How soon they forget.
For a time, the tragic deaths of 19 heroic firefighters in the 2,000-degree flames of the Yarnell Hill Fire captured the attention of the nation — even Congress.
But hey, that was months ago.
Time to move on.
No. Not so.
We cannot even begin to move on until we have honored their memories by learning the searing lessons of their deaths.
So in today’s Roundup, you’ll find a series of stories about some of the terrible lessons we should have learned from the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, trapped in a box canyon thick with brush as they hurried to save Yarnell.
They could have as easily died in a box canyon on the outskirts of Payson, Star Valley, Whispering Pines, Beaver Valley, East Verde Estates, Geronimo Estates or any of the terribly vulnerable communities scattered throughout the thick forests of Rim Country.
Today, we take a look at the state report that examined what went so tragically wrong on the outskirts of Yarnell. Leery of lawsuits, the report writers stopped short of naming names and assigning blame. And by that omission, we’ve already begun to blur the costly lessons of their deaths.
Clearly, the state and federal governments must make fundamental changes in their communications and command structure. Fire controllers moved too slowly to stop the fire, lagged behind the change in the weather, then lost track of the crew for a lethal half-hour.
But the tragedy in Yarnell also harbors vital lessons for Rim Country. One study showed that even basic brush clearing dramatically reduced the loss of homes in Yarnell. Remarkably, while half the homes in Yarnell burned — none of the homes with full, firewise-level protection caught fire.
The post mortems also showed that Yarnell had done little to clear a defensible space around the community, although the dense scrub had not burned in 50 years.
Elsewhere in today’s paper, you’ll find a story applying those lessons to Rim Country — starting with the dangerous failure of both Payson and Gila County to adopt firewise building codes and better support efforts to clear brush around existing subdivisions. Studies show that a building code that requires fire-resistant roofs, eaves, porches, building materials and other basic changes can dramatically reduce the risk that wildfires will cast embers into the sky that will alight and set the town on fire.
We believe both Payson and Gila County must move immediately to adopt such a change in their building codes.
Moreover, we believe northern Gila County needs a single wildlands fire protection district — and perhaps a merger of the scattered fire departments operating here. That wildlands fire protection district could raise money from property taxes and perhaps sales taxes to provide money to leverage Forest Service grants to clear and maintain buffer zones around all Rim Country communities.
If we do that, then when the inevitable wildfire comes, firefighters willing to risk everything on our behalf will have a place to make a stand — and a fighting chance to save our community.
Finally, you’ll find a story in today’s edition about the faltering effort to put into action the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which offers the only long-term hope of saving both the forests of northern Arizona and the communities set in their midst. The Forest Service continues to struggle to honor the consensus that created this precious opportunity.
In the meantime, Congress continues to fiddle while the forests burn. Instead of providing robust support for 4FRI and other forest restoration efforts, Congress remains preoccupied with partisan one-upsmanship and gestures without substance. This cannot continue — not after those 19 heroes died for our sins, our blindness, our fatal distraction. So we will continue urging action — from the Payson Town Council on up to Congress.
And we will never, never, never forget, the price already paid for our inaction.