Dining out, the evening before the memorial service for the Granite Mountain 19

After he recorded an interview with me today, the reporter from the Los Angeles National Public Radio station told me that someone else he talked to said the Granite Mountain Hotshots used to hang out at Hugos, a Mexican restaurant on Montezuma Street, a block north of the square in Prescott. So I tried it tonight. Visually, it’s very small and not at all fancy, to say the least. There is a little dining room in the front, and open air tables out back. I could almost see the Granite Mountain Hotshots, tired after a hard day, sitting around the tables outside, laughing occasionally, probably talking too loud at times… like all Hotshots do sometimes.

The food ordered from the limited menu was simple and tasty. I ordered a chicken burrito — it was huge and loaded with chicken. I’d order it again.

It can be a good sign when you walk into a Mexican restaurant and the TV is tuned to a Spanish language station. I asked the guy behind the walk up counter about the Hotshots — and if they came in there. He said that he and the other employee with him had been there for 9 years, and they knew everyone on the crew.

Behind the scenes — preparations for the Granite Mountain 19’s memorial service

Some members of the IMTeam for planning the memorial services
Some members of the IMTeam for planning the memorial services confer in the hallway of the Incident Command Post Monday

Today I was able to spend some time with the Incident Management Team that is putting together the thousands of details necessary for organizing the events honoring the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire June 30. The Hotshot crew was part of the city of Prescott Fire Department and early on, the department smartly requested that an incident management team take the lead in putting the plans together. They are working separately from the team managing the fire itself, the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The deaths and the honoring of the 19 firefighters is garnering a great deal of interest. Mostly because of, naturally, the large number of firefighters that died. And everybody likes firefighters. But because they were part of a municipal fire department on a wildland fire, it draws not only the wildland fire community, which would have been a huge response alone, but many city fire departments and organizations around the country are wanting to help any way they can.

The planning organization began with the National Incident Management Organization’s Atlanta NIMO team, with Incident Commander Mike Quesinberry who has the delegation of authority for the incident. Added as co-Incident Commander was Pruett Small who is the Deputy Incident Commander on one of the Southwest Area’s Type 1 Incident Management Teams. Many other members of the Southwest team as well as several other IMTeams contributed personnel, with a total of approximately 200 people being assigned directly to the IMTeam.

There are quite a few other personnel helping on a less formal basis that are not being tracked as closely as normally occurs on a more traditional fire, planned event, or all-hazard incident. For example I was told that approximately 2,000 firefighters from fire departments around the country are serving as honor guards at the procession from Phoenix to Prescott, the memorial service, and the 19 individual firefighter funerals.

At the risk of leaving out some key players, an example of some of the organizations involved include the International Association of Fire Fighters which is helping out to a VERY significant degree, the New York City FD which has had a close working relationship with the Southwest Area Type 1 IMTeams since they worked together at 9/11, and Los Angeles County FD which is providing a critical incident stress management team (I probably got their title wrong).

The El Dorado Hotshots help set up the stage
On Monday the El Dorado Hotshots help set up the stage and other equipment for the memorial service.

And then there is the local sound system specialist who is providing at no cost his services and all of the sound equipment that will be used at the memorial service in the Tim’s Toyota Center Tuesday. Engineering the sound and providing the equipment is a huge deal, takes a lot of expertise, and is always very expensive… when you have to pay for it. He said he is doing it for no pay because the Granite Mountain Hotshots saved his home recently when it was threatened by a fire.

Adding to those individuals is the miscellaneous assistance that is being provided to the Prescott Fire Department from other departments as far away as Texas, for example, to staff engines this week so that the Prescott firefighters can take care of the 19 members they just lost. This morning I pulled over while an engine from the Yuma FD was responding code 3 to an incident in Prescott.

The facility for the memorial service Tuesday, Tim’s Toyota Center, has room for 6,000 people inside, and all of those seats have been committed. Everyone who does not have an assigned seat already will be able to view the service outside on a huge jumbo screen. According to the IMTeam, be aware that shading or seating will not be provided. The weather is calling for temperatures in the mid 90’s and humidity around 13%. Water stations will be available. Come prepared to stand or bring lawn chairs but plan for the heat. The service will also be streamed live online.

Other photos from the site of the memorial service and the Incident Command Post that were taken Monday are below.
Continue reading “Behind the scenes — preparations for the Granite Mountain 19’s memorial service”

Honor Escort for the Granite Mountain 19

The 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire June 30 were escorted back to Prescott today, closer to their home base. They were moved from the medical examiner’s office in Phoenix to the medical examiner’s office in Prescott, a distance of approximately 100 miles. A helicopter was circling overhead. The first part of the ground escort was about 20 officers on motorcycles.

These first three photos were taken on Highway 89 five miles north of Yarnell, Arizona.

Honor Escort, motorcycle officers
Honor Escort, motorcycle officers

A few vehicles after the bikes was a Granite Mountain Hotshots’ crew carrier.

Honor Escort, Granite Mountain Hotshots
Honor Escort, Granite Mountain Hotshots’ crew carrier and the 19 hearses.

And then the 19 hearses, each with a sign in the window identifying the Hotshot inside.

Granite Mountain Hotshots' Honor Escort
Hearses for the Granite Mountain Hotshots
Yarnell Hill Fire, honor escort, APS cranes
Yarnell Hill Fire-7-7-2013-Arizona Public Service company cranes with flags draped wait for the procession of hearses carrying the 19 fallen firefighters travels through Yarnell on highway 89 Sunday afternoon, on its way to Prescott.
Photo by Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic. Used with permission.

A memorial service for the Granite Mountain 19 will be held in Prescott Tuesday. We will remain in the area reporting on this historic event.

The first three photos were taken by Bill Gabbert.

The Yarnell Hill tragedy; examining the wind and topography

(UPDATE at 9:14 p.m. MDT, July 6, 2013)

We added this photo of the entrapment site on the Yarnell Hill Fire. The dozer line was punched in after the incident to facilitate the removal of the bodies, which were at the end of the line. The photo was taken by Wade Ward of the Prescott FD, and is used here with permission.

Yarnell Hill Fire fatality site, Arizona, 2013. Prescott FD photo by Wade Ward. (click to enlarge)


(Originally published at 8:53 MDT, July 6, 2013)

Robert Ford, who grew up in Prescott, studied some of the information that is available about the wind when the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on the Yarnell Fire June 30. His message is below, with a few notes from me [in brackets].


“A graphic showing the “safety zone” and shelter deployment site is here.”

[Note from Bill: the times in that article are approximately 6 hours in error. We were told by Carrie Dennett of the Arizona State Forestry Division that their office received notice that shelters had been deployed at 4:47 local time, Mountain STANDARD Time. But they were not in direct communication with firefighters. The information had to travel up a chain of command and may have been delayed. I have not seen definitive word on when the deployment took place.]

“A Google Earth rough approximation of the high res photo above is attached.

Approximate location of shelter deployment
Approximate location of shelter deployment. Google Earth.

Looking due west, eye altitude about 5400 feet. The approx. shelter site is 34.221416,-112.775796. The Landsat imagery was acquired last May; note the fuel, when compared to the Facebook photo above.

If you have Google Earth, it is also easy to duplicate the camera location of the time-lapse video (posted on your site) [embedded again above] purportedly shot from “Congress”; actually I’ve determined it was shot just west of the Date Creek Road (dirt – you can see the dust clouds from passing vehicles) just North of the intersection with Highway 89. The time-lapse video, looking N45E, shows the fire just cresting the ridge starting about one mile due Northwest of the shelter deployment site, then flashing to the right (southeast) along the ridge-line towards the deploy site. The smoke then obscures how the fire must have flashed over the ridge just 1500 feet west of the deploy site. In any event, the video shows how very rapidly the wind moved through the natural basin of the deploy site; probably aided by a natural venturi effect from the walls of the basin; also note that by the end of the video a trailing vortice formed off the ridge crest has actually moved the plume locally down (by 2000 feet !) to about the elevation of the Camera. It was an amphitheater of death for all of those brave men. This also explains why some men were found “outside” their shelters; that’s because a wind of unimaginable proportion, moving locally upward, lifted their shelters away.

Well thank you and you are very welcome to use whatever of this information you please. I have learned so very much from your site; it contains absolutely the best no-nonsense web coverage of this fire. In the event you wondered, I used to model the effects of wind on the topography surrounding astronomical observatories; but I never had to deal with a surface boundary condition as defined by a wildfire: that adds an order of magnitude of complexity to the simulation. I would like to presume the Feds will realize the importance of contracting a surface topography wind effect model for this fire, as a component of their investigation; If you have any say in the matter I am happy to recommend the best people; it’s not cheap as it requires supercomputer time.

Finally, I needed to relate that I grew up in Prescott; fighting fires was a rite of passage. You would have thought that by now the FS would have developed a weather-topography-fuel load model to deal with this sort of thing.

Well now they will do so.”


In a follow-up message, Mr. Ford wrote:


Yarnell Hill Fire photo texted at 4:04 p.m. by Granite Mountain HS
Yarnell Hill Fire photo texted at 4:04 p.m. by Granite Mountain HS

“For your information, I was able to determine the approximate vantage point of the photo [added above] as looking due East from 34.227291,-112.788630, at an eye elevation of 5,510 feet.

Screen capture from Google Earth.
Screen capture from Google Earth. Approximate location of the previous photo.

This location [above] is just off (east of) the trail on the ridge crest-line, and is located about 0.82 miles Northwest (as the crow flies; longer by trail) of the shelter deploy site (subject of my previous post). Now given the vantage point vector as due East, the plume appears to be moving southeast; thus the fire front (barely visible in the photo) is being driven directly towards Glen ilah.”


Follow-up from Bill:

A comment left on one of our posts by “lone ranger” found an article that included information provided by the National Fire Administration, which is the first I’ve head that they had anything to do with this incident. I would be hesitant to trust this information. The report says the firefighters initially took refuge in a burned area, the black, then left that site and deployed their fire shelters later in another area as they headed toward a ranch which was to be their safety zone.

There continues to be confusion about the times. This may be partly due to the fact that Arizona is not on Daylight Savings Time like most of the United States. They use Mountain STANDARD Time.

A blog called Cliff Mass posted a very clear and detailed explanation of the weather. His last line in the article:

A number of media outlets called the strong winds unpredictable and random. This is not correct, as shown by the information I provided above.

Chuck Bushey told us that once upon a time there were:

…Fire Behavior Service Centers in various regions, warning crews in real time about t-storms (or other events) heading their direction that they couldn’t yet see and getting them into the black. The Southwest use to run a FBSC with a qualified Fire Behavior Analyst (FBAN) but I think they dropped it as did everyone else.


Weather conditions during the tragedy at Yarnell Hill, and where do we go from here

We first wrote about the thunderstorm that may have contributed to the June 30 deaths of the 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30 at 6:58 MST. But since that information is buried in a long article about the fire, and a little more information has emerged, we are summarizing the facts about the weather conditions that tragic Sunday afternoon. We also have some suggestions for providing firefighters with weather warning information that could save lives.

The formal investigation into the deaths, what caused them and any lessons to be learned, is just beginning. The results will probably not be known for many months. We will leave it up to the investigators to determine why it happened and what decisions were made before and during the incident. But the facts about the weather that day have already been recorded in various ways.

Carrie Dennett, a Fire Information Officer with the Arizona State Forestry Division, said the Arizona Dispatch Center received a call at 4:47 p.m. MST, 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.

Radar at 5 pm MDT, June 30, 2013 The pointer is at Yarnell, Arizona.
Radar at 4 p.m. MST, June 30, 2013 The pointer is at Yarnell, Arizona. WeatherUnderground.

The radar map above from WeatherUnderground at 4 p.m. MST June 30 shows a large thunderstorm cell north and northeast of the fire at Yarnell, Arizona. The pointer is at Yarnell. At 10:55 a.m., according to data from the MODIS satellite, the fire was approximately a mile or so north and northeast of the town, between the town and the approaching thunderstorm. At that time and until after 4 p.m., the wind blowing from the south-southwest and the southwest, most likely would have caused the primary spread of the fire to be toward the northeast.

Animations of weather satellite images that afternoon HERE and HERE, show the development and movement of the thunderstorm into the fire area. The red “X” and circle mark the approximate location of the fire.

Before and after 4 p.m. the cell was moving toward the southwest, and may have produced strong winds that changed the wind direction by 180 degrees (see below) and may have been the reason the fire moved into Yarnell. It also could have caught firefighters by surprise.

From 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. local time at the Stanton RAWS weather station four miles south of the fire, the wind was from the south-southwest or southwest, but between 4:01 p.m. and 5:01 p.m. it began blowing from the north-northeast at 22 to 26 mph gusting up to 43 mph — a 180-degree change in the wind direction.

Data from Stanton RAWS weather station, near Yarnell, AZ
Data from the Stanton RAWS weather station, four miles south of Yarnell, AZ, June 30, 2013

We were told by a spokesperson for the fire that the location of the firefighters when they died was between the fire and Yarnell, which would put them north or northeast of the town. Michelle Lee of the Arizona Republic told us that they were about one quarter mile southwest of Glen Ilah estates, “in the mountains”. Glen Ilah is on the southwest side of Yarnell. Anyone in that area between 4 and 5 p.m., who previously had the wind at their backs for seven hours with the fire moving away from them, may have suddenly and unexpectedly found the fire heading toward them at a rapid rate, pushed by winds gusting over 40 mph. Wind direction changes like this can be caused by strong outflowing winds from a thunderstorm in the dissipating stage.

At 5:01 p.m. the temperature was 95 degrees and the relative humidity was 17 percent. That, coupled with sustained winds of 26 mph with gusts over 40 mph, could have caused the rate of spread to increase to the point where it would have been impossible for any firefighting resources, in the air or on the ground, to implement any kind of effective fire suppression action, especially at the head of the fire which was moving rapidly toward Yarnell.

The Weather Forecast

A Type 3 Incident Management Team transitioned to assume command of the fire at 10 a.m. on June 30. That morning the fire had burned less than 1,000 acres. Incident Meteorologists from the National Weather Service, IMETs, are frequently assigned to large wildfires. While they are on site they can provide a great deal of very detailed weather information to firefighters, monitoring the conditions closely and in constant communication with the IMTeam.

It would have been unusual for an IMET to be assigned to a fire of that size on June 30, and with a small Type 3 IMTeam. The next morning, however, an IMET did receive an order to respond to the fire along with a much larger Type 1 IMTeam.

But even without an on-scene IMET, firefighters have the capability to request from the National Weather Service a special “spot forecast” for a fire, and at least two were provided before the fatalities occurred, one at 8:33 p.m. MST on June 29, and another at 9:45 a.m. June 30. The latter one, according to the information at the top of the forecast, was requested at 9:39 a.m. MST and produced six minutes later, a remarkably short turnaround.

The spot forecast for the morning of the incident predicted “isolated thunderstorm activity”, and, “Partly cloudy. A slight chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon”. The predicted wind was “east winds around 5 mph…becoming southwest with gusts up to 20 mph in the afternoon”.

It is extremely difficult or even impossible for meteorologists to predict exactly where and when thunderstorms will occur, especially if they are “isolated”, or few in number. It is also difficult to forecast the exact wind speed and direction under any conditions.

Where do we go from here?

Firefighters need to know when there is a sudden change in weather conditions that can threaten their safety. Since it will never be possible to have an IMET at every fire, there needs to be a concerted interagency effort involving the National Weather Service and the *land management agencies, state, local, and federal, to develop a system to provide firefighters with the situational awareness information they must have to reduce the probability that they will be surprised by a life-threatening change in the weather.

Firefighter’s Emergency Situational Awareness Device —  FESAD

We may need new developments in hardware for firefighters so that they can receive weather warning data directly from the source without going through layers of bureaucracy. The military probably already has something like this, but I envision a device with a 7-inch display that could receive satellite transmissions anywhere there is a clear view of the sky. Each firefighter would not need to have a Firefighter’s Emergency Situational Awareness Device, a FESAD — just provide one for every fire. It could be based on a satellite phone, would have a GPS receiver (like in most smart phones), and be capable of receiving text and images. A deluxe version might also function as a satellite telephone, so that the firefighter could call the weather forecaster to get more information. The person sending the data to the fire would not have to know the phone number of the receiver, but would draw a box on a map and any devices within that box would receive the data, without bothering others that would not be affected by the warning. When the FESAD arrives at a fire, the user could have it send a message registering its location so that warnings for that area could be received. This would also alert the on-duty Remote-IMET to add it to their watch list.

Alert who?

Remote-IMET (R-IMET)

The warning data could be sent to the fire by an NWS forecaster always on duty with the primary responsibility to remotely monitor weather conditions near multiple fires. (The NWS already does this for the entire nation for severe storm, tornado, and hurricane warnings.) For fires, let’s call them Remote-IMETS. Some of the Geographic Area Coordination Centers already employ full time fire meteorologists. With the right software they could perform this function.

An R-IMET would have the technology available to instantly transmit text and graphical data about an emerging dangerous condition directly to those on the ground without relying on telephones to filter the information down through various layers. An R-IMET would not have time to handle all of the IMET duties normally performed by an on-scene IMET, but would concentrate primarily on issuing urgent warnings that could affect the safety of firefighters.

What if …. there had been a FESAD and R-IMET available for the Yarnell Hill Fire 

FESADs and R-IMETs could save lives.

The iron is hot

There is a great deal of national interest right now in the deaths of the Granite Mountain 19. If any new initiatives that would cost money are going to be implemented, our Fire Leaders must strike now while the iron is hot. There may be a small window of two to four weeks during which there will be some sympathy nationwide and citizens and lawmakers are open to enhancing the safety of wildland firefighters, even if it involves spending money.

An example of a rapidly closing window of opportunity is the movement for controlling gun violence after a gunman fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. If the administration and lawmakers had taken action quickly, meaningful legislation would have had a much better chance of passing. Instead, they waited months, and achieved little.

*A side note

It pains me to describe the federal fire departments as “land management agencies”. Organizations whose primary mission is to grow trees, clean campground toilets, or manage visitors, do not have at the top of their To-Do List, “Provide real-time weather warning information for firefighters”. We need a National Fire Service.