Tragedy leads to widespread reform
Local, state and national agencies are making changes in response to the tragic deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) is designating June 30-July 6 as "A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn" to honor the one-year anniversary of the June 30 Yarnell Hill wildfire and the 20-year anniversary of the July 6 South Canyon fire that both killed firefighters.
Coincidentally the deadly fires are separated by 19 years, the same number of Granite Mountain Hotshots who died on the Yarnell Hill wildfire.
The week features daily "6 Minutes for Safety" programs online at www.wildfirelessons.net/6minutesforsafety.
The Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation (SAIT) commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division delivered seven recommendations, with three directed at the state and four directed at NWCG.
The SAIT report asked the state to review and possibly update its approach to mitigating wildfire threat; review its wildfire communications plan and program; and develop a wildfire staff ride at the Yarnell Hill death site. In staff rides, survivors and others teach other firefighters about what happened and how to avoid it in the future.
Since it's a defendant in lawsuits related to the Yarnell Hill wildfire, the Arizona State Forestry Division can't comment on whether any changes it made in its operations this year relate specifically to that fire, spokesperson Carrie Dennett said.
The NWCG has completed its response to three out of the four SAIT recommendations. See below for more details. Also listed below are local and federal changes in response to the tragedy.
The Yarnell Fire Department is using an Arizona State Forestry Division grant to work on a half-mile-long buffer line near the eastern boundary of Yarnell.
It's seeking a U.S. Bureau of Land Management grant to extend that 100-foot to 200-foot-wide line farther. The BLM also has built buffer lines in the area, Yarnell Fire Chief Ben Palm said. The BLM's Bruce Olson has helped Yarnell and neighboring communities with wildfire abatement for years.
Winds can come from the east during fire season since Yarnell sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains, Palm said. It's slow and methodical work on the rock-strewn mountainsides.
The county let YFD borrow a chipper for the brush it cleared from the line.
Palm, who took over the chief job in October, said he's seeing quadrupled efforts by residents to clear brush around their homes compared to the previous four years he served with the department. Increases in such efforts are common after fires hit home. "That's definitely a good sign," he said. "The key is obviously to keep this up every year."
The department is working to create a brush abatement crew to help residents more, he added.
Six YFD firefighters were able to attend the Arizona Wildfire Academy this spring because of Yavapai County grants, Palm said. "We're planning on using those grants every year," he said. "For a small department like ours, that's huge."
Six firefighters left YFD after the Yarnell Hill wildfire torched 127 homes on June 30, 2013. But now it's back up to the staffing it had before the fire, with three full-time and 17 volunteer firefighters, Palm said. It is seeking more volunteers with the money it received from the federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant supported by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar.
New Yarnell homes for the uninsured that were built with donations feature fireproof Hardiplank siding made of fiber cement, Yarnell Recovery Group reconstruction director Bob Brandon said.
Without its Granite Mountain Hotshots, the City of Prescott's smaller and less experienced fuels abatement crew has been struggling to keep up with the demand from homeowners.
New lawsuits filed against the state in relation to the Yarnell Hill wildfire seek changes in the way the state fights fires. Hotshot families want to talk to state officials about how to avoid fatalities in the future. Yarnell property owners are asking for firefighters to be equipped with GPS devices that automatically report their locations, firebreaks around communities, state benefits for hotshots, etc.
The Arizona State Forestry Division is appealing $559,000 worth of Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health fines, with a hearing scheduled for Aug. 21. ADOSH concluded that State Forestry placed a higher priority on protection of homes and property than firefighter safety.
The Forestry Division got extra money from the Legislature this year to hire two new dispatchers and one training specialist.
Dennett said state fire teams will be "responding with a larger number of firefighters to wildfires than the agency did in previous years." The lack of full staffing was a problem on the Yarnell Hill wildfire, according to investigations.
State Forestry's newly implemented radio communications protocol seeks to standardize communications with a tool called LCANS (Location, Conditions, Actions, Needs, and closest Safety zone). Supervisors should update their immediate supervisors when any of these five things change significantly.
At the legislative level, only one bill relating to catastrophic wildfire prevention made it to the governor's desk this year. House Bill 2343 requires the state forester to come up with a program to reduce vegetation on state trust lands by Jan. 1, 2016. Other bills sought stronger measures.
Federal officials decided to speed up their planned 2015 review of fire shelters to 2014 because of the Yarnell Hill deaths. It started in January and is scheduled to be finished in December 2017. Shelters have been standard equipment in this country since 1977, and the current third-generation shelter was designed in 2002.
The SAIT report concluded that existing shelters could not have saved the Granite Mountain Hotshots from the 2,000-degree heat and flames they faced. Forest Service officials say humans can breathe in temperatures of 300 degrees for short periods of time, while tests show they can survive 1,700 degrees with some flame contact in current shelters.
The Forest Service's Missoula Technology and Development Center currently is soliciting materials to evaluate, equipment specialist Tony Petrilli said.
Among those interested in submitting ideas is David Turbyfill, father of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot Travis Turbyfill. He wants the process to move much faster and is testing materials himself. He posted one test on You Tube.
The NWCG has completed its response to three out of the four SAIT recommendations, while the fourth is in progress. The requests and responses are listed below.
Request to review current technology that could help track firefighters on the ground, improve communications, and provide real-time weather information. Yarnell Hill supervisors told investigators they didn't know the Granite Mountain Hotshots left the safety of a previously burned area.
An interagency Incident Support Task Team completed an inventory of existing communications technologies.
Federal officials will now study what technology might be needed on fires and when.
"Technology is not the problem, we just have to figure out what our true needs are," said Ralph Gonzales, fire program leader at the Forest Service's San Dimas Technology and Development Center.
Aviation resources on fires already are tracked in real time with Automated Flight Following technology. Some vehicles also are equipped with GPS devices.
However, the NWCG report says methods of tracking firefighters on the ground haven't changed much since the 1980s. They use hand-held radios to communicate verbally with each other. The report notes that radio traffic can be "hectic" on wildfires. At one point when the Granite Mountain Hotshots tried to radio for help, a supervisor told them to be quiet.
Although hotshot crews are required to bring at least one GPS unit or cell phone to fires, it's not for tracking purposes, officials said.
The Forest Service and other agencies have been experimenting with various tracking devices. For example, the Forest Service bought 6,000 Satellite Emergency Notification Devices for various field uses not related to wildland fire. The Forest Service has tested the Personal Alert and Tracking System, and California is experimenting with Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) tracking systems.
Tracking can take place via satellite, cellular, radio and "Blue Force." The Department of Defense recently gave the Prescott Fire Department high-tech Blue Force tracking equipment that uses all available communication infrastructures.
As for current weather conditions, firefighters can get local weather conditions via their hand-held radios alongside verbal updates that are sent out via radio at various times. Numerous firefighters reported that they were not alerted when monsoon winds shifted a second time to the southeast on the Yarnell Hill fire.
Request for NWCG guidance about when it's necessary to separate Aerial Supervision Module and Air Attack roles. On the Yarnell Hill fire, one plane with a pilot and crew member was conducting both functions, leading larger planes to retardant drop sites while trying to conduct aerial reconnaissance. When the fire blew up, the crew faced multiple missions at once.
The National Interagency Aviation Committee concluded it's up to crews to determine the safe and efficient control of those aerial assets.
Request for technical tips on the effective use of Very Large Air Tankers. The Forest Service just started contracting with two DC-10 VLATs last year and both eventually worked on the Yarnell Hill fire. But when the wildfire jumped a two-track road on June 29, the incident commander declined an offer for a DC-10 after a large airtanker and large helicopter were unable to make it to the fire because of severe weather, according to the SAIT report.
The technical tip paper discusses the capabilities of the VLAT and concludes it is twice as cost efficient as a smaller P2V large airtanker on a single fire.
Request for a team to further analyze the Yarnell Hill wildfire and wildland fire communications environment.
The National Association of State Foresters asked NWCG to wait for senior level discussions to take place between state and federal officials.
For more details about the NWCG changes and "A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn," go online to NWCG.gov.
Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder