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Fire Report Faults Escape Routes

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Firefighters failed to give themselves enough escape routes while battling a wildfire in the Stanislaus National Forest last fall, according to a report by state and federal investigators Wednesday. Three firefighters were injured and one was killed.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighter Eva Schicke, a star athlete in college, was not able to outclimb the wildfire up a steep slope to a safe zone a mere 35 feet away.

Schicke, 23, was the department’s first female firefighter to be killed in the line of duty when she died Sept. 12.

The firefighters started backfires designed to burn toward the wildfire. But when the wind suddenly shifted, the backfires themselves were what burned over the crew, the report concluded.

The crew immediately began running to their previously identified safety zones – a riverbed below and a road above.

“However, due to the steepness of the slope and rapid change in fire behavior, they did not all reach safety,” concludes the report by a joint investigative team of the state forestry department and the U.S. Forest Service.

The report said the fire burned over crew members in just 30 seconds. They never had time to unfold their tent-like fire shelters; the entire flare-up lasted less than two minutes.

Chiefs at the crew’s former unit and air base declined comment on the report, referring calls to department spokesman Michael Jarvis.

“The report speaks for itself,” Jarvis said. “People can draw their own conclusions.”

In a statement, the department said the Accident Investigation Team “determined no individual was at fault,” but said it will use the report to improve its policies, procedures and coordination with other agencies.

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