From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Forest Service Blames Human Error for Fire Firefighter Deaths in California

Five firefighters lost their lives as a result of a California wildfire in October 2006, and the May 22 investigation report blames human error for the tragedy. Scrutiny is not stopping there. A report due out soon could reveal factors at the policy level that contributed to the tragedy. 

"The human elements are critical factors in the evaluation of this investigation," said the report on the Esperanza Fire. "A risky decision or a series of risky decisions appear to have contributed to this dangerous situation from which there was no room for error."

A 36-year-old auto mechanic is accused with starting the fire, which was spread by strong wind, and he is now charged with murder. The five firefighters and their engine were overrun by flames as they tried to protect a house in a mountain community about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze eventually charred more than 60 square miles and destroyed 34 homes. 

At a news conference about the report on May 22, reported by AP, local Forest Service Chief Forester Gail Kimbell blamed “a loss of situational awareness concerning the dangers associated with potential fire behavior … while in a complex urban wildland situation." 

The report also found that five fire engines fighting the blaze, including the one overrun by the flames, were using a radio frequency not assigned to the fire. It noted that the crew was not completely familiar with escape routes and safety zones. 

It concluded that "organizational culture" was a contributing factor, and "the decision by command officers and engine supervisors to attempt structure protection at the head of a rapidly developing fire either underestimated, accepted, and/or misjudged the risk to firefighter safety." 

Kimbell said the Forest Service is in the midst of a national evaluation of safety culture that predates the Esperanza Fire. 

One question under review is how much risk firefighters should assume to protect property. The tragedy is also expected to prompt questions about where people should be allowed to build houses. Citing a recently-released insurance report, the Associated Press (AP) notes that more than 6 million homes in California stand in wildfire "red zones" — areas defined in part by their thick brush and steep slopes — and that number is expected to grow by 20 percent in the next decade. 

Sources: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection; Associated Press.