Second Yarnell investigation reaches damning – and tragic – conclusions

 

As we reported in October, the first investigation of Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire, in which 19 hotshots were killed this summer, drew extremely cautious conclusions. No "direct causes" of the accident were identified, no one was blamed. Policies and protocols, the report said, were not violated. It was almost strangely timid, leaving some to wonder: How could 19 young men have lost their lives if so few mistakes were made?

That report was commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, the agency that oversaw the firefighting effort on Yarnell Hill. Now, a separate investigation, this one from the Arizona Division of Occupational Health and Safety, has been completed -- and it reached much more damning conclusions. The Associated Press calls it a "stinging rebuke" of the first investigation.

Worst of all, it bluntly concluded that protection of "non-defensible structures" -- houses that didn't have adequate clearings around them to allow firefighters to safely fight encroaching flames -- was prioritized above firefighter safety. Firefighters should have been told to stand down before the storm arrived that blew the fire up, lead investigator Marshall Krotenberg told the Arizona Industrial Commission, which administers and enforces worker safety laws. "The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it," Krotenberg said, according to the AP. "But there was no plan to move people out of the way."

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The Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona that killed 19 hotshot firefighters in June 2013.

Protecting private properties -- often ones built hazardously close to thick forests, and with poorly cleared buffer zones or none at all --  is increasingly part of wildland firefighters' job description. According to a recent Arizona Republic investigation:

Often, communities don’t get the “defensible space” religion until after a disaster, opting to enjoy the thick greenery and overlook its dangers.

When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered to help Yarnell-area residents clear chaparral from their properties last year, only four stepped forward, according to Jack Rauh, who helped found the Peeples Valley Fire Department and worked for years as a fire assessor, trying to convince people to clean up their land.

Last year, the Yarnell fire chief passed up a $15,000 grant for brush clearing, citing a lack of volunteers to do the work.

The Yarnell Hill tragedy has prompted many calls for change: for homeowners to take responsibility for clearing brush and trees around homes in fire-prone landscapes, and to accept the consequences if they don't rather than expect firefighters to engage in high-risk situations. As a firefighter friend of mine told me on his way to an assignment just after the hotshots died on Yarnell Hill, "There's no fucking house that's worth it."

There's been a big push in the wildfire community in the past couple of decades to create a culture in which safety is a top priority by encouraging firefighters to report working situations they consider dangerous and by following tragedies like Yarnell with robust investigations that reveal lessons for future firefighting efforts and lead to policy changes that make them safer. Doing this requires reviewing the series of events leading up to such tragedies fearlessly, transparently, and honestly, no matter how painful.

Which is what makes another piece of information that emerged from the new report on Yarnell so troubling. That would be the U.S. Forest Service's lack of cooperation and engagement in the investigation. Wildfire Today reports that the Forest Service refused to let employees be interviewed by investigators, and provided documents so thoroughly redacted that investigators called them "useless."

Wildfire Today's Bill Gabbert writes: "To my knowledge, this is the first time that the USFS has refused categorically to allow their employees to be interviewed following a serious accident that occurred on a fire. ... If this is going to be the policy of the USFS going forward, it can severely disrupt future lessons learned inquiries, and in some cases could make them 'useless.' Interfering with the process of learning of how to prevent similar fatalities does a disservice to the dead firefighters."

Not to mention all those who will head to the firelines again next year.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News. She tweets @callycarswell. Photograph by Flickr user BM5K.

Jack Jensen
Jack Jensen Subscriber
Dec 12, 2013 06:05 PM
It's unfortunate that the USFS could not or would not adequately support the investigation.
William V McConnell
William V McConnell
Dec 17, 2013 02:27 PM
"Unfortunate" doesn't seem to be quite the appropriate adjective. Can HCN dig a little deeper on this and find out why the USFS has chosen not to be a part of this investigation?
Tony Davis
Tony Davis Subscriber
Dec 17, 2013 03:39 PM
There seems to be some confusion, quite possibly on my part. The beginning of this article refers to the "Arizona State Forestry Division" as generating the second report. Yet, the USFS is blamed for muzzling its employees and hamstringing investigators. Here in New Mexico, the State Forestry is distinct from USFS; assume that's true in AZ as well. BTW, the Little Bear Canyon fire in Lincoln County last year came within 100 feet of our house. We thinned our property 10 years ago, but it seems clear that only the caprice of the wind directed the flames in another direction. No house, including ours, is worth risking the life of a firefighter. My husband is president of the local Search and Rescue, so we are quite familiar with the Incident Command System (ICS). In a search, safety of the volunteers is the first priority, as it should be in fighting a fire. (Joyce Westerbur)
On a related topic, this area is currently experiencing a massive die-off of Ponderosas and lately, also piñon.
Tony Davis
Tony Davis Subscriber
Dec 17, 2013 03:43 PM
Oops, mis-spoke: should be "The beginning of this article refers to the 'Arizona State Forestry Division' as generating the FIRST report" (Joyce Westerbur)
Jen C
Jen C
Dec 17, 2013 04:22 PM
Tony, you are correct, the AZ State Forestry Division and the USFS are two distinct agencies, but that line becomes blurred during wildfire response due to the incident management framework. Incident management is an interagency effort, and in the case of the Yarnell Hill Fire, it was the state that was managing the incident (at least at the beginning and on the day that the firefighters perished). I am very relieved to know that another state agency (Occupational Health and Safety) is willing to issue some actual conclusions about what happened that day so that the firefighters' deaths were not in vain. The one good thing that has come out of such an unfortunate turn of events is that more folks are really questioning if lives should be put on the line for structure protection. I hope policy changes so that we may avoid other tragic outcomes in the future.
W. Fred Sanders
W. Fred Sanders
Dec 17, 2013 05:56 PM
In an interview in 1993, a federal Region VIII OSHA deputy administrator indicated that the agency would take action after a similar disaster involving Colorado firefighter fatalities. These federal officials are always but not really taking action.

Killing employees is not a legal form of murder or manslaughter.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Law provides authority for OSHA officials to interview employees. The Forest Service Official who prohibited the interviewing of U.S. Forest Service employees is in violation of federal law. The legal process of investigting fatal accidents is a protection of employees provided in the law.

If the Arizona Occupational Safety and Health Division exercises its full authority,then the official who ordered the lack of participation of employees will be subject to citation and action under the law. This would provide more complete information for the investigation.

The supervisor of the firefighters who can be shown to have violated protocols and rules or is negligent can and should be subject to criminal prosecution by a state or federal prosecutor.




Cally Carswell
Cally Carswell Subscriber
Dec 17, 2013 07:20 PM
Hi Tony,

As Jen says, yes, the U.S. Forest Service was not primarily responsible for managing the fire when the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed. But, as she also notes, wildfires are interagency efforts, and a USFS hotshot crew, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, was working nearby the Granite Mountain crew. The redacted documents mentioned in this blog were produced by the Blue Ridge crew. Even if the USFS wasn't the primary agency responsible, they were involved in the fire and asked for information to aid the investigators who were trying to figure out what went wrong. The details of such investigations, it is hoped, allow lessons to be learned that can help prevent future tragedies. As Bill Gabbert wrote for Wildfire Today, you don't want these investigations to become "useless" because investigators can't access the information they need. I'd encourage you to read Gabbert's full analysis of why the USFS may have held back. It's quite thorough and informative: http://wildfiretoday.com/[…]/

Thanks for your careful reading,

Cally Carswell