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Inspectors Find Unsafe Conditions Led To Firefighter's Death

Wildland firefighting has always been dangerous but new standards in the last few decades have made fatalities rare. So it was news when a 20-year-old wildland firefighter was killed six months ago in northwest Idaho. Now several government investigations into the death of Anne Veseth are coming out. The first one finds Veseth died under hazardous conditions that could have been avoided.

August 12, 2012 was a hot, dry day in Idaho's Clearwater County. Jory Mills was working the Steep Corner Fire, a blaze that had ripped through private timber land outside Orofino. Mills says the accident happened right around lunch time.

“Trees started crashing down. Everybody looked up and took off running. The trees that were falling hit a couple other trees that fell and pretty much turned into a domino thing. There was no way of knowing where any trees were going to land.”

Once the forest came to a standstill again, crews made their way through the mess to find someone pinned under a tree.

Forest Service radio traffic shows that Initially, the incident was called in as an injury. But Mills says it quickly became clear on the ground that the firefighter, named Anne Veseth, had been killed.

Safety protocols have significantly reduced the number of firefighter fatalities. But the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, says many of those protocols were not followed at the Steep Corner Fire. Inspectors found: poor communication; a lack of planning for escape routes; helicopter bucket drops without warnings to the ground crew; crews working amid numerous “hazard trees”; and a clear “potential for trees to domino.”

OSHA issued two citations for workplace safety violations to the Forest Service.

Phil Sammon is a spokesman for the Forest Service's regional office in Missoula, Mont. He says the agency is still reviewing OSHA's findings, but managers take citations very seriously.

“We’re very concerned about doing everything we can to maximize safety for our firefighters,” he says.

OSHA didn't only find fault with the Forest Service though. The fire Veseth was fighting was managed by a private entity. The Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association oversees a patchwork of state, federal, and private land, where the Potlatch timber company owns the largest share.

OSHA inspectors issued three citations to the non-profit timber association and a $14,000 fine. We were not able to reach the organization for comment.

Dick Mangan used to be a federal forester in eastern Oregon. He now runs a wildfire consulting firm in Montana. Mangan says there’s another, unofficial report that gives him pause. The day before Anne Veseth died, a hotshot firefighting crew refused to work the fire because it was too dangerous.

“Those are the folks getting down and dirty out there and recognize the immediate hazards," Mangan says. "And when they say this is not acceptable, that's a big red flag for me.”

But Jory Mills doesn't see anyone to blame. He was there when Anne Veseth died and helped pull the log off her body. Mills says Veseth worked hard and won the respect of other firefighters. He thinks of her often.

“Anytime I hear a chainsaw. See trees falling, see a pretty girl that looks like her," Mills says. "There's a lot of things that remind me of her.”

One detail the OSHA report did not pinpoint is which exact factors led to the death of Anne Veseth. The Forest Service is conducting its own set of investigations and expects to release those findings soon.

On the Web:

US Forest Service safety violation citations - OSHA
Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association citation - OSHA
Hotshot report on Steep Corner Fire - National Interagency Fire Center
Steep Corner Fire overview - InciWeb