Leader of Yarnell Hill Fire investigation says one firefighter should be able to attack a fire — alone

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

The leader of the 54-person team that conducted the Serious Accident Investigation Team’s investigation into the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters was quoted as saying that individual firefighters should be able to attack wildfires alone. Florida State Forester Jim Karels’ reasoning seems to be that it is too expensive to send two firefighters to a fire.

Below is an excerpt from an article at WFSU explaining that the Florida state legislature is considering a recommendation from the Florida State Fire Service Association that firefighters should not be sent alone to a fire:

…Florida Forest Service Director Jim Karels says the increased staffing mandate is not necessary because the lowest-risk fires only require one firefighter—and if he sends two to one fire, it’s possible nobody will be available when the next one breaks out.

“Safety-wise, purely, if I can send two firefighters to every fire every time with no other decisions, I’m good with that. But we’ve got to look at it on effectiveness and efficiency too,” he says.

But Rep. Mike Clelland (D-Lake Mary) says his experience as a firefighter makes him question the department’s refusal.

“I just can’t imagine one person responding to a forest fire or a brush fire,” he says. “I spent my whole adult life in the fire service.”

The article also has a 50-second audio recording in which you can hear Mr. Karels actually speaking those words.

This helps to explain how Mr. Karels’ 54-person investigative team came up with their analysis of the fatal Yarnell Hill Fire:

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.

Many people, including this writer, disagree with the conclusion reached by Mr. Karels and his team. The article we wrote on February 15 is an example of some, but not all, of the negligence, reckless actions, and violations of policy or protocol that have been documented about the fire, in spite of Mr. Karels’ analysis. Other examples surfaced after the release of the second official report on the fire which was issued by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Many people, after studying for weeks how 19 firefighters were killed on a fire, would be hyper-aware and sensitive to firefighter safety issues, but not in this case. Florida State Forest Service Director Jim Karels is a danger to firefighters and should get out of the business. We don’t use term idiot often at Wildfire Today, but it is well deserved in this case.

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

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.

Yarnell Hill Fire report to be released Saturday

Granite Mountain HotshotsThe Arizona State Forestry Division has announced that the Serious Accident Investigation report of the Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities is complete and will be released Saturday, September 28. It will be given to the families of the 19 firefighters that were killed before the public sees the document.

A press conference will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Ruth Street Theater at Prescott High School, 1050 Ruth Street, Prescott, AZ. Officials available to answer questions will include:

  • Scott Hunt, Arizona State Forester,
  • Jim Karels, Serious Accident Investigation Team Leader
  • Mike Dudley, Co-lead for Serious Accident Investigation Team
  • Chief Dan Fraijo, Fire Chief, Prescott Fire Department

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 no later than the first part of January, 2014.

Multiple firefighter fatalities on the Yarnell Fire in Arizona

(This article was updated numerous times over a couple of weeks, beginning June 30, 2017. To read it in chronological order, scroll to the bottom. The first entry was posted at 9:32 p.m. MDT, June 30, 2013)


(UPDATED at 2:26 p.m. MDT, July 15, 2013)

Most of the funerals are over for the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire June 30. From information provided by the incident management team that organized the services, the firefighters are listed below.

19 Granite Mountain Hotshots

The incident management team has posted hundreds of photos of the memorial service, the procession, and the planning.


(UPDATED at 10:20 a.m. MDT, July 5, 2013)

An article in the LA Times has some previously unpublished information about the last moments of the Granite Mountain 19. Apparently the crew was attempting to establish an anchor point, presumably at what had previously been the heel, or rear of the fire. They were constructing fireline and may have been burning out that day. A photo that I had not seen before that was texted to the father of one of the firefighters father at 4:04 p.m. shows a firefighter in what appears to be a burned area, looking at the fire. The text said: “This thing is running straight for Yarnell”. By 4:47 p.m. the Arizona State Forestry Division received word sent up through channels that fire shelters had been deployed on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

Team leader [Crew Superintendent] Eric Marsh told his commanders via radio that the group had a predetermined safety zone. “He was calm, cool and collected,” Ward said. “They all stayed together. Nobody ran.”

Moments later — Ward doesn’t know how long — Marsh radioed his superiors a second time. This message was different: He and his men were going to deploy the small emergency shelters that were their last resort against an advancing fire.

“From what I’ve heard, it was the calmest they’ve ever heard Eric,” Ward said. “They were in a tight spot and everyone knew this was going to be a bitch. But his voice was very calm: ‘We’re deploying.’ ”

Fire officials tried desperately to save the men.

Danny Parker, a fire battalion chief from the nearby Chino Valley Fire Department whose son Wade Parker died with the other Granite Mountain crew members, said he learned from colleagues that his son was in trouble.

“They had deployed their emergency shelters, and helicopter crews were trying desperately to spot them through dense smoke,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes.

He said he was told that Sikorsky helicopters were making water drops in areas where they thought the trapped firefighters might be.

“They weren’t sure about the men’s position because they couldn’t see through the smoke,” he said.

Their bodies were found in a single group, huddled together.


An Associated Press article provides some information about the autopsies of the firefighters:

Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office in Phoenix, said the Hotshots died from burns, carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation, or a combination of the factors. The autopsies were performed Tuesday, but more detailed autopsy reports should be released in three months, pending lab work.


The Prescott Fire Department has brought in an Incident Management Team to help plan the events related to the deaths of the firefighters. They have established a web site that appears to be devoted to the scheduled events, as well as a Facebook page for photos and other information.

Their web site said that on Sunday, June 7 the remains of the 19 fallen fire fighters will be escorted with full Honor Guard from Phoenix to the Yavapai County Medical Examiner’s Office in Prescott. The procession will begin at 10 a.m. but the exact route is still being planned.

AZCentral has an article about a photo that has stirred some controversy. It shows flags draped over what appear to be body bags containing the 19 dead firefighters. They said the photo appeared on a Facebook page described on the site as “a community, news, and donation page (that) is not directly related to the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally.” AZCentral did not provide a link to the page or give its exact name but they do have a copy of the photo.


(UPDATED at 7 p.m. MDT, July 3, 2013)

(Information about the Yarnell Hill Fire itself is in our main article about the fire. This one is devoted to the 19 firefighters that died.)

The memorial service, not the funerals, for the Granite Mountain 19 will be held Tuesday, July 9 from 11 am to 1 pm at the Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley. There will be seating for 6,000 attendees with room for overflow outside.


According to the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, the 3 official fundraising efforts to help the families of the fallen have raised about $700,000.

  • The 100 Club has raised approximately $500,000.
  • The Wildland Firefighters Foundation (52 Club) has raised approximately $120,000.
  • The United Phoenix Fire Fighters and Prescott Firefighters Charities have raised approximately $80,000. They can receive donations through PayPal.

In the Prescott/Yarnell area, two local fundraising events have been scheduled for this week.

  • 4th of July Fireworks at Pioneer Park from 12 noon to 10 pm.
  • Whiskey Row Street Dance on Saturday, July 6th 5-11pm

Other fundraising events will be announced in the days to come.


Residents of Yarnell can obtain updates on the status of their property by calling the County Emergency Operations Center at 928-777-7481.


In the first 24 hours following the entrapment there were reports that up to six people had been injured and were being treated in hospitals, but there were no injuries, according to a spokesperson for the fire. There were 19 fatalities.


The crew carriers of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were removed from the fire where they had been parked by the crew, to Prescott today. Prescott Fire, Prescott Interagency Hotshot Crew, and Ironwood Hotshot Crew escorted the group from the Yarnell Hill Fire to the City of Prescott.


On Sunday, July 6, the Granite Mountain 19 will be escorted from the Medical Examiner’s Office in Phoenix to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Prescott. There will be 19 hearses, each with an honor guard member to accompany the fallen firefighter.


The last members of the nine person team that will be investigating the fatalities of the 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill fire arrived Tuesday and received an inbriefing in Phoenix from the Arizona State Forester. One of their main objectives will be to explore lessons learned and how to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

Described as an “independent investigation” in a news release, it will be led by Florida State Forester Jim Karels. Mike Dudley, Acting Director of Cooperative Forestry for the USDA Forest Service, will be the secondary team lead. Other entities participating in the investigation include the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center, the Missoula Fire Department, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Some of the team members are technical specialists and fire behavior analysts.

The local liaisons to the nine-member Yarnell Hill Investigation Team are Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt and Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo.


Carrie Dennett, a Fire Information Officer with the Arizona State Forestry Division, said the Arizona Dispatch Center first received a call at 4:47 p.m. June 30, that firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire had deployed fire shelters. The Dispatch Center was not in direct communication with firefighters on the ground at the fire. The information would typically have been relayed from the local Yarnell Hill Fire organization up through lower level dispatch offices.

Another spokesperson for the fire said the fatalities occurred between where the fire was at the time and the town. That would put the firefighters N, NW, or E of the town — between an approaching thunderstorm and the town. (UPDATE July 15, 2013: the possible but unconfirmed location is: Lat: 34.220392 Long:-112.777690 )

Radar at 5 pm MDT, June 30, 2013 The pointer is at Yarnell, Arizona.
Radar at 4 pm MST, June 30, 2013. The pointer is at Yarnell, Arizona. The thunderstorm was moving toward the southwest. Radar image from WeatherUnderground.

Continue reading “Multiple firefighter fatalities on the Yarnell Fire in Arizona”

Funeral arrangements for Florida firefighters

Joshua Burch
Joshua Burch
Brett Fulton
Brett Fulton

The funeral arrangements have been announced for the two Florida Division of Forestry firefighters that were killed on the Blue Ribbon fire in Hamilton County, Florida Monday. Both funerals will be at the Christ Central Ministries Church, 217 S.W. Dyal Road, Lake City, Florida (map), phone 386-755-2525. Josh Burch’s will be Friday June 24 at 10 a.m. and Brett Fulton’s will be Saturday June 25 at 10 a.m.

The Division of Forestry is accepting letters of condolence on behalf of the families of Burch and Fulton. Please mail correspondence to: Family of Josh Burch or Family of Brett Fulton c/o Director Jim Karels, Division of Forestry, 3125 Conner Boulevard,Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1650

The Preliminary Summary Report about the fatal incident is posted at the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center.


Thanks Jim