Arizona Settles Cases With Relatives of 19 Who Died Fighting Wildfire

Arizona Settles Cases With Relatives of 19 Who Died Fighting Wildfire 

29 June 2015

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USA– Ariz.- Relatives of some of the 19 firefighters killed in one of the nation’s deadliest wildfires joined state officials here Monday to announce settlements in two legal cases against the Arizona State Forestry Division, the agency responsible for the firefighters on the day they died.

The agreements, disclosed on the eve of the fire’s second anniversary, include more than $600,000 in compensation for the families and an acknowledgment that commanders’ misguided decisions put the elite firefighting crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, at great risk.

The Forestry Division has also agreed, as part of the settlement to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by 12 families, to improve training for its incident commanders and firefighters, test better tracking equipment and join a national effort to provide specific lessons about the effects of dry, warmer seasons on the wild lands.
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“This wasn’t about winning at all costs,” said Arizona’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, who oversaw the negotiations. “It was about doing the right thing.”

The agreements capped more than a year of discussions involving the families, their lawyer, forestry officials and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which conducted an investigation that revealed the chaos in the hours before the firefighters’ deaths.

While the pacts do not hold the forestry agency formally responsible for the deaths, they give the families some vindication with a critical assessment of the commanders’ decision making.

According to one of the settlements, the commanders “failed to re-evaluate, re-prioritize and update fire suppression strategies and plans after fire behavior and weather conditions dramatically changed,” exposing firefighters to “serious hazards” posed by fierce, fast-moving flames. They mostly left the firefighters to fend for themselves as an approaching thunderstorm pushed the fire their way.

“Finally, it’s over,” said Roxanne Warneke, who was pregnant when she lost her husband, Billy, in the blaze. “I wanted Billy’s death to mean something, for some good to come out of it, and now I can actually start to see results.”

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, said the governor was “thrilled” with the agreements, adding that they made “sensible policy changes for wildfire management.”

The fire ignited on June 28, 2013, when lightning struck a clump of parched brush west of Yarnell, a town of 600 residents in central Arizona. The Hotshots died two days later after storm winds pushed a wave of fire toward them, trapping them at the bottom of a canyon.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation, released in December 2013, resulted in $559,000 in fines against the Forestry Division over claims that it put protecting private property ahead of safeguarding the firefighters assigned to the blaze, which also destroyed more than 100 homes.

In one of the settlements announced Monday, forestry officials agreed to distribute the money among the seven families who were not plaintiffs in a wrongful-death lawsuit: $10,000 for each dependent.

As part of the second settlement, the 12 families who filed the wrongful-death suit will receive $50,000 per family. Their lawyer, Patrick J. McGroder III, said the payouts reflected “the priorities of the families,” who pushed not for money but for “remedial measures and changes to ensure a tragedy like this one never happens again.”

Mrs. Warneke and the wife and mother of Andrew Ashcraft, another of the firefighters, will use the money to establish a foundation to help other fallen firefighters’ families and push for greater training, Mrs. Warneke said.

Mr. McGroder noted the significance of the appointment of Jeff Whitney, who worked five seasons on Hotshot crews, as the Forestry Division’s new director days after Mr. Ducey took office in January. Mr. Whitney, who has more than 40 years of experience fighting and managing fires, replaced Scott Hunt, who was in charge at the time of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Legislators quickly acted on the settlements: A bipartisan committee approved the agreements on June 18.

The Forestry Division has also agreed to use its fires as testing grounds for pilot programs and technologies, including tracking devices that relay firefighters’ locations in real time. During the Hotshots’ final moments, planes equipped with chemicals to retard flames were unable to help because no one appeared to know exactly where the men were.

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