Nothing in the history of the Forest Service has more of an emotional impact on the agency than the deaths of multiple firefighters burned in the fires they are trying to suppress. The sudden end to such young lives while performing heroic deeds can shake the agency to its core. Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas says that the worst day of his professional life was when 14 firefighters were killed in a 1994 Colorado fire.
But as traumatic as fire-related deaths are, a bureaucracy is driven by dollars, not emotion. Since the Forest Service’s dollars come from the top, it seems to be unable to learn the lessons being taught by deaths at the bottom.
In July, 2001, some unknown campers failed to put out their fire after grilling some hot dogs in northern Washington’s Okanogan National Forest. The fire was spotted creeping through the grasses of the Chewuch River Research Natural Area on the evening of July 9, and an elite “hotshot” crew was dispatched to put it out.
The next morning, a rookie-laden “regular” crew was sent out for what was supposed to be routine mop-up operations. But the fire blew up and killed four of the firefighters, two of them teenage girls.
The Thirtymile Fire burns over the location of fourteen firefighters trapped up a dead-end road.
The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal is John MacLean’s account of the fire and its aftermath. MacLean is the son of Norman MacLean, who wrote A River Runs Through It. John edited Norman’s posthumously-published book, Young Men and Fire, and has written two other books on fire, most notably Fire on the Mountain, which is about the 1994 fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado.