Hotshots' actions examined

Investigators to see if doomed firefighters followed all the rules
2013-07-03T00:00:00Z 2014-04-01T23:49:22Z Hotshots' actions examinedThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

PRESCOTT - Fire crews battling a wildfire should identify escape routes and safe zones. They should pay close attention to the weather forecast. And they should post lookouts.

The federal government issued those standards and others nearly two decades ago after a wildfire tragedy in Colorado. On Tuesday, investigators from around the country arrived in Arizona to examine whether 19 crack firefighters who perished over the weekend heeded those rules or ignored them and paid with their lives.

In the nation's biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts Sunday turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable, lightning-ignited forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for a team of hotshots.

The tragedy raised questions of whether the crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.

In 1994, 14 firefighters died on Colorado's Storm King Mountain, and investigators found numerous errors in the way the blaze was fought. The U.S. Forest Service revised its firefighting policies.

"The reforms after Storm King were collectively intended to prevent that from happening again, which was mass entrapment of an entire hotshot crew," said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado.

"There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it's almost haunting."

Those changes included policies that say no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to which they can retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather.

"If you don't have those things in place, it's not advisable to deploy a team in the first place, because you can't guarantee their safety," Burton said.

The hotshot team from Prescott entered the smoky wilderness over the weekend with heavy gear to remove brush and trees and deprive the flames of fuel.

But the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours as "the wind kicked up to 40- to 50-mph gusts and it blew east, south, west - every which way," said Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo.

"What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back and trapped them," he said.

Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant, said it is too early to say if the crew or those managing the fire made mistakes.

"The fact that they're dead and that they had to deploy fire shelters tells us something was seriously wrong," Mangan said. But, he said, they may have been doing everything right, and "this just might have been a weather anomaly that nobody saw coming that happened too quickly to respond to."

He said the crew members might have taken too many risks because they were on familiar ground and were trying to protect a community they knew well.

"When you've got especially structures and residences involved, and you've got local resources, there's a fair amount of social and political pressure, some of it self-generated by the firefighters, who want to do a good job," Mangan said. "They don't want to see a community burn down. They want to get in there."

About 500 firefighters battled the mountain blaze, which had burned 13 square miles Tuesday. Yavapai County authorities said 200 homes and other structures had burned in Yarnell, and hundreds of people were evacuated.

No part of the fire had been contained, and thunderstorms that could bring little rain and lots of lightning remained a major threat, said Karen Takai, a spokeswoman for the firefighting effort.

On StarNet: See a gallery of the stories of the hotshots at azstarnet.com/gallery

"There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it's almost haunting."

Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy, the University of Colorado

Firefighter do's and don'ts

What to do

1. Keep informed on weather conditions and forecasts.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.

3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.

4. Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.

5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger.

6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.

7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor and adjoining forces.

8. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood.

9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.

10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

Signs of trouble

1. Fire not scouted and sized up.

2. In country not seen in daylight.

3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.

4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.

5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics and hazards.

6. Instructions and assignments not clear.

7. No communication link with crew members or supervisors.

8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.

9. Building fire line downhill with fire below.

10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.

11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire.

12. Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.

13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.

14. Weather is getting hotter and drier.

15. Wind increases and/or changes direction.

16. Getting frequent spot fires across line.

17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.

18. Taking a nap near the fire line.

Source: U.S. Forest Service, Fire and Aviation Management

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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