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PUBLIC SAFETY : Deadly Colorado Fire Likely to Spark Reform : Despite high-tech methods and training, fighting modern-day wilderness blazes still poses risks. Strategies for better protection for crews are under review.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aside from silvery skeletons of Douglas fir silhouetted against the sky, little hint remains of the fury that once engulfed a high mountainside in the Shoshone National Forest west of here.

On a hot August afternoon in 1937, sudden winds blew a lackadaisical forest fire into an inferno. Eight men who had clambered down loose volcanic slopes in pursuit of stray embers perished when a narrow gulch--a convenient chimney for the fire--turned into their death trap.

Above them, 40 others scrambled uphill, trying desperately to escape the flames that roared like a locomotive on their heels. Seven did not make it.

In the annals of American wildfire, the 1937 Blackwater fire was among the blackest blazes of all--one of just two fires to kill at least 15 firefighters since 1933, when a brush fire in Southern California’s Griffith Park caught 25 off guard. Like many conflagrations in its wake, Blackwater triggered critical reforms in government firefighting policy.

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But despite reforms and technological advances in the six decades since, the blazes that lace Western wilderness each summer still leave no room for error. Then, untrained Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees were the victims. This time, it was 14 smoke jumpers, “hot-shot” crews and “helitackers” (who rappel from helicopters) swept up by flames and killed as they battled a routine lightning fire on July 6 near Glenwood Springs, Colo.

Investigators are now trying to tell what strategy might have saved those well-trained crews.

There were almost certainly mistakes: Firefighters apparently were not alert to a coming cold front, which may have fueled winds that whipped the blaze into its fatal rage. They posted few, if any, lookouts to watch for such blowups. They were scratching fire lines downhill, with flames beneath them--a dangerous gamble.

But like no previous blaze, last month’s fire may force government brass to rethink the fundamentals of fire policy. Americans’ propensity to build homes amid flammable brush and forests, to quash fires so that volatile fuels build up, and to then expect fire crews to serve as the buffer may bring gung-ho firefighters too close to deadly blazes.

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“We’re putting more firefighters on more lines for longer periods with a more critical need to protect structures than we ever had before,” says Gardner Ferry, fire program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Ida. “The more people you have on more lines under more critical conditions, the more often mistakes will mount up on you. It looks like that’s what we saw in Colorado.”

As teams on Storm King Mountain raced up impossibly steep slopes--brush igniting behind them--their fire shelters, radios and fire-retardant clothes were no help. It boiled down to an eerie replay of both the Blackwater fire and a 1949 blaze that claimed 13 smoke jumpers who parachuted into Mann Gulch, Mont., and then could not outpace sparks that chased them.

“I couldn’t help but think this was a lot like that Blackwater fire,” says Carl Wilson, a retired U.S. Forest Service fire behavior expert and now fire commissioner in Berkeley. “It just chilled my blood, because things were improving. I didn’t figure we could have these fires that would take 14 lives at a time anymore.”

In a study of fatal forest fires, Wilson found blazes that take lives are almost always small and innocent until wind shifts or steep topography transform them into killers. A passing cold front can twist the wind at right angles, turning what was the broad flank of a fire into a ferocious maw.

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Even the best-trained firefighters may die when they forget flames can run uphill faster than people. Those who survive often outwit blazes by dodging into burned spots already free of fuel--just the way some of the 52 attacking the Colorado fire survived.

It often takes tragic fires to spur safety reforms. Following the Blackwater fire, a review identified communication gaps, poor weather forecasts and inexperience as factors. Within two years, the Forest Service had curtailed its use of CCC recruits and the lead investigator of the Blackwater disaster had pushed for trained fire teams such as smoke jumpers and the predecessor of today’s crack hot-shot crews, who hike or parachute into rugged terrain.

After a 1956 blaze killed 11 firefighters in Southern California’s Cleveland National Forest, a panel drew up 10 safety orders for firefighters. In the wake of a 1976 Colorado blaze that burned four men, government agencies mandated that anyone stalking a wildfire carry a metallic fire shelter for temporary refuge in the face of flames.

But such last-ditch defenses may hand firefighters a false sense of security. Fire shelters ward off heat but cannot withstand direct flame. By passing them out to fire crews, asks Ben Beall of the California-Nevada-Hawaii Forest Fire Council, “are we getting ourselves in closer contact with these fires than we have to?”

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If fire teams heed basic rules--posting lookouts, assuring communication, watching weather, checking escape routes--there is no reason for tragedy, says Dave Aldrich, chief of fire training for the Forest Service. When those tenets are either overlooked or ignored, trouble brews.

With the windy front in Colorado predicted for more than a day, “there were indicators somebody didn’t see,” says Stan Palmer, safety manager at the National Interagency Fire Center. In the mad rush to defeat blazes under the noble visage of Smokey Bear, such lapses are common. During a forest fire in Idaho, Palmer warned four 20-person crews off a slope where they were building fire lines with flames behind them and smoke billowing above.

Two hours later, the hillside erupted.

“They don’t see these things,” Palmer says. “They’ve got their heads down and they’re throwing dirt.”

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With the West explosively dry this summer, firefighters may be closer to the brink than ever. “Fire behavior is so extreme that the time frames for decision-making are extremely short,” said a nationwide alert sent to fire crews after the Colorado catastrophe.

But flare-ups should be no surprise, argues Neil Sampson, chairman of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters. In March, the panel issued a report that examined the costly 1993 Los Angeles area fires and 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park and found “conditions on the land make wildfire not only highly likely but also highly unmanageable.”

Brush that burned in last fall’s Altadena fire, typically charred every 20 years or so, had accumulated for 118 years and defied control when it finally caught fire, Sampson says. The 14 young firefighters who died in Colorado were trying to extinguish chaparral that had not burned in a century.

And like the Blackwater blaze, the latest deadly fire--finally stamped out for $2 million--will not be the last. “We’re wiping out our room for maneuvering,” says Arizona State University Prof. Stephen Pyne, the nation’s top fire historian. “It’s harder to pull back to the next ridge, to not go in. We’ve put ourselves in a bind where fatalities may not be necessary, but they seem inevitable.”

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