Evacuation and planning during Yarnell Hill Fire criticized

There are reports that residents said they were not notified about evacuation before the Yarnell Hill Fire burned into their town and fled only after they saw the nearby wind-driven fire approaching their house.

Yarnell Hill Fire burns into Yarnell, Arizona
Yarnell Hill Fire burns into Yarnell, Arizona
Yarnell Hill Fire burns into Yarnell, Arizona, June 30, 2013. Photo by Joy Collura.

An article written by reporters for the Arizona Republic which also appeared in the USA Today provides details about the evacuation of Yarnell and Glen Ilah, Arizona when the Yarnell Hill Fire burned into the town destroying 127 homes. The article reports that some residents said they were not notified and fled only after they saw the nearby wind-driven fire approaching their house.

The fire burned into the towns on Sunday, June 30, the third day of the fire, the same day that 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were entrapped and killed. The plans the fire organization had in their heads called for short time frames to notify residents and for them to get out of the community. Below is an excerpt from the article:

On that Sunday, residents watched the fire and smoke plumes grow. The wind was blowing the fire toward Peeples Valley, about 3 miles to the north.

That morning, automated emergency alerts went out by phone, text and e-mail to Yarnell residents: Be prepared to evacuate. You will have an hour to get out if evacuation is ordered. You will get another notice beforehand.

State fire officials had established three geographic landmarks that would act as evacuation “trigger points” when the fire reached them. The first, fire officials thought, was far enough away to give residents an hour to get out, according to an investigative report on the fire. A second trigger was set to evacuate firefighters. The third was set for the edge of Yarnell. If flames got there, everyone would have to get out immediately.

[…]

According to the investigative report, a fire official who wasn’t named said the evacuation trigger points were off by more than 50%, meaning the fire reached key points much faster than expected. “The fire outperformed their expectations, even with many knowledgeable people there,” the report said.

The article appears to say that no written Incident Action Plan (IAP) was prepared until Monday, the fourth day of the fire, the day after the 19 fatalities and the loss of 127 homes:

No fire-action plan was written until Monday, the day after the evacuations.

Written plans, which include decision points for evacuations, are standard procedure early in a fire, said Will Spyrison, a 35-year wildfire veteran who has evaluated fire-commander candidates.

If that is true, that no written IAP was prepared until day four of the fire, that helps to explain some of the chaos, supervision problems, and poor decisions that were evident during the first three days.

We were not able to find any reference to a written IAP in the official investigation report on the fire. On page 15 it mentions that in a briefing on day three some of the attendees “review the area using Google Maps on an iPad”. It also said, “Incoming resources receive a communications plan”. If there was no written IAP, it is very odd that important fact was left out of the report. If there WAS one, that very important document would have been mentioned at least once in the 116-page report.

A written IAP does not have to be 40 pages of flowery language, but by the second day of any uncontained fire there should be a few pages passed out to the fire leaders that at least list the Command and General Staff, the Operations Section chain of command, what resources are available, their assignments, communications, evacuation plan if applicable, structure protection plan if applicable, and a map. To not have any of that in writing by day three is bush league and nonprofessional, and can lead to disorganization and safety issues. Firefighters deserve better.

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UPDATE at 2:29 p.m. MST, November 18, 2013:

We confirmed that there were no Incident Action Plans written for any operational periods until the fourth day of the fire, July 1, 2013. Below is a list of IAPs and maps that the investigation team listed on a web site that has these and other documents related to the fire.

Yarnell Hill Fire, list of IAPs and maps

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 “Evacuation and planning during Yarnell Hill Fire criticized”

    1. Chris, when you say “municipal”, do you mean the Yarnell FD? Otherwise, the fire was managed by the state of Arizona Dept. of Forestry.

  1. I updated the article to confirm there were no IAPs or incident maps until the fourth day, July 1, 2013. Scroll to the bottom of the piece to see the details.

    As a Type 1 Planning Section Chief, this is going to keep me awake tonight.

  2. I am willing to bet pretty much every organization on the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30 had previously certified to the Federal government that they were NIMS compliant.

  3. So, what kind of Accident Investigation Report doesn’t bother to mention whether there was a written IAP or evaluate it?

    1. The same SAIR didn’t mention at all that there is an email record of Willis in essence directing Marsh to fudge the cert for GM.

      People need to back up and ask whether this type of fudging “just happens all the time” (I don’t think it does) or whether it’s a big deal, even if not a sufficient cause for what happened at Yarnell.

  4. One disturbing fact is that it is now apparent that the SAIR also didn’t interview a large number of people on the Yarnell fire. This, in spite of the large numbers of people dedicated to producing the SAIR and the large investment of time involved. So, no mention of whether there was an IAP, no mention of Willis directing Marsh to cert and “let the system work,” even if the cert was false, no interviews of a number of people you might want to interview…doesn’t give me any confidence they looked at cell records to see if there were calls that might explain why GM headed down why and how they did. All the more reason to view the lawsuits as necessary, given the whitewash and imo failure to seriously investigate so far.

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