Arizona forest agency fined in deaths of 19 firefighters

Shari Turbyfill, wife of David Turbyfill, right, cries during the Industrial Commission of Arizona hearing on Wednesday. David’s son and Shari’s stepson, Travis, died fighting the Yarnell Hill fire. (Associated Press)
Shari Turbyfill, wife of David Turbyfill, right, cries during the Industrial Commission of Arizona hearing on Wednesday. David’s son and Shari’s stepson, Travis, died fighting the Yarnell Hill fire. (Associated Press)

Bad communication, poor planning blamed

TUCSON, Ariz. – The 19 firefighters who perished when 40-foot flames overtook them in a rocky canyon near Prescott in June were the victims of poor planning and bad communication, forced into a losing battle to protect structures and pasturelands that were “indefensible,” a state safety commission concluded Wednesday.

The Arizona State Forestry Division, responsible for managing the Yarnell Hill fire, now faces a $559,000 fine, one of the largest such fines ever levied in the state.

A report prepared by independent consultants to the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that members of the Granite Mountain hotshot team were called on to fight the fast-moving blaze outside the town of Yarnell with inadequate briefing, no good maps and radios that left them without good communication with incident commanders.

“We found no evidence that a risk assessment for the strategies and tactics were examined,” said the report, prepared for the state by Wildland Fire Associates. Fire overseers “reported flame lengths of 40 feet with rates of speed up to 16 miles per hour occurred, yet no one seemed to recognize these signs as trigger points that should have led to a change in tactics and relocation of (the crew),” it found.

Wednesday afternoon, the Arizona Industrial Commission voted unanimously to accept the findings of the report, which also called for payments of $25,000 to dependents of each of the 19 firefighters.

Arizona State Forestry officials said they had not yet reviewed the safety agency’s report. Fire officials have 15 days to appeal the findings, said Abbie Fink, Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health spokeswoman.

The voluminous report found that a combination of safety violations – including lack of critical personnel, incomplete analysis and hourslong delays – took place during the fire, which burned more than 8,000 acres of wildland and destroyed more than 100 structures.

Like a previous report prepared by state fire investigators in September, the new examination found that the Granite Mountain crew was caught off guard when a sudden change in wind sent towering flames suddenly racing toward homes in Yarnell – and toward the crew, which had left its previous zone of relative safety.

At a meeting Wednesday afternoon, Marshall Krotenberg, the safety compliance supervisor for the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, outlined myriad violations to commissioners.

Forestry officials failed, for example, to include safety officers in crucial coordination meetings because of unexplained delays, he said.

“Apparently the ball got dropped,” Krotenberg said. He said safety officers during those gatherings would have made a difference.

On several points, he criticized what he called fire management staff’s ill-advised decision to prioritize protection of structures over firefighter safety.

“After looking at all the facts, I believe it’s just too risky to stay that long in an attempt to protect structures that have been deemed indefensible,” Krotenberg said.

The safety agency’s report is a departure from the September report that found no evidence of recklessness or negligence in the Yarnell Hill wildfire.

The earlier report, produced by a team of local, state and federal investigators convened from around the country, “found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol,” but did note some problems with radio communication.

That report was commissioned by the state forestry division, which is now subject to the workplace safety penalties.

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