(Long) Surviving firefighters remember Thirty Mile fire
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Wed Aug 8 10:37:59 EST 2001
>From The Oregonian, August 4, 2001, p D5
Survivors of July's Thirty Mile fire, in which four firefighters died,
remember how the blaze trapped them
By LINDA ASHTON, The Associated Press
LEVENWORTH, Wash. - When Nick Dreis went down, the force of
100-foot-tall flames from the Thirty Mile fire was coming right at his
The smoke burned his eyes, so he kept them shut. He thought about how
to conserve oxygen and wondered if the glue seams of his shelter would
hold up in the heat.
Armando Avila prayed for the squad boss he last saw high up on a
rocky hillside and the two campers trapped with the 14 firefighters on
a dead-end road in the Chewuch River canyon in the northern Cascades.
Elaine Hurd just figured she was a goner.
But they all survived the black-furnace-like fire that killed four of
their firefighting crew July 10, a blaze started by an abandoned
campfire in the pine and spruce country of the Okanogan-Wenatchee
After nearly a month to talk and think about the unthinkable - the
death of their colleagues and their own close calls - some members of
the fire crew spoke Friday about their recollections of the 9,300-acre
Avila, 22, a squad boss trainee with four years of firefighting
experience, said he was one of the first to deplay his aluminum and
fiberglass shelter on the Chwuch River Road.
"Once I was in the shelter, I thought, if I'm going to make it, this
is my best chance," he said.
His radio was on and he could hear the reassuring chatter of his crew
boss, Ellreese Daniels, relaying information to a spotter plane.
"I was hoping all of us would make it. I was worried about the
Hagermeyers. I was terrified for them," Avila said.
Bruce and Paula Hagermeyer, the two campers trapped with the
firefighters, were curled up in a one-person shelter with firefighter
Rebecca Welch. All three survived.
"I was very worried for Thom," - his squad boss, Thom Taylor - whom
Avila had last seen walking around the boulders where the bodies of
the four who died would be found.
"I prayed for him constantly," Avila said.
Hurd, 18, a rookie firefighter assigned to dig fire line, and Dreis,
22, also a rookie firefighter who has worked as a logger and was the
designated sawyer on the squad, both initially planned to use their
shelters simply to keep the downpour of burning embers off their heads
and their clothes.
"I was hoping the whole fire would change course," Dreis said.
But when the fire was right on top of them, each crawled inside the
"I thought I was done," Hurd said. "Bye-bye. I'm done now. I laid
there and tried not to breathe too hard."
Dreis could feel another firefighter with his foot. He gave him a
little kick and heard him say, "I feel like a baked potato."
None of the three can say how long they were in the shelters. Hurd
guesses 5 minutes, Dreis 20 minutes. Avila said he lost all track of
Nor did they realize in the chaos of survival tactics how close they
had come to dying. Eventually someone, no one is sure who, gave an
order to leave their shelters and go to the river. With some of them
standing in the cold, chest-deep water, they did a head count.
"None of us had any idea how serious it was until we did the count
and realized people were missing," Dreis said.
Taylor told the group: "Here's the reality of it. There's four of us
missing, and they're right up there on the hill," Avila said.
Dead were Tom L. Craven, 30, an experienced fire crew boss, and three
fledgling firefighters: Karen FitzPatrick, 18, Jessica Johnson, 19,
and Devin Weaver, 21.
Many of the survivors' recollections are like snapshots, odd moments
of normality and tiny details. They deplayed their fire shelters on
the sides of the road, rather than the middle, so they wouldn't get
run over by any emergency vehicles - but none came up or down that
Pete Kampen, 30, a seven-year firefighter and the fire's crew-boss
trainee, got seven firefighters into a van and down the road before it
was too late.
"We just flat gunned it. It's the first time I've been really
scared," he said. "I also knew there wasn't anybody going to come out
The remaining 14 piled into another van and tried to flee, but were
driven back by the fire pushing up the road.
"We did a 50-point turn. It took forever," Avila said. "I wanted to
get out. Somebody said we were going to die."
His heart felt as if it were jumping out his chest, and FitzPatrick,
who was sitting next to him said, 'This is the scariest thing that's
ever happened in my life," Avila said.
Dreis and Avila remember a sense of relief once Daniels got the van
turned around, and they drove away from the impenetrable wall of fire
on the road.
They looked for a safety zone and found one. An air spotter overhead
was helping them look for the best place. They had 20 or 30 minutes to
look around. They discussed the best places to deploy their shelters.
"I remember hearing the sandbar (in the river) or the road. I don't
remember anyone saying the rocks," Avila said.
He and Taylor looked around in the rocks. Avila noticed a lot of
loose branches and other fire fuel.
"I didn't like it up there," he said. "I went back down to the road."
Eventually, Kampen and four members of a hot shot crew would make
their way back up the road to rescue the survivors and check on the
Kampen would ask the firefighters to write down what they remembered.
Among Avila's notes were these words: "Fourteen of us deployed and
four of us didn't make it."
Comment by poster: It may be impossible for anyone who has not been in
a forest fire to imagine what these people were confronted with. Try
to imagine a wall of fire 100 feet tall traveling 50 miles per hour...
or more. Smoke so thick you can't breathe without inhaling ash. Sudden
darkness just before the flames reach you. And the same roaring
locomotive noise as the fire reaches to 100 feet from you.
Recently a major motion picture was made about tornados. Add fire to a
tornado and you have a good idea of a forest fire. Once again, I urge
you all to take a moment and remember the firefighters who died
because of a camper's carelessness.
Daniel B. Wheeler
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