Staff Ride to the Thirtymile Fire
On July 10, 2001, fourteen members of the Northwest Regular Crew #6, along with two civilians were entrapped by the flames of the Thirtymile Fire in the Chewuch River Canyon on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest, Methow Valley Ranger District.
The crew had been constructing direct fireline in the canyon during the late morning and early afternoon hours. Late in the afternoon, the crew was attempting to control spot fires located east of the Chewuch River. Within minutes they were cut off from their escape route when flames rushed up the Chewuch River drainage. The area was enduring a lengthy drought and moisture levels in large fuels were very low. Energy Release Component was near historic high levels for this time of year.
After being cut off from their escape route the crew moved up the canyon into an extensive rock scree field, where they were later joined by two civilians. This location was later overrun by a rolling wave of heat, fire, smoke, and wind. Eight of the crew deployed their shelters on the road. The two civilians took shelter with one of the crewmembers. Six of the crew deployed their shelters in the rock scree. Four of the six who deployed shelters in this rock scree field died and one crewmember was severely burned.
Much of the knowledge gained about wildland fire has come through the high cost of firefighter fatalities. Lessons learned from the Thirtymile Fire have resulted in better leadership training and increased emphasis on extended attack fire operations.
The Thirty Mile Fire Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:
- Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service at NIFC
- Troy Corn - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- Sue Curd - Bureau of Land Management, National Wildfire Coordinating Group
- Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management at NIFC
- Bruce Keleman - Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests
- Lori Messenger - U.S. Forest Service Region 1
- Jim Payne - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- Elton Thomas - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management, National Wildfire Coordinating Group
- Chuck Whitlock - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- Jerry Williams - Bureau of Land Management (retired)
Special thanks to the following individuals for their interviews and insights regarding the Thirtymile Fire.
- Marshall Brown - U.S. Forest Service - Entiat Hotshots
- Kyle Cannon - U.S. Forest Service - Entiat Hotshots
- Jason Emhoff - U.S. Forest Service - Wenatchee Valley Rappellers
- Gabe Jasso - U.S. Forest Service - Wenatchee Valley Ranger District
- Tom Leuschen - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- John Newcom - U.S. Forest Service - Methow Valley Ranger District
- Sonny O'Neal - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- Matthew Ruttman - U.S. Forest Service - Wenatchee Valley Ranger District
- Pete Soderquist - U.S. Forest Service - Methow Valley Ranger District
- Thom Taylor - U.S. Forest Service - Wenatchee Valley Ranger District
Google Earth fly-around animation for the Thirtymile area.
*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.
Documents and Publications:
- News Release for IC's Plea Agreement (May 2008)
- Thirtymile Fire Investigation Report
- Thirtymile Fire Investigation Executive Summary
- Thirtymile Fire Management Evaluation Report
- Methow Valley Ranger District response to the investigation
- Okanogan Dispatch Center response to the investigation
- Letter from Chief of the Forest Service citing operational changes
- Letter from Okanogon-Wenatchee Forest Supervisor
- Letter from Chief of the Forest Service to reexamine the investigation
- Thirtymile Fire edition of Fire Management Today
- "The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal" by John N. Maclean, Holt Paperbacks, 2006.
- Collection of personal account articles:
Local Contact Information
Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests
215 Melody Lane
Wenatchee, Washington 98801
Phone (509) 664-9200
Methow Valley Ranger District
24 West Chewuch Road
Winthrop, Washington 98862
Phone (509) 996-4003
A local initial attack force of three people arrived at the Thirtymile Fire at 2300 on July 9th, 2001. They estimated the fire was burning in three to eight acres of heavy brush in the flat bottom of a steep canyon that ran north and south - primarily spruce, alder, and aspen. The flame lengths were estimated at two to four feet, despite it being night and the vegetation appearing very green. The firefighters could see two spots on the east side of the Chewuch River, one near the river and another that was burning actively close to the east slope, where the fuel changed quickly to fir and pine.
Aerial view orientation of Chewuch River drainage indicating key reference points.
The initial attack Incident Commander thought the fire would grow and unless they could get water on the fire their efforts would be useless. He requested two engines, a Mark III pump, hoses, and at least a 10-person crew. Engine #704 arrived at the fire about 15 minutes before midnight. At about midnight dispatch asked if the fire could be let go until the morning, and the IC responded the fire needed "to be taken care of tonight because if it hits that slope it is going to the ridge top." They didn't think they had enough people to be effective, so they held at the road to wait for additional resources.
The Entiat Hotshots were then dispatched to the Thirtymile Fire. They had driven all day from a fire near Spokane and had just bedded down to sleep for the night near Twisp. They arrived at the Thirtymile Fire around 0100 on July 10th, along with a pick-up truck carrying a Mark III pump and over 1,000 feet of hose. The Entiat Superintendent, Marshall Brown, took over the position of IC.
Although the former IC offered pump support, the Entiat Superintendent felt it was not necessary. As a result, the three-person initial attack crew, Engine #704, and the pick-up truck departed at 0130. The Entiat Hotshots then began work on the Thirtymile Fire after a briefing. The hotshots spent the early morning cutting line.
See the travel map, above.
See the orthophoto map with NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown, above.
See the topo map for the Chewuch River, above.
Entiat Hotshot Crew, during early morning hours on July 10, 2001, crossing the Chewuch River to work on spot fires after completing hand line construction on the west side of the river.
Fire behavior on the east side of the Chewuch River during morning hours on July 10, 2001.
The Northwest Regular Crew #6 and the District FMO arrived at the fire just after 0900 and the leaders met with the Entiat Superintendent. The FMO told Northwest Regular's Crew Boss Ellreese Daniels and Crew Boss Trainee Pete Kampen that the spot weather forecast was issued the evening before for the 1,000 acres Libby South Fire (located 50 miles south of Thirtymile Fire) had indicated low relative humidity, high temperatures, a wind event predicted greater than 10 m.p.h., and that the "fuel type was a trigger for fire behavior."
The Entiat Hotshots provided a GPS map of the hotspots. Mostly the fire was still a batch of spots at this time. The hotshots showed the Regulars the log they had used for crossing the river. All overhead present agreed the priority this morning should be given to two spot fires on the east side of the river. The FMO told the Regulars that they could expect support from Helicopter 13N for bucket work.
Crew Boss Daniels took over as IC with Kampen running the crew. The FMO said two local engines could be available and two pumps with plenty of hose and hardware were already delivered to the fire. The Entiat Hotshots departed to get some much-needed rest.
The Crew Boss Trainee directed the crew to set up the pumps and cross the log to the east side of the river. At about 1100 they had water to the fire and were digging line around it. By noon, the crew was having equipment problems. They couldn't keep the two pumps running and had broken four pulaskis during line construction. An increase in fire activity and lack of progress caused the Crew Boss Trainee to reassess his tactics and make some changes. He decided to send the crew to pinch the head of the fire. He called the pump operator away to dig line. Line construction was difficult with a lot of roots. Some crew members realized digging line in front of the fire was a "watch out" situation.
At 1208 the IC requested Helicopter 13N be launched, and 20 minutes later ordered additional crews from dispatch. He considered it unusual for green foliage to be burning as it was this early in the summer. In response to the IC's request for additional crews, the Entiat Hotshots returned to the fire at 1400, after only 2 ½ hours of rest.
At 1400 the IC pulled the crew member who had been serving as lookout off her post. The fire behavior had further intensified and he realized she would have poor access to the escape route. She was reassigned back to her squad. At this time, it was decided Air Attack would become the lookout for the Thirtymile Fire.
At 1427 Air Attack requested two engines. Engines #701 and #704 were dispatched to the fire. The supervisor of Engine #701 informed Engine #704 and three firefighters in a chase vehicle that their assignment was to keep the fire east of the road as per dispatch directions. At 1438 Helicopter 13N departed for the fire and began making water drops on small spots at the south edge of the fire.
At 1500 the Northwest Regular #6 Crew pulled back to the lunch spot. There they joined the Entiat Hotshots, and everyone ate lunch, rested, watered, and sharpened their tools. At about this same time, the District AFMO arrived on scene to speak with the IC about whether or not he was still comfortable with the IC role. Crew Boss Daniels said he was comfortable and remained the IC. At this time, the tanker Air Attack ordered a half-hour earlier showed up over the fire. The IC ordered two more tankers. Between tankers running out of time and the fire growing too large for them to be effective, only a couple loads of retardant were ever dropped.
Air Attack reported at 1520 that the fire had reached about 50 acres, was crowning and headed for the eastern ridge. Within 15 minutes the fire grew to 100 acres and had nearly hit the ridge top.
See the Entiat Hotshot's briefing map showing spot fire locations, above.
The log near the Lunch Spot where crews crossed the Chewuch River. This is also the site where pump operations were set up
Fire behavior on the east side of the Chewuch River during early afternoon hours on July 10, 2001.
Entiat Hotshot Crew at the Lunch Spot after returning to the fire at approximately 1400 hours on July 10, 2001. Note fire behavior on the east side of the Chewuch River.
Around 1530 both engines, #701 and #704 arrived at the fire, and drove past the Entiat Hotshots and the Northwest Regular #6 Crew where they are eating lunch beside the road. Neither engine checked in with the IC (or anyone else) for a briefing.
A few minutes later the IC received a call from the Engine #701 supervisor, asking for help with a spot up ahead on the east side of the road. The engine folks considered the spots to be "rather small at this time." The IC decided, after conferring with his Crew Boss Trainee, to send a squad up to support the engine.
The Crew Boss Trainee for Northwest Regulars dropped the IC and the Northwest Regular Squad 1 (Tom Craven's squad) off at Engine #701. The Crew Boss Trainee then returned to the lunch spot with the van. A few minutes later Thom Taylor, the Squad 2 Boss, was told by the Crew Boss Trainee to drive his squad up to support the engines.
When Squad 2 reached the first engine, Engine #704, they were told their help was not needed. They continued up the road to Engine #701 (where Squad 1 was already working on the spot). Just after Squad 2 arrived, Engine #701 left to work some spots further south (back down) along the road. The two squads remained working spots about 100 feet to the east of the road, and about a quarter of a mile farther up the road from where Engine #704 had been working
Squad 3 was then called to support Engine #704. Within 2 minutes of arriving at the location of Engine #704, they were ordered back in the van. The fire was actively spotting and had moved up to the east side of the road. They quickly drove back down the road to the lunch spot. Crewmembers from the Northwest Regular's Squad 3 had to shield their faces from the intense heat as they drove past the fire.
At 1634, as Squad 3 retreated, The Crew Boss Trainee and others radioed the IC to get people out of the area. The crewmembers from Squads 1 and 2 dropped their gear and nine of them jumped into the van, with the IC driving. The other four begin running down the road. As the IC drove the van down the road, he saw a "wall of flames," and knew he had been cut off from the only escape route they had planned. Four people were still behind them on the road. The IC quickly turned the van around, went back and picked up the other crewmembers and the crew gear. They drove north evaluating their options as they went.
See the fire progression map from the Thirtymile Fire Investigation Report, above.
Fire breaching the road, entrapping Northwest Regular #6 Crew on the other side of the flaming front. This view is looking up the canyon with the Entiat Hotshot Crew vehicles and a Methow Valley Ranger District engine in the foreground.
View from Winthrop of the Thirtymile Fire column during the entrapment. Note split column and lenticular clouds developing between the two columns.
Aerial view of the fire taken by the Air Attack at the approximate time of entrapment.
As the van drove north the IC talked with Air Attack to identify a good safety zone site. The IC selected the fourth possible site they considered as the best place he thought they could safely watch the fire pass by. It was characterized by extensive rock scree above and west of the road. The Chewuch River and a sand bar were just east of the road. There was relatively sparse forest vegetation in the surrounding area. The scree slope consisted of a jumble of six-inch to six-foot diameter rocks interspersed with woody debris and duff.
The IC and the crew members unloaded and began to congregate on and above the road as they watched the fire. There was no formal briefing given concerning possible deployment. People began to wander around and take pictures of the advancing fire and growing smoke column. Squad Leader Taylor made a few suggestions about possible places to deploy and about having the sawyers cut down some trees, but the IC didn't think it was necessary. So instead Squad Leader Taylor went up onto the rockslide to see what he thought about using it for a deployment site. One of his crew members followed him.
They decided there was too much vegetation among the rocks, and they turned to head back down to the road. They met five other crew members from the same Naches district that had also gone a little ways above the road into the rocks. Several times the IC tried to tell the people on the rocks to come down to the road, but only one person, crew member Rebecca Welch, followed his directions.
At 1700 and Air Attack reported the fire is over 500 acres and moving up the east canyon slope. At about the same time, two civilians arrived at the entrapment site after having driven up the road earlier in the afternoon. At 1724 the behavior of the fire changed dramatically. The crew was completely surprised as suddenly the fire was "coming very fast, roaring," towards them.
Despite the lack of forest vegetation and brush near the crew, the intensity of the fire overwhelmed the area and the crew. They were not in a heightened state of readiness. Shelter deployment was no longer optional. The IC directed the crew members to "get your shelters out and use against the ash" to protect them from falling embers. Very quickly after that, he told the crew members on the road to deploy.
Aerial view looking down the Chewuch River drainage at the entrapment site. Arrows indicate the two different locations where firefighters deployed their fire shelters.
Flame front approaching just below the tree line on the east side of Chewuch River. Note the numerous white exposure dots from the heavy ember shower. Photo was taken by a crewmember on NWR # 6 just before deployment.
Entiat Hotshot Superintendent and Squad Leader (EMT) at the entrapment site during rescue operations. The road bed and the river sand bar below the road (to the left in this view) were the locations where surviving firefighters deployed their fire shelters.
This rock scree slope above the road was the location where the four firefighter fatalities occurred. Two other firefighters who were initially in the rocks moved down toward the road and river during the entrapment. Note the variable size of the rocks and the impact this could have on the ability to move and the ability to get into a fire shelter.
Thirtymile Fire Memorial located at the entrapment site.