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Report Says Lack Of Maps, Leadership Puts Firefighters In Harm's Way

Boise National Forest
This file photo shows fire crews working the Trinity Ridge Fire near Featherville, Idaho in 2012.

scathing new report by a group of veteran wildfire experts says too little has been done to improve firefighter safety since an Arizona fire killed 19 firefighters a year ago. 

The group, called Safety Matters, is asking national wildfire managers to implement a series of changes aimed at putting safety above saving property.

Federal agencies say safety is the highest priority in fighting wildland fires. But the authors of the new report say that sentiment isn't always put into practice. The group of retired Forest Service and National Park Service wildfire personnel found wildland firefighters die at a rate six times higher than other firefighters.

The 16-page report says fire managers not on the scene need to quickly help decide the plan of action when a fire does not respond to initial tactics and the firefighters on the ground should be allowed to disengage until a new plan is developed.

The report's authors also recommend that firefighters be required to carry updated maps and that an emergency protocol be established. They say the lack of a term like “mayday” created a situation in 2003 in Idaho where a crew “calmly and repeatedly inquired” when a helicopter would pick them up, until they were overrun by the fire.

The report was sent to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. The chair of the NWCG issued the following written statement:

“We cannot comment on the specifics of the report until we have carefully reviewed and analyzed it. Firefighter and public safety are the top priorities in wildfire management. All federal, state and local agencies and tribes involved in wildfire management are continuously seeking ways to enhance firefighter safety at all levels of our organizations and welcome constructive input.”

The National Interagency Fire Center has several safety measures in progress following the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013. Those measures include research into communication and weather-tracking technology, a review of fire shelters and writing new guidelines for establishing safety zones.

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.