- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

Surrounded by a wall of fire spurred by wind in the Okanagan National Forest, trapped firefighters pleaded for more than nine hours on July 11 for water to be dropped by helicopters. By the time water was finally thrown, four young firefighters, two women and two men, lay dead below, consumed by the raging fire, 140 miles northeast of Seattle.
Just what could have possibly caused this tragic delay that resulted in these deaths? Could it have been a shortage of water? Or perhaps complicated technical problems? The answer is none of the above. Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" reported that, according to unidentified firefighters, a dispatch team for the U.S. Forest Service held off on using water from the nearby Chewuch River to extinguish the flame because they were afraid it might harbor endangered fish or some other species. And because of provisions in the Endangered Species Act, these bureaucrats were presumably afraid that if they used the river water to put out the fire, they would prompt a lawsuit by environmentalists. As a result, water that was originally requested at 5:30 a.m. wasn't dropped until 3 p.m., when it was far too late.
The Forest Service has pledged to conduct a multi-agency investigation into "all aspects" of the fire. The probe should be completed in the coming weeks. And Congress has weighed in on the matter as well. "I am very distressed by reports that Endangered Species Act constraints may have delayed efforts to extinguish the Thirtymile Fire," Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican, said in a statement. Another factor in the firefighters' deaths was faulty emergency shelters, that were supposed to be able to sustain high temperatures, but clearly failed to save these firefighters' lives.
Lawmakers' concern regarding these deaths are well placed. The local officials involved at best weighed the lives of humans against those of fish, and at worst, weighed the cost of a lawsuit against saving human lives. It would be difficult to exaggerate how alarming, how devoid of human decency and pathos, were these bureaucratic machinations that caused the firefighters to burn to death.
The Endangered Species Act is no doubt an anachronistic piece of legislation that has, ironically enough, been the cause many forest fires since it has prevented officials from removing mature timber that easily catches fire in protected areas. But the officials who contributed to the decision to delay the rescue of the firefighters can't hide behind legislation. Their primary concern should have been to save the people fighting the fire and deal later with any potential lawsuit. It appears these robotic bureaucrats whose slavish adherence to orders and laws trumps their humanity need new legislation, such as an Endangered Humans Act, to take proper measures to save the lives of human beings in danger.

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