Yarnell Hill fire fatalities, in context


A good friend of mine who is a wildfire medic was in the airport yesterday, en route to his next assignment, when I called to ask him, in that helpless way we do, to be safe, and to see how he was handling the tragic news from Arizona, where 19 hotshots lost their lives Sunday fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. He didn't know any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally. But on-the-job loss of life hits everyone in the fire community hard. It's a reminder of their own mortality, and of the calculated risks their own fire families take every day. "On my last fire, the whole division had to run to the safety zone," he told me. Safety zones are clearings firefighters can escape to if fire behavior changes, threatening the welfare of those on the fireline. Such escapes happen "more than people think," he told me. "It's an accepted part of the job. You're just not supposed to die."

His voice was angry, baffled, sad. Like all of us, he was turning over the things that might have gone wrong. "My instinct is that they were overcommitted to those houses," he told me. "We have rules. You're supposed to never put (the value of anything) above your life. Safety is the number one thing. There's no fucking house that's worth it. That town was getting burned over, and those guys went in and did their job and got fucked."

This is just speculation, of course. We don't yet know what went wrong on Yarnell Hill. But it raises one of the important questions that many people will be asking in the days and weeks ahead. As Outside editor and a former hotshot himself, Kyle Dickman, put it: "In wildland firefighting, as with all firefighting, there’s nothing more important than protecting homes from destruction, but in the past decade, more than 20 million people have moved into the lands that will eventually be threatened by wildfire. Was Granite Mountain’s supervisor, the field general in charge of making calls on the ground, more willing to expose his crew to risk because houses were at stake?"

Thankfully, incidents of mass death by burning are rare, and seem to have become less common over time, despite the fact that fires have grown larger and more intense, and more manhours are annually spent fighting wildfire. A briefing paper posted this winter by the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center reported that since 1995, fire entrapment or burnovers -- being overtaken by flames -- caused 11 percent of wildland firefighter fatalities. Since 1926, entrapment or burnovers accounted for 38 percent of deaths. (There are flaws to this data, however, because of inconsistent fatality reporting practices over time, so it's hard to say if there's a true statistical trend.) The chart below shows all such incidents since 1910 when five or more lives were lost to fire itself, as opposed to falling trees or rocks, plane or car crashes, or heart attacks or other medical issues.

"The one common denominator with burnovers is unpredictability," says Larry Sutton, a U.S. Forest Service Risk Management Officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "The fire did something that you weren’t expecting. (Beyond that) we’ve kind of trained ourselves not to speculate. There’s always more to it than meets the eye. It takes a lot of investigation and a lot of analysis to figure out the whys behind (these incidents)."

A look back at the investigation of the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado -- the last incident of this magnitude, where 14 firefighters died -- is instructive, however, as to the probing that should be done into the human factors that contributed to the Yarnell Hill disaster. Rarely can such tragedies be explained by fire behavior alone. The South Canyon Fire blew up rapidly the afternoon of July 6, 1994, as an arid cold front with winds gusting up to 45 miles-per-hour moved in, and dry Gambel oak ignited. Flames 200 to 300 feet high spread suddenly at up to 18 miles-per-hour. It was, no doubt, a difficult situation to manage. But a joint Bureau of Land Management-U.S.Forest Service investigation found that inadequate escape routes and safety zones, fireline construction, and failure to brief hotshots of fuel conditions or weather forecasts were also all "direct causes" of the accident. "The fire behavior on July 6 could have been predicted on the basis of fuels, weather, and topography, but fire behavior information was not requested or provided," the report concluded. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration's investigation found that "plain indifference" to employee safety caused the deaths.

We should not assume that the same was true this weekend before an investigation is complete. By most accounts, there is a much greater emphasis on safety in firefighting operations today. Sutton says leadership development programs have been stepped up since then, to improve decision making on the ground, as has "fatigue management" -- that is, keeping close watch of shift and assignment lengths. But if there is any lesson in the past, it is that people always play a role.

Journalist Jon Talton began a powerful column yesterday with a quote from Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire: "Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened." Today, Talton wrote, that means: "It will be essential to scrutinize the skill level of the crew (were they really "elite" by the gold standards of training) and if mistakes were made that resulted in being trapped. The official investigation must be subjected to skepticism and scrutiny by independent experts. Mistakes were made in both South Canyon and Mann Gulch. This will be painful but necessary."

Cally Carswell is High Country News' assistant editor.

Colin  Holloway
Colin Holloway
Jul 02, 2013 02:47 PM
Not wanting to diminish the losses in the least, having swung a pulaski and being a pops it tears me up that there are so many who've such a reason to grieve way beyond what I'm feeling right now.

What strikes me is that the lessons (that should be) learned might very well be that the emphasis on protecting property, homes, structures needs serious evaluation. That, chances are, in the coming years we need to anticipate crazier fire behavior.

 I got my red card many years before Storm King, let it lapse and got it again after that fire.
 One of the things that struck me, afterwards, was how far back positions became.
 I guess it's time to step further back again.

 Beyond that, though, it sure strikes me that it really is time to assess and call for fighting the fires before they start.
 I'm looking at the Tres Lagunas and the Jaroso, just a few miles north of me, in my drainage, or the neighboring one. I'm picturing in my mind the areas heavily burned, in my area, over the last decade and a bit, seeing how much is "left" how much was heavily burned, back when I was a kid, 30 years ago, wandering into the Cow Creek Drainage. Thinking of what was, then, comparatively, the tiniest amounts of burn scars in the Pecos.
 And I live on eight miles of dirt with only one way out.
 I sure hope "we'd" start thinning the areas off the road, for starters.
 That we'd see the health of our forests as the immediate crisis, prior to conflagration. That in the coming years it should be imperative to give our forests every chance we can, despite the odds, to once again, become safe for fire. Rather then sitting back for lack of will and let the ravages of climate change have its way.
 And if it goes up around my home that the guys wouldn't risk their lives to try to save some of my stuff.
Tom Applegate
Tom Applegate
Jul 02, 2013 04:04 PM
As a former wildland firefighter and squad boss I'd like to know more about the morning security briefing given to the crew boss, what aerial monitoring/surveillance was being done, and if/where the on-ground spotters were. In high risk areas the latter 2 can usually coordinate with the fire crews to get them to the safe zone once they see a wind-shift.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jul 02, 2013 04:15 PM
I must ask this. Why are homes, which can be re-built, worth such risk? From my admittedly non-wildland point of view, wouldn't removing all living things, from people to dogs to horses to bears, anything that can't outrun or out-fly flames, would removing them to safety be more important than protecting a house?
Bruce Grubbs
Bruce Grubbs
Jul 03, 2013 09:16 AM
You missed one fatal fire- Battlement Mesa on the BLM Grand Junction District, in July 1977, when 4 members of the Mormon Lake Hotshots (Arizona) died in a blowup. An air tanker pilot also died on that fire. I was hired as assistant helitack foreman the next season. As a crew, one of our responses to the tragedy was to study all the prevous fatal wildland fires. In every single case, one or more of the Ten Standard Firefighting orders had been violated.
Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez
Jul 03, 2013 09:42 AM
I have to disagree with your medic friend's statement that "in wildland fire fighting their's no higher priority then protecting homes." If you look at the Interagency Standards for Fire & Aviation, also known as The Red Book," the number 1 and overriding priotity is protection of human life (firefighter and public safety). Structure fire suppression, at least for most federal fire agencies (there are exceptions), is the responsibility of tribal, state or local governments. Since Granite Mtn. Hot Shots were sponsored by local government, and I assume interagency certified, they may have been trained in structure protection. But nothing overrides the protection of human life.
Which brings up the question: Wasn't Yarnell evacuated when this tragedy took place? I am a retired fed. wildland fire fighter (retired as State FMO in AZ). Back when I was a District FMO, I realized that young fire fighters seemed to take more chances when property was threatened. Every year I would ask my crews if they would be willing to die to protect their personal homes from a fire? Most, if not all, would answer with a No! I would then ask them why would they be willing to put it all on the line for someone else's home? It will be a while before we finally find out what happened in Yarnell...every fire is different and mistakes are made. Luckily most of the time we walk away and learn from them. But sadly there is an old adage in fire and aviation safety management: "There are no new accidents. They are old accidents with new players."
Cally Carswell
Cally Carswell Subscriber
Jul 03, 2013 09:51 AM
Hi Al, That wasn't my friend's statement -- he said what you're saying -- but an excerpt from piece Outside Magazine editor, and former hotshot, Kyle Dickman wrote on Yarnell Hill.
Mary Jo Sage
Mary Jo Sage Subscriber
Jul 03, 2013 10:41 AM
I own a home in a heavily wooded area in Colorado. My feeling about any fire in the area is: Don't risk anyone's life for my house. I chose to build it in a vulnerable spot, and, if a fire should threaten it, let it burn. There should be a registry with the Forest Service, and other fire-fighting agencies, for owners who do not want life and limb risked in trying to save their homes.
Charles R Buchanan
Charles R Buchanan Subscriber
Jul 03, 2013 01:29 PM
From Mountain Center, Riverside County, So.Calif: amen,to the comments of Mary Jo Sage.
Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez
Jul 03, 2013 11:24 PM
Cally; I justread over the article and I stand corrected! Kyle is referring to how it used to be some years back, but investigations and lessons learned have put property a few notches in importance/priority for the wild land fire fighter. I have a son in charge of a type II crew and the first thing I did Monday morning was call him and reminded him about priorities in today's wild land fire.
p.s. As an old retired fire fighter and manager, I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank Ms. Sage and Mr. Buchanan for their statements above. I recommend that you contact your nearest USFS/BLM/CALFIRE office with the idea of a registry and while there ask about information on Survivable Space around your homes. Studies have shown that in a lot of cases, it does not take a lot of work to clear about some vegetation around the home to increase it's ability to survive a fire.
Tom Ricketts
Tom Ricketts
Jul 04, 2013 01:34 PM
I am also a former squad boss and firefighter for the feds. Whatever the investigation into the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy turns up, there are two things that can't be overlooked.

First, I have read that this fire at one point advanced four miles in twenty minutes driven by high wind and temperatures. Even if you think you are doing everything right, that kind of fire behavior can leave you with precious little time to react.

Secondly, we should not dismiss the fact that this crew was fighting a fire in what they considered to be their community, Yarnell being just down the road from Prescott. Firefighters being the proud lot that they are, rightly or wrongly they may have had more of a "not in my neighborhood" mentality.

I'm not saying mistakes weren't made. Anytime this many people die something went horribly wrong. However, anyone who has been on a fire this erratic and of this magnitude is well acquainted with the confusion and lack of coordination which can result from a fire burning in such extreme conditions as this one.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Jul 07, 2013 11:29 AM
Here's a link indicating that mistakes led to the 19 deaths at the Yarnell fire -- http://www.investigativemedia.com/[…]/ ... It's an initial investigation by John Dougherty, a longtime HCN contributor who did this on his own. I expect we'll hear more about this angle, as people dig into it. -- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor
Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez
Jul 16, 2013 02:51 PM
Ray Ring - just read the link you posted above. There is an old adage int he aviation and fire program: "There are no new accidents; only old accidents with new players." The smoldering of the Yarnell fire for a couple of days while I.A. was made on other fires and the storm/weather front coming towards the fire! Two key similarities to the fire that killed 14 in Colorado on Storm King mountain. I was the State at the Az. BLM Fire and Aviation state office when that happened...interestingly, I was had been in the middle of Normal Maclean's Young Men and Fire ( another fire tragedy in Montana in 1949) when I saw the news on South Canyon. The similarities in terrain and mistakes made between those two fires are also ironic.