One year ago this weekend, lightning sparked a wildfire on US Bureau of Land Management land near Yarnell, Ariz., a community of 700 people northwest of Phoenix. Two days later, the wind-whipped, drought-fed blaze overran firefighters in a canyon choked with brush, killing 19 members of a team known as the “Granite Mountain Hotshots.”
This week, wives and parents of a dozen of those killed 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 one of the worst firefighting disasters in US history.
“The families want to ensure they understand clearly what happened, why it happened and to ensure that whatever needs to be done now or in the future to avoid tragedies like this is indeed done,” Pat McGroder, an attorney for the families, said Thursday.
The Yarnell Hill fire 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.
Named as defendants in the suit brought by the deceased firefighters’ families are the state of Arizona and its forestry division, Yavapai County, and the Central Yavapai County Fire District. Also listed are the fire officials who were responsible for managing firefighting efforts in the two days leading up to when the 19 men were killed.
A three-month investigation into the deaths of the hotshot crew, which was based in Prescott, Ariz., cited poor communication between the men and support staff, and revealed that an air tanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the men died.
The report found that all firefighting procedures had been followed and assigned little blame. But the investigation also found improperly programmed radios, vague updates, and a 30-minute communication blackout just before the flames engulfed the men.
As winds shifted 180 degrees and grew to 40 miles per hour, doubling the fire’s intensity and driving it toward the hotshot crew, the blaze quickly became an inferno, burning swiftly across pine, juniper, and scrub oak and through an area that hadn't experienced a significant wildfire in more than 45 years. As the investigation reported, “it was primed to burn.”
Given the communications problems, questions remain about why the firefighters moved from a relatively safer position into a steep, boulder-strewn area that proved to be deadly. As their situation became obvious, they deployed individual tent-like shelters made of fire-resistant material and designed to allow them to survive as the fire passes over them.
In this case, temperatures reached 2,000 degrees F. as the fire swept through their position.
"Nobody will ever know how the crew actually saw their situation, the options they considered or what motivated their actions," the report said.
The 20th member of the hotshot crew – 21-year-old Brendan McDonough – 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.
“He did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward said.
“The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable,” investigators found. “Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The [investigative team] found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.”
A year later, such official conclusions apparently are not enough for the families of most of those killed that day. They’re seeking more answers and compensation for the loved ones they lost.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.