The 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire June 30 were escorted back to Prescott today, closer to their home base. They were moved from the medical examiner’s office in Phoenix to the medical examiner’s office in Prescott, a distance of approximately 100 miles. A helicopter was circling overhead. The first part of the ground escort was about 20 officers on motorcycles.
These first three photos were taken on Highway 89 five miles north of Yarnell, Arizona.
A few vehicles after the bikes was a Granite Mountain Hotshots’ crew carrier.
And then the 19 hearses, each with a sign in the window identifying the Hotshot inside.
We added this photo of the entrapment site on the Yarnell Hill Fire. The dozer line was punched in after the incident to facilitate the removal of the bodies, which were at the end of the line. The photo was taken by Wade Ward of the Prescott FD, and is used here with permission.
(Originally published at 8:53 MDT, July 6, 2013)
Robert Ford, who grew up in Prescott, studied some of the information that is available about the wind when the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on the Yarnell Fire June 30. His message is below, with a few notes from me [in brackets].
“A graphic showing the “safety zone” and shelter deployment site is here.”
[Note from Bill: the times in that article are approximately 6 hours in error. We were told by Carrie Dennett of the Arizona State Forestry Division that their office received notice that shelters had been deployed at 4:47 local time, Mountain STANDARD Time. But they were not in direct communication with firefighters. The information had to travel up a chain of command and may have been delayed. I have not seen definitive word on when the deployment took place.]
“A Google Earth rough approximation of the high res photo above is attached.
Looking due west, eye altitude about 5400 feet. The approx. shelter site is 34.221416,-112.775796. The Landsat imagery was acquired last May; note the fuel, when compared to the Facebook photo above.
If you have Google Earth, it is also easy to duplicate the camera location of the time-lapse video (posted on your site) [embedded again above] purportedly shot from “Congress”; actually I’ve determined it was shot just west of the Date Creek Road (dirt – you can see the dust clouds from passing vehicles) just North of the intersection with Highway 89. The time-lapse video, looking N45E, shows the fire just cresting the ridge starting about one mile due Northwest of the shelter deployment site, then flashing to the right (southeast) along the ridge-line towards the deploy site. The smoke then obscures how the fire must have flashed over the ridge just 1500 feet west of the deploy site. In any event, the video shows how very rapidly the wind moved through the natural basin of the deploy site; probably aided by a natural venturi effect from the walls of the basin; also note that by the end of the video a trailing vortice formed off the ridge crest has actually moved the plume locally down (by 2000 feet !) to about the elevation of the Camera. It was an amphitheater of death for all of those brave men. This also explains why some men were found “outside” their shelters; that’s because a wind of unimaginable proportion, moving locally upward, lifted their shelters away.
Well thank you and you are very welcome to use whatever of this information you please. I have learned so very much from your site; it contains absolutely the best no-nonsense web coverage of this fire. In the event you wondered, I used to model the effects of wind on the topography surrounding astronomical observatories; but I never had to deal with a surface boundary condition as defined by a wildfire: that adds an order of magnitude of complexity to the simulation. I would like to presume the Feds will realize the importance of contracting a surface topography wind effect model for this fire, as a component of their investigation; If you have any say in the matter I am happy to recommend the best people; it’s not cheap as it requires supercomputer time.
Finally, I needed to relate that I grew up in Prescott; fighting fires was a rite of passage. You would have thought that by now the FS would have developed a weather-topography-fuel load model to deal with this sort of thing.
Well now they will do so.”
In a follow-up message, Mr. Ford wrote:
“For your information, I was able to determine the approximate vantage point of the photo [added above] as looking due East from 34.227291,-112.788630, at an eye elevation of 5,510 feet.
This location [above] is just off (east of) the trail on the ridge crest-line, and is located about 0.82 miles Northwest (as the crow flies; longer by trail) of the shelter deploy site (subject of my previous post). Now given the vantage point vector as due East, the plume appears to be moving southeast; thus the fire front (barely visible in the photo) is being driven directly towards Glen ilah.”
Follow-up from Bill:
A comment left on one of our posts by “lone ranger” found an article that included information provided by the National Fire Administration, which is the first I’ve head that they had anything to do with this incident. I would be hesitant to trust this information. The report says the firefighters initially took refuge in a burned area, the black, then left that site and deployed their fire shelters later in another area as they headed toward a ranch which was to be their safety zone.
There continues to be confusion about the times. This may be partly due to the fact that Arizona is not on Daylight Savings Time like most of the United States. They use Mountain STANDARD Time.
A number of media outlets called the strong winds unpredictable and random. This is not correct, as shown by the information I provided above.
Chuck Bushey told us that once upon a time there were:
…Fire Behavior Service Centers in various regions, warning crews in real time about t-storms (or other events) heading their direction that they couldn’t yet see and getting them into the black. The Southwest use to run a FBSC with a qualified Fire Behavior Analyst (FBAN) but I think they dropped it as did everyone else.
We first wrote about the thunderstorm that may have contributed to the June 30 deaths of the 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30 at 6:58 MST. But since that information is buried in a long article about the fire, and a little more information has emerged, we are summarizing the facts about the weather conditions that tragic Sunday afternoon. We also have some suggestions for providing firefighters with weather warning information that could save lives.
The formal investigation into the deaths, what caused them and any lessons to be learned, is just beginning. The results will probably not be known for many months. We will leave it up to the investigators to determine why it happened and what decisions were made before and during the incident. But the facts about the weather that day have already been recorded in various ways.
Carrie Dennett, a Fire Information Officer with the Arizona State Forestry Division, said the Arizona Dispatch Center received a call at 4:47 p.m. MST, June 30, that firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire had deployed fire shelters. The Dispatch Center was not in direct communication with firefighters on the ground at the fire. The information would typically have been relayed from the local Yarnell Hill Fire organization up through lower level dispatch offices.
The radar map above from WeatherUnderground at 4 p.m. MST June 30 shows a large thunderstorm cell north and northeast of the fire at Yarnell, Arizona. The pointer is at Yarnell. At 10:55 a.m., according to data from the MODIS satellite, the fire was approximately a mile or so north and northeast of the town, between the town and the approaching thunderstorm. At that time and until after 4 p.m., the wind blowing from the south-southwest and the southwest, most likely would have caused the primary spread of the fire to be toward the northeast.
Animations of weather satellite images that afternoon HERE and HERE, show the development and movement of the thunderstorm into the fire area. The red “X” and circle mark the approximate location of the fire.
Before and after 4 p.m. the cell was moving toward the southwest, and may have produced strong winds that changed the wind direction by 180 degrees (see below) and may have been the reason the fire moved into Yarnell. It also could have caught firefighters by surprise.
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 between 4:01 p.m. and 5:01 p.m. it began blowing from the north-northeast at 22 to 26 mph gusting up to 43 mph — a 180-degree change in the wind direction.
We were told by a spokesperson for the fire that the location of the firefighters when they died was between the fire and Yarnell, which would put them north or northeast of the town. Michelle Lee of the Arizona Republic told us that they were about one quarter mile southwest of Glen Ilah estates, “in the mountains”. Glen Ilah is on the southwest side of Yarnell. Anyone in that area between 4 and 5 p.m., who previously had the wind at their backs for seven hours with the fire moving away from them, may have suddenly and unexpectedly found the fire heading toward them at a rapid rate, pushed by winds gusting over 40 mph. Wind direction changes like this can be caused by strong outflowing winds from a thunderstorm in the dissipating stage.
At 5:01 p.m. the temperature was 95 degrees and the relative humidity was 17 percent. That, coupled with sustained winds of 26 mph with gusts over 40 mph, could have caused the rate of spread to increase to the point where it would have been impossible for any firefighting resources, in the air or on the ground, to implement any kind of effective fire suppression action, especially at the head of the fire which was moving rapidly toward Yarnell.
The Weather Forecast
A Type 3 Incident Management Team transitioned to assume command of the fire at 10 a.m. on June 30. That morning the fire had burned less than 1,000 acres. Incident Meteorologists from the National Weather Service, IMETs, are frequently assigned to large wildfires. While they are on site they can provide a great deal of very detailed weather information to firefighters, monitoring the conditions closely and in constant communication with the IMTeam.
It would have been unusual for an IMET to be assigned to a fire of that size on June 30, and with a small Type 3 IMTeam. The next morning, however, an IMET did receive an order to respond to the fire along with a much larger Type 1 IMTeam.
But even without an on-scene IMET, firefighters have the capability to request from the National Weather Service a special “spot forecast” for a fire, and at least two were provided before the fatalities occurred, one at 8:33 p.m. MST on June 29, and another at 9:45 a.m. June 30. The latter one, according to the information at the top of the forecast, was requested at 9:39 a.m. MST and produced six minutes later, a remarkably short turnaround.
The spot forecast for the morning of the incident predicted “isolated thunderstorm activity”, and, “Partly cloudy. A slight chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon”. The predicted wind was “east winds around 5 mph…becoming southwest with gusts up to 20 mph in the afternoon”.
It is extremely difficult or even impossible for meteorologists to predict exactly where and when thunderstorms will occur, especially if they are “isolated”, or few in number. It is also difficult to forecast the exact wind speed and direction under any conditions.
Where do we go from here?
Firefighters need to know when there is a sudden change in weather conditions that can threaten their safety. Since it will never be possible to have an IMET at every fire, there needs to be a concerted interagency effort involving the National Weather Service and the *land management agencies, state, local, and federal, to develop a system to provide firefighters with the situational awareness information they must have to reduce the probability that they will be surprised by a life-threatening change in the weather.
We may need new developments in hardware for firefighters so that they can receive weather warning data directly from the source without going through layers of bureaucracy. The military probably already has something like this, but I envision a device with a 7-inch display that could receive satellite transmissions anywhere there is a clear view of the sky. Each firefighter would not need to have a Firefighter’s Emergency Situational Awareness Device, a FESAD — just provide one for every fire. It could be based on a satellite phone, would have a GPS receiver (like in most smart phones), and be capable of receiving text and images. A deluxe version might also function as a satellite telephone, so that the firefighter could call the weather forecaster to get more information. The person sending the data to the fire would not have to know the phone number of the receiver, but would draw a box on a map and any devices within that box would receive the data, without bothering others that would not be affected by the warning. When the FESAD arrives at a fire, the user could have it send a message registering its location so that warnings for that area could be received. This would also alert the on-duty Remote-IMET to add it to their watch list.
The warning data could be sent to the fire by an NWS forecaster always on duty with the primary responsibility to remotely monitor weather conditions near multiple fires. (The NWS already does this for the entire nation for severe storm, tornado, and hurricane warnings.) For fires, let’s call them Remote-IMETS. Some of the Geographic Area Coordination Centers already employ full time fire meteorologists. With the right software they could perform this function.
An R-IMET would have the technology available to instantly transmit text and graphical data about an emerging dangerous condition directly to those on the ground without relying on telephones to filter the information down through various layers. An R-IMET would not have time to handle all of the IMET duties normally performed by an on-scene IMET, but would concentrate primarily on issuing urgent warnings that could affect the safety of firefighters.
What if …. there had been a FESAD and R-IMET available for the Yarnell Hill Fire
FESADs and R-IMETs could save lives.
The iron is hot
There is a great deal of national interest right now in the deaths of the Granite Mountain 19. If any new initiatives that would cost money are going to be implemented, our Fire Leaders must strike now while the iron is hot. There may be a small window of two to four weeks during which there will be some sympathy nationwide and citizens and lawmakers are open to enhancing the safety of wildland firefighters, even if it involves spending money.
An example of a rapidly closing window of opportunity is the movement for controlling gun violence after a gunman fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. If the administration and lawmakers had taken action quickly, meaningful legislation would have had a much better chance of passing. Instead, they waited months, and achieved little.
*A side note
It pains me to describe the federal fire departments as “land management agencies”. Organizations whose primary mission is to grow trees, clean campground toilets, or manage visitors, do not have at the top of their To-Do List, “Provide real-time weather warning information for firefighters”. We need a National Fire Service.
You HAVE to watch this interview with Juliann Ashcraft, an amazing lady, who became a widow Sunday when her 29-year old husband, Andy Ashcraft, died on the Yarnell Hill Fire along with 18 other members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Now a single mother of four children all under the age of six, she describes her last conversations and text messages with him just hours before he passed away.
To see it full-screen, after the 15-second ad plays click on “Options” then “Fullscreen”.
The only member of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew to survive the Yarnell Hill Fire has been identified as 21-year old Brendan McDonough. Contrary to earlier reports that he had been assigned to move equipment when the other 19 members of the crew became entrapped and were killed, Mr. McDonough was serving as a lookout.
The duties of a lookout on a wildland fire are to observe the fire and the weather and to notify the crew about changes that could jeopardize their safety. Typically they find a high vantage point from which they can see both the fire and the location of the other firefighters.
In a briefing Tuesday, Prescott Fire Department Public Information Officer Wade Ward said Brendan, who is in his third season with the crew, did “exactly what he was supposed to do”. When he arrived at the lookout point he identified a trigger point for himself and decided that when the fire reached that location he would have to leave for his own safety. Later in the day when the fire reached that trigger point, he radioed the crew Superintendent, telling him that the weather was changing rapidly and the direction of spread of the fire had changed because the wind direction had changed. Brendan told him that he had to leave his lookout location and that if the crew needed anything to contact him. That was his last communication with the crew, after which he walked out and met the Blue Ridge Hot Shots. He looked back and saw that the point where he had been had already burned over. He then got in the Blue Ridge Hotshots’ vehicle and was taken to a safety zone. Brendan was not injured and did not have to deploy his fire shelter.
“The wind changed,” said Prescott Fire Battalion Chief Ralph Lucas, explaining the movement of the fire. “We had a thunderstorm that was above. They have a tendency to push winds around, just because of the dynamics of nature, and that may have been what occurred during that time period, that brought fire up toward his trigger point, indicating that it was time for him to leave his lookout point.”
Mr. Ward implored the audience to protect Brendan’s privacy and to leave him alone, which precipitated applause from the crowd. Then he said, “Give him some time. And when I mean time, it’s going to take weeks, if not longer”.
You may or may not agree with her political beliefs, but Rachel Maddow on Monday narrated an excellent video tribute to Hotshot crews, and especially the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire on Monday. It also has some historical photos of the Oak Grove Hot Shots in southern California.
To see it full-screen, after the 15-second ad plays click on “Options” then “Fullscreen”.