OSHA fines agencies, while Forest Service
says not their fault, in tragic firefighter death

   The U.S. Forest Service’s Serious Accident Investigation (SAI) team, which explored the death last summer of firefighter Anne Veseth, 20, of Moscow, found no fault with the agencies involved in fighting the fire. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association (C-PTPA) and the Forest Service $14,000 each in violations, and issued a number of citations to each agency. The citations are open for disagreement or contest from those persons or entities cited.

   Veseth had been a wildland firefighter for two years, and was part of a Forest Service crew combating the Steep Corner Fire near Headquarters. She was killed Aug. 12 when the trees surrounding her came down in a “domino effect,” and a green cedar, weakened by fire, struck her in the head.

   Veseth was lifted out of the area by one of the helicopters used to fight the fire, as the terrain was unsuited to a helicopter landing. The process of extracting her from the forest and taking her to an ambulance took two hours and 26 minutes.

   On Feb. 15 the nine-person team of SAI investigators, who were assembled the day after Veseth’s death, released a 43-page report on their findings. It said, in part, “After considerable review of the incident…the SAI Team concluded that the judgments and decisions of the firefighters involved in the Steep Corner Fire were appropriate. Firefighters performed within the leaders’ intent and scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team did not find any reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol.”

   OHSA, after conducting its own investigation into Veseth’s death, described several safety violations they discovered.

   Among these were: failing to keep crews informed of weather reports, and not knowing at all times what the fire was doing. The report also listed unsafe practices, communication problems, and failure to maintain control of workforces.

   A Forest Service hot shot crew from Flat Head, MT, left the fire the day before Veseth was killed. The crew’s superintendent claimed that firefighting conditions (managed by C-PTPA) were “extremely unsafe because of falling snags, lack of communication, lack of a command structure and mixed crews with no leadership.”

   By Aug. 12, the Forest Service reported that the hot shot crew’s concerns were being mitigated by C-PTPA.

The fatal blow

   The SAI team, via interviews, put together this narrative account of Anne Veseth’s final moments:

   ‘Snag falling!’ Kerry yells as he sees a tree across the creek falling toward them. Everyone scatters; some firefighters run downhill while Kerry and Anne run uphill.

   “A quick glance and Kerry sees it strike another tree and – believing he and Anne are in its path – yells ‘Down!’ and switches directions, running down the fireline.

   “With his fists and teeth clenched, he expects to be hit. He hears a tremendous sound as the trees crash downward and feels the whip of limbs on each side of him.

   “He falls down, but, upon realizing he is uninjured, quickly gets up and looks for Anne, who he thought had been right behind him. He finds her three or four strides uphill under the tree branches. After quickly clearing them away, he determines she did not survive.” The time was between 12:45 and 12:56 p.m.

   The tree, according to the report, fell on its own from south to north and slightly downhill. As it fell, it struck a second green cedar. Sawyers had not been working on either tree.

   The report also said: “Just after 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 12, in the moments before the accident, firefighters were focusing on a faller who was cutting down three hazard trees.

   “During the operation, a firefighter observed a tree on the opposite side of Steep Creek falling toward them. Although everyone scattered, Anne died instantly. This tragedy resulted from the chance alignment of certain conditions: an emergency response to control a wildland fire, which required the presence of firefighters in an area where fire-weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning.”

   Forest Service investigators measured 123 feet between Veseth and the stump of the 13-inch diameter tree that caused the accident.

   “The SAI team concluded that the convergence of these events – in a very specific way and with very specific timing – resulted in the fatal accident,” concluded the report.

Fire’s origins

   The Steep Corner fire started on Aug. 10. Employees of a local logging company were a month and a half into an operation on Potlatch Corporation land, located about 56 miles northeast of Orofino, and bordering the western edge of the Clearwater National Forest’s North Fork Ranger District.

   With steep slopes average 50%, loggers had to use cables to pull cut logs uphill to a landing. The fire started in the late morning, in an area of recently harvested trees and deep slash.

   Loggers immediately attempted to extinguish the fire, but upon realizing they would not be able to do so on their own, notified C-PTPA at 11:30 a.m. and requested that a helicopter drop water on the fire.

    Elevations on the fire ranged from approximately 2,600 to 4,100 feet. Elevation at the point of origin was approximately 3,500 feet.

   The fire burned a total of 310 acres in 16 days and cost $2.1 million before it was suppressed.

Danger part of the job

   “Slight differences in any number of factors could have led to drastically different results. Firefighters faced the same choice on this fire as they do on almost every fire: engage the fire and expose firefighters to a certain set of risks in order to control the fire, or don’t engage the fire and don’t control it, knowing that such a decision often poses a wider range of risks to firefighters and the public,” said the report. “Firefighters made the same basic risk decision on the Steep Corner Fire as they do routinely on most fires: to engage the fire and attempt to control it, knowing that firefighters would be exposed to hazards during suppression efforts.”

   A local fire manager, looking back on that day, stated unequivocally “I don’t think we missed anything.”

   The SAI team had this to say about the agencies they worked with during the investigation: “The Serious Accident Investigation Team thanks those employees of the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests, the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association, the Idaho Department of Lands, and Dabco, Inc., who helped with our investigation. Their willingness to share information about the Steep Corner Fire and the tragic loss of a firefighter, while difficult and emotional, provides learning opportunities and increased understanding of the event to the firefighting community.”

   Howard Weeks, C-PTPA Fire Warden, stated, “This was a very tragic loss of life and deeply impacting to all those involved. We believe the firefighters on the Steep Corner fire acted responsibly and courageously in their attempt to suppress this fire. Hazards associated with the fire that were identified by firefighters were given the highest level of concern and actions were taken to mitigate as many hazards as possible.”

   View the entire report as a PDF by clicking anywhere on this link.