The state of Arizona is about to be thrown into the Yarnell Hill Fire lawsuit situation that may ignite into much finger-pointing on both sides of the issue. Last year at this time 19 firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire in an area where smoke choked the view and strong gusty winds pushed the fire in around them. On the anniversary of that event, 12 families of those lost to the fire have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, the claim being, the state was negligent in battling the small fire that transformed into an massive inferno.
Fighting a wildfire in Arizona is almost always an uphill battle. The landscape can be dense with trees, so much so, a person might have a hard time running through the Sitgreaves, Coconino, or Tonto National Forests due to the thick underbrush, closeness of the trees and unexpected changes in terrain. These forests have grown up on geography that is filled with small canyons, large steep canyons, washes, draws, ravines, and dried-up creek beds. A walk in an Arizona forest can be a test of endurance if a person is not in shape or not familiar with the land.
Other parts of Central Arizona change, sometimes abruptly, from forest to scrub brush, chaparral, manzanita, and cacti that rips clothing and scratches a body with sharp self-protective spikes. The only difference in terrain between this and the forests is fewer trees and more cacti. The climate changes and becomes much hotter starting in late spring, due to the lower elevation. Fighting fires in these conditions is arduous, draining and sometimes exhausting to a point of collapse.
According to current reports, the Arizona legislature is taking a laid back approach to the problem, threat of wildfires, in a state with drought conditions and highly combustible material, massive, dense, forests and dry brush-land that has seen only sparse rainfall for years.
The amount of money needed to manage forested land in Arizona is around $100 million dollars, lawmakers have only appropriated approximately $1.4 million to destroy hazardous underbrush from the 9.2 million acres of land in the state’s trust. Rep. John Kavanaugh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee stated the problem was extremely serious, going on to say a creative approach will be needed to find the money and resources to minimize wildland fires and that it will probably get worse. A lawsuit against the state of Arizona concerning the Yarnell Hill Fire may ignite a fire storm of controversy. It is fire season in Arizona right now and litigation at this time may be its own blaze.
One of the apparent problems with the Yarnell Hill Fire was not attacking the fire soon enough. A judgement call was made that allowed a hill fire transform into a raging blaze. Those involved in making choices on whether to request assistance earlier probably considered the expense of hiring more crews as too high, judging how small the fire was at the beginning.
The suit filed by the 12 families have unspecified damages for such things as lost income, funeral costs, pain and suffering, importantly, more information about the cause of one of the worst firefighting nightmare since the 1930’s. It is important for family members of those who died to understand clearly why it happened, how it happened and emphasize tragedies like the Yarnell Hill Fire can be minimized or avoided in future wildland fires.
Other families have also brought litigation against the state. Home owners of 162 other properties and homes destroyed by the fire are seeking to cover an estimated 17 million dollars in property loss.
Investigations by state agencies deemed the incident management teams did everything that was reasonable and assigned no blame, no negligence, violations of protocol or wrongful policy procedures. There were known communications problems with radios, a communication blackout for 30 minutes, and vague updates right before the men were immersed in flames.
On the anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy, official conclusions have not answered family questions of those killed Sunday, June 30, 2013. More answers and compensation are needed according to the families. A lawsuit against Arizona concerning the tragedy of the Yarnell Hill Fire ignites passions on both sides of this tinderbox issue.
By Andy Towle