PHOENIX - A wildfire that began with a lightning strike and caused little immediate concern because of its remote location and small size quickly blazed into an inferno, leading officials to rapidly order more resources in the hours before flames killed 19 members of an elite hotshot crew, according to a report released Monday.
The report provides precise detail about the response to the fire that began June 28 outside the small Arizona town of Yarnell, including the unpredictable weather around the blaze and the exact times in which it escalated and key resources were deployed.
The report describes how the fire worsened hour by hour - causing flames up to 20 feet high - as managers called in inmate and hotshot firefighting crews and air support.
The report does not address the question of why the fire crew was still on the mountain above the town more than an hour after the winds shifted about 180 degrees and brought the fire back toward them. It also wasn't immediately clear whether the hotshots were warned of the erratic weather before they were forced to take shelter and were killed.
By 7:38 p.m. June 29, the day after the fire ignited, the blaze had grown to about 100 acres but was still "advancing slowly." On June 30 at about 8 a.m., the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots team arrived and headed in to fight the fire, as small aircraft and helicopters worked the blaze from above. Heavy air tankers were ordered just after noon, but only one was able to respond, making multiple retardant drops on the fire.
The fire had now increased in size to about 1,000 acres and was burning swiftly through an area that hadn't experienced a significant wildfire in nearly 50 years, the report said. Two large air tankers were sent back to the Yarnell Hill Fire to try to stall its advance.
A few hours later, at 3:26 p.m., officials received word of heavy winds from a thunderstorm moving into the area as the fire grew.
Soon thereafter, the blaze was so out of control that officials asked for half of the available western U.S. heavy air tanker fleet - six planes. It was about 4 p.m.
Five of the planes weren't deployed because of the limited number of tankers in the nation's aerial firefighting fleet and the dangerous weather conditions.
Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Division of Forestry, which was managing the fire, said one plane had been headed to the fire from California, but engine problems forced it to turn back. Even if the planes had been available, winds were so strong they couldn't have been used to save the firefighters' lives, Paxon said. "We could have had air tankers stacked up from here to the stratosphere and it wouldn't have made a difference," he said Monday. "The fire went through retardant lines like they were nonexistent."
Within 45 minutes, at 4:47 p.m., the hotshot crew radioed that they were trapped and deploying their emergency shelters. Less than two hours later, 19 of them were found dead. Only one crew member who was assigned as the lookout survived. A national team of investigators is working to understand more about the incident and is expected to finish an initial report in about two months.
Paxon said the behavior of the fire and the enormous "blowup" when the winds shifted was highly unusual. "It was just an extreme situation," he said.