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FOLLOWUP RESPONSIBILITY & ACCOUNTABILITY ON THE CRAMER INCIDENT

FROM THEYSAID 12/16/04

Savage,

So you and some other folks think Iím opinionated. OK, Iíll own up to that. As for being long-winded, well, complex issues cannot be explained in short sound bites. But I think Iíve earned the right to voice my opinion on this site. Iíve spent most of my career as a smokejumper, rappeller, or helitack supervisor, how about you? Iíve initial attacked somewhere over 200 fires by aerial delivery, and have probably about the same amount of ground crew/engine IAs, plus years of prescribed fire experience, how about you? Iíve been chased around and humbled on a number of occasions by Salmon River fires, how about you?

Savage, maybe you need to check your own ďfactual informationĒ again. Letís discuss the statements you made about my recent posts.

1. In your first bullet, you are correct when you say that the two rappellers requested a ride out, but that is about all. You, OSHA, and anyone else who thinks that a helicopter is a safety zone, need to understand that you are barking up the wrong tree.

Yes, it would have been wonderful if everyone had picked up on the many now-apparent danger signals, if everyone had communicated known hazards flawlessly, if the helicopter had just picked up Shane and Jeff before the fire overran their position. But then, if they had, we wouldnít be having this discussion, would we?

Unfortunately, in the real world in which I work, right when you need them the most, helicopters need fuel, or a maintenance check, or a radio doesnít work, or you get a tail rotor chip light, or a hundred other things. And what eventually happened at Cramer? When H-166 finally got up to H-2, it was too smoky for it to land.

Let us stick a fork in this one, shall we? A helicopter is not a safety zone. And counting on a helicopter to swoop in and rescue you from hundred foot flames in the nick of time is not a good idea any way you cut it. If you are depending on a helicopter as your only means of escape, especially in a place like the Salmon River breaks during extreme burning conditions, then you are rolling the dice in a big way.

As a rappel spotter, I never deployed rappellers on any fire unless we had discussed a plan for LCES before they unplugged their flight helmets and left the helicopter. A safety zone is an area on the ground where you can take refuge in a worst case scenario, not a hypothetical helicopter that may never come back. And a dehydrated ceanothus brush field that has not yet been fired out is not yet a safety zone.

If I understand the Cramer report correctly between the redactions, the spotter who spotted Shane and Jeff discussed escape routes and safety zones before deploying them at H-2. My personal hunch is that Jeff and Shane did have a plan between themselves for LCES, from what Iíve heard about them they were two good hands, and I would be surprised if they had not done so.

Perhaps it was the protracted wait for The Helicopter That Would Never Arrive that distracted them from their LCES strategy. Maybe they underestimated the ability of the fire coming out of the Cache Bar drainage to rip through the scabby grass and rock just below them, just as the air attack did (not air support, Savage). Maybe they failed to appreciate that the normally non-flammable ceanothus brush would burn like gasoline under low live fuel moisture conditions.

In any case, they did misinterpret the level of threat from or react too late to the known hazard of the fire in the Cache Bar drainage. Whether some of you like it or not, in the last few minutes of Shane and Jeffís lives, there was no one who could really help them but themselves. The fact that they failed to react in a way that would allow them to survive their suddenly hellish situation doesnít make them bad firefighters, or bad people; it just makes them human, and prone to errors like the rest of us.

2. Let me see if I understand the points you tried to make in your second bullet. To start with, I think you have the positions of air support and air attack confused. Air support is the guy sucking back juices at the airport, air attack is the guy with the half full barf bag boring holes in the sky over the fire. It may not seem like much of a difference to you, but it is to them, and to me.

I donít know which Cramer report you are reading, but mine says that the Cramer air attack and helicopters working the fire were in contact with Jeff and Shane on several occasions to inform them about changing or threatening fire conditions, and the air attack was looking to help them find an escape route when they were overrun.

And all of this bad noise you are making about involuntary manslaughter and OIG and negligence and OSHA interviews makes me want to gag.

Savage, from the number of errors and odd interpolations on your post, and your reference to OSHA notes obtained through FOIA, I gather you arenít a current firefighter but a concerned family member or well intended friend. If you are, I can respect that you think you are defending Shane and Jeff, and that you are doing an honorable thing.

But I am not the enemy here, and you, RW, and others need to recognize that I have never criticized Jeff and Shaneís rappeller or faller skills or challenged their qualifications. Go back and look at my posts on Cramer starting with 12/2. That is, if you have a spare month (self-inflicted jab at the length of some of my posts).

As I tried to explain in my last post, the question that seems to be on some peopleís minds was this statement from my 12/13 post:

ďSo as long as weíre after accountability, how about firing the Salmon-Challis forest supervisor (oh, wait, he resigned), the rappel spotter, the dispatchers, the pilots (canít fire them, theyíre contractors), the ATGS, the district ranger, (canít blame the FMO, there wasnít one), the fire staff? Why stop there? How about whoever signed off Alan Hackett as an ICT3, and for that matter anyone who signed off on any of his taskbooks? And who was responsible for training Shane and Jeff, and for signing them off as rappellers and fallers?Ē

If you take that statement out of context, it sounds pretty bad. But go back and look at the preceding and following paragraphs again. I wasnít arguing for accountability for these people, I was saying to the They Said posters who were demanding accountability how useless it was to expect that firing or making criminals out of any of these people would make the rest of us safer.

Let me say this again. Those were rhetorical questions. A rhetorical question is a literary device intended to provoke thought and stimulate discussion. It is not intended to produce a real answer. To be absolutely clear about this point, I was not accusing Jeff and Shane, or anyone else, of anything.

3. As to your third bullet, Iím sorry to say it just betrays your relative lack of knowledge about human factors, rappelling and wildland firefighting in general. There are so many wrong interpretations in that statement I donít even know where to start.

Savage, if you are a friend or loved one of Shane or Jeff, I genuinely do not want to add more pain to your loss. But I am not going to sit back and take misguided shots at my character. Whatever Jeff and Shane were to you, to me, they were brothers, even if we had never met. They were brother rappellers and wildland firefighters, and I respect and honor them in the same way that I respect and honor all of the other wildland firefighters who have died in the line of duty. It saddens me when I think how many there have been during my career.

I know what my own motives are for taking an interest in what happened at Cramer, and I think Jeff and Shane would support me if they were here. It is the reason we perform After Action Reviews: if there is anything good that can be gained from this tragedy, it is to learn something that will help keep other firefighters safe on future fires. And in order to do that, we need to look down every avenue, and to get beyond talking about WHO was wrong and start talking about WHAT went wrong, and WHY it went wrong.

Ab, this seems to be a habit for me lately. I didnít mean for this to become some long diatribe on the state of modern wildland firefighting but it seems to be turning out that way.

Happy holidays to everyone,

Misery Whip

Links to Misery Whip's posts of
12/13/04 and
12/2/04

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