Why Did They Die? Timeline To Tragedy

Report avoids assigning blame for death of 19 Prescott firefighters

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The curiously unrevealing official report on the deaths of 19 Prescott Hotshots battling the Yarnell Hill Fire underscores the terrible risks firefighters inevitably run trying to protect poorly prepared communities in increasingly fire-prone forests.

The 116-page official report on the deaths of the wildland firefighting crew trapped in a brush-choked canyon just 600 yards from safety concludes that no one did anything wrong and that both the crew and the fire controllers followed proper procedure.

However, the report also indicates that the crew never revealed its reason for leaving a safe, burned zone, the fire controllers completely lost track of their position and intentions for a crucial half-hour period, that fire controllers failed to fully appreciate the implications of a predicted shift in weather patterns and fire behavior and that a crucial two-day delay in calling in resources allowed the fire to grow into a lethal monster.

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Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

The Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott killed a 19-man Hotshot crew and destroyed 503 structures. Only 14 homes in the fire’s path met full firewise standards — and not one of them fell to the flames.

By the time the flames trapped the crew in a box canyon, the 2,000-degree wall of fire towered 80-feet high and closed in on them at a dreadful speed of 12 miles an hour. The crew had just two minutes to prepare for the arrival of flames hot enough to crack the granite boulders that surrounded them.

The report concluded the tragedy stemmed from problems including communications breakdowns that have plagued other fire operations, flawed command structures that allowed the Hotshot crew to make decisions independently without adequate information and feedback, the failure to adequately prepare for a shift in the weather and fire behavior, confusion as the fire command shifted and the lack of a clear plan or goal for the deployment of the exhausted Hotshot team.

Moreover, other findings have shown that the unincorporated, 500-home community had done little to prepare for wildfires. Not only did the county fail to require even minimal firewise-style clearing of brush, but the community hadn’t even spent state and federal money allocated to clear a buffer zone. As a result, the community sat in the midst of explosive thickets of drought-dried brush that hadn’t burned in half a century.

That haunting revelation represents perhaps the most important take-home lesson for communities like Payson, Pine, Strawberry and other small Rim Country communities in the midst of overgrown forests that haven’t had a fire in decades. Although the Tonto National Forest has cleared initial buffer zones around most Rim Country communities, it lacks money to maintain the buffer zones. As a result, private efforts like the Pine-Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee must scramble for money to extend and maintain the buffers, relying on community fund-raisers and volunteer efforts. Meanwhile, neither Payson nor Gila County have adopted even basic, firewise building codes.

However, clearing brush and creating buffer zones made a dramatic difference in whether homes in Yarnell survived the fire. Cleared zones also give firefighters a place to make a stand against even crown fires. Instead, the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew found itself risking a run through thick brush trying to reach a position from which they could protect the unprepared community.

Unlike past investigations into infernos like the Dude Fire, the official report named no names and stopped short of assigning any blame for the sequence of events that trapped the 19 firefighters in a canyon facing a wall of flames without any chance of survival.

Several lawsuits that followed other fire tragedies in recent years have made official investigators much more cautious about coming to any conclusions that could make the state and federal governments liable in the case of death or damage following such an inferno.

State and federal officials have not yet released some key findings, including autopsy results and an accident review by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office.

Other investigations are ongoing, including a probe by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Phoenix New Times investigative reporter John Dougherty provided the most detailed account of the events that led to tragedy, based on both the chronology in the report and on interviews with fire experts. To read that detailed account go to: www.phoenix newtimes.com/specialReports/yarnell-hill-fire-investigating-the-deaths-of-19-granite-mountain-hotshots-3787978/

Despite the lack of a definitive account of the mistakes that led to the tragedy, the carefully worded Serious Accident Report commissioned by the Arizona Division of Forestry documents a series of miscalculations and missed opportunities.

The sequence of missed chances starts with the first report of the lightning-caused fire at 5:41 p.m. on Friday, June 21. State Division of Forestry fire controllers didn’t have an aerial tanker to dispatch to the fire burning on state lands and decided not to try to dispatch a ground crew with only about two hours of daylight left.

Fire crews from nearby Congress offered to tackle the blaze, but the state officials managing the fire told them not to risk an approach that could take them into the evening hours.

Nearby, helicopters, air tankers and ground crews were working the 6,800-acre Doce Fire that threatened subdivisions on the outskirts of Prescott. The investigative report remains silent on why the state officials didn’t call for the diversion of any of those resources when the Yarnell fire was just half an acre and spreading slowly.

The pilot of one plane asked to fly over the fire to assess the condition reported it was burning in a boulder field with no access for vehicles and showing little smoke. On that basis, the state controller reported the fire as inactive.

By 10:48 the next morning, the state helicoptered a crew to within a quarter mile of the fire. At that point, the fire had grown to eight acres. The six-man prison crew with only minimal equipment was much cheaper than dispatching an $800-per-hour professional crew.

The state controller also ordered an air attack plane, but mechanical problems limited the operations of the planes in the crucial early hours of the fire. As a result, after the early attack reduced the size of the fire, the rising heat and winds of the afternoon caused the fire to resume growth on Saturday, June 22. However, the state controllers didn’t start calling for substantial air resources until late in the afternoon. By 5:18, the fire had jumped a road crews hoped would act as a fire break and began spreading rapidly. Still, the state held off calling for expensive Very Large Air Tankers that can carry 11,400 gallons of retardant but cost $12,500 an hour, according to figures in the New Times report.

By dawn on Sunday, June 22, the fire had grown from 300 acres to 500 acres and a new command team took charge, after a hurried briefing.

The state then requested a Type 1 federal fire management team, the command structure used for the most dangerous fires — a move that would greatly increase the resources available to fight the fire. But that shift in command would take a day to put in place. In the meantime, the rapid growth of the fire strained the state’s resources to the breaking point, setting in motion the tragedy of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The state assigned Granite Mountain Superintendent Eric Marsh as division supervisor for the southwestern front of the fire. That gave Marsh the authority to move his crew without the approval of anyone in the command center. That contributed to the mystery that still shrouds the intentions and movements of the Granite Mountain crew.

The behavior of the fire began to change radically on Sunday afternoon as hot, dry winds swirled into the area and the flames gained in intensity. As controllers worked frantically to pull in resources, evacuate settlements in the shifting path of the flames and call for more help, they lost track of the Granite Mountain crew. That left the crew on its own. The presence of the crew itself on the fire line violated some of the safeguards for the deployment of crews. The crew had worked for more days without a break than allowed in federal guidelines. The crew had only two days off in June and had spent 26 days in the past month on a fire line. However, the state asked for the crew, which agreed to continue working on their home ground.

At about 4 p.m., the Granite Mountain crew was in a safe, already burned area. But at that point, Marsh radioed controllers, “we’re going down our escape route to our safety zone.”

A fire controller in a plane watching the fire asked, “Is everything OK?”

Marsh replied, “Yes, we’re just moving.”

The reason for the crew’s move remains a mystery. None of the fire commanders followed up by radio to get a clear picture of the crew’s intentions, according to the accident report. The team had just received word that winds had abruptly forced the fire to change direction, so that it was heading back toward Yarnell — and toward the place the crew had left the two vans in which the firefighters had arrived. The crew apparently knew about that shift in fire direction. Perhaps they hoped to get back to their vans and get out of the fire’s path. More likely, they thought they had time to make it to a nearby ranch designated as a safe zone because the owners had cleared trees and brush. The shortest route to the ranch led through the box canyon in which they died, just 600 yards from the safety of the cleared zone. The ranch itself survived the flames that killed the firefighters. They most likely wanted to get to the ranch so they could get back into the fight to save Yarnell.

The reconstruction of events suggests that they gambled on moving down off a ridge where they could see the fire just before a sudden shift in the wind due to an approaching storm front caused the fire to shift course once again and dramatically increase its speed — to about 12 miles an hour. That’s three times as fast as the fastest human on earth can run.

The crew had no chance of survival. The positions of the bodies showed that they had no more than two minutes warning before the flames they thought were headed in a completely different direction appeared and swept over them. Nonetheless, they maintained their discipline, remaining together and deploying their shelters. Some fully deployed their shelters — some got just halfway in. It didn’t matter, the 2,000-degree flames quickly delaminated the shelters. None of the firefighters survived.

Fire officials will continue to study the tragic events for years an in effort to correct the command and control problems that resulted in the deaths of 19 dedicated, well-trained, superbly conditioned firefighters.

But one lesson seems clear already. The approval of a subdivision without a fire-resistant building code and the subsequent lack of brush clearing and creation of buffer zones not only doomed the community — but set up the tragic sacrifice of those firefighters.

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