How the media handled the release of the Yarnell Hill Fire report

We wrote on September 27 that the media might find it difficult to develop story lines or come up with coherent, introspective, meaningful coverage about yesterday’s release of the Yarnell Hill Fire report if it did not include causes and recommendations. The report provided more information about the deaths near Yarnell, Arizona on June 30 of 19 firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The document did not identify causes or contributing factors like we have seen in other fatality reports. It had some conclusions and recommendations, but they were fairly mild and did little toward pointing fingers at specific acts or omissions that caused the accident.

This made it difficult for reporters who in most cases know little about wildland fire to summarize the report in a short news article. Facts about outflow winds, rate of spread, and staying in the black, meant little.

Many of them looked for something that was easy to understand or was measurable, like “radio problems” which was in the headline of some stories, or the number of air tankers. A radio programming mistake, leaving out the tone guard on frequencies, at first made it impossible to use those channels for communication. Some radio systems require not only that the correct frequency be programmed, but that a brief audible tone be added. If the tone is not included when transmitting, the receiving radio will ignore the transmission. The report said crews developed “workarounds so they could communicate using their radios”. Apparently this problem was solved or at least partially mitigated. The report did not elaborate on the “workaround”.

Here are some of the headlines and the first points mentioned about the causes, in articles we found about the release of the report:

  • Washington Post: In the first paragraph mentions an “unpredictable desert thunderstorm” and “confusing radio communications”.
  • Huffington Post’s headline: “Yarnell Fire Radio Problems Cited In Deaths Of 19 Firefighters, According To New Investigation”.
  • Associated Press headline at Firehouse.com: “Video: Yarnell Hill Fire Report Indicates Radio Issues”.
  • AZCentral.com, at the top of the article is a short video of lead investigator Jim Karels mentioning the radio programming issue.
  • LA Times cites “problems with radio communication”.
  • Associated Press at ABC15.com, in the first paragraph, said the report “…cites poor communication between the men and support staff, and reveals that an airtanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the men died.” (I would like to see a video of that “hovering” air tanker, which was a DC-10.)
  • NPR Blog cited “weather reports that may have been misunderstood [and] radio communications that the investigators deem ‘challenging.’ “
  • ABC7 news in Denver: “…poor communication between the men and support staff, and reveals that an airtanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the men died.”
  • New York Times:  “…it outlined several problems, like radios that sometimes did not work properly, updates that did not give a precise sense of the crew’s movements, and the 33-minute period of radio silence.”
  • BBC: “…inadequate communication played a role in their fate…The report authors describe radio communications as ‘challenging throughout the incident’.”

In most of these articles citing radio issues, they are referring to the programming mistake, but some go on to discuss a failure of people to adequately communicate their thoughts to one another, which at times was an issue and led to confusion about the location of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Other related problems were too much radio traffic on some frequencies and the workload of the Aerial Supervision Module which resulted in them missing some incoming radio calls from the 19 trapped firefighters.

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+

10 thoughts on “How the media handled the release of the Yarnell Hill Fire report”

  1. 19 guys screwed up. 19 guys failed to watch the fire and were burned alive. 19 guys failed to say-“Hey-wait a minute” looks like a training issue

  2. Haven’t taken time to read it but was wondering if communication with the lookout was sited as an issue? Point being, did their lookout know where the crew was headed to or did he not know either?

    1. According to the report, yes the lookout was in communication with the team, updating them with fire and weather information, at least until he had to leave because the fire was overrunning his post.

  3. The report was carefully neutral in all the right places as expected, but one thing I liked was that the investigative team did make it clear from the start that this was not going to be a hindsight-laden, fingerpointing report, and that there was absolutely no way to know why they left the black.

    The Republic’s first online headlines yesterday immediately after the report’s release cried about how the it didn’t answer the critical question “Why?” It made me wonder if these writers actually read the report at all – but since the Republic’s journalistic talents have been iffy at best in recent years, it really didn’t surprise me.

    Then today, in their Sunday hard-copy spread, the Republic spent a good bit of print space on David Turbyfill “challenging” the panel about better shelters. The poor man, I feel for his grief and get what he’s saying, but short of shipping a concrete bunker to every fire, there is no shelter in existence that will make a 2000 degree fire with extreme fire behavior and winds survivable.

    But the saddest thing to me in this whole incident was that, for the sake of a supposed (and admittedly deceiving-looking) unscouted shortcut, lives were lost on the fireline.

  4. It would be great if all crews could hike into and or study Mann Gulch fire or the Storm King Mtn fire as they were similar to this tragic event. I was on the Dude fire in Bonita Creek when the Microburst came in and saw 1st hand how fast things can change. Radios are just a tool like a Polaski and easy to put the blame on.
    Like already posted the news media really did not understand just what that report had to say.

  5. I’ve seen several headlines “Yarnell Report assigns no responsibility for 19 deaths..” or “Investigative report fails to answer key questions” and whatnot. As a society, we tend want (need?) to place blame SOMEWHERE. I’ve also seen some discussion that there are folks that are disappointed that the report didn’t address responsibility for these deaths. There have been many armchair opinions flying around since June 30 (the most damaging being the Deputy State Forester) and I feel that for the most part, people are uncomfortable leaving some of those “who is to blame” questions unanswered. Those 100+ pages make some very interesting points that we in the wildland fire community likely pick up on, but aren’t apparent to those outside wildland fire.

    I will be honest, I didn’t read it necessarily because I wanted to learn WHAT went WRONG, I wanted to learn WHAT happened. I wanted to know what happened to the guys I was with on the Doce Fire just 10 days before they died, I wanted to know what happened to the crew, who I have worked with, laughed with in fire camp at dinner, who loaded up on footpowder while my crewmate was having cactus needles removed from his leg at medical..

    It seems that it was a series of unfortunate events…starting the day of ignition, that continued over the course of June 30 with misunderstandings over the radio (as evidenced between BR and GM), 45 years of fuel accumulation in a fuel type that flashes like grass (as I was told on the Doce Fire), a rapidly moving fire growing in complexity by the minute, the need for more resources, impending weather shifts, and a final decision to move out of the black under conditions that may have allowed the crew to make it…all culminating in that box canyon, which after a sudden increase in fire behavior due to what had been building all day with the outflow winds (around 1630, 12 minutes before deployment) ultimately resulted in the loss of 19 lives.

    The most valuable thing I’ve taken away in the past few days are the photos and videos that were recovered from Chris Mackenzie’s camera. He took some great photos, which he often posted to social media (he loved sunset photos!). For me, while I’ve seen a few cell phone camera shots that were released right after the incident (I have my own from the Doce Fire), to see video of the guys on that ridge as they watched the fire that unbeknownst to them would claim their lives within 45 minutes was so powerfully emotional. They were no longer memories in my head or still images captured in a photo montage at a memorial. They were there, in that video, alive, talking, radios going, just as they were every time I worked with them.

    The wildland fire community know what to take away from this and there doesn’t need to be a list of names to blame on any page of any report for us to read through that report to understand what happened and what we need to keep in mind the next time we are on the line. Overall, we need to be comfortable with being UNcomfortable in having no one to blame, for having to see the larger picture that the death of a crew of 19 isn’t necessarily the result of one decision or any one factor.

  6. What really spooks me is the thought that this could happen again; what the Granite Mountain crew did is something that other crews would have done. That contradicts the “never again” sentiment of those who want want to do everything feasible to prevent future deaths. The fuzzy parts of the report may be hard to accept for those who don’t want to see a repeat tragedy and want more definite ideas on how to prevent such a horrific loss. Also, if the 10 and 18 have been regarded as valuable safety tools, why not discuss their applicability to Yarnell Hill in the report as other accident reports have done?
    The report did call for a discussion of escape routes. That’s good, although it may be that GM didn’t consider themselves to be in an escape route situation. But will results of these discussions ever get captured and reported where the community can use them?

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