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The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

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9/29/2013 7:00:00 AM
Communications, fire complexity doomed Hotshots
Granite Mountain Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie shot these last two video clips shortly after 4:00 p.m. on June 30, 2013. These are the last images of the hotshots before they tragically died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire at approximately 4:50 p.m.
See related story
Courtesy photo
Granite Mountain Hotshot Dustin DeFord, center, and other Granite Mountain Hotshots assess the Yarnell Hill Fire at 4:02 p.m. June 30. Nineteen Hotshots died in the fire less than an hour later. This photo is one of several recovered from Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie’s personal camera.
Courtesy photo
Granite Mountain Hotshot Dustin DeFord, center, and other Granite Mountain Hotshots assess the Yarnell Hill Fire at 4:02 p.m. June 30. Nineteen Hotshots died in the fire less than an hour later. This photo is one of several recovered from Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie’s personal camera.
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier
Deputy State Forester 
Jerry Payne reflects July 23 at the site where 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill fire.
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier
Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne reflects July 23 at the site where 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill fire.
+ view more photos
Granite Mountain Hotshot Wade Parker walks in front of the camera as fire and smoke from the Yarnell Hill Fire moves across the terrain below them at 3:52 p.m. on June 30, 2013. Photo recovered from the personal camera of Granite Mountain Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie following the horrific Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30, 2013.

Joanna Dodder Nellans
The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT - The Arizona State Forestry Division's report into the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots avoids laying blame on anyone, but it does shed light into the myriad contributing factors.

The Hotshots died June 30 when the Yarnell Hill wildfire overran their hastily created safety zone just west of Yarnell, about 30 miles south of their home base at the Prescott Fire Department. It was the highest Hotshot fatality in a single incident in U.S. history.

A national team of experts produced the report for the state, and released it to the public Saturday alongside a dramatic video that uses Google Earth to reconstruct the day's fatal events.

"It answers a lot of questions about what happened that day," said Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department firefighter and spokesman. But it also leaves many questions unanswered, he added.

"The single question I have is, why?" said Tony Sciacca, a top national Type I incident commander who heads up the Arizona Wildfire Academy and worked on the Prescott National Forest for decades. He knew many of the Hotshots and trusted their strong experience and judgment.

Why did the Hotshots choose to leave the safety of an area already burned over by fire and head down into thick chaparral toward a designated safety zone on a ranch? They could have taken other, safer routes, but those were longer.

"The fastest route was desirable because of the perceived threat to the community of Yarnell," the report notes. The crew clearly was aware that the fire had switched from moving northeast toward Peeples Valley to southeast toward Yarnell, where people were literally running for their lives.

During the last 30 minutes of their lives, the Hotshots clearly thought they could reach the safety zone 1.6 miles away. But as they headed downhill where they could no longer see the fire to the north, they had no idea that the fire had shifted from moving southeast to moving south directly toward them.

And they couldn't have known that the fire progression had reached the extreme speed of 10-12 mph, pushed by a horrifying outflow that produced winds topping 50 mph.

Other firefighters said they were unaware that the Hotshots had left the safety of the "black." Some had talked to the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the radio and thought they were moving northeast to a different ranch.

The report doesn't point fingers and it doesn't use names, although it does use titles.

But the report makes it clear that fire managers didn't know the fire would reach such a terrifying speed, either.

The Type II incident management team had established three trigger points for residential and firefighter evacuations, but apparently reached all three within a matter of minutes. The report didn't explain what time each trigger point was reached, and report investigators didn't respond to requests for interviews Saturday.

The report also did not explain whether firefighters were notified by radio about the trigger points being reached, or about the second wind shift. If the Hotshots had heard about the second wind shift while they were pushing their way down into the box canyon through boulders and brush, it's unclear whether they might have had time to go back up the steep mountain.

The fire trapped them at the base of the canyon, 0.38 miles from the designated safety zone, at 4:41 p.m. They had only about two minutes to try to create a safety zone between the time they saw the flames and the time the flames overtook them.

While aircraft were looking for them, the smoke reduced visibility to near zero. The Hotshots' last radio transmissions about the deployment of their shelters were hard to hear because of the heavy radio traffic during the havoc of evacuations, and because of the strong winds.

Fire managers could not have found the Hotshots through their phones' GPS units because there wasn't time to triangulate their position, Ward said.

A Type II team had just taken over the fire battle that day, and it was struggling to deal with the rapidly changing conditions. The Hotshots were the only firefighters still near the fire and they had told others they were OK until they were deploying their shelters.

The report notes that the Hotshots had not received a weather update for 50 minutes during the rapidly changing conditions.

Even though he was well aware of the extreme drought and weather conditions as the commander on the Doce wildfire near Prescott, Sciacca said he assumed the Yarnell Hill blaze was moving at a maximum of 2-3 miles per hour until he saw the report. Speeds of 10-12 mph are usually reserved for California chaparral blazes fueled by Santa Ana winds, he said.

Sciacca and fellow longtime firefighter Dugger Hughes couldn't think of any other wildfire entrapment fatality in which no one survived to tell the story, and that made it tough on investigators.

The investigative team brought in experts from around the country to try to help explain what happened and prevent fatalities in the future, said lead investigator Jim Karels, Florida's state forester.

And they went out of their way to avoid what they called "hindsight bias," the tendency to view past events as more predictable than they really were at the time.

"It's so easy to say, 'This is what I would have done,'" Hughes said. "I think we all know those guys did the best they could and it just didn't pan out."

Hughes also appreciated the "Learning Discussion" section of the report that helps firefighters work through the issues they face in the "fog and friction" of a wildfire that quadruples in size in a matter of hours to threaten people and homes.

"That's a great way for crews and management to learn from it," said Hughes, who teaches incident command classes. He's a former Type I commander who also ran the federal government's Southwest Coordinating Center that supports wildland firefighting throughout the Southwest. He now oversees another one of the few non-federal Hotshot crews, the Ironwood Hotshots from the Northwest Fire District near Tucson.

On Friday, Sciacca was saddened to hear that another wildland firefighter perished that day. Smokejumper Mark Urban of Boise died there when his parachute failed to deploy during training.

"I've had lots of places when I had close calls," said Sciacca, who also was a long-time Hotshot. "We live in a job that inherently is dangerous."

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter: @joannadodder.

Related Stories:
• Report lists recommendations for state, finds no negligence
• Investigators: Details about Hotshot deaths 'will never be known'
• Final photos, videos of Granite Mountain Hotshots come to light

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• View the report here:

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Article comment by: Mary Moore

They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. RIP

Posted: Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Article comment by: S M

What doomed the hotshots was...
1. Thinking you can outwit mother nature by putting out forest fires with a shovel.
2. Thinking that risking your life for someones house, and saving insurance companies billions of dollars while earning $ 15 per hour with few benefits is OK.
3. Wanting to live in this attractive community with a town government that could care less about the employment it's youth.

Posted: Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Article comment by: Pinky See'em

So, we have 19 good men dead and no one is responsible? If the findings are accurate, then why don't we lose a dozen firefighters on every wild land fire?
Somethings rotten in Denmark. And it starts with Darrell Willis.

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013
Article comment by: MY THOUGHTS

The findings in this report are sub par and do not help the fire community. Yarnell not seeing fire in 45 years, radios not being programmed with proper tone guards or excessive traffic, fire complexity increasing in a short amount of time, no excessive risk in repositioning to Boulder Spring Ranch, few people understanding GM intentions, the weather, and aircraft not being available are not acceptable findings and here is my opinion why. As Hotshots we all know that the brush burns especially with high temps, low RH and wind on it.(we all remember the Doce Fire) If your radio is not working properly you get it figured out and programed properly before you engage. The fire line is a dynamic place, it can change every minute. What good is a bomb proof safety zone if terrain and fuels make your escape to the safety zone difficult(watch out #17). If adjoining resources on the fire do not understand your intentions then there is a communication problem on one or both sides. During that time of year we expect monsoon buildup and the outflow winds that come from them. If aircraft are not available it does not matter because we are … (Exceeds 200-word limit)

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013
Article comment by: Enough Already

We already knew what they died of, can we finally MOVE ON.

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013
Article comment by: Give'm Hell Harry

Typical Prescott way of doing things. Do everything on the cheap, old radios, no technology, pay most of the crew $12 an hour with no benefits and then cover up the tragedy of losing 19 young men to management negligence and incompetence! Disgusting to say the least.

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013
Article comment by: Blunt Truth

Blaming things like "fire complexity", is a foolish speak to allow people to avoid the truth.
All big fires are complex, few have this result.

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013
Article comment by: Bobby Fields

I read the report, and at least it dispels the previously mentioned idea that the GM Hot Shots were trying to save a ranch that was a previously identified safety zone.

This report is a little hypocritical when there is no fault assigned anywhere, but they explains how State Forestry declined a DC-10 drop before the fire started exploding out of control. Perhaps the earlier use of such an asset might have changed things? I don't know, but there was certainly negligence in turning down such an asset, which was a huge tactical error.

The question of whether or not State Forestry circumvented the Southwest Coordination Center by contacting Eric Marsh directly is also unanswered.

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013
Article comment by: I don't buy it

whitewashed to protect the State land folks who screwed this up from the beginning and let it burn.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Nallek Elkce

As a long time wildland fire fighter, and a friend and colleague to a few of the GM19 i have to say im disappointed in this report. It stinks of cover up. the people doing the investigation have a lot to lose by pointing fingers. That said it was a tragic event, brought on by a poor decision that anyone who works in the field can sort of understand. The desire to get into the fight and do some good instead of sitting back and watching. Bottom line in my mind is no GPS technology would have saved these men, no aircraft availability, or better fire shelters either. It was a fatally poor decision by the crew leadership. Hindsight is a luxury these men dont have and its easy to say this now, but they took an unnecessary risk to save homes. not 1 of these mens life was worth the whole town burning to the ground. God rest their souls and peace be with the families

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Ann Petersen

As a former wild land firefighter myself, I really appreciate the great article that reporter Joanna Dodder wrote. It was well researched and explained. I recognize from the article some of the hazards that I studied long ago. In the heat of the moment, that's really easy to do. As far as assigning blame, I'm sure responsibility is being taken and whoever made mistakes will be living with the result for the rest of their lives. Let he who has never made a mistake throw the first stone.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: I am just sad

To see those guys smiling and interacting and to know that just a couple hours later...they were gone.

It is sad. No other way to see it. Rest in peace. How odd there were certain mementos left behind.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: resham mann

The comments about 30 minute loss of communication are uterly disgusting. After 23 years designing public safety radios i find it appalling that these men were still using BK radios without gps or lone worker polling. Total nigligence on whomever is in charge of communications but most likely someone withno knowledge of modern day radio gps tracking capabilities.

I know hog hunters in texas who have radios with multi unit gps tracking and display capabilities for not just hunters in thier groups but also for their dogs.

When hoghunters have more advanced radios that cost less than the outdated more expensive Bendix King radios then you know the system is broke.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Drones are the Newest Addition to Fire Fighting

Small drones, with both high-definition and thermal-imaging cameras are being tested and deployed to monitor fires and incidents in areas such as California.

They are a cost effective solution to rapidly gather a more complete overview of an emergency situation with rapid deployment and ability to provide real-time imagery to the incident management team.

Maybe this would have made a big difference because the rapidly changing and unknown conditions were a factor in this tragic incident.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Simple Truth

1.6 miles from their Safety Zone? If that's the case they severely broke safety protocol and policy. It's also known that weather reports were made available to the Control Center.
Finger pointing is always nasty business, but in this case, it was an avoidable tragedy if protocol/procedure had been followed.
Someone(s) is always at fault if a situation could have been avoided.
Blaming the conditions is a poor excuse for lack of command and control.
When this goes to civil action, the real truth will known if the media has the courage to print it.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Rest In Eternal Peace

We miss our Granite Mountain Hot Shots. Their families will forever be in our thoughts and prayers.

Marianne Elizabeth Vangalio

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Legal Eagle

Having read the report, watched the TV presentation by state and local officials, and
read as well the national and Phoenix media coverage, I must conclude that Bane Capitol is correct. A leading Southwest attorney interviewed last night on Phoenix TV, said that the report was full of holes and that the Hot Shot families had legal claims against all the public agencies involved, including the City of Prescott. It was indeed a CYA report clearly written and vetted by attorneys attempting to evade accountability and liability.

Double-dipping Darrell Willis should retire immediately. He refused to talk with media, although other officials did, at the Phoenix briefing. This whole tragic incident was not "God's will," as he keeps saying, but due in part to the Hot Shots' lack of GPS, adequate
shields, etc. and a situation which was allowed to grow from minor blaze to large fire before their involvement. Shame on those who shirk both responsibility and accountability.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Cathy Smith

I haven't read the recommendations part of this story but I have one which I don't even know is practicable but: it seems to me that a GPS transmitter should be given to each crew fighting these types of fires and the command center should have each unit on screen at all times, so they are accounted for. Secondly, it also seems to me that evacuation activities should be on a different radio frequency than the one used for the firefighters who are probably in more danger than those doing the evacuations.

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Alan Whitney

Christopher MacKenzie was not only a brave man, he had a very good eye for composition!

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Just Reflect...

Heart-breaking all over again! Let's just take time now to reflect. Put aside all of the controversy that has haunted us all summer, and simply remember these wonderful men who gave their lives and brought us together as a community. We love you, Hotshots!!

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Article comment by: Bane Capitol

Reminds me of the same white-washed BS of after-action investigative reports from the US Military in Wars. Does Pat Tillman ring a bell? Make no mistake, Firefighting is War, with the same potential heavy costs in Blood & Treasure.

This kind of cowardly political CYA, may help keep the families off your backs in the media and the Court of Public Opinion. I seriously doubt though these same families would want the experiences and cost of their loved ones lives to go without benefit to other Firefighters facing future4r situations and that could save their lives.

For what-ever it's worth in this discussion, I'm a retired Firefighter and Fire Investigator

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