Letters From the West

Did the firefighters get the spot weather report they needed?

The Arizona Republic said it all in one word with its headline this morning: “Tragedy.”

Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Ariz., the first urban organized team of their kind, died as homeowners were escaping the fast-moving flames with only minutes to spare. Their families, friends and fellow firefighters mourn their death and celebrate their bravery in the line of duty, as noble as those who raced up the stairs of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001.

The loss of 250 homes in the town of Yarnell adds to the toll, though I doubt anyone thinks property loss justifies the death of even one firefighter. Today, a federal type one fire team will take control of the situation and hopefully prevent more death and destruction.

But already firefighters are asking questions about why the Hotshots were where they were when things went bad. They are talking about the weather.

Did the firefighters know that thunderstorms were building? Were they aware that erratic, out-flowing winds that are connected to the storms could occur? Did someone generate a spot weather report and were the team’s leaders aware?

We know it was hot and dry but what was the energy release component — the amount of BTUs that a fire can produce — at the site of the fire?

Was this a replay of the 2006 Devil’s Den Fire incident in Utah where short-term weather and fuel conditions contributed to a firefighter’s death? The firefighter there died when his fire shelter “was exceeded by intense heat and direct flame,” according to the official investigation.

Did the firefighters have a safety zone large enough to deploy safely? Did they have an escape route?

These questions are uncomfortable, as were those last year raised when wildland firefighter Anne Veseth was killed by a falling snag on a fire in north Idaho. She died the day after other firefighters refused to join the state crews on the Steep Corner Fire Aug. 11 because of unsafe conditions.

The questions are as uncomfortable as those raised 10 years ago this month when Jeff Allen and Shane Heath were burned over on the Cramer Fire due to poor judgments by a host of forest managers and the violation of numerous safety standards. They are as unsettling as those that followed the death of 14 firefighters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., in 1994, including McCall smokejumper Jim Thrash.

Unfortunately the questions are disturbingly similar in all of these fires and when 13 firefighters died at Mann Gulch above the Missouri River in Montana in 1949. They don’t call it wild land fire for nothing.

A fire under the conditions in all of these fatalities is very dangerous. The leaders who put firefighters out in these conditions should give them the information and the tools they need to protect themselves or they shouldn’t send them unless lives are immediately threatened.

In all of these incidents the issue is not whether we will forget these brave firefighters. Will we remember how they died and learn?

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West