Investigative Media explores decisions made on Yarnell Hill Fire

Yarnell Hill Fire
Yarnell Hill Fire. Photo by Joy Collura.

John Dougherty of Investigative Media has been following very closely the developments surrounding the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30 on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. After spending a couple of hours with him in Prescott before the crew’s memorial service, I became convinced that he truly wants to determine the facts — exactly what happened and why.

John’s latest article about the fire, on his website and at the Phoenix New Times, lays out the decisions that were made during the first three days of the fire. He interviewed several wildland fire experts who questioned the findings of the official report which concluded no mistakes were made. His article also includes video interviews with Sonny “Tex” Gilligan and Joy Collura who were in the fire area from 4 a.m. until about 2 p.m. on June 30 and talked with the Granite Mountain firefighters.

Mr. Gilligan and Ms. Collura have been very generous with us, providing the information they know about the fire and sharing the photos she took that day.

The article is a must-read if you are interested in the fire. Below is a short excerpt:

Wildfire experts interviewed for this story identified key inadequately analyzed factors in the investigation that may have contributed to the tragedy, including:

–The state’s failed initial attack on the fire created a situation that later placed hundreds of firefighters at risk to put out a fire that could’ve been controlled easily.

–Once the initial attack failed, the state dispatched a skeleton management team to direct firefighting operations, but the team didn’t have sufficient resources to adequately fight the blaze. When it assumed control, the state’s “Type 2 Short” incident-management team lacked “safety officers” and “division supervisors” whose absence may have contributed to a breakdown in communications during the crucial 30 minutes before the hotshots died.

–The investigation report didn’t thoroughly examine the mental and physical condition of the Granite Mountain crew on the day it was dispatched to Yarnell — its scheduled day off and the 28th day it had worked in June.


Wildfire news, October 16, 2013

Boulder Fire Department to convert seasonals to full time

In a budget approved by the City Council on Tuesday, the Boulder, Colorado Fire Department will be able to convert its seasonal wildland firefighting crew to full time.

NFPA announces first Wildfire Preparedness Day

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) today announced its first national Wildfire Community Preparedness Day (Wildfire Preparedness Day) will take place on Saturday, May 3, 2014. Projects on May 3 can range from a short time commitment up to an entire day and can be undertaken by individuals or groups. Potential projects include hosting a chipping day, distributing wildfire safety information to neighbors, organizing brush clean up and more. Residents of all ages are invited to join in the effort. A list of project ideas is available at

The 2014 Wildfire Preparedness Day comes on the heels of NFPA’s Colorado Wildfire Preparedness Day of Service that was piloted in May 2013 where nearly 600 volunteers participated in more than 16 projects across the state.

Charities raise millions for families of Granite Mountain 19

Charities have raised over $11 million for the families of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed June 30 on the Yarnell Hill Fire at Yarnell, Arizona.

Granite Mountain Hotshot Girls host benefit for Yarnell

A group of women made up of Hotshots’ mothers, wives, sisters, fiancées, and more, have joined forces to help give back some of the support they received. The group that calls itself the “Granite Mountain Hotshot Girls” will be hosting a benefit to help with the rebuilding efforts after the Yarnell Hill Fire swept through Yarnell destroying more than 100 structures in the town.

An all woman engine crew responds to a fire in Lexington, KY

It is surprising that this is a news item in 2013, but on September 5 in Lexington, Kentucky a three-person all women engine crew responded to a fire in the city. This is the first time an all women crew has responded to a fire in Lexington. The city made a big deal of it Wednesday, presenting the trio — Captain Maria Roberts, Amanda Arbogast and Sarah McGill — with certificates.

The women appreciated the recognition, but all agreed that they were just doing their job.

“It was just another run for us,” said Roberts, who joined the division in November 1999. “I had two really good firefighters riding in my truck and that’s not any different than any other day.”

In the 523-person fire department, 14 of them are women.

It will actually be news when similar occurrences are no longer news.

Another Yarnell area fire chief may lose his job

The Daily Courier is reporting that Central Yavapai Fire District Chief Paul Nies may lose his job. The newspaper said Chief Nies believes that his firing by the district’s Board of Directors may be inevitable.

Yavapai County is very large and includes Prescott, Arizona, as well as Yarnell and the site of the Yarnell Hill Fire which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30. The Hotshot crew was part of the Prescott Fire Department.

Two other fire chiefs in the area are also gone or will be soon. Dan Fraijo, Chief of the Prescott Fire Department, is being forced out of his job by the City Manager.

Jim Koile, Chief of the Yarnell Fire Department announced his resignation October 8, two years after being selected for the position. He had been criticized for not spending a $15,000 grant in 2012 for removing flammable vegetation around homes in the community. And a few days before his resignation it was revealed that in 1974 he was convicted of manslaughter in the death of a 3-year old girl.

The Yarnell Hill Fire was initially evaluated by the Yarnell Hill Fire department but the suppression of the fire was the responsibility of the Arizona State Forestry Division.

Yarnell Fire Chief resigns

Jim Koile, Chief of the Yarnell Fire Department announced his resignation Tuesday, two years after being selected for the position.

Just a few days after the Chief of the Prescott Fire Department was forced out of his job, another Fire Chief with ties to the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona is leaving his job. Jim Koile, Chief of the Yarnell Fire Department announced his resignation Tuesday, two years after being selected for the position. According to the Daily Courier, some members of the community applauded when the resignation was disclosed at a Fire District Board meeting.

Some residents pointed out that on the day the Yarnell Hill Fire was discovered, which later killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, no firefighters on the department took any action on the fire, and Chief Koile turned down an offer from the nearby Peeples Fire Department for assistance.

The chief had also been criticized for not spending a $15,000 grant in 2012 for removing flammable vegetation around homes in the community. The report on the fire noted about the town, “overgrown yards and indefensible houses, and … limited options for a protection strategy”, as well as “…many structures were not defendable…. The fire destroyed over one hundred structures”.

But perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was a story about his manslaughter conviction.

Below is an excerpt from an October 8, 2013 article in the Daily Courier:

In 1974, a Maricopa County jury convicted Koile of manslaughter in the death of 3-year-old Carla Kay Dahlstedt. Koile was a Mesa firefighter at the time.

According to court records, on Dec. 12, 1973, Koile said he spanked and pushed Carla, daughter of his live-in girlfriend, Alys Dahlstedt. The little girl hit her head on the edge of her crib and was knocked unconscious. Koile said he was disciplining Carla for lying.

Koile said he attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage, but he thought Carla was dead. Panicking, Koile drove the toddler to the desert, near the Mesa dump, where he buried her.

When Dahlstedt came home, Koile told her that Carla had been abducted or wandered away, court records stated.

Six hours after he buried the toddler’s body, Koile recanted his story to police and led them to the burial site.

As police dug up the little girl, they discovered she was still alive and transported her to the hospital, court records read. Carla died a day later from brain damage.

Superior Court Judge Charles Roush reduced Koile’s conviction to involuntary manslaughter after Dahlstedt pleaded for leniency.


Yarnell Hill Fire report released

Granite Mountain Hotshots

(Originally published at 11:19 MDT, September 28, 2013; updated at 6 p.m. September 28, 2013. Observations after reading the report are at the bottom of this article.)

The Arizona State Forestry Division has released the Serious Accident Investigation report of the Yarnell Hill Fire, which on June 30, 2013, killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It was produced by a very large cast of characters, 18 core Team Members, 17 Support Team Members, and 19 Subject Matter Experts, for a total of 54 people.

The report found:

The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable. Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.

Yarnell Hill fire
Air Attack’s photo of the Yarnell Hill fire at 7:24 p.m. June 29, 2013

A news conference about the report was live-streamed by at least two Phoenix area television stations. In the question and answer period several national news organizations as well as local media asked questions of the five-person panel which consisted of the Arizona State Forester, two people from the investigation team, and two officers from the Prescott Fire Department.

You can download the report (6Mb file) and some “Frequently Asked Questions” about the investigation.

Below is a 21-minute video released by the investigation team today, which they described as a “A brief overview of the Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation report.” Much of it comes word for word from the report but it makes effective use of Google Earth to provide an overview of the geography of the fire.

Granite Mountain Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie shot the two video clips below shortly after 4:00 p.m. on June 30, 2013. These are the last images of the hotshots before they died. The video was unexpectedly made available today for the first time by the Prescott Daily Courier, which has an article about how the video and other photos of the fire were found.

Our observations after reading the report and viewing the press conference and the question and answer session.

The official report commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, a case of them investigating themselves, did not break much new ground. There was little of a negative nature written about the crew or their employer, the Prescott Fire Department, which was barely mentioned. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were fully qualified, staffed, and trained and they were on day 13 of a permitted 14 days in a row of fighting fire. And, there was “no indication of negligence, recklessness actions, or violations of policy or protocol”.

Why did the Granite Mountain 19 leave the “black”?

The investigators emphasized that they were unable to answer one of the most-asked questions about the fatalities — why the crew left the safety of the already burned area, the black, to attempt to walk 1.6 miles mostly through unburned brush to another safety zone, the Boulder Springs Ranch. They came to within 0.38 miles of their destination when they encountered one of the heads of the fire that had wrapped around the ridge to their left in the box canyon and was headed toward them, cutting off their path probably much to their surprise. Click the map below to see a larger version of the wind at the deployment site.

Wind at the Yarnell Hill Fire

No one knew where the crew was in relation to the fire

There was confusion about the location of the crew. Other firefighters thought they had either remained safely in the black where they had been for a while, or they had headed north to another safety zone. But instead, they traveled south. When they reported that they were entrapped and were deploying their fire shelters, no one knew where they were. Finally they told Air Attack they were on the “south side”, but even though a DC-10 air tanker was orbiting and ready to drop on them, airborne personnel could not find them, either due to heavy smoke or because they were looking in the wrong place. But under the extreme wind and fire conditions, it is unlikely that air support would have helped the firefighters very much.

Improving situational awareness

This is another fire, like the Esperanza Fire, where if the fire overhead, such as a Division Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, or Safety Officer, had known the location of the personnel on the fire in relation to the real-time spread of the fire, it could have saved lives — 24 on these two fires alone.

It is irresponsible for the wildland fire agencies to continue to do nothing to improve the situational awareness of firefighters, which has proved fatal to too many of them.

We have written about this several times before. Many local fire departments, EMS divisions, and police units have the ability to send location data to dispatchers. If the analog or digital ground-based radio systems being used today can’t handle this task in remote areas, then use a satellite-based system. The U.S. Forest Service asked for proposals to purchase thousands of little location devices last year, and adding high tech video systems to air attack ships could help. We have also written about a device we called a Firefighter’s Emergency Situational Awareness Device, a FESAD.

One of the recommendations in the report was to “review current technology that could increase resource tracking, communications, real time weather, etc.” The Q&A panel today said, in response to a question, that the surviving family members of the 19 Hotshots strongly suggested while being briefed this morning that tracking systems for firefighters be utilized.

Very Large Air Tanker not ordered because of “steep terrain”

The information that the state of Arizona released on July 16 about the resources deployed on the fire said a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) was in Albuquerque and available on June 29, but was not ordered due to Air Attack’s concern about its effectiveness in steep terrain and inability to deliver retardant before cut-off time. The way this was addressed in today’s report was “ICT4 declines the VLAT offer at 1750 [June 29] based on fire conditions.” There was nothing about “steep terrain”, which didn’t exist on the fire to the extent that it would severely limit the effectiveness of a DC-10 VLAT. In fact, the next day, June 30, they used the hell out of both DC-10s, dropping over 88,000 gallons in 8 flights. A recommendation in today’s report was to “…develop a brief technical tip for fire supervisors/agency administrators on the effective use of VLATs.”

Air tanker drops on Yarnell Hill Fire
Air tanker drops on Yarnell Hill Fire, June 29 and 30, 2013.

The DC-10s may have been effective on June 29 when the fire was still small, but by the time they both arrived on June 30, the day of the entrapment, the wind event was making it difficult for anything dropped from the air to slow down the fire — too much heat, and too much wind blowing the retardant away before it hit the target.

Aerial Supervision Module taking on too many roles?

During the time of the entrapment the roles of Air Attack and Lead Plane were filled by a single aircraft called an Aerial Supervision Module (ASM), coordinating all of the aerial firefighting, directing air traffic, preventing aircraft from bumping into each other, developing tactics, AND serving as Lead Plane, physically leading the air tankers into their targets about 200 feet above the ground. The Lead Plane duties limited their ability to perform full Air Attack responsibilities over the fire at the same time. The report said,  “ASM was too busy handling multiple duties to communicate with the crew just prior to the deployment”.

One of the recommendations in the report is to request the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to develop guidance to identify at what point is it necessary to separate the ASM and Air Attack roles to carry out required responsibilities for each platform.

No overwhelming force

The ordering and use of ground and aerial firefighting resources was less than aggressive on June 29, the day before the tragedy when the fire was still small. The only air tankers used that day were two single engine air tankers, and for only part of the day, dropping a total of 7,626 gallons. After being released, they were requested again by Air Attack, but dispatch only allowed one to respond to the fire, wanting to keep one in reserve in case there were other fires. General Norman Schwarzkopf’s philosophy when confronting the enemy was to use “overwhelming force”. This strategy also is effective when confronting a wildfire. Overwhelming force for a short amount of time can prevent megafires burning for weeks, consuming many acres, dollars, and sometimes homes and lives.

An unusual way to publicize the release of the Yarnell Hill Fire report

If a politician has to release information, but they want it to attract as little attention as possible, they do it late on a Friday afternoon or on the weekend. The thinking is that fewer people consume news on a Saturday or Sunday and there are not as many reporters on duty to cover it.

The Arizona State Forestry Division decided to release the Serious Accident Investigation report of the Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities at 10 a.m. MST tomorrow, September 28. The choice of the day of the week led some people to assume the agency wanted to keep the report as much under the radar as possible.

The timing of the relase was a puzzling decision, especially in light of another one they made that will have the opposite effect. A person or organization calling themselves “The Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation Report Rollout Team” sent an email to many, many people Wednesday (about 150 other names were on the distribution list of the message I received) asking them to help spread the word about the report by joining something called “Thunderclap”. After you join using your Facebook and Twitter user names and passwords, “Thunderclap” will use those social media sites to send messages on your behalf so that everyone who reads your posts on those services will see a message that looks like it came from you, but was sent by Thunderclap announcing that the report on the Yarnell Hill Fire has been released.

An excerpt from the email:

…Once the report is released on September 28, 2013 10:00am, Arizona Standard Time, this tool allows us to utilize other people’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to push out the link to the report, nationally, all at one time. To make this work, we need people to know about the campaign we have built on the Thunderclap website and we hope you will be willing to get involved and let people know via your email lists and social media sites.

Arizona State Forestry Division using Thunderclap is a solution in search of a problem — and creates some serious privacy concerns, turning over your social media passwords to a company no one has ever heard of.

No matter what the Arizona State Forestry Division does to encourage or discourage coverage of the report, it is going to be huge news. I expect it to be covered by the big five national television networks. Since the deaths of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30 on the Yarnell Hill Fire, the mainstream media has been all over wildland fire, firefighters, and hotshot crews. So a Saturday release of the report will not eliminate coverage, and asking hundreds of people to turn over their Facebook and Twitter accounts to spread the word is not going push the tidal wave of media frenzy much faster.

If the State of Arizona follows the new federal guidelines for serious accident reports, it will not include any conclusions, or recommendations. This will make it difficult for the media to come up with coherent, introspective, meaningful coverage. They will be able to report facts, but their relevance to the fatalities could be difficult for them to understand. We heard from an Associated Press reporter who made an appointment to talk with us Saturday afternoon, that the State will not write a second, secret report containing the conclusions and recommendations as required in the new guidelines for federal agencies. That is because the State of Arizona has a very strong open records law prohibiting such shenanigans. But the concept of open records is on the back burner in the U.S. Forest Service as Fire Aviation confirmed when attempting to get a simple list of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contracts. It took five months and a great deal of time, going through the Freedom of Information Act process.

Below are some excerpts from the 6,212 words in the Thunderclap terms of service.


“We reserve the right to modify or replace these Terms of Use and/or to change, suspend or discontinue the Services at any time in our sole discretion.

The way you support a message is to grant the Service access to your Facebook®, Twitter® or Tumblr® account to post that message on your behalf as a status update in your timeline or as a Tweet, as applicable.

When you join a Thunderclap, your username and profile picture from the third party service you joined through may appear on this Website (or otherwise through the Services) indicating that you are a supporter of that message. Also, after you join a Thunderclap, you have the option of sharing that you support that message via Twitter, Tumblr and/or Facebook. You do this by granting the Services access to your Twitter, Tumblr and/or Facebook accounts through standard Twitter, Tumblr and/or Facebook APIs.

By supporting a Thunderclap via Facebook, you grant us the right to use, reproduce, modify, display and distribute for purposes of displaying your Facebook username, Facebook profile picture, and any modifications or changes you make to the message on or through the Services and Facebook to indicate you have joined, supported or your other affiliation with that message.

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