Yarnell Fire lead investigator talks about the report and tracking firefighters

Jim Karels, Florida State Forester, Yarnell Hill Fire
Jim Karels

The person who led the 54-person team that investigated the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots talked to a reporter for the Florida Current about the results of their investigation and how they track firefighters in his agency.

Previously, Florida State Forester Jim Karels’ team wrote in their report about the Yarnell Hill Fire which was released in September:

The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable. Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.

The Yarnell Hill Fire report also said:

… [it] does not identify causes in the traditional sense of pointing out errors, mistakes, and violations…

Many of us criticized the report for whitewashing the tragedy and failing firefighters who deserve to increase their knowledge of how to avoid similar disasters in the future. A lessons learned opportunity was missed.

It will be interesting to see if the report about the fire that is being written by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health provides better information about what happened, why, and how to avoid similar deaths.

Below is an excerpt from the article in the Florida Current:

Karels, though, said a second section of the report asks questions about the decision-making process that will help develop lessons to be learned. He said the fact that all 19 firefighters died together while making decisions on their own and separately made the investigation different from other investigations.

“It would be real easy to say, ‘This is exactly what happened and these are why decisions were made and this is something to blame,'” Karels said. “But all 19 are gone. So we reconstructed an event based on the best knowledge we had.”

He said lessons learned from the fire include the need for more prescribed burning and mitigation nationwide to reduce the potential for deadly wildfires.

In the interview Mr. Karels also talked about tracking the location of firefighters, since no one on the Yarnell Hill Fire knew where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were at the time of the fatal entrapment or previously that they were hiking through unburned vegetation near the fire which changed direction and burned over their location due to a passing thunderstorm.

Florida had to figure out the lessons from its own wildfire deaths in 2011 when two firefighters in Hamilton County were killed while battling a blaze.

He said [the] “Blue Ribbon Fire” led to recommendations on improving communication, asset tracking and providing enough helicopters to battle fires.

[Agriculture Commissioner Adam] Putnam is requesting $5 million for new vehicles in fiscal year 2014-15 in addition to $4 million received last year for upgrading technology and equipment…

The Hamilton County fire and the Arizona fire both led to recommendations to improve the tracking of firefighters and equipment during a rapidly expanding fire, Karels said.

After the 2011 fire, Florida began installing a tracking system on computers in supervisory vehicles that map firefighters and machinery with the locations of the fire and terrain, Karels said.


Where do we go from here?

We have written previously about how the inability of fire supervisors to always be situationally aware of the location of firefighters has contributed to at least 24 deaths in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza fire.

On the 2006 Esperanza Fire in southern California, Branch II and the Captain of Engine 57 had an understanding that the Engine crew would not remain at the Octagon house, where they eventually died (see page 9 of the USDA OIG report). The crew was supposed to go to an area identified as a safety zone and not try to defend the house, according to information provided by Branch II. For some reason the crew decided to defend the house, setting up hose lays and a portable pump. The fire entrapped them at that location, killing all five members of the crew.

If Branch II, an Operations Section Chief, or a Safety Officer had access to real time information about the location of their resources on the fire, it is likely that the engine crew would have been directed to go to the safety zone as instructed earlier by Branch II.

Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the Yanrell Hill fire
Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30. Photo by Joy Collura.

The person that was supervising the 19 firefighters that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire was the Operations Section Chief. In the report on page 22, he tells the crew, Granite Mountain Hotshots, to “hunker and be safe”, which usually means find a nearby safe spot and stay there. On page 27 Operations tells the airborne Aerial Supervision Module about the crew, “They’re in a good place. They’re safe…”

The Blue Ridge Hotshots thought Granite Mountain was walking north to a ranch house safety zone north of their location. OPS thought the crew was safely in the black. He did not know the 19 firefighters were walking in the unburned area toward a ranch south of their location. If Ops or a Safety Officer with access to the location of all fire resources had known the crew’s location as they first began their fatal trek, it is likely the entrapment could have been prevented.

The Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety, as I envision it, would enable radios carried by firefighters and in their vehicles to transmit their location in real time which would then show up on a remote display (on anything from a cell phone or a 7″ tablet, up to a laptop computer) that would be monitored by a Safety Officer, Branch Director, Ops Chief, or Division Supervisor. The display would also show the real time location of the fire. Knowing either of these in real time would enhance the safety of firefighters. Knowing both is the Holy Grail.

Cell phone-based location systems will not work on many fires due to incomplete coverage. What might work are temporary cell sites or dedicated repeaters on aircraft or mountain tops, or a geosynchronous satellite that is always overhead and could receive data from almost everywhere except in the deepest, steep canyons or heaviest tree canopy. The same satellite could host the proposed system that would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less, mapping fires and detecting new fires as small as 10 feet in diameter.

If Congress and the American people were presented with this proposal, even though it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, they just might vote to save firefighters’ lives.

Luddites who oppose technology and want everything to remain the same will never be in favor of this concept. I understand that, and recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion

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+

29 thoughts on “Yarnell Fire lead investigator talks about the report and tracking firefighters”

  1. Actually, we prefer Neo-Luddites…

    In my County, we do have the ability to track about 90% of the vehicles in our system through our Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) using cell phone technology Automatic Vehicle Location. In our multi-million dollar system, covering about 650 square miles, we very commonly lose track of vehicles. We also have significant portions of the area that is not covered. We also have some issues with the software that provides for session persistance, that is, when units come back into coverage, automatically reconnects them to the system. My agency is on the outskirts of the county, and don’t use the system yet because of the lack of coverage. And I live less than 30 minutes from one of the 30 largest urban areas in the US.

    I agree we need to do better, but our current technology isn’t workable. Our system is currently tracking 280 units, there is no way we could scale that to cover the personnel assigned in a large fire. Also, agencies are charged a monthly subscription fee (about $35 per month) and an annual fee, and the cost of hardware and software, about $7500 per unit, right now. Some agencies are using tablet computers, and we look to have it working on cell phones in 2015.

    I believe that before 2020, we will see technology progress to a point where this would be feasible/reasonable. Most of the Com Units I have worked with possess the ability (talent, skills, training, knowledge) to set this up now, they don’t have the equipment. I suspect that they could accomplish it with a trailer-load (8×12, not a semi) of portable cell sites. Now we just need to be willing to spend the money.

  2. The concept of making firefighters safer using technology is intriging, but in the early stages of a fire (before IMTs are in place and functioning) is it really feasible in most situations, especially when the actual fire front and perimeter may be unknown because of smoke, darkness or rapid fire spread?
    I’m also concerned that there may be some units “left out in the cold” without such technology because of it’s costs, yet will still be responding to emerging fires under mutual aid agreements or GACC dispatches (think back the Dude Fire in 1990 and ask yourself if you really think that the Perryville Inmate Crew would have had this technology, and if the transition from a T-2 to T-1 IMT would have been able to handle the info overload? How about the ill-equipped Kuna FD on the 1995 “Point Fire” in Idaho on another IA?
    What about the massive responses on extended IA in the multi-jurisdictional areas like SoCal: who has the oversight of everyone during those frantic times?
    I believe that advancing technology does have a role in improving firefighter safety, but also believe that we do ourselves, our firefighters and the communities that we serve a dis-service if we lead everyone to believe that these thechnologies overcome basic fire safety guidelines and will end fatalities!

    1. Rileymon, everything you said is absolutely correct. No single idea we implement is going to prevent all fatalites on wildland fires. But if the appropriate technology can be found, I am absolutely convinced that SOME lives can be saved. To me, that is enough that should move the fire agencies that can afford it to aggressively seek a system that can improve the situational awareness of firefighters, one that can track firefighters and the fire in real time. Of the 24 fatalities that I mentioned that could have been prevented since 2006, they were resources, that had a system been implemented, would probably have had the hardware — a Type 1 hotshot crew and a Type 3 five-person engine on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.

      Voltaire said:

      The best is the enemy of the good.

      Watson-Watt, who developed radar in Britain to guard against the Luftwaffe, said:

      Give them the third best to go on with, the second best comes too late, the best never comes.

  3. Ham radio has a system called APRS that works with both mobile and handheld radios. It can automatically report the radio’s GPS position and other information, both to a local station and onto the internet where anyone who goes onto the website (search Google Maps APRS) can see position and speed of reporting stations. The cost for a suitable radio is a few hundred dollars. It takes a little training and practice to get used to the system. Our local club uses it to track dozens of hams during large bicycle races.

      1. The Holy Grail already exists with current technology in the form of the P25 digital radio systems. This is something that the federal agencies were supposed to be upgrading to over the last several years, though I suspect budget cuts are likely the culprit. Have a look at the Datron Guardian (listed on the NIFC site as a handheld radio already approved for fire operations). It has GPS receivers and the capability of encoding transmissions with the geo location of the radio unit. Using this technology would allow dispatch centers, and folks back at fire camps to get real time position updates every time somebody keys their radio. No idea what the cost of this is, but i do know that the current (non P25) digital repeaters are somewhere north of $20000 each for just the radio, and I know there are still analog BK radios floating around on the federal crews.

  4. Why is there a big difference between the 228 seventeen person Cal Fire crews fatality rate and the Forest Service hot shot crews? In addition to spending weeks on large fires Cal Fire/ LA County crews are skilled in hot initial attack evolving fires. Could this make a big difference? Just a question don’t get pissed off. So why the difference in near miss and fatality rates? I have been both green and red. F.S./Cal Fire better firemen, no, same equipment, yes, get it done attitude, certainly, command and communications, same. I’m puzzled?

    1. Johnny,

      The CAL FIRE crews are between 12 and 15 persons…. and there have been fatalities on these hand crews as well.

      1. Correct 12 to 15 fire fighters for the LA County Crews. The other 210 Cal Fire emergency crew transport vehicles have a capacity of 17 fire fighter plus one captain. Single fatalities (heat related, falling off cliffs, struck by trees) have occurred however I’m still “puzzled” by the multiple fire fatality rate on the Fed side.

        1. I believe your original question of comparing Gulf crews to IHC is mostly due to the use of the resource. I always cringe when I see a discussion comparing anything between the CalFire crews and IHC’s because it is comparing apples to oranges. Each resource has its strengths and it weaknesses. As it pertains to fatalities in numbers, it may have something to do with the type of assignments hotshot crews are called in for. I have driven to the great state of CA many times to complete a short section of line in nasty terrain while there were a half a dozen gulf strike teams staged on the pavement. After completing the line we are usually swiftly demobed while the gulf crews come in behind to mop up. On the flip side, I have also experienced lower complexity situations where gulf crews exceed expectations and would give some Type II-IA crews a run for their money. Point is, my experience shows that these types of incident occur during high complexity situations and high complexity situations are why folks order hotshot crews. Your question does prompt another thought that should be talked about and researched and that is how these complex situations can alter decision making in the crew/team setting. In this whole tragedy focus has shifted to finding blame and pointing fingers. In my own knuckle dragging, stick moving opinion we should refocus and try and figure out how these decisions evolved and why everyone followed all while supporting these families in finding closure. The unfortunate thing is those with the answers are gone so any answer the fire community comes up with will be heavily based on assumptions.

  5. A satellite com relay would be nice and expensive but a VHF network with an airborne VHF comm relay / repeater on the ASM aircraft would do the job just fine as long as the aircraft didn’t get tasked with lead plane duties and could remain at altitude over the fire.

    Jim has pointed out that it isn’t hard to build a packet position reporting network that uses existing technology. Integrating the info on a position display that includes terrain maps, weather, intell, unit positions, and imagery is not too hard. It can be done.

  6. Sonny and Joy had a technical issue in trying to post a comment, so they sent me an email asking me to post it for them. It is below:


    We do not understand how Jim would want to come forward again to reconfirm he backs up that report when the report was not 100% transparent which these 19 men deserved a full investigation as well as all the fallen in prior fire fatalities and as well as the Yarnell community that was affected by this weekend. The stance that he comes from “assumptions and the people in charge thought…”
    That is not acceptable. Why? This May 2013 Joy Collura and Tex Gilligan have a police report in regards to Joy’s health as the concern and in the report YCSO found Joy’s location by using her cell using YCSO gps program so they did this immediately so Joy is just a common civilian so the question is “how come that day the same courtesy could not been shown to 19 elite wildland firefighters?” I have heard because they “thought” the GMHS was in the safety zone. They did not know or have facts just thoughts/assumptions. How come in the report it shows Blue Ridge thought they were headed north to another ranch—really? Peeples Valley is the next closest ranch where the fact is that was the area of the highest spotted fires of all the fires so I doubt they would head north. They identified Helm’s place in report as Boulder Springs Ranch, what about this mysterious “north” ranch—was it Hay’s? Double Bar A? Maughan? See, the vagueness—we just want the truth, the facts and details as the day unfolded—actually the weekend not just 6-30-13. The person who was in charge of these 19 needs to speak more details. So many understand the labels in the report like DIV A is Eric Marsh but to me it plays a dangerous role. It leaves the people to publicly and privately try to figure out who is who and that can be unfair for people throwing one under the bus that was not even there or in control of that fire that weekend OR you see people discrediting and dissecting all kinds in the field because they lack the knowledge that the report could of provided to avoid this confusion. I do not know how Jim can sleep at night with such ease and come forward again to support that report when they did not even interview all the eye-witness accounts nor did we get an in person interview or an evaluation from their human factor expert Dr. Jennifer Ziegel. Yet, we have had the top lead nation wide best fire fatality investigator/firefighters/smokejumpers not only hike with us but in person sat with us and reviewed the photos thoroughly. They can give an expert opinion on not only us but the fire and the whole enchilada. There is so many areas that report lacks and we are not even a part of the firefighter community. Number one, people on our hikes have stated the photos I took do not match to the report and its agenda. Number two, the vagueness and not identifying by name has created confusion. Number three, the photos used in report were photo-shop. The list goes on…the point being is this man should of never felt the confidence to come out again supporting his report like he did—it is disappointing to think anyone thought that was worth writing about especially nearing the Holidays when all these family and friends are having to celebrate their first season without their loved ones.

    Sonny and Joy

  7. This is about as good as summary of events as I have seen. Mr. Gabbert, thanks for taking the time to accommodate these two individuals.

  8. Technology will not save lives. When poor decision making is made by i/c, OPS,, Divs or Hot shot sups, the end result is the same. The technology just pinpoints where to find the bodies….

    Even if the GMHS were plotted to the inch where they were versuses where everyone thought they were, it was too late and too far back to safety….

    1. you have stated what should so much be the obvious. all the technology in the world isn’t going to help if those in charge don’t utilize it!

  9. More smoke and mirrors to divert from the question…. “What happened? Why? And Who? May be responsible”…..

  10. In crew boss class i remember doing a fire simulation in groups. Each group was given a radio and viewed pictures of the fire area while we watched the fire grow on a map with the overhead projector. The instructor went out into the hall way and each group one by one began to command the fire. We would call for resources and then place those resources on the line according to needs. The instructor played the role of dispatch and often we could not get the resources we felt we needed so we had to move on. It went on like this until we either put the fire out (which never happened) or we lost track of a resource. It was a great simulation that showed the importance of knowing where your resources were at all times and also the importance of watch out #7 . Communications. What we need on line is not more complicated technology its having enough qualified and competent people in supervisory positions to do the job safely. I believe not having a division supervisor on that division who was not also trying to fulfill crew boss responsibilities was a BIG DEAL! The division supervisor roles on many fires are spread way to thin as it is. We need to have someone out there that actually does nothing but monitor resources and all the factors and relays the information. We need crew bosses and strike team leaders who who can think independently but also involves their supervisors and makes sure that their plans are known and understood by EVERYONE BEFORE initiating them. I have been on so many fires that left me in the dark to figure out what was happening on my own. A back burn was lit or a crew moved out to another area and nobody bothered to notify the adjoining resources. I have actually showed up to line briefings and been told “you dont need to be here for this” . When there had been zero information given up to that point. My response… “like hell I dont”. I may just be a contractor, but I am on the line doing the same job as everyone else. I need information to remain in control and to safely do my job. Another thing that Ive noticed is the lack of radio training. Sure we all know how to push the button and talk and how to move to another location if we cant get out. But few people know about tones and how frequencies are transmitted through repeaters or even how to program a KING radio manually. I see there being a huge deficiency in training when it comes to communications. Another thing, I do understand that there was probably tremendous pressure to get this report out quickly. And I understand the need to go about an investigation so that no one feels like they are being targeted for blame. And I understand that there was little information to pick apart when it came to asking why and how. We will never know why and how. But that I believe is where the investigation should have really been concentrated. Because that is where we will find an area to pin blame. And that is what the people want. They want to know who is responsible either for the decisions made, or the policies ignored or the rules pushed. Because there has to be a place to start when we look at the big picture and try to learn from it. Otherwise what is the point in an investigation from a lessons learned perspective? If we are not looking to place blame on the criminally negligent then why, if not to learn.

    1. keebler…you’ve made some extemely critical points, your’e the kind of on the line operational fire personnel that I always liked working with. Certainly important is having an IAP (with assignment sheet spelled out for all divisions with crews identified within), a map (indicating respective divsions) & knowing fire behavoir is a key for success, and of course competent leadership right from the task force/strike team leader, div sup, ops chief & IC.
      As you also note span of control is very important & resourcing a fire accordingly, including safety officer, briefings are essential before attack mode & briefings should cover off assignments, objectives, tactics, safety, comms, expected fire behavoir & situtational awareness. Also the fire observation/lookout person on any given crew should be an experienced firefighter. If resources are not in place then modify strategy & tactics to ensure safety of first responders is not in jeopardy. If attack action is then decided to be limited or withdrawn with some values potentialy lost, so be it..they’re replaceable…as long as everyone is safely accounted for at the end of the day.

    2. As a ham, I will echo the problems with lack of communication training. One of the lessons learned with hurricane Katrina was people need to be trained in how to use the equipment. All the landlines and cell systems were down so satellite phones were handed out by the thousands. The sat system had the capacity to handle the required volume but many people had trouble using it. Satellite phones work a little differently than cell phones and you need brief training to use them. Our sheriff’s department has some sat phones and encourages the local volunteers to use them for minor stuff, even though they cost something like 50 cents a minute to operate. That way, when something big happens, people will know how to use the equipment to get the job done.

      Training and planning and communications are not nearly as glamorous as putting water on the fire or calling in air drops but they are every bit as essential.

    1. Yes.

      I understand the tremendous pressure the SAIT was understand, as already noted. But, 50+ people involved in the report, and they didn’t do a thorough job even of interviewing people? On current evidence, it seems cell records were not comprehensively examined to see if cells were used to order GM down? 50+ people equaled a lot of groupthink and no real investigation in this case. Part of that groupthink seems to have been a conclusion that they weren’t facing a cover-up of any sort, so it was not necessary to look critically at timelines and decisions to account for the possibility that there may have been an order and to see what the facts said. I’m sure the groupthink would have discounted the possibility that the Yarnell chief had been responsible for the death of a toddler, too.

  11. Making this more personnel is also reality. I was reading yesterday in Parade Magazine A widows wish Andrew Ashcraft’s Wife left wit 4 children, also that a total of 16 children were left without fathers. The fire is over but they will hurt for a long time. They are the one’s that deserve the answers as to what happened. As all the children left fatherless on the past wildfires they deserve the truth. The SAIR did a disservice to all of us who lost our fathers and they should be ashamed to put such a report into print.

  12. Another message from Sonny:


    We were out on Black Friday—not my normal style—we were looking for game trail deals and such. When we were sitting in traffic waiting than waiting in long lines almost like when one visits an amusement park ride line; dragged out long lines everywhere. Than I thought how Thanksgiving went- waiting for the yummy food to be done and gathering around with loved ones waiting to eat that traditional meal. With Christmas ahead and the waiting to open a gift—all this “waiting” reminded me of things outside the Holiday traditions and that is waiting for someone’s next interview where they say “you remember that report for Yarnell Hill Fire we put out and I kept sticking up for it—-I am now ready to share and admit it was due to my professional position that I stated that publicly a lot—I felt if you all heard it again from me you would believe it or maybe I would start believing it if I kept saying it. I know you all waited in silence as the world rushed by waiting for me to say here I am—I am now ready to go beyond my profession…beyond my position…and give you the details that lacked in the report because I know every bit of information is needed in hopes to never have this happen again. I had experts work on this report so I felt it was done sufficient. Yet I will tell you now I really could not sleep at night with ease knowing nineteen men died and I had more information to share to the report but I had to figure out how to piece the report together to avoid litigations and such.”

    (maybe see this interview will come out this Holiday Season or I was dreaming myself or I was doing one of those “what if” moments I see on this comment area to guess what happened and how a man sleeps at night.)

    EVERYONE- We hope you have a warm and loving Holiday Season—maybe this Holiday Season will bring much grace and blessings that we see publicly more details unfold to this tragic weekend where nineteen men died and a community that was affected by it. We toast our glasses to you all—
    “Salute- may the truth prevail…may one who walks with integrity keep honoring God and may He guide your path with a clear direction.”

    1. So many of us, in different aspects, wait for a day like that. A day we know, without a shadow of a doubt, will never come. Our loved ones gave the ultimate, but that ceases to become the issue-it instead turns to “how can we save out butts?”
      The SAIT’s are written as if they were/are the Word of God themselves, the Bible, and that is that. If you don’t like it, or have questions about it, you are left to your own conclusions.
      I, for one, am happy to see such scrutiny come down on these “report writers”.

  13. Remote command and control, communications or lack of, weather forecasts, predictive fire behavior; it all boils down to the person in charge. Regardless if its an airliner pilot ships captain, military leader, or fire fighter. The person in charge makes the action decision. Technology is very important, however its not the total answer. The human factor will continue be the weak link. Example, four experienced airline pilots during a landing watched the airliner touch down short of the threshold.

  14. Good analogy, Johnny.

    Now we got Amazon wanting to fly individual packages. Then the talk about the FAA and how slow, unbending, etc

    Yet everyone is so techno oriented ……even the aviation industry and flying schools are starting to see the erosion of stick and rudder flying skills….

    Relate this to the fireground decisionmaking and one will soon understand the erosion of those skills.

    Some technology is needed and needs to PROVEN and HARNESSED otherwise you get……what you pay for

    Technology….YAAAY. Eroding some tactile and many hands on and heads on skills by the day

  15. No technology was needed or required to initial attack this fire the day of ignition. If the fire was aggressively suppressed from the get go we would not be talking about 19 fatalities. Also, no technology was needed or required to make the decision to leave the black and head off into the green. The only thing needed are well trained, heads up logical decision making wildfire suppression personel and the same to initial attack the fire with all available resources when you have offensive ability to do so and not 12, 24 or 36 hours later when the fire puts you on the defensive. Wake up folks and quit making excuses & assumptions and just get back to the basics. The state screwed up not putting out the fire the first night & the crew supervisors made a super wrong decision.

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