Misery Whip's analysis below rebuts the contention that
Ellreese was lying:
Hindsight Bias and Conflicting Witness Statements in the 30 Mile Tragedy
December 31, 2006
Don’t look now, but your hindsight bias is
showing. You seem to have fallen for Agent Parker’s still very UNPROVEN
assertions that Ellreese lied about his actions at Thirtymile, so
therefore was guilty of trying to hide his own mistakes that contributed
to the fatalities. I think there is a far more plausible and less
sinister answer as to why there are conflicts among the Thirtymile
firefighters witness statements.
You could start by putting events in their proper context.
Don’t forget that NWR Crew 6 crewpersons had all worked the previous
day, had maybe a couple of hours of rest, then traveled the rest of the
night and worked all day on a tough fire. The investigation report
equated their sleep-deprived condition to a .10 blood alcohol level, or
legally drunk. How reliable do you think ANY of the firefighters
statements are given that what they were seeing and hearing was filtered
through their handicapped mental state?
You (and Agent Parker) ought to know better than to expect everyone’s
witness statements to exactly line up following a traumatic event such
as this. I actually find it remarkable that there are so many statements
within the criminal complaint that corroborate Ellreese’s version of
Witness statements acknowledge that Ellreese yelled and gestured at one
firefighter to come down, that Ellreese expressed to other firefighters
that the road was probably the best place to be, that Ellreese told
firefighters to get shelters out and to “cover your buddies,” etc.
The criminal complaint cherrypicked the evidence against Ellreese to
attempt to portray that he had a careless indifference to safety. When
viewed in totality, the Thirtymile Fire Investigation Report reveals
that significant management failures outside of Ellreese’s control also
contributed to the overall outcome. The complaint makes it seem as
though only Ellreese made errors in judgment. And there is a large
difference between being carelessly indifferent to the safety of others
and making honest errors in judgment.
The Thirty Mile abatement plan is a laundry list of admitted management
failures. For instance, work-rest guidelines were revised because of
Thirtymile. Working at the time under the old rules, Ellreese and crew
were attempting to make important decisions in a sleep-deprived state
that would have severely impaired their abilities to maintain good
situational awareness and make good decisions.
Another post Thirtymile management change is the restriction that
personnel cannot simultaneously be a crew boss and IC. That sort of
“duty shifting” of roles was common before Thirtymile, and was found to
be a contributing factor in this case. The fact that he was essentially
pressured into accepting simultaneous roles as ICT3/CRWB/trainer cannot
be construed as Ellreese’s failure, this was a management failure.
The complaint reveals a blatant hindsight bias in its interpretation of
events. The “Lessons from the Thirtymile Fire” training program was
created in response to the Thirtymile Abatement Plan’s mandate to share
lessons learned from this incident. Entrapment Avoidance training and
entrapment reaction drills only came about after Thirtymile. Again,
these programs were developed after recognition that this area was
lacking before Thirtymile.
Post-Thirtymile Fireline Leadership training and post-Cramer ICT3
simulation evaluations are additional belated acknowledgements that
agencies had also previously neglected teaching basic leadership and
communication concepts. Ellreese and company did not have the benefit of
hindsight and leadership training/evaluation specifically designed to
help improve leadership and communications during stressful
circumstances like entrapments.
The complaint undercuts its own case throughout with statements meant to
bolster the prosecution’s interpretation that Ellreese lied to cover his
failings. I saw many indications that Ellreese did attempt to
communicate with the people on the rocks and expressed concern that
everyone would be better off on the road. Ellreese is a very soft spoken
individual and does not have a forceful personality. I very much believe
that in his own mind, he feels he did these things.
Remember, this was an extremely sleep-deprived person who was dealing
with a troublesome fire and some strong-willed individuals in his
charge. The other crewmembers were also sleep deprived and distracted by
fear and side-events, so their attention span and memory of what
actually transpired is also suspect. And even though the firefighters
had been watching the fire advance up canyon toward them, everyone at
the upper site was surprised by the suddenness and severity of the
Errors in judgment should not be construed as indicators of carelessness
or bad character. When you take into account that many of the key
players were operating under a severe sleep deficit and experiencing
extreme stress, it is not surprising that errors were made and that
people have different recollections of specific events.
At the time of the Thirtymile Fire, no training or method existed for
helping firefighters determine the size and location of safety zones in
various fuel and terrain conditions, and which locations might be
especially vulnerable to firewhirls and convective heat and/or gases.
The guidelines in the Interagency Response Pocket Guide are for radiant
heat only. How can Ellreese be faulted for not being able to predict
something that fire behavior experts still are unable to define? The
effects and range of convective gases and heat in relation to
determining safety zone size and location is still largely guesswork
based on experience. And as we saw again this past summer, firewhirls
can emerge from nowhere and rapidly cross open ground independently from
the main fire.
Although the Interagency Response Pocket Guide contains safety zone size
specifications for protection from radiant heat, guidelines for
protection from convective gas/heat and firewhirls still do not exist
today. The firefighters at Thirtymile undoubtedly experienced an unusual
fire phenomena that is still not completely understood.
After the entrapment, Ellreese’s biggest error was underestimating how
severely the down canyon crownfire would impact their location, and
consequently failing to make deployment preparations. Once the situation
became deadly, there was really no opportunity for Ellreese to direct
the actions of firefighters and civilians. People simply reacted
wherever they were when the heat wave struck and deployed.
I still have an unforgettable memory from my first visit to the
Thirtymile fatality site. As I looked around, I realized that had I been
in their place, I very likely would have determined that anywhere in the
general van/road/rock scree area would be survivable without a shelter.
And so I very well might have made the same judgment as Ellreese, that
the fire would not heavily impact them and so would also have been
I wouldn’t make the same choice today if I was caught in a similar
situation. Based on what I learned from Thirtymile, I would prep for the
worst and get everyone ready for a shelter deployment. But I have the
benefit of hindsight.
aerial photo of
Thirtymile fatality site
Also good is this Lessons Learned training from MTDC: