Lessons Learned From The Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation

By Laurel Morales
September 30, 2013
Laurel Morales
An American flag now stands where the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died June 30. Firefighters now consider the ridge hallowed ground.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The investigation into the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire concluded with several recommendations. Many hope that the report released Saturday leads to wildland firefighting policy changes.

The report showed a combination of decisions and circumstances led to the tragic loss of 19 lives on the last day of June. There was a 33-minute drop in communication with the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew. It was during this gap the men tried to hike from the ridge down into a box canyon thick with unburned chaparral to another safe zone. No one knew where they were.

The investigators showed reporters gathered at the Prescott High School Theater on Saturday a video that mapped out the fire’s progression in relation to the crew’s likely route.

"As they start to drop down from the saddle, their view of the fire was rapidly cut off until it disappeared completely," the video explains using Google Earth images.

The investigators said when the Incident Command last communicated with the Hotshots they were safe on the ridge. So they turned their attention to the resident evacuation and pulling other firefighters out. As the crew moved down into the drainage, the winds changed direction, increased speed and drove the fire toward the men.

"The fire’s extreme speed of 10-12 miles per hour eliminated the crew’s options of reaching a safety zone or returning up to canyon rim," the video went on to explain.   

This left the crew less than two minutes to try to burn out brush, use chainsaws to clear a refuge and radio out that they were deploying their shelters, before the fire overtook them. An air tanker was standing by to drop retardant but didn’t know the crew’s location.

Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said the report recommends equipping firefighters with GPS tracking devices and improving radio communication with crews.

"Do we have enough channels?" Hunt asked. "Do we have enough repeaters? How do we use those at a fire line? What kind of plans do we have in place? So we’ll be reviewing that."

Other recommendations included doing more to reduce hazardous fuels around communities. Yarnell was overgrown with chaparral and hadn’t seen fire in 45 years.

Florida State Forester Jim Karels led the investigation. Karels said the report is also meant to be an educational tool.

"The report is designed really on that learning end of trying to put you in the boots of those firefighters, what kind of decisions you make under those situations, and then discussing different questions that deals with the firefighters that deals with the incident management part of it and deals with agency administrators," Karels said.

Karels said he thinks policy change should come from this report. David Turbyfill, a father of one of the men who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire, would like to see a complete overhaul of wildland fire policy.

"And how we attack fires, when we attack fires," Turbyfill said. "Secondly I want to see equipment changes."

Turbyfill has tested some fire-proof materials and believes there could be improved fire shelter technology. The current shelter was developed 13 years after firefighters died in Colorado.

"I know without a doubt that a fire shelter could be created, a survivable fire shelter could be created," Turbyfill said.

Fire investigator Mike Dudley of the U.S. Forest Service said you could improve a shelter to withstand greater heat but that material is probably too heavy to add to the already 40 pounds of equipment a hotshot firefighter carries.

"And we’re talking about temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees," Dudley said. "It would be difficult to understand what kind of protection you would need to develop."

Families of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew also received the report Saturday. Reporters were not allowed at that briefing. But we’re told there was a lot of anger over the lack of communication with the crew and how incident command lost sight of the men. And many family members are still left with unanswered questions.

Yarnell Hill Fire Briefing Video