Granite Mountain crew followed all protocols in Yarnell Fire fight

Nineteen firefighters died on the Yarnell Hill Fire in central Arizona on June 30,2013, after deploying fire shelters. They were members of the Granite Mountain interagency Hotshot Crew (HC), hosted by the Prescott Fire Department. One crew member was separated from the crew earlier that day and was not at the deployment site.

Late afternoon on June 28, the Yarnell Hill Fire started high on a ridge west of Yarnell, Arizona when lightning ignited multiple fires. The fire, which was under the jurisdiction of the Arizona State Forestry Division, started in a boulder field in steep terrain with no vehicle access; it was about one-half acre in size. Responders saw minimal fire activity or spread potential, and they had several safety concerns with putting firefighters on the hill overnight. In consideration of these and other factors, the Incident Commander prepared for full suppression on the following morning.

On June 29, resources held the fire in check until around 1600, when winds increased and the fire was spotted outside containment lines. That evening, the Type 4 Incident Commander ordered a Type 2 Incident Management Team (MT) and additional resources for the next morning. The fire grew throughout the night to an estimated 300 to 500 acres by morning.

Early on June 30, members of the Type 2 MT began arriving. In a briefing at 7:00 a.m., the incoming Granite Mountain HC Superintendent accepted the role of Division Alpha Supervisor. His assignment was to establish an anchor point at the heel of the fire with the Granite Mountain HC. The Type 2 MT assumed command, an action formally announced by radio at 10:22 a.m.

For most of the day, the fire spread to the northeast, threatening structures in Model Creek and Peeples Valley.

Around 3:50 p.m., the wind shifted, and the fire started pushing aggressively to the southeast, toward Yarnell. Fire resources shifted to resident evacuation and structure protection in town. Only the Granite Mountain HC remained out on the ridge on the southwest perimeter of the fire. Personnel who communicated with the Granite Mountain HC, knew the crew was in the black at that time and assumed they would stay there. No one realized that the crew left the black and headed southeast, sometime after 4:04 p.m. At 4:30, thunderstorm outflows reached the southern perimeter of the fire.

Winds increased substantially; the fire turned south and overran the Granite Mountain HC at about 4:42.

There is a gap of over 30 minutes in the information available for the Granite Mountain HC. From 4:04 p.m. until 4:37, the Team cannot verify communications from the crew and almost no direct information for them. There is much that cannot be known about the CIC’s decisions and actions prior to their entrapment and fire shelter deployment at around 4:42.

It is known that the Granite Mountain HC left the black sometime after 4:04 p.m. and traveled through an unburned area toward a safety zone at the Boulder Springs Ranch. Thunderstorm outflows changed the intensity and direction of fire spread, and the rapidly advancing fire eliminated the crew’s options of reaching the safety zone or returning to the canyon rim. They had less than two minutes to improve a deployment site. They were deploying fire shelters when the fire overtook them. Temperatures exceeded 2000°F, and the deployment site was not survivable. The nineteen crew members were found approximately one mile south-southeast of their last known location, approximately 600 yards west of the ranch.

The State of Arizona convened a Serious Accident investigation Team. A delegation of authority letter, signed by the State Forester on July 3, 2013, charged the Team with reviewing and reporting on the circumstances leading to entrapment of the Granite Mountain HC. The Team used a variety of data sources and methods to reconstruct events and analyze them. In deliberations, the Team drew from their knowledge of wild land fire operations and culture, as well as the perspectives of Subject Matter Experts. Through these processes, the Team generated the following conclusions:

• The Granite Mountain HC was a fully qualified, staffed, and trained hotshot crew. They were current with the required training and met work/rest guidelines. The crew followed all standards and guidelines as stated in the Standards for interagency Hotshot Crew Operations and the Arizona State Forestry Division’s Standard Operational Guideline 804.

• The Yarnell Hill area had not experienced wildfire in over 45 years. It was primed to burn because of extreme drought, decadent chaparral, and above average cured grass loadings.

• Although Yavapai County had a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, many structures were not defendable by firefighters responding to the Yarnell Hill Fire. The fire destroyed over one hundred structures.

• Radio communications were challenging throughout the incident. Some radios were not programmed with appropriate tone guards. Crews identified the problem, engaged in trouble shooting, and developed workarounds so they could communicate using their radios. Radio traffic was heavy during critical times on the fire.

• The fire’s complexity increased in a very short time challenging all firefighting resources to keep pace with the rapidly expanding incident. As complexity dramatically increased starting Saturday evening, fire management went through multiple transitions from a Type 4 through a Type 1 incident in fewer than 20 hours.

• The Granite Mountain HC had been watching the active fire burn away from their position all day, but their observations did not lead them to anticipate the approaching outflow boundary or the accompanying significant fire behavior changes. These changes included a doubling of fire intensity and flame lengths, a second 90-degree directional change, and a dramatically accelerated rate of spread.

• The Granite Mountain HC left the 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. The Team believes the crew was attempting to reposition so they could re-engage.

• The Granite Mountain HC did not perceive excessive risk in repositioning to Boulder Springs Ranch.

• The Team found no indication that the Granite Mountain HC doubted the black was a valid safety zone, or that they moved towards the Boulder Springs Ranch because they feared for their safety if they stayed in the black.

• Although much communication occurred among crews throughout the day, few people understood Granite Mountain’s intentions, movements, and location, once they left the black. The Team believes this is due to brief, informal, and vague radio transmissions and talk arounds that can occur during wild land fire communications. Based on radio conversations, Operations and other resources, it was concluded the Granite Mountain HC was located in the black, near the ridge top where they had started that morning. This resulted in confusion about the crew’s actual location at the time of search and rescue.

• In retrospect, the importance of the 1526 weather update is clear. However, the update appears to have carried less relevance in the crew’s decision-making process, perhaps due to the wind shift (starting at about 3:50) that preceded the outflow boundary, or perhaps because of the time it took the outflow boundary to reach the south end of the fire (at 1630).It is possible they may have interpreted the early wind shift as the anticipated wind event.

• An Air Attack and/or an Aerial Supervision Module provided aerial supervision coverage throughout the day including at the time of the accident.

• The Aerial Supervision Module working the fire was very busy fulfilling lead plane duties, which limited their ability to perform full Air Attack responsibilities over the fire at the same time.

• During some limited times, aircraft were not available due to adverse weather and refueling needs.

• At the time of the shelter deployment, a very large Airtanker was on station over the fire waiting to drop retardant as soon as the crew’s location was determined.

• The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable. Firefighters performed within their scope of duty.

The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.