AUGUST 6, 2001
Environmentalism's growing body count
© 2001

Four young firefighters, ages 18-30, recently burned to death fighting a fire in a Washington state national forest. They should not have died that day.

They chose a potentially dangerous job and trained for that job. Any one of the four could have survived the Winthrop fire, and subsequently died on the job elsewhere. Those kinds of tragedies are inevitable -- "stuff happens," goes with the territory. But this tragedy was the unintended consequence of politically correct myopia, not the fire.

Thirty-year-old Tom L. Craven, 21-year-old Devin A. Weaver, 19-year-old Jessica L. Johnson and 18-year-old Karen L. Fitzpatrick died horrific deaths not as a function of insufficient luck or skill or even terrain. They died as a sacrifice to the goddess of the "Endangered Species Act" and the icons of politically correct, homogenized, incompetent, gutless, chairborne bureaucratic brain freeze.

The deeply grounded and zealous "form over substance" is more than debate points. The virulence of the Endangered Species Act is cranking up the body count.

Too often readers get sidetracked with the story du jour and the inevitable backwash generated: the OJ trial, Monica Lewinsky, the Election 2000 vote count, Gary Condit/Chandra Levy.

Martial artists call this kind of misdirection a mitsubishi (no, not the car). Imagine the Three Stooges moving a hand left ... moving the hand right ... move the hand up ... move the hand down ... pow! While Curley is looking at Moe's left hand above the floor, he gets smacked on the top of his head with Moe's right hand.

This is not the first or last time I will refer to the Endangered Species Act as an ill conceived machiavellian tool of the would-be (and apparently successful) controllers.

So how did those four kids die? Firefighters were unable to douse the fire in July because of delays in granting permission for fire-fighting helicopters to use water from nearby streams and rivers. Why? Because the waters are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Even in a for real life or death situation the envirowackos will side with some bottom-feeding mudsucker, slug or statistical anomaly.

Don't go where your mind is leading you. Resist the temptation to note that bottom-feeding mudsuckers have more courage, honor and integrity than the federal pencil pusher who refuses to allow water for fear a few fish "might" get scooped up.

Forest Service policy in the Northwest requires "special permission" before fire helicopters can dip into certain restricted rivers, lakes and streams. The fear is that the dippers could accidentally scoop up protected species of fish.

Actually a few years ago the Forest Service was flummoxed over finding a scuba diver dead in the middle of a California fire. Eventually it was determined the man was submerged off the coast when a dip bucket scooped up ocean water to drop on an out of control blaze. Apparently with the water they scooped up the scuba diver.

The House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health is also looking into allegations that environmental policy and bureaucracy were factors in the deaths. Hello? Environmental policy and bureaucracy were factors -- the key factors -- in the deaths.

According to USFS Fire Chief Dale Bosworth, under standard procedure, firefighters would have used water from the nearby Chewuch River to fight the fire and addressed any environmental violations or restrictions after the fire was extinguished. That SOP is reasonable and makes sense. If that is policy, then why did dispatch wait for approval before sending the helicopters? Bosworth said, "We get the water where we can get it and ask questions later." If that had happened, four young people would be telling stories to their kids. Instead because of some bureaucratic brain flatulence they will never make it home.

Someone in the Forest Service fatally soiled the sheets. District Commander John Newcom tried to tell Fox News last week that "the Chewuch River's population of salmon, steelhead trout and bull trout are all considered when fighting fires," but insisted helicopter permission was never delayed or denied because of the policy. Oh yeah?

Whoops! It kinda sorta depends on what the definition of "never" or "denied" is -- if we have sufficiently quantified the word "is"? See, the USFS reversed that position Tuesday with the release of a timeline (facts which contradict their preconceived opinion and spin) of events that depicts the harrowing plight of a band of very young, inexperienced firefighters waiting desperately for helicopter relief that never came.

The facts of the timeline reveal, the first team of firefighters, an elite crew, appropriately called "Hot Shots," had successfully contained what came to be known as the Thirty Mile Fire by the very early morning. They then requested a helicopter water drop at 5:30 a.m. However, they were told one would not be available until 10 a.m.

So anticipating the 10 a.m. drop, at 9 a.m., the Hot Shots were replaced with a young "mop-up" crew who were expecting the helicopter relief to arrive within the hour.

However, when the mop-up crew asked about the helicopter when it was two hours late, "the dispatch office told the crew field boss that helicopters could not be used in the area because the Chewuch River contained endangered fish."

Final permission to use Chewuch water wasn't granted until 2 p.m. The first load of helicopter water was dumped on the fire around 3 p.m., but it was too little, too late. By then the fire was out of control.

Air tankers had to be turned back an hour later and the ground crew fled on foot to the river where they deployed their survival tents. The crew was completely surrounded by the flames with no avenue for escape.

The Endangered Species Act and bureaucratic BS most certainly contributed to this tragedy. However, the real tragic flaw wasn't the ESA, or the diffident and shortsighted dispatch. The real problem was and is lack of leadership and lousy management.

Remember, USFS Fire Chief Bosworth said, firefighters would have used the Chewuch water to fight the fire and addressed any environmental violations or restrictions after the fire was extinguished. Bosworth said, "We get the water where we can get it and ask questions later." So why didn't that happen? Poor leadership and timid management.

I remember a crusty old E-8 (master sergeant) talking to a bunch of young Army lieutenants with a copy of FM22-100 (leadership manual) in his hand. "Your job will be to make decisions under stress. So make a decision. If it's right, cool. If it's wrong, you fix it. But do something when the situation demands it. Lives depend on your ability to make a decision."

Four young people died gruesome deaths because some pencil pusher was too timid to do the right thing. Even though policy dictated "get the water and then sort out what rules or restrictions were violated."

The USFS has some 'splaining to do -- things like why the intra-agency team required to approve an exemption did not convene until two hours after firefighters had been told the helicopter would be available.

Firefighters familiar with the Thirty Mile Fire are PO'd and say getting permission to dip into the Chewuch caused the delays that led to the death of their colleagues.

To a reasonable observer this tragedy seems beyond nuts. However, here's what the envirowackos think and demand of spineless bureaucrats: Edward Abbey, author of "Deep Ecology for the 21st Century," said, "We have got to share this planet with the other living creatures, and sharing means not merely preserving them in zoos or National Parks, but setting aside huge areas. Whole regions perhaps that will be free of human interference. Ideally, I would like to see certain large areas of the planet set off-limits to human entry of any kind, even aerial over flights."

So much for helicopters delivering life-saving water.