A new report released Saturday cites poor communications and decision-making as contributing to firefighter deaths in Arizona this past June in the deadliest single fire crew tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001.
Nineteen firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew were killed in the wildfires on June 30, while valiantly attempting to protect a nearby town. The firefighters’ families responded to the 120-page report, which came from a three-month investigation, with questions about why certain safety measures were not taken.
Though the investigations did indicate those involved followed proper procedures, and did not place any specific blame, it did cite vague communications between firefighters and support staff, along with badly programmed radios, as part of the problem. Before the men were consumed by the flames, there was a 33-minute blackout in communications. Weather warnings either did not reach the crew or went unheeded. This lack of communication likely led to what the report calls the firefighters’ “excessive risk” in leaving the safety of a previously consumed ridge to fight the fire from a new position.
Ironically, the report noted, as the firefighters were dying, an aircraft with a tankful of flame retardant was flying above them. During the last moments, the crew desperately requested the assistance of such an airtanker, but due to these miscommunications, the tanker did not know where to make its drop.
Juliann Ashcraft, whose husband Andrew was among the firefighters killed, felt the report showed deficiencies in the chain of command and its decision-making. “Maybe what this has done is exposed that they are not mitigating risks the way they should for such a dangerous job.”
Interagency Hotshot Crews like the Granite Mountain group are intensively trained units intended to deploy wherever necessary to fight the worst wildfires. Since they are likely to be place in the most dangerous positions, Andrew Ashcraft’s mother, Deborah Pfingston, told CBS News there should’ve been “a GPS on every hotshot’s body, period.”
Family members have also pointed out how the fire that killed the Granite Mountain Hotshots could have been prevented when it started two days before. On June 28, fire commanders chose not to order any fire tanker planes to assault the blaze when it was still small, believing those resources could be used better elsewhere. The remote area where the fire started had not experienced a major wildfire in 50 years, and its dry foliage provided plenty of fuel for the blaze, which grew to 13 square miles and consumed more than 100 homes.
Some family members expressed hopes that the report would bring them some closure, but also that Arizona would make necessary changes in how the state’s hotshot teams are equipped and deployed.
“Next fire season is in six months, and the Southwest is a tinderbox,” Deborah Pfingston said, interviewed beside her widowed daughter-in-law. “What can we do in six months so that another wife and mother aren’t standing here?”
Written By: Jeremy Forbing