Controversy surrounds the Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities

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

It is enough of a tragedy that 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30. But several issues continue to pour salt into the wounds of the grieving families and others that mourn their deaths. Some issues will hopefully diminish when the two reports become public. Or, in a worse case, they could be made worse, or new ones could be unearthed.

The Serious Accident Investigation which was commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division is expected to be public within the next week or so, but only after it is distributed first to the families of the 19 victims.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, a state version of federal OSHA, is also working on a report. It is required to be complete no later than six months after their investigation was announced, which would make it due around the first part of 2014.

The controversy about the the large differences in the survivor benefits for the families of the full time and seasonal firefighters on the Granite Mountain Hotshots has been festering for weeks and is now being discussed in the Arizona legislature.

Another issue that came to light recently is the refusal of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s and Medical Examiner’s offices to release the autopsy reports for the 19 firefighters. This has escalated to the point where the Arizona Republic and 12 News have filed suit against the agencies. The Arizona Republic and 12 News realize that certain photographs of the bodies and perhaps other evidence may not be appropriate to be released, but they are adamant that the remaining records should be released and feel their demands are backed by state law.

Still another issue that will be debated was published by the Arizona Republic and picked up by the USA TodayIt relates to the reports prepared by the Serious Accident Investigation team. The latest Serious Accident Investigation Guide, revised August, 2013, recommends that two reports be prepared. One, the Factual Report, would be made public, and the other, the Management Evaluation Report, would be kept confidential, intended for internal agency use only. The public report would not include any conclusions or recommendations. This would result in a public report that is much different from many of the reports we have seen in recent years.

UPDATE: we wrote more about these changes to the Serious Accident Investigation reports.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Controversy surrounds the Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities”

  1. Virtually nobody wants to “fix blame” or “point fingers”. Yet, at the same time, most want to know what happened and understand why. Unfortunately there is a very fine line between those two things. Because the crucial decision and the ultimate catastrophe happened so close together, it is harder to invoke confounding factors or unforeseen circumstances. In any field, the best of the best sometimes inexplicably make a mistake. Unfortunately, in wildland firefighting, mistakes can be punished brutally. If that is what happened, the investigation should be honest and open, the proper lessons need to be learned. These were passionate, dedicated and honorable men – no investigation could ever dent that fact.

  2. What is the purpose of hiding the truth? I agree that people make mistakes. Unfortunately in this instance, lives were lost. If there is something to be learned here, I think everyone has the right to know. As a former wildland firefighter, I am asked at least once a week my thoughts on what could have gone wrong with on the Yarnell Hill Fire. I can only speculate, but hope the truth will be shared with everyone.

  3. “…and the other, the Management Evaluation Report, would be kept confidential, intended for internal agency use only.”

    That would never fly in Montana. Montana has very strict open records and open meeting laws and government agencies can claim that very little is confidential.

  4. There’s a terrible balance that must be maintained, and as Bill points out well in a subsequent article, the pendulum has swung too far both directions in recent years. There must be a frank opportunity to learn from mistakes. Making mistakes is normal, and human. I’ve made plenty on fires, I (and my folks) just got away with them. No IC or leader yet can claim they haven’t goofed. We’re humans, in a high-paced, high-stakes business. There must be a chance to learn, in a non-punitive way, that also still allows for accountability and justice if there is truly gross negligence without punishing folks for simply not being perfect. A system like the military’s might help. Or perhaps something like the requirement from my LEO days that if you’re involved in use of force, your agency can compel you to provide a detailed report; but because it was compelled, it can’t be used against you in criminal court (Garrity Rights) might work. Smarter folks than me can probably come up with something even better. Bottom line, criminal charges for having human limitations are a severe miscarriage of justice, but to willfully prevent the whole fire world from learning lessons paid for in blood is equally wrong. There has to be a balance that has yet to be established.

  5. Dynamic situation really, as the fire was being transferred into a new over head team and then the storm blow up. EASY for hindsight to say they should have stayed in the black. But i imagine about a million of us ol wildland types have done exactly the same. This tragic incident is much like those pf the past. Form Mann GUlch to Storm King to Yarnell. Fire and explosive weather events. And ALL of them examined, the info passed on in an effort of prevention.. They wont prevent they next tragic incident. The 10 standards, and the situations that shout watch out havent changed much over the decades. But fires cant read…

    1. Just because people will die again is not a reason to not learn or relearn lessons. How many lives have been SAVED because of the lessons of Mann Gulch and Storm King, etc? The lessons of Yarnell will save lives as well.

  6. Mike

    You sure of that? Hopefully you are right.

    Yes there are some lives that have been saved due to Mann Gulch..

    How much info was redacted from the Storm King report, sir?

    Circa 2013…….19 have died….due to what?

    Yes I know ….I wore Nomex for a number of years…..resource protection and structure protection

    But lessons learned? Some of that currently is pretty debatable……

  7. The investigation process is flawed and lessons are never learned well enough or long enough. Not unique to this field. But I believe the “next” tragedy was averted after these fatal fires. The tragedy that did not occur is rarely mentioned, may not even be recognized. If Granite Mountain goes down instead to Hwy 89 by the long route, no one talks about how close catastrophe was. Just because a disaster occurred again down the line does not mean the lessons of the prior fires did not have a beneficial effect. I’ll bet Yarnell is already impacting some decision-making, as a general awareness of the facts now exists. Improvement is always possible.

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