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."

Screenshot20131211at5.29.26PM.png
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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...