“Planes: Fire and Rescue” trailer

This is another trailer for the Disney movie, Planes: Fire & Rescue which will be in theaters in the United States beginning July 18. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to an animated film, but I’ll have to check this one out. All of the other trailers we’ve seen for the movie (posted at Fire Aviation) emphasized aerial firefighting resources, but this one features ground-based resources, with one Single Engine Air Tanker and a couple of other aircraft thrown in for good measure.

Some actual wildland firefighters served as subject matter experts with the movie makers. That shows up in some of the terminology used, including in this one-minute clip, “Can you make it to your safety zone?”, and “Load and return”.

It is interesting that Disney went to such lengths to use the jargon that firefighters use. It makes you wonder who their target audience is for this animated feature. The producers of the Howie Long movie, Firestorm, did not pay that much attention to detail.

ToysRus, Walmart, and Amazon are already selling die-cast action figures. Planes fire & rescue Planes fire & rescue Planes fire & rescuePlanes fire & rescue


What have we learned from Yarnell Hill?

Granite Mountain

Granite Mountain Hotshots hiking to their assignment, June 30, 2013. Photo by Joy Collura.

It has been almost a year since 19 firefighters were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30, 2013. The dust has settled near Yarnell, Arizona and many claims have been filed against various government agencies. One of those was converted into a lawsuit Monday when it was filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. It lists 162 property owners who name the state and the Arizona State Forestry Division as defendants. From the suit:

If the Arizona State Forestry Division had competently managed, contained and suppressed the Yarnell Hill Fire, no member of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew would have died. And Yarnell and its people would have escaped devastation.

That was the first of several lawsuits that will probably be filed. The second was issued Wednesday by 12 of the families of the firefighters killed in the fire.

While the sudden deaths of 19 people is horrific, it would ease our pain somewhat if we thought that something, anything, could come out of this that resembled lessons learned. If a few tidbits could be found in the ashes of the fire that could help others avoid a similar fate, maybe we could move forward with a glimmer of hope.

Reason swiss cheeze modelAn experienced firefighter can analyze the two official reports about the fatalities, and combined with reading between the lines and drawing conclusions based on their knowledge, they can nit pic using 20-20 hindsight like a Monday morning quarterback. We succumbed to what we saw as inevitable and after the second report came out in December wrote a piece listing 19 issues, or holes in the slices of Swiss cheese, that when combined, the holes align, permitting (in James T. Reason’s words) “a trajectory of accident opportunity”, so that a hazard passes through holes in all of the slices, leading to a failure.

We put the 19 issues into four categories: supervision of aerial resources, supervision of ground personnel, planning, and communication. This was not the first time these issues, or deficiencies have been seen on wildland fires. Communication, for example, is listed in almost every investigation report for a fatality on a fire. And it was not the first time that firefighters took on an assignment without an adequate briefing, without a current map of the fire, had incorrectly programmed radios, no safety officer, no written incident action plan, or that an incident management team arrived on the third day of a fire without any Division Supervisors.

When you combine all of the slices of the Swiss cheese and their 19 holes, failure is not inevitable, but it becomes more difficult to avoid. When a sleepy fire awakens and becomes complex all within the space of a few hours, it taxes the infrastructure that has been put in place. A robust organization can be resilient in the face of adversity, recovering quickly from difficult conditions, possibly even compensating for 19 holes. But if the organization and decision making, affected in some cases by little sleep over the previous 48 hours, is stressed and tested beyond its limits, undesirable results are more likely to occur.

It is conceivable that if one or more of the issues, or holes, had not occurred, we would not be mourning the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

One thing we don’t know about the fatalities on the Yarnell Hill Fire is why, exactly, the 19 firefighters walked into what became a lethal firetrap in a canyon. Nothing in the reports shed much light on how that decision was made, or by whom. It seems counter-intuitive that experienced firefighters would leave the safety of a previously burned area and expose themselves to the fire as they walked through unburned, very flammable vegetation, especially after a warning had been issued over the radio about an approaching thunderstorm cell with strong winds.

As the lawsuits work their way through the court system, the discovery process may yield information the government agencies that commissioned the reports preferred to be kept out of the public eye. Questions may be answered.

We can label them mistakes or unfortunate decisions, but what was done on the fire has been done before. Most of the time firefighters are lucky and get away with it, returning to their families when the fire is out. Other times they become documented in fatality reports.

While there may be few cultural changes coming out of this fire, other than perhaps being more aggressive and attacking new fires with overwhelming force, many firefighters and managers will move some basic safety principles closer to the surface of their ongoing evaluation of conditions on a fire. Supervisors may double and triple-check the location of their fire resources, and confirm through active listening techniques that orders and assignments are absolutely clear and understood. And that works both ways, up and down the chain of command. Fire managers could evaluate the supervision of aerial resources more often to ensure that the workload and span of control are within reasonable limits. Agency administrators could be certain that the management structure on a fire is appropriate for the complexity, and that “short” incident management teams are rarely if ever used. Transitions from one incident management organization to another may be watched more carefully.

Based on what we know about the fire, there is no earth-shaking revelation that can become a lesson learned. They have already been taught. Firefighters have been making the same mistakes for decades. They end up in reports that sit on shelves or hard drives. Unfortunately, another firefighter will repeat them. And they might be lucky, or resilient, and go home to their family when the fire is out.


Throwback Thursday: our coverage of the Yarnell Hill Fire, one year ago

In today’s Throwback Thursday, we will take a look at how we covered the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. We began writing the article at 6:15 p.m. MDT, June 30, 2014 and continued updating it through July 5. Like our other articles about fires that are updated over a period of days, it had the most recent updates at the top. However, for ease of reading, we put it in chronological order below.


(Originally published at 6:15 p.m. MDT, June 30, 2013)

Map of Yarnell Fire

A 3-D map showing icons representing heat detected on the Yarnell Fire by a satellite at 11:55 a.m. MDT, June 30, 2013. The locations of the icons are accurate to within about a mile. (click to enlarge)

The Yarnell Fire has been burning for about 48 hours and already a Type 1 Incident Management Team, Clay Templin’s, has been ordered. A Type 3 IMTeam (Hall) had assumed command at 10 a.m. Sunday [June 30].

As you can see on the map above, at 11:55 a.m. MDT Sunday the fire appeared to be about a mile from Yarnell, Arizona, which is 26 miles southwest of Prescott. However the icons representing heat can be as much as a mile in error. The Southwest Area Coordination Center reports the fire has burned 800 to 1,000 acres.

ABC15 occasionally has live video of the fire, but for the short time I watched it, before it went to nothing but commercials, it was only showing helicopter footage of extreme closeups of flames, providing no context. The TV station is reporting 1,500 acres have burned forcing the evacuation of 600 people.

Jeffrey Blackburn has several photos of the fire, including the one below.

Yarnell Fire

Yarnell Fire, photo by Jeffrey Blackburn

The nearby Stanton weather station recorded temperatures Sunday afternoon [June 30] up to 103 degrees and a low relative humidity of 14 percent. The forecast for Monday is more moderate, with a high temperature of 91 degrees, relative humidity around 20 percent, and 3-9 mph winds out of the southwest.


(UPDATED at 7:58 MDT, June 30, 2013)

At 6:55 p.m. MST @ArizonaNewsnet reported “The fire has engulfed the town of Yarnell. Multiple structures burning.”

This was apparently caused by a 180-degree shift in the direction of the wind. From 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. local time at the Stanton RAWS weather station four miles south of the fire, the wind was from the south-southwest or southwest, but at 5 p.m. it began blowing from the north-northeast at 22 to 26 mph gusting up to 43 mph. This may have pushed the fire into the town.

If there were any firefighters on the south or southwest side of the fire between 4 and 5 p.m., who previously had the wind at their backs for seven hours with the fire moving away from them, they may have suddenly and unexpectedly found the fire heading toward them at a rapid rate. Wind direction changes like this are sometimes caused by a passing thunderstorm with strong outflowing downdrafts.

Data from Stanton RAWS weather station, near Yarnell, AZ

Data from Stanton RAWS weather station, near Yarnell, AZ, June 30, 2013

As of about 6 p.m. MDT a 15-mile stretch of US State Route 89 was closed.

“@wildfirediva” had information about air tankers:

We’ve got 3 Large Airtankers loading at Prescott, 2 VLATs loading at IWA & 4 SEATs loading at Wickenburg all for #YarnelHillFire #AZFire
6:11 PM – 30 Jun 2013

Note: “IWA” is Phoenix-Gateway airport.

Three medical helicopters are responding to Yarnell Fire Station, according to Arizona News Net:

Arizona News
#YarnellHill Fire: Multiple burn patients. Landing zone for medical helicopters at Yarnell Fire Station. #azfire
6:42 PM – 30 Jun 2013

At 7:08 p.m. smoke was preventing the helicopters from landing at Yarnell, @AZcentral reports. They are landing at Morristown Fire Station (between Phoenix & Wickenburg) to rendezvous with ground ambulances.
Continue reading


One year after Yarnell Hill, a reporter asks, are we doing things differently?

I hope newspapers never go away. Many of them are struggling financially and are laying off reporters and photographers, but the world will be a different place without skilled reporters digging out facts and writing prose that is a pleasure to read.

Amy B. Wang, in an article she published Wednesday for the Arizona Republic, illustrates this. She covered last month’s Slide Fire south of Flagstaff, Arizona about 70 miles away from the fatal Yarnell Hill Fire. When we wrote about the Slide Fire, we noted that within five hours of the fire being reported, already a Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT) and 15 additional Type 1 crews, over and above the initial dispatch, had been ordered. In her article she compared the anemic response (my term) on the Yarnell Hill Fire to the heavy ordering of firefighting resources in the first hours of the Slide fire.

In the interest of full disclosure, Ms. Wang interviewed me for the piece, and quoted me near the end.

Below is an excerpt from her article, a section where she was writing about the fire camp for the Slide Fire:

…The firefighters were elusive. A hotshot at a fire camp is likely one of two things: exhausted and sleeping or exhausted and preparing to head out to the lines.

On Thursday morning, they huddled around their crew buggies, many in silence. By 6 a.m., most had climbed into their vehicles. One by one, the buggies rumbled out of the park, team names emblazoned on the sides — Carson, Blue Ridge, Northwest, Prescott — and headed south toward the flames.

About 7 miles south of the fire camp, at the Oak Creek Vista Overlook, two members of the Carson Hotshots served as lookouts for their hand crew below. Stoic, they observed as part of the fire worked its way up the wall of Sterling Canyon.

A large plume of smoke billowed above the canyon walls, pushed by a light wind. Only the streams of radio chatter and sounds of helicopters cycling through the skies every 10 minutes pierced the silence.

They spoke neither to each other nor to a growing crowd of television cameras. With the unwavering attention of Buckingham Palace guards, the hotshots remained oblivious to the lenses and shutter clicks. One shook his head and declined to give his name for a photo caption.

A fire information officer with the Kaibab National Forest, who had accompanied the group to the lookout, interjected.

“Guys, if they say no, that’s it,” she said firmly.


Quit blaming firefighters

Safety MattersA group of five retired wildland firefighters has formed an organization called “Safety Matters“. Their goal is to “call attention to deficiencies in wildand firefighter safety presented by current wildland fire management systems.”

Since they came out in January, they have been soliciting input from individuals interested in wildland fire, and have been studying fires that occurred between 1990 and 2013 where firefighters were killed. Their most significant product to date is a 16-page report released Monday, titled Safety Matters Forum Briefing. The document identifies some commonalities in the fatality fires and provides suggestions for improvements in the areas of fatality investigations, the role of the Agency Administrator, fire program leadership, emergency communications, and mapping. They did not take on the issue of fire supervisors knowing the real time location of their firefighters and the fire, what I call the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety.

Monday morning they sent the report to all members of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Some of the best stuff in the report is in the Executive summary. Here is an excerpt (emphasis added):

…Safety Matters feels that the lack of participation by management in the fire management decision process is a major failing in providing for firefighter safety. A majority of firefighter fatalities in the last 20 years have occurred after a fire has escaped initial attack and before a full incident management team has assumed management responsibilities for a fire. Given this situation we do not feel it is ever the sole responsibility of firefighters to assess the values at risk and determine the appropriate action. Investigations of firefighter fatalities due to burnovers or entrapments seldom look at management involvement, but rather focus on decisions made by the affected firefighters. It is time to quit blaming firefighters for the lack of management involvement.

We further believe that the current system tasked with protecting firefighters is seriously flawed. There are several National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) committees that are tasked with addressing the issue of firefighter safety, but there is no clear or obvious path for an identified problem to be brought forward and be addressed through a change in policy or procedure. Additionally, the current system staunchly supports the idea that only those within the system are qualified and experienced enough to provide credible input.

Safety Matters believes that the current approach needs to change both procedurally and behaviorally in order to truly make firefighter safety the first priority. A comprehensive review by a diverse and impartial group of experts would help clearly identify the shortcomings of the current system, and help craft a revised system that would best ensure that firefighter safety is the first priority.

One of the more interesting recommendations is about the structure of fatality investigations:

….We believe that a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) model of accident investigation would better meet everyone’s needs in investigating wildland fire fatalities. This approach would allow a single independent investigation of the accident by an impartial group of specialists. The advantage is that this model is not constrained by time, agency agendas or associated politics, or public pressures.


Forest Service releases cause of Powerhouse Fire

The U.S. Forest Service released a very brief statement today saying that the cause of the 30,000 acre Powerhouse Fire that destroyed 24 homes in 2013 in northern Los Angeles County was “electrical power lines creating a competent ignition source”. No other information was provided about the exact cause. The short news release ended with this:

For further information please submit a request for a copy of Forest Service Report of Investigation 13-05-7878776 through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process.

According to a lawsuit that has been filed, the fire started at or near a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) hydroelectric power plant north of Santa Clarita, California. An investigation by the Daily News found that some of the power poles in the area were deteriorated and were 80 years old. An average pole life is 60 years, experts say, but the DWP contends that equipment age was not a factor in the cause of the fire.