Arizona Agency Is Faulted in Deaths of 19 Firefighters

Yarnell Crew

From the New York Times:

PHOENIX — A state safety commission recommended fines totaling $559,000 against the Arizona State Forestry Division on Wednesday, saying the agency wrongly put the protection of “structures and pastureland” ahead of the safety of firefighters battling a wildfire in central Arizona last summer, including 19 who died trapped by the flames at the base of a mountain.

A commission report said the forestry division had kept the firefighters on the mountains even after commanders realized that they could not control the flames burning through the parched, thick chaparral along the western edge of the old gold-mining village of Yarnell, 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.

In the report, inspectors for the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health said the agency’s actions resulted in “multiple instances of firefighters being unnecessarily and unreasonably exposed to the deadly hazards of wildland firefighting.”

The inspectors wrote that the agency did not protect the firefighters from “recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The investigators recommended that the forestry division pay a penalty of $70,000, and $25,000 per firefighter who died, to be paid directly to their families or estates, a total of $545,000. Penalties of $14,000 were recommended for other safety infractions.

Read more at the New York Times.

9 thoughts on “Arizona Agency Is Faulted in Deaths of 19 Firefighters”

  1. Thanks Mathew- I’ll certainly be using this in the WUI policy paper I have to write next semester. Two factors indicate that something has to give on this front. (1) The agency wrongly put the protection of “structures and pastureland” ahead of the safety of firefighters, and (2) The agency was understaffed. I might be going out on a conclusory limb here; however, I think it can be strongly argued that the agency was understaffed because its to invested in putting the protection of “structures and pastureland” ahead of the safety of firefighters. It’s time the public begins taking responsibility for their decisions to live in the WUI. In my paper I’m going to recommend that the Federal agencies take the lead by promulgating regulations defer structure triage unless counties have land use & building code regulations in place that would allow wild land fire to safely burn through as suggested by Cohen. As Sonny Stiger advises: Treat ’em like another pine tree.

  2. That ranch they were sent in to protect was about a mile(?) outside a dense settlement along a US hiway, not quite like a lot of cabins scattered over hillsides typical of much of the WUI.

    I am not sure what tactics if any, were most appropriate here since it seems that a stand would have been made somewhere closer to town, it is one thing to let an isolated structure burn, but it is another to allow an actual town to burn (?)

    Not being a fire person I am cautious about second guessing decisions. What were their alternatives? They could have justifiably left that ranch to burn but then what?

    • Hi Greg-
      But then what, what? Are you asking what the next move on the ground by the firefighters would be? Or are you asking what the political repercussions of letting the ranch burn would be? I’d be willing to speculate on the second question.

      • I am wondering where the place was to protect the town, the ranch may have been closer than a mile outside. Letting the ranch go makes sense but where could they make a stand to protect the town, parts of which burned in the same period just after the fire fighters were overrun.

        It seems a bad decision to send the crew where they did but was there any other decision that could have worked other than abandon the town?

  3. To clear up a bit of confusion in some of these comments.

    The ranch was identified during briefings as a “safety zone” for firefighters because of its owner’s diligent Firewise practices. The ranch did not burn. There was no reason, nor is anyone speculating, that the crew was heading to the ranch to protect it from fire.

    Perhaps the crew was seeking to protect themselves at the ranch, although the “black” they left was safe. Or perhaps they headed to the ranch to stage an effort to protect the town, which would have proven futile. We may never know. Or hints to the answer may lie in yet-to-be-revealed cell phone/radio communications.

    I agree with the AZ report, and was quoted before the report issued, that the basic error was a failure to disengage when the task was predictably and obviously hopeless. No one appeared to ask “What are we accomplishing; what can we realistically still accomplish?”

    This kind of firefighting behavior is analogous to the person who jumps into a raging river to save a drowning child — and they both end up drowning. Except for two CRITICAL differences: 1) Houses are not children; and, 2) There were alternatives at Yarnell Hill that risked no lives. And they were not exercised. The fact is, wildland firefighting is rarely a “save the child from drowning” scenario. The sooner wildland firefighting embraces a new ethic of fire management and jettisons the “hero” role, the sooner fewer firefighters will die (this year set an all-time record for wildland firefighting fatalities).

    PS: It irks me no end that the USDA-Forest Service refused to cooperate with AZ in this investigation. Inexplicable. USDI-BLM, however, cooperated fully. Vilsack is either batshit crazy or he and his appointees are incapable of providing the Forest Service the responsible, adult supervision it needs.

  4. OK, so the issue is not protection of the ranch, it was protection of the town?

    Given the circumstances, I don;t see that any tactics could have helped then with that storm coming in.

    But try explaining that to the people in the town, a rather narrow settlement spread along the highway, it hardly looked like WUI to me ( I can;t open the thing steve put up on my device here.) but a pretty compact settlement, and an old one. This is not Colorado with cabins spread like confetti over the hills or canyon developments in southern CA chaparral.


    If someone had not jumped in to be the hero, the town people would have screamed bloody murder, I suppose. Hard to explain that given extreme conditions, not much to be done to save them. Perhaps I misinterpret this.

    • Greg: You interpret correctly. The town is the drowning child. The firefighters are paid to rescue the drowning child, even if it’s hopeless, or die trying. It was hopeless. They died.

      This syllogism breaks down at the outset — the town is not a drowning child. The town is not living, breathing or sentient. The town is buildings. Insured buildings. Replaceable buildings. Buildings that, with enough notice to evacuate, can be emptied of their most precious memories and heirlooms. No one died in that town. No child was drowning.

      The rescuers jumped in and drowned to save some wood. Hardy seems worth it, does it?

  5. yes, but would we want to be the ones to make the decision to back off on “saving|” a town, even though it was hardly possible here?

    Hard to say what a fire will do when it happens so fast, and by the time it was clear how bad it was, too late.

    The vitriol against the Park Service in the surrounding communities after the 88 fires was something to behold. It is one thing to “sacrifice” an isolated house or two, but any actual town is a political mine field. Trying to explain to some dumb types that there was precious little the Park Service could have done was a waste of time for me.

    And people will look for another reason to hate the government, any government.

    But interesting how this thing in AZ plays out politically now that it is clear any action was hopeless and 20 people died for that.


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