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

 

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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(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
@ArizonaNewsnet
#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.
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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.

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Wildfire briefing, June 13, 2014

(Originally published at 9:19 a.m. CT, June 13, 2014)

House teetering on cliff to be prescribed burned

House above lake

NBCDFW photo.

A house at the top of a cliff over Lake Whitney in Texas will be burned intentionally Friday morning. The cliff below part of the house has fallen away, leaving the house precariously teetering. The house will be burned, which is considered a better option than allowing it to fall into the lake where the debris would have to be removed.

A crew is prepping the house by breaking out windows and adding bales of hay soaked in diesel fuel to the interior.

The prescribed fire is being covered live by a television station in Texas.

(UPDATE at 10:15 a.m. CT, June 13, 2014)

Ignition has begun. Firefighters are on scene applying water between the burning home and a nearby house, perhaps to minimize damage to a couple of trees.

House above lake burning

(UPDATE at 11:36 a.m. CT, June 13, 2014)

It’s pretty much over:

House above lake burning House above lake burning

The photos are from NBCDFW.

Funeral services for Nevada firefighter

The funeral services for Donovan Artie Garcia Jr. will be held today, Friday, June 13. Mr. Garcia, the Assistant Chief of the Hungry Valley, Nevada fire department, died of a heart attack while participating in wildland fire training June 5. Services will be in Reno at 11 a.m. at the Hungry Valley Gymnasium, 9070 Eagle Canyon Drive.

MD-87 air tanker makes first drops

Erickson Aero Tanker’s two MD-87 air tankers, T-101 and T-105, made numerous drops on the Two Bulls Fire near Bend, Oregon shortly after they became certified and reported for duty. Wallowa.com has an article in which they quote pilot Brent Conner:

“I mean, I always wanted to be flying propeller planes, so this is new for me, and for most of us in this business,” he said.

“We can hold it in check, as we did with this fire, for about two days with retardant,” he said. “That gave them enough time to get the other flank taken care of.”

While it’s a job he’s done countless times before, it was Conner’s first weekend in real wildfire action with the Aero Tanker.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, actually,” he said. “We hadn’t been on a fire yet, the fire’s only 15 miles away. We barely had time to get the airplane cleaned up and we were already putting the flaps down, slowing down and getting ready to go.”

More information about the MD-87s is at Fire Aviation.

Reward for information about Two Bulls Fire

And speaking of the Two Bulls Fire at Bend, Oregon, the reward for information leading to a conviction of the person or persons responsible for setting the 6,908-acre fire has increased to $31,500. Anyone with information that could help identify suspects in the fire is asked to contact the Crime Stoppers Tip Line at 1-877-876-8477 (TIPS).

Hot pink may be the new color of fire retardant

The Missoula Technology Development Center is testing new colors for the fire retardant that is dropped by air tankers and helicopters. Below are excerpts from KPAX:

Over the last three years, some pilots have been complaining that the bright orange retardant is hard to see. “Particularly in late season when we’ve got grasses and trees that start turning color,” said Zylstra. With that concern, researchers at the US Forest Service’s Technology and Development Center in Missoula began looking into a solution, potentially a hot pink colored slurry. “So we run a product through a variety of different tests in our lab before it’s used out in the field,” said Zylstra.

[...]

The first batch of the hot pink slurry will be tested at four air tanker bases in California in regions predicted to have busy firefighting season.

Helitack crews train in Idaho

MagicValley.com has an article about U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management helitack crews training for the upcoming wildfire season.

Austin, Texas to get wildfire detection system

The Austin City Council voted to purchase a system of sensors mounted on towers that can detect smoke. The approval will allow the installation of two towers which will be tested for a year. At the end of the year they may decide to expand the system. In 2013, West Lake Hills, a community near Austin, also approved the acquisition of a similar system. It can detect smoke within 6 miles by rotating their sensors, completing a 360-degree rotation every 8 to 12 minutes, during which it takes images, analyzes, and then transmits those images for secondary analysis. If possible fire events are detected, the system alerts fire authorities.

Hotshots assist with prescribed fire on military base

The Laguna Hot Shots, based at Descanso, California, helped conduct a prescribed fire at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Thursday north of San Diego. Below is an excerpt from an article at 10News:

As a formation of Marine FA/18′s passed overhead to land at MCAS Miramar, members of the Laguna Hotshot crew were setting fire to the east side of the base.

The prescribed burn, as it’s called, is part of an annual brush management system put in place after the 2003 wildfire.

“After it burned more than 17,000 acres, the Cedar Fire really opened our eyes to a strong brush management program at the air station,” said Miramar Fire Operations Chief Paul Thompkins.

Construction begins on firefighter memorial in Prescott

Construction has started on a memorial in a cemetery in Prescott, Arizona for the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.

Below is an excerpt from KJZZ.org:

Construction is starting on a cemetery memorial for 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill wildfire, nearly a year after the fire started near Prescott. Each firefighter will have a plot and a bronze grave marker at the state-owned Pioneers’ Home Cemetery in Prescott. The plots are surrounded by a two-foot wall where mourners can sit.

Officials say 10 of the Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters are already buried there. They say there’s room for family members to be buried alongside them.

The state designated a new section of the cemetery for the hotshots and charged $100 per grave site, instead of the usual $900.

 

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A Week to Remember: June 30 through July 6, 2014

The following memo was sent on June 6 from Dan Smith, Chair of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Executive Board.

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“SUBJECT: “A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn” June 30-July 6, 2014

This summer, the interagency wildland fire community will mark the 20-year anniversary of the South Canyon Fire accident, that occurred on July 6, 1994, and the one-year anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire accident, that occurred on June 30, 2013.

Although these accidents were separated in time by 19 years, they are bound together by several tragic commonalities. Both accidents were burnovers; both accidents resulted in multiple fatalities of highly trained, skilled, and experienced wildland firefighters; and both occurred during devastating wildfire seasons in which 34 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty.

We believe that the anniversaries of these accidents merit designating Monday, June 30 through Sunday, July 6 as “A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn,” to honor the memories of all fallen wildland firefighters and to reflect on lessons learned from different types of wildland fire accidents. We invite and encourage all local, state, and federal agencies with roles and responsibilities in wildland fire suppression to participate in this commemoration as they see fit.

From June 30 through July 6, the “6 Minutes for Safety Program” will provide resources to facilitate reflection on, and discussion of, the South Canyon and Yarnell Hill fire accidents as well as some of the hazards that pose the most serious risks to wildland firefighters. The 6 Minutes for Safety Resources will be available online at the Lessons Learned Center website at http://www.wildfirelessons.net/6minutesforsafety and in the daily Incident Management Situation Report from June 30 through July 6, available online at http://www.nifc.gov/nicc/sitreprt.pdf

Public commemoration events are being held in Colorado and Arizona. Information is available online at http://www.southcanyonfire.com and http://www.cityofprescott.net/hotshots_anniversary.php

Many positive changes have occurred in the culture of the interagency wildland fire community, and many effective tools have been developed, that have significantly enhanced the safety of wildland firefighters during the 20 years since the South Canyon Fire accident occurred. Agencies with roles and responsibilities in wildland fire suppression continue to work together to do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of similar events in the future. The “Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn” offers an opportunity to renew our commitment to enhancing the safety of the men and women dedicated to protecting lives, property, and natural and cultural resources throughout the United States. We hope that your agency will choose to participate.”

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Thanks and a hat tip go out to Dick

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