Yarnell Fire settlement: not just money, but reforms to keep firefighters safer

While the settlement does not legally assign blame or accuse forestry officials of negligence, it does criticize practices that put firefighters in harm's way.

Matt York/AP
Juliann Ashcraft, wife of Granite Mountain Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft (l.) embraces Roxanne Warneke, wife of Granite Mountain Hotshot Billy Warneke, as they listen to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich discuss the status of the Yarnell Hill Fire settlement negotiations, on Monday at the Arizona Attorney General's office in Phoenix. A dozen families who lost members when a Hotshot firefighting crew was overcome by a wildfire near the small community of Yarnell settled the suit they filed against the state of Arizona.

As firefighters battle blazes across thousands of acres of the parched American West, families of the Hotshots who lost their lives in the tragic Yarnell Hill fire are getting compensation – as well as a commitment to reforms to keep firefighters safer.

The 2013 Arizona fire started with a lightning strike about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. Fed by dried brush and whipped by high winds, the blaze rushed into a canyon, killing 19 firefighters, all of of whom were on the elite Granite Mountain Hotshot team. The fire represented the single largest loss of life fighting wildfires in eight decades. 

Twelve of the firefighters' families filed a wrongful death lawsuit last year, seeking unspecified damages, but also policy changes to make sure that what happened to their loved ones doesn’t happen again. The details of the settlement reached by the families and officials were announced at a news conference Monday.

“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,” said Pat McGroder, an attorney for the families, as he filed the lawsuit last year. 

Under the terms of the settlement, the state will pay $50,000 to each of the 12 families involved in the lawsuit and $10,000 to the families of those who were not. Additionally, state forestry officials will provide firefighters enhanced safety training for incident command management, additional fire suppression activities, and improved wildland firefighter safety.

But many firefighters may take the deaths of their fellow personnel as the most important safety lesson, Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for Bureau of Land Management, told the Monitor.

“Whenever there is a serious injury or fatality on a fire, it serves as a somber reminder to firefighters everywhere that their profession is risky by nature,” says Mr. Smurthwaite. "In the wake of such tragedies, all firefighters seem to increase their situational awareness and take steps to mitigate risk.”

Two competing reports were released in the wake of the tragedy. The Arizona Forestry Division found no evidence of negligence or reckless behavior in the firefighters' deaths.

However the other, released by the state’s occupational safety agency, castigated fire managers for prioritizing property damage over firefighter lives and fined the Forestry Division $559,000 for not pulling the crew back. The money went to the families involved in the lawsuit settlement.

"I had remembered a saying that my husband had once told me when we were deer scouting two years before. He said to never go into a canyon,” said Roxanne Warneke, the widow of one of the firefighters, at the news conference. “Descending into that canyon went against everything he was taught in advanced land navigation, that he had spent over eight years studying and practicing.”

While the settlement does not legally assign blame or accuse forestry officials of negligence, it does criticize them for practices that put the crew in harm's way. 

Fire managers “failed to re-evaluate, re-prioritize and update fire suppression strategies and plans after fire behavior and weather conditions dramatically changed which resulted in firefighter exposure to serious hazards,” according to the settlement.

Along with the details of the settlement, Ms. Warneke announced the creation of a nonprofit foundation called the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute dedicated to protecting wildland firefighters, advocating for increased safety measures and practices, and seeking greater transparency from officials.

In in an interview with National Public Radio, former Hotshot Kyle Dickman notes that fire size has increased sixfold in the last 40 years, and, "despite spending $4.7 billion every year, we're not seeing much evidence that that spending is doing anything to control fire size or destructiveness." His book, "On the Burning Edge" is an account of the Yarnell fire. 

"What I would like to see is a larger percentage of that money going toward preparing for wildfires. So instead of spending billions fighting them, we should be spending ... billions preparing for them – by thinning the forest, by using more prescribed fire, by letting more wildfires burn," he adds.  

"We still have work on the horizon: the lessons learned, the truth of the death of our sons husbands and fathers,” said Deborah Pfingston, the mother of one of the firefighters.

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