The report prepared by the Arizona State Forestry Department on the Yarnell Hill wildfire has been released after the investigation as to what led to the deaths of 19 firefighters. The reports state that there was “no indication of negligence, reckless actions or violations of protocol.”
The deaths of the firefighters, all members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, occurred on June 30, 2013. The fire started with a lightning strike and spread through thousands of acres and destroying 100 houses. The firefighters were caused after the group had moved their positions to better attack the fire and changing conditions caused the fire to change direction, burning back over them According to the report there were three main factors which led to the deaths: severe and changing wind and weather conditions, communication problems and the fire became more complex.
The report first mentions that it was believed by the commander that the Granite Mountain crew was still “in the black”, meaning they were thought to be where the fire had already burned. In wildfires, the fire will not burn back in areas which have already burned as there is no fuel for the fire. The report also states there was no communication from the crew for over 30 minutes which is why the crew’s movement wasn’t known. This gap in communications was right before they deployed their shelters when the fire engulfed them. The report does say they had moved about one mile toward a safety area.
At this time the weather conditions changed, thunderstorms began to form causing the fire to change direction and become more intense. Due to their movement it is likely they could not see the fire coming up behind them. Because of the communication issues they may not have known about the thunderstorms that were forming and that the direction of the fire had changed.
When they saw the fire approaching them they deployed their fire shelters. Fire shelters are made for temporary shelter. They insulate the firefighter and reflect the heat and also trap some breathable air inside. If the firefighter has time he or she can dig a trench to lie in so the fire will go over them. Because these are not fool proof, they are used as a last resort. The temperatures inside these shelters can reach 200 degrees or more depending on how long they are in the heat and fire. A human body is about 70% water which boils at 212 degrees, eventually your body fluids would boil. This could be what led to the deaths of the Arizona firefighters.
The report also mentions that there was an air tanker flying over the area but because of the communication problems they thought the fire fighter were still in the “black.” During any large fire (and sometimes small ones) there can be communication problems. There may be several different channels or frequencies being used and there can be problems due to several people trying to communicate at once. Add to this the stress of being so close to a fire and there can be problems.
Other things mentioned in the report were there had been no major wild fires in the area in 45 years. When an area burns the dead and dying trees are removed as well as those which have fallen to the ground. If there is no fire, these “downfalls” add to the fire load. In addition the area has been suffering a drought and the temperatures were hot, both of these conditions will increase the chance of fires.
The report found no indication that there was any negligence or recklessness in the deaths of these firefighters at the Arizona fire. While it will may never be known exactly what happened, why the firefighters moved from their relatively safe position or whether they knew of the changing conditions, all agree that these 19 firefighters were well trained and knew their jobs.
As tragic as this incident was, at least there are lessons which can be learned and used to prevent something similar from happening again.
Written by: Paul Roy