Granite Mountain Hotshots Not Caught in "Sudden" Storm, as Media Accounts Contend

If you've read mainstream media accounts of the moments leading up to the death of 19 firefighters in Yarnell, then you've been led to believe that a "sudden" thunderstorm is what sent the Granite Mountain Hotshots into harm's way.

That's not the case, former New Times reporter John Dougherty has discovered.

The National Weather Service was well aware of the storm, which passed through Yarnell on Sunday, the day the firefighters died.

There was no meteorologist on the ground with firefighters battling the blaze, and it's not clear if information about the storm was relayed to the Hotshot crew.

There's an investigation into the firefighters' deaths, but nothing's been released at this point. No firefighting officials wanted to talk about the subject with Dougherty.

"Sudden," however, does not seem to be a fitting label for the storm, which brought strong winds that spread the fire quickly.

"A sudden windstorm turned an Arizona forest fire into an out-of-control inferno that trapped and killed 19 firefighters, nearly all of them members of an elite crew of "hotshots," authorities said Monday," the Arizona Republic wrote. "It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years."

The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and others have referred to the storm as "sudden" as well.

"That is just not true," University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass told Dougherty. "A lot of people were tracking that storm."

Mass explains this more on his blog, explaining that "the more I dug into it, the more disturbed I got."

From Mass' blog:

So it is apparent what occurred . . . first the winds were from the south, followed by a rapid shift of 180 degrees, sudden increase of winds to over 40 mph, and the fire blew up and reversed direction . . .

You can see why I find this disaster so unsettling. Hours before the incident it was clear there was a real threat . . . satellite and radar showed developing convection to the north that was moving south towards the fire. High-resolution numerical models showed a threat. Were there any meteorologists working the fire? If not, why not? This terrible tragedy needs to be reviewed carefully.
"The day after the firefighters were killed, a federal multi-agency team took control of fighting the blaze from the state," Dougherty writes. "Under the direction of the new command team, wildfire fighters were repeatedly pulled off the front lines when thunderstorms were forecast for the area."

Dougherty also points out an apparently slow response from state and federal land authorities.

Dougherty located a press release from the Yarnell Fire Department the morning after the fire started, saying it poses "no danger" to the community.

Arizona State Forestry Division joined later that morning, still citing no danger. That night, the Bureau of Land Management got involved, as the fire increased from 4 acres to 15 acres. An hour after that announcement, at 9 p.m. Saturday, the press release said the fire was up to 200 acres, and there was no containment.

Investigators brought in to look into the deaths of the 19 firefighters are due to give their first update any day now. It'll be interesting to see what they have to say.

According to an update this morning, the 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill Fire is now 90 percent contained.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley