Investigation Into Fire-Fighting Deaths Yields Disturbing Results

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As the families of four young forest firefighters who died last month battling wildfires in central Washington struggle with the loss of their loved ones, the investigation into the circumstances of the deaths is raising more disturbing questions than it has so far answered.

Firefighters Tom L. Craven, 30, Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18, Devin A Weaver, 21, and Jessica L. Johnson, 19, died July 10 cowering under protective tents near the Chewuch River, allegedly because of delays in granting permission for fire-fighting helicopters to use water from nearby streams and rivers protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The four firefighters were part of a young, inexperienced "mop-up" crew sent in to do clean up work after a team of more experienced firefighters had contained the flare up, now known as the "Thirty Mile Fire."

The Forest Service has changed its story at least twice since the fire, first claiming a rapid and dramatic weather change caused the fire to blow up unexpectedly, then blaming helicopter delays caused by ESA restrictions.

The conflicting reports have brought little comfort to the families who say they are sure that the deaths could have been prevented.

Devin Weaver's father Ken Weaver said officials have told him privately that his son should have had plenty of time to get to safety.

"The reason that fire overtook him is because people in charge of managing that risk told him there was none," Ken Weaver said. "Devin was sitting around taking pictures, having a great time. They thought they were safe. Right down to end they misjudged the risk, mismanaged the entire scenario," he said.

Devin Weaver was fighting his first fire when he died.

"He trusted them and they weren't very careful with his life and that makes me very angry and sad," said Devin's mother, Barbara. "There is no bringing him back," she said.

According to a timeline of events released earlier this week by the USFS, at 5:30 a.m., the first team of firefighters had contained the fire and requested a helicopter water drop to douse the final flames. The dispatch office told the fire crew boss that helicopters would not be available until 10 a.m. when the pilots came on duty.

By noon, when the mop-up crew had replaced the first crew and the helicopter had not yet arrived, the mop-up crew boss called dispatch and was told that helicopters could not be used in the Okanogan National Forest because the Chewuch River contained endangered Chinook salmon and bull trout.

Jan Flatten, the environmental officer for the Okanogan and Wenatchee Natural forests, said earlier this week that environmental concerns caused crucial delays in dispatching the helicopter.

"At 12:08, the dispatch office ordered the helicopter," Flatten told Fox News. "However, because there are endangered species in the Chewuch River, they wanted to get permission from the district in order to dip into the river."

For two hours, dispatch tried to reach authorities to clear the use of the Chewuch River, unaware that those authorities were actually in a meeting working out an exemption to use the water.

But the dispatch office may have never needed that permission.

Jordan St. John, public affairs officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the federal agency that oversees the National Marine Fisheries, said the ESA does not prohibit the use of the water for fire fighting or other situations where human life is at risk and does not require special permission to do so.

"There was never a requirement to check or clear it with anyone," St. John told Fox News. "There was no requirement for a meeting or an exemption. This is a long-standing, well-known policy and I'm just amazed someone would make that mistake."

In fact, St. John said officials from the Forest Service and other federal agencies had met June 9 — the day before the deaths — to "specifically" discuss using the water to combat fires in the area.

Forest Service Fire Chief Dale Bosworth, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, which is looking into the allegations, said that under standard procedure the water should never have been considered off limits.

"Normally if we have an ongoing, very difficult fire, the decision is made if you need water, you get water where you need to get it, and then you consult later," Bosworth said.

According to a statement issued by the Fish & Wildlife Service, the Service has "an established policy that never puts the Endangered Species Act in front of a response to emergency situations where human lives are at risk."

Whether the dispatch office needed an ESA exemption or simply thought they did, the confusion delayed fire helicopters from arriving on the scene until 3 p.m. According to the USFS timeline of events, the fire remained contained during that time and did not actually blow out of control until after water was being dropped.

"There was no threat to life or property, it was a mop up," Flatten said. "It was not until the fire blew up [that] it became a threat to life and property. At that time water was being delivered by helicopter," she said.

But two firefighters that were trapped in the inferno with Devin Weaver said they don't recall any water ever being dropped.

"I truly feel if these kids had water a lot of things would be different today," a veteran USFS firefighter familiar with the Thirty Mile Fire, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

As the interagency squabbling continues, the families of the downed firefighters must find their own way to continue.

"He was my best friend," Ken Weaver said of his son, recalling the two of them watching the movie The Patriot, in which a father loses his son. "I turned to him and said I could never do that. I could never lose you," he said.

A 17-member team from the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife, and other federal agencies is investigating the fire and expected to issue a report by mid-August.

Fox News' William Lajeunesse and Don Fair contributed to this report.