USA– For Tom Ashcraft, walking in the fateful steps that his son Andrew and the other fallen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew took nearly three years ago served as a turning point in the healing process.
Ashcraft and a number of other family members of the 19 Hotshots who died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013 have participated in the Arizona Forestry Divisions efforts toward a staff ride on the fire.
Not really a ride at all, the Forestry Divisions staff ride is an all-day hike and multi-stop exercise intended to put participants in the place of the people fighting the fire, and ultimately, to serve as a learning tool.
Among the top goals of a process: Better decisions during future wildfires.
Although noting that some unanswered questions still remain, Ashcraft said this week that the ability to walk the Hotshots route and question the people who were involved that Sunday in 2013 was helpful and enlightening.
Im very, very thankful I went, he said of the April 4-5 staff ride for the families. It was a turning point in my own healing process.
A major take-away for Ashcraft was his ability to talk face-to-face with the air-attack crew members who were unable to dump a load of retardant on the Hotshots a move that Ashcraft and others have maintained could have saved them.
Ashcraft says he had long felt resentment on that point. But after seeing the terrain, and hearing from the pilots about the extreme wind conditions that day, he said he was better able to understand the actions that took place.
I heard what specific challenges they were facing weather, wind, and information, which was sporadic, Ashcraft said. With the wind pushing into that box canyon, (the retardant) probably would have never reached the ground.
Arizona State Forester Jeff Whitney points out that the staff ride process has been underway for months, and is expected to wrap up before the three-year mark of the Granite Mountain Hotshot tragedy (June 30, 2016).
Creation of a staff ride was a requirement of the Hotshot lawsuit settlement that was reached nearly a year ago (June 29, 2015).
The process also is integral to wildland firefighting, and was among the recommendations of the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation that came out in September 2013.
As Whitney explains it, a staff ride is a multi-phase process that has its roots in the military. First comes a preliminary study of the incident or fire, then an extensive field study of the actual sites where the fire occurred, and finally, an opportunity to integrate the lessons learned from the fire into future firefighting efforts.
The draft staff ride document from April 2016 lists five goals. First among them: Create a memorable learning experience that helps participants make better decisions supported by the application of recent and relevant history.
For Whitney, who in 1990 was on the team battling the Payson-area Dude Fire during which six firefighters died, the lessons-learned aspect is crucial.
Twenty-three years later, Whitney heard the news about the Granite Mountain Hotshots (just weeks after he had retired from a 40-year career in wildland firefighting, management, and administration), and he says he was frustrated and heartbroken to hear of the loss.
How can we prevent this from happening? he said. Its important work.
Whitney came out of retirement in January 2015 to accept Gov. Doug Duceys appointment as director of the Arizona State Forestry Division. He was a part of the mediation that culminated with the June 2015 settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit that family members brought against the state.
He stresses that the staff ride is not intended to be an investigation into what went wrong? Rather, he said, the exercise puts wildland experts into the place of those who made the decisions during the fire.
Its important that we get some clarity around what occurred there, Whitney said. And its important that we try to do everything we possibly can to equip our current and future fire managers with more information, so theyre better able to do situation awareness and opportunity recognition.
The Yarnell Hill staff rides field study phase continued this week, when about 40 experts Hotshot superintendents, engine captains, duty officers met in Yarnell to go through the same drill the families had earlier done.
The 47-page April 2016 Yarnell Hill Staff Ride draft included a step-by-step schedule for the team. Among the defined stops: the Yarnell Fire Station; movement to the ridge top on Yarnell Hill; a sense-making and communication session at the top of the ridge; descending to the saddle, defined as closing the window; and the fatality site, which the document refers to as realized ultimate reality.
Along with background about the crew, the draft staff ride document includes situational information, and the tactical decisions that were made.
The document notes that participants in the exercise would be tracing the route and decision-making of the (Granite Mountain Hotshots) and their colleagues as they faced a rapidly changing fire environment in an effort to manage the Yarnell Hill Fire.
Whitney said the family involvement in the Yarnell Hill staff ride was somewhat unique, because of its place in the settlement agreement.
The 40 experts who participated this week came various agencies all over the country. Their feedback will go into the creation of the final staff ride document.
Whitney foresees the Yarnell Hill Fire being a learning tool for years to come, with as many as four staff rides a year conducted at the site. (He said access to the site is still being worked out).
Noting that staff rides usually take eight to 10 years to complete, Whitney said the Yarnell Hill exercise is well ahead of the norm.
Were going to have this done in three years, he said. Im extremely pleased with the progress to date. It redeems the commitment I made.