USA — A former Yarnell volunteer firefighter said it was possible to put out the deadliest wildfire in more than three decades, when it was still just a wisp of smoke. Meantime, CBS 5 Investigates found state dispatchers failed to call in some of the closest firefighters and equipment.
“We could have driven up part of the way and walked the rest of the way with shovels and a bucket of water in our hands,” said LeRoy Anderson, who was a volunteer firefighter with the Yarnell Fire Department on June 28. That was the day a lightning strike started the Yarnell Hill Fire.
“The fire, for basically the whole night, was the size of a Buick. It wasn’t very big at all,” said Anderson.
Anderson told CBS 5 Investigates he did not see an urgency to put out the flames, on the part of the Yarnell Fire Department.
“There were convenient reasons not to go. Let’s put it that way,” said Anderson.
Yarnell Fire Chief Ben Palm told CBS 5 News his department called the state Forestry Division to take care of the fire because it was on state land, located two miles outside the town of Yarnell and his department simply did not have the resources to handle a the job at that time.
State forestry dispatch records show crews were called in from Yuma and the Phoenix area to attack the fire the following morning. But one of the incident reports indicate delays occurred when crews did not know the best way to reach the fire, which was burning on top of the Weaver Mountains.
CBS 5 Investigates found crews and equipment were closer to the fire location, but were not called by state dispatchers.
Dan Sullivan owns Lynx Wildland Fire Co. He is a private contractor, located in Prescott, just 40 minutes from Yarnell. Sullivan said the federal government calls him and his equipment into action several times per year, but the state of Arizona rarely does.
Despite Sullivan and his equipment’s close proximity to the Yarnell Hill Fire, he was not called into service. He and other private contractors told CBS 5 Investigates they are rarely used by state fire officials, despite the fact that they are fully certified to fight wildland fires.
“I will call dispatch and say, ‘I’m available. I see you have a fire nearby. Do you need us?’ And always, their response is, ‘We have no need for you,'” said Kent Larson, who owns JTS Construction, which also operates wildland “Type 3” water tenders.
Dana Lott, who owns Sundance Fire and Rescue in Benson, said he was called out on nine fires last year. All of them were under the jurisdiction of the federal government. He also worked on the Yarnell Fire, pumping out gray water from the firefighter’s kitchen. The state forestry division did not call on him to use his Type 6 or Type 3 brush trucks.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Forestry Division declined a request for an interview, but issued the following statement:
“Arizona State Forestry uses agency, fire department, and federal agency resources for initial attack response. The closest available fire department is our most common dispatch to initial fire reports.
For extended attack fires on state jurisdiction, we use a mix of agency, fire department, contractor, and federal resources. We maintain a rotation to equitably utilize contractor and fire department resources for extended attack fires.”
But the contractors who reached out to CBS 5 Investigate say they believe the state chooses to use equipment from municipal and rural fire departments because those departments benefit from the reimbursements for service.
Billing invoices obtained by CBS 5 Investigates show departments can earn between $10,000 and $30,000 for working a single wildland fire. The expenses are billed to the state and federal government.
“We compete against them,” said Larson.
But according to a recent study by the National Wildfire Suppression Association, it is less expensive to use contractors.
The contractors who spoke to CBS 5 Investigates said that is one of the reasons the federal government uses them so often.
“We cost roughly half what a district would charge,” said Law.
They said they want to see the state utilize private contractors more often, especially in situations when they are the closest to the scene of a fire, like what happened in Yarnell.
“Give us a chance to show ourselves,” said Sullivan. “If you want a test, put us up to the test.”