Yarnell Hill fire report: Weather, communication led to loss of 19 'hotshots' (+video)
‘We are in front of the flaming front’ was among the last communications with a firefighting team lost to the Yarnell Hill canyon fire. Deadly weather shifts added to a situation that cost the lives of 19 'hotshots.'
Nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots lost contact with fire commanders for most of 30 minutes before being overrun and killed by an out-of-control chaparral canyon fire near Prescott, Ariz., on June 30, according to the Yarnell Fire Serious Accident Investigation report released Saturday.Skip to next paragraph
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The report cites a rapid change in weather and fire conditions, as well as troubled radio communications, among the factors behind how the men got caught by a storm-driven wall of flame burning like a manzanita-fueled blowtorch, resulting in the worst loss of firefighter lives since 9/11, and the largest number of hotshots killed in one event since two dozen men lost their lives battling the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.
Communication problems meant fire commanders had not properly understood the position or direction of the team as it tried to move ahead of the fire from a ridge, across the fire’s path, and toward a safe zone. The 19 members, plus one lookout who survived, had been creating firebreaks by hand as the fire began to intensify. It’s believed they were retreating to a nearby ranch before redoubling their firefighting when they were overtaken.
The team, most from nearby Prescott, was caught amid a mass of dry brush by a fire that had moved a mile in less than 15 minutes. The firefighters were killed as they were deploying small fire shelters, unable to withstand the 2,000-degree heat that swept over the hotshots.
“Yeah, I’m here with Granite Mountain Hotshots. Our escape route has been cut off,” the division leader says urgently at one point. “We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush, and I’ll give you a call when we are under the sh – the shelters.”
In the end, the report states that there was “no indication of negligence, reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol” in the tragedy. Instead, the crew, made up of mostly 20-year-olds with a 40-something leader, made an ill-fated decision to move to a new “black,” or safe, area when the fire made a dramatic 90-degree turn amid outflows from an approaching thunderstorm.
Confusion among commanders about which way the team had gone to get to a nearby ranch designated as a safe spot hampered search and rescue for the team.
Despite controversy over an official’s view that “God had a different plan” for the men, the report also says the team of investigators assiduously worked to prevent “hindsight bias,” which they said tends to assign blame rather than help the public learn from what went wrong in an inherently dangerous situation.