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Firefighter's Death Underscores Need For Promise Of Swift Evacuation From Fire Lines
Homer. The writings of Sun Tzu, a 6th-century Chinese military strategist. Midnight walks through Rome after a night at the opera.
These are hints of who Andrew "Andy" Palmer was at just 18, an age of transition in life, a point where youth transforms to adult and begins to chart a path through life. For Andy, fighting fires in the thick forests of Olympic National Park and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest was only to be a brief interlude before he settled into his path. Instead, a short time after he strolled through Rome with an aunt, and just a month before he was to embark on classwork at Montana State University, he was struck down on the fire lines of northern California, his life unfinished.
Andy was the youngest of three brothers. Rob, the oldest, also had worked as a seasonal firefighter at Olympic National Park, while Henry went to sea, working as a third mate in the Merchant Marine. With an eye on entering college in the fall of 2008, Andy followed Rob onto the fire lines, and even found himself teamed with some firefighters who had worked side-by-side with his brother and who had become family friends. His too-short life ended on July 25, 2008, when a crewmate's mistake toppled a tree onto him.
Over the course of a year an investigation pieced together a 115-page report that painstakingly detailed the missteps that led to his death. While the thoroughness of the investigation was applauded by Andy's family, it fell far short of assuaging their loss.
“There’s no closure," Janet Palmer, Andy's mom, said last week. "The report brings up the lessons to be done. I just don’t know what closure is. Personally, what is closure? There isn’t closure. You know, you go through a holiday and that elephant that’s supposed to be in the room isn’t there. The pain doesn’t go away. You pull out the Christmas stockings, what do you do with Andy’s? Do you put it up on the fireplace, or do you leave it in storage? What is closure?
“And yet, are we going to crawl into a black hole and stay there the rest of our lives?" she continued. "No. That doesn’t serve Andy well. And in my heart I cannot believe that he would want that for us. He would want us to live our lives, and to see beauty and to see happiness, and to find peace in our hearts.”
At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Andy was a high school football star, a bear of a young man, a Big Brother. Firefighting is a young man's job, and Andy's strength and physique he was well-suited for it. But beneath that sheer physical bigness was evidence of an old-world romantic and a thinker who didn't simply take a role in life, but who wondered about the intricacies of life.
“It was just a summer job," Mrs. Palmer said of her youngest son's choice to join the National Park Service as a firefighter just four days after graduating from Port Townsend High. "He did not have a specific goal in mind, but I think engineering was the love of his life. Mechanical engineering. He had been accepted at Montana State University, he was going to go there in the fall.
"He’s also the kind of kid who went to Europe with my sister and went to the opera in Rome and was wandering home to the hotel in Rome at midnight and just loved the beauty of the city," she went on. “He wanted to go back to Europe. His bookcase, he selected Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey and was reading it, and the Art of War out of China. That’s the stuff that he was drawn to. There’s more to this kid than a summer job of fighting fires."
Too often we skim the details and overlook the substance. Hopefully we don't miss or ignore the lessons. In the 115 pages of the Dutch Creek accident investigation report, an acronym-heavy detailing of what went terribly wrong on July 25, 2008, in a fiery corner of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest dubbed the Iron Complex, the lessons learned from sending an understaffed fire team with inadequate supervision into the field spurred eight recommendations that revolved largely around better supervision, better communications, and better planning.
For the Palmers, though, there's a hope that Andy's death prompts even deeper discussions about how fires are managed and how firefighters are looked out for.
“It opens up a whole philosophical question on management that needs a lot more probing and discussion, absolutely," Mrs. Palmer said of the report and the errors it highlights. "We have as a society come to treasure our pristine forests, and by doing that we are allowing the fuel load to just increase tremendously and then expect firefighters to go in and stop a forest fire. I think we need more forest management to make it possible to contain fires without such risks for the firefighters. I think we need development analysis using the homeowner insurance companies. We need to have defensible spaces around homes that are in the middle of forests. I don’t think it’s fair to build a house surrounded by trees and shrubs and then expect the firefighters to put their lives on the lines to save the house.”
If firefighters are sent in, however, they should go with assurances that they can be whisked to a hospital within an hour if need arises, she added. In Andy's case, a potentially live-saving hospital was just 11 miles away, and yet those who rushed to his side struggled for nearly three hours to get him off the mountain.
“I think what we would love to see is an implementation of a ‘golden hour’ recovery and evacuation (plan)," Mrs. Palmer said. "In fighting fires, can they get that person out? Can they get a firefighter out of the forest and into an ER or operating room within an hour of an injury? That would be our goal. ... If that had been able to be implemented with Andy he would be alive, obviously.
"They had three hours to get him there and couldn’t.”
Bill Kaage, the National Park Service's wildland fire branch chief in Boise, Idaho, at the National Interagency Fire Center, said it's certainly a reasonable goal to work toward when fire bosses decide where and how fire lines will be attacked.
“It all comes back to strategies and tactics on the ground and looking at what strategies we use for managing fire, looking at that in relation to the people we need to do it, and doing that hazard assessment, risk mitigation, and saying, 'OK, should we be putting people here?'" he said. "And if we put people here, do we have the methods in place and the procedures and tools in place to ensure that they do have a safe assignment? If we can’t guarantee that, then we shouldn’t be doing that particular operation and we need to think of a new way of either accomplishing that strategy or objectives. And to me that sounds real simple, and it’s doable, but it’s pretty tough. A lot of people have to think hard about how we manage wildland fire and where we ask people to work.
“I think it’s doable, but it’s hard," Mr. Kaage added. "Maybe it changes the way we do things a little bit, to better ensure and account for people’s safety. It’s not rocket science. Everybody deserves a safe work assignment and they deserve to come home at the end of the day proud of what they did and feeling good about what they did.”
Back in Port Townsend, the Palmers also hope that the 115 pages that dissected the events that led to the death of their son and brother produces some personal responsibility.
“I would certainly like the personnel involved to understand their portion of the responsibility and to acknowledge that they have learned from this," said Mrs. Palmer, adding that so far none of those involved has come forward to the family to acknowledge as much.
As for the Palmers, they can only remember a young man who had done so much in his short life, and whose tremendous promise was snuffed.
“We can’t bring him back," Andy's mom said, "we can only go forward.”
Footnote: The last National Park Service firefighter to die on the lines was Daniel Holmes, who was killed Oct. 2, 2004, when a burning limb fell roughly 110 feet and hit him on the head.