Wildland Firefighter Foundation helps families, but draws criticism

Wildland Firefighter statue

The statue of a wildland firefighter that was removed from the Boise Airport and placed in Prescott, Arizona July 9, 2013 at the site of the memorial service for the 19 firefighters killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

There is no doubt that the Wildland Firefighter Foundation has accomplished much to help injured firefighters and the families of fallen firefighters. Vicki Minor, the Executive Director, is well known for the hands-on emotional and financial support she has provided through the foundation. We have been a member of their “52 Club” for years, and many times on this site we have praised their work and helped to publicize some of their fund raising activities.

We were troubled when in early December a television station in Arizona published an article in which they quoted some family members of the 19 firefighters that were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire who were not satisfied with the level of assistance they received from the WFF. One of their criticisms was that the foundation did not donate all of the money they received after the tragedy to the families. They did not take into account that the WFF had a larger mission than just that one horrible incident. The WFF said that all of the funds earmarked by the contributors for the Yarnell Hill Fire were given to the families.

The spotlight on the organization revealed management issues within the WFF that were concerning.

Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman has written an in-depth article that explores the controversy while also providing examples of assistance the WFF has provided to firefighters and their families.

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Australian firefighters bond with Prescott FD after Yarnell Hill tragedy

Below is an excerpt from an article in the West Australian written by Tim Clarke:

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“It was one of the worst bushfire tragedies in US history with the deaths of 19 members of the legendary Granite Mountain Hotshots.

But from that 2013 tragedy in the hills of Arizona has emerged an unlikely bond, which will be affirmed this year when members of the Preston Road Bushfire Brigade near Collie [Australia] travel across the world to offer their support and learn from their experiences.

The firefighters were battling brutal fires on Yarnell Hill, north-west of Phoenix, on June 30, 2013.

The fires were started by a lightning strike and rapidly spread to about 100ha, destroying more than 100 structures and trapping and killing all 19 crew. [When contained, the fire had burned 8,400 acres.]

The disaster shocked the firefighting world, including Collie-based volunteer Kevin Bazeley, who sent an email to his counterparts at the Prescott Fire Department in Arizona expressing sorrow and condolences. Bosses there were so touched that the message was read at a memorial for the dead men.

Two years on, Mr Bazeley and three colleagues have been invited by the city to confirm their international friendship officially.

“Their loss was almost unbelievable, and I just felt I had to tell them the whole world was thinking of them,” Mr Bazeley said…”

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Wildfire briefing, January 14, 2015

Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano lava ignites brush fire

A lava flow from the Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii ignited a brush fire on Tuesday that burned 270 acres. It was surrounded by fire breaks, but at 5:30 p.m. local time a dozer was working to clean up the existing break and construct a new line closer to the head of the fire. According to a Hawaii County Civil Defense update, the brush fire was west of Highway 130, about 1.5 miles from the Aina­loa subdivision. The agency said Tuesday afternoon that neither the brush fire nor the stalled lava flow pose an immediate threat to communities.

Granite Mountain Hotshots’ families treated to European boat trip

From the Daily Courier:

The families of Prescott’s fallen [Granite Mountain] Hotshots participated in a unique trip over the holidays. They were given an opportunity to see and visit the historic sites along Europe’s Danube River while finding solace amongst others who also have experienced the tragic loss of loved ones in recent U.S. tragedies.

Family members of the Hotshots were joined by family members of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire on June 30, 2013 in the worst wildland firefighting tragedy in more than 80 years…

The paper said 19 family members participated in the trip.

News from Australia:

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Wildfire briefing, December 4, 2014

Fires in U.S. and Australia determined to be caused by power lines

Map of Pfeiffer Fire

Map of Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California, looking northwest, showing the fire perimeter at 10:34 p.m. PST, December 18, 2013. (Click to enlarge)

Two fires, in Western Australia and California, have recently been determined to be caused by electrical power lines.

The Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California started on December 16, 2013 and burned 34 homes and 917 acres in the coastal community 23 miles south of Monterey. The U.S. Forest Service reported on Wednesday:

The cause of the fire was determined to be high resistance heating of the Pfeiffer Ridge Mutual Water Company electrical control wires immediately adjacent to a steel water pipe line. The high resistance heating of the electrical control wires created a competent ignition source for this fire. The first fuel ignited was accumulated dried leaves and redwood needles.

The other fire was in Western Australia. Below is an excerpt from an article in Western Australia Today:

A rotted power pole infested with termites has been blamed for the Parkerville bushfire which destroyed more than 40 homes this year. But EnergySafety director Ken Bowron said the organisation would not take action against Western Power or the landowner.

The EnergySafety report into the cause of the fire on January 12 was released on Thursday and found the bushfire originated from a private pole at 180 Granite Road, Parkerville.

“There was no evidence to suggest the work performed by Western Power to replace the surface aerial seven months before the incident, or the work to replace the adjacent pole two day before the bushfires, causes the PA pole to fail,” Mr Bowron said.

“Based on the available evidence and legal advice, EnergySafety will not be taking any legal action against any party. The clear finding of the report is that the pole failed because it was rotten and had been infested by termites.

Hearing in Prescott on Granite Mountain Hotshots’ retroactive retirement benefits

From the Daily Courier in Prescott, Arizona:

Now nearly a year and a half after 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire, the matter of retroactive retirement benefits continues to play out at Prescott City Hall.

With its earlier decision granting retirement benefits to the family of fallen Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft still under appeal, the local fire retirement board will take on two new retirement cases today.

During a 9 a.m. Thursday hearing at Prescott City Hall, the Prescott Board of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board will turn to the retirement claims by the families of Sean Misner and William Warneke, and whether the scope of the actual hearings on the claims should be limited…

Tree ring researcher at the University of Arizona honored

Thomas Swetnam

Thomas W. Swetnam with tree-ring specimens in the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. (Photo courtesy of Michaela Kane/Arizona Daily Wildcat)

Thomas W. Swetnam, Regents’ Professor of dendrochronology and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society.

As part of the Section on Geology and Geography, Swetnam was elected as an AAAS Fellow for his investigations of tree rings as a record of past changes in climate, allowing scientists to predict future forest-fire frequencies in the Southwest.

Mr. Swetnam specializes in analyzing climate changes through history and prehistory, dangerous insect outbreaks and forest fires. In recent years, enormous blazes, some 10 times greater than those that firefighters have been accustomed to seeing in California and Arizona, have forced scholars to attempt to understand this phenomenon. The conclusions from Swetnam’s studies of these so-called megafires and their alarming size, duration and frequency have made the scientific community, governments throughout the world and media to pay close attention. Swetnam has appeared on programs such as PBS’ “NewsHour” and CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

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Additional photos emerge of Yarnell Hill Fire

Yarnell Hill Fire

Yarnell Hill Fire at 8:16 p.m. June 29, 2013, as seen from Yarnell, Arizona. The photographer wishes to remain anonymous.

We received some photos today of the Yarnell Hill Fire that we had not previously seen. Most of them are snapshots of smoke coming up from behind a ridge or distant air tankers in the sky, but one of them captured our interest, the image above. It does not generate much new information, but it appears to show that when it was taken, at 8:16 p.m. on June 29, 2013 (according to the time stamp on the file), 27 hours after the fire started, it was still not a large fire. This photo is consistent with the photo below taken at 7:30 p.m. on June 29, 2013 which has been public since last year.

Yarnell Hill Fire at 7:30 p.m. MST, June 29, 2013, approximately 21 hours before the 19 fatalities. Photo by ATGS Rory Collins, Oregon Department of Forestry.

Yarnell Hill Fire at 7:30 p.m. MST, June 29, 2013, approximately 21 hours before the 19 fatalities. Photo by ATGS Rory Collins, Oregon Department of Forestry.

According to information released by the Arizona State Forestry Division on July 16, 2013, on the second day of the fire at 5:30 p.m. on June 29 there were 13 firefighters working on the fire and it had burned six acres. By the afternoon of day three of the fire, June 30, it had grown to be much, much larger than it had been the evening before. At 4:47 p.m. that day the incident commander and the Arizona Dispatch Center received notice from Air Attack that firefighters had deployed fire shelters. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of them, died in the fire when a predicted wind shift changed the direction of the spread of the fire and entrapped the firefighters. The intensity of the fire exceeded the protection capabilities of the shelters.

On September 28, 2013 when the ASFD released their Serious Accident Investigation report on the fatalities, we wrote this about the lack of aggressive suppression action on the fire:

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.

The bottom line: Being timid or TOO cost-conscious during initial attack or the first burning period of a fire can be far more expensive in dollars and in the worst case, lives.

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NY Times and NBC report on Yarnell Hill Fire videos

Major media outlets are reporting on the release of the 21 videos (that we wrote about on November 8) filmed at the the Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30, 2013, the day 19 firefighters were killed on the fire. The New York Times posted one of the videos, along with an article written by Fernanda Santos.

NBC news produced their own video (above) that contained clips from several of the firefighter-filmed videos, and added subtitles in an attempt to better understand some of the overheard conversations among the firefighters.

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