Western wildfire fatalities: Lessons learned from tragedy in Yarnell, Ariz.

Western wildfire fatalities: Lessons learned from tragedy in Yarnell, Ariz.

23 December 2013

published by www.missoulian.com

USA — Editor’s note: This is the first in a seven-part series on wildfire fatalities in the West.

YARNELL, Ariz. – Nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30 for no good reason.

They left their safety zone in “the black,” land that already had burned, and headed into a box canyon from which they could not escape when the fire roared in.

Now, despite a swift and superficial original investigation report and other obfuscation of evidence, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) has cited the Arizona Forestry Division and fined it $559,000, including $25,000 for each dead Hotshot’s family.

The division had “prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety …” wrote ADOSH, which reinvestigated the tragedy with Wildland Fire Associates, wildland firefighters turned consultants.

Although supervisors “knew that suppression of extremely active chaparral fuels was ineffective and that wind would push active fire towards non-defensible structures, firefighters working downwind were not promptly removed from exposure to smoke inhalation, burns and death by wind-driven wildland fire.”

The Granite Mountain Hotshots weren’t given maps or aerial diagrams when they reported for duty, and a safety officer wasn’t available.

The Hotshots themselves failed to ensure they had escape routes, a readily available safety zone and a lookout, and they didn’t report their movement into the canyon to their superiors, as required, the report says.

Did they ignore safety rules in their zest to help save the tiny town of Yarnell? Were they locked into a plan they couldn’t drop as intense stress froze their senses?

These are questions haunting wildfire professionals across the West, a community rocked by the unimaginable annihilation of a Hotshot team known for being smart, hard-working and highly conscientious about safety.

The original investigation report repeatedly states: “Nobody will ever know.”

Arizona agencies, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office and the late Hotshots’ colleagues and survivors nearly ensured that.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots’ bodies were moved off the site within 24 hours.


That stands in sharp contrast to the rich results gleaned from the deaths of 14 firefighters – mostly Hotshots – in the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 6, 1994.

Upon finding 12 of the 14 bodies on Storm King Mountain that day, Missoula smokejumper Wayne Williams knew that if they were moved, any opportunity to learn from the event would be lost.

Told that then-Gov. Roy Romer wanted the bodies brought down off the mountain, Williams snapped, “Well, f–- the governor.”

Romer, standing nearby, introduced himself and asked if there were a problem. Williams told him, “You move those damned bodies, and you are going to ruin every bit of information those investigators can get. What happened up there was unusual, and it would be foolhardy to destroy that scene,” author John N. MacLean recounts in “Fire on the Mountain.”

That’s what happened after Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire killed 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger on Aug. 5, 1949, Williams knew. The lives were lost in vain, leaving no explanation from which others could learn.

Williams made sure that didn’t happen in Colorado. But in Arizona, the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ bodies were moved off the site within 24 hours.

The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office “did everything they would as with a crime scene,” said Wade Ward, a former member of the Hotshots team who now is public information officer for the Prescott Fire Department.

But deputies aren’t fatality wildfire scene investigators. So why the rush?

“People were violating the air space and taking photos the whole time,” said Dave Turbyfill, whose son, Travis, died in the fire. “That definitely prompted them to go get in there as soon as they did. They had all their GPS set up and photographed everything.”

But that’s not good enough, not for studying the exact positions of the bodies and deployed fire shelters, not for scientifically scouring the condition of every scrap of clothing and every tool, not for tracking their steps and movements. And certainly not for learning lessons that could help future firefighters avoid a similar catastrophe.

The Arizona Lands Department then shut down the entire section of land on which the Hotshots died, forbidding entry. The section still is closed today, six months later.

The state closed the site “to protect it from – just to protect it. You can imagine. Vandals, something of that sort,” said Bill Boyd, the department’s legislative policy administrator. What damage could be done to an expanse of scorched earth? “You could paint stuff and that sort of thing,” he said. “I’m sort of surprised you don’t understand.”

“They were trying to protect the sanctity of that site, of our guys,” Ward said.

But a closed site yields no answers that could protect the sanctity of other firefighters’ futures.

“I hope there’s lessons from Yarnell,” said McCall Smokejumper Base Manager Joe Brinkley, whose triplet brother Levi was killed in the South Canyon Fire.


Veteran wildfire investigatorTed Putnam, Ph.D., winters in Prescott and was eager to visit the site in an effort to uncover more information than the state report yielded.

But while reporters, photographers, Hotshots’ family members, Hotshot teams from elsewhere and many others have been taken to the site, Putnam’s requests repeatedly have been rebuffed.

The state Forestry Division said the Lands Department would have to grant him permission, but the Lands Department told him to talk to Forestry. The Sheriff’s Office said it wouldn’t let him in unless he got permission from the Lands Department, but those people said they would have to be ordered to do so. And though the Prescott Fire Department initially offered him a visit, that fell through, too.

Putnam finally walked onto a ridge near the deployment site Nov. 15 with two hikers, Tex Gilligan and Joy Collura, who had been on Yarnell Hill on June 30.

The hikers photographed the Hotshots resting that day and thought it must have been a prescribed burn because the crew wasn’t doing anything.

But Putnam said he saw that a lot of work had been done along the fire line, and he believes the Hotshots were sitting out of the way so a load of retardant could be dropped by air.

He’s particularly interested in determining whether they could have deployed their fire shelters in a better site and survived.

“In hindsight, everybody could figure out a better site,” Ward said.

But the Granite Mountain Hotshots “just deployed where they were,” Putnam said. “Laying down in the valley floor is the worst place to deploy. I wonder if there was a nearby site where they could have deployed better and possibly survived.

“I could see places (at the site) that survived (unburned). That’s an important story to tell.”

What if the fire suddenly raced toward them and they didn’t have time to move?

“Anytime you catch yourself in a place like that, there are only two things to recommend,” Putnam said. “You pack in together as closely as you can (under your shelters). And the other thing I strongly recommend is to put one shelter into another one, and you both jump into that.

“When you see death racing toward you, it’s hard to do your best thinking.”


The Serious Accident Investigation Report (SAIR) was released Sept. 23, less than three months after the fatalities.

Many wildfire professionals and other observers have taken issue with its findings – or rather, the lack thereof.

“I’m discouraged with the report,” said Larry Edwards, a Hotshot and foreman since the early 1970s who retired as a superintendent in 2004 in Helena. “It’s too much of what happened; there’s no ‘why.’ Without trying to figure out a ‘why’ to it, there’s not much to be learned. I don’t think there’s a value in that.”

Also unsatisfied is Turbyfill, who lost his only son.

“I’m not satisfied with the answers of the deaths. I’m not satisfied that God needed another Hotshot crew in heaven. I’m not satisfied with, ‘We’ll never know,’” Turbyfill said in October at his shop in Prescott.

“I’m not surprised there was no criticism of the incident commander. I feel the IC should know where their crews are at any time on the ground,” he said, alluding to the fact that no one knew where the Hotshots had gone.

“You’ve got to be brutal on the investigation on everybody involved,” said Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist and Air Force veteran who teaches fire behavior classes in Grand Junction, Colo. “The Air Force, when they do it right (on a crash investigation), find out a problem with the airplane, training, pilot performance.”

The report “didn’t look at anything organizationally or culturally,” said Putnam, who has worked on many SAIRs during his career. “We need full disclosure …

“We the public should always know what witnesses were interviewed,” he said. “The witness statements are the only thing we have to hold the investigative team accountable for the job they did – and to hold the SAI Guide itself accountable for what it’s designed to do.

“Half of the times (of events) aren’t even in the timeline. If you’re judging by the timeline, it’s a piece of crap report.

“In the end, you don’t attack any of the deceased people,” Putnam said. “You simply want to go back and examine whether a Hotshot crew should be attached to structure protection.”

Putnam is widely known for his work on human factors on wildfire fatality sites, the study of why certain decisions were made and what factors contributed to those choices.

He and many other wildfire veterans say the very formation of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was ill-conceived.

It was the only Hotshot team in the nation attached to a city fire department rather than a federal agency. As such, the men often spent the offseason helping the people of Prescott make their properties fire-defensible.

That fact, that they engaged in protection of structures as much as wildlands, gave them a different perspective, wildfire authorities agree.

And only nine days before they fought the Yarnell Hill Fire, they had been lauded as heroes for saving 465 evacuated homes in the Prescott area.

“There’s a conflict between property firefighters and wildland firefighters,” Cuoco said. “Wildland firefighters are there to control ’em, not put ’em out. Structural firefighters are trained to put fires out.”

“Regarding Yarnell, the biggest question, the only question, is ‘Why was the decision made to leave the safety of the black?’,” veteran Hotshot Edwards said. “I feel pretty strongly that the culture of the Prescott Fire Department played heavily into that decision. While the recent report stated that no one ordered Granite Mountain to move to provide structure protection, I believe that it was implied that they would,” Edwards said in an email.

“Superintendent (Eric) Marsh felt he had a lot to prove in supporting and justifying the Fire Department having a Hotshot crew. The crew had been recognized previously for saving structures. …

“The concept of ‘leader’s intent’ comes into play here,” Edwards wrote. “While not specifically being told to engage in structure protection when the fire changed direction and threatened Yarnell, Superintendent Marsh understood that that was what was expected of him.

“There’s got to be some ownership by the Prescott Fire Department.”

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