A nine-person investigative review team formed by the state of Arizona has begun researching the conditions, tactics and equipment failures leading to the 19 line-of-duty deaths at the Yarnell Hill Fire, said Dan Bailey, president, International Association of Wildland Fire. Preliminary findings from the investigative team are expected next week, Bailey said.
The team will review the entire response, including the dispatch radio logs, communications between the crew and command, weather conditions, and the fire itself, such as the site where the fatalities occurred. The team also is expected to review how the fire shelters performed on the fireground. Bailey said the Missoula (Mont.) Technology and Development Center is the lead for the development for shelters and begins its own investigation whenever shelters are deployed.
There is a lot of discussion about how the situation led up to having 19 firefighters go to their fire shelters, which “is a last-ditch effort,” Bailey said.
“When you go to a fire shelter, it really is a life-and-death decision,” he said. “No one ever wants to make it to that point. If you have to make that decision that is the last straw of hope to survive a horrific situation. You know you might not make it.”
Bailey has worked for 35 years in fire management, from firefighter to commander. That includes leading the 1990 Arizona Dude Fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters. While every fire is different, he said usually safety zones are scouted ahead of time with a lookout posted to oversee where the crews are working in addition to other safeguards.
At the Yarnell Hill Fire, unpredictable thunderstorms and strong, gusty winds played a factor. A safe area is relatively close to where a crew can reach. Wind by afternoon shifted completely toward unburned fuels, pushing smoke and flames towards firefighters. The southwest drought intensified the perils facing the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and the safe zone became part of the burnover.
“When you get wind conditions like this that are so unpredictable, it sounds like the fire pushed back into the area where the safe zone was wasn’t safe anymore,” he said. “When everything goes bad, the idea is that crews pull back to those safety zones. This was just one of those high-risk situations, with a volatile dangerous wildfire.”
The IAWF and entire wildland-fire community is grieving for the 19 lost at the Yarnell Hill Fire, Bailey said. That is why it is important to share information with fire personnel as soon as possible.
“The wildland fire and structural fire are family, and so anytime something like this happens … it hits home with everybody. There are still firefighters fighting fires, grieving the colleagues killed and trying to get their mind around it. As a chief, it is really important to try to get as much information out as quickly as possible, so people can talk about it and understand what happen.”