Letters From the West

Investigative reporter shows Arizona firefighters should never had been at Yarnell

Firefighters light a back burn near Pine while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14. (Kyle Green/kgreen@idahostatesman.com)

Firefighters light a back burn near Pine while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14. (Kyle Green/kgreen@idahostatesman.com)

After 19 firefighters were killed June 30 in a wildfire near Yarnell Arizona, I talked to firefighter veterans who were troubled by the description of the nation’s fire city-based hotshot crew as “elite.”

What made them uncomfortable was that it elevated them to an almost super-human level where our frailties somehow disappear. The questions I asked July 3, came from these firefighters. Should they have been there? Did they know the weather conditions?

Did they follow the rules of safety?

Later in July Darrell Willis, the Prescott Fire Department’s Wildland Division chief and the dead Granite Mountain Hotshots’ supervisor turned these veterans’ concerns to anger when he suggested: “It was just one of those things that happened. You can call it an accident. I just say that God had a different plan for that crew at this time.”

Whatever God’s will, a number of questionable decisions by Arizona State Forestry people, Willis and the firefighters’ leaders led to the remarkable loss of life of a close knit team of firefighters dedicated to their calling.

Independent investigative reporter John Dougherty has pieced together a remarkable report that shows the hotshots were supposed to be off that day because they had fought fires beyond the official limit. Arizona Forestry staff went around the normal assigning protocol to place them on the fire.

Since the Prescott Council had laid off two full time firefighters, the team did not meet minimum staffing standards for a hotshot crew, records Dougherty got through the open records law showed.

So these fatiqued firefighters, in the middle of extreme weather conditions similar to the Elk Complex earlier this month near Mountain Home, walked out of a safe place building fire line apparently heading to try to save a nearby ranch. The ranch, which already had been protected, was not a part of their mission and Dougherty has several firefighters saying that the Prescott team had placed structure protection higher than traditional hotshot crews because of its ties to the Prescott Fire Department.

Dougherty’s reporting will not be the final word on these deaths. An official investigation is underway.

But its members will have the resources Dougherty unearthed. And when the state gets its chance to review the report before it is final, it too will have to reconcile what Dougherty reported.

UPDATE–A panel convened by the Arizona Division of Forestry  found no blame for the deaths. It said the hotshots were fully qualified, met the guidelines for rest and “followed all standards and guidelines as stated in the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations” and Arizona State Forestry Division guidelines.” This appears to dismiss the issues raised by Dougherty that the cutback of two of the crew to part time put them out of compliance.

Hoewever, There is no reference in the report whether the crew was assigned officially by National Interagency Fire Center protocol or informally.

Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/arizona-fire-deaths-investigation-report-leaves-questions-unanswered/#storylink=cpy


Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/arizona-fire-deaths-investigation-report-leaves-questions-unanswered/#storylink=cpy

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