Paul Linse was sitting in a motel room in Phoenix last summer, waiting to fly home to Hungry Horse, Mont., when he heard the news on television.
A Colorado wildfire had trapped and killed 14 of his colleagues.
His reaction was devastation. “Shock. Disbelief,” he said.
Between 50 and 80 wildfire experts are gathered at a workshop in Coeur d’Alene this week to analyze the July 6 tragedy on Storm King Mountain, study fire behavior and prevent future firefighting deaths.
Most of them lead hotshot crews, the elite firefighting force that moves in when a fire gets beyond the control of local crews.
In the Colorado fire, called the South Canyon fire, most of the victims were smokejumpers or hotshots. They died when winds of 50 miles per hour suddenly hit the fire and turned it into a firestorm they couldn’t outrun.
On Wednesday, a couple of hotshot crew superintendents took time from the workshop to discuss lessons learned last summer, one of the worst firefighting seasons in recent memory.
Losing 28 people to fire in one season far exceeded other recent years. The South Canyon fire was not only horrifying but, frankly, embarrassing, they said.
“It was truly our wake-up call,” said Dick Bacon, director of air, fire and aviation for the U.S. Forest Service northern region. “We’ve got to get back to work and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
With the tragedy as a backdrop, the annual workshop has a somber tone, Linse said.
After the accident, the firefighters were accused of being overzealous, contributing to a series of mistakes that lead to the tragedy.
“I’ll admit to being overzealous at times in the past. It’s a hard thing not to do, because you love your job so much,” Linse said. “But to stay alive you can’t ignore the factors that contribute to fire.”
In addition, a federal report cited lack of communication and failure to establish adequate safety routes as fatal mistakes.
Bacon and his colleagues refrained from blaming anyone or anything in particular. Human error at several levels contributed, they said.
Linse, Lang and Bacon said firefighting methods haven’t changed since the disaster. What’s changed has been an increased alertness and emphasis on age-old firefighting knowledge.
“The Panhandle forest had hundreds of thousands of hours of firefighting last season and I’m not aware of any serious accidents,” Bacon said. “A lot of it had to do with everyone paying attention to what happened in South Canyon.”
Linse said he intends to make sure the basics are “sinking in” when training his crew this spring. “I’m going to make sure they have the tools to save their lives,” he said.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Susan Drumheller Associated Press