Reflections on the fire that killed 19 firefighters a year ago

 

The terms fire control and fire management are really just euphemisms for firefighting. Think tornado control or the impossibility of tornado management. We can prepare for fires, we can study them and even learn how to dance with them, but controlling fires is always a gamble. And sometimes we lose.

Last year, on June 30, we lost big when 19 members of an elite hotshot crew died fighting the Yarnell Fire, which burned 127 homes near Prescott, Arizona.

Thirteen of the dead Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters were seasonal workers, meaning they were not covered by the same insurance or eligible for the same benefits given to the families of the six permanent employees who died. This year, the Arizona Legislature tabled a bill that would have granted benefits to all the dead firefighters. Lawsuits against federal agencies must be settled before the legislators will act -- a process that will take years.

In the aftermath of the fire, questions still remain about what exactly happened and when, and about what the firefighters experienced on the ground. One fact, however, stands out: The explosive fire burned over 13 square miles that ran through several small communities, yet no civilians died. They survived because lots of people took protective actions based on training, experience and good judgment.

Nonetheless, the angry buzz of lawyers tends to overwhelm the dirges still echoing in the brush-covered valleys of central Arizona's Mogollon Rim country. Death and destruction are not news in that place. Six firefighters died on the Dude Fire in 1990; they were also trying to protect the homes of people who chose to build in a "Red Zone," close to or enclosed by fire-prone trees.

The firefighting strategy and tactics used in both the Dude and Yarnell fires were dominated by the need to protect the homes built in this zone, the risk equivalent of building in a floodplain. But as long as people are permitted to build in inappropriate places, there will be burning homes and dead firefighters.

Today, a year later, it feels strange, almost ghoulish, to watch the coverage of the Yarnell Fire and its aftermath on the website AZCentral.com. Somehow, everyone seems surprised that firefighters died defending indefensible homes in tough firefighting terrain. But homes burning down there should not have been surprising, unexpected or unpredictable.

The people who died were trained to fight fire in whatever conditions they faced. They knew the dangers. An old friend, Dude Fire boss Ed Hollenshead, tells a story about a soldier in a landing craft going ashore on Omaha Beach during World War II. The lieutenant in charge said that two out of three of the men on the boat would be dead or wounded before the day ended. The soldier looked left, then right, then thought how sorry he was for those two poor bastards on either side of him.

That's how hotshots go into harm's way. That's how hotshots and first responders and soldiers have gone into harm's way since the beginning of time. But when we make choices to live in a civil society and allow people the freedom to choose to live as they will, we also make choices for first responders. They're the ones who put their lives at risk for the choices we've made, and that includes where we decided to build houses.

As long as we allow ourselves to build in the Red Zone, and as long as firefighters and first responders continue to look at the people to the left and right of them and think, "Those poor bastards," that's how long people will sacrifice their lives for others.

In our sorrow at the tragic but predictable outcome of what happened at Yarnell a year ago, we must not allow ourselves to criminalize the actions of fire commanders and firefighters. The people responsible for fighting that fire took action in the heat of the moment. They did what seemed right at the time, and what they decided will not change with lawsuits or promises to try harder next time. I do not believe fire bosses belong in court.

Meanwhile, voters refuse to vote for more money to fund more firefighters, even though they still expect fires to be fought. Politicians will not tell voters what they can and can't do on their own land. It is a free country, right? And fire, a force that drives the engines of the universe, will continue to burn on planet Earth. Homes will burn. People will die. And hotshots will quickly go to fight wildfires because that's what hotshots do. The least we can do is thank them for their sacrifice and for their service.

Frank Carroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated opinion column service of High Country News. He owns the Professional Forest Management firm in Custer, South Dakota, and worked for many years as a firefighter for the Forest Service.

Richard Mangan
Richard Mangan Subscriber
Jun 25, 2014 03:07 PM
Having been continuously involved in wildland fire since 1964 (except for a brief "vacation" in 1969-70-71, courtesy of the US Army, I must disagree with several points that Mr. Carroll brings up. First, there is a significant difference between "fire control" and "fire management": wildland fire is much more than a natural disaster like the tornado that Mr. Carroll refers to. While fire control had a single focus in much of the 1910-1977 era of just suppressing fires, fire management encompasses fire ecology, prescribed burning, wilderness/Park fire as well as suppression of unwanted wildfires.
The comment that no civilians died because "lots of people took protective actions based on training, experience and good judgement" is mis-leading at best! Folks, 19 young men died on the Yarnell fire, and their deaths had nothing to do with evacuating civilian residents of the area.
Several other statements are absolutely contrary to the policies and procedures that all of us in the wildland fire business preach and practice: we don't go "into harm's way" to protect structures and/or take suppression actions when fire conditions exceed our ability to make a difference. The analogy of soldiers at war and wildland firefighters is old, sorry and worn out. When Yarnell (or southern Cal or Bend, Oregon or Colorado Springs) burns, we do not end up with a totalitarian dictator that threatens the peaceful existence of the entire world as we know it. WWII was a worthy cause to die for; trying to save an empty wooden building is not!
We teach Hotshots and all other wildland fire folks "How to Properly Refuse Risk" every year before fire season begins, and the recognition of unacceptable risk is becoming more widespread and implemented on fires. Let's call folks "heros" when they walk away from those risks in spite of the social, political and media pressures that are increasing. Bottom line for me, after 5 decades in the wildland fire business: "It ain't worth dying over."
Franklin Carroll
Franklin Carroll Subscriber
Jun 27, 2014 10:43 PM
Dick - My daughter whose husband is a squaddie on a hotshot crew said, Really? Why do they call it urban interface and point protection? And why were all those firefighters at Yarnell and around those small communities in the Red Zone to begin with? There's the fire we fight when we're old and wise, and the fire we fight when we're young and bullet proof. You've forgotten how it felt to pick up your first pulaski. I'm not saying it shouldn't be as you describe. I'm saying it's never going to be dead-free. Fighting fire costs resources and lives...and always will. If you think the war analogy is worn out, look at the pictures of the flag draped coffins. Looks like the wars I've been watching for 60 years.
Ed Hollenshead
Ed Hollenshead
Jul 15, 2014 02:10 PM
Mr. Carroll and I do not agree that I made the statement attributed to me in his June 25th op-ed piece, Reflections on the fire that killed 19 firefighters a year ago. I don’t like the statement because it sounds cavalier and insensitive to the risks wildland firefighters face and is totally contrary to the values I’ve held and the efforts I’ve given for a very long time. There is no “acceptable loss” of firefighter lives in wildland fire suppression… period. It is not the glorious endeavor that a romantic heart may wish it to be, but a dirty, complex, dangerous business with little room for error.

The consequences of failure in wildland firefighting are extreme. One has only to hold a dying firefighter in his arms, deliver the worst news a loved one could ever hear, or be the one “in charge” when things go horribly wrong to understand that to his core. Bad outcomes will always be a component of human endeavor, but to believe firefighting is a gamble or that these outcomes are dependent upon chance is irresponsible and self-fulfilling; not a seasoned firefighter I know believes that. They know the wildland fire environment is complex and high risk, but recognize it is less about the environment than it is about the quality of their judgment and sense-making, the clarity of their situational awareness, and their resistance to making erroneous decisions under stressful and chaotic conditions that determine their fate. They are professionals not cannon fodder.

Explosive growth of communities and high-value infrastructure in wildland areas across the country has greatly exacerbated the complexity of firefighting and risk to firefighters. Federal wildland firefighting policies (and those of states as well) do not and have never articulated an increased acceptance of risk to firefighters based upon the values being threatened. However, rules and policies can merely influence the decisions made by those at the point of the spear; “in reality control of on-the-ground operations is in the hands of the ground forces, and fed up to command.” 1/ The presence and politics of a subdivision situated in the path of a raging fire creates a far different dynamic than were that subdivision an unimproved natural landscape. Protecting subdivisions is obviously a part of the wildland firefighter’s mission and, because those called to this business are generally of an empathetic bent, their desire to protect the lives and belongings of people can be irrepressible. But it can be done, and is done safely and effectively many hundreds of times every year because those men and women are “…creative and decisive, … exercise initiative and accept responsibility, and… use their training, experience, and judgment in (their) decision-making…” 2/
 
I was in Prescott again this year to commemorate the tragic loss of 19 young men and celebrate the vibrant lives they led. Last year at this time I was there to support a good friend, the man with the vision and determination that led to the formation of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Together we met with the families of those that died, we walked and studied the site, we interviewed and provided insights, and we cussed, discussed, cried, and pondered “WHY?” I don’t know what happened that day. There have been and will continue to be a steady stream of “experts” and others with opinions and theories; I have my own. What I do know is we must take whatever can be gleaned from that fateful day and ensure those that choose this profession as their own benefit from it.

 1/ “Defining Doctrine for Wildland Fire Suppression in the USDA
        Forest Service”, April 1, 2006.
        www.fs.fed.us/fire/doctrine/basic/2006-defining-doctrine.doc

2/ ibid.

Ed Hollenshead retired in 2010 after 37 years with the US Forest Service. He served as a hotshot, hotshot crew superintendent, forest fire management officer, National Fire Operations Safety Officer, and as the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service’s Region 5 (California, Hawaii, and US affiliated Pacific islands).