Yarnell Residents File Lawsuit, Claim Homes Were Destroyed Due to Firefighting Negligence

Many residents of Yarnell who lost their homes in last year's Yarnell Hill Fire have filed a lawsuit claiming the state's forestry division was negligent in its handling of fire-fighting efforts.

The lawsuit alleges that the Arizona State Forestry Division "unthinkingly and incompetently reacted to events."

"It failed to devise and implement any coherent plan to protect the firefighters assigned to it or to protect Yarnell's people and homes," the lawsuit states.

See also:
-Yarnell Residents File Notice of Claim Over Destruction of Homes

The local law firm Knapp & Roberts is representing the plaintiffs, the same firm that's representing Marcia McKee, whose 21-year-old son Grant McKee was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

This group of homeowners filed a notice of claim in December, offering various settlements, which were denied by the state.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages, but also an injunction directing the state and forestry division to make some changes to how it handles wildfires. That includes ensuring that residents are properly warned of fires, that wildland firefighters be equipped with GPS units and more capable fire shelters, among other things.

The lawsuit alleges a lengthy series of missteps that led to the destruction of more than 100 homes in Yarnell, but generally focus on the claim that the fire could have been handled much sooner than it was.

The lawsuit claims the incident commander initially in charge of firefighting efforts didn't properly implement a plan to fight the fire when he took over, just after the fire started -- two days before the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The fire, reported early on by this incident commander as being 2 acres in size, eventually grew to more than 8,000 acres.

The lawsuit alleges dozens of instances in which the beginning of the fire-fighting effort was handled ineptly.

The first official report on the Yarnell Hill Fire, commissioned by the state forestry division, essentially absolved everyone involved of blame, and explained that everything went according to plan.

The only other official investigation, commissioned by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, made a different interpretation, leading to safety violations against the forestry division claiming that firefighters were placed in harm's way.

Although that report doesn't focus on what led to destruction of homes, a supplemental report filed along with the citations, by a private wildfire-fighting consulting firm, did find several problems with how the fire was initially handled. The report corroborates at least some of the allegations in the lawsuit, although that doesn't necessarily mean the firefighting was mishandled in a negligent manner, which is something the homeowners' attorneys would have to prove.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley