Fire officials examine lessons learned from tragic losses

Published: Saturday, June 28 2014 2:50 p.m. MDT

Members of the US Forest Service's Blue Ridge Hotshots, foreground, and other firefighters watch as the Yarnell Hill Fire advances on the town of Yarnell, Ariz., Sunday, June 30, 2013. The crew vehicles (buggies) for the Granite Mountain Hotshots are the white vehicles parked at center and right. 19 members of the Granite Mountain crew were killed fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Tom Story, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Wildland firefighter Bret Bowthorpe remembers the unusual silence that filled a fire camp after learning of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed in Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire a year ago Monday.

"That night the fire camp was solemn, quiet and filled with respect," said Bowthorpe, an assistant squad leader for the U.S. Forest Service Spanish Fork Ranger District. "We all took the opportunity to call home to our loved ones. The next morning, after a moment of silence for the fallen, we still had a job to accomplish."

In addition to widespread grief and bewilderment, wildfires such as the Yarnell Hill Fire present hard-learned lessons that "cut deep" in the wildfire community, Bowthorpe said. Such lessons are being revisited in light of the one-year anniversary of the fire, as well as the 20th anniversary of Colorado's South Canyon Fire, which killed 14 firefighters.

When such a fire occurs, an investigative team comprised of federal, state and local agencies works to identify key factors leading to the incident. Investigators especially seek to understand what firefighters knew at the time, despite what is learned in hindsight. Finally, a report is generated with the findings and recommendations for future training, according to Allen Briggs Jr., a fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service Pleasant Grove Ranger District.

Even a year after the Yarnell Hill Fire, officials are still struggling to understand how almost an entire crew of elite firefighters went from relative safety to entrapment. A report of the incident says the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew was moving through an unburned area when their route was cut off by a flame front moving up to 12 miles per hour, driven by shifting winds.

The crew had less than two minutes to prepare a fire shelter deployment site before flames in excess of 2,000 degrees swept through the area. While the cocoon-like foil shelters are designed to resist radiant heat, they don't withstand direct contact with flames.

"We cannot fully know how they made their decisions prior to their entrapment and fire shelter deployment," the report states. "No crew members from the deployment site survived to tell why the crew took the actions they took."

Communication needed

Jason Curry, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said lessons from Yarnell Hill are frequently discussed among firefighters.

"One of the messages coming out of there is that perceptions are not always going to be reality," Curry said. The Granite Mountain Hotshots "didn't know all the factors. They didn't know all the fire behavior that was going on in areas they couldn't see. ... Knowing information and having a full reality are ultimately going to keep us safe. So communication is key."

Curry said tragedy fires also remind firefighters to keep a heightened sense of awareness.

"We don't want to take it lightly, we don't want to get complacent with our own actions," he said. "That's not to say that those guys were complacent, but if those guys can get into trouble, then certainly all of our folks need to be evaluating their actions and ... making (safety) the foremost thing."

The Yarnell Hill report recommends a review of current technology, such as GPS units and weather applications, which could improve fire officials' ability to track and communicate with fire resources and receive real-time weather updates.

The South Canyon Fire, which ignited about seven miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, has undergone extensive scrutiny after it killed 14 firefighters on July 6, 1994.

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