Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Arizona firefighters changing locations when they died. #YarnellFire
Some questions always will remain unanswered.
YARNELL, Ariz. — The small plot of scorched earth lies amid a fire-blackened moonscape, yet visiting this death site transforms an abstract statistic — 19 firefighter deaths — into an image of agony.
Here, in a box canyon about 65 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Granite Mountain Hotshots realized that flames had trapped them.
Here, in a tangle of scrub oak, bear grass and agave, they tried to escape beneath emergency blankets.
Here, within view of the community, the heat and smoke became too much. A firestorm melted protective shelters, cracked granite boulders and incinerated every living thing.
During a tour Tuesday of the Yarnell Hill Fire fatality scene, the first public viewing since the June 30 tragedy, authorities offered new revelations about how the Prescott, Ariz.-based crew became trapped.
They said questions about key safety protocols were irrelevant because the hotshots had been changing locations, rather than attacking the wildfire, when they were overcome. Thus, the men had no lookout, no planned escape route or safety zone.
But beyond details of what may have happened and why, this hallowed ground is a place of pain and honor, planned as a future memorial.
"The horror is incredible," Jerry Payne, Arizona's deputy state forester, said as another firefighter knelt beside a hotshot's shirt draped over the charred remains of a prickly-pear cactus.
"I'm sickened. And I'm saddened for 10 widows," said Darrell Willis, division chief with the Prescott Fire Department. "I don't want them to have died in vain."
Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona State Forestry Division, shook his head slowly.
"There are a number of whys and whats and what-ifs that you just have to realize we cannot answer," he said. "Those answers died with the crew."
Nevertheless, authorities offered the first clear, public account of what they believe transpired that Sunday. They said the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been cutting fire lines along a ridge more than a mile to the north, attempting to flank a relatively calm blaze, when winds picked up.
The crew's spotter, Brendan McDonough, was forced to leave his lookout post and use an escape route, joining the nearby Blue Ridge Hotshots before reaching safety in Yarnell.
Meanwhile, the Granite Mountain team led by Eric Marsh, a veteran superintendent, abandoned efforts to cut a fire line and climbed along a ridge road to a point where Yarnell was visible to the east. Willis and Payne said the hotshots at that point could have safely hiked to an area that the fire previously blackened, but instead began descending a saddle into what would become the valley of death.
Although weather alerts had been issued and received, Willis said he is convinced that the men were not yet scrambling for safety. Instead, he believes they were moving down to save a ranch house and other buildings at the base of the bowl-shaped valley. The fire, contained July 12, damaged or destroyed at least 115 structures in Yarnell and Glen Ilah about a mile away in the two weeks since lightning sparked it June 28.
"Their goal is life and property — to protect that," Willis said. "There's a lot of talk about risk management. (But) the job of wildland firefighting is inherently dangerous. ... It was a judgment that they made."
As the men struggled down a steep, chaparral-choked slope — probably around 4 p.m. MST — prevailing winds kicked up and reversed direction. A thunderstorm generated severe gusts. The fire's flank became its head. Flames surged 4 miles in just 20 minutes.
The hotshots had no lookout at that point, and they could not see the blowup because surrounding hills obstructed the view.
Willis and Payne said they believe flames hooked around the men via nearby canyons while sky-borne embers were blown overhead and to the east, igniting spot fires. In a matter of minutes, their only escape was cut off. The men faced a wall of flame moving at 12 mph.
"This was the most extreme fire behavior I'd ever witnessed," Willis said. "They had fire on both sides of them. They had fire behind them. And they had fire ahead of them."
Payne and Willis said evidence shows the men began cutting brush and small trees with chain saws, trying to create a safe clearing for themselves. In a radio transmission, they announced plans to set a backfire — a defensive blaze that would be sucked toward the main fire, creating a buffer of safety.
Then came a final communication: Hotshots were deploying emergency shelters.
Willis, who helped found the nation's only municipal hotshot team, said the Granite Mountain members fought and died as one.
"The voice of what actually happened, we'll never know," he said. "I can tell you they died with honor. They stuck together."
The bodies were found in a slight swale amid a scattering of blackened stones and charred plants — an area now surrounded with fence.
Willis rejected any second-guessing about decisions or safety procedures. As wildfires evolve, he said hotshots adjust their locations and tactics. It is not unusual during those transitions to move without a lookout, and it is impossible to have established escape routes or safety zones.
"I would have gone with that crew blindfolded," Willis said. "It's a risky business, but they don't take undue risks. You can call it an accident. I just think God had a different plan for those men."
An investigative team is expected to complete a detailed report on the fire fatalities in late August or early September.
In the meantime, Payne said, "The hardest part about all of this for me is what can we learn? Can we help other firefighters in the future?"
During Tuesday's tour, wildfire officials distributed an open letter that Marsh, the superintendent, had written about the Granite Mountain Hotshots before his death:
"We are positive people," he wrote. "We take a lot of pride in being friendly and working together.
"To our families and friends, we're crazy. Why do we want to be away from home so much, work such long hours, risk our lives and sleep on the ground 100 nights a year? Simply, it's the most fulfilling thing any of us have ever done."
The letter closes by noting that hotshots are husbands, fathers and boyfriends:
"We are not nameless or faceless. We are not expendable. We are not satisfied with mediocrity. We are not willing to accept being average. We are not quitters."
Dennis Wagner also reports for The Arizona Republic.
Forensic experts have been asked to examine the cellphones of several of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to determine if they contain photographs or other evidence relevant to the death investigation.
A report that the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office released Tuesday said investigators recovered the phones, other evidence and firefighting equipment from the scene the morning after the 19 firefighters died.
The phones, most of them badly damaged, were turned over to the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, a coalition of law-enforcement agencies. The phones were to be disassembled to determine if any data could be retrieved.
The report detailed meticulous steps taken to protect the firefighters' bodies until they could be moved to Phoenix for autopsies the next day and the efforts to preserve and collect evidence for use in reconstructing how and why the men died.
Among other things, the report noted that "all or most of the shelters appeared to have been deployed," but that some men were found outside shelters. It is likely that the violent firestorm tore some shelters from their occupants.
A Phoenix Fire Department chaplain said prayers over each of the fallen firefighters as their bodies were carried away from the scene in pairs to waiting medical examiners' vans, according to the report.
"Throughout the process all the remains of the firefighters were treated professionally, and with the care, dignity and honor that each of these heroes deserved," it said.
****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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