Yarnell Hill Fire Investigative Report Leaves Questions Unanswered

Nothing went wrong in the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters in June. This according to the "Serious Accident Investigation Report" into the fire, released recently by federal, state, and local firefighting officials in Prescott.

"The [interagency] Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol," the report states of the 18 investigators, led by Florida State Forester Jim Karels, whose blame-nobody findings were disclosed at a press conference on Saturday, September 28.

It certainly seems that something must have gone wrong.

But some fire officials, who were among those who earlier assessed blame and pointed out mistakes leading up to the deaths, now say everything went according to protocol.

Arizona Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne previously said it appeared that Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, 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.

The Granite Mountain crew was the only one in the nation run by a municipality, and 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 requested for the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Neither of these findings was included in the report.

But incredibly — except to hotshot veterans who predicted such a report outcome in our August 21 cover story ("The Granite Mountain Hotshots Never Should've Been Deployed, Mountain Evidence Shows") — finding out exactly 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 document states.

Interestingly, the report debunks 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 for the crew he managed is bogus, according to the report.

"The [inability to fill the orders] did not affect the tragic outcome," the report says. "When Dispatch placed the orders at 1603, the incident team already had half of the available airtanker fleet, representing 74 [percent] 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 down more than 10,000 gallons of retardant — but nobody knew exactly where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were until it was too late.

Willis had told reporters at a July press conference at the site of the hotshots' deaths that he knew "in [his] heart" that his men 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 the property, "thanks to fire-resistant construction and defensible space around their buildings."

Willis criticized our cover story on the fire after he repeatedly ducked interviews and refused to answer written questions ("Prescott's Wild-Lands Fire Commander Responds to New Times' Cover Story on the Deaths of 19 City Hotshots — and We Respond Back," September 12).

Among other things, Willis complained about the credibility of former hotshot officials interviewed by investigative 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 August cover story mentioned that many current and former wild-land firefighters told him "they have never seen the complete truth told" in incident reports such as the one released in Prescott.

Dougherty reported: "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 September 28 press conference and did not make himself available after the event, as other officials did.

While the rest of the fire officials (and the report) provided some new facts, they did not provide new explanations.

Most notably, why did the hotshots leave "the black [vegetation already burned over]?"

Florida State Forester Karels contended that there will never be an answer to that question — and to many others.

No one had communicated with crew members for about a half-hour before they died, except in their final moments. There was nothing unusual about that radio silence, Karels said.

Before the frantic last moments, and before the long radio silence, the hotshots had "brief, informal, and vague" radio transmissions with other crews, which resulted in confusion about where they were located. This, too, is normal, according to Karels and his team.

Many media questions asked of the press-conference panel — also including Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt and U.S. Forest Service investigator Mike Dudley — were deflected.

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 more time than expected.

The father of fallen hotshot Travis Turbyfill showed up at the news briefing, 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 forest-firefighting literature. The men were exposed to temperatures of about 2,000 degrees, according to the report.

So many of the shelters' layers of foil, fiberglass, and silica cloth had burned away that investigators weren't sure whether Turbyfill was able to fully enclose himself in his shelter before the fire swept over him. The disintegrated shelter was found underneath Turbyfill's body.

The report shows that Turbyfill, 27, died next to 21-year-old crewmate Kevin Woyjeck, whom investigators determined had encased himself completely in his shelter. Much of Woyjeck's shelter burned away, too. His pants and part of his shirt also burned away, and his gloves were charred and shrunken. Half of his helmet melted. None of the men stood a chance.

Turbyfill's father, Dave, didn't get any straight answers. Press conference moderator Jim Payne, a retired U.S. Forest Service spokesman, suggested that the elder Turbyfill could talk to officials about his concerns at a later date.

Shari Turbyfill, Travis' stepmom, 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 Dave and Shari Turbyfill, chief investigator Karels said the report is meant as a "learning document" for future firefighters.

Yet since investigators state that nothing much went wrong — that certainly no fire official acted improperly — many in attendance at the press conference wondered what possibly could be learned to prevent future tragedies.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley