyon on July 10, 2001.
When it was over, four firefighters were dead: Craven, 30, Weaver, 21, Johnson, 19, and FitzPatrick, 18, all from central Washington.
Maclean, son of acclaimed novelist Norman Maclean, who wrote A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire, about Montana's deadly Mann Gulch fire of 1949, traces the four firefighters' reasons for joining the U.S. Forest Service and their deadly last day.
Along the way, he makes comparisons to similar mistakes on the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, chronicled in his previous book, Fire on the Mountain. That blaze killed 14 firefighters.
An investigation of the Thirtymile Fire found that fire bosses had broken all 10 of the agency's standard safety rules and ignored numerous signs of danger.
No current weather reports were sought out, and fire bosses posted no lookout in the late afternoon, when fire activity is greatest. No water was dropped on the blaze for hours. The chain of command was murky.
Maclean names the 11 Forest Service employees who were tagged for discipline after the fire. He also details the actions of the lone firefighter facing criminal charges: 47-year-old Ellreese Daniels, the fire crew boss at the scene.
Late last year, federal prosecutors charged Daniels with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making material false statements, or lying to investigators. If convicted, he could face as much as six years for each manslaughter count alone.
Maclean chronicles Daniels' rise through the firefighting ranks to fire boss as one of the agency's few blacks in the rural Northwest. He also details the soft-spoken career Forest Service man's command of the trapped firefighters that day.
Did Daniels fully prepare them for the worst - a burnover that would require them to deploy their shelters? Did he order the firefighters, who later died after deploying their shelters on a rock scree, to the road, where others deployed their shelters and survived? Did he order a firefighter to open her shelter to the two hikers?
Maclean answers some of the questions, raises still others, but notes that one firefighter is being held accountable for the mistakes of many. He also discusses the many investigations after the blaze - the first in part blamed the dead firefighters for their fate, raising the ire of the victims' families.
Elton Thomas, a fire management officer, served a one-day suspension after the fire and has since retired from the Forest Service. He called Maclean's book "fair," but said the charges against a single firefighter may not be.
"I wasn't there, and I can't fault a man for what he didn't do," Thomas said. "But I think there was a significant opportunity for lives to have been lost if they had tried to ride out the fire in a different place. The fault lies in not keeping the fire serious. They literally thought they were going to watch this fire burn by them."
Kathie FitzPatrick, Karen's mother, found the book difficult at times to read. She believes it remains the best account of what happened that day, but supports the charges against Daniels.
"It's really hard for me, because I lost Karen in it, but people outside that immediate loss will be truly fascinated by their stories," said FitzPatrick, who has published her own book, a compilation of verses and poetry by mother and daughter that includes photos from the fire.
"Because of the loss of four great shining stars, people will be moved, and I think, the time will be right for people to bring legislation for greater safety," she said.
Maclean believes the greater message is of a firefighting culture in crisis. In 2002, 25 percent of the Forest Service budget was spent fighting fires. Today, it's grown to 44 percent.
"That means you don't have money for trail work, normal recreational stuff. You don't have money for anything except fire, and a lot of that money is for defending homes in the wildland/urban interface, rather than wildland restoration," Maclean said.
"And when the bill arrives - not just money, but the five body bags - the Forest Service has a right to ask, 'Is this our mission? Should we be paying for fighting fires to protect homes that should be protecting themselves?'" he said.
At the same time, fires are getting bigger and more explosive, Maclean said, and firefighters are wondering, "Why should we do this for you? Why are we suddenly facing criminal prosecution for operating within the parameters of our employment without malicious intent?"
In the book, Maclean notes that fire is deadly dangerous and sometimes impossible to predict. But the biggest remaining unsolved mystery of the Thirtymile blaze remains its erratic behavior.
"No one has yet answered why this fire, which was studied as few fires have ever been, took that fatal left hook and thus entered the history books," he wrote.
Books bring to life the deaths at Thirtymile Fire
By MARK MOREY, YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLICIn the years he spent writing The Thirtymile Fire, author John Maclean came to know the four central Washington firefighters who died.
"They were not saints. They were human beings. They were not plastic angels or simple little cutouts," Maclean said.
Each brought with them their own reasons for joining the Forest Service -- a desire for adventure, experience for a career, a search to find themselves. "When they weren't doing fire, they were the kind of people that stand out -- even if in very different ways. In the end, the fire turned on them in the great ironic twist of their lives," Maclean said. "That seems to me to rise above the drama of the bungled investigation and even the criminal charges" against incident commander Ellreese Daniels.
"That's what people are going to remember ten, fifteen years down the road," he said.
Killed in the fire were Tom Craven of Ellensburg and three Yakima firefighters, Karen FitzPatrick, 18, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Devin Weaver, 21.
It was an email from Johnson's mother, Jodie Gray, that inspired Maclean to write the story of Thirtymile. His 256-page work mixes detailed description of the four firefighters with a largely objective narrative of how the July 10, 2001, fire unfolded.
Maclean, the son of acclaimed novelist Norman Maclean, who wrote A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire, reconstructs the four's reasons for joining the Forest Service and chronicled how they died working for the agency. Along the way, Maclean adds context through his experience as a firefighting trainee and the author of two previous books on firefighting disasters, including the South Canyon fire of 1994. That Colorado fire killed 14 and prompted the Forest Service to declare steps would be taken to prevent such outcomes again, though many of the same mistakes were repeated at Thirtymile.
Previous investigations by the Forest Service and the Yakima Herald-Republic found that a series of management mistakes led to the deaths, but Maclean more clearly faults incident commander Daniels for major errors in judgment. Maclean paints a picture of Daniels as a treasured employee of the Forest Service because he was one of the few blacks willing to stay in the Northwest during more than two decades with the agency. Early on, though, he developed a reputation for struggling to meet the demands of his chosen career as a firefighter, according to Maclean.
He twice failed rigorous testing to join the Entiat Hotshot crew, before finally passing. Topline firefighters from the same team who would later respond to Thirtymile declined to take over Daniels' assignment because it was too dangerous.
His colleagues knew him as a nice guy but an ineffective leader, pushed up the ladder by Forest Service officials eager to see him advance. Those traits came together, Maclean reports, at the worst intersection. Instead of running his crew of firefighters at Thirtymile, Daniels spent crucial time acting as a radio relay between an air attack controller and one of his own subordinates. Later, when the crew should have been preparing to be overrun by flames, Daniels took no decisive action to protect the crew or two Thorp campers who were also trapped on the dead-end road, Maclean wrote.
Afterward, Daniels could see the four fire shelters on the slope above him. The four firefighters inside them, forced to breathe air that might have reached 2,000 degrees, did not move. "Daniels tried again and again to raise Craven on the radio, but there was no answer. 'Godammit, why? Why?' he cried out, and fell sobbing to his knees," according to the scene reconstructed by Maclean.
Maclean and his sources did note that Daniels could have escaped in a van crowded with firefighters, but turned back in order to not leave behind four firefighters who were on foot.
Maclean wrote that Forest Service officials recommended Daniels for termination, as well as two other employees involved in the Thirtymile attack. The Forest Service has declined to release details of the discipline, but Maclean said he confirmed the information through records and other sources. Daniels still works seasonally for the Forest Service, but no longer has direct fire duties.
Daniels, who faces trial this fall on federal charges of causing the deaths through gross negligence and lying to investigators, did not speak to Maclean about his role at Thirtymile. Describing the case as a travesty of justice that does not belong in criminal court, Daniels' lawyer has said the public will hear his side at trial.
Dale Bosworth, chief of the Forest Service at the time, told Maclean that a variety of factors led to the deaths. "I'm not convinced that the public hanging of one person, which is going to make people feel better, is the right solution," Bosworth is quoted as saying.
The families of the three Yakima victims have generally pushed for Daniels and others to be held accountable and for lawmakers to create higher safety standards for wildland firefighters. The Craven family has been more reserved.
Kathie FitzPatrick's, Karen's mother, worked with Maclean to produce his book even as she was compiling her own, titled Angel Promises. That collection of poems and artwork, by both mother and daughter, is due out by the time Maclean and Kathie FitzPatrick make a joint June 30 appearance at the Borders bookstore at the Valley Mall in Union Gap. They are both expected to have books available for signing at the noon event, FitzPatrick said.
FitzPatrick said she hopes that both books will spur the debate about fire safety, which had died down after passage of the post-Thirtymile law that inspired the Department of Justice to pursue charges against Daniels. FitzPatrick wants higher safety standards, not just an outside investigation of any Forest Service burnover deaths, as required by the 2002 change by Congress. "It's been talked about too long. It needs to happen. We hope the books are really going to bring it around to reality," FitzPatrick said.
Daniels' case is the first time that prosecutors have tried to hold a federal firefighter responsible for the unintended deaths of crew members. Firefighter lobbyists say the strategy is unwise because it has prompted experienced supervisors to decline command and does not recognize the dangers inherent in the job.
Maclean's book addresses the strange fire behavior in the Chewuch River Canyon. He describes a "strange left hook" taken by the fire and suggests that topography, among other factors, created unforeseen circumstances. But the eventually deadly problems started well before the crew even arrived at Thirtymile, Maclean found.
"How bright hopes and talented people produced such rocky results is, like the Thirtymile Fire itself, a story of how mistakes can link together, compound and lead to disaster," Maclean wrote at the end of one chapter.
The story has not finished. Maclean said he expects to cover Daniels' trial in Spokane for additional material to be used in a paperback edition of the book.
The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal
Publishers' WeeklyOn July 9, 2001, the hot exhaust of a state vehicle on fire patrol ignited the major Libby South Fire in the North Cascades Range in central Washington State. When a smaller blaze broke out later that evening some miles to the north in the narrow Chewuch River canyon near the Canadian border, resources were already stretched, and only a small, rookie-laden crew was deployed.
This Thirtymile Fire should have been a simple operation, but instead it blew up into a towering inferno of double fire-plumes spinning tornado-like in opposite directions, scorching 9,324 wildland acres. In two weeks, 1,000 firefighters and dozens of helicopters, bulldozers and other heavy equipment were deployed, costing $4.5 million and the lives of four fire fighters. A controversial official investigation claimed that the firefighters defied authority and bore responsibility for their own deaths.
Maclean interviewed families, survivors, investigators and fire experts, and the result is an evenhanded, lucid re-creation of catastrophe and its aftermath. The author gives a human face to national headlines, capturing the dignity and sense of mission of the lost firefighters, such as Karen FitzPatrick, age 18, a born-again Christian who sought, through firefighting, to "resolve the ageless conflict between the desires of the spirit and those of the flesh."
March 2007Thorough, disciplined account of a terrifying fire that ripped through the Okanogan National Forest near Washington State's Canadian border in 2001. Maclean begins with a nod to one of his previous books on the subject of firefighting. A number of new safety measures were instituted after 14 firefighters perished in the 1994 South Canyon tragedy analyzed in Fire on the Mountain (1999), but few could have predicted that the measures would be tested so soon.
Just seven years after South Canyon, an improperly extinguished campfire abandoned during a smoking-hot summer in the North Cascades mountain range provided another stern trial of the firefighting community.
Maclean divides the story into three parts. He begins by outlining the various people who headed into the woods to do battle with the fire on that fateful day, highlighting character traits that would play a vital part in the tragedy. The second section concentrates on how the fire was tackled, cataloguing mishaps and errors that included problems with the hoses, failure to obtain helicopter support and neglect that led to innocent bystanders Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer becoming entangled in events. The author comments on these incidents while describing a fire spiraling dangerously out of control to claim the lives of four firefighters and injure many others.
The final chapters focus on the fire's aftermath, with the deceased's families quickly turning from sorrow to bitterness and recriminations, especially after the release of a report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that suggested the dead may have ignored orders. Maclean mostly keeps his opinions to himself, offering a narrative that comprehends many conflicting viewpoints. A richly descriptive chronicle of disaster from an expert on the subject. Agent: Jennifer Lyons/Writers House LLC
by David PittMaclean follows up Fire on the Mountain (1999) and Fire and Ashes (2003) with another gripping account of natural disaster. The Thirtymile Fire snuck up on firefighters who were cleaning up after an earlier blaze in Washington State, near the Canadian border. Sparked by an untended campfire, the fire (which was named for its closest geographical landmark, Thirtymile Peak) didn't appear to be much of a threat.
But fire is unpredictable, and soon firefighters were in the midst of a raging and deadly inferno. Maclean takes us inside the fire and puts us beside the men and women trying to tame it. Ultimately, it's a tragic story -- some members of the firefighting crew died -- but it's also an exciting and educational one. Maclean teaches us plenty about how forest fires behave and about the people who risk their lives to fight them. We come away from the book with a better understanding of the intricate relationship between humans and nature. Recommend this exciting account to readers familiar with Maclean's previous books or those of Stephen J. Pyne and Norman Maclean, the author's father.
A Burning Sensation: Fires and those who fight them
Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure MagazineAuthor John N. Maclean has become the Bob Woodward of forest fires, the nation's chief chronicler of the misjudgments, equipment failures, and accumulating gaffes that lead to tragedy on the fireline. The Thirtymile Fire, his third book on fatal infernos and their victims, is pitilessly compelling, the sort of saga devoured in one horrified reading.
Maclean diligently recounts the national repercussions of the blaze, which led to congressional hearings on fire safety, but his real interest is in wildfires themselves and those who volunteer to fight them.
"They sign up," he writes, "for the adrenaline rush, for tuition money, for a break from spouses, and for the simple joy of being outside from the dawn of one day to the next." By the end of Maclean's gripping account we know these unique types of people well enough to mourn them.
Out of the ashes, questions still burn
DEBRA GWARTNEY, The OregonianIf ever you were caught in the path of a forest fire, believe me, you'd want to have John N. Maclean with you. This is a man informed about the behavior of fire -- about its tendencies to blast over hillsides and through canyons, to jump across roads and giant boulders, and to glow in wild and disturbing colors. Maclean knows how spot fires are doused, how big burns are controlled with the right kind of digging, and he knows how to gauge when it's simply time to get out of fire's way -- running from oncoming flames as fast as possible.
Rather than a firefighter or a scientist studying the properties of fire, Maclean is a writer and the author of such fire-related books as Fire and Ashes and Fire on the Mountain, as well as the volume he helped publish after his father Norman Maclean's death, Young Men and Fire. His latest book, The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal, is an account of a travesty and a tragedy, the story of a forest fire that started out as a small blaze in the narrow Chewuch River canyon in Washington state, near the Canadian border, in July of 2001, but quickly became more fierce and powerful than anyone could control. Over-stretched managers, who were concentrating on the huge Libby South Fire in the North Cascades Range, underestimated the blaze. By the time these higher-ups realized the seriousness of a fire to which they'd sent mostly inexperienced firefighters, a crew was trapped (along with two campers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time) and four firefighters were dead.
Maclean follows the mostly rookie crew forced to deal with the Thirtymile Fire, and we're with that rag-tag group as they realize they're fighting an all-consuming monster instead of a no-big-deal blaze: "It sent aloft a thickening plume of smoke and debris," Maclean writes, "as different from a smoke column as a tornado is from a dust devil ... A twisting coil of smoke and fire can rise tens of thousands of feet until it becomes 'buoyantly stable' and hovers overhead in brief equilibrium, like impending doom."
Maclean's prose is reportorial -- the scenes are plainly rendered and characters are rather sketchily drawn. The book is frustratingly overpopulated, so much so that it's often necessary to go back and figure out who's who in the chaotic mix of personnel. Still, this is a compelling read for anyone who's fascinated with the power of wildfire and who's also interested in how catastrophe can create a troubling level of defensiveness in an agency's ranks. As with other Forest Service fatalities, these four are blamed for their own deaths, which infuriates their families and deeply divides the Forest Service community.
Though not a beautifully written book, The Thirtymile Fire engages the reader through Maclean's careful research, his commitment to understanding the nature of fire, and particularly because of his compassion for the victims of this one.
Maclean's books are expertly written with the elegance that spare
beauty lends to carefully crafted sentences.
~ CRAIG B. JOHNSON, DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS, THE MORTON ARBORETUM
"Chain of errors" led to firefighters' deaths
By Bob Simmons, Special to The Seattle TimesJohn Maclean's narrative of the lives of the four doomed young people who died fighting Washington state's Thirtymile Fire provokes tears and anger. He provides poignant glimpses into their last days with parents and friends, then details the converging blunders that brought death to the firefighters in North Central Washington in July 2001.
"Picking apart the buildup to catastrophe often discloses a chain of errors, of little or no importance on their own," Maclean observes in The Thirtymile Fire. "When linked, however, the mistakes can become an unstoppable force, in the same way that a sliding pebble can start an avalanche."
The Thirtymile Fire looked like an easy mop-up, a series of small spot fires close by the Chewuch River (pronounced Chee-wak), north of Winthrop in Okanogan County. An asphalt highway provided easy access to the fire. The Chewuch offered plenty of water to put the fire down early.
But the ground crew's water pumps wouldn't start. A water-dipping helicopter and its pilot inconceivably sat on the ground for hours before being sent to the fire. And until it was too late, no one among the frontline crews knew they were on a dead-end road with no escape.
With the fire raging out of control, the crews were pulled back to a safe location. Then, through a maddening series of misunderstandings, they were sent back to fight it. The four young firefighters - Tom Craven, of Ellensburg; and Devin Weaver, Karen FitzPatrick and Jessica Johnson, all of the Yakima area - died after deploying their fire-resistant survival tents in a poorly chosen location, within steps of safer ground along the road and the river.
Maclean is the son of novelist Norman Maclean, author of the Western classic A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire, a nonfiction book about a deadly 1949 wildfire that John Maclean helped publish after his father's death. John Maclean has authored two other books about wildfire, Fire and Ashes and Fire on the Mountain, the story of Colorado's South Canyon Fire, which killed 14 firefighters.
John Maclean writes a painfully vivid account of the deaths. He mines the journal of a surviving firefighter, along with first-person interviews, transcripts of investigations and tapes of radio transmissions.
"He was close enough to the others to hear their heavy breathing," Maclean writes of the worst moments. "Someone screamed. Someone recited the Lord's Prayer. Someone cried out, 'I'm burning!'"
The story does not end with the fire. Maclean chronicles investigations by the Forest Service and other agencies, which produced their own peculiar bureaucratic disaster. He recounts the outrage among the parents of those killed, when the first official report blamed the victims for their own deaths. (That conclusion was changed after a second round of hearings.)
As of today, one Forest Service employee has been charged with a crime related to the fire. Incident Commander Ellreese Daniels is charged with involuntary manslaughter and perjury; the trial is scheduled to start Oct. 15 in U.S. District Court in Spokane. Daniels' shortcomings as a leader were made clear to USFS higher-ups for years, Maclean says, yet they kept Daniels on the list of those available to take charge of fighting a fire.
The Forest Service may have little time left in which to get it right. A few weeks before publication of The Thirtymile Fire, a U.N.-sponsored report on climate change predicted some of the worst fire seasons ever. Acreage burned in the West increased nearly sevenfold in the 16 years ending in 2003, compared with the previous 16 years. The report warns of worse times to come. At the same time, Congress and the Bush administration have forced the USFS to change the way it finances its operations, so that fewer dollars will be available to fight more and bigger fires.
After a disastrous 1994 season (the year the 14 firefighters died in Colorado), the Forest Service changed its regulations in order to make firefighter safety its first priority in dealing with any fire. Maclean's book raises tormenting questions about lives lost and billions spent, even with that common-sense policy already in force.
Seattle Times summer reading recommendationThe sad thing is that there still have to be books like this, books that examine tragedies that occur in the fighting of forest fires. But it is also a cause for gratitude that there are careful chroniclers like John N. Maclean of Montana, who was willing to spend five years in painstaking research to understand, in this important and illuminating book, why four young firefighters (two women, two men) perished in 2001 during a rogue wildfire in the rugged North Cascades of this state. What makes this fire tragedy book all the more fascinating is its distinct parallels to Young Men and Fire, the classic account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana written by Norman Maclean, the author's late father.
BIOGRAPHY OF A DISASTER
By Kelly Andersson, The MissoulianHumans are not supposed to outlive their children. Those who do are a species apart.
In the course of writing three books about fatal wildfires, John Maclean's gotten to know the families of too many dead firefighters.
"You can talk about closure all you want," he says, "and providing facts for them. But you're still dealing with parents who have lost their children. The human being is not supposed to be in that position. There's just no adequate emotional defense for losing your child."
John Maclean, author of two award-winning books on fatal wildfires, has written a third - this one chronicling the Thirtymile Fire that killed four young firefighters in 2001 in the Chewuch River canyon in northeast Washington.
The Thirtymile Fire initially seemed just a quick suppression effort, but it spiraled out of control into a disaster fire that killed four and badly injured several others.
The investigations were even more controversial than those of the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, culminating in federal charges against incident commander Ellreese Daniels. He was indicted on four felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of lying to investigators; his trial's scheduled to start in January in federal district court in Spokane.
The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal profiles the firefighters, events and issues that combined for the perfect set-up for a perfectly disastrous fire. Maclean documents the little mistakes and big unknowns that came together on a July afternoon exactly seven years after the South Canyon Fire killed 14 firefighters.
The book begins with detailed portrayals of the firefighters, offering background for readers to comprehend factors contributing to the set-up for catastrophe. The second section details initial attack, cataloging a series of little mistakes and big bad luck. The third section brings it all together, detailing the fire's aftermath, with the families of the victims shifting from sorrow to bitterness when official reports suggested the firefighters had ignored orders.
Maclean is both a journalist and a gifted storyteller; the character development in this book is far more in-depth than in his two previous books.
"Truly they are an unusual bunch," says Maclean; "four stories like that and they all get killed. They all had incredible life stories, and it was amazing that all four of them at that place and time died the way they did on that one fire."
Maclean cut his teeth on serious journalism with the Chicago Tribune; he spent much of his 30-year career in Washington, D.C. as a Tribune correspondent covering national and international news. But for a man whose early career was in the Midwest and the nation's capital, Maclean's still a Western boy, linked by his family's ties to Montana, where he spent much of his youth.
"I get a better view of the West being away from it," he says, "and through this work I've gotten a chance to do something about the West that I've always wanted to do - to tell its stories and, in a way, to be part of them. I had done about what I was going to do with urban journalism. I was looking for something more, and the fire story found me.
"This is the best job I've ever had."
The charges against Daniels are controversial.
"The indictment and pending trial," says Maclean, "are very troublesome. This should never have happened. He shouldn't have been in a position with that much responsibility, but if he was, then the people around him could and should have saved him. But they re-engaged the fire - with hardly any discussion, with no consideration of the consequences. And Daniels then did nothing to prepare for the worst."
Maclean doesn't like the charges of "gross negligence" in the government's case against Daniels.
"Everyone knew what he was, but they kept him on anyway for twenty-four years. But to have him alone in the dock at this point, I see as a gross injustice.
"What do you get out of this? An unpleasant chapter in the history of racism? Daniels made two horrible blunders, but indicting him doesn't solve the problem.
"Going to court for doing your job badly, when no ill intent is involved, is just wrong."