PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Investigators found no evidence of recklessness or negligence in the battling of the Yarnell Hill wildfire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters in June, but acknowledged that the full story will never be known on the largest loss of firefighter lives since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“To lose all 19 and have them not talk … makes it a very tough situation and a very different investigation,” said Jim Karels, the leader for the Serious Accident Investigation Team.
The team, composed of local, state and federal investigators, released its 116-page report at a briefing Saturday in Prescott, where the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew was based. A 20th member of that firefighting crew, a lookout, was separated from his comrades and survived.
“The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable,” said the report, adding that the crew members had been appropriately rested and trained. “Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations.”
The report, which describes the events leading up to the moment on June 30 when the firefighters were overcome by flames reaching 2,000 degrees, notes several factors that contributed to the tragedy, such as wind, terrain and the firefighters’ movements. It does not pinpoint any leading cause of their deaths.
It does note that at some point, 19 members of the fire crew left the “black,” areas already burned over that are considered a safety zone. The crew had options on where to move or could have stayed in place, but the members took a route that would have let them rejoin the battle more quickly, the report said.
It’s unclear, however, whether the crew had decided to sacrifice a little safety in order to fight the fire more aggressively as it neared Yarnell, a town in central Arizona. The report found that many structures in Yarnell, which lost 100 homes, were not defendable.
Investigators said they would probably never know what prompted the crew’s actions.
“We don’t know that information,” Karels said. “We don’t have it. That decision-making process is with those 19 men.”
In addition, radio communication was a challenge during the wildfire, according to the report.
Some radios were not programmed appropriately. Although the crew was able to manage a work-around by the end of the day, at one point it was out of radio contact for about 30 minutes, the report said.
Even when the radios worked, communication was an issue, said Mike Dudley, co-leader of the investigation team.
Investigators said all official policies appeared to have been correctly followed. When asked whether the deaths suggested that policies and procedures need to be changed, they answered only that the fire would continue to be studied for possible lessons for years.