Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation Ignored Major Mistakes by the State
Former Yarnell Fire Chief Peter Andersen sat under a tree in his front yard having his morning coffee on Sunday, June 30, when the Granite Mountain Hotshots drove past his Glen Ilah home.
Illustration by Justin Renteria.
"At 8:03, [their] two buggies went by," Andersen says. "Right after they went by, the leaves started to blow. I shook my head. [The state] didn't listen to me."
Andersen, who resigned as Yarnell chief in 2011 after 12 years of service, was aggravated because he had warned an Arizona Forestry Division fire manager the night before that it was crucial to attack the steadily expanding fire in the hills above Yarnell at dawn, before prevailing southwesterly winds picked up about 8 in the morning.
"I said, this being summertime, it will give you three hours . . . without wind at your backs to be able to get this thing under control," Andersen says he told a fire manager.
Courtesy of Joy Collura Hikers took this photo of the Granite Mountain Hotshots marching up a trail at 9:18 a.m. on June 30.
Seeing the hotshots roll past so late on Sunday morning was yet another signal to Andersen that the Forestry Division was failing to aggressively attack a wildfire that started two days earlier.
All the ingredients for fire disaster were present: It was peak summer-burning season, the area had just sustained record-high temperatures, and the landscape was overgrown with chaparral, creating a tinderbox poised to explode.
Andersen says the lack of urgency to put out the fire caused him to wonder whether the state was content to let it burn through the dense chaparral that choked the gaps between massive granite boulders strewn across the Weaver Mountains that flank Yarnell to the west. The east slope of the mountains hadn't experienced a wildfire since 1966.
As the two white Granite Mountain vans drove on a narrow road that led to the base of the mountains, Andersen thought that fire managers were "doing a sloppy job" handling what he and other firefighters knew was a "volatile" situation.
The state's underwhelming effort to control the wildfire collapsed late Sunday afternoon when the prevailing southwesterly winds were replaced by powerful downdrafts from a thunderstorm approaching from the northeast. Weather forecasters issued a warning about the approaching storm to fire managers at 3:26 p.m. The warning was relayed to the Granite Mountain crew.
The 50 mile-per-hour downdrafts from the thunderstorm blew up a fire that had burned about 4,000 acres by 3 p.m. into an 8,000-acre conflagration a few hours later.
The three key environmental factors affecting wildfire behavior fell into perfect alignment: wind, fuel, and topography. The drought-stricken desert scrub, combined with the thunderstorm's powerful winds, generated a wall of flame that surged across relatively flat ground at about 12 miles per hour -- extraordinarily fast for a fire.
The powerful wind bent the 80-foot-high flames nearly parallel to the ground as the fire approached the base of the Weavers. The intensity and speed of the fire accelerated as it entered several box canyons that served as funnels, further amplifying its fury.
For reasons that remain unknown, the Granite Mountain Hotshots left their safe spot in a burned-over area on a ridge sometime after 4 p.m. and dropped down the side of the mountain. About 4:40 p.m., they hiked through dense chaparral at the base of one of the canyons, apparently attempting to reach Boulder Springs Ranch, which had been designated as a safety zone because the owners had cleared a wide swath of vegetation from around the property.
Suddenly, the fire swept around the northern flank of the canyon's wall and surged toward the 19 men, covering the last 100 yards in 19 seconds. The crew had less than two minutes to react to the 2,000-degree firestorm that quickly engulfed their position. There was no chance of survival.
Like tens of thousands of people who've closely examined the circumstances leading up to the hotshots' deaths, Anderson doesn't understand why the crew was in the box canyon in the first place, much less at a time of day when wildfires typically display their greatest intensity and when thunderstorm warnings had been issued.
"Anybody who has ever taken a wild-lands class is warned about box canyons," Andersen says. "You might as well be standing in a fireplace with the flue open."
The question of why the men were there haunts Andersen. And, he says, the lack of substantive conclusions in a report issued September 28 after a state-commissioned investigation into their deaths has left him unsatisfied.
"I think it's a big cover-up, a big snow job," he says. "It tries to take any semblance of blame off anybody."
Andersen evacuated from his home about the same time that the Granite Mountain crew deployed their fire shelters designed to withstand temperatures of about 300 degrees.
"The heat was so intense that it was choking me," Andersen says. "I could see [the fire] coming over the ridge . . . and you couldn't see the top of the column of smoke. And it was starting to slowly spin . . . like a slow tornado, throwing embers everywhere."