Yarnell Hill Fire Report: No Problems in Deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots

Categories: News
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Kyle T. Webster


Nothing went wrong in the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 wildland firefighters in June.

This according to the "Serious Accident Investigation Report" into the fire, released this weekend by federal, state, and local firefighting officials in Prescott.

See also:
-Hotshots Never Should've Been Deployed, Mounting Evidence Shows

"The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol," the report states.

It certainly seems that something must have gone wrong when 19 men, most of them young men, are dead.

In fact, certain fire officials who now say everything went according to protocol had been among those assessing blame and pointing out mistakes leading up to the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Arizona Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne previously said it looked like Eric Marsh, superintendent of the hotshot crew, had violated basic wildfire-safety rules, although Payne added that many decisions made by those leading wildfire-fighting crews are calculated risks, rather than strictly rule-book decisions.

Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis suggested in an interview with ABC News that the crew "could have made it" had the U.S. Forest Service delivered all the air-tankers that were requested for the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Neither of these findings was included in the report.

However, finding out what went wrong never was the intent of the report.

"This report does not identify causes in the traditional sense of pointing out errors, mistakes, and violations but approaches the accident from the perspective that risk is inherent in firefighting," the report says. "In this report, the Team tries to minimize the common human trait of hindsight bias, which is often associated with traditional accident reviews and investigations."

Interestingly, the report does debunk certain claims by Willis.

The wild-land chief's suggestion that the Forest Service's sending air-tankers could have been the difference between life and death is bogus, according to the report.

"The [inability to fill the orders] did not affect the tragic outcome," the report states. "When Dispatch placed the orders at 1603, the incident team already had half of the available airtanker fleet, representing 74% of the retardant dropping capability in the nation, the equivalency of fourteen 2,000-gallon airtankers."

In addition, the report says, the largest plane in the fleet was over the fire pouring more than 10,000 gallons of retardant on it -- but nobody knew exactly where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were until it was too late.

Willis had told reporters in July that he knew "in [his] heart" that the hotshots were trying to protect a ranch a few hundred yards away when they became trapped in the canyon.

According to the report, the hotshots knew about the ranch as a "bomb proof safety zone." The ranch, its owners, and the animals on the property were all unharmed, as the fire passed their property "thanks to fire-resistant construction and defensible space around their buildings."

Willis criticized New Times' cover story on the fire, after he repeatedly ducked interviews and refused to answer written questions.

Among other things, he complained about the credibility of former hotshot officials interviewed by reporter John Dougherty, saying they had been out of the forest-firefighting business for too long and "can hardly be considered experts."

Perhaps it's no coincidence, but Dougherty's report mentioned that many current and former wild-land firefighters told him "they have never seen the complete truth told" in incident reports such as this one.

Dougherty reported:
William Riggles, a 12-year member of the Smokey Bear Hotshots based in New Mexico, states in an e-mail that he got out of the business in 2008 because accident investigations "never criticized any" management decisions.

Riggles says "facts changed" during investigations, and "what's worse, everybody keeps their mouths shut and babbles the official story."
Despite the discrepancies between Willis' statements and the report, he did not answer questions at the Saturday press conference and did not make himself available after the press conference, as other officials did.

While the rest of the fire officials, and the report, did provide new facts, they did not provide new explanations.

Most notably, why did the hotshots leave "the black" (vegetation already burned over)?

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Photo by Matthew Hendley
Jim Karels
Florida State Forester Jim Karels, who headed up the investigative team, contended that there will never be an answer to that question, and to many others.

No one had communicated with the crew for about a half-hour before they died. There was nothing unusual about that, Karels said.

Many media questions asked of the Saturday panel -- also including Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt and U.S. Forest Service investigator Mike Dudley -- were deflected. And follow-up questions were not permitted.

From what reporters could tell, the families of the fallen hotshots were not all pleased with the report. After the press conference started 90 minutes late, it was explained that fire officials had just explained the report to the families -- a meeting that took a little more time than expected.

The father of fallen hotshot Travis Turbyfill showed up at the press conference, asking for an explanation about the shelters the crew deployed, which he claimed were inadequate.

The men unfurled the shelters as their "last resort" to stay alive. Such shelters start to break down at about 500 degrees, according to wildfire-fighting literature. The men were exposed to temperatures of about 2,000 degrees, according to the report.

Dave Turbyfill didn't get any straight answers. Press conference moderator Jim Payne, a retired U.S. Forest Service spokesman, suggested that he could talk to officials about his concerns at a later date.

Shari Turbyfill, Travis' step-mom, clearly was as distraught as her husband.

"Help us, I implore you," she said. "Help us. Give us the information we need to change this. It is so necessary."

Though his statement hardly could be of much solace to the Turbyfills, chief investigator Karels said the report is meant "learning document" for future firefighters. But since investigators say they found next to nothing went wrong -- that certainly no fire official was at fault -- many at the Prescott press conference wondered what possibly could be learned to prevent future tragedies.

Read the report below.

Yarnell Hill Serious Accident Investigation Report



Send feedback and tips to the author.
Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.


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21 comments
Jukes
Jukes

This is the way Texas writes the American History textbooks that are sold to schools all over the country.  Basically they just tell the kids, "Shit happens."  That's what this report also says to me.

tondojondo
tondojondo

That jsut doesnt make a lot of sense to me dude.

GotPrivacy.tk

tondojondo
tondojondo

Sometimes man, you jsut have to roll with it.


www.Got-Privacy.com

bob_lablaw96
bob_lablaw96

This report is pretty much what could be written, and still protect those that could have changed things.  It tries to leave the bottom feeding lawyers as little ammo as possible in the anticipated lawsuits by the families of these guys.

Deep pockets are attractive to lawyers. The families of the dozen or so part time Hot Shots were left financially strapped, and will need to have a court decision as to whether they deserve anything for the sacrifice of their loved one's life.  No report will consciously offer them an "expert" opinion that could cost the public agencies millions of dollars.


It is not about the guys that died.  It is about the money that might need to be paid to the survivors for the losses.  

What a fucked up world we live in!

Stevo-Wayne Downey
Stevo-Wayne Downey

my friend wade parker (of 11years) was killed by this raging fire!!! I say something went seriously wrong!!!!!!!!! I have heard from varying reports from prescott area..... those hotshots shouldnt have gone in in the first place!!!!!!! They were told not to go in from what I had heard..... there shouldnt be more than 100 pagereport about how nothing went wrong WHEN 19 GREAT AMAZING PEOPLE WERE KILLED!!!!!!!

MaskedMagician1967
MaskedMagician1967 topcommenter

This report is as full of bullshit as the delusional RICO complaint Candy Dandy Thomas and the Miscreants filed in 2009.

19 highly trained and experienced firefighters would not have died if there wasn't failure at SOME point. I suspect Chief Willis is hiding something. I want to know what that is.

Steve Larson
Steve Larson

Obviously something went wrong. They shouldn't have been in that spot. Although blaming anyone seems pointless now.

TommyCollins
TommyCollins topcommenter

Personally I have a problem with an investigative report that is titled "Serious Accident". It should have been titled "Multiple death investigative report".

That said, however, it's clear the report was not intended to show the results of an investigation. Rather, it was intended to say, "They died heroes and we don't know why".

(1) This was a HUGE tragedy, regardless of the number of deaths.

(2) The fire service, at ALL levels, needs to learn from it.

(3) There was obvious NEGLIGENCE involved at many levels, but no one wants to assess or take blame, including those who probably should be.

(4) Nineteen lives were lost and it seems many people are content to not learn from this so others might not make the same mistakes.

(5) Why the hell wasn't a GPS tracking device, such as a SPOT, assigned to at least one member of the crew? This is NOT new technology and it's very affordable. The fire bosses could easily have seen that the crew was headed the wrong way and notified the crew to turn around and go back to the black safety area.

(6) This 'report', if you will, is simply a public kiss off to try to placate those who want answers, and will never get them.

(7) It appears more energy was used by this 'team' to wordsmith the report than to actually conduct a professional and complete investigation. I suppose if anything is learned from this report it will be 'creative writing 101'.

Also, the decision to NOT make the autopsy reports public seems glaring, to me. What, if anything are they trying to hide? If nothing was wrong, why not release the autopsy reports?

Shame on those involved with this 'TEAM', as they call themselves.

Ostrich comes to mind when I think about this 'team'.

Cozz
Cozz topcommenter

Nothing went wrong !?!...how about 19 firefighters dying, I'd say something obviously went wrong.

Trace22
Trace22

So Chief Willis, what have we learned today? Not only were retardant tankers working the fire that entire afternoon, which contradicts your previous misleading and self-serving statements, the largest tanker available anywhere in the world was actually on scene when the hotshots were preparing to get in their shelters. Your ridiculous attempt to blame the Feds for your disaster has failed Chief Willis. Apparently that huge DC-10 with 11,000 gallons of retardant couldn't find your Hotshot crew because they were not given enough time. Your crew stayed silent for thirty minutes after they left the black, and then gave the tanker mere minutes to find them and drop their retardant.  Care to explain your previous statements regarding the availability of airtankers and the survival of your crew Chief Willis?  

arizonaeagletarian
arizonaeagletarian

"Karels said the point of this report was to be a "learning document" for future firefighters. Since apparently nothing went wrong, it's concerning what those future firefighters must be learning."

Very telling. Fear of something by those preparing the report will absolutely keep those who need the information most from being able to learn what they need to learn to keep from making the same mistake(s).


Jukes
Jukes

@tondojondo And other times we have to stand up and yell "bullshit."  This reminds me of the saying, "If you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention."

TommyCollins
TommyCollins topcommenter

@bob_lablaw96 Bob, I understand the human emotion element of your posting, but the bottom line is those seasonal fire fighters were just that; and they understood and agreed to that designation, not fully expecting that any of them would likely be killed during the fire fighting process.

If I work at Home Depot as a part or full time seasonal employee, and am standing next to a full time, 'permanent' employee, and a pallet of roof tiles falls from overhead, killing us both, I don't get anything other than my final check and any life insurance I might have purchased. The permanent employee's family gets life insurance, pension, etc as offered.

If those seasonal employees had been killed in a bus while on the way to fight the fire the outcome would be the same. They were using seasonal employment as a means of trying to eventually gain permanent status and someone was negligent and they died. Tragic.

danzigsdaddy
danzigsdaddy topcommenter

@MaskedMagician1967 just a suggestion, but, quite possibly .................?? incompetence in upper management or in the higher levels of authority????  if you think about it, that answer will probably answer most of your questions about anything these days..................IE: why are my taxes so high? why are we ignoring our own people and dictating government to other countries? why are our politicians getting away with breaking laws and constitutional rights? why is our governor an uneducated drunken babbling idiot? why do we have to payfor a sheriff who cant walk upright without hurting himself? ......................try it, its an awesome answer that really works for most of our problems (if you want to go deeper though..........the hard hitting answer is "because we elect idiots")

Jukes
Jukes

@TommyCollins But they do know why.  They just won't admit it and assign responsibility. 

MaskedMagician1967
MaskedMagician1967 topcommenter

Cozz, I smell a government conspiracy here. I have to wonder if Candy Thomas, Aubuchon and/or Rachel Alexander either wrote or helped write that report.

MaskedMagician1967
MaskedMagician1967 topcommenter

Thanks Danzig.

I will never expect the twits who authored the report to actually admit fault or liability.

As for the politicians, I'd fire them in a heartbeat if I had the ability to do so.

My taxes are way too high for the salary I get. I swear I pay about $3500/yr in taxes.

Jukes
Jukes

@MaskedMagician1967 Well, your taxes didn't even pay for what that report cost, let alone what it cost to fight that one fire.  So you have nothing to complain about.  You are getting much more than $3,500 in services per year from the government even if you are sitting in the house all day.

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