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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.'

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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.

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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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