Thirtymile Book

FILE — Kathy Pipkin, a resources unit leader helping the fight against the Farewell Creek Fire, walks away July 20, 2003, near Winthrop, Wash., from the memorial site which marks where four firefighters died on July 10, 2001 while fighting the Thirtymile Fire.

By any measure, wildland firefighting is dangerous business.

Armed with hoses, shovels, pickaxes and chainsaws, the men and women of wildland fire crews work to contain one of nature’s most unpredictable forces: fire. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s dangerous work.

But the Thirtymile Fire, which burned 20 years ago this week north of Winthrop, was not the best of circumstances. High heat, low humidity and rugged terrain combined with a chain of human errors that cost four local firefighters their lives on a rock-covered slope.

The fire, burning in Chewuch Canyon 150 miles north of Yakima, started with a picnicker’s unattended campfire on July 9, 2001. Initially, the fire was 3 to 8 acres in size just north of the Chewuch River. But drought conditions and high heat created the potential for a much larger fire if it hit the heavily forested south slope of the canyon.

One of the first incident commanders on the scene warned that the fire had to be controlled that night, or it would hit the slope and go straight up the ridge.

Traveling through the night were the 21 members of the Northwest Regular No. 6 Type 2 fire crew, who arrived at 9 a.m. July 10. Among them were Tommy Lee Craven, 30, of Roslyn; Karen FitzPatrick 18, Devin Weaver, 21, and Jessica Johnson, 19, all of Yakima.

Craven was a veteran U.S. Forest Service firefighter known as “Big Poppa.”

Weaver had enrolled at the University of Washington for the coming fall semester, planning to do graduate study in engineering.

Johnson was majoring in Food Science and Nutrition at Central Washington University and was also a volunteer firefighter with the West Valley Fire Department.

FitzPatrick graduated from West Valley High School a month earlier and planned to enroll in Yakima Valley College in the fall to study fire science; she aspired to become an EMT.

When the crew arrived on scene, some of them had less than three hours of sleep, which would become a factor in the tragedy that would befall them later that day. They went to the fire line at 9:30 a.m., relieving a hotshot crew that had worked through the night, assured that it was a “mop-up show.”

But they started having problems. The pumps supplying water were not working as they should, and hoses were bursting. Also, four of their Pulaskis, a pickaxe-like tool used for digging handlines, broke.

While the crew had a boss, he had delegated leadership to a trainee. By noon, conditions were getting worse, as trees began burning in their tops and fires were crossing containment lines.

The trainee ordered a change in tactics, abandoning the pumps and having the crew dig a containment line ahead of the fire, scrapping down to mineral soil to prevent the fire from taking hold. He also asked for additional crews and a helicopter to start dropping water.

Another crew arrived, as did a helicopter two hours later.

The crew boss, Ellreese N. Daniels, took back command but removed the lone lookout, instead relying on an airplane to monitor the fire. However, smoke reduced visibility, making it less effective.

At 2:50 p.m., the worst-case scenario became a reality: The fire hit the forested slope and took off at a rate of 710 feet per hour, burning through 50 acres in a half hour. As the fire spread through the treetops, it quickly doubled in size.

By 4:30 p.m., the fire swept back across the river and was threatening to cross the road that was the crew’s only escape route. An order was given for the crews to pull out, but for the Northwest Regulars, it was too late.

While one crew van made it out, the second found the road closed by a wall of fire, trapping 14 firefighters, who retreated back to find a place to ride out the fire with fire shelters. They found a bend in a river near a rocky slope.

They were joined by a couple from Thorp, Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer. They had gone up the canyon road to a campsite, but were fleeing the fire when they found the firefighters.

Rather than prepare the area for the coming firestorm, the crew instead took pictures, smoked cigarettes and wrote in their journals, reports said.

Daniels, Craven, FitzPatrick, Weaver, Johnson and another firefighter went up on the rocky slope, to keep an eye on the fire, while another leader assessed the area for deployment of fire shelters, a device that firefighters use in a last-ditch effort to protect themselves from an oncoming fire.

The shelters, just big enough for one person who has to hold it tight against the ground from inside, were designed to withstand heat up to 600 degrees.

Down on the road, nobody offered the Hagameyers any protective gear or shelters, or even showed them how to use one.

Just before 5:24, the sky turned dark and embers began falling and a plume of hot gas bore down on them. The firefighters deployed their shelters, with firefighter Rebecca Welch taking the Hagemeyers inside her own.

Daniels and the others deployed their shelters on the hillside. A couple minutes after the fire passed, Daniels and another firefighter got out of their shelters and went down hill, Daniels to the river and the other firefighter taking shelter from the heat behind some rocks and then inside the crew van, which had survived with minor damage.

The eight firefighters who took shelter on the road, along with the Hagemeyers, survived, but there were four unaccounted for. Later, rescue crews would find Craven, FitzPatrick, Weaver and Johnson dead in their shelters, some of which appeared to have suffered heat damage.

They died when they inhaled superheated gases that had got inside the shelters, which could not be properly sealed on the rocky terrain.

By the time the fire was over, 9,300 acres had burned.

Investigations by the Yakima Herald-Republic and later the U.S. Forest Service found that multiple mistakes were made. All 10 standard firefighting orders were violated, as well as 10 out of 18 “watch out” situations.

Among the failures were not giving firefighters adequate rest, which impaired their ability to make decisions; failure to keep a lookout on the fire; not planning escape routes; not keeping the crew together when deploying the shelters; inadequate personal protection gear; and communications breakdowns.

It was also noted that the road going into the canyon was supposed to be closed earlier, which would have kept the Hagemeyers out of the canyon and not put them in danger.

Daniels was charged in U.S. District Court in Spokane with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making false statements to investigators. As part of a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to investigators.

He served six months on work release.

A memorial to the four was erected on the hillside where they died.

Craven’s family also built a monument to the four in Roslyn.

It Happened here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at Sources for this week’s column include the U.S. Forest Service and the archives of the Yakima Herald-Republic.

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