Yarnell Hill Fire Report: No Problems in Deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots
|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.
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"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.
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.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.
Riggles says "facts changed" during investigations, and "what's worse, everybody keeps their mouths shut and babbles the official story."