The Thirtymile Fire in the North Cascade Range near the Canadian border of Washington began as a simple mop-up operation; in a few hours, a series of catastrophic errors led to the entrapment and deaths of four members of the fire crewtwo teenage girls and two young men. Each had brought order and meaning to their lives by joining the firefighting world. Then the very flames they pursued turned on them, extinguishing their lives.
Weaving together the astonishing stories told by the fire's witnesses and, later, the victims' family members and the response to the official reports, John N. Maclean creates a riveting account of the deadly Thirtymile Fire and the controversy and recriminations that raged in its aftermath.
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The Thirtymile Fire
A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal
By John N. Maclean
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Maclean Land and Tackle
All rights reserved.
You won't find any white collars here.
Don't come looking for easy cash.
We fight the fires in your lost canyons,
Faces stained by sweat and ash.
— from Storm King Angels by Chip Kiger
As Kathie FitzPatrick struggled to bring a bickering home buyer and seller to terms, she stole a glance at her watch. It was almost 5:30 PM, and once again her workday had stretched into evening. Kathie had snatched a personal moment a few hours earlier to place a cell phone call to her eighteen-year-old daughter Karen, who had just become a wild-land firefighter for the Forest Service, much against her mother's wishes. Karen had left the night before for the first big fire of her career, in the North Cascades Range in central Washington, about two hundred miles north of the FitzPatrick home in the Yakima Valley. The phone had failed to make a connection, a regular occurrence since Karen had graduated from high school the previous month, in early June, and headed for the backcountry and out of cell phone range. Kathie would try again later in the evening, when Karen might be settled in a fire camp.
Kathie put in long hours as a real estate agent, was mother to three grown-up daughters, and in what time remained led a Christian ministry to juvenile delinquents, called the Young Lions Youth Ministry Program. The social fault line for the Yakima Valley, the heart of Washington's bountiful fruit and hops industry, runs between orchard owners and their middle-class allies, and an underclass of low-paid migrant fruit pickers. The resulting high crime rate brought Kathie plenty of prospects to evangelize at the Yakima County juvenile detention facility.
Still, family was the first priority. Her youngest daughter, Karen Lee FitzPatrick, had been a tomboy until her midteens, a lanky, lantern-jawed girl with a handshake like a vise clamp. With the coming of adolescence, though, Karen had blossomed into a real dish, ladylike and elegant. What in the world had possessed the girl to become a firefighter? Kathie wondered. Firefighting was dirty, physically demanding, and dangerous, no occupation for a lady.
The callout for Karen and her Naches Ranger District fire crew, based near Yakima, had come just after midnight. They initially were assigned to the Libby South Fire, the first big blaze of the season in the North Cascades. Libby South had grown into a "major rager," likely to destroy a lot of homes and other property if not stopped or turned. That effort would take many hundreds of firefighters, as well as aircraft, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment. Ironically, the fire had been started a day earlier, on Monday, July 9, 2001, by the hot exhaust of a state vehicle on fire patrol. Confined within a narrow canyon, the flames had made a series of wind-driven runs that first afternoon, lofting from the crown of one tree to another in what became a sweeping blanket of fire. Conditions had become so extreme that smoke jumpers, the airborne troops of firefighting and the first to fight the blaze, had pulled back from their lines in late afternoon. Thankfully, no one had been injured.
Weather conditions for the area for the next day, Tuesday, July 10, were a repeat of the first day: temperatures rose into the hundreds in hot spots, and the humidity dropped toward single digits nearly everywhere, on top of three straight years of drought. Gary Bennett, a fire meteorologist assigned to the Libby South Fire, awakened that morning with an ominous feeling that something could go seriously wrong. He had opened his morning briefing at fire camp by warning, "Today will be a carbon copy of yesterday," by which he meant that firefighters should be alert for another wind-driven blowup.
Nobody missed the message. The dramatic fire runs the previous day had galvanized attention across the region. New blazes were sure to break out as well, and with the Libby South Fire grabbing attention and resources, the little fires could cause trouble if not dealt with quickly.
Indeed, a new smoke had been spotted the previous evening, Monday, July 9, not many miles to the north in the narrow Chewuch River canyon near the Canadian border. Named the Thirtymile Fire, the newcomer amounted to no more than a single thread of smoke when first observed. If it ever got going, though, it could burn out the canyon and rampage on into Canada. A local engine crew, dispatched within minutes, had driven into the canyon in the dark and found a handful of glowing spot fires spread over five or six acres along the Chewuch River, which is big enough to hold salmon.
The Thirtymile Fire should have been a mop-up operation, swiftly extinguished after being spotted early. But the fire was an elusive trickster, a grab bag of quirky moves and false signals that masked a lethal potential. Lone trees torched up or "candled" seemingly without an ignition source. Flames in the dense underbrush sent aloft streamers of embers, as though someone was shooting off fireworks left over from the Fourth of July. The glossy, fireproof look of the riverine vegetation was deceiving: the odd ember found a cozy nest in dry duff, incubated, and in time emerged as yet another darting flame or flaring tree.
The firefighters, though, had a major advantage: the Chewuch River ran right through the fire scene, providing an unlimited supply of water. During the night of Tuesday, July 10, FitzPatrick and the rest of her twenty-person crew, named the Northwest Regulars, were rerouted from the bigger Libby South Fire to deal with the smaller Thirtymile Fire. But when the Northwest Regulars reached the fire after dawn on the tenth, they encountered one problem after another simply in getting water out of the river and onto the flames: their two water pumps proved balky, and a helicopter with a water bucket wasn't dispatched to the scene in timely fashion. By midafternoon the Thirtymile Fire had grown beyond anything the Northwest Regulars — or anyone else — could control. With waves of embers crossing firelines, the whole crew sensibly pulled back to a place of safety. There, they ate lunch, napped, took out cameras, and remarked upon the ferocity of the flames only yards away.
Then almost inexplicably, with little or no discussion, the Northwest Regulars rose from their resting places and resumed fighting the fire, even as it grew in ferocity. What happened after that is the story of how a no-account wildfire in a remote corner of the Northwest cut off and trapped a group of firefighters, who were joined by two civilians who came out of nowhere. The fire gave everyone time to prepare, though the time was wasted. And then it rose in fury, took an unexpected twist, and swept to its horrific climax.
* * *
THE NORTH CASCADES Range, a world away from the damp coastal forest on the Pacific side of the mountains, is a rugged place to fight fires even during a quiet fire season. The knife-sharp ridges and steep-sided, narrow canyons, formed by a chaotic mixture of geologic events, are best visualized as gigantic ice trays, which filled with glaciers during the last Ice Age. As the glaciers began to melt roughly fifteen thousand years ago, they exposed a mosaic of geologic history that ranged from the docking of "minicontinents" with the North American continent, to volcanic eruptions, to scars from the ineluctable grinding of the ice pack. The North Cascades Range generally runs north-south but has so many unexpected twists, turns, doglegs, and dead ends, thanks to its varied geologic history, that it creates a jigsaw puzzle of baffling solution for earth scientists.
Clouds moving in from the Pacific Coast are blocked by the North Cascades and drop much of their moisture in the form of rain and snow before they clear the mountains' crest. The lack of moisture east of the crest line does not necessarily translate into a high number of fires. On the contrary, under normal circumstances there are few fires in this region because the mountains also block the lightning storms that are the most common cause of ignition for wildland fire. But because the area is dry and the terrain rugged, fires that do start can become intense and difficult to manage in a hurry. The fire staff for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, where both the Libby South and Thirtymile fires were located, was used mainly for initial attack on fires near roads; if those blazes escaped control, teams of firefighters would be called in to fight them and the local units would return to initial attack duty. If fires broke out in the backcountry, smoke jumpers or firefighters in helicopters could be dispatched, arriving by air in minutes over distances that would take hand crews many hours or even days to cover.
The Libby South Fire never gave the forest's initial attack crews a chance. Flames in the first hours were so blustery that smoke jumpers were immediately dispatched from the North Cascades Smokejumper Base nearby at Winthrop, only twenty miles away. As the jumpers stood in the open door of their airplane at 1,500 feet above the ground, ready to leap out, they were swept by waves of heat. They parachuted in and set to work. Over the next twenty-four hours, as the fire spread to 1,200 acres and threatened fifty homes, more resources were pulled in from across the Northwest. Eventually, over four hundred firefighters arrived. Forty engines rushed to the area to support hand crews and defend homes. A half-dozen airplanes and helicopters, carrying loads of water and fire retardant, buzzed overhead; the steep terrain, though, offered few targets for effective drops.
The firefighters were lucky in one way: flames had burned only a single sidewall of the containing canyon. If flames had jumped to the other side as well, a mass burnout likely would have resulted. Fire on both sides of a canyon creates a wind tunnel, which sucks in oxygen, which in turn accelerates flames. A small blaze can turn into an inferno in seconds. Indeed, on this day the thermometer climbed and moisture wicked from the air, setting the stage for just such an event. But the wind, the missing ingredient, remained calm into the afternoon.
On this Tuesday, the second day of the Libby South Fire, Tom Leuschen, a fire staffer, kept an ear cocked to the radio squawk box to monitor fire chatter around the forest. Leuschen was a fire behavior analyst based at the ranger station in Twisp, a small town located between the Libby South and Thirtymile fires. In early afternoon he was surprised by the sound of excited voices from the smaller Thirtymile Fire; it sounded like the fire was perking up, though everyone had thought it wouldn't last the day. Leuschen figured the crew might have a struggle on its hands, but then the radio chatter quieted down in midafternoon.
He turned his attention back to the draft of a forest fire plan, part of a national effort to forestall the kind of catastrophic wildfire becoming all too familiar in the West. Fires primed by drought and decades of fire suppression were scorching hundreds of thousands of acres at a whack and destroying homes by the hundreds. Every national forest has a similar plan, providing guidance on issues ranging from whether to suppress fire or use it to restore forest health. The national plan called for the deliberate burning of 40 million acres of national forest land, an area nearly the size of Wisconsin, over the first decade of the new century.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest extends over 4 million acres, and its fire plan took note of just about every one, a formidable task. But this forest had a special problem. As the hyphen implies, the Okanogan-Wenatchee had been two separate forests until merged a few years earlier in an attempt to boost efficiency. Leuschen had survived in his forest post, but the top fire management for the combined forest had been reduced by half, as redundant positions were eliminated. One sure consequence of the merger had been ongoing disruption; Leuschen had been shunted to a temporary cubbyhole in a warehouse while office spaces were being physically consolidated. He wondered if things would ever calm down enough for him to complete his part of the fire plan.
He finished his work, and as he headed for the door, a disturbing call came over the radio from the Thirtymile Fire: "Daniels and crew deployed shelters. Everybody fine." Shaking out even one fire shelter, the aluminized pup tents carried by every firefighter, automatically triggers a formal investigation of a wildfire. If Ellreese Daniels, the incident commander, and his entire crew had used theirs, as the broadcast implied, a brush with catastrophe was certain and far worse was possible — except that the radio message had ended on an upbeat note, "Everybody fine."
Leuschen looked at the office clock and marked the time: 1724 hours, or 5:24 PM, the same time that Kathie FitzPatrick, many miles away, was trying to reach her daughter Karen by cell phone. Leuschen picked up a portable radio, mounted his bicycle, and headed for home, only a few blocks away. He could stay on top of developments from there and return quickly to the office if he was needed. For many minutes after that there was near-radio silence from the Thirtymile Fire, as the furies raged in the Chewuch River canyon.
* * *
EARLY JULY IS a common time for wildland fire disasters. The woods have dried out from spring, and firefighters, their skills rusty from the off-season, face the first big blazes of the season. The South Canyon Fire, the most prominent landmark in modern wildfire history, happened on July 6, 1994, another time of drought and high temperatures. In late afternoon a sudden wind struck a sputtering fire in a narrow canyon on Storm King Mountain in west-central Colorado. The fire exploded in a scarlet-orange ball of flame, which raced a fire crew up the canyon and left fourteen of them dead. The loss branded the conscience of the fire world: firefighters on the line that day would remember forever after where they were standing, what they were doing, when they heard the news, just as the Kennedy assassination fixed in the mind of the nation a generation earlier. The South Canyon Fire, or as it became known, the Storm King tragedy was the greatest loss of life for wildland firefighters since another fire on a July 9, the Rattlesnake Fire of 1953 in northern California, which cost the lives of fifteen firefighters.
Perhaps more significant, Storm King helped inspire an era of change in wildland firefighting that continues to this day. The fire raised a host of issues, from firefighter safety and "whose fault is it?" to how to better educate the public to protect homes, structures, and themselves, to whether to fight certain fires at all. Not since the Big Blowup of 1910, which cost more than eighty lives and scorched over 3 million acres in the Northwest, had the culture of wildland firefighting undergone such a fundamental shake-up as a consequence of one fire. The lesson taken from the Big Blowup was to put out every fire as soon as it was discovered, no excuses. But with time, that policy created a legacy of overgrown forests, tightly packed with brush and small-diameter trees because they were protected from fire. In times of drought these forests became tinder-boxes, and fighting them hard became a deadly business.
After a series of multiple-fatality fires around midcentury, a host of new safety measures was put in place that began to reduce the rate of firefighter deaths. Only in the latter part of the twentieth century, however, did the understanding emerge that many fires should be allowed to burn, to enhance forest health as well as keep firefighters out of excessively dangerous situations.
After Storm King, the biggest lesson was this: when fire becomes too extreme, back off. Nothing in a lost canyon is worth a human life. And fires indeed were becoming more destructive, thanks in part to the 1910 Big Blowup but also to drought and the spread of human habitation into forests and prairies. Storm King did not invent these issues. But it brought the fire community together as one to work on them. By the time of the Thirtymile Fire, seven years later almost to the day, it was unthinkable that anything like the Storm King tragedy could happen again. And then it did.
The Thirtymile Fire was started by a neglected campfire along a dirt road in the Chewuch River canyon, a dozen miles short of the Canadian border. The canyon, a V-shaped gorge with knife-sharp ridges, is a classic North Cascades "ice tray" formation: narrow, steep-sided, and with odd twists and turns. The Chewuch River (pronounced either Chew-Wuch or Chee-wak, as in cheese whack, in keeping with an old spelling) and a dirt road share the narrow canyon bottom.
The canyon is a popular camping place. The campfire could have been started during the Fourth of July holiday and smoldered for days before escaping, or it could have been hours old; authorities never established the timing with certainty. The smoke was first spotted Monday evening, July 9, by the pilot of a Canadian lead plane, aptly called Bird Dog 8, returning to British Columbia from directing air traffic over the Libby South Fire. The pilot radioed the sighting to the Forest Service central dispatch office in Okanogan. Flames were visible on the "valley bottom next to logging road," the pilot reported at 9:26 PM, according to the dispatch log. The fire covered two hectares, the pilot estimated, or about five acres, "with two spots ahead of it."
Excerpted from The Thirtymile Fire by John N. Maclean. Copyright © 2007 Maclean Land and Tackle. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Northwest Regular No. 6 Crew List,
Sources and Acknowledgments,
Also by John N. Maclean,
About the Author,