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4 deaths blamed on ignoring rules

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YAKIMA, Wash. — Ten of the most basic firefighting safety rules were violated or disregarded when crews battled a deadly blaze in the Cascade Mountains, according to a Forest Service report.

The deaths of four firefighters trapped in the fire could have been prevented if the rules had been followed, the report said. For instance, more effort should have been made to identify escape routes or safety zones and to assess weather forecasts, according to the report.

"Almost from beginning to end, the fire potential and fire danger were underestimated," said Jim Furnish, a Forest Service deputy chief who led the nine-person investigation team.

Tom Craven, 30, Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, died from inhaling superheated air when the fire burned through an area where they had deployed their emergency heat-resistant fire shelters.

Another firefighter suffered serious burns but survived.

The fire began as an abandoned campfire July 9. At critical times, fire managers and forest personnel failed to accurately assess fire behavior, the potential for the fire to burn out of control and the flammability of the forest, the report said.

While initial aerial assessments of the fire indicated the fire "had the potential to become large," fire bosses failed to manage it as anything other than a routine, small blaze in need of mop-up, Furnish said.

The four victims were among 21 firefighters who were trapped when stiff wind stoked the blaze and it exploded from 25 acres to 2,500 acres in less than three hours.

Even though the fire blew up in the tinder-dry woods, "firefighters continued tactics that were no longer viable" — clearing firebreaks by hand as trees burned around them, breaching their fire lines, Furnish said.

As the fire changed significantly, there was no corresponding change in strategy or tactics.

Investigators also said the Forest Service should have closed a road in the area to civilians. Two campers were trapped along with the firefighters because the area was not evacuated, the report said. The couple lived because one firefighter shared her one-person fire shelter with them.

"Few of the firefighters seemed to recognize they were in a life-threatening situation," Furnish said. "There was time to prepare for deployment (of emergency fire shelters), however, little preparation occurred."

A few even took photographs as the fire bore down upon them.

The report also said fire safety equipment was improperly used, contributing to injuries. One crew member did not have gloves, and others did not wear them. Some gear left close to the emergency fire shelters ignited, and vegetation burned close to and under the shelters.

There was no indication that anyone was willfully derelict, "but in these situations ... it's very easy to be neglectful," Furnish said.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said it was too soon to say who is to blame and whether anyone should be disciplined.

Craven's widow, Evelyn, said the families were dissatisfied with the report. She said it seemed as if the Forest Service was trying to blame the victims.

"It just sounded like they were trying to pin the blame on insubordination, or negligence or disregard," she said. "We do not appreciate that."