PHOENIX — An investigative report released Saturday on the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 firefighters found "no indication of negligence, recklessness actions or violations of policy or protocol" on the part of the firefighters, and concluded that the fire that overtook the men was not survivable.
The report, released by the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Team, leaves unanswered a major question: Why the Granite Mountain Hotshots left the relative safety atop a ridge that had been previously burned to descend into a bowl where they were later trapped and killed.
"There is much that cannot be known about the crew's decisions and actions prior to their entrapment and fire shelter deployment," the report says. Fire commanders assumed until just before the hotshots died that the team was still safely "in the black."
The report states temperatures exceeded 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature of lava from a volcano or Fourth of July sparklers — and the hotshots had less than two minutes to improve a deployment site and try to save themselves.
While the report laid no blame for the tragedy, it found that radio communications were "challenging throughout the incident" and that "some radios were not programmed with appropriate tone guards" but were later fixed. It also noted the command structure for fighting the fire changed several times in just 20 hours.
It also found there were mix-ups over air support. Investigators noted that one air tanker was grounded because of an oil leak. A second one was held on the tarmac as fire officials decided whether to send it to a dangerous fire near Kingman, Ariz.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were overcome by flames June 30 in a chaparral canyon about 35 miles south of Prescott when the fire, pushed by monsoon-storm winds, became an inferno and changed directions. The death toll was the highest from a U.S. wildfire in at least a half-century.
The Arizona Division of Forestry, which directed firefighting efforts, commissioned an interagency task force of experts headed by Florida forester Jim Karels to investigate causes and contributing factors to the catastrophe.
"Our mission was to find out what happened and to discern the facts surrounding this tragedy to the best of our ability," Karels said. "We also hope this report facilitates learning within the wildland fire community in order to reduce the likelihood of repeating actions that contributed to the loss of life."
Karels said the 116-page report includes a "fact-based narrative of the incident and offers the investigation team's analysis, conclusions and recommendations." He added it includes a discussion section that is meant to facilitate understanding and learning by exploring various perspectives and issues that arose during the investigation.
The report was released publicly at 10 a.m. MST Saturday in Prescott, after being shared privately with family members of the firefighters and Gov. Jan Brewer.
The report found:
That no one asked the Granite Mountain Hotshots to move to a new location, where they were killed. Instead the report assumes "they decided this on their own, believing they could reengage and help defend Yarnell."
The hotshots left a lunch spot and traveled southeast on the two-track road near the ridge top. Then, they descended from the two-track road and took the most direct route towards Boulder Springs Ranch, where investigators believe "the crew was attempting to reposition so they could reengage."
On Sunday morning, June 30, the fire had kicked up and incident commanders began requesting tankers. They ordered two large tankers, or LAT, and one very large tanker, or VLAT. The large aircraft flew from Albuquerque, N.M., and Durango, Colo., but both were diverted en route so they could serve the Dean Peak Fire southeast of Kingman.
Dispatchers ordered another tanker from Fort Huachuca and a huge C-130 from Pueblo, Colo., which was specially fitted to drop fire retardant. But the Pueblo flight was grounded by bad weather and the Fort Huachuca tanker didn't lift off until 10:33 a.m. By 11 a.m., the Yarnell Hill Fire had already consumed 1,500 acres.
Besides issuing findings, members of the review team are expected to reveal how they conducted the probe and whether they adhered to guidelines from the National Interagency Fire Center, which urges investigators not to publicly divulge causes of wildfire accidents.
Lightning ignited the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 28, and it remained seemingly calm for two days before a storm front descended and pushed a wall of flames through drought-cured hills at 12 mph. A relatively small brush fire that covered only a few hundred acres exploded across 13 square miles and swept into rural communities.
Hundreds of people were evacuated from Yarnell, Glen Ilah and Peeples Valley as flames destroyed 127 homes.
The hotshots, who had been hand-cutting firebreaks along the blaze's flank, were forced to retreat. Photographic evidence indicates they left the safety of a previously burned area and descended into a blind canyon where they were trapped by flames. The 19 men deployed protective shelters in a desperate bid to survive, but were overcome by a wall of fire so hot that it fractured boulders and incinerated vegetation.
In addition to the Serious Accident Investigation, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health is conducting a probe to determine whether workplace regulations were violated. That report must be completed by the end of the year.
The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office conducted an accident-scene review and obtained autopsy results, but many of those documents have not been released and are the subject of a public-records lawsuit filed byThe Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV, Phoenix.
Within days of the tragedy, while investigations were underway, some experts and media outlets began offering opinions as to what went wrong. Among their assertions: The crew died because of a shortage of slurry tankers. The fire blew out of control because the response on June 28 and 29 was inadequate. The hotshots inexplicably violated safety rules, leading to their demise.
Wildfire-fatality reviews historically have confronted causality questions head-on, identifying contributing factors such as weather conditions and aberrant fire behavior along with command errors, equipment problems, communication failures and misjudgments by those who died. The inquiries are designed to establish "lessons learned" for training purposes.
In recent years, however, commanders and crews have become concerned that investigations may be used unfairly in criminal prosecutions or lawsuits directed at public servants who make instantaneous decisions in the heat of firefights.
The National Interagency Fire Center, which oversees suppression efforts against U.S. wildfires from its base in Boise, Idaho, now urges investigators to withhold some findings from the public, and to avoid analyzing whether crews violated fundamental fireline rules. Karel's team has declined to say whether it followed those guidelines.