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30 Mile Criminal Prosecution, an Agency Slippery Slope
January 7, 2007

I have been agonizing over the recent criminal charges against Ellreese Daniels, the 30 Mile fire Incident Commander (IC), since I first heard about it through the media on Wednesday 12/20/06. My emotions have been on a roller coaster since that day, feeling surprise, anger and disgust, that a Agency employee, 5 Ĺ years later, could be charged with involuntary manslaughter, in the four tragic deaths on the 30 Mile Fire. Why now, 5- Ĺ years later, have these accusations surfaced?? My heart goes out to the families of Tom Craven, Devin Weaver, Jessica Johnson, and Karen Fitzpatrick, whose lives were lost July 10th, 2001, but criminal charges will not change what happened that terrible day. Since that day, the USFS has changed a lot of policies and procedures, in an attempt to prevent a reoccurrence in the future. We have checklists, pocket cards, incident organizers, changes in IC collateral duties, and a renewing of the agencies passion for firefighter safety. I am sure that everyone involved in the 30 mile fire and the fire community will always remember what happened that day, and do their best to prevent it from happening again.

I have worked for the USFS for 32+ years, all in fire, and I have seen the agency make great progress in firefighter safety. The fire environment is a very dynamic, evolving, hazardous place. It can rapidly change from a smoldering, docile fire, to a rapidly changing, explosive situation, in very short order, which requires a change of tactics, and strategies. An IC has got to make split second decisions, taking into account all sorts of variables. Sometimes hindsight tells us that maybe some of those choices were not the correct one, or maybe a variable was not picked up on, but hindsight is always 20/20. Thatís why now we do whatís called a After Action Review (AAR), so we can critique what happened on a fire, and if mistakes were made, we can learn from them to prevent them from happening in the future. We put tremendous pressure on our ICís to provide for firefighter safety, protect lives and property, be cost effective, comply with land management policies, etc, all while working in a very dangerous environment. The IC doesnít get any more money for performing these duties for the Agency, in fact it isnít even in any of our job descriptions, we do it because it a job that needs to be done, and we take great pride in our ďcan doĒ attitude.

Since 30 Mile, and the changes in policies, procedures, training requirements, re- certifications, etc, we have seen our IC ranks thinned by people that said it wasnít worth it anymore. We lost even more ICís when the Agency started saying that we should start buying professional liability insurance. Then we saw criminal charges against the Cramer Fire IC and even more ICís left the ranks. What does the Agency think will happen now that criminal charges are filed against the 30 Mile IC? If the Agency will not stand up and stop criminal prosecutions from being levied against their employees, then I suspect there will be more people that refuse to perform IC duties, or other Operation positions.

I have tried to think of an instance of criminal charges being filed in a fatal accident, either in the private of public sector, and none come to mind. Even in the loss of the space shuttle and crew, and the accident investigation pointed to numerous mistakes, no charges were filed, nobody lost their jobs, but they used it as a learning tool to prevent future accidents.

The Agency is heading down a very slippery slope in not standing up and saying, yes mistakes were made, we will strive to prevent them happening in the future, but our employee did not do anything criminal. We need to support our employees, and not let them think that the Agency will allow them to be used as a political scapegoat. We take great pride in our 98% initial attack success rate, but to continue to be able to meet that goal our ICís need to know that the Agency will stand behind them, even if a tragic accident happens on their watch.

I can only hope that our Agencies National Leadership, will take a long hard look at this situation, and come up with a strategy to support our employees on the ground that volunteer to perform these IC duties. We need to start having that dialogue now, so we can assure our ICís, that we appreciate what they do for us, and that we will stand along side of them if a tragic accident takes place.

/s/ Rod Altig
Fire Management Officer
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

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