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.


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.


Yarnell Hill Fire videos released

The Arizona State Forestry Division (ASFC) has posted on YouTube 21 videos recorded during the Yarnell Hill Fire The state received them on November 7, 2014 through a Freedom of Information Act request to the US Forest Service. The ASFD explained that “the videos are presented exactly as they have been received. The redactions were done before these videos came into the possession of Arizona State Forestry.”

On June 30, 2013 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots became entrapped by fire and died on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.

In portions of some of the videos, you can hear and at times understand radio conversations and firefighters near the cameras.

Below are links to the videos in the order that they were listed on the ASFD website. We embedded seven of them below the links with the corresponding video number. Like the ASFD said, the USFS provided absolutely no information about the videos, but they appear to be roughly in chronological order — this is not yet confirmed, however.

M2U00265 We posted a version of this video on YouTube on December 13, 2013,  but this one is higher quality and is about twice as long as the earlier edition. You can hear the radio traffic from the Granite Mountain Hotshots saying they are deploying their fire shelters.

M2U00266R — Firefighters discussing the radio traffic they heard earlier about the Granite Mountain Hotshots deploying fire shelters.

M2U00267 — Firefighters in an urban-interface area with scattered active fire. At 1:21 you can see what appears to be a propane tank venting, with the escaping gas burning.

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Yarnell Hill Fire survivor pushes for creation of a “healing center”

Biden, Brendan McDonough, Janice Brewer

Brendan McDonough, Yarnell Hill Fire survivor, speaks in Prescott, Arizona at the July 9, 2013 memorial service for the 19 firefighters that died on the fire. Vice President Joe Biden and Arizona Governor Janice Brewer are on the left and right, respectively. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Brendan McDonough watched from a distance as the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots became entrapped and died June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Now, according to an article in the USA Today, he still struggles with stress-related problems. No longer a firefighter but working for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, he wants to “create a non-profit organization to fulfill a dream of building a “healing center” in Prescott where first-responders, including troubled wildfire crews and their families, can seek treatment.”

The article’s main focus is a topic that rarely gets discussed in the world of wildland fire — the day to day psychological strains that firefighters face which are similar to those experienced by warfighters. The military has a highly developed program for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the land management agencies, with a primary focus of growing trees, cleaning campgrounds, and managing visitors and non-native plants, have done little, effectively, to deal with a shocking suicide rate, for example.

The excellent article gives several examples of how stress is negatively affecting some of our firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…Wildland Firefighter Foundation Executive Director Vicki Minor — Burk Minor’s mother — estimates that as many as one in four such firefighters struggle with emotional trauma.

She says her organization counted six firefighter suicides during 2013. If accurate, it suggests a rough suicide rate of 17 per 100,000, far higher than the national average and similar to the pace of these deaths in the military.

“Our government, our fire officials, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, they’re really good at taking care of the land and they know how to fight fire,” Vicki Minor says. “They don’t know how to take care of their people.”

Federal workers get free visits to a contracted private counselor, but many firefighters complain these providers are not schooled in PTSD treatment, Vicki Minor says. “I’ve had several of these men say that they had to pay for a therapist out of their own pocket,” she says.

The Forest Service recently published pocket-sized pamphlets with tips on traumatic stress and resilience. But the guides offer nothing about where to seek help if necessary, except to cite websites from the Department of Veterans Affairs and private suicide support groups.

Forest Service Fire Management Director Harbour says the deaths of the 19 Prescott firefighters were a wake-up call on the emotional stress firefighters may incur. “How do we deal with what we carry after we go through a traumatic incident?” he asks.

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

The land management agencies should consider developing an experimental program with the Department of Veterans Affairs that would take advantage of their existing PTSD treatment facilities, such as the one at the VA Hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, the “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Residential Rehabilitation Program”. Send a few firefighters with PTSD symptoms to a facility such as this and then evaluate the possible benefits.

Yarnell Hill Fire Honor Escort

On July 7, 2013, 19 hearses carried the remains of the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kelly.


Remembering the Granite Mountain Hotshots

Granite Mountain Hotshots

Today marks a year since all but one of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, June 30, 2013. A great deal of controversy still surrounds the incident, and the first two lawsuits were filed last week. But today I hope we can put those things aside and simply honor those 19 firefighters.

The media likes to call hotshot crews “elite”, and it is true — they are the best of the best. They are highly trained, extraordinarily physically fit professional firefighters, and excel as working as a team. That made it all the more shocking that they were suddenly taken from us.

Today let us grieve, again, for the loss. Our loss, their friends’ loss, and most of all the loss that their families will feel every day for the rest of their lives. Let us thank those 19 for their service, and pause for a few moments to honor their memory.

Granite Mountain Hotshots

Nineteen white hearses brought the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona, July 7, 2013, An Honor Guard escort accompanied each Hotshot. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thousands of mourners said goodbye to the Granite Mountain Hotshots

Thousands of mourners said goodbye to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, June 9, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

19 Granite Mountain Hotshots



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.