Yarnell Hill Fire: Occupational Safety Officials Propose $559,000 Fine for "Serious" Violations
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster
State investigators have proposed a $559,000 penalty against the Arizona State Forestry Division for "serious" safety violations in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
Most of those proposed penalties are a result of the deaths of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, who died in the fire on June 30.
The Arizona Industrial Commission, which can accept of reject the findings, is meeting early this afternoon.
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"On that day the fire burned over 8,000 acres of wildland, over 114 structures, and resulted in multiple instances of firefighters being unnecessarily and unreasonably exposed to the deadly hazards of wildland firefighting, the most catastrophic being the entrapment, burn-over, and deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain IHC," reads a document being presented to the commission today.
Recall that federal, state, and local firefighting officials' investigation into the deaths resulted in the conclusion that nothing really went wrong.
Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigators very clearly disagree.
Of the two "serious" citations against the forestry division, the investigators say in the first one:
"The employer did not furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to their employees, in that the employer implemented suppression strategies that prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighting safety, and failed to prioritize strategies consistent with Arizona State Forestry Division -- Standard Operational Guideline 701 Fire Suppression and Prescribed Fire Policy (2008). When the employer knew that suppression of extremely active chaparral fuels was ineffective and that wind would push active fire towards non-defensible structures, firefighters working downwind were not promptly removed from exposure to smoke inhalation, burns, and deaths. . .
The citation states that this applies to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, in the time before their deaths, but also says 61 other fire fighters at the Yarnell Hill Fire were exposed to these conditions.
In a New Times cover story in August, reporter John Dougherty cited former hotshots who said it looked like the crew put too much emphasis on structure protection.
Darrell Willis, Wildland Division chief of the Prescott Fire Department, blasted New Times for (among other things) reporting the ex-hotshots' claim that there was too much emphasis on structure protection, although the claim is now supported by these state investigators, too.
For this violation, investigators recommend a penalty of $70,000, plus $475,000 -- an additional penalty of $25,000 per death.
The other citation, which accounts for the rest of the proposed penalty, cites five occasions throughout the fire that the forestry division failed to follow its own guidelines and policies in their plans to fight the fire.
Yet, according to the "investigation" and subsequent report released by the state forestry division in September, "The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol."
Additionally, among the materials the commission will see this afternoon is a report produced by Wildland Fire Associates, which includes a list of its conclusions -- those investigators found things definitely went wrong:
We have determined that the following factors directly contributed to the entrapment and burnover:
- FIRE BEHAVIOR WAS EXTREME AND EXACERBATED BY THE OUTFLOW BOUNDARY ASSOCIATED WITH THE THUNDERSTORM. THE YARNELL HILL FIRE CONTINUALLY EXCEEDED THE EXPECTATIONS OF FIRE AND INCIDENT MANAGERS, AS WELL AS THE FIREFIGHTERS.
- ARIZONA STATE FORESTRY DIVISION FAILED TO IMPLEMENT THEIR OWN EXTENDED ATTACK GUIDELINES AND PROCEDURES INCLUDING AN EXTENDED ATTACK SAFETY CHECKLIST AND WILDLAND FIRE DECISION SUPPORT SYSTEM WITH A COMPLEXITY ANALYSIS.
- THE INCIDENT MANAGEMENT DECISION PROCESS FAILED TO RECOGNIZE THAT THE AVAILABLE RESOURCES AND CHOSEN ADMINISTRATIVE STRATEGY OF FULL SUPPRESSION AND ASSOCIATED OPERATIONAL TACTICS COULD NOT SUCCEED. THIS ALSO REMAINED THE CASE WHEN THE STRATEGY CHANGED FROM FULL SUPPRESSION TO A COMBINATION OF POINT PROTECTION AND FULL SUPPRESSION.
- RISK MANAGEMENT WEIGHS THE RISK ASSOCIATED WITH SUCCESS AGAINST THE PROBABILITY AND SEVERITY OF FAILURE. ASFD FAILED TO ADEQUATELY UPDATE THEIR RISK ASSESSMENT WHEN THE FIRE ESCAPED INITIAL ATTACK LEADING TO THE FAILURE OF THEIR STRATEGIES AND TACTICS THAT RESULTED IN A LIFE-THREATENING EVENT.
UPDATE 3:48 p.m.: The commission approved the citations and the fines.
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