Arizona releases statements from Blue Ridge Hotshots about Yarnell Hill Fire

Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the fire, June 30, 2013
Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the fire, June 30, 2013
Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the Yarnell Hill Fire, the morning of June 30, 2013. Photo by Joy Collura.

Written statements that members of the Blue Ridge Hotshots provided about the Yarnell Hill Fire have been released by the Industrial Commission of Arizona. The documents, even though they are heavily redacted, provide more information about what happened on June 30, 2013 before and after 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun by flames and killed on the fire.

The statements from approximately 12 members of the crew provide more insight about what the Blue Ridge Hotshots were doing that day on the fire, including some of their communications with the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The general atmosphere on the fire that day, according to how we interpreted some of the statements, was chaos and disorganization.

  • Neither of the two hotshot crews received a briefing that morning.
  • Blue Ridge never really had a significant assignment during their one shift on the fire, other than prepping a dozer line for 30 to 65 minutes, and one person from the crew who worked with a dozer that originally did not have a radio.
  • When Blue Ridge had to disengage and move to a safety zone, there were “still people milling about in town” (Yarnell). At about 1600 some of the residents, who had no information about the fire, asked crewmembers why they were leaving.
  • There was a “debate” on the radio about the border between two geographical divisions. (Other reports confirm this, and the fact that one of the Division Supervisors left the field and did not return.)
  • Firefighters working on the north side of the fire, far away from where the fatal entrapment occurred, were:

…burning around structures and having to use alternate escape route since some have been compromised.

As Blue Ridge was forced to leave the fire and was heading toward a safety zone they:

…find engine crews hiking out and we urge them to move as fast as they can.

The first of the statements mentions what appear to be communications with the Granite Mountain Hotshots at some time before 1615, telling them they are moving Granite Mountain’s crew carriers for them so that they would not be consumed by the fire, and informing them of the current fire behavior:

…I explain that we will keep their rigs with us too because things are very dynamic now, and [redacted] mentions that they are trying to come down off the hill, he mentions traveling through the black.

And later at 1655:

Radio traffic is overheard on A/G or TAC about Granite Mountain IHC needing to deploy shelters and they were in the process of cutting deployment site and trying to burn out around it. No other radio traffic is heard from Granite Mountain over TAC or A/G, we arrive at the Ranch House Restaurant staging area and I jump in Granite Mountain’s chase rig and try to listen on their crew channel and all I hear is a keyed mic, I try to raise them but with no success. I tell [redacted] to sit in the truck and monitor their crew channel for any traffic.

Comments that our readers leave about these statements will be allowed as long as our rules about commenting are respected. If there is a problem, we will close this article to comments.

The entire document can be downloaded, but be aware that it is a huge 18MB file.

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+

9 thoughts on “Arizona releases statements from Blue Ridge Hotshots about Yarnell Hill Fire”

  1. About time that the BRHS part of the story is told… Hopefully will shed more light on that fateful day….

  2. Is it common for a crew arriving on a fire in transition to be “parked” for this much of the day (as well as not being briefed)? The statements make it seem that the crew didn’t get to do anything early in the day when more could have perhaps been done.

    How unusual is it for lots of civilians and media members to be in the area without being prepped for evacuation during a blowup? Could something have been done with available resources to give civilians more safety margin and were there someones in place who might have done this? (I haven’t really seen much from the law enforcement / evacuation perspective and whether there were lessons learned for that.)

    Some of the descriptions of firefighters and civilians trying to get out as structures became engulfed and propane tanks vented or erupted sound hellishly grim.

    1. Pat, very few residents got any notice to leave. Most left only as the flames were visible. A few people even had embers set their hair on fire. It is only pure luck that no residents died in the fire, considering how many old people live there, many of which can’t get around too well. There certainly needs to be a better evacuation system. Many people had signed up for the reverse 911 system through the county, and never got the call to evacuate.

  3. If we tie the failures to prepare for evacuation that are likely problems for more places than just Yarnell with the concept of “suicide subdivisions” throughout the country’s wildland interfaces, just how ugly can the picture get? How much more risk do fire fighters take on with people trying to flee burning homes? Is this a ticking bomb? How much has this been examined and learned from in the Yarnell follow-up?

    1. Excellent point.

      We obviously don’t send the Coast Guard on suicide missions to fight floodwaters to protect homes that didn’t get put on stilts in areas subject to flooding.

      That is why the growing consciousness — still clearly in its early stages — that defensible space and sound construction are homeowner and developer responsibilities is so needed.

      If people evacuate early enough, in reality I don’t believe that the public safety, as opposed to property loss, issue is that big. Sooner or later a subdivision may get trapped by a fire that rapidly cuts the road, but generally there should be time. Then, you’re left with stupidly designed homes facing the equivalent of floodwater. Still tragic, but better than public safety workers dying to protect that property that never had defensible space put around it. That sounds harsh in a fire context, but again the consciousness in the context of flooding is further along.

  4. The fact that a Polaris Ranger ATV could negotiate the drop from “the saddle” down to the deployment site in under 20 minutes (as deciphered from the YouTube, Blue Ridge Captain’s Movements, and now from these finally released Blue Ridge statements) suggests this….

    It is apparent to me by studying Google Earth imagery, that Granite Mountain cut a bit too far to the left as they initiated their escape plan. Their route was a heavily vegetated and boulder-filled drainage much too rugged for a Ranger ATV to descend even after the burn. In its unburned state it was a very time and energy-consuming descent for even a quality crew. From their ground level approach view as they angled off the 2-track (topographically speaking) it probably offered Granite Mountain the apparent path of least resistance. Yet only a few hundred yards farther to the right would have taken them to the only possible route the ATV could have taken. A much easier and quicker descent probably never visible to them. Or did they take that route?

    Still questions that I ponder. I have little doubt that fatigue and possibly dehydration played a prominent role in Granite Mountain’s choices and decisions that afternoon. (Joy Colura stated a few months back that she did not see Granite Mountain’s superintendent sweating)

    “We all know it is cold black beyond the first wall of heat… “ (Pg. 6 17:25) is something a seasoned brush-land firefighter understands of a hot brush fire. The interior of the burn beyond the fire front is mostly quickly consumed and “relatively cool”. Hunkering in the original burn did not guarantee non-injury or even survival, and surely watching the fire front rapidly approach and grow in intensity was unnerving but the choice that was made …. . And, how could “ground pounding” firefighters imagine providing structure protection in the dwindling minutes of a rapidly advancing wildfire?

    LR

    1. Look at the fire progression map from the Outside magazine article in September. The wind shift that killed the GMHS significantly slowed the progression of the fire towards Yarnell. Before the shift, the fire was running full tilt at Yarnell/Glen Ilah. If that wind shift had not occurred, I think there very likely would have been multiple civilian deaths. In fact, I think that the tardy evacuations may have had a lot to do with this entire disaster.

Comments are closed.