One year after deadly Arizona wildfire, has firefighting changed?

Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which killed 19 “hotshot” firefighters. A group of retired firefighting experts says much more must be done to prevent such tragedies.

David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic/AP
Vernon Fire District Chief Dave Niehuis talks with Kathy Hoogerwerf during a community meeting about the San Juan Fire Saturday at Fire Station 1, in Vernon, Ariz. Emergency crews have set up a shelter for evacuees of a wildfire in northeastern Arizona's White Mountains that has charred more than 8 square miles.

In Arizona this weekend, a wildfire has charred nearly 8 square miles in the White Mountains about 135 miles east of Phoenix, near the New Mexico border.

Some families evacuated as authorities warned that more than 90 structures in three communities could be threatened, including homes, barns, and sheds. Nine “Hotshot” crews, 12 engines, five heavy air tankers and a helicopter were fighting the fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

The blaze, uncontained since first reported last Thursday and one of many across a drought-parched West, is being fought as firefighters, agencies, and communities note the one-year anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

It was one of the worst firefighting tragedies in US history, a reminder that the deadly combination of rough, steep terrain, unpredictable winds, and built-up brush and other fuels sometimes can overwhelm the best-equipped and best-trained wildfire crews.

Lessons learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy are hard to come by – mainly because anybody who might have been an eyewitness was killed by a fast-moving inferno that swept over the 19 men as they scrambled to deploy emergency shelters that could not protect them from temperatures that reached 2,000 degrees F.

The Arizona Forestry Division found that fire managers overseeing the Yarnell Hill Fire did not make major mistakes and that it isn't clear why the Granite Mountain Hotshots left a safe zone and walked into the canyon where they were killed, the Associated Press reports.

A competing report from the state's occupational safety agency, however, blamed managers for failing to see that the town of Yarnell was essentially doomed and said they should have pulled the crews back hours before the died.

Given communications problems cited in the investigation, questions remain about why the firefighters moved from a relatively safer position into a steep, boulder-strewn area that proved to be deadly.

"Nobody will ever know how the crew actually saw their situation, the options they considered or what motivated their actions," the investigation report said.

The 20th member of the hotshot crew had been posted as a lookout on a nearby ridge. He radioed a warning about shifting winds, and when his own position became perilous he headed to safety.

Last week, a group of retired federal wildland firefighters wrote to the National Wildlife Coordinating Group (NWCG) based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID, where all federal firefighting agencies and state fire organizations are represented.

Their message was sobering:

“We have spent the last year studying wildland firefighter fatalities of the last 20 years, including many hours of research and review of data and reports from many sources. Hauntingly there are similarities in each of these tragedies. Yet despite enhanced training, new wildland fire management policies and stated commitments by all agencies to firefighter safety, the wildland fire agencies are not doing enough to prevent wildland firefighter deaths. Wildland firefighters continue to die in staggering numbers. If changes are not made this tragic loss of life will continue as it has for the last several decades.”

Their report’s key findings:

• Establish uniformity in mapping systems
• Establish standardized emergency communications protocol
• Look at a benefit analysis of values at risk (homes, private property, public lands) vs. the risk to firefighters’ lives 
• Develop an independent investigative body for serious accidents and fatalities
• Require direct involvement of agency administrators and program managers, especially when fires escape initial attack and incident management teams are mobilizing or in transition 

With the impacts of climate change, plus continued residential and commercial development into what’s called the “wildland-urban interface,” the need for new ways of dealing with such fires is likely to increase.

Last week, wives and parents of a dozen of those killed in last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Arizona public agencies. The suit seeks unspecified damages for funeral costs, pain and suffering, and lost income, and it also seeks more information on what caused the firefighting disaster, which destroyed 127 homes as it scorched some 13 square miles causing an estimated $17 million in property damage. Owners of 162 properties also have sued the state.

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