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Arizona State Forestry Division Contesting Safety Citations From Yarnell Hill Fire

The Arizona Forestry Division is contesting "serious" safety violations another state agency claims it made fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

"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 [Hotshots]," Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigators charge.

See also:
-Investigating the Deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots

The workplace violations against the Forestry Division call for a fine of $559,000, which includes $25,000 to the survivors of each Granite Mountain crew member.

Considering the investigation commissioned by the Forestry Division found that nothing really went wrong and that lawsuits are getting lined up, Forestry's move to fight the citations doesn't come as a surprise.

"In accordance with Arizona Law, the Arizona Attorney's General Office on behalf of the Arizona State Forestry Division and the Arizona State Forester has formally filed with the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health a Request for an Informal Conference and a Notice of Contest concerning the recent Yarnell Hill Fire Safety Citations," says a statement from the division. "This legal process will afford the Arizona State Forestry Division its first opportunity to present additional information to the Industrial Commission Hearing Division."

A letter from an assistant attorney general defending the division says the citations and penalties are "not supported by substantial evidence contrary to law [and are] arbitrary, capricious and constitute an abuse of discretion by the Industrial Commission of Arizona."

The letter continues, "The State Forestry Division and State Forester remain amenable to participating in a settlement conference and/or alternative dispute resolution."

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However, as part of the ADOSH investigation, a private forest-fire-investigation company, Wildland Fire Associates, found that Forestry didn't follow its own procedures in attacking the fire, instead going with a strategy that "could not succeed."

John Dougherty's recent cover story on the fire included an analysis of the ADOSH investigation, which cited multiple mistakes reported in previous New Times cover stories, as well as experts' opinions on the new report:

"I don't think anybody should be trusting that first report anymore," commented retired wildfire death investigator Ted Putnam, referring to the original Forestry-commissioned document that assessed no official blame (Putnam long has criticized wildfire-investigation reports sponsored by involved agencies). "My real concern after having watched this over the years is that the cover-ups are getting worse."

The ADOSH report, sources say, raises the specter of an ongoing cover-up because of the U.S. Forest Service's refusal to allow Blue Ridge Hotshots to be interviewed.

"Until this week, I have never heard of the USFS refusing to allow [its] firefighters to provide information about a fire, fatality, or otherwise," says Bill Gabbert, a retired wild-land firefighter who publishes the online publication Wildfire Today. "I assume they did it to protect [their agency] from possible criminal charges or civil suits."

The ADOSH report discloses for the first time that Granite Mountain's sole survivor, who acted as a lookout, also faced possible death and serious injury. Prescott Fire Department officials and the Forestry Division-commissioned report maintained that Brendan McDonough was not in immediate danger even though the fire overran his lookout position within minutes of his abandoning the post.

In addition to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the ADOSH reports states, another 61 firefighters also faced serious injury or death. Those threats occurred while they fought the fire as it approached Peeples Valley at midday and later during a last-minute evacuation from Yarnell and Glen Ilah as powerful downdrafts from a collapsing thunderstorm created a conflagration that shot smoke and embers more than 37,000 feet into the air.

"It's amazing that they didn't lose a lot more firefighters," says Gary Olson, a retired hotshot superintendent and former criminal investigator for the federal Bureau of Land Management. "In my 10 years on the fire line, at no time did I ever experience anything that came close to the scenario . . . described in the ADOSH report."

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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