Yarnell fire report: Forestry officials didn't put enough value on human life

A report by the Arizona Industrial Commission found that the Forestry Division failed to remove firefighters even after it learned of troubling developments in the Yarnell fire.

Matt York/ AP Photo
A "19 Heros" patch is attached to a flagpole at the site where 19 firefighters died battling a wildfire on June 30 near Yarnell, Ariz.

When battling forest fires in Arizona last June, state forestry officials placed a higher value on the protection of property than on human life, according to new investigation by state officials.

The Wednesday ruling from the Arizona Industrial Commission came after its investigative agency, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH), released findings that recommended citations and financial penalties against the Arizona State Forestry Division, the Associated Press reported.

ADOSH’s report rejected the Forestry Division’s September review of the forest fires that killed 19 members of a 20-person team of Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30 near Yarnell, Ariz., a town northwest of Phoenix. The Hotshots' deaths led to a national debate about the value of saving homes and rebuilding in fire-prone areas.

The Forestry Division’s review did not assign blame in the deaths and “found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.”

In a direct rebuttal, the Industrial Commission report found that the Forestry Division failed to remove firefighters even after it learned that "suppression of extremely active chaparral fuels was ineffective and that wind would push active fire towards non-defensible structures.” While communication problems did play a role in the firefighters’ deaths, those problems arose because key staff members failed to show up for a morning planning meeting and because the Hotshot crew wasn’t provided with adequate maps or a second escape route, the Industrial Commission said.

The commission is requiring the Forestry Division to pay a total of $559,000 in fines, which includes payments of $25,000 to the survivors of each of the 19 Hotshots killed in the flames.

While combating the fire on June 30, members of the Hotshot team moved from a relatively safe area on a ridgetop down a mountainside through an unburned area, when a wall of flames trapped the group after winds shifted unexpectedly. It remains unclear why the firefighters did not notify anyone they were moving or why they relocated, the AP reported.

The only surviving crew member, Brendan McDonough, was acting as a lookout for the others who had gone down the mountainside. Mr. McDonough was rescued before flames reached the area where he was located. 

The Forestry Division was in charge of containing the blazing forest fire that began on June 28 with a lightning strike near Yarnell. The flames, which destroyed more than 100 homes, were finally contained on July 10.

The Industrial Commission’s chairman, David Parker, said he believed the fire management team on site did everything in its power to defend the community and provide for the safety of people, The Daily Courier of Prescott, Ariz., reported.

“It’s not the intention of the people that (is) in question, it’s that employees remained exposed after they no longer should be exposed,” Mr. Parker said.

The mother of one of the firefighters has filed a $36 million notice of claim against the state, Yavapai County, and the city of Prescott, saying their negligence led to the death of her son, the AP said.

Carrie Dennett, a spokeswoman for the Forestry Division, said the agency fully cooperated with the investigation and declined to comment to the AP. The Forestry Division has 15 days to dispute the ADOSH findings, which were unanimously approved by the Industrial Commission. 

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