As we prepare for the 20th Year Anniversary of the Heroic 4 during the THIRTYMILE FIRE who died in the line-of-duty while fighting this fierce firestorm that created its own fire weather and prompted the response of more than a thousand personnel and assets to put out. It would become one of notable wildfires in US History.
This is their story and the events, which unfolded on that fateful day, 20 years from Saturday’s tragic loss.
It is a difficult story to tell but it must told so that those understand their bravery, courage, dedication and most importantly, their love for the job; help prevent the deaths of future wildland firefighters and help support those who continue still fight the good fight.
The THIRTYMILE FIRE was a fire that took place near the Chewuch River in the Chewuch River Canyon, about 30 miles north of Winthrop, Washington.
Four firefighters died at the scene from the results of being forced to deploy their emergency fire shelter on a rock cliff, when fire blew over their shelters. Their cause of deaths were deemed as asphyxia due to inhalation of superheated products of combustion. One firefighter suffered serious burns and was airlifted to a Seattle (we assume HMC, which has a burn trauma center) hospital.
DEDICATION TO THE HEROIC 4
This article is dedicated to the Brave, Courageous and Heroic 4: USFS Jessica Johnson, Tom Craven, Karen Fitzpatrick and Devin Weaver.
TOM CRAVEN | Tom was an Ellensburg resident and a 13-year Fire Season Firefighter with the USFS. He was the Squad Boss at the time of the fire with the NWR #6 crew from the Naches area. (Squad 1)
JESSICA JOHNSON | Was a Yakima resident and this was her first Summer Fire Season, as a FFT1 – also from the Naches Home District. (Squad 2)
KAREN FITZPATRICK | Karen was also from Yakima and working during her first Summer Fire Season. She was a FFT2 from the Naches Home District. (Squad 1)
DEVIN WEAVER | He was the third member from Yakima and also working his very first Fire Season, as a FFT2 also from the Naches Home District. (Squad 2)
A 20-year USFS veteran Ellreese Daniels was the Fire Crew Boss (Supervisor) and Pete Kampen was the Fire Crew Boss Trainee (Tactical Manager).
DAY 1 – JULY 9, 2001
- Fire reported by Canadian Lead Plane (Bird Dog 8), heading back to home base from nearby LILBBY SOUTH FIRE.
- One main fire with two spot fires ahead.
- Burning along the Chewuch River, which is a deep canyon that has 70-100% downslopes and with difficult terrain.
- Estimated fire burning three-eight acres of heavy brush with flame lengths of two to four feet.
2300 PT-2359 PT
- One engine arrives with three firefighters (2300 PT).
- Second engines on-scene Local Type 2 Crew dispatched (2359 PT).
DAY 2 – JULY 10, 2001
0000 PT – 0130 PT
- Interagency Hot Shot Crew (IHC) arrives (0100)
- One engine leaves the fire incident (0130 PT)
- Seven spot fires covering five-to-six acres
- Two of the fires are one acre in size for both
- Type 2 Crew briefed at Ranger Station, tasked with mop-up operations
- Type 2 Crew arrives at fire incident.
- IHC leaves the fire incident for rest.
- Fire behavior becomes extreme with torching and long-range spotting.
1200 PT (Noon)
- Crews having difficulties with pumps and some hand tools breaking.
1200+ (After noon)
- IC requests additional resources, one helicopter.
- IHC re-deployed, arrived on-scene 1400 hours with less than three hours sleep.
- Fire burning through hoses and spotting over the containment line.
- IC pulls crew back to “safety zone” road.
- IC accepts that the fire has been lost.
- Type 2 Crew has joined with the IHC at the safety zone, west side of river
- Helicopter continues to make drops, returns to base for refueling from the southern edge
- Fire spreads up the east canyon walls
- It then spreads to the canyon floor
- Spots on the west wall of the canyon
- 50 acres
- Fire behavior extreme with crowning, running up the ridge
- Two engines ordered
- Two arriving engines arrive, don’t check in with the IC and start engaging with spot fires, radios for help on the roadway.
- All squads are dispatched to help the engines with spot fires along the roadway
- Fire is actively spotting and burning up to the east side of the road.
- Some firefighters drive back down the road to “safety zone”, shielding their faces as they pass through the fire.
- 100 acres.
- Fire creating its own weather, a thunderstorm over the fire line.
- All firefighters were told to leave the fire line immediately
- Firefighters in the area are faced with a wall of flames as they try to flee the area.
- Firefighters turnaround and drive up the canyon.
- 500 acres.
- Fire spread is critical with a rapid spread up the canyon.
- Roaring fire, ash and a fire snowstorm explodes into chaos, catching the crew by surprise.
- Crew becomes cutoff from their only escape route, rushing back down to the roadway.
- Eight firefighters and two civilians on the road and six firefighters on the talus slope deploy their emergency fire shelter.
- Four souls would be lost.
- Fire shelters are generally made for one person, but three people (two civilians, one firefighter).
- Two firefighters would abandon their position on the rock cree: one jumped in the river and another found safety in the crew’s van.
- Pete Kampen + Entiat IHC members arrived for the rescue operation.
- Smoke inhalation and minor burns: eight firefighters, two civilians deployed on the roadway.
- 3rd degree burns: Jason Emhoff.
An escaped picnic cooking fire.
Over 1,000 firefighters would work to bring this firestorm under control.
The fire would eventually be fully contained on July 23, 2001 and burn 9,324 acres of land.
The total cost-to-date for the fire back in 2001 was a whopping $4.5 Million Dollars. It was one of the deadliest firefighting disasters in US History since the 1984 SOUTH CANYON FIRE in Colorado, which killed 14 fighters.
The Craven Family invites the Public and Media to attend the THIRTYMILE FIRE’s 20th Year Anniversary on
Saturday, July 10, 2021, at 1700 (5pm) hours PT
Mt. Olivet Black Cemetery in Roslyn, Washington
Sources; Wikipedia, NWCG, USDA Fire Investigative Report, Craven Family and Social Media.
(c) 2021 NW Fire Blog