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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.