The Beginnings

The Thirtymile FireOne 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?