Friday, July 20, 2007

OSHA Faults U.S. Forest Service for Firefighter Deaths

Yesterday the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its final report on the Esperanza Fire disaster that claimed the lives of an entire engine crew of five Forest Service firefighters. The L.A. Times published a story on the OSHA report, revealing that the Forest Service failed to comply with three of the Ten Standard Fire Orders and six of the 18 Watch Out Situations.

Following the criminal indictments of firefighters following the fatalities of the Thirtymile and Cramer Fires, there has been a lot of debate within the firefighting community over whether the "10 & 18" are rigid rules versus guidelines.

The Idyllwild Town Crier, the local paper of the community where most of the Esperanza victims resided, also reported on the OSHA findings:

OSHA issued six serious violations. Based on federal code, OSHA cited the Forest Service for not furnishing places and conditions of employment that were free from recognized hazards that were causing or were likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
This finding is "otherworldly," bordering on the absurd, since safety risks and health hazards are inherent to emergency wildfire suppression. Although new safety protocols, training, and cultural attitudes are reducing some the risks, firefighting will never be completely "free of hazards" that could cause death or injury. This is especially true since the environmental hazards of global warming-induced severe fire weather and extreme fire behavior conditions are getting worse.

It is comforting to hear individuals like Tom Harbour, director of Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management, declare that, "We are not going to die for property." However, this wildfire season has already experienced several near-misses, including a serious burnover that caused career-ending injuries to an engine crew trying to protect an indefensible home on the wildfire burning in the Inyo National Forest.

This harsh fact of life should be communicated repeatedly to the public and public officials: every time young people are sent to aggressively "attack" wildfires it puts their lives at risk. That risk better damn well be worth the possibility of their ultimate sacrifice. Better yet, it is time that we make proactive fire management the norm, and reactive wildfire suppression the exception.

--Lookout Lex


Post a Comment

<< Home