Sidestep Blame, Fail The Heroes

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The long-awaited report on the tragic deaths of 19 heroic Prescott firefighters left almost all of the most important questions unanswered.

The report offered an agonizing chronology of the sequence of miscalculations and miscommunications that led to the deaths of 19 of the bravest, most dedicated, most disciplined among us — every one of them putting their lives on the line to protect the rest of us.

The report tip-toes around the critical issues, pointing out that we’ll never know for certain what led the crew to hike 1.6 miles out of a relatively safe burned area in an attempt to reach another safe zone around a ranch. The report does rebut earlier speculations that the crew hoped to save the ranch from the flames, since it was considered a safe zone. Instead, it appears the crew wanted to get into position to help protect Yarnell, without realizing the risk of their route.

As it turns out, the wind shifted abruptly while they were hiking out of sight of the fire. Turning 90 degrees in an instant, the fire doubled its speed and roared down upon them in a brush-choked box canyon with less than two minutes warning and no chance of escape.

Clearly, the communications problems on major, multi-agency fire scenes that have plagued other fire commanders played a tragic role here. Commanders lost track of the crew as they scrambled to adapt to the “radical” behavior of the fire. The rush of wind drove the fire at perhaps three times as fast as a man can run through tinder-dry brush that had not burned in half a century.

Clearly, the federal government must immediately provide firefighters with the necessary equipment to survive. They should have had clear communications with the command center on an isolated frequency. They should have had GPS locators so the air tankers could find them. They should have been part of a clear and coherent strategy — or kept in a safe zone until commanders had such a strategy.

We can hope that the federal government will read the report today, in shame and fury. Oh. Wait. That’s right: The government has shut down in a spasm of disgusting political grandstanding. But then, that’s another editorial.

Make no mistake: The fault does not lie with the firefighters, who displayed courage and discipline even in the midst of the holocaust. The fault lies with the system that put them in the path of the fire then forced them to make life and death decisions without enough information and without the support they deserved.

But more important — the fault lies with us. The fault lies with every wildfire-menaced community that has no defense when the monster finally comes roaring out of forests save the reckless courage of those firefighters. The Forest Service has let the danger build up decade by decade — and even now we stand by and wring our hands instead of insisting on solutions — even if we must fund them ourselves.

Two things did emerge with terrible clarity from that terrible, haunting report.

First: The firefighters who died were the best we had, even in the face of death.

Second: We do not deserve them — for we have failed to take the action that will make such heroism unnecessary next time the monster comes for us.

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