Granite Mountain Hotshots Not Caught in "Sudden" Storm, as Media Accounts Contend

Categories: News
yarnell-update.jpg
Arizona State Forestry Division


If you've read mainstream media accounts of the moments leading up to the death of 19 firefighters in Yarnell, then you've been led to believe that a "sudden" thunderstorm is what sent the Granite Mountain Hotshots into harm's way.

That's not the case, former New Times reporter John Dougherty has discovered.

The National Weather Service was well aware of the storm, which passed through Yarnell on Sunday, the day the firefighters died.

There was no meteorologist on the ground with firefighters battling the blaze, and it's not clear if information about the storm was relayed to the Hotshot crew.

There's an investigation into the firefighters' deaths, but nothing's been released at this point. No firefighting officials wanted to talk about the subject with Dougherty.

"Sudden," however, does not seem to be a fitting label for the storm, which brought strong winds that spread the fire quickly.

"A sudden windstorm turned an Arizona forest fire into an out-of-control inferno that trapped and killed 19 firefighters, nearly all of them members of an elite crew of "hotshots," authorities said Monday," the Arizona Republic wrote. "It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years."

The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and others have referred to the storm as "sudden" as well.

"That is just not true," University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass told Dougherty. "A lot of people were tracking that storm."

Mass explains this more on his blog, explaining that "the more I dug into it, the more disturbed I got."

From Mass' blog:
So it is apparent what occurred . . . first the winds were from the south, followed by a rapid shift of 180 degrees, sudden increase of winds to over 40 mph, and the fire blew up and reversed direction . . .

You can see why I find this disaster so unsettling. Hours before the incident it was clear there was a real threat . . . satellite and radar showed developing convection to the north that was moving south towards the fire. High-resolution numerical models showed a threat. Were there any meteorologists working the fire? If not, why not? This terrible tragedy needs to be reviewed carefully.
"The day after the firefighters were killed, a federal multi-agency team took control of fighting the blaze from the state," Dougherty writes. "Under the direction of the new command team, wildfire fighters were repeatedly pulled off the front lines when thunderstorms were forecast for the area."

Dougherty also points out an apparently slow response from state and federal land authorities.

Dougherty located a press release from the Yarnell Fire Department the morning after the fire started, saying it poses "no danger" to the community.

Arizona State Forestry Division joined later that morning, still citing no danger. That night, the Bureau of Land Management got involved, as the fire increased from 4 acres to 15 acres. An hour after that announcement, at 9 p.m. Saturday, the press release said the fire was up to 200 acres, and there was no containment.

Investigators brought in to look into the deaths of the 19 firefighters are due to give their first update any day now. It'll be interesting to see what they have to say.

According to an update this morning, the 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill Fire is now 90 percent contained.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.



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22 comments
zaz0041
zaz0041

The winds in the high country did the same thing right around the same time of day the day before these men were killed. .

JohnQ.Public
JohnQ.Public

It is interesting that even while University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass says that the storm wasn't sudden, he uses the word "sudden" to describe it.  He states "first the winds were from the south, followed by a rapid shift of 180 degrees, sudden increase of winds to over 40 mph, and the fire blew up and reversed direction."  While the storm may have been tracked and even modeled, Mass does describe the effects of the storm as being "sudden."  

BTW, clicked through to John Dougherty's article and realized again how much I enjoyed reading his writing when he was at the New Times writing feature stories - I didn't always agree with him but appreciated his writing.

rosyboa
rosyboa

as bob dylan sang; you dont need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, even w/o the storm, the fires create unpredictable windstorms, these young men & their supervisors failed to heed the primary rule; dont enter the fuel w/o an escape plan, obviously they didnt have one in this case.  :{     Mebbe we also need to back off macho titles like hotshots,  ... tell the truth; w/ wildland fires we largely babysit them on the flanks, w/ light attack from the air & w/ some firelines via equipment (hand dug lines dont work)  pity no one does an analysis what would have burned if we did nothing vrs spend millions every year "fighting them" .   & mebbe the 1%rs need to protect their own cabins in the fuel zone ... or pay the going rate to rural metro... 

WhoKnows
WhoKnows topcommenter

The reality here, is someone screwed up.  I don't care who that was, but I just want to make sure that's it's investigated to a level to make sure it doesn't happen again.

jacksontate_001
jacksontate_001

Wow! Now this is interesting... So the blame starts to get assessed.

JohnQ.Public
JohnQ.Public

@rosyboa Nice try making this into a class issue, but it isn't. Per the US Census Bureau, The median household income in Yarnell is $25k and the median family income is $35k. The median home sales price in Yarnell is $125k. While your description of an area with million dollar weekend getaway cabins may apply to other communities, it does not apply to Yarnell which is mostly working class folks and retirees.

Even the best escape plan can be disrupted by erratic and unpredictable fire behavior. If you're in the profession you would know that. And if you're not in the profession get off your ass and go join it since you apparently believe you have so much to teach them.

Of course, we could probably say the same thing about fighting a fire at your house if it were to burn - just let it burn and you can rebuild it.   Everything's replacable and probably for a fraction of the cost of maintaining and operating a municiple fire dept. so just let it all burn, wildland, rural, suburban and urban. No reason any fire should be fought based on your faulty logic.

hapstone2
hapstone2

@rosyboa are you posting from your parent paid for apartment ? Who the hell are the 1%  ... and why should we care? 

MountainGeek
MountainGeek

@rosyboa "mebbe the 1%rs need to protect their own cabins in the fuel zone ... "

Mixed in with those few 1%ers are a lot of poor people who have lived there for generations, and some middle-class people who worked all their lives to retire there.

valleynative
valleynative topcommenter

@WhoKnows Absolutely.  Unfortunately, since we're dominated by two polarized  political parties, they'll each take advantage of another tragedy to take shots at each other instead of working together to solve problems.


JohnQ.Public
JohnQ.Public

@jacksontate_001 You can only minimize the risk of this reocurring in the future by understanding how and why it happen now.  It's less about assessing blame and more about understanding the root causes and addressing them.  Yes, the media will assess blame because that is easier for them to package and sell and makes for better sound bites.  The politicians will blame each other beacause, well because thats about all politicians know how to do.  Fortunately, the professional career firefighters will do the majority of the work to understand how and why this occurred and how to minimiz the risk of it happening in the future.

boomer1949
boomer1949

@jacksontate_001 ....and what a surprise, these guys were killed by the cheap reTHUGlicans....."spend money on supporting fire fighters?  Don't be silly!"

rickaz59
rickaz59

Yarnell is where the 47% moved when Prescott became unaffordable because of the California 1% invasion.

JohnQ.Public
JohnQ.Public

@valleynative @WhoKnows Hopefully the professional firefighters will do the heavy lifting to solve the problems and make widlland firefighting safer and the politicians will spend their 15 minutes pontificating (as they always do) but stay out of the way.

danzigsdaddy
danzigsdaddy topcommenter

@valleynative every tragedy brings it out in them both. why fix a problem when you can just blame the other guy is both of their approach

jonnyquest
jonnyquest topcommenter

Absolutely! I heard John McCain was shooting at the firefighters.

MaskedMagician1967
MaskedMagician1967 topcommenter

Politics sure has changed over the last 125 years. People would actually work together to solve problems rather than fight about it.

BTW, I sent you a note. Hope you got it.

valleynative
valleynative topcommenter

@rickaz59 Yes, the sequester is bad but it's not the fault of one party or the other.  It's the fault of the two parties failure to come together to make reasonable, planned, and phased spending cuts.  We can't keep borrowing money indefinitely, but every politician wants the cuts to be somebody else's fault.

valleynative
valleynative topcommenter

@WhoKnows @valleynative @boomer1949 @jacksontate_001  

1. The GOP tends to be anti union, but this has absolutely nothing do do with unions.

2. Show me a citation of the GOP cutting FD budgets.  You're wrong.

3. The sequester wasn't the GOP's idea, and wasn't caused their fault alone.  It was the failure of the two-party system to resolve problems.

jonnyquest
jonnyquest topcommenter

Quick, someone tell Obama. Oh wait. He already knows. They know everything.

WhoKnows
WhoKnows topcommenter

@valleynative @boomer1949 @jacksontate_001 

Have you missed the GOP attacking public unions like fire fighters and cutting their budgets?  Don't let the sunlight hurt your eyes, as it seems you have been living in a cave!  Even McCain said that the GOP Sequester has cut $150m from the funds needed!

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