HAPPY CAMP, Calif. — The explosive danger facing firefighters in the steep, rugged terrain of drought-ridden Northern California flashed up Saturday with the death of veteran firefighter Daniel Bruce Packer.
Packer, 49, fire chief of the East Pierce County Fire and Rescue Unit in Lake Tapps, Wash., died while scouting the Panther wildfire some 15 miles south of Happy Camp.
Packer had just been hired by the U.S. Forest Service to serve as a division supervisor for the incident command team managing the 55,085-acre Siskiyou complex fire, according to Duane Lyon, spokesman for the Klamath National Forest's fire center. The firefighter was surveying the then 250-acre Panther fire as part of a plan he was developing to fight the blaze when he was killed, officials said.
His team was to begin managing the suppression effort on the Panther fire on Sunday, Lyon said.
His death hit the firefighters hard.
"Protection of human lives and fire safety is always our first priority in fire suppression," Lyon said, noting the firefighting community is devastated.
"It's particularly sad for all of us when someone loses their life like this."
The cause of Packer's death has not been determined, Lyon said. A Forest Service national investigation team began investigating the accident on Monday, he added.
"They will find out why the accident occurred and come up with ways to prevent it from reoccurring in the future," Lyon said, noting no changes in firefighting strategy have been made, although extreme caution continues on the fire lines.
"Right now, it's too early to make any changes until we know the 'whys' " he said.
However, a statement and death notice released by Spokane, Wash., Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer indicated that Packer was the victim of a sudden change in wind direction.
"He was overrun by the fire when the wind shifted unexpectedly," Schaeffer wrote. He noted that Packer was an "icon for the Washington state fire service" who had fought wildfires throughout the nation.
A statement released Sunday by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire also noted the firefighter was overrun by the fire following an unexpected wind shift.
Packer was the second Washington firefighter to die in Northern California wildfires in as many days. Port Townsend resident Andrew Palmer, 18, was killed Friday while fighting a fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The Olympic National Park wildland firefighter was reportedly struck by a falling tree.
In a prepared statement, Gregoire cited the efforts by both firefighters to help others.
"They gave their lives doing the hard, heroic work of protecting the lives of others," she said.
Packer, former head of the Washington Fire Chiefs Association, is survived by his wife, four daughters and two grandchildren.
His remains have been removed from the fire area. No other injuries were reported as a result of the incident. Another firefighter also scouting the fire was able to walk out uninjured, officials said.
The Panther fire, located just east of the Klamath River, grew to about 650 acres by Monday. Sparked by a lightning storm July 21, the fire is burning in steep, inaccessible terrain where rolling material poses a danger to suppression efforts, firefighters reported.
Meanwhile, smoke from the fires south of Happy Camp continues to sock in parts of Southwest Oregon. The Siskiyou complex, which sprang up following a June 21 lightning storm, has burned 55,085 acres in an area about 18 miles southwest of Happy Camp. The Ukonom complex across the Klamath River immediately to the east has blackened 34,466 acres.
Neither fire is expected to be contained by fire lines before Aug. 30.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.