updated 7/19/2007 11:54:20 PM ET 2007-07-20T03:54:20

The U.S. Forest Service committed safety violations that contributed to the deaths of five of its firefighters in a Southern California blaze last year, workplace safety regulators said Thursday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Forest Service for nine safety violations, including failing to provide the firefighters with maps and crucial information about potentially hazardous weather conditions.

OSHA ordered the Forest Service to fix the unsafe working conditions within 15 days.

Asked whether the agency believed the violations led to the firefighters’ deaths, Department of Labor spokesman Roger Gayman said, “By implication, yes.”

A man is charged with starting the blaze and five counts of first-degree murder.

Messages left at the office of San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jeanne Wade Evans and the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., office were not immediately returned.

Wall of flames
A 90-foot wall of flame overran the members of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 as they tried to protect an unoccupied vacation home last October in Twin Pines, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze eventually charred more than 60 square miles.

The tragedy could have been avoided if the firefighters had not been on a steep slope blanketed with highly combustible vegetation, according to OSHA, which issued the Forest Service a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions. The firefighters and their supervisors also failed to ensure a safe exit from the scene, the agency said.

OSHA’s conclusions followed a May report that blamed risky decisions, failure to fully plan an escape and pressure to ignore hazards in the firefighter’s deaths. That investigation was conducted by the Forest Service and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Jim Wilkins, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service for 35 years who worked the fire, criticized OSHA’s findings and said it’s easy to find fault once the fire is out.

‘Inherently dangerous’
“What we do is inherently dangerous,” he said. “You can’t make it a sterile, safe environment. You can’t make it into a video game ... What do they want people to do? Completely disengage from the fire?”

A narrative of what led to the firefighters’ deaths will be incorporated into future wildfire training materials, according to a U.S. Forest Service plan released last month.

And an internal document, signed by Chief Forester Gail Kimbell and obtained by The Associated Press last month, calls for seven changes in agency policy when fighting wildfires, particularly in areas where suburbs and wilderness converge.

Firefighters Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43; and Pablo Cerda, 23, died in the fire.

Raymond Lee Oyler, a 36-year-old auto mechanic, has pleaded not guilty to the murder charges, multiple counts of arson and using an incendiary device to start fires between May 16 and Oct. 26, 2006.

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