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.
"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.
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)?
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.