Wildfires: 'I Didn't Want to Burn to Death': A Young Crew Stumbles into an Inferno in the Thirtymile Fire, the Most Lethal Blaze in Years

Newsweek, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Wildfires: 'I Didn't Want to Burn to Death': A Young Crew Stumbles into an Inferno in the Thirtymile Fire, the Most Lethal Blaze in Years


As giant flames danced against the Western sky, the young Forest Service firefighters waited for marching orders, hungering for a chance at heroism. It was no secret the crew wanted a piece of the big, bad blaze at Libby Creek, the ferocious fire moving toward 50 homes in the flint-dry northern Cascades. They didn't want to work some wimpy brush fire, some boring mop-up job in the middle of the lonesome Okanogan National Forest. But that was the assignment they drew. "Be patient," said Pete Soderquist, the fire-management officer who gave the orders, as he sensed disappointment. "You'll get your big fire." It was truer than anybody could know. The crew began its work along the skinny Chewuch River about an hour later. Just up the hill, horror waited.

It was a rookie-laden crew, largely native sons and daughters of Washington state--firefighters Karen FitzPatrick and Elaine Hurd, both 18, were out of high school barely a month--young people a bit smitten by the romance of a daring, even dangerous, life. "Wow!" Hurd thought to herself, as she marveled at the growing blazes. "I'm at a fire!" FitzPatrick brought along a camera, sometimes turning it around and taking pictures of herself. Matthew Rutman, 26, who applied for a firefighting job from an Internet cafe while traveling in Costa Rica, kept a diary of his impressions of the terrible beauty of a raging forest fire. But as the day wore on, the seemingly timid fires rumbled to life, and then began to roar out of control. In the end, 14 firefighters and two campers stood trapped on a dead-end road, their hopes pinned on tinfoil shelters and desperate prayers, whispered at first, then screamed in terror. "I remember praying and saying I didn't want to die," said Rebecca Welch, hailed as a hero because she let two lost and terrorized hikers, Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer, crawl inside her shelter, even though it was designed for one. "I was hoping that if I was supposed to die, I would breathe in enough carbon monoxide that I'd pass out before I burned to death. I didn't want to burn to death."

Four young firefighters died in the July 10 blaze, the Thirtymile Fire, the nation's worst forest-fire disaster since 14 firefighters were killed on Storm King Mountain in Colorado in 1994. As blazes continue to rage in the West, the tragedy of Thirtymile has brought heightened scrutiny to Forest Service firefighting efforts: is training sufficient? Are safety rules being followed? Do aggressive federal firefighting policies unwisely risk the lives of firefighters? A Forest Service investigation into Thirtymile is due out sometime after Labor Day; officials won't comment until after its release, though those closest to the scene acknowledge mistakes were made. Interviews with a dozen surviving firefighters and Forest Service officials indicate that some safety standards may have been breached. On one crucial matter, several firefighters say they were never advised by their superiors that their escape route was a dead-end road, despite rules that require notification of escape routes. Radio requests from the field--asking for helicopters to dump water on the fires--went unanswered for hours. Moreover, the case has highlighted confusion within the Forest Service over the acceptable places to deploy the aluminum and fiber-glass shelters. Those who deployed on the dirt road all survived. Those who died had deployed their shelters on a rock slope; according to Soderquist, the fire-management officer, it is difficult in such a setting to make a seal between the shelter and the ground, and keep out fiery air. Yet a Forest Service training manual states that shelters can be deployed in "wet meadows, creekbeds, swampy areas and rock slides."

Rookies accounted for more than one third of a 21-member firefighting crew at Thirtymile--not an especially youthful mix, according to Forest Service officials, who say 40 hours of training are all that's required to land a spot on the front lines. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Wildfires: 'I Didn't Want to Burn to Death': A Young Crew Stumbles into an Inferno in the Thirtymile Fire, the Most Lethal Blaze in Years
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.