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.'

By , Staff writer

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    Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis touches a Granite Mountain Hot Shots crew shirt draped over a burned cactus in Yarnell, Ariz. On Saturday, investigators released a report on the deaths of the 19 elite firefighters who became trapped by flames in a brush-choked canyon north of Phoenix.
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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.

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.

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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.

The raising of a spiritual dimension to the hotshots’ death, however, has sparked intense debate among hotshots and raised questions about whether the report would try to whitewash the responsibility of commanders in charge of how the team got placed ahead of the fire.

Under US fire safety rules, investigators are allowed to withhold sensitive information from the public in order to focus on “lessons learned” rather than recrimination. Causes and reasons for accidents, under those rules, may be revealed only on a confidential basis.

"If you accept that this horrific catastrophe – unprecedented in the history of hotshots – is because God had a different plan for those 19 men, then you're not going to go beyond God's will for causal factors, and that means you're going to leave the door open for this to happen again," Gary Olson, a former superintendent of Arizona's Happy Jack Hotshots and US Bureau of Land Management criminal investigator, told the Phoenix New Times.

Others, including many surviving family members, have instead tried to make peace with what happened.

“A wildland fire moves and changes constantly,” Michael MacKenzie, whose 30-year-old son, Christopher MacKenzie, died in the Yarnell Hill Fire, told The New Times. “You have to make whatever decision you do based on what was going on at the moment.”

Officially, the men, members of an elite firefighting unit used to working at close range with shovels, chain saws, and backpack water pumps, were the victims of a sudden change in direction of monsoon-strength winds as a thunderstorm moved into the area. In craggy, canyon environments, wind and water can take on terrific power as air pressure equalizes around crags, outcroppings, boulder fields, and chaparral copses inside the canyon.

Driven by whipping winds, the Yarnell Hill fire destroyed more than a hundred buildings, and flared, completely out of control, for several days as fire commanders threw men and firefighting planes at it. It ultimately took more than 600 firefighters to cut enough fire lines and burn off enough fuel to slow and kill the fire 12 days later.

In the canyon above Yarnell on June 30, rain mixed with ash even as the fire gained strength, adding to the building danger. “The fire way outperformed our expectations,” one commander told investigators.

The report includes several photographs of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the day of the tragedy, including one picture of them ascending a ridge and another, sent by one of the hotshots shortly before his death, that showed the fire coming up the canyon as they stood on a ridge.

“This thing is runnin straight for yarnel just starting evac,” the crew member texts along with the photo.

The report ultimately does not answer the main question of why the team decided to move from a ridge and into the canyon ahead of the fire.

"There is much that cannot be known about the crew's decisions and actions prior to their entrapment and fire shelter deployment," the report says. The report says that commanders thought the crew was "in the black," or in a safe zone, until moments before they were engulfed.

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