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Skiing and Snowboarding : Sep 2012

Death on the Firelines

This story originally appeared in OnEarth. Read more about wildfires and climate at

Earlier this month, a 20-year-old digging a fireline in the Idaho mountains was killed by a falling tree, making her the twelfth person to die in forest firefighting operations around the country this year. When I attended her funeral a few days later, nearly 300 of her fellow U.S. Forest Service firefighters lined up outside Moscow, Idaho’s Church of the Nazarene in their flame-retardant work gear—shirts the color of sunflowers tucked into rugged, jade-green pants—and watched bagpipers and an honor guard lead the family of Anne Veseth into the sanctuary.

I served as a wildland firefighter during the 2003 season and have spent a lot of time around Forest Service crews while writing a book about megafires, so I’m used to seeing firefighters’ eyes tearing from smoke and sweat. But I’ve never seen so many of their stony faces weeping, and I’ve never witnessed as much outrage among them as Veseth’s death has prompted.

That’s because the day before she was killed, a 20-person crew of highly trained "hotshots"—the Forest Service’s equivalent of the Navy SEALS—arrived at the Steep Corner fire where Veseth died but refused to take part in the firefighting operation. They deemed it "extremely unsafe," according to a report they later filed explaining their decision. Chief among the crew’s concerns were the number of dead and fire-weakened trees—known as "snags"—that were falling around firefighters. One of those snags knocked over the tree that killed Veseth.

In a fire season driven by heat and drought that has already proven among the most destructive in U.S. history, Veseth’s death highlights both the human costs of firefighting and a raging debate about the proper policy for managing wildfire in a warming world. With the Forest Service’s $948 million firefighting budget for 2012 nearly exhausted, but months to go in a fire season projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion, the agency—in a major reversal of a federal policy adopted in 1995—is quickly responding to almost every blaze in an attempt to keep small fires from raging out of control. That’s despite the long-term harm to forest ecosystems and the likelihood that the new policy could prime forests for even more destructive fires in the future. (See OnEarth’s previous coverage of this controversial shift in firefighting policy.)

There’s also a potential human cost to the more aggressive stance: most fireline deaths occur in the early phases of firefighting operations, when small teams or individuals may take on blazes without adequate management, communication, or knowledge of the terrain and weather. "Initial attacks" are often made up of a variety of local, state, and federal firefighters, who can prove difficult to coordinate and may have differing approaches to even the most basic firefighting operations. The hotshots’ report on the fire that killed Veseth describes just such a situation. Posted on SAFENET, which allows Forest Service employees to anonymously report safety concerns, the report claims that the Steep Corner operation was in violation of eight of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders—the basic safety rules for federal wildland firefighters.

When the hotshots arrived, the firefighting operation was being overseen by the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association, a private, non-profit organization chartered by the Idaho Department of Lands to fight fires on private lands, most of it controlled by logging companies. The fire was burning in standing timber and debris left from timber harvests. The report by the Flathead Hotshots crew, which is based in Montana, alleges a number of safety concerns, including:

  • INADEQUATE SAFETY GEAR: When the hotshots arrived, many of the firefighters on scene, including the incident commander, were wearing jeans instead of the fire-retardant clothes required under government rules, according to the SAFENET report. They also weren’t carrying fire shelters—reflective foil tents that firefighters can deploy and climb underneath for safety. Many were running chainsaws without the appropriate safety gear, the report says.
  • POOR COMMUNICATION & COORDINATION: The hotshots described a disjointed effort, with a "hodge-podge" of firefighters working in teams with weak communication and little direction from their commanders. Hazardous areas of fire and falling trees separated the crews, the hotshots said, making escape from a blowup difficult and leaving them isolated from safety zones and assistance. The hotshot leaders encountered a fire crew made up of prison inmates who were repeatedly chased uphill by the flames and forced to dodge trees and boulders that rolled down on them from above.
  • MISMANAGED AERIAL ASSISTANCE: The hotshots say they repeatedly asked for helicopters to drop water on the fire threatening the prison crew, but to no avail. "The people directing helicopter drops had no or little experience utilizing helicopters and were having the helicopters drop water without clearing the line of personnel," the hotshots’ report states.
  • UNCLEAR ESCAPE ROUTES & SAFETY ZONES: The hotshots said that leaders of the Steep Corner fire disregarded the standards for posting lookouts, maintaining communications between firefighters, and establishing escape routes and safety zones. These are the most basic procedures that prevent injuries and deaths among wildland firefighters.

Firefighting experts say the specific problems alleged by the hotshots at the Steep Corner fire are indicative of what happens when firefighting resources and expertise are stretched thin, as they have been by this year’s destructive fire season and the Forest Service’s "aggressive initial attack" mandate.

That policy shift "is putting firefighters at greater risk, and it's increasing the cost," said Bob Mutch, who spent 38 years in the Forest Service and is now a wildfire consultant. "We rush people in without all the support."

Andy Stahl, executive director of the non-profit forestry watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, points out that firefighters are often at the greatest risk when they’re racing to and flying over wildfires. Indeed, six of this year’s firefighting fatalities were caused by plane crashes. "Anytime a firefighter climbs into an airplane, his or her chance of dying goes up tenfold," Stahl said.

Several agencies are now investigating conditions at the Steep Corner fire, including the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Idaho Lands Board (which oversees state lands), and the Forest Service’s law enforcement division. Leaders of the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association and the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest have said that the problems identified by the hotshots were corrected before the accident.

Through a spokesperson, Veseth’s family members said they are reserving judgment on the circumstances of her death until the investigations are complete. The family is devoted to public service and firefighting. Veseth’s mother is a nurse, her oldest sister is a paramedic, and her brother is a seven-year veteran forest firefighter. In 2010, Veseth asked her brother to help her get a job; last year she joined the fire crew in the North Fork Ranger District of the Clearwater National Forest, just a couple hours drive from her home. She eagerly signed on with teams sent to fight wildfires in Colorado and Arizona earlier this year. When she arrived at the Steep Corner fire, Veseth was 10 days away from starting another degree program at Lewis Clark State College, where she had previously studied auto mechanics. Her family told the Associated Press she wanted to focus on forestry or fire ecology.

Outside the church, after the bagpipes and bells, Veseth’s family walked through two rows of firefighters, climbed into her brother’s forest firefighting truck, and slowly drove away. Firefighters lined the road, then climbed into their trucks to join a short procession.

But they couldn’t stay long. With 95-degree temperatures bringing scores of blazes to Idaho, Washington, and California, they were needed back on the firelines.

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This Week's Missing Links, September 1

The best articles, photos, and videos of the past week that I didn't post—until now.


That Associated Press article on Tyler Hamilton's new book missed the mark. Read this. Outside 

A former personal assistant to Lance Armstrong sounds off, and Armstrong's lawyer responds, Outside

"It’s a big, hot, steaming enema bag filled with purifying truth for a sport that has dodged it for far too long." Outside

Donations to Livestrong spike on the day after news about his decision not to pursue arbitration, Reuters

Why more details from the USADA could come out during Johan Bruyneel's arbitration, New York Daily News

A quick post on the history of doping in cycling, from coca leaf to EPO, Scientific American via Adventure Journal

A hiker’s camera offers clue to first death from a grizzly bear in Denali, Alaska Daily News

Man bitten by crocodile during toilet break, MSN

How Diane Nyad prepped for her swims, Greatist

A short history of taking photos from space, The New York Times Lens

Hiker killed in rock slide 11 miles southeast of Aspen, Aspen Times

The first lady of Irish bog snorkeling, Wired

Wheelchair athletes makes history with 50-foot megaramp jump, Grind TV


When the female starts blowing bubbles, apparently that means sex is over. At least for whales. New Scientist

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Ultra Racing's New Boss

Past the Costco, the Mattress Giant, and the manicured suburban townhomes of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, more than 50 cyclists are hurrying through a sleet storm to enter Life Time Athletic. One of 105 of the megabox health-club chain’s outlets, which run from Texas to Ontario, the facility covers 232,000 square feet and houses tennis and basketball courts, yoga studios, and roughly 400 cardio and fitness machines, plus a bar, a restaurant, and luxurious changing rooms. This evening, the spinners—from elite mountain bikers training for the Leadville 100 to hyperfit soccer moms—will have their asses handed to them by Life Time founder, CEO, president, chairman, and frequent instructor Bahram Akradi.

“I’m your daddy tonight! There is no slacking off!” he yells, pedaling to an up-tempo remix of “Black Magic Woman.” “Find that beat! Let’s go! Quit talking! Focus! Push it!”

Akradi, 51, started the company in 1992, and it has since grown into a $1 billion fitness empire. Over the past decade, Akradi has also slowly positioned Life Time to be the largest athletic-event brand in the country, creating or acquiring more than 200 annual races in 23 states.

Most recently, Akradi has focused on ultra-distance endurance competitions. In 2010, Life Time purchased Colorado’s iconic Leadville Race Series, which includes the highest and arguably toughest 100-mile mountain-bike race in the country, the Leadville 100. In 2011, it purchased the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival in Hayward, Wisconsin—among the oldest and most respected grassroots mountain-biking events in the U.S. And last year, Akradi launched the Leadman 250 triathlon, his own version of Ironman, with a 5K swim, 223K bike, and 22K run. The second Leadman 250 will be held on September 22, in Bend, Oregon.

The intrusion of a fitness-club magnate into the niche world of ultra races has many endurance athletes mystified. What, they wonder, is Akradi up to? And, more pressingly, what will happen to the ultra world’s offbeat and beloved small events once they’re run by corporate America?

Life Time is such a success story that last fall Jim Cramer, of CNBC’s Mad Money, called it “the Whole Foods of the fitness business.” In 2011, the publicly traded company, headquartered in Chanhassen, Minnesota, earned more than a billion dollars in revenue. This year, that number is on track to increase by at least $100 million. And while races still account for only one percent of the dollars coming in, Life Time intends to be a dominant player in that world, too. Akradi anticipates annual revenue from Life Time events increasing from $10 million to $100 million over the next six to seven years, with more acquisitions on the horizon. He won’t reveal what those are but says that Life Time is looking to buy events that “are really coveted.”

“Our goal is to be the best athletic-event company in America,” Al Iverson, president of Life Time Fitness Athletic Events, adds. “Eventually, that might mean the biggest.”

There’s good reason to think Akradi will make it happen. He emigrated from his native Iran in 1978 to study electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, covering his tuition by cleaning pools and selling memberships at Nautilus Swim and Fitness. Upon graduating, he was sent to open a Nautilus club in suburban Minneapolis. He left the company, which had been acquired by Bally Total Fitness, in 1989 and started Life Time in 1992. At the end of 2001, the company had 22 clubs, with revenue of $136 million.

In 2002, Akradi entered the triathlon world with a bang, putting up a $50,000 prize for the winner of his inaugural Olympic-distance Life Time Fitness Triathlon, in Minneapolis. (The first-place prize at the ITU Triathlon World Championships that year was $20,625.) The next year, he increased the winnings to $250,000.

“It was like a wreck on the freeway—you had to look,” says John Duke, vice president of global sales and marketing for Ironman, of the extravagant purse. “It was the richest event in the sport. I give him credit for putting up that kind of money. He changed a lot of triathletes’ lives. He’s almost like Howard Hughes or the Wizard of Oz.”

The dollar signs made Life Time an instant force in the triathlon world, and established races were forced to follow its lead. Today the prize purse for the XTerra World Championship is $105,000. The sum for the eight-event 2012 ITU World Triathlon series (including the year-end bonus pool) is $2 million. For its part, Life Time awards more than half a million dollars in a broad spectrum of events, including a $50,000 purse divided among the winners of the Leadman 250 in Bend.

Akradi expanded into tris just as participation was exploding—in 2010, an estimated 2.3 million Americans competed in at least one on- or off-road triathlon—but his choice to jump into the hardcore ultraracing market is a bigger gamble. Participation in ultra events is increasing, but according to Active Network, a technology company that powers thousands of races, the boom is relatively small: over the past decade, some 317 domestic events attracted roughly 32,000 racers.

“Races like Leadville probably make as much money as the rest of his company makes in a day,” says Ed McCall, a private-equity investor and former chairman of Spectrum Clubs, a Life Time competitor. McCall, who has known Akradi for years and describes him as “a hard-driving entrepreneur,” believes that Life Time’s foray into events is largely a branding initiative. “If you look at it that way, it might be really inexpensive marketing dollars,” he says. “His business is gigantic cookie-cutter health clubs. Maybe events like Leadville are a way for him to feel like he’s moved upmarket.”

It’s a shrewd tactic in transforming Life Time into a complete lifestyle brand, distinguishing it from other big-box health clubs and increasing membership. “Events bring a significant number of non-members who, once exposed to Life Time events, present tremendous new-member opportunities,” says Akradi, whose clubs now offer organized outdoor rides and training camps for races. “We are marrying indoor and outdoor sports in a way that no one else has thought of.”

As for the ultraracing community, opinions about Life Time range from intrigue to concern that a big corporate entity will change long-standing events. With the homespun Leadville 100, some feel it’s like Whole Foods gobbled up the corner deli. “There are people who think the devil has run off with the race,” says Adam Stepanovic, a Boston mountain biker who will compete in this year’s Leadville 100, his eighth. “And then there are people who drank the Kool-Aid. The course and the people are the same, but they’re changing things, giving away hats and snazzy sweatshirts with no character. It’s almost like they’re tampering with its soul.”

Akradi insists he’ll buy an event only if he can improve it. That’s already happened with Leadville, according to Ken Chlouber, the series’s legendary founder, who notes that Life Time streamlined the registration process, improved the food, and, most important, boosted the Leadville Legacy Foundation program, which, among other philanthropic deeds, hands out $1,000 scholarships to every Lake County High School graduating senior. Meanwhile, there’s still no purse for the Leadville 100—any racer who finishes in under 12 hours receives a silver belt buckle—and Akradi has no plans to change that.

“His passion and conviction for this race is the reason I agreed to turn over leadership to him,” says Chlouber, who still acts as an event consultant.

Akradi is no stranger to the Leadville starting line himself. He’s completed four Leadville 100 mountain-bike races, earning the prized buckle three times. This year he wants to finish in less than nine hours.

“If I do everything right, and if nothing goes wrong,” says Akradi, “I just might have a shot at it.”

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