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Tragic Wildfire Prompts New Safety Rules : Disaster: U.S. officials recommend changes after a report on a Colorado blaze that killed 14 firefighters said mistakes led to their deaths.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal authorities on Monday recommended sweeping revisions in the way wildfires are fought after reviewing a series of blunders that contributed to the deaths of 14 firefighters in a western Colorado blaze last month.

The recommendations will go into effect within 45 days and could improve safety and minimize risk to firefighters battling dozens of blazes roaring out of control across the West, Bureau of Land Management Director Mike Dombeck said at a news conference.

“We are painfully learning that mistakes were made” during the July 6 fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Dombeck said.

“Breakdowns in communication. Errors in judgment. Lack of coordination. The same sort of mistakes people make every day,” Dombeck said. “Only this time, the fuel and weather and flame magnified them, an error with deadly and tragic consequences.”

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The news conference coincided with the release of a report Monday on Colorado’s deadliest wildfire prepared by a joint U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management investigative team.

The report said fire supervisors failed to set up adequate escape routes and safety zones at the scene despite extreme fire danger because of a year of drought, low humidity and record temperatures.

It also cited a lack of communication among firefighting organizations handling the blaze, which resulted in confusion about priority-setting and availability of resources--including smoke jumpers and retardant-carrying aircraft.

In addition, the report said, problems were complicated by a “can-do” attitude on the part of both supervisors and interagency “hotshot” firefighters.

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Overall, “firefighting fundamentals were compromised during a period of extreme weather and fire behavior in a highly flammable fuel type,” the report said. “This situation, compounded by failure to provide critical fire weather and fire behavior information to the firefighters, was the primary cause of the injuries and deaths.”

The fire was sparked July 2 by lightning in a grove of trees and burned slowly until it was fanned by dry winds gusting to more than 45 m.p.h. in rough terrain near Glenwood Springs, about 180 miles west of Denver.

By July 6, a total 49 firefighters had been dispatched to the steep 7,000-foot-high ridges of Storm King Mountain. A helicopter was used for water-drops, and other aircraft dropped fire retardant.

That afternoon, slurry bombers were sent away from the fire because powerful, swirling winds at the head of a cold front posed a danger to pilots. The fire suddenly erupted, galloping around a corner and overwhelming the firefighters as they struggled up a steep ridge.

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The 14 victims died at the center of the blaze without making it into their fiberglass and aluminum emergency shelters. They perished within seconds of smoke inhalation amid heat so intense that it disintegrated some of the shields, Garfield County Coroner Trey Holt said.

The investigative team called for a management review of how all federal, state and local firefighting organizations plan and conduct operations to respond to fires from season to season.

It also requested a federal review of the National Weather Service’s red flag program, which issues warnings when conditions are imminent or occurring that are of importance to fire behavior.

According to the report, fire supervisors at Glenwood Springs found it hard to distinguish between red flags for cold fronts and high winds and those for lightning.

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However, Gary Bennett, a fire weather meteorologist for the National Weather Service, countered that “if they (fire managers) don’t know the difference (between various red flag conditions) they should not be out there.”

The team also recommended developing new guidelines for the use of the heat-repulsing emergency shelters, and training on how to locate ideal deployment sites and safety zones.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting a separate investigation--an effort that some believe will prevent accusations of a whitewash by the Forest Service and BLM, which essentially investigated their own agencies.

Some relatives of those who died in the fire responded to the findings in the report with strong emotions--and tears.

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A few miles outside of Burns, Ore., the United States and Colorado flags that once covered 22-year-old firefighter Levi Brinkley’s coffin waved at half staff in the front yard of his parents’ home.

Brinkley’s brother, Josh, 23, took the day off from fighting forest fires to read the report on the inferno that killed his brother.

“It upsets me that they are trying to blame 14 dead people,” he said. “It wasn’t their attitude that killed them. They were there because they were told to be.”

Times researcher Ann Rovin in Denver contributed to this story.

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